US evangelist sex scandal raises questions about 'superstar' megachurch pastors

Pastor Ted's influence was felt everywhere in New Life Church: in the videos shown at worship; in the New Life bookstore, which stocked books he recommended. And in the story of the church itself. He started New Life in his basement, building it into a 14,000-member nationally known megachurch. As the Rev. Ted Haggard's fortunes rose, so did the church's.

So when Haggard fell spectacularly from grace in a scandal involving drugs and allegations of gay sex, many wondered if New Life, so tied to his public persona, would crash with him.

The answer has significance far beyond the Haggard tragedy. As evangelical megachurches have sprung up around the United States, concerns have grown over whether superstar pastors help or hurt faith communities.

"When you get to these top 25 or 50 of the largest or most influential churches, these pastors are clearly celebrities. They were the founders, they created much of the growth and they are, in some sense, a brand in and of themselves," said Scott Thumma, a professor at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, who specializes in studying megachurches. "It's just like a business where the name of the founder is, in fact, a trademark."

America has always had big-name preachers from Billy Sunday, the pro baseball player turned evangelist, to Billy Graham. But the two were not closely tied to a single church. Among today's best-known pastors, Rick Warren has Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, Joel Osteen has Lakewood Church in Houston, and Bishop T.D. Jakes has The Potter's House in Dallas.

Graham and Sunday also worked in a vastly different media environment. Modern-day celebrity pastors have Web sites, where they promote their books, along with the DVDs, TV shows and films they produce, while preaching internationally. With such high profiles, word of any wrongdoing will spread quickly, intensifying the damage to them and their congregations.

Haggard felt the impact firsthand last week. On Nov. 2, Mike Jones of Denver came forward saying he had drug-fueled homosexual trysts regularly with Haggard over the last few years, reports AP.

The claims spread through the Internet, where they were placed side-by-side with video and past news articles in which Haggard had condemned gay marriage and had presented his family life, with wife Gayle and their five children, as a model.

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