Inside Hillsong, the Trendy Church that Counts Justin Bieber As a Member
Famous people have had immense trend-making power since before Hollywood even existed. And since the super-spiritual 1970s, even religions and spirituality can go in and out of vogue based on which celebrities are practicing them.
Scientology is the first star-studded church that comes to mind when you think of celeb spirituality, with Madonna and Ashton Kutcher’s mid-2000s love of kabbalah coming in a distant second. But in the past few years, a new and super unlikely celebrity trend has been bubbling up. Mainstream celebs are going über-Christian.
And we’re not just talking about the ubiquitous “I’d like to thank God” acceptance speech. No, there are actual Christian churches catering to celebrities.
One of them is owned by Kris Jenner, but that’s another story for another day. The other popular church among young Hollywood is the Hillsong Church, where Justin Bieber, Hailey Baldwin, Selena Gomez, a handful of NBA players like Tyson Chandler and Kevin Durant, and even some Kardashians have been spotted.
Hillsong is different from other Christian churches because of its emphasis on music. They strive to seem like cool and trendy and free-flowing — something most churches attempt and fall flat at because religion is just deeply uncool. But somehow, maybe through its approachable, young, and sometimes tattooed clergy, Hillsong has tapped into young Hollywood in a way that gives them street cred.
The church offers services all over the world, including New York City. So I decided to go see what appeal this church holds.
The Hillsong Church Sunday Service usually takes place at Irving Plaza in New York, but since there was a shooting there the week prior, this particular Sunday service would be held at the Playstation Theater, on a side street off Times Square.
I’m not the first writer to take an interest in the church. It’s been covered extensively in GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, and The Guardian. It’s a pretty well known fact that Justin Bieber and whoever he’s dating at the moment could pop up at a Hillsong service.
So when I got to the theater, I thought maybe I’d spot a mob of Bieber fans. Instead, there were angry protestors screaming outside.
“JESUS REBUKES HILLSONG,” their signs read. It’s easy to see why they’d be pissed. And while Hillsong could be compared to other celebrity-endorsed cult-ish religions like Scientology and Kabbalah, I was especially interested in visiting Hillsong because there isn’t much of a separation between the people who follow pop culture and those who could be particularly susceptible to joining a church like this one.
Pop culture these days, especially for a generation of faithless social media addicts like ourselves, is religion. And maybe one of the most impressive aspects of Hillsong is just that: their understanding and mastery of music as a method of influence.
I first took note of their potential influence when Justin Bieber released Purpose back in November. I mean, just look at the album cover:
And just a few weeks ago, Hillsong United, the church’s worship music group, won Billboard awards for Top Christian Artist category and for the Top Christian Song.
And here’s a photo of Jay Z with Kevin Durant and Carl Lentz, the Hillsong Pastor who recently baptized Justin Bieber in Tyson Chandler’s bathtub.
The church was originally founded in 1983 by Bobbie and Brian Houston, an Australian couple. Brian is the son of the Pentecostal pedophile church leader Christian Houston. These days, the church is stationed in various locations around the world, including Los Angeles, New York, London, Kiev, South Africa, Barcelona, and Buenos Aires. Their vision? Seems like fairly standard Evangelical stuff when you read their website:
“We believe that in order to receive forgiveness and the ‘new birth’ we must repent of our sins, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and submit to His will for our lives,” their website reads.
“We believe that in order to live the holy and fruitful lives that God intends for us, we need to be baptised in water and be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Okay, sounds like typical religious stuff.
“The Holy Spirit enables us to use spiritual gifts, including speaking in tongues.”
Speaking in tongues is generally more of a Pentecostal thing, and it’s also super creepy. But hey, churches do what they do. So what else is different about Hillsong?
For one, the services don’t actually take place in a church. When I rode down the escalators to the Playstation theater, I felt like I was entering a nightclub. Bright lights lit up the Hillsong merchandise table, which featured a large selection of books, bags, and T-shirts with graphics about God saving the world. Friendly people with vacant eyes greeted me with clipboards, directing me to a dark theater where a blonde girl with a guitar sang about salvation. I couldn’t hear her that well though. Her vocals weren’t amplified super loudly, so there was this interesting effect that made it so you could make out the words as long as her back-up singers sang with her, but there was no focus on her individual voice.
At the front of the theater, crowds of a young, diverse group of people were standing, arms raised to Christ, our lord and savior. I looked around, slightly terrified that the walls would close in on me at some point, feeling acutely aware that there’s a lot of stuff going in the world that I don’t know about.
More people with clipboards stood on mezzanine levels next to the stage. Are they taking notes? I wondered, shivering and thinking of Scientology’s alleged penchant for keeping track of its parishioners’ lives. The concert broke, and two hot Australian guys with fascinating interpretations of “trendy” outfits came onstage to introduce themselves.
The pastor, Josh Kimes, wore a short-sleeve shirt, buttoned all the way up to his neck, tight black jeans, and had a lot of tattoos. He welcomed us to church in the chillest way possible. On the screen behind him, he showed a video called “Old Man Dancing Like A Boss” — a viral video of a guy with crutches dancing to “Turn Down For What” — to exemplify a story he told that ended up explaining how, no matter how far you run, Jesus will find you.
He showed an of iPhone photo of his young daughter.
“Look at my little girl,” one of the guys said. “Look how she’s posing already for the camera. She needs Jesus. Pray for her, will you?”
Some of the pastors associated with Hillsong are becoming famous in their own right. Media outlets interview them in the same way they’d pick the brain of a Kardashian’s hairstylist or makeup artist. (We’ve reached out to Hillsong and are awaiting comment.)
“People say we cater to celebrities,” Pastor Carl Lentz told GQ. “And I say, yes, we do. Celebrities deserve a relationship with God. Celebrities deserve a place to pray.”
GQ wrote about Pastor Carl Lentz because he’s the guy Justin Bieber lived with for a few months when the backlash against Justin was really bad. Apparently, Justin called up Pastor Carl one day, crying, and told him he needed to be baptized. Immediately.
“[So] I called my boy,” Carl says. Carl has many boys, but in this case his boy was Tyson Chandler, who was then on the New York Knicks. It was 2 A.M. by now. The Knicks had beaten the Miami Heat earlier that night. He knew Tyson lived in a fancy Upper West Side building with a pool. “I said, ‘Bro, I’m in a jam here. I have JB with me, he wants to get baptized.’ He’s like, ‘Done. Easy.’ ” But they arrive and there’s no access to the pool; it’s too late. Then Tyson realizes he might have another solution. He reminds Carl that he’s seven feet tall and that his bathtub was built to spec. Justin Bieber is slightly tinier than that, and so they go upstairs to Tyson’s place, and Tyson’s wife makes some food and lays down some towels and Justin gets into the tub, and down Justin Bieber goes, and he comes out of the water, and he is reborn.
And that is an image that will stick with you, let me tell you: Justin Bieber, on his knees in Tyson Chandler’s bathtub, wet and sobbing against Pastor Carl’s chest, so unable to cope with being himself that he has to be born anew, he has to be declared someone entirely different, in order to make it through the night.”
And then Purpose came out. Justin was reborn.
During a break in the sermon, we were encouraged to introduce ourselves to other members of the audience, which I felt was nice. Church employees passed around plates with individually wrapped Starbursts, and plastic cups with water to audience members. I didn’t hear a whole lot of religion, but for a generation of smartphone addicts, this is exactly the kind of insta-religion that might appeal to young people these days.
“It seems pretty all right to me,” my 20-year-old Bernie Sanders-supporting sister whispered to me, prompting me to pick us up both up and exit before the service was over. It was irresponsible of me to take her there. Because it’s not that I have a problem with what anybody wants to practice; more than anything, I just get scared for my generation sometimes. We’re constantly fed so much information, with a new viral story blowing up our phones every 30 minutes, that we can forget how to think critically. Does anybody actually listen to the musicians who make all the bangers we so enjoy streaming for free?
“So what?” My sister asked me, when I explained to her that it’s important to think about the messages that come from pop music. Does Justin Bieber look okay to you? The only public figure that I’ve heard express any real concern for him is none other than Britney Spears. Britney Spears, the 90s-era pop star whose time in the public eye led her to a mental break that doesn’t look too far away from Justin’s time spent wandering around Boston barefoot, doing his best to avoid any fans that took photos for him.
A group was standing and praying in front of the escalator, making it difficult for us to get out. I elbowed our way through, towards the light of Sunday in New York City at the top of the escalator. When I finally got out, the air on 42nd Street felt like something like salvation.