(All photos courtesy of Hillsong NYC)
It’s a Sunday afternoon at Hillsong NYC, and the crowd inside Irving Plaza is ready for the Word. The ballroom is packed, as it is for most of Hillsong’s Sunday services, with people hanging over the balcony and crowded near the stage. But Hillsong and its congregation don’t fit easy stereotypes of Evangelical megachurches. The people worshiping this afternoon are young, beautiful and tattooed – a multiethnic cross-section of downtown cool.
Bearded 20-somethings dance in the aisles. An 11-piece band warms up the congregation with a thumping born-again anthem infused with hip-hop and electronic dance beats. Long-haired girls in ripped jeans sing along, closing their eyes and lifting their palms to welcome the Holy Spirit and raise the roof to Jesus. No one looks over 35.
“What we need to understand today is that God has given us much in this city – you have more than you think you do,” says Carl Lentz, Hillsong’s tattooed celebrity pastor, stepping into the blue-silver glow of an enormous disco ball. Today’s sermon is a riff on the parable of the faithful servant, from the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus tells his disciples that “to whomever much is given, of him much will be required”.
Moving restlessly around the stage in his Sunday best – a Kevin Durant tank-top, tight black skinny jeans and YSL boots – Lentz shifts seamlessly from the Bible to self-deprecating personal anecdotes, combining feverish Evangelical populism with Southern street slang. His message is upbeat and optimistic, peppered with tweetable one-liners like, “It’s not about what you do – it’s about what HE did,” “Discouragement will drag you away from your destiny” and his signature hashtag: “Church in the Wild.”
“What if your time was now?” Lentz closes, bellowing in a final crescendo as the music picks up again. “What if your dream season was now? Because the requirement of your life is not to wait to have it all together – it’s to realise that Jesus put it all together today.”
Despite the L-train aesthetic, Hillsong NYC is actually an extension of a much larger Australian megachurch movement and multimedia conglomerate by the same name. Globally, the Hillsong brand is best known for its youthful congregations, stadium concert tours and chart-topping Christian worship songs that are used by contemporary Evangelical churches worldwide. The church, which took in more than £34 million in revenue in 2012, has satellites in 11 countries and plans to open another branch in Los Angeles this year.
With his magnetic charisma and supernatural swagger, Lentz is the face of Hillsong’s first push into US church-planting, and the driving force behind the church’s explosive growth. Just three years after its launch, Hillsong NYC is the city’s fastest-growing megachurch, a Pentecostal powerhouse that draws about 6,000 attendees to its six services on Sundays and recently added an additional service in Montclair, New Jersey.
Hillsong outgrew the Irving Plaza location this spring and now hosts bigger services at Manhattan Centre in Midtown. This past Sunday, a visiting sermon from Hillsong Global’s senior pastor, Brian Houston, drew such a big crowd that the service was temporarily moved to the Best Buy Theatre in Times Square to accommodate the flock. “I think we’re here for the long haul,” Lentz told me. “When people see what’s happening here, they just shake their heads and go, 'This is crazy.'”
A 35-year-old Virginia Beach native, Lentz has cultivated an unorthodox brand of Christian cool, which he shares both onstage and online through social media. He has 98,000 followers on Instagram and almost as many on Twitter. Those impressive numbers have no doubt been boosted by a growing cadre of celebrity fans, which include Spring Breakers star Vanessa Hudgens and Ja Rule. Justin Bieber, who tweeted last autumn that he “broke down” during one of Lentz’s Hillsong sermons, reportedly spent the Saturday before the Super Bowl searching for a pool where he could be baptised by Lentz (he was unsuccessful, according to the New York Post). On the day I interviewed him, Lentz had just finished a meeting with Hugh Jackman and was getting ready for a trip to Oklahoma City to visit NBA MVP Kevin Durant, a good friend whom Lentz baptised in the pool at the Gansevoort Hotel last year.
“New York has famous people in it,” Lentz said, shrugging off his new proximity to stardom. “We knew what we were getting into. We just believe that our church would be a home to everybody. The faceless and the famous.”
Still, Lentz’s branding savvy – and his celebrity endorsements – help explain why Hillsong continues to attract a growing number of young New Yorkers, even as national studies suggest young people are leaving the church in a mass exodus. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Forum in 2012, one third of Americans under age 30 do not identify with any religion. Among Christians, the numbers are even more stark; a report released last year from the Barna Group, an Evangelical research firm, found that 43 percent of once-active Christian millennials have stopped attending church, and 50 percent say they have been frustrated by their faith.
While other Evangelical leaders bemoan the “unchurched generation” and try to lure twentysomethings back into the fold with multimedia gimmicks and coffee houses, Hillsong appears to have struck a chord. Although the church doesn’t keep statistics on member demographics, Lentz estimates that most of his parishioners are in their 20s and 30s. “We didn't come in here to try to be a New York church or try to be cool,” Lentz told me. “We're just being who we are, staying in our lane. I think authenticity is so void in New York, so if you can just be yourself, people relate to that. Any time a church tries to be something, I think they lose the battle before they even start.”
Hillsong NYC isn’t the first New York City church that's tried to reach a younger, hipper crowd. Once considered a graveyard for church-planting, in recent years the city has become a hub of startup churches aimed at disrupting traditional religious models. “We’ve seen a number of different congregations throughout the city sprout up around the idea of just doing church in a different way,” said Melissa Kimiadi, deputy director of the research project Journey Through NYC Religions. “Younger generations in New York City aren’t as closed off to religion as their parents were, so they are more open to different types of belief and worship.”
Treating the city as its personal mission field, Trinity Grace Church has opened five branches across the city since 2006. Q Ideas, a TED-style conference for postmodern Evangelical leaders, recently relocated from Atlanta to the Upper East Side. In Brooklyn, St Lydia’s Dinner Church conducts services over a communally prepared meal, and North Brooklyn Vineyard Church meets at a place called Trash Bar in Williamsburg. Bushwick Abbey, the borough’s newest spiritual offering, recently began Sunday services at Radio, a new bar on Jefferson Avenue, conducted by Rev Kerlin Richter, an ordained Episcopal priest with a blue fauxhawk who describes herself as a “feminist mama madly in love with Jesus”.
“As much as I love the church, I’ve never felt like there was a church that I could invite my friends to,” says Richter. “We’ve had a hard time reaching people where they are in their day-to-day, busy lives. Our church is not that different in terms of the liturgy and what the service is about, but it’s by and for people who have not had access to churches before.”
Even among this most recent crop of New York churches, Hillsong NYC stands apart, both for its young congregation and its rock-concert worship. “Hillsong is Hillsong – they’re totally doing their own thing,” said Kerrick Thomas, who pastors at the Journey, a contemporary Evangelical church that meets at the Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan. “They are a completely different animal than almost any other church in the world.”
Theologically, Hillsong is an Evangelical movement of the Pentecostal persuasion, which means they believe in baptism by dunking and gifts from the Holy Spirit, including speaking in tongues. In Australia, the church’s leaders have faced a barrage of criticism for their conservative worldview, including their positions on abortion and homosexuality. In our interview, Lentz told me that gay people are welcome at Hillsong NYC, but declines to discuss his views on gay marriage. "I don't talk about it from the pulpit, because I don't want to add to the polarisation,” he says. “We adhere to a policy of love, but we also don’t negate the truth.”
In his sermons, Lentz avoids the moral hectoring and uglier Christian talking points that have turned so many 20 and 30-year-olds off of modern faith. Instead of discussing parts of the Bible that offend rational people, he presents a sunnier Evangelical endgame, emphasising themes like love, acceptance and total surrender to God's grace. It's a simple, PR-friendly message, seemingly designed to be as unoffensive as possible. But behind the scenes, Lentz's personal views are still something of a mystery. "If someone were to come to me and say, 'Carl, what do you think about gay marriage, or homosexuality?' the first thing I would say is, 'Are you a member of our church?' And if they were, I would say, 'Before I tell you what I think, what do you think?' What's their background, what's their story? And then we would have a private conversation."
"Our generation ran from church because it was about what you can't do," he said. "If you go to church and all they talk about is sin, then they aren't talking about the whole Gospel. Jesus said to go give the Good News, and that's what we're doing." In that way, Hillsong is a lot like the BuzzFeed of Christianity.
Lentz sees his church – and its don't-ask-don't-tell mentality – as a rebellion from mainstream religion, one that embraces, rather than rejects, secular life. "The heart of that message is, wherever you are living, whatever you do for a living, it's valid. Who you are is not defined by what you do. That's new in New York, because we love to put that label on people."