I Joined the London Branch of Justin Bieber's Church
Hillsong Church is attracting an increasing number of celebrities, but the organisation has mixed messages about LGBT+ people and its founder is a committed Trump supporter.
Justin Bieber with Carl Lentz at Hillsong Conference. Credit: Hillsong TV
I'm watching a cross between Bill Murray and Bradley Cooper in all-black: a COS-style scoop-neck top, slim-fit trousers and suede desert boots. The man looks primed to deliver a TED talk, but his charismatic oratory is met with cries of "amen" and "preach it!" from faces lit up blue by the neons that surround him. He's not just talking, either; he's in rapture, his words are rough. It begins to sound like the creepiest dirty talk.
"What I'm saying – what I'm telling you – is you messed up coming to church tonight," he growls, "cause God's about to wreck your little jungle life."
The man is Jentezen Franklin, founder of the ministry Free Chapel in Gainesville, Georgia. Tonight he is the headline act at Hillsong, which, every Sunday, holds four services at London's 2,000-capacity Dominion Theatre. It's on Tottenham Court Road, wedged between a Garfunkel's, a Dorothy Perkins and a bunch of Crossrail-related road-works.
Hillsong isn't a normal church. It's the international pentecostal mega-church that Justin Bieber allegedly quit his world tour for. It's been called "trendy", noted as an example of "hipster Christianity" and compared to "an Urban Outfitters stock room explosion".
Last month, Bieber – whose sins had already been forgiven by the general public after he made critically-appreciated EDM and stopped pissing into mop buckets and abandoning baby monkeys – announced the Purpose World Tour's premature end. Sources "close to Hillsong" told TMZ this was because Bieber had "rededicated his life to Christ". What Tom Cruise is to Scientology, claimed Hillsong defector Tanya Levin in 2015, Bieber is to Hillsong.
"THIS IS MY DOG TIL THE DAY I DIE .. he's the biggest Brodog. ride or die .." - Hillsong preacher Carl Lentz on Justin Bieber
As well as attending Zoe Church Conference, set up by pastor Chad Veach – an occasional Hillsong preacher who is so close to Bieber that Bieber has a tattoo dedicated to Veach's daughter – Bieber's been hanging out with other Hillsong preachers Judah Smith, founder of the Seattle's City Church, and Rich Wilkerson Jr, founder of Vous, an LA-based church. His closest friend in the church, though, is Hillsong's New York City lead pastor Carl Lentz. Justin first met the skinny-jeaned unnecessarily-bespectacled preacher in 2008, and in a recent Instagram post on Bieber's account Lentz snuggles so close that his Dov Charney-style lensless aviators dent Bieber's cheek. The caption reads: "THIS IS MY DOG TIL THE DAY I DIE .. he's the biggest Brodog. ride or die.."
The pair were just as close at Australia's Hillsong Conference. Check out this one Hillsong-approved interview where Bieber, sitting between Veach and Lentz, wears a grey marl tracksuit bearing the slogan "Young & Free", the official name of the youth wing of Hillsong, and proclaims: "I just enjoy seeing people worship, praising God," before cleaning his teeth with a mini toothbrush. Wilkerson is interviewing, and he's patient, having had practice after sitting through the 45-minute groom's speech at Kanye West and Kim Kardashian's 2014 wedding, which he officiated. Bieber then rests his head onto Lentz's shoulder and says, "I just want to love people more, I just want to love Carl more," before adding: "I just think my faith grows every day, so my faith is stronger than it was two years ago: better, stronger, wiser, kinder."
In another Conference interview, Bieber and Lentz both appear in lensless aviators. Bieber announces, "I'm so nervous right now", before gazing over to Lentz's red Louis Vuitton x Supreme hoody as he explains the pair have today been "wearing Supreme sweaters, living the dream".
Only Bieber and those in his interconnected God-squad know the real reasons for cancelling just 14 dates of a 165-night world tour. But I thought I could get some answers by going to Hillsong myself.
With 77 outposts in 17 countries, Hillsong has a reported worldwide congregation of 100,000 (and 800,000 Twitter followers, 1.2 million Instagram followers and 4.4 million Facebook Likes). Followers are said to include Hailey Baldwin (daughter of born-again Christian Stephen Baldwin), Selena Gomez, Kendall Jenner and Kourtney Kardashian.
You hear about these kinds of youth-churches quite often in the US, but I wanted to know whether Hillsong fever had exploded in the UK.
It's 4PM on a windy Sunday when I arrive at Hillsong.
"Welcome to church!" a series of black-clad assistants grin to me as I walk into the theatre's foyer. People in greys and denim sprint towards the stalls, and at the bar carafes of free coffee are passed around by men in T-shirts long enough to reach the rips in their jeans. Women in Ivy Park stride towards the circle. Books called things like Live Love Lead, The Jesus Manifesto and God's Economic Engine are for sale alongside Franklin's Fear Fighters and The Spirit of Python: Exposing Satan's Plan to Squeeze the Life Out Of You.
There's a guy in a Yeezus T-shirt, and I wonder if it's sacrilege. Most people are younger than me, but a fair few are older. We could be in any suburban Nando's.
As I walk towards the circle, four more ushers smile "Welcome to church!" and one kindly guides me through the darkness to a seat. I peer over to the stalls, where younger people are moshing, chanting the "Der der der"s from The Fratellis' "Chelsea Dagger", jousting the warm air with giant foam fingers.
A bright and fast-cut glossy VT on stage advertises Hillsong's presence in London. It shows young, slim, attractive people of all shades, grinning (presumably thinking about saying "Welcome to church!"), intercut with shots of the London Eye and red phone boxes, to a soundtrack of sleazy-guitared one hit wonder Spirit in the Sky. Still, the kids with the foam fingers hold their tune. The branding is slick; monochrome Hillsong logo seems have been moodboarded by the Eton Messy logos,and the T-shirts from Nick Grimshaw's 2015 Topshop range. It's safe-cool, softer than the heavy metal fonts Bieber appropriated for his Purpose Tour merchandise. Maybe gothic wasn't welcome to church.
A Hillsong music video
To my left is a young south Asian man in a plaid shirt. To my right, a young white guy with a low-slung ponytail, pitter-patter facial hair and a crumpled Levi's tee. Two black girls with big earrings sit behind me and will say a lot of "aaaamens" and "preach it!" later on.
In front, an older West Indian woman in Breton stripes claps along to the music. She is joined by a middle-aged white couple in jazzy prints, the sorts you'd expect to see at Prezzo somewhere off the M25. The wife flips open her leather phone case and studiously taps out – with one manicured finger – a text to her daughter: "See you after praise and worship xxx"
The service opens and a young plummy pastor compares "that one mate at uni who never bought a round" to believers who don't give back to God. A charming man with neat facial hair then plugs the upcoming Hillsong conference in London using another glossy VT. Star pastors Jentezen Franklin, Craig Groeschel and Carl Lentz appear briefly on screen to cheers and screams. Ushers pass around plastic flower pots for donations, and the screen beams: "TEXT: TITHE + amount to 70177".
(According to its own 2016 financial report, the Australian Hillsong branches alone made $130 million in a year, with just 15 percent of all proceeds reaching "Missions" or "Global and Local Benevolent" funds.)
To raucous applause, Jentezen Franklin is introduced.
With a mirror and a Bible for props, he begins a story. Marina Chapman, a five-year-old Colombian, was dragged into the jungle by a man. After abusing her, he left her for dead. Soon enough, a troop of monkeys found her, and she started following what they did to get food. After ten years of "monkey see, monkey do", she spoke only in grunts, and walked on all fours. One day she found a mirror in the jungle, recognised in her reflection a difference to the monkeys and was soon rescued.
This isn't quite as Chapman tells it: she was never abused in the jungle. As for the mirror – were there no reflections in the streams she drank from?
Franklin confesses, "This isn't in her book, but I'ma interpret it." And so begins his take: Chapman had led a "monkey see, monkey do existence" out in the jungle. But the mirror helped her realise she was different; that she was part of God's plan. Franklin – impressively – raises both the mirror and the Bible in one hand, and the microphone in the other. He gazes into the mirror and says: "Superimposed over my flaws, I can see the smiling face of Jesus saying, 'When I get through with you, this is what you're gonna look like: perfection.'"
To me, Chapman's story is one of survival against the odds, of the shared nature of human and beast. If the congregation knew that Chapman was, upon leaving the jungle, sold to a brothel and then enslaved by a gang, Franklin's message that monkeys are lesser than humans wouldn't work so well.
Chapman, though, seems to approve of this retelling of her story; she met her husband at church and now retweets links to Franklin's sermons.
It's not just the weird take on the monkey story. Franklin's keen on this them-and-us narrative, criticising "monkey see, monkey do jungle life". He complains that non-believers "don't know what's right and what's wrong, what's male and what's female". He also insists that we "don't let fallen culture define what marriage looks like". It's dog-whistle homophobia, and it all gets a huge cheer.
"The lesbian and gay thing is very hot at the moment. I've got loads of great gay friends. I'm happy to have them. But I guess when you're trying to set an example and lead people that's a different level. You have to set standards there."
I wasn't expecting Hillsong to be LGBT-inclusive. Though the church has cut ties with "gay cure" groups, Hillsong ushers and preachers have been penalised for coming out. One follower who was given "gay cure" counselling by Hillsong after coming out told The Daily Beast that "gay people need to know that when they go to Hillsong, they have to go to the back of the bus". He has acquaintances who were refused roles of responsibility in the church for being out. One British ex-Hillsong attendee explained in a blog for The Huffington Post that other followers "might tell me that being gay is okay, but on the inside [pray] for me to let Jesus move in my life and change me".
Brian Houston, co-founder of Hillsong, wrote a blog post in 2015 titled "Do I love gay people?" The answer is: though he's got "gay friends", Hillsong does "not affirm a gay lifestyle", allowing LGBT+ congregants but precluding them from having roles of authority in the church. Houston added: "Everyone is welcome at Hillsong church except for known predators, those who are disruptive, or those who have adversarial agendas."
The "predators" reference pulls into focus with the knowledge that Houston's father, Frank Houston, a pastor of another church that Houston Jr used to lead worship at, confessed to Houston Jr in 1999 to sexually assaulting a seven-year-old boy 30 years prior. Close to the time of his confession, Houston attempted to buy the victim's silence for $10,000 (£6,073) using a McDonald's napkin as a contract. A 2015 royal commission into institutional responses to child sex abuse found that Houston Jr had failed to report the allegations to the police and had tried to downplay his conflict of interest.
Later, Houston Jr acknowledged his father had committed other sex crimes against children and equated his paedophilia with homosexuality, telling Good Weekend: "I think my father was homosexual, a closet homosexual… I think whatever frustrations he had, he took out on children."
Franklin's sermon goes on to criticise heterosexual couples who don't try hard enough at marriage, and define women and men's places within it. The Bible, Franklin says, will say, "Hey husbands, quit being a jerk, love your wives, take out the garbage. Romance her, go on a date with her, quit running around with all of your buddies."
As for wives, according to Franklin the Bible says: "Hey ladies, honour your husbands! Show 'em respect, show 'em your honour."
In September of 2015, along with 21 Christian preachers and one rabbi, Franklin attended Trump Tower, put his hands on Trump and prayed for his candidacy. He posted a photo of him and Trump to his social media, along with a caption imploring followers: "Let's pray for him."
By June of 2016 he was appointed to Trump's all-Christian faith advisory board and told local press that the soon-to-be-President had rededicated his life to Christ when he was 60 (the pussy-grabbing brag happened when Trump was 59). Franklin said that though he wouldn't turn down a similar invite from Hillary Clinton, he was drawn to Trump thanks to his promise of "pro-life judges, pro-religious liberty judges".
By March of 2017, Franklin had met with Trump four times. He admitted that initially he was sceptical: "I went in very much undecided and wondering, 'Why I am here?' But when you sit down with him and hear him, he does care. He does care about the poor, he does care about our community… I'm not here to defend him, or whatever – I do appreciate what he's doing in many cases – but I'm here to speak for what I know is truth."
The sermon finishes and I head to the pavement outside the theatre to chat to some of my fellow congregants. Outside, Eric, 17, tells me I've had a great introduction to church: "For anyone who wants to know about it and wants to explore whether it's real or not, that was an awesome sermon to learn from," he says.
Chi, 29, explains that God is a constant reminder that "humans underestimate ourselves" and "makes everyone feel relaxed, everyone is welcome and people don't feel pressured at all".
In total agreement with Franklin's take on "airbrushed culture", Shermel, 27, tells me that "trying to live in accordance with God's word is what we really need and will bring out the best of us."
But is excluding LGBT+ people in accordance with God? I speak to Neil. At 46, he's one of Hillsong's older members, but he doesn't look it. He's in jeans, a black T-shirt and has a box-fresh rucksack on. He used to be a Baptist but started coming to Hillsong 14 years ago as a way of modernising, of "growing up". When I ask him about the church's approach to LGBT+ people, he asks me to clarify what LGBT+ means.
"Well, it's the same as if someone was sleeping with someone outside of marriage. It's totally accepted by the church – we've all got stuff – but when it comes to leadership you wouldn't want to be promoting marriage when someone's sleeping with someone outside of marriage, so it's the same thing [for LGBT+ people]."
He adds: "The lesbian and gay thing is very hot at the moment. I've got loads of great gay friends. I'm happy to have them – they're great people I've got no problem at all. But I guess when you're trying to set an example and lead people that's a different level. You have to set standards there."
Giann, 19, is from the Philippines, where her mum first got her into Hillsong. She, too, has LGBT+ friends: "They're alright for me; it's not our job to change them." She'll leave that work up to the man upstairs: "My belief is that God will change how they are."
Her 17-year-old friend, Melanie, attests: "We all have our different things, but people are just people. If you're a good person, if you're kind, you know…"
As she trails off, I explain you could be the best person, the kindest person, the most devout lover of Jesus, but if you love someone of the same sex or don't appear strictly male or female you wouldn't be able to say – or indeed feel – "welcome to church". She responds: "I mean, to be honest, I wasn't really aware of that."
"Jesus was a preacher who is my highest role model, so as a preacher I'll just say read your own Bible, press into Jesus and then work stuff out."
A few weeks after my first visit, I head back to Hillsong. A man in Yeezy Boosts, skinny black jeans and outsized knitwear stands on the pavement opposite the Dominion. His hair is golden and flows to his shoulders, and his teeth are heavenly white. He's Dan Blythe, a 31-year-old pastor. I ask him about LGBT+ people's role in the church.
"If I was chatting to someone who was LGBT and they were asking that question, I would definitely just say: 'What do you find Jesus talking about when he was preaching?' It wasn't like, 'You're in or you're out, you can or you can't.' Jesus was inclusive and welcoming, Jesus was a preacher who is my highest role model, so as a preacher I'll just say read your own Bible, press into Jesus and then work stuff out."
I explain this goes against the church's policy, and he quickly reneges: "I definitely support the leadership of our church, so whatever decisions they've made which have been publicised or presented."
He continues: "The doormat over there says, 'Welcome home,' and so regardless of race, colour, sexuality, gender, everyone's welcome in church. Come check out church, enjoy church and then if you're in a place where you want to step into leadership and preaching, we can have those chats. The main thing is come and find out who Jesus is, then the other stuff will work itself out."
Later, on Instagram, I find that Dan has 14,000 followers and is a televangelist of sorts. He presents shows on Hillsong's YouTube channel, FearlessTV, and regularly hangs out with other presenters, such as Joshua and Kyle Brooks. The Bieber-a-like 18-year-old twins appeared on 2016's The X Factor but left before the live shows after an ex-girlfriend told The Sun of the multiple times Joshua had violently assaulted her. She alleged that he had broken her nose, and Joshua eventually admitted to "scuffles".
Every Hillsong follower I speak to agrees the church is a good influence on Bieber. Blythe is "excited for him and his future", and Neil, who says Bieber has "had a heck of a lot of fame for a young lad to handle – we all make mistakes", admits he loves that Bieber is "coming to church, coming to conference, no one's making him do it".
Neil adds that several professional British footballers have attended Hillsong undercover.
Hillsong's ASOS-approved stylings, slick Glee-style choirs and neon lights might make it seem more exciting than Britain's other, more ancient places and forms of worship. But the saccharine casing doesn't conceal a scorched earth literal interpretation of the Bible, in a theatre so dark it can't even be read.
This isn't the first time we've seen pop stars suckered into belief systems that seem strange from the outside: it's visible in everything from Beck's Scientology to Madonna's Kabbalah, even in Craig David and his gym obsession. However, it is odd that these British sorts, with their Primark bags, earphones looped over their auricles and bucket hats, are taking such a camp exercise in pomp tackiness so seriously.
Hillsong might be a pleasant stepping stone exit strategy for those growing away from intensely religious backgrounds, but with increasing celebrity endorsements, more people will be drawn to something that aggressively markets itself as the answer but won't fully accept all of those who question. If you don't mind, I'll get back to my jungle life now.