Hillsong: Is this celeb-filled, Instagram-friendly church the new face of evangelicalism?
The star-studded evangelical church that Chris Pratt and Ellen Page are feuding over employs old tricks to attract a new audience.
Hillsong Church worshipers attend the Hillsong Conference at Allphones Arena in Sydney, Australia on July 30, 2015.John Lim / Hillsong Church
By Ben Kesslen
The Instagram-friendly, Justin Bieber-endorsed church, Hillsong, was thrust into the spotlight after Chris Pratt and Ellen Page publicly debated the church’s stance on LGBTQ people.
Last Thursday, Page criticized Pratt for attending a Hillsong affiliate, Zoe Church, in Los Angeles, which she said is “infamously anti-LGBTQ.”
The out lesbian and Oscar-nominee also tweeted, saying “If you are a famous actor and you belong to an organization that hates a certain group of people, don't be surprised if someone simply wonders why it's not addressed."
Pratt responded on Monday, posting an Instagram story saying Page’s allegations “could not be further from the truth.”
“I go to a church that opens their doors to absolutely everyone,” the “Guardians of the Galaxy” actor wrote.
The exchange raised questions about what the church that Pratt attends, known for attracting celebrities like Bieber, Kevin Durant and Kendall and Kylie Jenner, actually stands for and how it came to be.
Founded in Australia in 1983 by Brian and Bobbie Houston, the Evangelical church has since gone global. Its New York branch, led by pastor Carl Lentz, who has more than 600,000 Instagram followers, boasts a regular Sunday attendance of over 6,000 people, according to the church’s own reports. The reports also claim more than 100,000 people attend Hillsong-affiliated services each week worldwide.
The church’s band, Hillsong United, is integrated directly into their services and is wildly popular. Their biggest hit, “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail),” which sounds like a Christian version of The Lumineers, currently has over 132 million streams on Spotify.
Hillsong, which declined to provide NBC News a comment, gained greater awareness after Justin Bieber joined. The Canadian pop star’s relationship with Lentz has been closely followed by paparazzi and entertainment websites. In the summer of 2017, Bieber was often spotted in Montclair, New Jersey, a New York City suburb with a large Hillsong chapter. Bieber reportedly visited to spend time with Lentz. In 2015, Lentz told GQ Bieber came to him asking to be baptized after a difficult night. The church usually rents out a Manhattan hotel pool for baptisms, he said, but that night Lentz ended up performing Bieber’s baptism in the extra-long bathtub in NBA player Tyson Chandler’s apartment.
Lentz is also becoming a celebrity in his own right. Sporting giant glasses, sleeveless tanks, leather jackets and an ever-growing social media following, Lentz has written a book, appeared on “The View” and is often dubbed the “hot pastor.” In 2017, US Weekly ran an article titled “Justin Bieber’s Pastor Carl Lentz Is Hot AF in Case You Were Wondering: See the Pics.”
Lentz’s look is a big part of Hillsong’s appeal. The Washington Post called Hillsong “the new face of hipster Christianity.” Hillsong’s audience, according to its own data, is largely comprised of young people, and its parishioners often live in cities.
Lea Ceasrine, a journalist from New York who formerly belonged to Hillsong, describes many of the church's members as “young people living in New York trying to figure themselves out.”
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
“The pastors would speak about how hard it is to live in New York,” Ceasrine told NBC News, explaining why young people were drawn to the church.
“It’s a really emotional experience, where a lot people are crying and hugging. It’s super intimate. If you’ve gone through things in your life and felt like you never had a space where you could turn to someone, it's so easy to just fall into,” she added.
Randall Balmer, a religion professor at Dartmouth, said Ceasrine's description of Hillsong is a familiar one.
“Evangelicals have an uncanny ability to tailor their message to particular audiences,” he told NBC News. “They go where people are.”
Balmer said Evangelicals had circuit riders during frontier times, who followed pioneers and colonizers on horseback, and the church started to use TV in the post-War era to again reach their audience. Now, they use Instagram and Spotify.
“One of the characteristics of Evangelicals throughout American history is that they are extraordinarily nimble,” Balmer explained. “You don’t have creeds, you don’t have liturgies or rituals, which allows Evangelicals to speak the idiom of the culture.”
Lentz’s self-presentation is characteristic of how Hillsong preaches. You’ll be hard-pressed to find the word “evangelical” or even “religion” on the church’s materials. The seemingly hip and youth-driven church, according to James Madison University professor of religion David Kirkpatrick, rejects labels—much like millennials themselves. At Hillsong, faith is chiefly about a relationship to God. This, Kirkpatrick told NBC News, falls in line with evangelical tradition.
“That idea that faith is something of the heart, not just an intellectual assent, is actually something quintessentially evangelical,” Kirkpatrick explained.
While Hillsong might feel new to those unfamiliar with evangelical history, Kirkpatrick warns people against seeing it as a total “departure” from the sect’s history. Hillsong employs “a pretty classical evangelical way to talk about faith,” he said.
This poses challenges for a church with largely young followers, often in big urban centers, like New York and L.A, associated with progressivism.
Page calling out Pratt for attending the church thrust its politics center stage — politics that aren’t neatly categorizable. Hillsong is pro-life, but Lentz has also spoken out against Trump and shown his support of Black Lives Matter. Hillsong’s relationship to the LGBTQ community is also a bit more complicated than Pratt made it out to be.
In a 2015 blog post, that a PR representative for Hillsong pointed NBC News to, Brian Houston, founder and senior pastor at the church, wrote, “Hillsong Church welcomes ALL people but does not affirm all lifestyles. Put clearly, we do not affirm a gay lifestyle and because of this we do not knowingly have actively gay people in positions of leadership, either paid or unpaid.”
Houston said he knows this position “is upsetting to people on both sides of this discussion,” which Balmer says is characteristic of the church's politics more generally and “not terribly unusual” for evangelical churches.
“They’ve made an almost strategic or tactical decision to weave a middle ground, to appear to be progressive on some issues but to hold the line on other issues,” Balmer said. “They aren’t moving the needle, they’re threading it.”
Hillsong discourages premarital sex, which Justin Bieber cited in an interview published in Vogue last week as one of the reasons he and his wife, Hailey Bieber (née Baldwin), got married.
For Ceasrine, Hillsong’s social conservatism was one of the reasons she left the church. Ceasrine told NBC News abstinence is “heavily discussed” in service and among the community, and many young people in the community get married in their early 20s.
On topics like gay rights and abortion, Ceasrine described the church as “coy," adding, “I don't think those things were really spoken about."
According to Balmer and Kirkpatrick, despite the glitz and the celebrity, Hillsong in the end is just the latest iteration of evangelicalism.
Balmer compared the songs on Spotify to megachurches that will have services with different genres of music to appeal to different audiences.
“Megachurch pastors will tell you that music is the key to finding their audience,” he said.
Kirkpatrick said the music and social media also operate “in a similar way that TV and radio did” back when the church first starting to integrate media into their practice. The church’s Spotify and Instagram presence, he said, demonstrates how evangelicals “are very successful at using new media to market old faith to a new generation.”
As reports show that church attendance among young people has fallen, Hillsong has managed to find a new audience of young people — and stars like Selena Gomez and Nick Jonas being spotted at the church only helps their cause.
But Balmer cautioned churchgoers to get the full picture of their place of worship. “A hip, easygoing veneer can hide a very conservative, almost fundamentalist, message,” he said.