Is Celebrity-Endorsed, Instagram-Friendly Hillsong Church the Future of Evangelicalism?

Hillsong Church worshipers attend the Hillsong Conference at Allphones Arena in Sydney, Australia on July 30, 2015.
John Lim / Hillsong Church

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.

A GLOBAL PHENOMENON

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.”

“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.”

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SOURCE: NBC News, Ben Kesslen