Hollywood’s ‘Cool Church’ Revivial Has People Searching for Salvation and ‘the Authentic’ Alongside Celebrities

Chad Veach, Judah Smith, Kanye West, Joseph Barkley, Chris Pratt, Justin Bieber, Erwin McManus, and Angela Davis.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SELMAN HOŞGÖR; PHOTOGRAPHS BY BAX WALKER/ALAMY (STAINED GLASS); COURTESY OF CHURCHOME (SMITH); BY AXELLE/BAUER-GRIFFIN/FILMMAGIC (PRATT); BY AMANDA EDWARDS (THEATER), FROM GOTHAM/GC IMAGES (BIEBER), BY JOE SCARNICI (DAVIS), WALKER AND WALKER (DOVE), MATT WINKELMEYER (VEACH), ALL FROM GETTY IMAGES; BY CHARISE PROCTOR (BARKLEY); BY JOHN FRANCIS PETERS (MCMANUS), ROZETTE RAGO (WEST), BOTH FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX.

I am in the mosh pit of West Hollywood’s El Rey Theatre, jangly from two cups of Zoe Ministries’ excellent self-branded coffee. Twenty 20-somethings in mom jeans, sneakers, and colorful baggy shirts are singing Disney-radio-inflected anthems about God while we gently shoulder-bump one another. Soon, preacher Chad Veach takes the stage in a baseball cap, rainbow-hued kicks, and a denim jacket that says “Veach” on the back. He bounces on the balls of his feet, referring to Jesus’s disciples as “his crew.” Whenever he says anything vaguely profound, people yell “WOW!” which is the “Amen” of cool, young churches. Veach warns the first row they’re going to get wet from his spit. He’s preaching pure Pentecostalism, and I’m prepared for snake handling, for speaking in tongues, for a deaf man to hear and then say that the music here is a little generic.

Veach is part of the new Great Awakening. Interest in Christianity is blossoming in America’s biggest, bluest cities, partly promoted by celebrity Zoe-goers such as Chris Pratt and Katherine Schwarzenegger. Young people listen to Spotify lists of songs performed by the bands at one-name churches that sound like rehab centers: Hillsong (a global megachurch that started in Australia), Mosaic, Vous, Radius, Churchome. The center of this Great Awakening is Los Angeles, where the Word comes in many denominations. In January, Kanye West started hosting Sunday Service, at which Tyler, the Creator; Katy Perry; Orlando Bloom; Kid Cudi; DMX; and 070 Shake have listened to him sing about God. On Easter, West built a hill on a fenced-in area attached to the Coachella music festival, joining in with a chorus in matching mauve ponchos.

Halfway through the service, Veach (who likes to say that Zoe is pronounced “Zo-ay, like Be-yon-cé”) slows his sermon down. His 34-year-old brother-in-law, he informs the crowd, was supposed to preach this Sunday for the first time, but he had a stroke while on vacation with his family and died. It’s shocking and tragic, and then Veach reveals that his daughter, Georgia, who has an incurable brain disorder that will likely prevent her from ever walking or talking, got more disheartening news. He has a “g” tattoo in her honor, as do Zoe regulars Justin Bieber, Hailey Baldwin, Selena Gomez, and Ashley Benson.

The sermon suddenly feels authentic. There is a man in front of me grappling with his faith. Then I realize that all that has preceded this—the merch giveaway from children’s pastor Tommy Two Guns, the number for automatic text tithing, the promo video that looked like it was for the next Saw—was equally authentic to these young Angelenos. When Veach asks the nonbelievers to accept Jesus, nearly 200 raise their hands. I want to lift my atheist arm to feel whatever they’re feeling, but my hand won’t go, which makes me wonder if God is real and is keeping me honest.

As I leave, a millennial couple asks if I was at Radius, another Cool Church, this morning. I had indeed drunk freshly ground third-wave coffee there as Pastor Joseph Barkley, the tattooed former lead singer of a worship band called Plumbline, asked us to write a wish for God on a construction-paper leaf and affix it to a wall. I wrote, “I want to believe” on mine. On the leaf next to mine, someone had written “Sick people get Yeezys and get better.”

The pair who approach me, L.A. newcomers Elexa and Evan Henderson, are Great Awakening devotees. They rock out to church-band CDs, listen to the churches’ podcasts, and say things such as, “We want it real.”

Churchome pastor Judah Smith—like his friend Veach, a veteran of Seattle’s Pentecostal scene—tells me that young people are thirsty for both authenticity and spirituality. They have access to their heroes and know that they’re disconnected too. “We are going, ‘Jeez, if Kanye is not happy being Kanye, we’re all screwed,’ ” he says over egg whites at an outside table at Joan’s on Third, in Studio City. As he’s talking, he spots his bro Ryan Good walking by, wearing a sweatshirt he designed himself, with a photo of the late rapper Nipsey Hussle. Good was Bieber’s “swagger coach” and started the Drew House clothing line with him. “I hated him at first,” says Good about meeting Smith backstage at a Bieber show in Everett, Washington. “I had a perception that pastors are weird guys trying to be cool. They pop up on tour. It’s more prevalent since celebrity pastors became cool.”

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SOURCE: Vanity Fair, Joel Stein