Born in Aus­tralia, it’s now where New York’s trendy gen-y crowd spend their Sun­day morn­ings. But for ye of lit­tle faith, it’s hard to make sense of Hill­song. Is it legit? Is it a hip­ster cult? And why’s ev­ery­one wear­ing Saint Lau­rent? We join the flock to


A re­port on Hill­song’s new­found, global cool – and the celebs pray­ing each Sun­day in NYC.

is they’re all wear­ing a hat. Con­sider how un­usual it is for peo­ple to wear the same hat if they aren’t, say, work­ing at Mac­cas, or play­ing on a cricket team. The style of the hat is hard to de­scribe. There’s maybe a hint of a cow­boy hat? And a dose of porkpie? From some an­gles it looks like a plain old mall fe­dora, but “nor­mally you have a more oval brim that should curve down in the front and snap up at the back,” says a friend of GQ, a milliner, on be­ing sent a photo of the hat. “This is just noth­ing.” But it’s not noth­ing. It’s what they’re all united in wear­ing, like a badge or a uni­form. “What’s with the hat?” I asked some­one in the au­di­ence on that frst visit. “What do you mean?” an­swered the man sat next to me, who was wear­ing the hat. Ap­par­ently the hat frst ap­peared fve or six years ago when Pas­tor Joel Hous­ton wore it. It was about the same time he and Pas­tor Carl Lentz es­tab­lished Hill­song’s frst Amer­i­can branch. The church – made fa­mous here by the likes of Guy Se­bas­tian and his for­mer ‘fro’ – has out­posts all over the globe, from Syd­ney to Kiev to Paris to Buenos Aires. The church landed in New York City in 2010, with a branch at the Man­hat­tan night­club Irv­ing Plaza, a branch at a theatre in Times Square, and a branch in an au­di­to­rium at Mont­clair State Univer­sity. On any given Sun­day, Hill­song NYC salves the souls of 8000 peo­ple. And what souls they are – Justin Bieber, Ken­dall Jen­ner, Se­lena Gomez, bas­ket­ball player Kevin Du­rant and Bono reg­u­larly in at­ten­dence. “Peo­ple say we cater to celebri­ties,” Pas­tor Carl tells GQ. “And I say, yes, we do. Celebri­ties de­serve a re­la­tion­ship with God. Celebri­ties de­serve a place to pray.” So do all of God’s chil­dren, he adds. And so they save seats in a spe­cial sec­tion for celebri­ties, but also for peo­ple in wheel­chairs and sin­gle moth­ers who might be run­ning late. Any­way – back to that hat. Pas­tor Joel is ba­si­cally never not with the hat. And at some point you have to ac­knowl­edge that a large group of peo­ple in New York City adopt­ing the fash­ion choices of their spir­i­tual lead­ers is a pe­cu­liar thing, but also an in­di­ca­tion that what­ever these lead­ers are do­ing, they’re do­ing it ef­fec­tively. They’re lead­ing. They’re in­fuenc­ing. On­stage the mu­sic be­gan and a uni­sex band of Chris­tian ge­netic mar­vels ma­te­ri­alised, buoy­ant and shiny with sal­va­tion. Some had guitars and man buns, some had side­cocked bean­ies. All with mi­cro­phones, all with very shiny hair, all with ex­pres­sions of seren­ity as they swayed and sang the songs of Hill­song Mu­sic, which has sold, through its var­i­ous arms, tens of millions of CDS about sal­va­tion and shame and bathing in the mercy of Je­sus’s blood – and whose mu­sic is the only mu­sic you will hear inside a Hill­song church. When they moved, they raised their hands to the heav­ens, but also they stood with their palms open, wrist side up, a rhyth­mic and pa­tient ex­plain­ing, as if to say: What are you gonna do? The mu­sic of Hill­song is a cat­a­logue of Se­lena Gomez-grade bal­lads, with melodies that re­sem­ble one an­other, pleas­ingly, like spa mu­sic. They call to mind deeply sin­cere love songs, if it were ap­pro­pri­ate to put phrases like ‘My saviour on that cursed tree and fu­ri­ous love laid waste to my sin and suf­fered vi­o­lence healed my blind­ness and face­down where mercy fnds me frst’ in a love song. Tonally and tune­fully, it’s a Jonas Brothers song. Lyri­cally, it’s a hymn, and yet the singing is hot­breathed and sexy-close into mi­cro­phones. My body felt con­fused. What we were wit­ness­ing was the log­i­cal con­clu­sion of an evo­lu­tion­ary con­ver­gence be­tween cool­ness and Chris­tian­ity that be­gan at the dawn of the mil­len­nium, when pro­gres­sive-minded Chris­tians, ter­rifed of a faith­less fu­ture, des­per­ately rended their gar­ments and re­placed them with skinny jeans and fan­nel shirts and pierc­ings in the car­ti­lage of their ears, in an os­ten­ta­tious ef­fort to be more mod­ern and more re­lat­able. Which is why, today, you can fnd iron­i­cally be­spec­ta­cled evan­gel­i­cals in Seat­tle and graphic de­sign­ers so­lic­it­ing tithes with hand-drawn Hel­vetica fy­ers in San Diego. You can walk into mega-churches all over the world where the pas­tor will slap on a pair of leather pants and drop the F-bomb, ‘BOOM how do you like me now?’ But doesn’t it al­ways feel like they’re try­ing too hard? Those guys prompt me to think of Star­man, when Jeff Bridges is try­ing to say “Yo, what’s up?” to Karen Allen but in­stead says “I send greet­ings”. The book on Hill­song, how­ever – the other book, low­er­case b – is that they’re the real ar­ti­cle: the world’s frst gen­uinely cool church. “The mu­sic! The lights! The crowds!” be­gins an in­cred­u­lous woman nar­rat­ing a CNN seg­ment on Hill­song NYC in tabloid Cn­nese. “It looks like a rock con­cert. And the lines around the block are enough to make any night­club en­vi­ous.” The chy­ron reads “Hip­ster preacher smashes stereo­types”. They call Pas­tor Carl a hip­ster – Amer­i­can ABC ac­tu­ally said “hip­ster heart­throb” – and Carl says he doesn’t know what that means, and he wears a mo­tor­cy­cle jacket when he says this. Like ev­ery­one else at Hill­song, Pas­tor Joel is un­will­ing to ac­knowl­edge that there’s some­thing go­ing on here, vis-à-vis the hat, vis-à-vis the en­tire fash­ion-for­ward, Dis­ney Chan­nel teen, ag­gres­sively ac­ces­sorised aes­thetic of the place. It is a non-is­sue to him. Yes, he tells

Show up for a Sun­day ser­vice at Hill­song NYC and the first thing you no­tice about the au­di­ence

me, sure, he likes clothes. But that’s the end of it. What he means to say is that lots of peo­ple like clothes… and any­way, why am I ask­ing him? I should ask Pas­tor Carl about the clothes, he says. What Pas­tor Carl does, he adds – that’s in­ten­tional, and then he laughs. So I did, I asked Pas­tor Carl, and he said he re­ally doesn’t think about it, OK maybe he does some­times, but hey, he asked, turn­ing it around, what about me? Aren’t I think­ing about it when I show up to an in­ter­view in this whole head-to-toe UNIQLO thing? My whole neu­trally at­tired thing? That was a de­ci­sion, too, Carl pointed out, wasn’t it? Be­fore the ser­vice had be­gun that day, a woman in her early twen­ties who was sav­ing the en­tire row for late­comer friends told me she had been com­ing to Hill­song for two years, that ev­ery week she brings more and more friends be­cause where else in New York can you fnd such a spir­i­tual place? She used to go to a Greek Ortho­dox church – ev­ery sin­gle per­son I met at Hill­song was a church­goer some­where else be­fore he or she be­gan go­ing to church at Hill­song – but it was long and bor­ing there and she was do­ing it out of fam­ily obli­ga­tion. I told her I could re­late. She told me she liked that the pas­tors here sounded like her. “And they en­cour­age me to be bet­ter.” I asked her what that meant, and she told me that I had to un­der­stand that it wasn’t easy out there. That her job was stress­ful and that hold­ing these seats for her friends, who are al­ways late, was stress­ful. When her gang showed up, three songs in, fve of them were wear­ing the hat. And all around the church, that is the story the con­gre­ga­tion tells from be­neath their hats: that fnally there are cler­gy­men who look familiar, who of­fer mes­sages that re­late to their ac­tual lives, who ac­cept that they’ve lived in New York long enough to know it won’t fy to smear gay peo­ple, or tell women to go home and have kids, or ex­pect young, bright, beau­ti­ful, maybe-cool peo­ple to dress humbly and plainly and ig­nore the thrills of mod­ern life in a city of New York’s stature. This church is the one, fnally, that re­ally is dif­fer­ent. All are wel­come here in their rub­ber pants. All are wel­come here in their noth­ing hats. Pas­tor Carl’s ser­mon on this day was part of a sev­eral-week se­ries he has been do­ing called Dig a Lit­tle Deeper. He tells us that we all have head­lines in our lives, but that we’re not liv­ing an authen­tic life un­less we dig a lit­tle deeper and fnd our sto­ries. ‘You are di­vorced’ is maybe your head­line, but the story is that you’re search­ing for a bet­ter life. ‘You’re an ad­dict’ is maybe your head­line, but your story is that you have sur­vived a lot and have cho­sen to walk with Je­sus. Af­ter the ser­vice, Pas­tor Carl’s driver-slash-right-hand, Joe Ter­mini – yet an­other beau­ti­ful hu­man, with eyes the colour of the Pacifc Ocean, shel­lacked hair like a su­per­hero, and a sparklesmile with thou­sands of teeth, says he wants to bring me over to Carl. I say that’s very nice of him, and he says, “Peo­ple tell me they can’t be­lieve how nice we all are, like is it for real? And I say, yes, we’re nice peo­ple. We’re happy peo­ple. Why is that so hard to be­lieve?” In the green­room, I join Carl and Joel and Carl’s wife, Laura. The three of them met at Hill­song In­ter­na­tional Lead­er­ship Col­lege in Aus­tralia. Joel’s fa­ther had started Hill­song in Aus­tralia, and it merged with Joel’s grand­fa­ther’s church. That’s a tough sub­ject, though, since it was re­vealed in 1999 that Joel’s grand­fa­ther, Frank, had mo­lested a seven-year-old boy. Frank re­signed from the church and spent his last years in a de­men­tia salad, a rav­ing lu­natic by all ac­counts. In 2014, ev­i­dence was pre­sented to the Royal Com­mis­sion into In­sti­tu­tional Re­sponses to Child Sex­ual Abuse by an al­leged vic­tim who said that be­fore he lost his wits, Frank asked to meet at a Mcdon­ald’s in Syd­ney’s Thorn­leigh, at which he of­fered him $10,000 and said he needed to be for­given, please for­give him so he could get into heaven. Frank died af­ter hav­ing a stroke in the shower, and maybe Joel and his fam­ily and all of Aus­tralia sighed with relief then, but still that seems like way too good a death for that guy. Joel was just a teenager when that hap­pened and he’ll an­swer any ques­tion about his grand­fa­ther. He tells me that he con­sid­ered chang­ing his last name, that he wanted noth­ing to do with him or any of it, and also that he be­lieves Je­sus prob­a­bly even­tu­ally for­gave old Frank, be­cause that’s what Je­sus does. What is strik­ing about this is how ad­mirable it is to an­swer ques­tions about some­thing so ugly, but it is also in­her­ent to Joel’s Chris­tian­ity: Peo­ple sin. We all sin. But time went on, and Joel found his call­ing, writ­ing most of Hill­song’s mu­sic and shep­herd­ing it into global suc­cess. One day Joel was in Man­hat­tan and there was a rain­storm. He sought refuge un­der the canopy of what hap­pened to be the Sal­va­tion Army head­quar­ters, which was maybe a sign. He was struck by the idea that Hill­song might make a go of it in a city like NYC, that a city like this – pic­ture him sur­vey­ing the mis­cre­ants walk­ing by un­der their um­brel­las – might re­ally need Hill­song, and he walked around for the next few

In late Oc­to­ber, Carl and I got into a black Sub­ur­ban out­side his house, en route for Madi­son Square Gar­den, where the Knicks’ home-sea­son opener would tip off in a few hours. Carl was dressed in head-to-toe Saint Lau­rent, and I was still in head-to-toe UNIQLO. Carl bap­tised Kevin Du­rant a few years ago and Carl him­self played col­lege bas­ket­ball at NC State. When we got to the Gar­den, ev­ery­one from the food­ser­vice peo­ple to the Knicks play­ers to their now ex-coach, Derek Fisher, to some of the At­lanta Hawks play­ers sought a minute with Carl. They would come over to say hi. Each time, the con­ver­sa­tion would start with a shy hand­shake, per­func­tory and awk­ward. And Carl would face the guy fully and lean his head in a few cen­time­tres, and still the guy would be smil­ing, and even­tu­ally, each time, the guy’s face would col­lapse ever so slightly as the min­is­ter­ing be­gan. The con­ver­sa­tions rarely lasted more than fve min­utes. Fisher caught Carl’s eye and the two grabbed a pair of court­side seats. He and Fisher leaned over their legs, their fore­arms against their thighs, hands folded, staring ahead. They were talk­ing in­tensely. At this mo­ment, Fisher was in the New York tabloids be­cause of a very real drama – a fall­ing-out with ex-team­mate, Matt Barnes, over Barnes’ es­tranged wife, with whom Fisher was ru­moured to be in­volved – but if that was the sub­ject of their con­ver­sa­tion, Carl would never tell me. Af­ter ten min­utes they hugged and parted ways. Carl sat with me and showed me his phone, a text ex­change with a well-known NBA player that went back sev­eral weeks. It started with the guy say­ing how great it was to meet him that night in Florida, and then he asked if maybe Carl wanted to join him later at the club. Carl said thanks and made a joke about Florida women and clubs, and the guy laughed back, not re­ally re­al­is­ing you shouldn’t ask pas­tors to clubs. They went back and forth a bit more un­til Carl man­aged to get his ques­tion in, which was some­thing along the lines of “Where are you at now with your faith?” and the guy an­swered, and sud­denly the text ex­change was about this guy and his life and his soul. “See,” Carl told me. “This is how it works. You take those op­por­tu­ni­ties.” This is what cool gets you. An au­di­ence with peo­ple with big au­di­ences of their own. Carl and I stared straight ahead. I told him that I felt like I was in­tro­duced to a very com­plete ver­sion of God as a child and that when that hap­pens, so young, be­fore you can even re­ally think, you can’t ever pic­ture a world with­out God again. Peo­ple will tell you you’re an id­iot for be­liev­ing in God, but what they don’t un­der­stand is that it’s like try­ing to imag­ine the world with­out air: You can do it for a sec­ond, but then the im­age falls apart. Carl nod­ded and smiled. Ex­actly. This was what we had in com­mon, only I was vexed by it, and it gave him life. I wanted to tell him then that I feel lost lately, that some­times I felt this over­whelm­ing sense that I’m not teth­ered to any­thing real, but I didn’t, be­cause I know Carl has just one an­swer to that ques­tion, and I al­ready know what it is. Maybe at that mo­ment I was close to sal­va­tion and was ripped away by the Devil, whis­per­ing into my ear about how I’ve al­ready opted in so hard to my own re­li­gion, paid my sy­n­a­gogue dues and paid for He­brew school. And maybe that was the Devil whis­per­ing in my ear, telling me not to ask. Then again, you shouldn’t al­ways ig­nore the Devil. Some­times the Devil has valid things to say. What if the Devil whis­pers in your ear and re­minds you that most of cur­rent Chris­tian doc­trine was de­cided not by Je­sus but at the Coun­cil of Nicea al­most 300 years af­ter Christ’s death? Or the Devil might point out that if Christ died so we didn’t have to sub­mit to Levit­i­cal law, mean­ing we can shave our heads, we can have tat­toos, then maybe that could ex­tend to things that are truly im­por­tant to a per­son’s essen­tial hap­pi­ness and abil­ity to sur­vive in this ter­ri­ble, lonely world. The Devil might sug­gest that if you can back down from your doc­trine of bi­b­li­cal in­errancy in or­der to let women pas­tor at Hill­song – be­cause the Bi­ble does clearly say that women shouldn’t – then surely you could blur your eyes and see that Je­sus never ac­tu­ally said any­thing about gays or abor­tion. And if you still thought you had a leg to stand on here, the Devil might even of­fer to in­tro­duce you to some of the wives of “cured ho­mo­sex­u­als” and ask you to ask them how they’re do­ing, if their mar­riages feel authen­tic, if their hus­bands aren’t sui­ci­dal. And the Devil will whis­per in your ear and tell you to keep your fuck­ing laws off my fuck­ing body, and yes, the Devil is the Devil, but that doesn’t mean she’s wrong. I took a drive last week, and on the ra­dio I heard that Justin Bieber had walked off a ra­dio show, then walked off the stage of his own con­cert in Oslo when he be­came ag­i­tated by some liq­uid on the stage, and later he posted a state­ment say­ing he’s hu­man and he’s work­ing on it, which I al­ready knew, and I thought of him on his knees, pray­ing to be re­born, and I hoped his fans for­gave him, and also that they got a re­fund. The last time I saw Pas­tor Carl, we stood in the drive­way of his home and said our fnal good­bye, and he put his hand on my shoul­der and told me that he just knew the Lord would lead me in the telling of the story of Hill­song. He asked that I get it all right, that I also make sure that the peo­ple un­der­stand that these were some dif­fcult mat­ters he had dif­fcult opin­ions on, that he was trust­ing me to tell ev­ery­one the mes­sage: that if we all knew Je­sus, if we re­ally knew him, we would un­der­stand these opin­ions, too. That no opinion he holds should pre­vent them from seek­ing peace at his church, where they are wel­come and al­ready loved. But that if we had these same opin­ions, we could live good lives and we would live here in God’s King­dom on earth. What could be bet­ter than that, he wanted to know. What could be bet­ter than the life he had pre­sented to me? I promised him I’d tell the whole story, that I’d do my best, and he told me that his church would be my church and his church fam­ily would be my church fam­ily, and I pressed my lips to­gether and nod­ded and didn’t say any­thing be­cause I was cry­ing then. We hugged, and I wiped my eyes on his mo­tor­cy­cle jacket, which was cov­er­ing the same chest Justin Bieber had cried into that day, and it made a leather-on-leather sound when he hugged me back. The next day I at­tended sy­n­a­gogue for the nam­ing of a friend’s new baby, and I sat while the rabbi was talk­ing, and I won­dered what any of us were do­ing here, what any­one was do­ing any­where, why our be­lief in things we couldn’t see made us su­pe­rior to peo­ple who had faith in dif­fer­ent things we couldn’t see. I left the sy­n­a­gogue and went on with my life and I thought that maybe it would be a long time be­fore I ever looked or­gan­ised re­li­gion in the face again. I should have known that my faith was not strong enough to en­dure ex­am­i­na­tion, that it was too prim­i­tive and not so­phis­ti­cated enough, and I was sad and sorry that I had asked it to with­stand what it wasn’t ca­pa­ble of. And that Sun­day, I did not go back to church, be­cause my story was done, and in­stead I went to soc­cer games with my chil­dren and or­dered a pizza, and at the end of the evening I cleaned the kitchen and I bent down to place din­ner plates into the dish­washer, and as I did I hummed Hill­song’s mu­sic to my­self, and then I straight­ened up sud­denly, and I looked out the win­dow into the dark noth­ing and I re­alised that I missed them all very much. n

Pas­tor Joel Hous­ton and Pas­tor Carl Lentz are two of Hill­song Amer­ica’s most high-pro­file and sought af­ter (by celebri­ties) min­is­ters.

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