WHAT WOULD COOL JESUS DO?
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.