The megachurch Hillsong has attracted numerous A-listers like Vanessa Hudgens, Hailey Baldwin, and Kendall and Kylie Jenner.
- Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez were recently spotted spending a Sunday together and attending a church service at the megachurch Hillsong, where they are both congregants.
- Hillsong is a fairly conservative Pentecostal church that retains a hip aesthetic and appeals to many celebrities.
- I attended a service at Hillsong's New York City chapter to see what it was like.
Last Sunday, shortly before reports surfaced that Selena Gomez and The Weeknd (real name Abel Tesfaye) had broken up, TMZ reported that Gomez and Justin Bieber spent the day together. The pair reportedly grabbed breakfast and attended a church service together — sparking rumors that they're back together.
Bieber and Gomez are both congregants of the megachurch Hillsong and reportedly used to frequent church services there when they were together. According to The Daily Beast, Bieber is known for bringing his love interests to services at Hillsong, making Bieber and Gomez's recent appearance there intriguing.
Hillsong has chapters all around the world and is known for its casual, concertlike approach to traditional church services.
Hillsong has attracted numerous A-listers like Vanessa Hudgens, Hailey Baldwin, and Kendall and Kylie Jenner, earning it a reputation as the celebrity church du jour.
Carl Lentz, the pastor of Hillsong in New York City, told Business Insider that despite the church's celebrity following, Hillsong was just a normal church. And although Hillsong puts forth a savvy rebranding of Christianity, it is, at its heart, a conservative Pentecostal church.
Hillsong has openly opposed same-sex relationships and abortion rights, and it used to refer members "struggling" with their sexuality to conversion therapy, according to The Daily Beast. Though Hillsong stopped that practice in 2011, some gay congregants have continued to feel unwelcome.
So how does a Pentecostal church with traditional Christian values rebrand the church experience?
Curious about what one of Hillsong's services was like, I attended a Sunday service at its New York City location.
Here's what it was like:
Waiting to get into a Hillsong service is like waiting to get into a concert.
There were four services to choose from on Sunday: 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 5 p.m., and 7 p.m. I opted to attend the 12:30 p.m. service in the Hammerstein Ballroom.
I was last there 10 years ago for a Death Cab for Cutie concert, which should give you an idea of the events that usually take place at the venue.
The long line to get in — and the churchgoers' casual dress — confused me; I could not believe I was walking into a church service and not a concert. I had to ask the volunteers shepherding people into the building several times whether I was at the right place. A friendly "Yup!" and a "Welcome!" followed every time.
Bags were meticulously checked, metal-detector wands were waved over every single body, and gum was vigilantly confiscated.
The feel of a Hillsong service is incredibly concertlike.
From the moment I walked into the Hammerstein Ballroom, I could hear music blaring.
As I made my way up to the second-story balcony — all orchestra seating had been taken by the time I arrived — I was overwhelmed by the number of people climbing up the stairs alongside me. (In 2014, CBS News estimated that 7,000 people attended Hillsong's services every Sunday.)
When I entered the theater, I was again taken aback by how concertlike the church was. It was honestly very impressive.
The church band looked and sounded like a pop band you might see at the Panorama or Coachella music festivals — only, they were singing about God.
Hillsong is increasingly perceived as a cool, celebrity, rock 'n' roll church, and it's not hard to see why. But that's not how Lentz says he views the church.
"I think the bigger picture of our church is just normal, faithful people who love Jesus, who want to help others with their lives," Lentz told Business Insider. "And sometimes they happen to be famous."
Hillsong's promotional materials are ultrachic.
A pamphlet about the post-church services and an envelope for donations were on the armrest of every seat.
On the back of the envelope was a list of several ways to donate: check, cash, credit card, online, or via the Hillsong app.
The design of the pamphlet and donation envelope was chic and modern, reminiscent of posh advertising campaigns for brands like Urban Outfitters and Paper Source.
The materials felt like another indicator of the modern vibe Hillsong projects.
A large chunk of the service was dedicated to advertising Hillsong events.
The theater filled quickly, and after a couple of passion-filled Christian-pop performances from the band, the service began.
Pastor Kane, sporting a ponytail and an armful of tattoos, came onstage welcoming everyone. (All the pastors go by their first names here.) Kane cracked a couple of jokes with a goofy awkwardness that immediately reminded me of Jemaine Clement from "Flight of the Concords."
Kane then singled out a few people in the congregation who had asked for the church's prayers.
One person asked for prayers while they mourned the loss of a wife. Another asked for prayers to help them overcome cancer. One person asked the church to pray that they would get through their unexpected pregnancy — to which Kane said he hoped they found a miracle.
Kane then introduced Pastor Chris to the stage to say a few words before getting back into the service. Chris gave a short sermon about the power of giving to incentivize the audience to donate and reminded us of the many ways we could do so.
Kane returned to the stage and announced that we would watch a short video to remind the congregation of Hillsong's additional programs. The clip advertised an enormous upcoming conference in California, as well as Hillsong's summer weekend retreat for middle- and high-school students. (These cost money, unlike the service.)
Afterward, Kane introduced Pastor Nathan, who would deliver the main sermon that afternoon.
The main service was about heaven and material possessions.
Nathan delivered a sermon about heaven that was surprisingly funny.
Nathan broke heaven down in a relatable way, going over all the "cool" stuff in store there. He was pithy and quick-witted, and I was surprised at how heartily I found myself laughing throughout his sermon. He spoke about being better versions of ourselves on a better version of earth, but 0ne thing that struck me as odd was the emphasis on material goods available in heaven.
Nathan said Jesus cared about material things and that money was mentioned more than heaven in the Bible. (One person told Forbes money was mentioned more than 800 times in the Bible.)
Hillsong's free Bible, "Word," doesn't read like a typical Bible.
After Nathan's sermon, the band played one final song, and Kane encouraged us to check out Hillsong's after-church info session to learn more about the church.
Free abridged Bibles were handed out — and in true Hillsong fashion, they leaned toward the modern and unconventional.
Hillsong's Bible, "Word," looks less like a traditional Bible and more like a graphic novel combined with an Anthropologie catalog.
Hillsong may be casual, but it's traditional.
It's easy to see the appeal of Hillsong, as it espouses its ideals with flair and invites those who come to its services to be as casual as they like. (The man sitting next to me was wearing an AC/DC shirt, for example, and didn't feel out of place.)
The pastors were captivating, and they certainly made their sermons relatable with anecdotes that referenced pop culture and Instagram — not to mention the live band was impressively good. Hillsong is unlike any church I have ever attended.
However, like more-traditional churches, the church's programs were advertised, and congregants were reminded to donate.
Though Hillsong has all the trappings of a concert experience, invites you to wear what you want, and might seem modern on the surface, there's nothing particularly transgressive about the messages it's delivering.