New York Times feature on Zoe Church of Los Angeles asks: Can churches be too hip?

I have to say, this is one clever article. I rarely run into news reporters (other than religion-beat pros) who know anything about Hillsong and Mosaic.

What follows is a New York Times piece about a Seattle pastor who moved to Los Angeles to start a new church and who’s succeeded quite well. But added to the story are little hints that at some point, this young pastor has sold out to the zeitgeist. We all know the William Ralph Inge saying: "He who marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next."

But for now, marrying what’s cool in 2018 is paying off nicely for the pastor (I guess he was ordained by someone, although the story doesn't say) at the heart of this story. It starts like this:

LOS ANGELES -- On a strip of Wilshire Boulevard, not far from where the rapper Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in a drive-by shooting some 20 years ago, a black plastic pool had been placed on the sidewalk outside the El Rey Theater. It was a balmy December afternoon, and the theater had been transformed into an assembly for Zoe Church, a two-and-a-half-year-old evangelical congregation that got its start in a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard.
Today was Baptism Sunday and nearly a dozen adults signed up, cheered on by a crowd of mostly 20-somethings who were gathered behind a metal barricade. Chad Veach, the 38-year-old founder of Zoe, who moved to West Los Angeles from Seattle in 2014, chewed gum as he danced to a pop gospel playlist blaring overhead. “Let’s go!” he shouted, clapping. A pair of muscular men dunked a woman in the waist-high water. She surfaced, arms pumping the air, as a friend snapped photographs that were later posted on Instagram…
Zoe -- pronounced “zo-AY, like, be-yon-SAY,” as Mr. Veach often says -- is one of the newest in a wave of youth-oriented evangelical churches making their homes here. While most are content to have a church and a campus or two, Mr. Veach is claiming nothing less than Los Angeles County and its population of 10 million. “We’ll have many locations,” he said of Zoe. He is opening a San Fernando Valley campus on Sunday and plans one more per year for the next decade or so.

Then come the mentions of Hillsong and Mosaic. Then there's the fact that this new church draws 1,600 people per Sunday and that the pastor has major connections with pop star Justin Bieber.  And then this insight:

“Instagram built our church,” (the pastor) said one afternoon at his office here a block from the El Rey Theater. “Isn’t that fascinating?”
Mr. Veach believes he can save souls by being the hip and happy-go-lucky preacher, the one you want to share a bowl of açaí with at Backyard Bowls on Beverly Boulevard, who declines to publicly discuss politics in the Trump era because it’s hard to minister if no one wants to come to church. Jesus is supposed to be fun, right?

Then follows a photo of Veach doing a model shoot for a Times photographer. It seems like a lot of Zoe’s brand rests on Veach’s relationships with folks like Bieber plus some recent published books with zippy, optimistic titles. It feels like Joel Osteen lite, if there could be such a thing. Or maybe what Osteen would look like were he in LA.

Veech, who is 38, has a brashness I’ve seen in other 30-something pastors for whom the world is their oyster and revival is something that just flows effortlessly from them. While paging through Zoe's Facebook page, I heard some sermon portions that told me that Veach is actually a Bible-preaching kind of guy. One does not pick that up in this article. 

GQ did a fascinating –- and accurate -– piece last summer about hip pastors who hang out with Bieber and dress to the nines. The GQ scribe saw through it all, calling these cleric “hypepriests” and suggesting their churches are only brands for streetwear.

The Times reporter was less critical but managed to land a few punches:

But saving souls is a business like any other. Pastors today who want to start a ministry for those 40 and under follow a well-traveled path. First, they lease an old theater or club. Next, they find great singers and backup musicians. A fog machine on stage is nice. A church should also have a catchy logo or catchphrase that can be stamped onto merchandise and branded -- socks, knit hats, shoes and sweatshirts. (An online pop-up shop on Memorial Day sold $10,000 in merchandise its first hour, Mr. Veach said.) And lastly, churches need a money app -- Zoe uses Pushpay -- to make it easy for churchgoers to tithe with a swipe on their smartphones.

Veach has been a ready student, taking classes in church growth basics and organizational health. This crowd manages churches instead of pastoring them. And politics and other culture wars topics are never, never mentioned.

Asked about abortion rights, Mr. Veach declined to give a specific answer. “At the end of the day I am a Bible guy,” he said.
Mr. Veach’s father shrugged about his son’s equivocation. “Last thing you want to do is turn off a whole demographic,” he said of today’s pastors. “If you draw lines in the sand, people are going to think God hates them.”
And Mr. Veach wants Zoe to be a refuge for many, against the rhetoric of so many other dogmatic evangelicals.

Some evangelicals are dogmatic for a reason. This week, the Supreme Court deliberated over a California law that forces pro-life pregnancy clinics to advertise abortion services. Politics and free speech issues have a funny way of showing up at everyone’s door.

Do read the piece, as the article says just enough to make you wonder if Zoe Church and its subsidiaries have compromised overmuch. There are a few questions: Why did Veach leave Seattle, where there are some interesting revival events happening? Where did this pastor get the money to start such an enterprise and how do other local churches view this newcomer? Is he poaching off them or converting the unwashed?

Also, there is that bit about one of his children having lissencephaly, which is a birth defect that in severe cases, kills a child by the age of 10. How does Veach deal with this or is he never home enough to have to deal with it? How has this child's birth influenced his views on abortion? I wanted to know more.

One more question: Is this man ordained? If so, wouldn't he be the Rev. Chad Veach, under old-fashioned Associated Press style? And does this church have any theological roots at all? I mean, the story does say this:

The pastor changes his dialect depending on his audience. He sometimes mimics the Texas twang of Joel Osteen, the televangelist and a friend who runs one of the largest megachurches in the country. Recently interviewed by the journalist and activist Maria Shriver, Mr. Veach sounded nearly professorial. Most of the time, though, he uses so-called street talk. (“Whaddup dawg!”) It is a holdover, he said, from the early 2000s when he was a youth minister in East Los Angeles. (He graduated in 2002 from Bible college in San Dimas.)
His father, Dave Veach, an administrator with Foursquare Church in Tacoma, Wash., who oversees more than 200 congregations, has a theory about all this. “A 38-year-old pastor,” he said, “is four years away from saying, ‘I have tried on this person, and this person, and, now, I will find my voice.’ ”

That anonymous Bible college: Might that be Life Pacific College, a Pentecostal school founded by a very famous female evangelist? Is this congregation a Foursquare movement church plant?

It's OK to include a few specifics and important facts in this kind of story.

The Times has done other pieces on hip LA churches, such as this 2015 profile of Mosaic and its founder, Erwin McManus. I’m intrigued that neither piece was done by a religion reporter. The earlier piece was written by a writer for the fashion/style section. The Veach piece was written by a specialist in business, communications and entertainment industries.

Obviously those are the beats getting the budgets for cross-country reporting. So, if it’s an accurate rendition of what’s happening in hip Christian youth culture, I’m happy. All’s I care about is that the reporter asks what happens on the day the music dies.

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