There’s been a glut of news pieces recently about hipster churches that attract famous people such as pop icon Justin Bieber and new wife Hailey Baldwin.
According to this month’s Vogue cover story, complete with gorgeous photography by Annie Leibovitz (see above), the couple opens up about their marital struggles.
There’s a bunch of features out there, all of which have Bieber’s name in the headline (good for SEO), asking if the recent glut of Hollywood celebrities finding religion is ruining Christianity.
The big takeaway from the Vogue piece was the couple admitting they both refrained from sex before getting married last fall, mainly because of their faith. That one admission, hardly a shock to anyone who knows basic Christian doctrine on sexuality, made headlines in other outlets.
In an odd way it proves that at least some teachings are getting through to people who go to a new breed of megachurch that specializes in the rich and famous.
Sprinkled amidst the Vogue piece were observations about the churches Bieber/Baldwin attend, including the Manhattan branch of Hillsong, a church network originating in Australia. The couple is also connected with Churchome here in Seattle because its pastor, Judah Smith, is one of Bieber’s mentors. Vogue noted this:
On a rainy night in Beverly Hills, a thousand or so 20-somethings in leather jackets, hoodies, skater T-shirts, and stoner pajama bottoms filter into the Saban Theatre for the weekly Wednesday service of Churchome, Judah Smith’s Seattle-based ministry, which is part of a new wave of evangelical congregations attracting young Angelenos. High fives and bro hugs ripple through the auditorium.
Tonight Smith, in a raw denim jacket with a shearling collar and black skinny jeans, has crafted a sermon around Old and New Testament stories of pairs of brothers: Cain and Abel, the Prodigal Son. He weaves in the tale of a recent trip in which his ear-hair trimmer was mistaken for a vibrator by the TSA. He prays for his beloved Seattle Seahawks (he is the team’s official chaplain). And he preaches the importance of answering the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” with a constant and resounding Yes. Justin, Hailey, and their friends listen intently from a dozen reserved seats in the first two rows, their giant parkas making cartoon silhouettes.
“I wouldn’t consider myself religious,” Justin tells me. “That confuses a lot of people because they’re like, Well, you go to church. I believe in the story of Jesus—that’s the simplicity of what I believe. But I don’t believe in all the religious elitism and pretentiousness, like people are better than you because they come to church, like you have to go to church and dress a certain way. I get sensitive when religion comes up because it’s been so hurtful to a lot of people. I don’t want to be thought of as someone who stands for any of the injustice that religion has done and does do.”
I last wrote about Bieber here more than three years ago and he sounds like a tough dude to be married to.
The couple’s born-again Christian parents matched the two together years ago. I wish the writer had gotten more details on the arranged marriage stuff, but despite the parents’ best intentions, the two didn’t click at first.
But in June 2018, they ran into each other at a conference in Miami hosted by Rich Wilkerson Jr., the pastor of Vous Church, who officiated at the marriage of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. “The common denominator, I promise you, is always church. By then we were past the drama. I just gave him a hug. By the end of the conference, he was like, ‘We’re not going to be friends.’ I was like, ‘We’re not?’ ” Within a month, he had slipped an enormous oval-shaped diamond ring on her finger.
They didn’t jump into bed with each other until their civil ceremony in September with a church wedding to come later. Such behavior is downright Puritan compared to typical mores.
When the couple reconnected last June, Justin was more than a year into a self-imposed tenure of celibacy. He had what he calls “a legitimate problem with sex.” It was his remaining vice, an addiction that had long since ceased to provide him any pleasure. Not having sex, he decided, was a way for him to feel closer to God. “He doesn’t ask us not to have sex for him because he wants rules and stuff,” Justin explains. “He’s like, I’m trying to protect you from hurt and pain. I think sex can cause a lot of pain. Sometimes people have sex because they don’t feel good enough. Because they lack self-worth. Women do that, and guys do that. I wanted to rededicate myself to God in that way because I really felt it was better for the condition of my soul. And I believe that God blessed me with Hailey as a result. There are perks. You get rewarded for good behavior.”
Obviously, theology isn’t this guy’s specialty.
I wish we all got rewarded for good behavior. But you have to hand it to interviewer Rob Haskell to bring out details of the couple’s faith. There’s more in the story with quotes from Smith as to how you serve as a pastor to someone like Bieber.
Most of us don’t live within driving distance of a ‘hipster’ church but the phenomenon is big enough to inspire at least one critical book about the trend, written by Brett McCracken. Rachel Held Evans, who left evangelicalism to go Episcopal, also criticized it here.
And yet these churches continue to prosper.
There’s been other stuff recently out about Hillsong and how the megachurch (it recently became its own denomination) operates. Leah Ceasrine wrote about the place.
Since Hillsong was founded in Sydney, Australia in 1983, the church has become an evangelical empire. Irving Plaza eventually became too small a venue for services in New York City; the church congregates every Sunday at Hammerstein Ballroom, which can hold 8,000 parishioners (thousands more attend services at the church’s 20-plus locations). Hillsong’s lead pastor in New York City, Carl Lentz, is perhaps the church’s most-famous figure. He has more than 600,000 Instagram followers and can be seen hanging out with NBA star Kyrie Irving and the newly engaged Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin. Bieber’s clout has been a huge bonus for Hillsong, but he’s not the only celebrity who has been involved with the church — it has been visited by sisters Jenner, Kevin Durant, Nick Jonas, Vanessa Hudgens, and Selena Gomez.
She ended up with being quite bitter about how the doctrines in these places weren’t changing to her liking.
Ultimately, my problem with Hillsong wasn’t its size, its cultish atmosphere, or its reliance on celebrity relationships. It was the aspirational wealth and classism that ran rampant in the church’s community — to me, it was Evangelical elitism. Under a veneer of coolness and progressivism, the church is a retrograde institution, pushing traditional values on its wide-eyed, and often deep-pocketed, members.
I remember one service during which a homeless man happened to be standing a few rows behind me. Pastor Carl pointed him out during the sermon to emphasize that the church opened its doors to everyone, regardless of social class, race, etc. But it was hard for me to take seriously this kind of message from Lentz, who reportedly has a net worth of $2 million and likes to flaunt his designer threads and gold chains on Instagram.
She expressed amazement that the church actually stuck to biblical teachings on premarital sex (which offended her) and disagreed with same-sex marriage. I’m not sure what she thought she was attending.
The reporter for this Vox piece on hipster churches and Bieber was a lot more detached from the topic, which made it a much better article.
Pratt, beloved doofus turned hot dad, is part of a growing trend of celebrities, including Justin Bieber, Kendall Jenner, Selena Gomez, Hailey Baldwin, and Kevin Durant, who are vocal about their faith. The churches many of them flock to — Zoe, Hillsong, and Churchome are the prominent examples — may look like they offer something different and more progressive than traditional evangelicalism but are actually quite consistent with evangelical teachings. In an era when religious affiliation is on the decline for young people, these churches can only gain from this proximity to stardom. But how are these “cool” new rising churches different from other churches? What is it about Hillsong and Zoe that attracts this star power?
It used to be that to be an evangelical Christian was to be like Kirk Cameron or Jeff Foxworthy, old and irrelevant and consigned to made-for-TV B-movies. But there is an effort from churches like Zoe and Hillsong underway — probably more unconscious than deliberate — to make Christianity accessible, cool, and interesting to young people…
Isn’t it odd that the secular media are very spot-on at picking up the incongruities of these places?
Both Zoe and Hillsong, as well as places like Wilkerson’s Vous Church and Judah Smith’s Churchome, trade on cringeworthy attempts at cultural relevance: Zoe Pastor Chad Veach is fond of saying that the church is pronounced “zo-AY, like, be-yon-SAY. And who can forget “the hat,” a ubiquitous trendy fedora worn by so many Hillsongers that it practically became another character in Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s excellent profile of that church.
The piece ends with some pretty obvious statements about Christianity, so I’m guessing the writer figures that folks reading Vox and Vogue don’t know the basics.
Many seemingly progressive churches seem so only because they are young. Their theology is actually fairly conservative, but it dresses up in leather leggings and cool hats. When it comes time to dig beneath the surface, what you’ll find isn’t all bad, but it isn’t much more forward-thinking than the churches our parents grew up in. It just looks a little cooler.
Sometimes the media are more discerning about the falsity of a Christian enterprise than are the attendees. I don’t need to be a prophet to say that unless hipster churches turn these dilettantes into disciples, this huge audience is going to fade away.
Once the celebrities leave, will reporters stick around to write about what’s left?