The Church Where You Can Text God
BY: KYLE FITZPATRICK | IMAGES COURTESY OF HILLSONG CHURCH
Every Sunday in Downtown Los Angeles, Hillsong, the Pentacostal Megachurch that originated in Australia, takes over the historic Belasco Theater in Downtown Los Angeles. The four hangover friendly services at 10AM, noon, 6PM, and 8PM are staged like rock concerts with elaborate lighting, and praise songs more akin to Calvin Harris than Kirk Franklin. The pastors, with names like Reed and Chrishan wear suede heeled boots, hyper-tight distressed denim, and bib-backed blousy t-shirts that cover former-athlete bodies. The crowds are diverse in age, ethnicity, socioeconomic, and family structures. Celebrities like Justin Bieber, Vanessa Hudgens, Hailey Baldwin, and Kevin Durant have also been spotted in attendance.
Hillsong is just one example that proves churches are adapting to a time when secularism and non-church leanings seem to reign. They are adapting by speaking the same language of cool, but geared towards the Biblical. Clearly, it’s working for them. As of 2016, the mega-church reports that they have over 100,000 people attending programs each week worldwide. There are currently 80 affiliated churches including recent expansions to Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco. Phoenix, not to be outdone, has amassed a following by fashioning itself as Coachella for Christ.
Like a music festival, everything at a given service is branded and could easily be confused for Topshop merchandise–from the projections accompanying praise and worship songs, to the collectible envelopes and prayer request sheets. Churchgoers wear Ivy Park tank tops and shorts and gladly Instagram during services, pulling out smartphones in the saintly mosh pit to selfie during a service. The church’s original music allows the congregation to rock out in His name as karaoke-style lyrics are displayed for all to sing along. Babies are present (wearing noise-cancelling headphones) while more distracting children are tended to in a de-facto daycare that is typically used by the venue as a bar. The scene is more along the lines of Ice Cube or Kid Rock in their late stages of family movies, reality television, and aspirational political careers rather than their venue packing sin city days. In the spirit of dad jokes, one pastor joked about the pleasure of “nonalcoholic wine” in a sermon (after inserting a poop joke about “the runs” into Hebrews 12:1-3’s use of the word “run”).
You could simply shrug off the whole scene as something obscure, for urban dwelling Christians to feel more comfortable in a setting that adopts Urban Outfitters’ catalog style instead of more traditional, modest presentations. You’d be wrong, however–niche this is not. The church is an incredible moneymaker, and has transformed into an international business bringing in over 100 million in cash. According to reports in 2015, churches like Hillsong are less flashy silos for the faithful and more budding neo-mega churches offering salvation for a small fee. In fact, the Los Angeles church is seeking tithes via text, or through their app. The tithes will go towards their new home on Figueroa, which was the main point of one pastor’s lengthy sermon on being a platform for others (by which he meant donating your money to others–specifically the church).
Even more interesting is the length by which trend the church covertly inserts conservative agendas into its messaging. The church has women’s only, Millennial pink packaged “Sisterhood” events, which appear to be female empowerment, but are in fact codes for biblical gender role reinforcement. When searching for members to testify, to double down on their love for Christ, congregants were urged to text “BELIEVE” to 99000 to get information on their reformative Alpha program and to supposedly chat with a bot about salvation. Instead of the call-and-response between preacher and congregation with “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!,” people speak back to pastors with ”Soo goood!” and “Awesome!” and “Right on!,” more evocative of a talking doge meme than of professions of faith.
There was little talk of specific politics in the service, but a dig into Hillsong’s archive reveals rather traditional, right leaning views on subjects like gay rights and marriage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the church has been accused of exploiting volunteers and is tied to sex abuse and conversion therapy–it would seem that no matter the merch, there’s no dressing up their decidedly conservative agenda.