- Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez were recently spotted spending a Sunday together, and attending a church service.
- Bieber and Gomez both attend the mega-church Hillsong.
- Hillsong is a fairly conservative Pentecostal church that retains a very hip aesthetic and appeals to many celebrities.
- I attended a service at Hillsong’s New York City chapter to see what it was like.
Shortly after Selena Gomez and The Weeknd (Abel Tesfaye) broke up, TMZ reported that Gomez and Justin Bieber spent the day together last Sunday. The pair reportedly grabbed breakfast and attended a church service together — sparking rumours that they’re back together.
Bieber and Gomez are both congregants of the mega-church 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 at the church intriguing.
Hillsong, the mega-church that has been serving as the backdrop for Bieber and Gomez’s possible rekindling, is worth paying attention to. It has chapters all around the world, and is known for its casual, concert-like 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.
Hillsong’s NYC Pastor Carl Lentz told Business Insider that despite the church’s celebrity following, Hillsong is 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 gay relationships and abortion in the past, and used to refer its members “struggling” with their sexuality to conversion therapy, according to The Daily Beast. While Hillsong stopped referring congregants to conversion therapy in 2011, some gay congregants have continued to feel unwelcome at the church.
So, how does a Pentecostal church with traditional Christian values rebrand the church experience?
Curious, I went to see what one of Hillsong’s services was like, and attended a Sunday service at its NYC location.
Here’s what it was like to attend a Hillsong Service:
There were four different 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.
The service was held in NYC's Hammerstein Ballroom. The last time I had been to the Hammerstein Ballroom was for a Death Cab for Cutie concert 10 years ago, which should give you an idea of what events usually take place at the venue.
The long line to get into the theatre, and the casual dress of the churchgoers, confused me upon arrival. 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 if I was at the right place, to which a friendly 'Yup!' and a 'Welcome!' followed every time.
Bags were meticulously checked prior to entry, metal detector wands were waved over every single body, and gum was vigilantly confiscated.
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 had arrived -- I was overwhelmed by the number of people climbing up the stairs alongside me. (In 2014, it was estimated that 7,000 people were attending Hillsong's services every Sunday.)
On entering the theatre itself, I was again taken aback by how concert-like the church was. It was honestly very impressive.
The church band was in the midst of performing a song when I entered the theatre. The band looked and sounded like a pop band you might see at Panorama, or Coachella -- only they were singing about God.
Hillsong has become increasingly perceived as a cool, celebrity, rock 'n roll church, and it's not hard to see why. But that's not how Pastor Lentz views the church, he said.
'I think the bigger picture of our church is just normal, faithful people who love Jesus, who want to help others with their lives. And sometimes they happen to be famous,' Pastor Lentz told Business Insider.
A pamphlet about the post-church services, and an envelope for donations labelled 'HOME,' were placed on the arm rest of every seat.
On the back of the donation envelope, a number of ways to donate were listed: check, cash, credit card, online, or via the Hillsong App.
The design of the pamphlet and donation envelope were chic and modern, reminiscent of posh advertising campaigns for brands like Urban Outfitters and Paper Source.
The materials provided felt like another indicator of the modern vibe that Hillsong projects.
The theatre filled to its maximum capacity quickly, and after a couple passion-filled Christian-pop performances from the band, the service began.
Pastor Kane, sporting a ponytail and an armful of tattoos, came on stage welcoming everyone to church. Pastor Kane -- all of the pastors go by their first names here -- cracked a couple of jokes with a goofy awkwardness that immediately reminded me of Jemaine from 'Flight of the Concords.'
Pastor Kane quickly went into the prayers portion of the service. He singled out a few people in the congregation who had asked for the church's prayers.
One person asked that the church pray for them while they mourn the loss of a wife, another asked for prayers to help them overcome cancer, and one person asked the church to pray that they got through their unexpected pregnancy -- to which Pastor Kane said he hoped they found a miracle.
Pastor Kane then introduced Pastor Chris on stage to say a few words before getting back into the service. Pastor Chris gave a short sermon about the power of giving to incentivise the audience to donate, and reminded us of the many ways we could donate (cash, check, app, online, etc.).
Pastor Kane returned to the stage after Pastor Chris' sermon, and announced that we would be watching a short video to remind the congregation of Hillsong's additional programs. The clip advertised an enormous upcoming Hillsong Conference in California, as well as Hillsong's summer weekend retreat for middle and high school aged kids. (These cost money, unlike the service, which was free.)
After Pastor Kane advocated for the additional Hillsong offerings, he introduced Pastor Nathan who would be delivering our main sermon that afternoon.
Pastor Nathan delivered a sermon about heaven which was surprisingly funny.
Pastor Nathan broke heaven down in a relatable way, going over all the 'cool' stuff that laid in store for us in heaven. Pastor Nathan 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.
Pastor Nathan said that Jesus cared about material things, and that money was mentioned more in the Bible than heaven was. (According to Forbes, money is mentioned 800 times in the Bible.)
After Pastor Nathan's sermon concluded, the band played one final song, and Pastor Kane encouraged us all to check out Hillsong's after-church info session to learn more about the church.
Upon exiting the service, free abridged Bibles were handed out, and in true Hillsong fashion, the Bibles leaned on the modern and unconventional side.
Hillsong's Bible, 'Word,' looks more like a graphic novel combined with an Anthropologie catalogue than a traditional Bible.
It's easy to see the appeal of Hillsong, as it espouses its ideals with a casual 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 are captivating, and they certainly made their sermons relatable with anecdotes that reference pop culture, and Instagram, not to mention an impressively good live band. Hillsong is truly unlike any church that I have ever attended.
However, like more traditional churches, there was also advertising of the Church's programs and reminders to donate.
While 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.
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