Oct 5, 2018

Hillsong: the evangelical megachurch that helped save Justin Bieber's soul - and image

How Hillsong Church transformed Justin Bieber from a bad boy into a Christian family man.

Tara Isabella
October 1, 2018

Justin Bieber may now be a family man.

The pop star and his fiancée, model Hailey Baldwin, are rumored to have gotten married in a secret civil ceremony at a New York City courthouse, People reported in September. Other sources, including TMZ, report that Bieber and Baldwin were just at City Hall to pick up a marriage license. Either way, wedding bells are in Bieber and Baldwin’s future, as they are now planning a bigger religious service and celebration, according to Vanity Fair.

Bieber’s nuptials mark yet another tentpole for the pop star’s transformation from drug-addled, womanizing bad boy to squeaky-clean, presumably monogamous husband. Central to that narrative is Bieber’s well-documented embrace of evangelical Christianity.

Since 2014, when Bieber was baptized in an NBA player’s bathtub by Pastor Carl Lentz, his relationship with the evangelical megachurch Hillsong has been an essential part of his personal brand. And with his marriage — impending or otherwise — to fellow Hillsong member Baldwin, Bieber enters a new stage of his narrative: faithful, honorable Christian husband.

Bieber and Hillsong’s relationship has been, since its inception, a symbiotic one. The wildly popular Hillsong, which boasts 100,000 weekly attendees in churches in 21 countries, came to international prominence the same way plenty of celebrities do: by creating an easily marketable persona, curating a brand custom-made for social media, and advertising an identity both accessible and aspirational.

Hillsong is the “chill” church where pastors wear skinny jeans. Showing up hungover to Sunday service is not considered the worst thing. Hillsong’s sermons, influenced by the self-help-style theology of the “prosperity gospel,” promise adherents a life full of material as well as spiritual blessings.

Bieber’s presence in the pews has ensured Hillsong and its media-friendly pastors a place in the tabloids. And in return, Hillsong has granted Bieber a rebirth both religious and reputational.

There is nothing new about Christianity providing certain pop stars a veneer of respectability, especially when they’re trying to rehabilitate a “bad boy” or “bad girl” image. As Ellis Cashmore, author of Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption and a sociologist of celebrity culture, pointed out to Vox, ’70s singer Donna Summer famously transformed her public persona from that of a “slithery sexual” siren to a “slightly too pious symbol of purity” after she was born again in the 1980s. UK pop star Cliff Richard, likewise, came to prominence as an Elvis-esque rock-and-roller in the 1950s, only to pivot to Christian music and a softer image in the mid-1960s.

“Today’s culture has a few spots open for holier-than-thou celebs,” Cashmore said. “They’re almost reassuringly pure in the midst of unbridled debauchery, degeneracy, and all-round immorality.”

But in Bieber’s case, the relationship with Hillsong is a two-way street. Each bolsters the other’s personal brand.
Hillsong has been central to Bieber’s redemption narrative

Back in 2014, Justin Bieber was a mess: drinking too much, doing too many drugs. He was a reliable tabloid train wreck, making headlines for trying to illegally import a pet monkey and spending a night in jail for underage drag racing. He’d been raised an evangelical Christian by his mother back in Canada, but lost connection with his faith.

Enter Carl Lentz, pastor of the New York City branch of the international Hillsong megachurch. Bieber had known the young pastor since they’d met at one of his concerts in 2008, according to the New York Post. Lentz and Bieber had another pastor friend in common: Judah Smith, known for befriending celebrities. But they’d only started to get closer recently, around the time Bieber’s life started falling apart. Lentz declined to comment for this story; Bieber has not responded to requests for comment through a representative.

By 2014, Bieber was hitting rock bottom. According to celebrity lore, best recounted in this GQ story by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Bieber was desperate for a way out of his downward spiral. Lentz convinced him Jesus might be the way. And so, one night at 3 in the morning, a despondent Bieber begged Lentz to baptize him immediately. Unable to find a place safe from the prying eyes of paparazzi, Lentz ultimately baptized the pop star in the bathtub of Lentz’s friend NBA player Tyson Chandler.

And just like that, Bieber was transformed. He became, as in Psalm 51, “washed clean ... whiter than snow.” Now, Bieber’s Instagram feed is full of Bible verses and devotional texts, not selfies with monkeys. His personal brand and his conversion comeback are inextricable from one another.

Since then, Bieber has been both a vocal Christian and a vocal Hillsong supporter, appearing at Hillsong events and conferences, as well as frequently appearing alongside Lentz on social media.

For example, a video from April 12, posted to Bieber’s Instagram Live and later reposted to YouTube, perfectly captures the new, “purer” Bieber. At first, it seems just like any other social media post, designed to foster a celebrity’s sense of intimacy with his fans: hands tinkling piano keys; a breathy, even erotic, melancholy croon.

The lyrics, too, sound at first like a conventional love song: I breathe You in / I lean into Your love / Oh, Your love. Then Bieber gets to the point. His voice all but breaks. Drawing close / Stirred by grace / And all my heart is yours.

It’s a Hillsong United song — written by the church’s flagship band. It’s not about Baldwin, but about Jesus.

The video captures the essence of Bieber’s current celebrity persona. The boy who once sang, “Coffee table, girl, get ready, I’mma put you down / All the way down,” with disgraced R&B singer R. Kelly is now embracing a gentler, even teenybopper romantic rhetoric.

He’s safely, endearingly Christian, but he’s also not too Christian. (Tellingly, Bieber leaves out some of the song’s most explicitly Christian lyrics — You are my everything / Jesus Christ / You are my one desire.) His song is a song of religious praise, but it also doubles in its secularized reworking as an accessible, tame melody for fans who would rather imagine themselves as objects of Bieber’s love than lust. His Christianity and his reformed, “safer” public image are inseparable.

O. Alan Noble, editor-in-chief of the website Christ and Pop Culture, told me that Bieber’s approach to that song ties into a wider divide within evangelical culture over the extent to which Christians should engage with the tools of secular media, such as pop music.

“That’s the joke among evangelicals who are very critical of [pop-style] worship music,” Noble said, “that it just sounds like a love song, and that if you took out Jesus, it would just sound like any other love song.”

However, Cashmore warns that when it comes to our celebrities, at least, our culture tends to easily get bored of Bieber’s redemption narrative. Hillsong may have solidified its prominence due to its affiliation with celebrities we love, like Nick Jonas, Selena Gomez, and Hailee Steinfeld, but Cashmore argues that ultimately, we as a culture gravitate toward celebrities who titillate, not preach.

“We stay interested in celebrities because they’re mostly the opposite of pure,” he noted, “the more sullied, the better. I think celeb culture tolerates a limited number of evangelical types, but not too many or they become tiresome. We like our celebs dirty, flawed, contaminated, disgraced, tainted, and, yes, impure.”

Nonetheless, Bieber is reflective of a bigger trend, Noble says. Churches like Hillsong, and “crossover” celebrities like Bieber, are the new normal. “There’s a lot less siloing going on than there was in the early ’90s and 2000s,” Noble said, referring to the separation of Christian and secular media. Evangelical college kids these days will “listen to an artist talk about loving God, and [also] talk about going clubbing.” In general, he says, the evangelical world has moved away from a suspicion of the corrupting influence of media and pop culture, and toward a desire to engage with it.

Hillsong, and Bieber’s role within it, is perfectly representative of that trend.
Hillsong is a fitting vehicle for Bieber’s success

Given its extraordinary spread, with branches as far afield as Kiev and Buenos Aires, and its pop culture-savvy vibe, it makes sense that Hillsong would be the church of choice for a young, evangelically minded pop star like Bieber.

The church’s wholesale adoption of what has come to be known in church circles as a “seeker-sensitive” model — maximizing outreach through feel-good rhetoric and the veneer of accessibility — combined with its “the Lord will provide” prosperity gospel, has allowed it to spread across more than 80 cities, 21 countries, and five continents, resulting in an estimated 50 million people a week singing Hillsong-branded music across the globe.

Hillsong’s ethos, while distinctive, is not unique or unprecedented. It involves an approach to worship shared by many other churches: an aesthetic characterized by intense emotional outbursts and a firm faith in the sanctity of everyday experience. Its theology is relatively, though not extremely, conservative from an evangelical perspective. And its near purpose-built appeal to younger audiences is also shared by a number of other megachurches across the world.

Hillsong is rooted in an Australian church called the Sydney Christian Life Centre, created in 1977 by Rev. Frank Houston. The church was Pentecostal, which is an umbrella term for any one of a number of evangelical movements that emphasize the direct action of the Holy Spirit in a worshipper’s life (often through acts like miracles of healing, or believers speaking in tongues). Pentecostal churches tend to stress members’ displays of extreme emotion, as well as a highly charged atmosphere — including music, dancing, and clapping — designed to foster the worshipper’s connection to God.

When Frank Houston left the church in 1999 under undisclosed circumstances (more on that later), his son Brian Houston and daughter-in-law Bobbi Houston, both pastors, folded Sydney Christian Life Centre into their own emerging church, called Hillsong.

From the beginning, Hillsong was characterized by its focus on Christian pop music as a means of attracting a younger, pop culture-savvy audience. Under the younger Houston, Hillsong had been releasing Christian music since 1992, annually producing what would come to be millions of dollars’ worth of albums and singles.

Hillsong added a healthy dose of prosperity gospel theology, adhering to the belief that spiritual purity, “positive thinking,” and expressions of unswerving faith will yield immediate material benefits for true believers.

As Brian Houston proclaimed in one sermon: “The only people who ever talk about a prosperity gospel are people who are threatened by God’s blessing in people’s lives.”

Hillsong’s services are both high-tech and minimalist, equal parts rock concert and TED talk. In services and sermons available for streaming on Hillsong’s website, with motivational titles like “Your Dream Is Your Destiny” and “Relevance: Hole-y Jeans or Holy Life?”

In one sermon, which was filmed in Hillsong’s headquarters outside Sydney, Houston appears in front of an LED-lit screen, dressed in a blue button-down shirt and jeans. “I encourage everyone here to dream a dream,” he tells listeners, “so much God-given potential perishes because of a lack of a dream!”

Later, he becomes more animated. “Never, ever discourage people and their dreams, because you know what God can do with dreams,” he exclaims, clutching the microphone. “Dreamers understand other dreamers! That’s why it’s good to come along with a church that’s filled with vision!”

Hillsong both holds to, and generally underplays, a conservative evangelical theology, although its leaders have in recent years generally been reluctant to speak out on hot-button issues. The church appears to have a quiet “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on LGBTQ issues, and hot-button issues like abortion and homosexuality are rarely, if ever, weighed in on from the pulpit.

Its celebrity adherents, such as Bieber and his ex, performer Selena Gomez, tend not to focus on these elements of Hillsong’s ethos when prompted. Instead, Bieber, for example, encouraged a queer fan to come to Hillsong, promising she’d be welcome at the church.

What’s striking about Hillsong, however, is less the fact that it holds conservative views — plenty of evangelical churches do — and more that it’s successfully refocused its look, feel, and rhetoric to cater specifically to the #blessed. It’s managed to market a feel-good Christianity, using the branding of progressivism to do so. And, insofar as Bieber’s Christianity has given him a solid tabloid redemption arc, he has benefited from that marketing — even if the church’s leaders haven’t been as fortunate.
The church and its leaders have seen their share of scandal

Despite (or because of) its popularity, Hillsong has not been immune to scandal. As early as 1999, according to Australia’s Daily Telegraph, rumors had spread that Frank Houston had molested boys in his community. These rumors, of which Brian Houston was reportedly aware, may have contributed to the elder Houston’s abrupt retirement. A year later, Frank Houston confessed to his son that he abused a young boy 30 years prior. The matter was never formally reported to police. The elder Houston died in 2004, after having drawn a consistent pension from Hillsong since his retirement.

In 2014, an Australian police commission found that Frank Houston had molested up to nine boys. The British newspaper the Guardian reported that he offered $10,000 to one victim, saying, “I don’t want this on my head before God.” Brian Houston also failed to inform police of his discovery. He has maintained that he has always acted in the best interest of his father’s victims.

While there is no documented link whatsoever between pedophilia and homosexuality, Houston maintained this as a potential reason for his father’s acts. “I think my father was homosexual, a closet homosexual,” he later told an interviewer. “I’m no psychiatrist … but I think whatever frustrations he had, he took out on children.”

Hillsong’s views on homosexuality, which mirror those of typical evangelical churches, clash with its vibe that is seemingly youthful and therefore overtly welcoming to LGBTQ people. Like many, if not most, evangelical churches, Hillsong formally holds that the only legitimate and godly sexual relationships are between married heterosexual couples.

Outside of same-sex marriage, though, the manner in which Hillsong treats its LGBTQ members is less clear.

On the one hand, Frank Houston started Exit Ministries, a so-called ex-gay ministry, which was devoted to using therapeutic methods to essentially try to make LGBTQ people straight. After that shuttered, Hillsong outsourced its conversion therapies to outside companies throughout the 2000s.

But around 2011, that changed. Brian Houston decided that a church at which young LGBTQ people did not feel they could pray was a church that could not grow, and he started distancing himself and Hillsong from conversion ministries altogether. He also started adopting more LGBTQ-sympathetic rhetoric, talking more and more about the difficulty of being LGBTQ in the church and advocating compassion for LGBTQ teens. (As an example of how LGBTQ attitudes among evangelicals are changing, 53 percent of white evangelicals ages 18 to 30 support same-sex marriage.)

Lentz has, in interviews, stressed that Hillsong does not treat homosexuality as markedly different from what evangelicals might consider other sins, including premarital sex between a man and a woman. LGBTQ issues rarely come up explicitly in the pulpit at Hillsong, though some former members report the church’s tone having “mixed messages.”

Ben Fenlon, an ex-member, described his experience at the church’s London branch for the Huffington Post: “When I first started attending I questioned those around me about how the church felt about homosexuality having read conflicting reports. The answers were always vague, telling me that God loves everyone and that everyone is welcome to come and worship. There was never a clear answer on the gay issue.”

In practice, this has created a tension within Hillsong’s pews. Often, LGBTQ members are welcomed as parishioners, but, according to ex-members, those in same-sex relationships are discouraged from seeking leadership positions. When it came out that a male church leader in the New York choir was in a same-sex relationship (something the couple says was an open secret with the church), Houston and Lentz quickly clarified the formal position of the church: that being gay is, indeed, a sin. They wrote in a 2015 blog post

Hillsong Church welcomes ALL people but does not affirm all lifestyles. Put clearly, we do not affirm a gay lifestyle and because of this we do not knowingly have actively gay people in positions of leadership, either paid or unpaid.

Celebrities affiliated with the church, including Bieber, have often tried to walk back the more politically controversial statements of Hillsong. He’s told queer fans, who’ve expressed sorrow over homophobia in other churches, that they’d be more than welcome at Hillsong: “That’s not okay. If you ever want to come to any of the [Hillsong] services, we’d love to have you in there. You’re more than welcome to come any time.”

Bieber has never commented specifically on Hillsong’s stance toward LGBTQ people. While his words to his fan were approvingly quoted in the secular press, other Christians, including former Christian rocker Trey Pearson, who is openly gay, pointed out that Hillsong is not an LGBTQ-affirming church.

Still, despite criticism, Hillsong has made itself into an astounding financial and social media success.
Hillsong was nearly tailor-made for celebrities and social media appeal

Central to Hillsong’s success, of course, are its high-profile ambassadors, such as Bieber.

It makes sense that Hillsong would appeal to celebrities. It demands neither vows of poverty nor renouncing the glitz-and-glamour lifestyle that characterizes the celebrity experience, even as it offers a kind of structure and meaning inherently absent from, say, a drug-fueled life on a tour bus.

It’s social media-friendly, its leaders’ impeccably curated Instagram aesthetic of self-care and self-acceptance perfectly dovetailing with the #inspirational messages of its most famous member.

Lentz has appeared, for example, on Oprah Winfrey’s show Super Soul Sunday. His highly appealing, easily marketable narrative of Christianity — though it differs in content from Oprah’s more vaguely spiritual mantras of self-care — is, like hers, accessible, consumer-friendly, and social media-savvy. The blessings it provides are a mixture of spiritual, communal, and aspirational. Who wouldn’t want to look like Carl Lentz, or have the happy marriage he seems to have?

It would be easy to be cynical about Hillsong, and the degree to which Lentz’s Instagram content informs the church’s aesthetic as a whole. But for Kelly Bollmann, 31, the aspirational nature of Hillsong’s leadership, and the way the leaders represent Hillsong’s branding, is part of its appeal. Bollmann has been involved on the volunteer creative team of Hillsong New York since the beginning, when Lentz, the pastor at Bollmann’s old nondenominational church in Virginia Beach, Virginia, left to start the New York branch of Hillsong in 2009.

“I wouldn’t be part of the church if I didn’t know the leadership was that much more of a beautiful representation of the church off-platform than just preaching it,” Bollmann told me. Hillsong’s “platform” may be its services, but its “off-platform” identity — as curated on social media and in the personas of its pastors — creates a holistic sense of Hillsong as a Christian identity that transcends Sunday morning. For Bollmann, that “off-platform” identity was enough to lead him to follow Lentz to New York and help plant Hillsong as a member of the initial creative team.

In this way, Hillsong is the apotheosis of both the prosperity gospel movements and the seeker-sensitive church movement. It’s a place where the language of #blessed is re-sanctified and renewed. It’s certainly possible to ask whether a church that relies as much on Instagram branding and photogenic pastors as Hillsong is a good thing. But that might be missing the point.

Hillsong, with its talk of “off-platform” pastor behavior and its curated Instagram feed, is successful precisely because it ties into an existing cultural need. It embraces a spiritual life that infuses our social media as much as our souls. It uses the language and rhetoric of the millennial experience to win millennial souls.

For Bollmann, Hillsong’s message of welcome is one that transcends the specifics of its theology. Jesus, he says, “made everybody feel welcome” — especially the sinners.

Sure, he sees plenty of Beliebers, as Bieber’s fans are known, show up at Hillsong in the hopes of catching a glimpse of their icon. But he doesn’t mind. Even if people come to church for the wrong reasons, he says, it’s still an opportunity for them to see the love that Hillsong has to offer. “You’re going to find that you love what our relationship with Jesus is all about ... they’re quickly just reminded, hey, there’s people that have a certain status, but they want to just come here and praise Jesus just like you.”

For Bollmann, who grew up in a multiracial family of 11, Hillsong’s image as a diverse, young, and welcoming church is a vital part of its Christian ethos. “You see more cultures in one subway car in New York City than you do in whole cities,” he says. And Hillsong — youth-focused, informal, multiracial — reflected that diversity. “What it enabled a lot of people to do when they saw such a beautiful community come around so many people, and it’s all welcoming of any gender, color, sex, everything. And they saw there’s absolutely no judgment.”
Hillsong speaks to personal aspiration. It’s the ethos of our age.

It makes sense that Bieber and Hillsong would engage in a spiritual and — in effect, if not in intent — commercial partnership. Hillsong provides Bieber not only with spiritual fulfillment but with a tabloid-perfect redemption narrative. Bieber provides Hillsong with publicity.

But, viewed another way, the partnership is as natural as it is seemingly transactional. In an age in which our “on-platform” and “off-platform” selves converge, Hillsong offers something, well, holistic. The Christian identity and sense of fellowship it provides its largely young, smartphone-savvy parishioners is designed to transcend Sunday morning services. It’s designed to go on Instagram, or Snapchat, precisely because that’s where its worshippers are exploring their own identities.

While it’s certainly possible to critique the perhaps packaged nature of Hillsong’s theology — its reliance on motivational speech and prosperity gospel narratives of success, for instance — it’s also worth asking the bigger question: Why do these narratives work?

For a church to be as successful, as much of a phenomenon, as Hillsong is, does its theology have to lend itself to the rhetoric and imagery of social media? Does Christian identity have to root itself in personal identity?

After all, the most enduring Christian movements in America have allied themselves most prominently with other, more insidious, kinds of identity politics and identity formation. All across America, we’ve seen the rise of a white evangelical Christian nationalism that equates Christianity with a particular notion of whiteness, as well as with GOP party politics.

If religion and faith are as much about how we see ourselves — our identities, our personal brand — as they are about what we believe, then Hillsong has cornered the market on a particular kind of self-identification for young Christians.

It’s fair to ask whether a church as social media-engineered as Hillsong represents the “real” Christianity. But it’s also fair to ask the reverse. If it didn’t use its mass-market appeal to spread the gospel, would anybody listen?


No comments: