Dec 11, 2020

Is God on Instagram? You'd better believe it's cool to worship

Helen Chandler-Wilde
The Sydney Morning Herald
Updated April 2, 2019

The Lord is my shepherd, but He also has a sideline as an Instagram influencer. As congregations dwindle in mainstream churches, "hipster" worshippers are spreading the word on social media, bringing a young, cool crowd to Christ.

At first glance, these Christian accounts are hardly different to anything else on Instagram. Bibles and coffee, an account run by a 27-year-old woman from Los Angeles, posts beautiful shots of her home, bookshelves artfully crammed with hundreds of Bibles. In another picture, she clutches an iced coffee, showing off a flawless gel manicure. In curling calligraphy, the cup has a message saying: "A little coffee, a lotta Jesus."

Other Christian accounts post inspirational quotes laid over images of pretty landscapes. "The Lord is my light and my salvation", says a post on daily bible-verses, on top of a sepia-toned picture of New York. Another shows a woman with tousled hair and sunglasses slack-jawed with joy. "Nothing can separate you from the love of Christ", says the caption.

Arguably the leader of fashion-conscious faith is Hillsong, a Sydney-based church established in 1983 by Bobbie and Brian Houston, an Australian couple with almost a million Instagram followers between them. Hillsong's website and social media accounts are full of pictures of young, attractive types wearing ripped jeans – who just happen to be singing hymns.

Christianity with Hillsong is aspirational, a habit to complement hot yoga. This genius marketing strategy has worked: they have built a global congregation of tens of thousands of people, with branches across the world. The Sunday services are set up like concerts, with preachers ditching the pulpit and speaking from a stage shining with neon lights.

The trendy megachurch has its own spiritual pop group, Hillsong United, which takes its music on tour around the world.

This slick marketing has attracted a range of celebrity followers including actor Chris Pratt and model Kendall Jenner. Actress Vanessa Hudgens told the New York Times that she loves attending services there, praising its nightclub-like atmosphere: "It feels like [rock band] Arcade Fire – it's epic like that."

The star most closely connected with the church is Justin Bieber. A few years ago he was a former squeaky clean child star on the rocky road to adult stardom: then, he found Hillsong. He was baptised by Carl Lentz, leader of the New York church, in an NBA basketball player's bath at 3am.

Lentz is so much a presence on the celebrity circuit that he is well-known in his own right, and has more than 627,000 followers on Instagram. He preaches either in a leather jacket or in a short-sleeved T-shirt, showing off his heavily tattooed arms.

Hillsong's message, however, is less modern. There is a separate organisation run for the women of the church, like the Anglican Mothers' Union. And then there are their not-very-2019 views on LGBT people. "We are not a church that affirms a gay lifestyle," writes founder Brian Houston. "Can [gay people] take an active leadership role? No," he writes, adding: "I do have gay friends."

Even tattooed hunk Lentz is out-of-step with woke views. In an interview with Vice News he said he does not agree with gay marriage: "We would say the Bible is really clear that marriage is between a man and a woman."

For those who want another selfie-friendly option for Sunday mornings, there is the world of celebrity-only worship. Kanye West once complained: "If I talk about God my record won't get played," yet he has started running "Sunday services".

Unlike normal churches where anyone is welcome, these appear to be highly exclusive, with guests selected from Hollywood's finest. Like a lot of what West does, the services look fairly odd: the music is a mixture of sacred fare and his own records. Instead of pews there is an area cleared for dancing. People dress to a strict code: head-to-toe white one week, all black the next. Famous attendees film the prayers on their phones and post on Twitter.

Christianity's new image isn't just helping to get people through the doors, it is also lucrative. Brian Houston revealed in 2010 that he earned $300,000 a year, while its online shop sells tie-dyed T-shirts and sweatshirts sporting the church's logo. I can't say I recall reading much about branded garb in the Bible, but if religion does need a rebrand, this looks like the Instagram-friendly way to do it.

Telegraph, London

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