Carefully, I inched past the waving, sobbing teens, around the eight-foot-tall amp toward a spotlit man onstage. I held my phone as close to him as possible and snapped a picture. A few other people were doing this as well, but I believe I was the only one taking a shot of the man’s feet. The picture wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough. I sent it to a teenager I know with a caption: “Recognize these shoes?”
An answer flashed back: Nike Air Presto, Off-White. They were about $900 retail. “Where are you?”
I texted back, “Church.”
Specifically, I was at Hillsong Church, an evangelical, Pentecostal megachurch that started in Australia in 1983 and now has ministries on six continents. According to Hillsong, over 100,000 people throughout the world visit one of its churches every Sunday. The Los Angeles branch takes over an old movie palace on the far side of downtown for 12 hours on Sundays.
Is this the church Justin Bieber attends? Yes, in fact, it is.
Isn’t that the church Ciara and Russell Wilson attend where they didn’t have sex until they were married? Well, I don’t think they had sex in church after they were married, but no, that’s a virtually identical church a few miles away.
Isn’t that the church Katherine Schwarzenegger began attending with Chris Pratt, once she started dating him? No, that’s a virtually identical church a few miles away.
Is this the church whose pastor married Kim and Kanye? No, that’s a very different church, in that it’s a virtually identical church, but it’s in Miami.
From a respectful distance, Hollywood may look like Sodom and Gomorrah at Fleet Week, but in the trenches, evangelical fervor at Hillsong seems like the new muffin basket, so I decided to check it out up close. How close? Four services in one day close.
The first thing to know about Hillsong: music is central to the experience. Some people know the house band, Hillsong United, without ever having attended the church. Hillsong United has been selling CDs for 20 years, which makes the music I heard all the more discouraging, even if it was being performed by a group of volunteers. Like the food on a cruise ship, the best thing you could say about the music was that there was a great deal of it and it was mostly warm. The first 25 minutes of each service was either five interchangeable songs or one punitively long one. The teens and twentysomethings around me swayed, smiled, and put their hands out in todah, a form of praise:
Hear my cry for mercy as I call to you for help, as I lift up my hands toward your Most Holy Place. —Psalms 28:2
Feeling self-conscious about my lack of Psalms hands, I briefly raised both. Then I remembered I was an Episcopalian and also an introvert, and I lowered them. Above the stage, where six people sang and the band performed, lyrics on a screen the size of a California king mattress encouraged us to sing along. No one looked up but me. They knew these words. Jesus was their jam.
“God is madly in love with you,” they sang loudly, their fingers stretched out to the stage, to the performers, to salvation. Another catchy song promised: “So here I stand, high in surrender, I need You now.”
The music ebbed, and the worshippers applauded and whooped, actions that I don’t, as a rule, associate with church. I attend a church known for its progressive stances and its members’ muted relief when any hymn that involves clapping ends. An enthusiastic young woman bounded onstage and started the…sermon? No, she started a pitch. It was a pitch for the women in the audience to buy tickets to Colour, an upcoming women-only Hillsong gathering. “Ladies,” she said, “let me hear your highest, girliest squeal.” Half the packed theater responded.
Hillsong, for all its bro-on-bro hugging and fashionably torn jeans, is not a “Down deep, aren’t we all a little gay?” kind of place. The church ran a gay-conversion side hustle as recently as 2014, and a choir director was forced to step down in 2015 after his presence rankled conservative Christian media. The women in attendance had perfected the “Woke up this way, please never wake me up and check” look. The men had apparently dressed assuming the Rapture was scheduled for later that afternoon and might involve skateboarding.
Another person came onstage. Was this, in fact, the sermon? No, he was asking for money. Like the Colour saleswoman, he was young, in his mid-20s. Unlike her, he seemed uncomfortable asking us for anything, let alone cash. I felt a twinge of empathy. I, too, volunteer for tasks at church that I am not designed to do well. Had he asked the women to squeal, I would have done so in solidarity. The passing of the buckets meant more music, this time via a video on the mattress screen that featured smiling young people hugging, running, and skateboarding. Had there not been a quick shot of a cross being slipped into a purse, you’d have assumed that either the iPhone XI was about to drop or tampon ads had gotten even more cheerful. The big screen flashed with answered prayers that worshippers had sent in: “First Baby”; “Job Offer”; “Lead Role in a Feature Film.” I wondered how often “Pregnancy Test Came Back Negative” made the big tote board.
Finally, the sermon, or as the pastor explained, “We’re going to talk about the Bible for about 20 minutes.” What was the sermon about? It was about 20 minutes. I sat through it four times, and if the fate of my eternal soul hinges on my remembering what the sermon was about, I’m going straight to hell. I remember an encouragement to attend church, an anecdote about his eye doctor, something about texting, and how fellow believers at church are like friends who spot you when you’re lifting weights.
That one he acted out.
There was absolutely nothing wrong with what he preached. He had the bouncy good cheer of the guy you hire to DJ the office holiday party. Same wardrobe, too: jeans, long-sleeved T-shirt, and those aforementioned $900 kicks—large, showy, and ugly in an “I want you to look at these” way. By the third service, I had become fixated on those shoes and had to get a picture to send to the exact audience they were aimed at, a teenage boy. The clergy of these churches don’t take a vow of poverty. In fact, there’s an Instagram account whose mission is to find out the make and price of megachurch pastors’ shoes. One pair on the feed is priced at nearly $6,000. Few cost less than $500, and to be fair, only a few of the pastors featured are attached to Hillsong. But perhaps the reason the rich man could not get through the eye of the needle was last year’s footwear.
The service seemed to be a religious ritual designed expressly for people born after 1992. The worshippers were young. There were a few parents with teenage children, but even they looked to be in their mid-30s. Easily half of the people I saw at Hillsong were not yet old enough to rent a car. When the pastor shouted, at each service, “I want to be here when I got gray hair and kids!” the crowd cheered his promise to be there for them.
And while the Bible says God made man in His image, which may be so, perhaps the converse is also true. The Jesus being worshipped here is emotionally available, always forgiving, totally into you. This Jesus notices you’re wearing your hair a new way, your skin looks great. You are #blessed. Jesus loves you.
Finally, the 8 p.m. service ended, and my day of prayer and music and acute arm-related self-consciousness was done. I walked outside and watched people hug goodbye and pose for a few quick leave-taking selfies as the volunteers rolled up the large “WELCOME HOME” banners. I noticed a small sign in the corner of the front door reminding me that they had the right to refuse service to anyone.