Culture

Why I left Hillsong, Justin Bieber’s beloved evangelical church

The celebrity-filled church pushes retrograde values on its parishioners.
Culture

Why I left Hillsong, Justin Bieber’s beloved evangelical church

The celebrity-filled church pushes retrograde values on its parishioners.

I’ll never forget when my friend Andrew brought me to my first Hillsong Church service in the winter of 2013. We were both sophomores at Manhattan College, where I slowly started to push away the Christian faith I grew up with. By the time I went to Hillsong, I considered myself agnostic.

Andrew (not his real name) had been inviting me to this “hip” church that he joined years ago. Knowing that I had strayed from religion and was also dealing with mental-health issues, he insisted that Hillsong could really “save” me. Twice a week, he went downtown to Irving Plaza, where the church held services on Wednesdays and Sundays. I was initially hesitant to go with him, but was in such a dark place that I eventually gave in.

Walking into Irving Plaza’s 1,200-person arena that day, I was pushed into a mosh pit of hipsters. They looked extraterrestrial with their hands floating in the air, singing Hillsong’s signature dream-pop-wannabe-rock tunes in unison. “You’ll get used to it,” Andrew said.

Before I knew it, I was singing along with my palms raised, too. I memorized the lyrics of “Cornerstone,” one of the church’s most popular ballads, which are recorded and sung by the church’s official band, Hillsong United. (The band has more than 1 million followers on Instagram, more than 30 million streams on Spotify, and is one main revenue stream for the church, reportedly earning about $100 million per year.)

Since Hillsong was founded in Sydney, Australia in 1983, the church has become an evangelical empire. Irving Plaza eventually became too small a venue for services in New York City; the church congregates every Sunday at Hammerstein Ballroom, which can hold 8,000 parishioners (thousands more attend services at the church’s 20-plus locations). Hillsong’s lead pastor in New York City, Carl Lentz, is perhaps the church’s most-famous figure. He has more than 600,000 Instagram followers and can be seen hanging out with NBA star Kyrie Irving and the newly engaged Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin. Bieber’s clout has been a huge bonus for Hillsong, but he’s not the only celebrity who has been involved with the church — it has been visited by sisters Jenner, Kevin Durant, Nick Jonas, Vanessa Hudgens, and Selena Gomez.

Ultimately, my problem with Hillsong wasn’t its size, its cultish atmosphere, or its reliance on celebrity relationships. It was the aspirational wealth and classism that ran rampant in the church’s community — to me, it was Evangelical elitism. Under a veneer of coolness and progressivism, the church is a retrograde institution, pushing traditional values on its wide-eyed, and often deep-pocketed, members.

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I remember one service during which a homeless man happened to be standing a few rows behind me. Pastor Carl pointed him out during the sermon to emphasize that the church opened its doors to everyone, regardless of social class, race, etc. But it was hard for me to take seriously this kind of message from Lentz, who reportedly has a net worth of $2 million and likes to flaunt his designer threads and gold chains on Instagram.

According to Cosmopolitan, Hillsong pastors do not take a “vow of poverty” — meaning they can still earn a salary and have lavish lives, compared to other parishes at which pastors are more into asceticism than conspicuous consumption. I was one of a handful of Hillsong-ers who were students and working multiple jobs, and we shared anxiety about being able to afford living in an expensive city and dedicating time to church events. Still, on weekends some of them elected to to “volunteer” at church rather than work. (I will say that Hillsong was exemplary in their mission outside the church, mostly through local initiatives like serving the Rockaway Beach community after Hurricane Sandy.)

In my first year at Hillsong, I started hanging out with The BLØCK, the church’s “young adult community.” From the outset, I found it hard to fit in. There was pressure to attend the Friday night “hangs,” during which newcomers and Hillsong veterans would convene, talk about Jesus, and take selfies.

As a full-time student working multiple jobs, I didn’t have time for the “hangs.” Andrew would frequently guilt-trip me for not going, texting me “bummer…” or “we missed ya…”. And the more involved that youth members became with the church, the closer they got to the pastors – or stardom, which began to feel like the ultimate goal of going to the church in the first place.

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I was also taken aback by how Hillsong pushed marriage onto its young members. In my youth group, most of the twenty-somethings were virgins and in a rush to get married. I was surprised when some of the members thought my sexual choices were heretical and asked if I wanted to be baptized again, just because I was happily sexually active and open about it. (I declined the invitation to be baptized, even though baptisms are a huge spectacle at Hillsong. Every other week pastors will “baptize” dozens of people at the Gansevoort Hotel’s rooftop pool. It’s kind of like Hillsong-initiation. Many Hillsong-ers will attend, singing worship songs to support the newly baptized.)

Marriage preparation and various marriage-related workshops are two of the most-frequently conducted events at the church. It’s typical for a Hillsong-er to abstain from sex until marriage. The pastors often talk about their reckless days of premarital sex before they found Jesus saying that engaging in such coitus is a temptation from the devil.

More insidiously, the church’s pressure to get married was strictly heteronormative. This was a clear message coming from the church’s upper echelons. The church found itself moored in controversy over this in 2014, when its founder, the Sydney-based Brian Houston, released a statement regarding his opinion on same-sex marriage after it was revealed that there was an openly gay couple on the choir staff. Houston said he did not “diminish biblical truth or suggest that I or Hillsong Church supported gay marriage.”

Houston later published a blog post on Hillsong’s website titled “Do I Love Gay People?” “Hillsong Church welcomes ALL people but does not affirm all lifestyles,” he wrote. “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.” It’s no use getting anyone in the church to talk about this, most will decline if you ask them. A stock response is something along the lines of “everyone is welcome at Hillsong, but the church does not condone gay marriage or abortion.” Further, rumors of gay conversion therapy within the church did not ease my concerns about its stance concerning non-heterosexual relationships.

Almost two years after my first Hillsong experience, I decided to leave the church. When I tried to raise my concerns about it with my youth group members, they’d shrug their shoulders. I knew that my outspokenness wasn’t welcomed. Once I officially left, my Hillsong peers stopped talking to me and some even unfollowed me on social media. People who question and leave the church are considered renegades.

In a way, I think that I rejected Hillsong as much as it rejected me. I didn’t fit their version of a contemporary Christian, even in 2018. I don’t regret the decision to walk away from a church that cares so much about fame more than faith.

Lea Ceasrine is a journalist in New York City.