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The rise of the star-studded, Instagram-friendly evangelical church

Chris Pratt, Justin Bieber, and the “cool” Christian celebrity.

It was a Maui street preacher who convinced Chris Pratt, future star of Guardians of the Galaxy and Parks and Recreation, that he needed God. At 19, Pratt had dropped out of community college in his home state of Washington and accepted a friend’s offer to live with him on the Hawaiian island, waiting tables at America’s most picturesque restaurant, Bubba Gump.

“We just drank and smoked weed and worked minimal hours, 15-20 hours per week,” Pratt, now 39, told the Independent in a 2014 interview. “[I]t was a charming time.”

Midway upon his journey of weed-smoking and drinking, Pratt and his friends were approached by an evangelist in a grocery store parking lot.

“This guy came by and was like, ‘What are you doing tonight?’”

The evangelist, who was with a Messianic Jewish organization called Jews for Jesus — people who converted to Christianity from a Jewish background — asked Pratt if he was planning on fornicating that night, or doing drugs and drinking; Pratt, with his trademark goofy charm, we can imagine, responded that he hoped to be doing all three.

“I stopped because Jesus told me to stop and talk to you,” the evangelist said, according to Pratt’s telling of the story. “He said to tell you you’re destined for great things.”

Pratt ditched his friends that night and became a Christian two days later. Now, he regularly attends LA’s Zoe Church, reportedly alongside his faith-minded fiancée Katherine Schwarzenegger.

Pratt, beloved doofus turned hot dad, is part of a growing trend of celebrities, including Justin Bieber, Kendall Jenner, Selena Gomez, Hailey Baldwin, and Kevin Durant, who are vocal about their faith. The churches many of them flock to — Zoe, Hillsong, and Churchome are the prominent examples — may look like they offer something different and more progressive than traditional evangelicalism but are actually quite consistent with evangelical teachings. In an era when religious affiliation is on the decline for young people, these churches can only gain from this proximity to stardom. But how are these “cool” new rising churches different from other churches? What is it about Hillsong and Zoe that attracts this star power?

It used to be that to be an evangelical Christian was to be like Kirk Cameron or Jeff Foxworthy, old and irrelevant and consigned to made-for-TV B-movies. But there is an effort from churches like Zoe and Hillsong underway — probably more unconscious than deliberate — to make Christianity accessible, cool, and interesting to young people. This form of Christianity involves fashion, music, and, of course, celebrity, since modern American evangelicalism has always spread in part by being adjacent to power.

Recent attempts by churches to be more attractive to secular populations have led cool churches to emphasize “relationship” over “religion.” This “seeker sensitive” approach to church has its roots in the megachurch movement of the 1980s and ’90s — churches like Saddleback and Willow Creek — that sought to make church more attractive to nonbelievers by playing songs that weren’t hymns, offering preaching that was relevant to daily life, and designing churches that didn’t look particularly religious, including no crosses or stained-glass windows, no pews, and pastors wearing street clothes instead of collars.

“The Jesus message is not one of religion but of relationship,” Rich Wilkerson Jr., pastor of Miami’s Vous Church and the officiant at Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s wedding, wrote in his book Friend of Sinners.

Carl Lentz, a Hillsong pastor and close friend of Justin Bieber, said, “We don’t use the word ‘religion,’ because it’s hard to get people excited about religion. … Religion has no power. But a relationship with God is a superpower.”

This tonal shift within evangelicalism away from the dour restrictions associated with religion and toward the freedom and dynamism of a relationship has been ushered in by this new breed of Instagram-friendly, celebrity-surrounded pastors. But with the spread of Hillsong in America — it now has campuses in New York, New Jersey, Boston, Connecticut, Los Angeles, Orange Country, and San Francisco — we’re starting to see more and more figures like Lentz in paparazzi photos or Instagram posts with celebrities like Bieber. Some of these pastors are themselves the focus of buzz and reality TV, such as Wilkerson’s short-lived Oxygen series Rich in Faith.

Both Zoe and Hillsong, as well as places like Wilkerson’s Vous Church and Judah Smith’s Churchome, trade on cringeworthy attempts at cultural relevance: Zoe Pastor Chad Veach is fond of saying that the church is pronounced “zo-AY, like, be-yon-SAY. And who can forget “the hat,” a ubiquitous trendy fedora worn by so many Hillsongers that it practically became another character in Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s excellent profile of that church.

These pastors — all straight white men — have become religious versions of influencers, with their hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram. Their social media feeds are heavy on posed selfies and promotional posts urging their followers to buy their friends’ books. It’s sometimes hard to realize they are pastors at all.

But what about the celebrities who are part of this narrative? Do Pratt, Bieber, and Baldwin belong to Bible studies? Are they ushered in and out of services by an entourage? What do they find appealing about being there?

Pratt’s religiosity, for example, seems refreshingly free of the politics of past evangelicalism. He isn’t endorsing political candidates or going on right-wing talk radio. However, part of the implicit narrative of Pratt’s religiosity, I suspect, also has to do with his divorce from actress Anna Faris, and the inherent laxity of biblical sins like divorce. Such a spiritual mulligan would not be afforded to people in gay relationships, which are not mentioned at all in the Bible in the way we understand them today, yet are swiftly condemned.

Meanwhile, Bieber, whose ups and downs have been chronicled endlessly over the past decade, embodies what the author Brennan Manning called “the Ragamuffin Gospel”: the idea that the gospel of Jesus is only good news for those of us who are willing to admit that we are, basically, screw-ups in need of God’s grace.

There is also a lack of institutional memory where many younger celebrities are concerned. Pratt was born the year the Moral Majority was formed; Bieber was born 15 years later. Bieber isn’t old enough to remember the harm these groups did in the name of Christianity, and while Pratt may have been around for some of it, he wasn’t engaged in it — he was raised Lutheran but wasn’t active in his faith until he was 19.

Both men have been part of a faith tradition that wasn’t wedded to politics, so their version of evangelicalism has looked different from the one that grew out of the Reagan years: more personal, less political. More concerned with inclusion and welcoming, less rigid about drawing lines around who’s in and who’s out (or, at least, less explicit about those categories). Church as a gathering place for the cool kids, the kids who might have had too much to drink the night before but know they’re welcome no matter what on Sunday morning. Based on these churches’ websites, attending services looks like a fashion show, putting a new twist on getting dressed in your Sunday best when you might be sitting next to a supermodel.

But beyond the sheen of cool telegraphed on church Instagram feeds, this new generation of pastors — several of whom, like Wilkerson and Smith, are themselves the sons of prominent pastors — preach a gospel that steers clear of partisan politics. “There’s not a strategy or a network,” Wilkerson told Christianity Today in 2015. “It’s just, ‘Let’s befriend people.’ The goal is to be like Jesus, and I think Jesus would show love and grace to anybody in his path.”

The political question is particularly interesting with Pratt, who has talked about his arsenal of guns and publicly shared his appreciation for law enforcement. But for all his seeming conservatism, Pratt walks a very careful line. He has never expressed support for President Trump, and he has talked about wanting to be a “bridge” between left and right. In reality, he is already poised to act as a bridge between evangelicals and Hollywood and, perhaps, introduce the possibility that one can be in both worlds but not of them. Or at least not an asshole.

The attraction to power that has been part of evangelicalism’s 20th-century legacy and the prosperity gospel that has always been part of the Pentecostal tradition, of which Hillsong is a part, were married in the early-21st-century spread of trendy Christianity. The hard power of politics gave way to the soft power of Hollywood, and the easy moralizing of Kirk Cameron’s evangelicalism gave way to the vague welcome of hipster faith.

And while Pratt and Bieber are individuals who likely hold different views than their church’s leadership on many issues, the welcoming patina of places like Hillsong can easily be dented when you scratch the surface.

Bieber invited a gay fan who was struggling to find a church to join him at Hillsong, telling her, “If you ever want to come to any of the services, any of them would love to have you.” But the leaders of the church tell a different story. In a 2015 blog post titled “Do I Love Gay People?” Brian Houston, the founder and senior pastor of Hillsong in Australia, wrote, “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. ...”

Many seemingly progressive churches seem so only because they are young. Their theology is actually fairly conservative, but it dresses up in leather leggings and cool hats. When it comes time to dig beneath the surface, what you’ll find isn’t all bad, but it isn’t much more forward-thinking than the churches our parents grew up in. It just looks a little cooler.

Laura Turner is a writer living in San Francisco.


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