I didn’t expect an article from GQ magazine about a megachurch to get me choked up, but recently, it did.
In “What Would Cool Jesus Do?“, Taffy Brodesser-Akner tells the story behind Hillsong NYC, an 8,000-member megachurch that is thriving in the heart of New York (note that the story includes some offensive language).
The story begins with celebrity gossip about Justin Beiber’s bathtub baptism by Hillsong NYC Pastor Carl Lentz. Then Akner, who is Jewish, follows that story up with her frank description of the cool, Christian subculture of Hillsong NYC. She writes:
The music of Hillsong is a catalog of Selena Gomez-grade ballads, with melodies that all resemble one another, pleasingly, like spa music. … Tonally and tunefully, it’s a Jonas Brothers song. Lyrically, it’s a hymn, and yet the singing is hot-breathed and sexy-close into microphones. It made my body feel confused.
But it isn’t long before Akner’s article gets personal. After meeting Pastor Carl, she discovers that she’s actually drawn to the services at Hillsong NYC. She recalls waking up one Sunday morning and “felt a strange and unexpected bodily need to put my hands in the air, this need to be in a room where people frantically worried about the soul, to hear from Carl that he most definitely had answers to all the questions.”
It Gets Complicated
As Akner interviews Carl about dicey issues like abortion and gay marriage, she’s torn between her disagreement with him and her growing affinity for him. She says:
He believes being gay, or getting an abortion, is a sin, and he believes Jesus wouldn’t disagree. But more than any of that, he only believes those are the headlines of your life. They are not your story. Your sin is not the biggest part of you, no matter how much it might feel that way.
And here I have to say out loud how much I like Carl. I say it here because I still felt it after this conversation. I like him even though he is ideologically opposed to things that are important to me. … He is so worried for my soul, and this should annoy me, but instead it touches me, because maybe I’m worried about my soul, too, and Carl wants so badly for me to enjoy heaven with him. How can I fault someone who is more sincere about this one thing than I have ever been about anything in my life?
The intensity of their friendship is all the more evident when she describes their goodbye. Carl asks her to tell the real story of Hillsong NYC, the story of how Jesus invites people into something bigger than themselves.
“I promised him I’d tell the whole story,” she says, “that I’d do my best, and he told me that his church would be my church and his church family would be my church family, and I pressed my lips together and nodded and didn’t say anything because I was crying then.”
I got choked up imagining this reporter holding onto Pastor Carl, drawn by the love of Jesus, but ultimately walking away in sorrow like the rich, young ruler from Matthew 19:16-22. I felt something more than sadness or pity, though: I felt conflicted and ashamed of myself.
Attacking My Teammates
Even though I’m a Christian, even though Carl and I are on the same team, when I started reading the article, I found myself looking for reasons to dislike him and his ministry.
Sure, I’ve listened to thousands of hours of Hillsong music in my lifetime, and we basically share the same theology. But Hillsong’s increasing coolness over the years has grown to irritate me.
I’m annoyed by the worship team packed with, as Akner describes them, “Christian genetic marvels … all with very shiny hair.” I’m annoyed by the ministry to celebrities and king-makers. Why? Because a church like that looks like it’s just marketing to a certain demographic, and the Gospel should be more inclusive, more grown up, more diverse, right?
Well, actually, if you want to talk about diversity, Hillsong is well-known for attracting quite a diverse crowd of people, and as far as I’ve seen, you couldn’t ask for a more inclusive message that simultaneously stays true to traditional biblical values. Plus, I’m pretty sure I’m not in the best position to evaluate who Hillsong ministers to anyway. My Washington, DC, church is almost entirely white, and most of the members have college degrees (if not post-graduate degrees).
Is my church’s ministry missing the mark simply because we attract so many upper-middle-class white folks? Should we cut back on our theologically dense sermons in order to open the door to a wider variety of seekers? I don’t know. Maybe. I wonder what Carl would say about that.
Looking Behind the Headlines
I have another idea. Maybe I could just recognize that “indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'” (1 Corinthians 12:20-26, NKJV).
To be clear, I recognize that it’s weird for a 35-year-old pastor to have an Instagram account that looks like it belongs to a self-absorbed 22-year-old. You can’t help but wonder where that narcissism could one day lead. Whatever. Maybe Pastor Carl is onto something with his idea that we’re bigger than the “headlines” of our lives.
Maybe some of these easy-to-bash churches are bigger than headlines about their celebrity pastors, preaching styles, demographics, or music selection. Maybe, behind the headlines, inside those churches, are all kinds of stories of people who never would’ve loved Jesus if it weren’t for a spiritual community that connected with them on a cultural level. If so, I need to approach those unknown stories with respect, and while I’m at it, I can show a little more respect for pastors who reach those people.
That means being aware of the fact that my resistance to Hillsong NYC and a lot of other churches is partly rooted in my insecurity, the knowledge that I absolutely would not fit in there. It means doing my best to assume good things about other ministries and not rooting for their failure. It means recognizing that God is powerful and creative enough to use high church, low church, or über cool church to invite people into His story, draw them more deeply into it and make them hungry for more.