Jesus is back in fashion, between stars and rivers of money: the evangelical churches supported by Justin Bieber are very popular in Hollywood

Article by Marianna Tognini /
Business Insider Italia /
September 11, 2019 /
Click here to view original /

[Italian to English Translation]

In the beginning was Justin Bieber and Justin Bieber was with his trusted pastor Carl Lentz, but also with other members of the evangelical church, such as Chad Veach, Judah Smith, Rich Wilkerson Jr. When – on 10 July 2018 – the 25 year old pop star from life very troubled announces on Instagram his engagement with Stephen Baldwin’s 21-year-old Hailey Baldwin, the first thing he mentions is their shared faith: “I promise to lead our family with honor and integrity, letting Jesus through the Holy Spirit accompany us in everything we do and in every decision we make. God’s timing is really literally perfect: we got engaged on the seventh day of the seventh month, number seven is the number of spiritual perfection … it’s true, look for it on Google! ”

Although it is difficult to believe that every fan has verified the incredible numerical coincidence, with the warning via social media Bieber reminded his followers (now 118 million) of his devotion to evangelical Christianity, which – as he himself tells in the cover story that Vogue he dedicated to him and his wife last February – he saved him in the darkest periods, punctuated by depression, sex addiction and drugs. In recent years Bieber has regularly participated in the services of Hillsong, the Pentecostal megachurch founded in Australia in the early 1980s and imported to the United States by the ‘rockstar pastor’ Carl Lentz in 2014. Lentz was Bieber’s personal mentor while his wife Laura is close to Hailey Baldwin (now Bieber), who, ça va sans dire, frequently visits the church.

Justin Bieber and his wife are not the only faithful fans, so much so that Laura Turner on Vox talks about “Cool Christian celebrity”, a new generation of stars – the couple formed by Chris Pratt and Katherine Schwarzenegger; Kendall and Kilye Jenner; Selena Gomez; Kevin Durant; Nick Jonas; Kourtney Kardashian; Kim Kardashian and Kanye West – who, through and thanks to Bieber, rediscovered religion and started following a series of elegant (strangely) white evangelical pastors.

It must be said that in the last period in the United States several Pentecostal churches turned to young people, which Bieber supported in a rather indiscriminate manner. In addition to Carl Lentz, the Canadian pop star has in fact close relationships with Chad Veach, shepherd lover of goggles with hipster frames and founder of Zoe Church in Los Angeles; Judah Smith, another pastor who wears fashionable glasses and leads the Churchome congregation in Los Angeles and Seattle; Rich Wilkerson Jr., who has no vision problems, but officiated the marriage of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West and presides over the Vous Church in Miami. The common denominator is a certain informality and an already mentioned coolness – each of them prefers expensive streetwear brands and goes wild to the sound of Christian pop-rock bands – but in reality they all come from the traditional Pentecostal movement. Translated, there is a strong focus on baptism; to the doctrine of tithing (the payment of a tenth of the salary or of the earnings that each individual receives each month in support of the Church, payable through special App); to the Bible.

In the last 50 years Christianity in particular has suffered a rapid decline in the Western world: the sexual abuse scandals against minors have destroyed the faith of many Catholics and a general estrangement from religious communities has seen a decrease in participation. A 2015 census in the United States pointed out that the percentage of Christians has fallen from 85% in 1990 to 75% today: in such a context it is really bizarre to witness the moment of undeniable prosperity that Christianity is experiencing in Hollywood. The rich and famous here certainly do not witness the typical Sunday service we are used to: at the Belasco Theater in Los Angeles, which is a cutting-edge auditorium far from a chapel, more than a thousand faithful for an hour go wild with pop hymns – rocks kindly granted by Hillsong Church, singing, dancing and posting testimonials online: selfies and Stories on Instagram are allowed, even encouraged, in a sort of celebration that has a typically boyish flavor.

The Hillsong Church (formerly Hills Christian Life Center) was founded in the north-western suburbs of Sydney in 1983, and has since evolved into an evangelical empire: over 100 thousand people in 21 countries attend the Pentecostal church every week, which – with the his Christian hymns at the top of the charts and his global ‘conferences’ (a mix between a rock concert and a TED Talks) – seems to have been built for Millennial use.

The story tells that in 2014 an already problematic Justin Bieber – then twenty years old and struggling with a long list of personal difficulties – moved to the house of pastor Carl Lentz, following a worrying public de-escalation culminated in urinating in a cleaning bucket at a New York nightclub shouting “Fuck you Bill Clinton!” Reportedly, the singer would have begged Lentz sobbing – “I want to know Jesus!” – and the pastor would have succumbed by organizing a unique ceremony to baptize him in the bath of the NBA player Tyson Chandler. Bieber thus becomes a fervent believer, and since then he has shown his faith without delay by escorting a constant stream of girlfriends to the church, including his current wife.

His personal army of shepherds can only thank him: for the past five years, Bieber has done for the Pentecostal megachurchs what Tom Cruise for Scientology and Madonna for Kabbalah have done respectively. When he posts posts about studying the Bible in Hillsong or is photographed at a Zoe Church conference, more and more Millennial-celebrities (and celebrity-obsessed Millennials) join the flock, bringing with them large sums of money.

Carl Lentz, 40, father of three children, 633 thousand followers on Instagram, leads the Hillsong branch in New York, which currently serves about 8 thousand faithful every Sunday in the Hammerstein ballroom near Penn Station. Hillsong is famous for a fun and Millennial-friendly attitude, which however hides the more traditional views: under pressure from the New York Times, Lentz said that homosexuality and abortion remain sins, but that he still welcomes with favor all sinners in his church. One thing that is absolutely fine in the eyes of the Lord, according to Hillsong, is the search for money, which makes the church very friendly with celebrities: pastors do not take a vow of poverty and as such can lead lifestyles similar to those of stars who attend (Lentz was seen wearing Saint Laurent and Louis Vuitton x Supreme, enough to end up on Fashionista). Although the tabloids report a break between Lentz and Bieber, the former continues to serve the former ranks of the latter (Selena Gomez, Baskin Champion, Kendall Jenner); the second then, he “blessed” some substitutes who immediately came to the rescue.

First Chad Veach, 39, father of four, 264,000 Instagram followers, who in 2015 founded Zoe Church in Los Angeles. Veach said in a recent New York Times report that social media brings about 1,600 worshipers every Sunday to the popular El Rey Theater music venue on Wilshire Boulevard, where the congregation meets: “Instagram built our church: it’s not a fascinating thing? ” Sure, part of the credit is from Bieber: Veach joined the pop star during his Purpose tour in 2017, and the two were often photographed as they run together wearing coordinated streetwear. Veach also helped introduce a new Hollywood couple: Chris Pratt and Katherine Schwarzenegger, daughter of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver, started dating after meeting at Zoe Church, and from there they never gave up until the wedding they celebrated last June. At the New York Times’ request to specify his positions regarding abortion and homosexuality, Veach replied in a cryptic way – “After all, I remain a very biblical boy” – suggesting that he shares Lentz’s vision.

Added to this is Judah Smith, Churchome’s chief pastor – based in Seattle and Los Angeles – along with his wife Chelsea Smith. Smith, 40, father of three children, counts 608 thousand followers on Instagram and is in a sense the ‘forefather’ of the new evangelical Christianity: it was he who presented Bieber to both Lentz and Veach, and Veach himself worked for Smith before founding his church. The cute shepherd is a big fan of sex within marriage, to whom he often dedicates his sermons and maintains cordial relations with his colleagues – often one preaches in the churches of others – although there is strong competition regarding the number of followers and extent of donations.

Last but not least, the 35-year-old Rich Wilkerson Jr., 638,000 follower, founding pastor of Vous Church in Miami in 2015 as a branch of his father’s megachurch, Trinity Church. The process of launching his congregation was unique, as documented for reality TV: Rich in Faith’s first (and only) season debuted Oxygen in 2015, following Wilkerson and his wife DawnCheré while building their religious community in a school auditorium. Oxygen offered an agreement to Wilkerson after he was photographed with Bieber, and the pastor obtained a significant following with the celebration of the marriage of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West in Italy in 2014. He was described as the “spiritual adviser” of West and West himself designed the cover of his book Sandcastle Kings: Meeting Jesus in a Spiritually Bankrupt World.

The common trait of the various megachurchs are the conferences: whether they are annual appointments or marathons during the weekend dedicated to prayer or singing, the primary objective remains the collection of considerable donations from the faithful haves.

And then there’s Kanye West. Earlier this year, the rapper and husband of Kim Kardashian launched his Sunday Service, an invitation-only prayer club that welcomed the likes of Katy Perry, Orlando Bloom, David Letterman, Courtney Love and Diplo. Each week, devotees gather in Los Angeles in places that change from time to time for a gospel and hip-hop jam session: the services are a visual feast, with members of the choir dressed in carefully coordinated ensembles – signed Yeezy, West’s clothing line – directed by their fearless leader. One wonders if the rapper has really decided to found his church, and what the founding philosophy is: interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel, his wife Kim tends to throw water on the fire, claiming that the Sunday Service “is an experience of healing – it’s just a pretty moving musical experience. In reality there is no prayer, there is no sermon, there is no word, there is the music and the sensations that it is able to give “.

Whichever way you look at the phenomenon, what catches your eye are the rivers of money that flow through the word of God: the Instagram account PreachersnSneakers collects photos of the shepherds in their designer shoes, some worth 7 thousand dollars, accusing them to live luxuriously at the expense of their own congregations thanks to the many tithes paid. “Hypocrisy has always been present in the operations of organized religion,” says Lauren Rosewarne, a social scientist and pop culture expert at the University of Melbourne: “Modern faiths have extended this concept, and in recent years we have witnessed the “emergence of highly capitalist churches in which faith and money are united”. The concentration of eccentric and famous followers is probably not a coincidence, according to Rosewarne: “I imagine that some very, very rich people are looking for a divine justification for their good fortune, something they find in religion. The idea that wealth is “predestined” rather than the result of a large dose of luck makes them feel more empowered to own a lot of money “.

In 2019, however, the question cannot be reduced to the fact of feeling #blessed. Christianity is now inherent in the personal brand of Bieber and the aforementioned celebrities: today’s religious jet-set – unlike Tom Cruise with Scientology and Madonna with Kabbalah, extravagant exceptions to the point of being disturbing – includes a ‘popular group’ of models, pop stars, actors, it-girls and athletes. In the 80s and 90s we idolized the damnation, in the form of cursed rockers, out-of-control actresses, models that broke every rule: today, in an age of moral (and viral) indignation, the perfectly clean celebrity wins, especially if goes to biblical studies and attends pastors. The undeniable truth is that many apparently progressive churches seem so only because they are led by rather young leaders: their theology remains quite conservative, but is embellished with leather leggings and fashionable sweatshirts. When the time comes to dig beneath the surface, the basic teachings are not much more farsighted than those of the churches of fifty years ago. They just seem a little cooler.