Not Your Granddad's Church: Hillsong Church Mixes Sermons With Rock Concerts

Modern church mixes sermons with heart-thumping rock concerts.

ByABC News
November 13, 2014, 7:55 PM

— -- Every Sunday, thousands of people gather in New York City to get in line for a church service that is full of hand-raising, heart-thumping, hipster-style Christianity.

That is Hillsong Church. Their followers, which include celebrities like Justin Bieber and Kevin Durant, are mostly 20-somethings, many of whom grew up in church, but are drawn to Hillsong’s style and substance. In this “come as you are” congregation, tattoos and leather jackets are welcome for a 90-minute experience that's part rock concert and part gospel.

The pastor leading Hillsong New York is 36-year-old Carl Lentz, who comes with Brad Pitt looks and Billy Graham theology, and has enough tattoos to make a rapper blush. He is even the New York Knicks’ official chaplain on the road.

“We aren’t trying to have this cool trendy packed church,” Lentz said. “The story is not the clothes people wear. It’s the lives they lead.”

In short, this is not your granddaddy’s church.

Hillsong New York was started four years ago and is now the church’s United States flagship. They host close to 8,000 people over six Sunday services in a rented New York City theater, but in years past, Hillsong has met in nightclubs.

With very few paid staff, the church relys on an army of 20-something-aged volunteers. Some members said Hillsong helped them overcome addiction or reconnect with their faith. Others said the weekday community service work and small group meetings provided both a connection and purpose.

"This generation has seen multiple wars, seen things no one expected,” Lentz said. "It seems like a pretty tumultuous time in culture, and I think the response to that has been the really shallow world of social media. A real smoke and mirrors way of living ... so you come into church and there is a realness to it.”

Hillsong Church was started in Sydney, Australia, 30 years ago by Pastor Brian Houston, and has grown into a worldwide Christian phenomenon, with satellite outposts across the globe from London and Paris to Kiev and Cape Town.

“If you walked into all of them you would see a similar demographic of people,” Houston said. “You could close your eyes and think I am in any one of our Hillsong churches anywhere in the world.”

For many in their flock, the church’s Christian rock music group, Hillsong United, is a huge draw to come to services.

“Definitely the initial draw for many, many people,” Houston said. “We started singing and writing songs in our church and we were surprised when they started singing them in other churches in Australia and then suddenly for those songs to be sung all around the world like they are now... it’s something that God has given us as an arrow to a bigger message.”

Hillsong United is one of the hottest bands on Earth. With hits like “Oceans,” and “Break Free” Hillsong United has sold over 16 million albums worldwide, playing to packed venues across the globe and is now nominated for its first American Music Award this year.

Joel Houston, the son of Pastor Brian Houston, is co-lead pastor in New York but also guides Hillsong United.

“Music has the incredible ability to break down walls and to reach people’s hearts. It was given to us by God for the very purpose of worship,” he said.

But when asked how vital the money is that the music brings into the church, which is a non-profit, Brian Houston didn’t give a straight answer.