— -- 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.
“To be honest I really genuinely can’t answer the exact amount [of annual revenue],” he said. “Of course we are a non-profit so all of the finances come into the non-profit and are used for the ministry.
Like many mega churches, Hillsong is shy about discussing their finances and how much money they bring in. At the service “Nightline” attended in New York, they asked us not to film the offertory.
“The fact that these lights are on, these chairs are here, it’s because single mom’s young couples, young people, single people, older couples, believe in the cause,” Lentz said. “So the collective sacrifice of many is what you see in our church.”
And also like many mega-churches, Hillsong has not escaped scandal. Fifteen years ago, Brian Houston discovered that his father, who was also a pastor, was being accused of sexually assaulting a child.
“We received a complaint that my father had abused children, males, and you can imagine that was the hardest day of my life to find out that my hero was a pedaphile,” Houston said.
As a leader for his denomination, Houston said he removed his father from the ministry immediately. He said he later came under attack for not alerting the police. Houston's father died in 2004.
Brian Houston recently testified before an Australian commission investigating institutional sexual assault to try to prevent it from happening.
“It brings all of that rawness back to the surface pretty quick,” he said. “Just accepting that my father has devastated and destroyed the lives of children is just a really hard thing to accept.”
While Hillsong seems like a “hip and modern” church, some of its beliefs are quite Christian conservative. One area critics, both liberal and conservative, have seized upon is the church’s stance on social issues like homosexuality.
“We see it as a conversation,” Brian Houston said. “It’s quite clear in the New Testament the apostle Paul describes homosexuality as a sin and I can’t un-write the bible... but on the other hand we are not a church that can just make big blanket sweeping statements that dismiss people.”
When asked what the pastor would say if a gay couple walked into Hillsong, Houston said, “the short answer is I think all of us need to be changing. So that’s what serving Jesus does.”
“We would never be the kind of church who when people joined the choir asked them are you heterosexual? Are you homosexual? We will never be that kind of church,” he added. “I think it was Billy Graham who said it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict. It’s God’s job to judge and it’s our job to love.”
Another part of Hillsong's job, as Pastor Brian sees it, is growth. His son Ben Houston just opened Hillsong Los Angeles, and already long lines are forming for Sunday services they hold in a rent theater on Sunday.
“You don’t have to sell a good party,” Lentz said.