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

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.

Written By: Laura Turner 

First Published 06.02.19:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *