A few days ago I received a text message from my friend Pam. I can always count on her for invitations to boat parties and rooftops at sunset starring DJs I’ve never heard of so I was, of course, expecting more of the same. Within the thread was a link leading to a Harper’s Bazaar article. This piqued my interest. The article was about some girl who attended a church where celebrities, models and Justin Bieber have been known to congregate. Always one to be motivated by curiosity, I agreed to go to Hillsong NYC with Pam on Sunday at 7:30 p.m.
We met in Union Square Park around 6:15 p.m. I found a bench along Broadway near the dog run and watched the city’s friendliest squirrels attempt to steal people’s food and photobomb selfies while I waited. The sun was slowly setting, and summer’s warmth clung to the last remaining moments of daylight. Aside from feeling pangs of jealously whenever a cute couple walked by, sitting there alone, I was content. Pam arrived, and we prepped for what we thought was to come.
Following our failed trip to Whole Foods where we had hoped to grab snacks, Pam and I walked to Irving Plaza, one of the church’s two NYC locations. The last time I was at Irving Plaza, I was praising another type of god. One that goes by the name of GZA. This was certainly a different story. As we rounded the corner of 15th Street, we noticed a line already starting to form outside. It was 7 p.m.
In line were the most attractive and trendiest millennials of all walks of life and backgrounds anxiously waiting for the opening of the doors that would seemingly lead them one step closer to God, a higher power, an answer. While we waited, a peppy, smiling volunteer approached us. She wanted to hear “our story” and why we came to church that night. Neither one of us was afraid to admit that it was our first time and that we were simply curious after hearing so much about it from others. Someone from the church, camera in hand, snapped a photo of us.
The line began to move, and we slowly shuffled through security and up the stairs, passing by a handful of greeters who welcomed us with open arms. We found seats in the middle of the hall, just far enough away from the stage and next to Pam’s acquaintances who invited us. She met them on a Lyft line ride a few weeks prior. If there’s one thing I love about NYC, it’s that it can connect you with the most interesting people in the strangest places.
It wasn’t long before the lights dimmed and a very high-production video kicked off the night. Captivating is an understatement. It was beautiful. A Christian rock band comprised of a diverse group of musicians started playing. The frontman was a lanky dude with a beard and long blonde hair wearing a hipster hat and leather jacket. Lyrics to the religious songs were projected on a screen behind them. It was like Christian live-band karaoke complete with groupies lined up at the foot of the stage.
It went on for about 20 minutes or so until a really hot tall guy with a mic in hand, also wearing a leather jacket, took over the stage. I’m not exaggerating when I say everyone was attractive. We watched another (self-serving) video, volunteers walked around with offering buckets (Did you know you can also give via an app, too? Jesus would have wanted it that way.) and the band played some more. The crowd raised their arms in praise and sang along, swaying to the music. I stood still, mostly skeptical, arms crossed.
Once upon a time, I grew up in a Lutheran church. I was baptized. I went to Sunday School. And I did catechism. It all felt forced, and I didn’t really believe. My parents would drop me and my sister off at church and then drive away. They rarely ever attended, so I never understood why I had to sit through meaningless sermons and bible studies. After I was finally confirmed, I never went back to church. I’ve remained an atheist, and people are seemingly accepting.
Despite this, on Sunday night I stepped foot into Hillsong with an open mind and an open heart. Unfortunately, I’m ruined because I work in advertising and can smell when someone is trying to market to me. Hillsong’s branding is on point. They’re on social media. They create engaging video content. They encourage you to post personal Hillsong experiences with the branded hashtag. Their collateral is clearly very appealing to millennials who appreciate good aesthetic and messaging. I certainly appreciated it. But I didn’t buy into it.
After a good hour or so of music and talking and some praying (of which I didn’t partake), Brian Houston, the senior global pastor from Australia, the man behind this network of churches, took the stage at Best Buy Theater to present his sermon. It was live broadcast for the Irving Plaza audience.
The sermon’s message centered around the pursuit of happiness. Given that this topic is always top of mind, I was interested in what Brian had to say. For the most part, it was good. He told us to live outwardly. That is, to not allow the things on the outside impact what’s on the inside, and instead to do the opposite. This resonated. So did to live with generosity and to live peaceably, two things I always try to live by. Then he went on to plug his new book, at which point I stopped listening.
By now you might be thinking I’m highly cynical. And you’re probably right. Maybe I’m jaded. Maybe I’m too afraid to let God in. To me, this high-production church lacked soul. It was flashy. Glamorous even. A modern church for the always-on consumer. If I’m truly interested in finding God, I might walk outside of my apartment and into one of my Bed-Stuy neighborhood churches. No frills. No flashing lights. No louder-than-hell bass booming. Just real voices singing acapella, people clapping and dancing, pastors attempting to provide solace for those facing serious challenges. To me, that’s real soul.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my couple of hours in a space surrounded by people who were genuinely friendly and positive. That’s hard to find in a city where everyone is on his or her own agenda. Hillsong’s tag line is “Welcome Home,” and I certainly felt like I was sitting among a very large family. But you won’t find me there again. I appreciate those who attend church regularly, pray to a God that may or may not exist for answers, preach the Word of the Lord. I can only request they, or you reading this, appreciate that I’m not one of those people.
Although Hillsong didn’t try to force their religion on me (thank you), they did try to get me to take a bible as I left. I’m sure you can already guess that I didn’t take the bible.
*Photo courtesy Pamela Sam because I was too afraid to take one of my own.