Here’s a story, and please forgive me if you’ve heard it before: A group of enviably tanned people wander around the desert for a long, long time, convinced they’ve been sent by God to do … well, something good. There are lots of strange animals in the mix, and characters whose beauty is often undone by an excessive brashness.
It’s a filthy, painful, can’t-look-away sort of tale, though there’s a vague undertone of salvation. But, really, it seems impossible that the people will ever actually get out unscathed. All because somewhere, early on, long before most of them were alive, an ancestor sinned and mucked it up for everyone.
Now I defy you to tell me whether this is a scene from the Bible or the history of Australia. It could easily be either.
Call me opinionated or call me prejudiced—hey, I have one Aussie friend—but I’ve always thought that the only fate worse than going to hell would be visiting the other land Down Under. It turns out that I was wrong, and attending an Australian church in Times Square is worse than both of those things.
Let the Self-Flagellation Begin …
You see, my editor and former friend knows too much about me, including that I’m given to opus Dei levels of self-flagellation, and must have had this on her mind when she asked if I’d be up for visiting the New York outpost of Hillsong, a charismatic Christian mega-church founded in 1983 in New South Wales by Brian and Bobbie Houston. Mission accepted.
I knew that Hillsong represented Christianity for the modern age—an old-style fundamentalism repackaged for the social-media generation—but otherwise I didn’t know much. Granted, few are unaware of the chain’s various A-list apostles. We’re talking about big-name bulwarks of modern religious thought, such as Justin and Hailey Bieber, the Kardashians, and Kyrie Irving (most of whom, it’s worth noting, have now gone Judas).
And you’d practically have to be living under a rock not to have read at least some of the brand’s “earned media”: Brian Houston’s father, the minister Frank Houston, was reportedly a serial child-molester in the 70s, which Houston the Younger successfully covered up until he couldn’t; Pastor Carl Lentz, Hillsong’s answer to the apostle Paul, spread the good word and the church’s predilection for depraved sexual behavior in the United States, where he had an extramarital affair and allegedly sexually abused and bullied his colleagues; and it almost goes without mentioning that the church doesn’t take too kindly to gay people. In fact, Hillsong may be the only place where “Don’t Say Gay” is taken more literally than it is in Florida.
What I’m saying is, I’m no saint, but I was as qualified as anyone else to attend a service. “Go in with an open mind,” I told myself, “but cover up everything else.”
I’ve always thought that the only fate worse than going to hell would be visiting the other land Down Under. It turns out that attending an Australian church in Times Square is worse than both of those things.
Well, for starters, you know you have a problem when your establishment is bringing Times Square down. I passed across New York’s raw bunion hoping that nobody would see me and that I wouldn’t get shot, stabbed, or run over (those things sometimes happen there) before having a chance to talk to God.
Imagine my surprise when I tripped down 46th Street looking for a pair of hip, holy doors—in my mind, they’d be wire-rimmed, like Lentz’s glasses—and discovered that Hillsong wasn’t held in a church at all but in the feculent, corporate bowels of Sony Hall. My girlfriend and I took a pamphlet and ducked for cover.
Down in the basement, where all the coolest parts of church happen, we were delighted to find a consent form. With Hillsong’s reputation, it’s good not to leave anything to chance. Make sure everyone’s papered up and comfortable.
I’ll confess our hearts sank a little when we discovered it was a prayer-request form that allowed them to share our deepest, darkest wishes with a group of churchgoers who looked like they had just graduated from Rikers Island. Trust me when I say that there isn’t enough paper in the city to print prayer requests for this group of deadbeats—granted, an eclectic assortment that had the diversity of age, race, and income you’d expect to see at the M&M store. On the form, I wrote “Book of Job” just to see if the pastor would humor what was quickly becoming an optimistic appeal.
Down in the basement, where all the coolest parts of church happen, we were delighted to find a consent form.
Church can be a little dark, so I was glad when I spied a disco ball up above. The way it caught the light revealed some of my brothers and sisters turned out in their finest Sunday beanies, which were less “I’ll WeTransfer you the Photoshop files in an hour” than “Hey, can you still see my gang tats under here?”
An usher wearing a pair of shades from the Carl Lentz x Jeffrey Dahmer x Warby Parker line asked us to please be quiet, and a montage reading You Are the Chosen People flashed on the screen up above the makeshift altar (drum kit). I might be mistaken, but somewhere in the din it sounded like a parishioner giddily said, “They’re locking the doors from the outside now.”
The best thing about Hillsong, everyone promised, would be the music. It’s what separates their church from ones that play awful hymns like “Amazing Grace.” Well, the 10-piece band started with a fairly straightforward Christian-rock song about Him being “the same God now as you’ve always been,” which made me wonder if there’s something to be said for progressive denominations like Catholicism. At least they’ve started to come around to the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community.
I can’t be sure if “Even When It Hurts” played next, or “Scandal of Grace,” but either way it was too loud. That is, until the band scaled down to backing-track volume for the pastor, who, with her steam-whistle voice and tent-by-the-river, Pentecostal-preacher build, entreated everyone to “activate” with God and give “whatever they can.” When a QR code flashed on the screen, I realized she meant money.
Hillsong may be the only place where “Don’t Say Gay” is taken more literally than it is in Florida.
The pastor warned of a “new chapter” for the church—it was announced the previous evening that Phil and Lucinda Dooley, of Hillsong Church Africa, would take over for the dear Houston family—but I was sold after she repeatedly told the worshippers, whose arms were raised skyward so that they might have covered their ears, “You are sick. You need help. You must find relief.” Finally, a doctrine that registered with us.
At the risk of getting preachy myself, that Sunday I learned that trying to retrofit Christianity for the age of social media is like sending a chimp to space. Unfortunately, you can’t always see how silly it is to try to mix the old with the new. It’s even worse when you realize that you’re one of the chimps.
There was one good thing that came out of putting my time in at Hillsong: I finally earned my “Get Out of Australia Free” card.
Nathan King is a Deputy Editor for AIR MAIL