Justin Bieber, Hailey Baldwin and Chris Pratt are all regulars at Hillsong Church. Selena Gomez once took charge of a service there.
As the world adjusts to the news that America's favorite reformed rebel, Justin Bieber, is now engaged to model Hailey Baldwin, questions abound about how in God's name this all happened so quickly. Maybe when you're with the right person, you just know really quickly. Maybe that whole super-fast Ariana Grande/ Pete Davidson thing proved infectious. Or maybe God actually did have a direct influence, via the medium of Hillsong Church.
It's exactly one year since Bieber memorably abandoned his 2017 tour two weeks early because, according to TMZ, he was "rededicat[ing] his life to Christ." Around that time, he appeared in multiple photos cozying up to Carl Lentz, a Hillsong pastor, and Judah Smith, a pastor from City Church. Bieber has since covered almost his entire torso with religious tattoos.
"[Hillsong] is intense and it’s loud and it’s in your face ... But I know the people that run it really well, they’ve become like my family ... City Church is Judah Smith, who is amazing ... Carl [Lentz] is Hillsong and they’re best friends, so everybody is kind of interconnected ... So I just kind of know all of them."
If you look at the wording of their engagement announcements, Baldwin and Bieber's mutual faith in God is transparent. In his, Bieber said: "I promise to lead our family with honor and integrity letting Jesus through his Holy Spirit guide us in everything we do and every decision we make … Gods timing really is literally perfect.”
Some reports suggest that Bieber and Baldwin (Jailey? Baldber?) will be taking a five-week "pre-marriage course run by … Hillsong ... on conflict resolution, managing their finances, being intimate” and “effective communication.” The Daily Mail has claimed a source told the paper that: "The marriage course is something which is encouraged and in some cases demanded by Hillsong pastors before they will marry you."
Over the last few years, Hillsong has gotten a reputation as the religious organization of choice for today's biggest celebrities. Attendance from the likes of Chris Pratt, Selena Gomez (who led worship there in 2016), Nick Jonas, Vanessa Hudgens (who has described the church as "epic"), Kourtney Kardashian, as well as Kendall and Kylie Jenner, has given the church some great PR.
Like Bieber, Chris Pratt has become far more vocal about his faith since joining the congregation and is now dating fellow church attendee, Katherine Schwarzenegger. Pratt started attending Hillsong last year and used his acceptance speech, while picking up the Generation Award at June's MTV Awards, to pass on some serious spiritual advice. Pratt intermingled poop jokes and tips for medicating dogs with stern commands including: “You have a soul. Be careful with it”; “God is real. God loves you. God wants the best for you. Believe that”; and “Learn to pray.”
Because of its very visible celebrity contingent, there is an impression that Hillsong is a Hollywood thing. But the church started life in Australia and has since spread to Argentina, Denmark, France, Spain, Germany, Brazil, Israel, Russia, Bali, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, the UK, Portugal, and Sweden -- most of which each have multiple locations. There are also "Gathering Locations" in New York, Seattle, Boston, Arizona, and, yes, San Francisco.
Every Hillsong website (there are many) greets the viewer in the same way -- "WELCOME HOME" -- and strives to cater to multiple demographics. It holds child-only "Kidsong" services. There are women-only "Sisterhood" events. And, since 2012, there has been a youth wing called "Young & Free." The South Africa chapter promises to help you "Find Your Group." And the London, Australia, and Africa chapters conduct a variety of community outreach programs.
Exploring Hillsong for the first time is a dizzying experience. The church seems to understand the importance of aesthetics and glamour to spread its message, but is self-consciously attempting to also appear down-to-Earth and relatable. Its aim -- in addition to "being the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus"-- is to make church cool again. It pursues that goal via, not just celebrities, but also social media and music marketing. At the time of writing, there are now 46 Hillsong albums, across a number of genres, specifically designed to suit all ages and tastes. The Young & Free contingent, for example, tends to lean in this direction:
The social media marketing to support these albums (Hillsong has 1.1 million Instagram followers and 4.4 million Facebook "likes") frequently depicts groups of young beautiful people in beanies and overalls having good clean fun. It's hard to look away.
When you put all of the above together into a service, it ends up looking like this:
Hillsong's commitment to this kind of high profile means that church policies have come under extra scrutiny. One ex-attendee, Ben Fenlon, wrote an article about his experience as a gay man in the church, back in September 2015, for the Huffington Post. In it, he stated:
"I have always been told that there is no judgement within church, but if I wanted to be a leader I would be judged and turned away ... I can't worship at a church knowing that I am … surrounded by people that might love me as a person but do not accept me as being gay … People who might tell me that being gay is okay, but on the inside are praying for me to let Jesus move in my life and change me. People who don't recognize that any relationship that I have with a man is part of God's plan and that it would be full of love, equal to any other."
Vice has also reported that Hillsong pastor Jentezen Franklin, visited with Donald Trump and prayed for his candidacy because of Trump’s stance on “pro-life judges, pro-religious liberty judges." Questions have also been raised about the church's finances. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Hillsong "pulled in tax-free revenues of nearly $80 million in Australia [in 2014] and more than $100 million internationally."
Regardless of all that, Hillsong's pull remains strong for young celebrities like Bieber and Baldwin, and its practices are obviously appealing for thousands of people around the world. From a cynical standpoint, Hillsong's current popularity could be viewed as just another in a long line of spiritual movements that have garnered celeb followings before -- the Kabbalah craze of the early 2000s, Richard Gere's friendship with the Dalai Lama, Scientology (pre-Leah Remini's Aftermath), among others. We have seen this kind of thing before. But it's difficult not to take notice when famous people seem to have found answers to life's biggest questions. If Bieber and Baldwin get married at Hillsong, as is expected, the church's popularity is bound to grow even further -- at least for a little while.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.