FAITH'S NEW WAVE
Five next-gen gurus who are disrupting religion's status quo.
Rob Bell, 43
House of Worship: N/A
A recent Los Angeles transplant, Bell—the founder and former pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan—is now a roving, skinny-tie-wearing preacher. He's questioned whether hell is real, lectured at L.A.'s Viper Room, and been an outspoken supporter of gay marriage.
Yehuda and Michael Berg,
41 and 40
House of Worship: The Kabbalah Centre, L.A.
The deceptively schlubby sons of founders Rav and Karen Berg serve as codirectors of the A-list-packed organization. Yehuda is a spiritual adviser to Ashton Kutcher, while Michael is the cofounder—with Madonna—of the charity organization Raising Malawi.
Chris Stedman, 26
House of Worship: Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
An ex–evangelical Christian turned openly gay atheist, this tat-sleeved lightning rod is leading the charge—through his frequent panel appearances, his 2012 memoir, Faitheist, and his activism against religious intolerance—to include his fellow faithless in interfaith dialogues.
Usama Canon, 36
House of Worship: Ta'leef Collective, San Francisco
After embracing the Koran in 1996, this square-jawed former Christian with a fondness for natty duds began reaching out to converts as an in-demand lecturer. In 2005, he founded his nonprofit educational center—a "safe space" for exploring the boundaries of Islam.
Steven Furtick, 33
House of Worship: Elevation Church, Charlotte, North Carolina
Since launching his church in 2006, Furtick has expanded his flock to seven campuses of nearly 15,000 evangelicals combined. Congregants love his boy-band good looks and can be seen wearing the church's black rubber rings and toting Greater, his 2012 best seller.
In the beginning, Hillsong NYC was less a church than a series of informal meetings on park benches and in pizza joints. Lentz recalls canvassing the streets with Houston, talking to whomever they could about Christ. The size of their meetings grew, and after one attendee fainted in an overcrowded TriBeCa apartment, Lentz decided it was time to seek a larger venue. A Hillsong contact who works for the concert-promoting group Live Nation helped Lentz secure Irving Plaza, and Hillsong NYC held the first of its weekly services there in February 2011.
As his church grows in numbers and notoriety, Lentz knows he'll be subjected to intense scrutiny—not least because of Hillsong HQ's controversial past. There was the admission from Joel Houston's grandfather Frank Houston, a leader in the Australian Pentecostal movement and Hillsong's patriarch, that he had sexually abused a boy in New Zealand. Hillsong Church is also the target of widespread allegations of homophobia. Lentz says gays are welcome at Hillsong NYC, but he declines to address the topic of same-sex marriage with me. It's clearly not worth the risk. Lentz maintains that his job is more about uniting people than dividing them. "It's harder to feel welcome in some local churches than it is to meet Jesus," Lentz says elliptically. "If Jesus walked into New York City, he wouldn't be able to get into some of the places they profess to worship him in."
What some people call swagger, Carl Lentz calls the grace of God. Justin Bieber's longtime manager, Scooter Braun, says Lentz "has that X-factor, that thing you're born with that makes people gravitate toward you. I'm a proud, practicing Jew, but you don't have to be Christian to be moved by Carl's words and his passion." When Braun and Bieber met Lentz for the first time—introduced by a mutual friend, the Seattle pastor Judah Smith, backstage at a Bieber concert in New Jersey—Braun was wary. "I'd had bad experiences with people claiming they were all about God," Braun says. "My reaction was just to get him out." But when they met again at a pickup basketball game at Shaquille O'Neal's house in L.A., the two men bonded. "Carl has never asked for anything other than friendship," Braun says, "and has given nothing but friendship in return."
Lentz has earned the trust of many young famous Christians. At that same 5 P.M. service in mid-July, the 24-year-old actress Vanessa Hudgens and her 21-year-old boyfriend, Austin Butler, were seated in the front row, with Butler's costar in The Carrie Diaries, AnnaSophia Robb, 19, a row back. As Lentz began to preach the Word, Robb tapped out notes on her iPhone. When the pastor left the stage, Robb, who recently moved into the same apartment building as the Lentzes, turned to me and said, "You can feel the favor of God in this church."After his sermon, upstairs in Irving Plaza's greenroom, Lentz meets with a grieving couple who just lost their 4-year-old son in a car accident. Lentz prays with them, huddling in a tight circle, finishing just in time to change back into his stage clothes and deliver again at the seven o'clock service. When Lentz hauls himself back to the greenroom 45 minutes later, he's gutted. He shuts the door and sits gingerly on a couch, alone, brushing his hair back. He leans forward, elbows on knees, hands joined, eyes closed. He's sweating and sniffling; a tear runs down his cheek. One more service to go. Lentz quickly collects himself and opens the door to find Roc-A-Fella Records cofounder Damon Dash waiting, unannounced, with an entourage of two. "That was like a rock concert with a message," Dash says, introducing Lentz to someone he refers to as "the biggest DJ in China." "You mind if I get your details?" Lentz asks. "Give you a holler? Grab a coffee?" The two exchange numbers, and Lentz heads back downstairs to preach his final sermon of the night. "Jesus," Lentz says, bathed again in silver-blue light, "I pray tonight you have your way. There will not be one of us who leaves here as we walked in."
Four days later, Lentz hits the road: There's Hillsong's European conference at London's O2 Arena; an event in Joplin, Missouri, called Project Restoration, to which Lentz was personally invited by a woman who'd driven to New York just to ask him to heal her tornado-ravaged town; and a trip to preach in New Zealand. On the day Lentz returns to New York, nearly three weeks later, he heads to Harlem to coach his church's basketball team in a game at storied Rucker Park. He rolls uptown in a caravan of Chevy Tahoes filled with former and current NBA talent, including the Golden State Warriors' All-Star forward David Lee. Justin Bieber's onetime "swagger coach" Ryan Aldred, a.k.a. Ryan Good, sits in the back of one SUV. "All the other teams are sponsored by rap labels and drug dealers," Lentz says. "We're the only church team in the history of the league."
During the game, Lentz, in a loose-fitting Ksubi Baddies tank top and a camouflage baseball cap, sits anxiously on the bench, eyes narrowed, turning his cap forward then backward. He appears even more intense than he does in church. By the fourth quarter, Lentz's squad of ringers, the Hillsong NYC Hustlers, have a 15-point lead. When Lee seals the deal with his third dunk in a row, Lentz shoots up off the bench and exchanges a flying body bump with his Warrior. His commitment to winning is total.