Carl Lentz steps into a cloud of
silver-blue light and hits the stage at the venerable New York City concert venue Irving Plaza, primed to bring the Word. The 34-year-old pastor of Hillsong Church NYC is wearing his Sunday best: black YSL wing-tip boots, black Nudie jeans, and a short-sleeved All Saints denim work shirt. He's backed by an 11-piece rock band that sounds like a born-again Coldplay and a neon-lettered projection: ALWAYS. ONLY. JESUS. Sweeping back his mohawk as shreds of rainbow disco-ball light pass across his bearded face, Lentz revs into his first 45-minute sermon of the day. "Going to church doesn't make you a Christian, just like going to Krispy Kreme doesn't make you a doughnut"; then, "If you think I'm one of those weird stalker pastors . . . you're right." Lentz scans the two-tiered auditorium packed with congregants—they're mostly in their twenties and thirties, with a smattering of recognizable actors and athletes. But the range of true believers here also encompasses suburbanites, hurricane-devastated families from the Rockaway section of Queens, and people praying to beat cancer or to find financial stability. They hang on Lentz's every word: "We're in the control-freak capital of the world, where people want everything but want to give up nothing. When it's always only Jesus, you're not the boss—He is."
As Lentz paces the stage on this sweltering mid-July afternoon, balancing quick, sharp movements with sudden moments of reflective stillness, he comes off as less feverish holy roller than cool Pentecostal populist—his message being that of love, acceptance, and total surrender. Lentz delivers it in expressions of faith so pithy and catchy they play back in your head like a pop song: "You don't have to believe to belong here." "It's not a feel-better message, it's a be-better one." "We don't want your money, but God wants everything." They drive his preaching style—what he calls his "homiletical habitude." Lentz, who was born into a devout Christian family, spent his early years in a white-collar suburb of Chicago, but when he was 11, his dad, a television-ad salesman for Pat Robertson's Family Channel, took a job at the network's headquarters in Virginia Beach—that's where Lentz picked up his slight southern twang, which intensifies when he preaches. "I'm going to say things that disrupt you," Lentz says, wrapping up his sermon. "It's the full Gospel—I have to do it. I owe you that as the pastor of this church." On cue, the house band strikes up, and Lentz quickens his cadence to match the building bass line. "We're going to sing our way out of here," Lentz says. The crowd sways to the music, raising their hands in surrender. Lentz blesses them all, then exits stage left.
"He is going to be huge," predicts today's guest speaker, Priscilla Shirer, a 38-year-old minister. A rising star in her own right, Shirer was flown in from Dallas to lighten Lentz's load. He normally preaches at all six Irving Plaza services, beginning at 10 A.M., with lines of devotees wrapped around the block for each one. But today he is leading only the last three services because he's running on three hours of sleep, having just returned from the annual Hillsong Conference in Sydney, Australia.
Hillsong NYC exudes a start-up vibe, but the church is actually a franchise. It's an extension of the Australian Pentecostal megachurch and multimedia conglomerate Hillsong, which has more than 20,000 members in the Sydney area, chart-topping musical acts, DVDs, books, and satellite churches in 11 countries—and took in $58.3 million in 2012 (including $25.9 million from tithes). After initially receiving financial support from the mother ship, Lentz says, Hillsong NYC, which passes around black donation buckets at every service, is now self-sustaining. Lentz was educated in the early 2000s at Hillsong International Leadership College, where he met his future Hillsong NYC partners: Laura Lentz, his wife and fellow pastor, and Joel Houston, the 33-year-old son of Hillsong's cofounders, Brian and Bobbie Houston. But it's Lentz, with his supernatural magnetism, who is the face of Hillsong's first foray into American Christendom. "People call New York the church-planting graveyard," Lentz says. And yet, just three years after its launch, Hillsong NYC draws 6,000 people to its services every Sunday and has just added two more at a chapel in the Gramercy Park neighborhood. "I see our church taking ground in a major way," Lentz says. "In five years, I want a giant version of what it is now."
Lentz has already shared the pulpit with megapastors like Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes at Christian conferences. This month, he'll preach to sellout crowds at Hillsong's debut conferences in America, first at New York's Radio City Music Hall, then at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Lentz's digital persona is going viral. He has 65,000 Instagram followers, who "like" it when he mugs beside a tank-topped Justin Bieber (the two trade Scripture-based texts daily) or poses with the newly baptized—by Lentz—NBA superstar Kevin Durant and Jay-Z (snapped on the day Durant, with Lentz's spiritual counsel, signed with Roc Nation Sports). Lentz conveys a hip, iconoclastic image: religion in a designer wrapper.
"It's a reaction against the fundamentalist evangelical culture of the eighties and nineties," says Brett McCracken, the author of Hipster Christianity: When Church & Cool Collide. "Dynamic speakers have always risen to the top, from Charles Spurgeon to Billy Graham. The difference now is pastors like Lentz wear skinny jeans and beards and quote Jay-Z. They gain authenticity from caring about the same things as you do. Part of the brand is saying you don't think about the brand."
Lentz is aware that endorsements from Bieber and Durant, especially when tweeted and Instagrammed, pay dividends. "I'm an advertiser," Lentz reasons. "You are God's ambassador—as if He is making his appeal through you. We're essentially His commercial."
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In the Pentecostal worldview Carl Lentz subscribes to, all human talents are expressions of the Holy Spirit. Lentz believes his swift ascent is part of God's plan, his past full of portent. His earliest memories involve working in a soup kitchen and ministering to prisoners with his father. As a teenager, he says, he gradually turned away from God—toward basketball, earning a walk-on spot as a shooting guard at North Carolina State. "I was teammate of the year," Lentz says, "breaking up fights, signing guys out of jail." But he left the team during his sophomore season. "Something in my heart shifted," he continues. "I felt like if I stayed, I couldn't serve God. I felt like I was going to die."
At age 20, Lentz lit out for California, where he attended King's Seminary in Van Nuys while working part-time at the Gucci store on Rodeo Drive. His pastor in Virginia Beach, Wave Church's Steve Kelly, suggested that Lentz check out Hillsong International Leadership College. Attending Hillsong after King's, Lentz says, summoning a basketball analogy, was "like going to UNLV instead of Princeton. Princeton wins with backdoor cuts, whereas UNLV is running, gunning, getting dunks, and popping their jerseys on the way back up the floor. That's the way I wanted to relate to Jesus."