SUNDAY SCHOOL: The congregation at Reality LA is young, hip, modern, and enthralled by pastor Tim Chaddick's old-time Christian message.
Stepping out from behind the podium on the stage of the Helen Bernstein High School auditorium in Hollywood, Tim Chaddick begins telling a story about trying to find a Wi-Fi signal for his iPhone one day when he was walking near the USC campus. "The first signal that came up," he says with a sparkly smile, "was one called UCLA Sucks." The crowd of about 1,500 overwhelmingly attractive twentysomethings—many clad in skinny jeans and Converse and adorned with artistic tattoos—titters with laughter before Chaddick makes his point with some gravitas: "We so often define ourselves by what we're against."
Gleaning life lessons from wireless networks would be perfectly normal for a tech guru or a new-school motivational speaker. And the 31-year-old Chaddick looks the part, with blond bangs, a cleft chin, and crystal-blue eyes, not to mention his tight white short-sleeve button-down and tattooed arms. But really nothing he says indicates that he's anything other than a pastor: Amid his references to Facebook and apps, he quotes the fiery 19th-century British evangelist Charles Spurgeon and adds, "We look for satisfaction and value, worth and identity, in everything but God, and those things eventually pass away." The youthful, chic West Hollywood types who make up most of the audience aren't daunted—they've come to Reality LA, one of the fastest-growing born-again-Christian churches in Los Angeles, this Sunday morning for Chaddick's sermon on "the sin of radical self-centeredness." When Chaddick finishes, the lights dim and the church band breaks into U2-esque indie rock with devotional lyrics, and a swarm of thin, muscular bodies converges in front of the stage for Communion; afterward, some huddle—heads bowed, arms around each other—with members of Reality LA's prayer team. Others sway to the music, arms outstretched, eyes glistening. One guy in stovepipe jeans and a flannel shirt weeps openly.
While Reality LA's congregation has grown 50-fold since its inception four years ago, what makes its mushrooming popularity notable isn't that its message is spreading like wildfire but that it's so targeted. Across the country there are fire-and-brimstone churches for every ethnicity, for metalheads, for bikers, and for just about any kind of outlier and niche affinity group. Yet prior to the founding of Reality LA, no one was really bringing the Word to this particular demographic: young, attractive hipsters. If the boutique church—part of a network that launched in Carpinteria, near Santa Barbara, in 2006 and now has outposts in Ventura, Stockton, San Francisco, and London—has discovered how to tap this crowd's previously undetected Christian fervor, it may simply be because beautiful people like to commune with their own. Perhaps the Vampire Weekend set has always yearned for old-fashioned Sunday religion but just couldn't handle the RV-loving rabble associated with it.
Chaddick's church is the antithesis of mass-produced middle-American neo-Protestantism. While Joel Osteen's brand of cul-de-sac Christianity suggests that you can get a perfect, prosperous life and a six-bedroom mansion through faith and regular church attendance, Reality LA, which doesn't advertise itself, is at once much more reactionary and much hipper, the small-batch alternative to the Walmart-esque megachurch. Reality's teachings are distinctly antimaterialistic, instructing followers to screw the six bedrooms and forget about the house—the church encourages members who would donate money out of obligation not to give at all and rents a high school for worship rather than owning a building. Chaddick also preaches that being born-again isn't a magic bullet that will suddenly absolve you of sin or torment. "Our lives are ones of continual repentance, and to repent just means to turn away," he says. "Perfection is not required, but progress is possible."
This would seem like a tough doctrinal pill to swallow, especially to a crowd of young, fashion-forward Angelenos who look as perfect as the cast of any CW show. But Reality's traditional dogmas are balanced with frank discussions of the modern pressures faced by its flock. Chaddick, who was saved in 1999, two years after he graduated from high school, is open about the fact that when he was coming of age, in Sonoma, California, he discovered "a little unholy Trinity" of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. As a teen he became addicted to crystal meth and had the kind of casual attitude toward sex that resulted in the future pastor's impregnating two girls, who both got abortions with his blessing.
Although he is the son of a preacher, the closest he had come to spreading the Word was accompanying his father to Bible studies, still high on meth from the night before. Chaddick played in several punk bands—including Tsunami Bomb, which later went on to perform in the Warped Tour—and experimented with lots of drugs, including pot and acid, before getting hooked on meth. After an addict friend killed himself, Chaddick decided to take up a random girl on her invitation to check out "the cheesiest Christian event I've ever seen." As he heard the preacher speak, "I just started bawling," he says. "I realized that I had been a jerk and had been trying to be my own savior. It rocked me." He cried for the next eight hours, spent the night in the gym of the church, and called his friends the next morning to inform them that he'd met Jesus.
Chaddick is hardly the first preacher to speak about being a sinner before his spiritual awakening, but his present-day life—which is punctuated by occasional visits to the tattoo parlor and a few beers from time to time—makes some of his peers in the conservative born-again community uncomfortable. "You're not going to go to hell for having a tattoo, but the Bible is very clear about the fact that it's a pagan practice," says Xavier Ries, the pastor at Calvary Chapel Church in Pasadena. "And nowhere in the Bible are you told that you cannot drink, but the principle of sin and alcohol is throughout." Chaddick, who stayed dry for nearly seven years after quitting drugs, shrugs off such criticisms. As he points out, Jesus drank wine and the Bible says that drunkenness—not drinking—is a sin.
"People ask why we target young people, but we don't," Chaddick says. "Especially not when I give hour long sermons."
Chaddick's lack of defensiveness could be due to the fact that what he's doing is clearly working. In the early days of Reality's Los Angeles chapter, prayer services were held in various congregation members' living rooms and attracted only 20 or 30 people, all friends of friends. "The first year sucked," Chaddick says. But as Reality LA's ranks swelled, the church outgrew one facility after another. These days each of Reality's two Sunday services attracts not only crowds (up to 1,800 strong) of people who look like Hollywood's next big things but also a smattering of current big things—über-celebrities like Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, and Joe Jonas (who brought then girlfriend Demi Lovato to hear Chaddick's Sunday-morning sermon on an early date). There is undoubtedly some of the typical Hollywood-magnet mentality at work. As one regular attendee muses, "If you hear that X celebrity is in such-and-such a location doing Kabbalah, you're going to do Kabbalah there. Still, you probably wouldn't stay unless you believed in it."
This star power makes it all the more striking that Reality's best recruiting tools are the church's rank-and-file believers who hang out at places like Silver Lake's Intelligentsia Coffeebar, a popular café with industrial decor and baristas who experiment with intricate leaf designs in latte foam. "Literally every time we're here someone overhears us talking about church or sees us praying and asks us what we're doing," says 22-year-old Jonathan Fitzgerald, his left hand resting on his Bible. "Not all of them come to the church right away, but it plants the seed."
That's how Becket Cook was introduced to Reality. Like many of the church's flock, he was raised an observant Christian, in his case Catholic, but had lapsed. "For the past few years I'd been struggling with finding meaning in my life and feeling like nothing was fulfilling," says Cook, a chiseled set designer. "And one day my friend and I were at Intelligentsia when we noticed this group of people surrounded by Bibles and religious books who all had their heads bowed." He introduced himself and ended up sitting down; the following Sunday he went to Reality, where he was saved. Congregants swear these coffee-house conversions aren't part of some organized plan designed to indoctrinate L.A.'s hipster community—they simply hang out where they like ("in" places), with the people they like (attractive fellow congregants), and let natural social dynamics (the gravitational pull of the young and hot) take their course. "People ask us why we target younger people, but we don't," Chaddick says. "Especially not when I give hour-long sermons." He laughs, then pauses. "Our target group is simply human beings."
MAN OF THE CLOTH: Pastor Chaddick, center, has found that not looking the part of a fire-and-brimstone minister can be an asset among Hollywood's beautiful people.
Chaddick's speech is so casual and contemporary that it's easy to forget how radically conservative his message is. He believes in the literal Genesis account of creation. He says abortion is a sin, even in cases of rape and incest ("a person's value is not determined by the circumstances surrounding their conception"), and that those who do not accept Jesus will go to hell. In short, Chaddick is a fire-and-brimstone Christian—albeit a fashionably styled one—and he's not alone.
Of the thousands who worship at weekly services, a core group of about 250 devotees organize Reality's 25 or so weekly Bible studies (which they call community groups) and help out on Sundays by either serving refreshments or praying with newcomers after services. Though there's no matchmaking, the social groups frequently beget more intimate pairings. Tom Nearing, a 29-year-old transplant from the South who recently dated 27-year-old Rebecca Redig, a Reality LA staff member, for six months, says that Reality churchgoers tend to couple up with each other. While he acknowledges that "everyone treats these things differently," he and Redig prayed for months before deciding to embark on a romantic relationship, and they adhered to strict guidelines—for instance, their sexual activity was limited to kissing. "We had a couple of serious make-out sessions in the beginning, and they felt weird to me," Nearing confesses.
Sexuality tends not to be singled out in Chaddick's traditionalist doctrines, but it's not exempt from scrutiny either. "If you believe in Jesus, I have a hard time understanding how you can advocate that homosexuality isn't a sin," says 20-year-old Henry Slavens, who says he once identified as gay but no longer does (despite still having homosexual urges) and has been a member of Reality LA since April 2009. "What really impressed me about Reality is that Tim makes it clear that homosexuality is no bigger a sin than any other."
Gay members of Reality who were interviewed say they are celibate and have no problem with that. "If you want to call me gay or ex-gay, you can—it's a title, and we're all so caught up in titles," says David Read, a 27-year-old Virginian whose cousin first brought him to Reality. "I'm sure plenty of psychiatrists would say I'm lying to myself, but I find my identity through Jesus—not through my sexuality."
What seems to help this growing swath of L.A.'s most gorgeous keep their sexual desires at bay is that Chaddick acknowledges that such yearnings are inevitable. Sinning is a part of everyday life, and the best anyone can do is to turn away from temptation and toward Christ. "Jesus is the only one who's truly innocent in this matter," Chaddick says while sitting in a sandwich shop on Melrose Avenue. "Our résumé sucks and his is perfect, so he can copy and paste his into your document the same way you would on a Mac by pressing Apple and V. We're idiots, we're uncool—but we love Jesus."
Just then a twentysomething guy in a black beret and Wayfarer sunglasses approaches. "I'm so sorry to bother you," he says to Chaddick, then points to Chaddick's left shoulder, where the tattoo of a sailing ship surrounded by sparrows spills down his arm. "Would you mind telling me where you got your work done?"