In November Tammy Wong decided to check out Hillsong, the newest church. She had listened to their music and liked its rock and roll joy for life. She had also heard a little bit about the church from her cousin in Hong Kong.
Hillsong is the largest church in Australia and has branches in London, Kiev, Cape Town, Paris, Stockholm, and Moscow.
She arrived at Irving Plaza, the rock and roll music hall famous in its various incarnations as the host of Devo, Lenny Kravtiz, the Buzzcocks and Bad Religion. Although she arrived 45 minutes early, the line to get in already went down the block and around the corner. She worried that she couldn’t get into the venue which holds about 700-800 people. She caught the end of the line in front of the parking garage around the corner about half way down the block. Hillsong later in the evening added a third service to hold the overflow.
As she hurried past the line, she asked people, “How did they hear of Hillsong?,” and, “Why had they come?” Toine, a Jamaican woman with an English accent, said she went to Hillsong in London and now was working here in New York City. A church door minder was Jason who studies engineering at Columbia. He likes the music which led him back to church about a year ago. Tammy noticed that a lot of Asians from southeast Asia were in line. A few people came to New York from former British colonies like South Africa. Most were young, but not all.
At the end of the line two parents and their son were waiting to get in. The son was visiting from Atlanta and was an avid fan of the Hillsong United Band. Their music had actually led him back to church.
His parents were dissatisfied with their church options in Rockland County, New York. The mother said, “The churches that we have attended are too restrictive, too much about what you shouldn’t do and not enough about what you should do. And they are not so joyful.” Hillsong’s reputation promised something different. With frowns on his face, her husband however seemed to be grudging the ride down, particularly after he had to struggle with Manhattan parking.
Curious people stopped to ask what famous group was playing to cause such a lineup. They were nonplussed, put off or even more curious that it was a church meeting. Surprise summed up the reaction to the fact that in Manhattan people are lining up for church. Tammy recalled that Jaeson Ma’s rapper evangelism event in Chinatown a couple of weeks previously had also caused a lineup around the block and people were turned away.
Fortunately, Tammy was able to grab a balcony seat. The chairs set up on the dance floor below were already full; people were in the aisles waving to the music. The upper level filled up, though not at the crush level of a group that played here the previous month.
The co-pastors Carl and Laura Lentz led the rock and roll band. Surprisingly, band leader Joel Houston did the sermon. He gave a funny riff on his foibles to illustrate his appreciation of Jesus’ love of “the least of these.”
Pastor Carl’s life story is like many of those in the audience. He was born into a Christian family but starting around the 9th grade he drifted away. In college he ran into a bad crisis. On
a trip to visit with his family in Virginia Beach he went with them to see a new Hillsong type service. He recalls, “Right at that service, something shifted in my spirit, and I was radically saved.” The Hillsong people tend to speak in the argot of the hip: cool, radical, awesome and a full panoply of phrases of wonder and excitement that the young lay on their times.
The young Lentz went back to his studies at North Carolina State University but found himself frustrated and uninterested. “I wanted to study the Bible, but I couldn’t.” So, with advice of the Virginia Beach pastor he packed off to the Hillsong Bible school in Australia. There he met his wife and became best friends with Joel.
What drives evangelical church planters like the Lentzs to come to Manhattan? Why does it seem that church planting in Manhattan has become one of the hippest things to do?
Certainly, the general rise of the city’s cool quotient has affected everyone, not just the imitators of Sarah Jessica Parker and the lovers of the Seinfeld world.
The Hillsong church planters saw a Manhattan church plant as a possible spiritual mountain top experience such as they had always dreamed of.
Around 2000, Carl and Joel talked about when they would next get together after Bible college to do something. Carl hoped, “Someday, we should do something awesome.” Joel added the punchline, “Something really important like doing something in New York City!”
Joel used to talk to his Dad about going to New York City. Carl thought of the city as “a city of vast influence and a melting pot.” The city seemed to epitomize Hillsong’s own ambitions.
Carl reflects that at Hillsong they were taught for years “to dream big, think big.” For him that meant New York City.
The Hillsong style is to act boldly so that the “devil take the hindmost.” When Joel’s Dad, the founder of Hillsong, decided just before Christmas 2009 that the time had come to go to New York, he asked his son to get ready.
Joel talked to Carl in January this year.
“My Dad wants to do New York City!,” he said.
Cautiously, but with a leap of heart, Carl asked, “Who [is going to do it]?”
“We are,” his buddy replied.
Though Carl and his wife had poured their lives in their church at Virginia Beach, they knew that their whole lives had prepared them for this. Carls says Hillsong doesn’t so much teach planning as they teach personal preparation. “Whatever you are doing, you give it your all. You are training in general [as a person], so you have a reservoir to take on challenges.”
To Joel Carl blurted, “Yeah! Right away!” His wife hardly let him finish his sentence as she heard the idea. “Yes! That’s us!,” she said.
So, with about a year and half support from other Hillsong churches but without advance planning, the team leaped into the city in August. “It was like we jumped out of a plane over New York City, landed and see how it goes.” Carl says he and Joel have always been unorthodox, something Hillsong seems to encourage. Carl likens their approach to David’s fearlessness before Goliath. David didn’t have a sophisticated plan on how to save the Israelites, but he had trained for years “killing lions and bears, so he could do it right.” Carl says “We had a skeleton of a plan, but that’s it.”
One school of thought is to pre-plan exactly what New York City needs and how to fill those needs. Carl says that they decided to come and let the city teach them what to do. Then, they would improvise. “Let’s just get in New York City and get a vibe of how to serve the city.”
They started meeting with their team in August, but the meetings quickly got too large. The parachutists were surprised at the positive response. Carl admits that he was a little intimidated by the city before he came. “From the outside New York City looks like it would be hard to reach. But on the inside we have found the city gives us peace. New York City has this image of gruff, hard and stern people. But you find that New Yorkers are just moving fast. In our mind we started with, no way, impossible! However, we just thought that God can do it. Anxiety is our constant battle, so we just stay in the God zone.”
In their reactive confidence they pre-launched the church through monthly meetings starting in October.
The Hillsongers came like Israel led by God to the promised land. For them New York City is their promised land of milk and honey. “We came with the attitude we are going to be here forever.”
After Carl, Laura and Joel did the service, Tammy went out reflecting that Hillsong is a mix of ambitious performers, improvisers and youth. Sort of like her when she came to New York in 1975. But what a difference thirty-five years have made. Instead of a desert land of violence and waste, the new Christians are finding their milk and honey…in Manhattan.