Millennial road back to church@HillsongNYC
One way Millennials get to a megachurch is through dissatisfaction with their home church. They desire churches that are more accepting and open-minded than the ones in which they have grown up.
As a kid, Rachel Ross attended Shirley Assembly of God on Long Island with her mother. The church felt like home but not entirely comfortable. With wrists heavy with bracelets and a thick crown of braids hanging down to her waist, Ross said that her church back home couldn’t accept her cartilage piercings. When she moved to the city to study chemistry at Hunter College in 2012, she looked for a church that would also let her express herself. This time, she wanted to attend one that would accept her funky style.
A friend on Long Island suggested that Ross visit Hillsong NYC. Ross already liked the church’s music so she decided to check the new church out. When she walked into the service, her first thought was, “Whoa!” The eclectic congregation was unlike any she had previously been in. Her cousin, Jessica Michel, emphatically ratifies that feeling.
“Having to present a facade was always a source of anxiety for me,” Michel says. “I’m really big on coming as you are.” The first time Michel sat through a service at Hillsong NYC, she was astounded at the styles present in the audience. The girl in front of her had tattoos and ear plugs and was singing whole-heartedly about her love for Jesus.
Millennial road back to church@MVMNT
Millennials, big on community service, also want a community that encourages them to serve others. Thinking back on her own experience growing up in church, the 27-year-old Lacey Francis does not recall seeing her parents serve other people the way the Bible teaches. “I would see them go to church on Sunday and wake up the next morning and do nothing,” she says.
What stuck out most to her was that her parents did not give money or time to other members of the congregation that were going through rough times. Instead, their church life was “very much about what they were getting out of it,” she recalls. Her impression of their services was that they were “just emotional, theatrical: falling on your face, speaking in tongues, not encouraging because they didn’t know what they were saying.” Everyone seemed to be trying to prove something. Turned off, Francis stopped attending church in her early teens.
Although Francis felt let down by the self-serving character of the older generation, she still valued her connection to the faith of her childhood. She just craved a church that embodied what she had read in 1 John 3, “Let us love not in word and talk but in deed.”
When she was 24 years old she picked up her Bible again. Unexpectedly, she was drawn to Romans, “the most convicting book,” she marveled. The letter, written to the early Christian church in the Roman empire, idealized a standard of living that she herself was not upholding. Francis asked herself, Why was she willing to read something that would only make her feel guilty?
When her cousin invited her to Brooklyn Tabernacle’s young adult night, Francis attended hoping to answer her own dilemma. At MVMNT, she was amazed to find hundreds of adults her own age involved in community service and prayer for each other.
She recalls an example of the type of giving she saw. At one service, people were registering for a weekend retreat, which cost upwards of 100 dollars. At the front of the line was a young woman who did not have the money and was asking about the possibility of a deduction. From the middle of the line another woman moved to the front. “Can I pay for you?” she asked the impecunious stranger.
“She literally just met her,” realized Francis with a shock. This was a church where people’s actions matched their words. Rather than feeling the guilt of legalism, Francis now found a cultural context where the adherence to standards of the church were refreshing and real.
Millennial road back to church@Misfit (Don't miss video of Misfit at the end of the story!)
Other Millennials are drawn to local megachurches because they are disappointed with their own pasts. The church supplements strained relationships with biological families. Even after these relationships have healed, being part of a larger community fortifies the Millennials’ need for a loving, open community.
Joaquin Pardo was living a life of drinking, drugging, partying and fighting. His sleep was the only time that he could unclench. One night, his mother leaned over to pray for her son. Pardo awaken and was startled to find out what his mother was doing.
“Are you dumb?” the teenage Joaquin Pardo barked at his mom. He had put up with an alcoholic father and now! A praying mother! What was this American world? His tolerance of other people’s quirks was growing thin.
When his family had moved from Colombia to Jamaica, Queens, Pardo was only 3 but soon found that he didn’t fit in. Latin Americans have their own racial diversity. The fair-skinned, white blonde Pardo felt rejection from the Hispanics and African Americans in his neighborhood. He started looking for fights to assert his position. At age 11 he threw punches to gain respect from the other students at Evangel Christian School. This was not a very effective strategy, one that his father had also failed at.
Pardo had learned about looking for a fight from his father’s example. Captured in a life of alcoholism, the elder Pardo harshly targeted his wife. The son didn’t like what his father was doing, but the internalization of his anger reshaped him into his father’s deficient model of manhood. Each time he witnessed an episode of his father’s abuse, Pardo added another layer of resentment to the protective shell around his mind.
When his mother went off into Christianity, he was furious at her naiveté. After being dominated by mistreatment for so long, why would his mother willingly submit to a faith that seemed so meek?
He recalls watching how his mother prayed his no count father into a conversion too. To Pardo’s disbelief, his father actually began to care for the family. Pardo couldn’t make sense of this new family culture except through the anger that he had learned.
Unacceptable hypocrisy, Pardo thought. “I harbored bitterness and anger and hatred,” Pardo recently acknowledged. “The man was trying to love me, and it was not a love I wanted to accept.” Yet witnessing this change in his father heightened Pardo’s awareness of his own belligerence toward his family, his schoolmates, and his girlfriend, who also attended Evangel.
Pardo became aware that the problem was no longer his father but his own bad attitude. He needed to replace his resentful isolation with a community of love.
He started attending the Christian youth group at his school, and one Friday they visited Misfit NYC. As the music pounded and the crowd of young adults seethed at the foot of the stage, Pardo looked around and realized that many of the younger males likely had similar stories, and baggage, to his. Rather than stew in the miasma of his resentful past, Pardo decided to transmute his experience into helping others. As a bonus, he related to the hip hop sound of the service, and also joined Misfit Rap Society, the hip hop performance team. Pardo has been leader of Rap Society for just over a year.
Millennial road back through volunteering@events
These three stories illustrate a striking characteristic of the Millennial megachurches: the large number of young adult volunteers who throw themselves into preparing the weekend services. The influence of young adult volunteers gives the services an authenticity for other youth that is often lacking in youth services run by the older generation. The young Millennials then come to feel an ownership of the culture that is produced. Many young people that now attend Misfit are not members of the church but are still devoted attendees of its Friday night events.
Who are the wizards behind Hillsong’s sound and video production? Ross, now 22-years old, joined the video team when she was twenty. She admires how Hillsong will take anyone with a willing heart and put them to work. She credits her own skill at video production to the opportunity to practice at Hillsong. At first she wasn’t so eager.
Ross began volunteering with the church after a service where Pastor Carl Lentz talked about serving. However, Ross stood in the midst of the crowd with her arms protectively crossed over her chest. “I was very attitude-y,” she says with a knowing nod. Then, her wall of reserve fell down from around her. Lentz reached out to the crowd to make a point about serving. “He said, ‘I can’t stand those New Yorkers who have such bad attitudes, who are always asking, what can church do for me? What can I get out of church?’”
Lentz had Ross’s attention. His next words convicted her. “It’s painful to live that proud,” he said.
She just dropped her suit of armor. He had spoken right to her heart. Out she popped, willing if not quite sure that she was able.
She began on the information team because she did not know very many people at Hillsong. She had a quick way of bonding with other volunteers on the teams around the church. One evening after service, she ran into Bena, head of another team that handled video. Ross enjoyed video making as a hobby, so she cautiously joked, “One day, when I get good, I’ll join your team.”
Instead of laughing, Bena grew serious.
“Do you like making videos?” she asked Ross. Ross admitted, “Yeah, but I’m a beginner.” Then, Bena wouldn’t take no for an answer. She told Ross, “You have a camera and editing equipment? I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Disarmed once again, Ross showed up the next night for the video team. She was paired with a partner, and they were assigned to make a creative video to be shown as an intermission to the worship service. Over the next month Ross sent her video to Bena for feedback. The video honcho pushed her newbie video producer hard with encouragement and advice.
“Bena is the reason I’m so good at making videos because she refuses to accept anything but the best from me,” Ross says of her mentor. A month later the video was finally shown. Ross beamed inside as she overheard strangers praising it after the service. She became very motivated to do even better.
Now, Ross works on her videos “literally every moment of my free time.” A spur of the moment offer turned into a relentless passion. She recalls waking up early to catch a serene sunrise or keeping huge chunks of time open to wander around different locations until she could capture the perfect shot. She adds with some satisfaction after a deep breath, “Video never ends!”
Volunteers serve on a wide spectrum of teams. Francis, who is an administrative coordinator for MVMNT and helps place potential volunteers in their positions, says she can find a place for anyone. “We ask, what would you naturally do, would love to do every day and not get paid for it?” Individuals with creative gifts may join the worship team or the arts team. Francis sees talent like marketing just as much of a gift as someone who has an ability to be compassionate. She laughs that the reason she’s so high on the gurus of marketing is “because I can’t market anything!”
Francis estimates that 100 volunteers serve regularly. They are asked to commit to six months at a time. They are also required to be a member of Brooklyn Tabernacle or in the process of becoming one, a status that is earned through a semester of classes with the church. The commitment is large, Francis acknowledges. She spends between 10 and 15 hours a week preparing for a Friday night in addition to her full time sales job.
The motivation comes from a sort of a domino effect: “You walk in the room with someone the same age as you, same struggles as you, same background pathology, and see them dealing with it differently,” Francis says of the reason people attend. “You want that, it’s natural. You form that connection. Then, you don’t just want it for you, you want it for others around you. You want to serve."
Young adults have opportunities to reach each other that older pastors may not be able to easily access. Melanie Chong, 22, Pardo’s girlfriend and co-leader of Misfit Rap Society, compares youth ministries to the messy kind of situation found in the book Where the Wild Things Are. After lives around them are wrecked, kids need to retreat someplace to deal with their monsters inside their heads. Millennial youth ministries are “where the scariest places are,” Chong feels. It is therefore doubly important for young adults to take leadership positions to mentor those younger than them.
So, in addition to its Friday night service, Misfit NYC has a system called TRIBE, whereby an older member of the team is the contact person for a small group of younger teens. The ministry is based on a “trickle-down” or succession principle.
Chong leads six 15 year olds, texting with them and meeting them one-on-one as well as doing group activities. As a leader, Chong is able to pass on the culture of love that she’s learned from the church.
The most important thing she’s learned as a leader is to be accepting and to recognize that everyone needs room to grow. “Don’t ask if they’re ‘ready’,” she advises. No one is ever really ready to move out of the comfort zone that they have devised within a world of havoc. “If there is a ready point, I’m not ready,” she reassures her team.
Millennial road back through preworship@church
The interaction in the line outside of the church and the prep inside are the door-openings to a Millennial faith-culture.
The line outside the service tonight wraps tightly around the building like wet seaweed clinging to a rock. Many attendees are there with friends and the line bubbles and pops with lambent energy of a high school pep rally. Occasionally strangers collide with each other and, instead of passing each other by, instantly bonded like they are alkali metals, the most reactive and willing elements on the periodic table.
A team of hosts walks up and down the line, offering wrapped hard candies and greetings to those on the line.
Inside the building, the bi-level theater is still empty of an audience. So, the sounds of the practice ricochet uninhibited throughout the space. A last minute soundcheck is being finished before the leaders open the doors for tonight’s service. The first five rows of the 1,000-seat, bi-level sanctuary are strewn with jackets and book bags cast carelessly by the teens and young adults who have trickled in from school and work. About fifteen team members are milling around the floor, joking and eating snacks from a neighborhood bodega to supplement what will be a late dinner tonight. Five bandmates and three members of Misfits Dance Mob, the ministry’s dance team, are up on stage practicing.
Nearly everyone who is preparing for the service is under the age of 20. At 24, Jamie Lammering, who plays acoustic guitar and sings with the worship team, is like the mama bird of the group.
Lammering’s sister, 21-year-old Melody Rivera, who is on the technical support team at Christ Tabernacle, is overseeing the practice. Though she has been doing tech arts since she was 11, the fastidious producer still nurtures each practice as though it were her first, and that means a lot of stress. Tonight as the practice runs towards its deadline, she asks around for an Advil. Something is still off about the tech’s set up, but a headache is making it hard for her to identify exactly what it is. Is that growing rumble coming from the speakers or is that just pounding in her head?
The dance team onstage is rehearsing an original choreography that represents the bondage of Sin. They are not just individuals who are dancing, but are personifying the archetypes of Sin, Victim, and Savior. It is like a Medieval morality play put into Millennial dress. The first member onstage, playing Sin, is clad in black Converse, black jeans, and a black hoodie. The second member, Sin’s Victim, is dressed in baggy camouflage cargo pants and a grey sweatshirt vest. The last member, who is Jesus, wears tight lime green skinny jeans and a white tee. The details on his baseball hat and sneakers match the bright shade perfectly. Sin wears a smooth black mask with cut out eye slits.
The dance begins with a jerky mimetic sequence between Sin and her Victim. Sin carries a prop chain and occasionally rattles it against the stage, generating a hissing noise from the speakers. The Victim twists his torso and hoists his elbows up in the air, forearms dangling limply, as though he were tied by puppet strings. Soon, though, the Victim’s movements fall out of sync with Sin’s and become smoother. Jesus has entered the scene from the top of stage left. With a graceful relevé and swoop of his arms, he rebuffs Sin away from the stage. The dance ends with a duet between Jesus and the Victim, who is now called Victor. Their moves are not mimicked but are complementary.
The dance is visually precise but Rivera is not hearing enough energy in their movements. For the fifth time that afternoon she stops the music mid-dance. Every the perfectionist she strides directly up to the stage from the back of the auditorium. Looking up at the performers onstage she instructs them, “Pound your feet more heavily!”
She tells Sin to slap the chain down on the stage.
“The sound needs to be—“ and, bracing herself with her left arm, she pounds her right fist on the stage three times. “Boom, boom, boom!” sound the speakers.
Point made, but Rivera’s headache grows as she nitpicks towards technical perfection. In contrast the rest of the team grows more jovial as the practice continues.
Though coming from a long day of work, this is where they can relax because they are doing what they love to do with people whom they enjoy, nitpicking and all. When the dance team finishes, the worship team jumps onto the stage. Jostling around each other, they feed off of each other’s excitement.
One of the lead singers is a petite sparkplug Chong. Her face never loses its cheek-to-cheek grin. Chong sings a song about God’s power to Pardo, who is sitting in the audience.
“Come down like rain,” she cries. She pantomimes falling raindrops by fluttering her fingers.
Suddenly, a loud burp from the speakers indicates that the sound system has shorted out. For a breathless moment everyone wonders what this means for tonight’s performance.
Chong pipes up, breaking the tension, “Alright! A capella tonight, guys!” Chuckles and cheers respond.
The tension broken, Rivera and other members of the tech team head to figure out what the problem is. In a few minutes, the sound system is indeed working again.
At 7:00 the team heads to the church’s nursery downstairs to pray.
The half-hour prayer time is not restricted to team members. More than fifty other Misfits have come early to join in the prayer time. They stand around the dark room. A single row of lights along the front wall illuminates the space. Like the strings on a guitar vibrating together to sound a united chord, the individual voices hum together.
Every week a different speaker closes the team time before the line outside the building enters the auditorium. Tonight the speaker is the teenager Miranda Pacheco.
In red high tops and curly, uncombed hair escaping its pony tail, Pacheco looks like she should be gushing about Cosmopolitan’s latest article on One Direction instead of citing Old Testament patriarchs. But she is all business as she tells her peers to not be discouraged by rejection or fearful of the results when they talk to their friends about God.
“It was the one who remembered the goodness of God who conquered the giant,” she excitedly reminds them.
Pacheco picked up her onstage charisma at the weekly communicator’s class and also honed her knowledge of theology at Misfit’s Bible 101 course.
The doors open promptly at 7:30.
For those entering the sanctuary, it was like stepping into the nightclub scene from an MTV original movie. A DJ spins tunes from the stage. The teenagers and young adults in the crowd mingle under stadium-style television screens hanging from a gilded ceiling.
On the screens a digital clock counted down in bright neon letters. The numbers ticked down aggressively. The screen then switched to one of the rotating announcements of upcoming events. The ads were done in the style of Tumblr, a sans serif font over a pastel-washed photo of autumn leaves, a knee-level shot of a city sidewalk, a close up of two hands intertwined.
Friends called out to each other across the auditorium and raced across pews to tackle each other. The style is no longer the body bumps of hip-hop but a less aggressive full-body embrace.
Rivera muses that the style of Misfit has changed with the times. “We used to sing Biggie, now we do Katy Perry,” she said, shifting her hands as though she were juggling to indicate the switch. However, the core vision of empowering the young adults to take charge has not changed in the past 18 years.
If you missed part I, click here: The #Millennial_Megachurch