PHOTOS BY ERIN NOLAN
While attendance at traditional churches is down, the celebrity-studded Hillsong is providing a boost for Boston Christianity, at least for now
Sunday morning, a very different message came from the same stage.
“Once I was broken, but You loved my whole heart through.”
Destiny Mitchell and James Sullivan, bathed in strobing neon lights, sang to the crowd. Sullivan looked to the heavens, strumming his acoustic guitar while Mitchell closed her eyes, lifting her arms in praise as she belted out the lyrics.
“Sin has no hold on me, ‘cause Your grace holds me now.”
The contemporary Christian rock swelled to a crescendo, filling every ornately carved corner of Royale with clashing cymbals and pounding bass. Then the music suddenly dropped off, giving way to softer background sounds as a young man wearing a Louis Vuitton T-shirt and a leather jacket walked on stage.
“Can I find anyone thankful for the grace of God today?”
Joshua Kimes, the lead pastor at Hillsong Church in Boston, engaged the crowd. Soft keyboard beats dramatized his words as people cheered and hooted in response.
In the United States, 35% of millennials identify as religious nones, or a person with no religious affiliation. Yet despite this growing youth secularism, new religious groups like Hillsong, which established a church in Boston in 2018, are seeing a spike in appeal amongst younger Americans.
Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern University of Illinois at Charleston, estimates that there is now roughly the same percentage of Evangelical Protestants as people with no religious affiliation. While only 28% of younger millennials attend a religious service every week, churches like Hillsong regularly harvest their share. Kimes claims that on an average Sunday, more than a thousand people gather at the Royale for church, many of them young millennials and Generation Z.
Hillsong’s appeal may be rooted in shifting attitudes toward religion among younger folks. A 2015 study conducted by Angie Thurman and Casper ter Kuile, researchers at Harvard Divinity School, found that younger generations are not as interested in being involved in a religious institution as their parents. Millennials and members of Gen Z (those born after 1996) are “spiritual, not religious,” Thurman and ter Kuile contend. They seek community, social transformation, purpose, and creativity—what older generations found in religious institutions—in places outside of traditional churches, like volunteering and crossfit.
Boston Hillsong’s popularity is something new for the city. The Barna Organization considers the Hub one of the least religious cities in the US, while the state of Massachusetts is ranked dead last for religiosity, tied with New Hampshire. The entire region seems to have given up on God; the five least religious states are all in the northeast.
Some attribute New England’s secularism to outrage over the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Catholicism in New England shrank from 43% to 31% between 1990 and 2003, compared to 26% to 22% in the rest of the country.
Others suggest more benign factors. New Englanders struggle to make it to church because they often simply have other things to do—soccer games, tests to study for, brunch meetups. Unlike in the South, New Englanders don’t feel pressure to schedule their lives around church.
But Sunday morning at Hillsong feels like the Bible Belt.
Kimes said he was unaware that Mass has the lowest ranking for religiosity in the US, but he isn’t surprised at Hillsong’s success in a secular city like Boston. He credits the church’s music and style of worship for the connection people often feel regardless of location.
“There is a desire inside of every single person that craves this relationship,” Kimes said. “There’s something inside of every person that knows deep down that they were created for something more to life than what they know.
“We just want church to be home. We want people to feel welcome. We believe that Jesus came so that we might have life and have it to the full … And we want people to experience that. And that’s why I want our services to be full of life and vibrant.”
Just a 15-minute walk west of Hillsong is a church with a very different story.
Earl Norman smiled fondly as he recalled attending church at First Baptist Church of Boston in the 1960s. Every Sunday, his family hopped in the car and drove into Back Bay from Melrose north of Boston.
They would pull up in front of the historic stone facade, and Norman’s parents would give him a kiss before dropping him off at Sunday school. There, Norman, along with more than a hundred other children, studied Bible verses in the parish hall before joining the adults in the cathedral for morning service.
Sundays at First Baptist look different today. There is no Sunday school, no young children. Less than 20 people sit in wooden pews built to seat more than 800.
As organ notes bounce harshly around the cavernous old cathedral, it’s hard to deny the slow, but sure, decline of traditional religious institutions. Though attendance varies, it’s often a similar scene in other cities around Greater Boston.
“I think what we see is a gradual aging out of the generation … for whom religion was significant,” said Pastor Matthew Rasure of First Baptist Church of Medford.
In the early years after World War II, Rasure said First Baptist of Medford saw about 1,500 congregants every Sunday. Now, he said, that number is more like a hundred.
Mary Kate Bickford, an aspiring comedian in her mid-20s, grew up in Maine attending a traditional Baptist church like First Baptist Boston. But when she moved here last September, she found Hillsong to be more her speed.
“[Traditional church] honestly felt, and it sort of feels now, kind of bland,” Bickford said, pushing a lock of blond hair behind her ear. “The messages weren’t really communicated clearly.” Pursing her lips, she continued: “I’m sure there are other mainline churches where they do communicate it pretty clearly, but I think Hillsong does it in more modern language and they try to relate to millennials.”
Hillsong was established in 1983 by Brian Houston, a former window cleaner, and his wife Bobbie in Sydney, Australia. With the help of Brian’s father, a charismatic Pentecostal minister, the couple was able to attract a small gathering. The original congregation of 45 people met in a suburban school hall.
In the decades since its humble beginnings, Hillsong has grown into an evangelical megachurch with locations in 23 countries and 6 continents. According to church materials, almost 130,000 people attend a Hillsong service every week.
“It’s a cool millennial church with amazing music,” said Craig Parker, a Boston city leader for a Christian ministry who works closely with students at Boston University. “I mean, it feels like any sort of hipster coffee shop you would ever go to: cool people who are fashionable, who go to experience a live show.”
Parker, who is 64 and lives outside of Boston, does not attend Hillsong on a weekly basis. He attends Highrock Church in Arlington, but has gone to Hillsong services to better understand how the youth he works with worships. Parker said it’s a unique experience.
“Amazing worship with emotional music. And the speaking is all done by, you know, the average pastor age is 30 probably. They’re just appealing to a young audience like we [Christians] want. We want to have amazing music and amazing worship experiences that make people want to go.”
Bickford agrees that Hillsong’s music is a huge draw for many of the weekly congregants.
“I’m connected more to God now through the songs. I feel a more frequent emotional connection.”
Serene Chua, a co-worker of Parker, recalled that her parents introduced her to Hillsong music as a child.
“I love their songs. I love Hillsong. I think there’s a lot of draw there for people, especially with the music. I think it was also a name that’s so popular that people are like, ‘Oh, I want to go to Hillsong.’ You know, that’s what’s trending. That’s what’s popular.”
Every year, Hillsong music earns the church millions of dollars. Its three music groups each release under their own record label: Hillsong Worship, Hillsong UNITED, and Hillsong Young and Free. Together the groups boast more than 4 million followers on Instagram, have toured six continents, have released almost 70 albums, and have been translated into more than 100 languages. Hillsong Worship won a Grammy Award for their song “What a Beautiful Name,” while Hillsong UNITED has received three Billboard Music Awards.
Destiny Mitchell, who grew up in the Boston area, regularly leads the Sunday choir at Hillsong and said the music is a central part of her worship experience.
“I grew up listening to [Hillsong music] and always had a heart for worship. … I always wanted to be a part of a Hillsong Church … So I went to Hillsong College, Bible College, in Australia for three and a half years. When I got back, funny enough, Hillsong was getting started here in Boston. So God really worked that out.”
Music also plays a pivotal role in the services at First Baptist. Traditional hymns played on an antique pipe organ are accompanied by a chorus of six people, mostly students at the nearby Berklee College of Music. Congregants follow along in their hymn books.
Music is one of the reasons Norman stays at First Baptist. As he sings, he said he no longer feels 68 years old. Certain hymns transport him back to his childhood; he remembers sitting on the floor of the church as a young boy, his Sunday school teacher holding up flash cards and Velcro figures to teach the class the words.
When he was a little older, Norman played the trumpet during services. “I played badly,” he recalled, laughing, “But I played. I played with my knees knocking from nerves.”
These days, First Baptist no longer has any trumpet players—just the gentle choir and the powerful pipe organ. The hymns compete with the hiss of an old gas heating system, which, in the cold months, sends steam rising up from the floor.
“Come and see for yourself. Yeah, come and see, come and hang out.” This is what Kimes tells those who are curious about Hillsong and their beliefs.
“Let me save this seat for you. We can catch up throughout the week and talk about your experience and why this was different from your past church or whatnot. Whether you have somewhat of a relationship with God or not, we want this place, this environment, on a Sunday to be open for everybody.”
Bickford, the comedian, said Hillsong feels new, fresh, and relevant compared to the traditional church she left, noting that it’s “not one of those fire and brimstone” [churches].
“It is kind of evangelical and exuberant,” she added, acknowledging the negative stereotypes that many young people in Boston hold about megachurches. “But we’re not like Pentecostal snake handlers or people like speaking in tongues.”
At its inception (and for many years after), Hillsong was a member of the Australian Christian Churches, the Australian branch of the Evangelist Pentecostal organization the Assemblies of God. In 2018 the church split from ACC, saying it no longer considered itself an “Australian church with a global footprint,” but rather a “global church with an Australian base.” ACC National President Wayne Alcorn compared Hillsong’s departure from the ACC to a child outgrowing their childhood home.
Hillsong’s statement of beliefs holds that the church is still “closely associated with the Australian Christian Churches,” and, despite Bickford’s contention, indicates that the church believes in spiritual gifts given to humans, including “speaking in tongues.”
National media outlets have weighed in, with Vox calling Hillsong a “star-studded, Instagram-friendly evangelical church.” For good reason. Chris Pratt, Kyrie Irving, Kourtney Kardashian, Vannessa Hudgens, Nick Jonas, Bono, Selena Gomez, Hailey Baldwin, Kendall Jenner, Kevin Durant, and Justin Bieber have all attended Hillsong; a pastor in New York City, Carl Lentz, even baptized Bieber in a bathtub and reportedly maintains a close friendship with the pop star. Lentz has more than 600,000 Instagram followers and 160,000-plus Twitter followers, and he was even profiled by GQ.
Bickford said celebrities need a connection with God too, and feels Hillsong is “reaching out … and saying, I’m here for you as a person, like I’m not here for you to make me look better. I want to talk to you about things that affect you on a personal level, and not just to buy your music or whatever.”
But Hillsong’s large celebrity following has also raised suspicions.
“[Justin Bieber]’s gotten super-religious recently. Real culty,” Post Malone told Rolling Stone in 2017. Malone said he was suspicious of Hillsong’s intentions and pointed to large monetary contributions that he claims Bieber has made to the church. Hillsong has refuted these claims.
One former Hillsonger penned a critique of the community’s “aspirational wealth and classism,” arguing that “under a veneer of coolness and progressivism, the church is a retrograde institution, pushing traditional values on its wide-eyed, and often deep-pocketed, members.”
It’s undeniable that Hillsong asks its members to contribute generously. Its standard ask is a 10% tithe, and congregants are encouraged to give “love offerings” (which can add up to tens of thousands of dollars per speaking arrangement) to pastors who speak at a variety of Hillsong conferences. These pastors do not take a vow of poverty, according to the Sydney Morning Herald; Lentz, one of the church’s more prominent pastors, is reportedly worth $2.5 million.
The church’s stance on LGBTQ issues has also come under fire. In a controversial 2015 blog post titled “Do I Love Gay People?” founder Brian Houston wrote, “Hillsong Church welcomes ALL people but does not affirm all lifestyles. Put clearly, we do not affirm a gay lifestyle and because of this we do not knowingly have actively gay people in positions of leadership, either paid or unpaid.”
Houston continued, “So if you are gay, are you welcome at Hillsong Church? Of course! You are welcome to attend, worship with us, and participate as a congregation member with the assurance that you are personally included and accepted within our community. But (this is where it gets vexing), can you take an active leadership role? No.”
Many have criticized the church for being unclear with congregants about its stance regarding LGBTQ acceptance. Former Hillsong NYC choir director Josh Canfeild told Church Clarity, a website that rates churches based on their stances regarding women’s issues and LGBTQ issues, “Hillsong truly loves people, I believe that wholeheartedly, but by not being clear about their beliefs [and rules] on homosexuality, it ends up hurting the same people they are trying to love.”
Pastor John Odams of First Baptist thinks Hillsong-style churches are a temporary trend.
“There’s always going to be a need for churches that look like [First Baptist Church of Boston],” Odams said. “People don’t want to get married in a storefront.”
Even Kimes said he doesn’t believe theatrical worship like Hillsong is the only way to practice one’s faith.
“The message is sacred, the method isn’t,” he said. “I’ve got some friends that I’m really close with, and they don’t like the loud music, and they don’t like the lights. They kind of connect better with a smaller, more traditional church.”
Norman said traditional churches provide a nostalgia and peace that charismatic megachurches simply can’t provide. Megachurches have their place, he said, but many long for the history and tradition of going to a mainline church such as First Baptist.
“I think churches are having a bit of a comeback,” Norman said, recalling a visit to First Baptist by a couple visiting from the South who exclaimed, “You use hymn books!” They were so accustomed to the hymn lyrics being projected on large screens, Norman recalled, that they found reading from an actual book refreshing. “After all,” he said, “you can watch TV any time you want.”
Norman loves that he can sit in the same wooden pews that his mother sat in when she first became a congregant back in 1933. He loves that he can stare up at the flushed and intricately painted high ceilings while he sings and listens to Odam’s sermons. He loves that he can walk into the parish hall and recall the days when Mabel Foss, a woman from the congregation, gave the children homemade stockings for the Christmas season. He loves that every week he sees lifelong friends like Jimmy, a retired police officer, whom Norman has known since the fourth grade.
“I really have deep, deep, deep friendships, and we share a deep faith,” he said.
Norman no longer lives in the Boston area full-time—he’s in the process of moving to Maine—but he commutes an hour and a half almost every week to attend service at First Baptist.
“I’ll never leave. It’s my church and I’m blessed.” Norman said. “I’ll come as long as I can drive. When I can’t drive? I’ll find a way. Even if I come down the day before and stay in a hotel. Because it will always be my church.”