Unconventional pastor leads booming NYC megachurch

July 18, 2013 - 11:35 AM

Rebel Pastor

In this July 14, 2013 photo, Pastor Carl Lentz, center, leads a Hillsong NYC Church service at Irving Plaza in New York. With his half-shaved head, jeans and tattoos, Pastor Carl Lentz doesn't look like the typical religious leader. But with its concert-like atmosphere and appeal to a younger demographic, his congregation, Hillsong NYC, is one of the fastest growing evangelical churches in the city. (AP Photo/Tina Fineberg)

NEW YORK (AP) — Carl Lentz is not your typical pastor.

Along with his half shaved head and slicked back Mohawk, he's dressed in his usual Sunday attire: black jeans and an unbuttoned denim shirt with a tank top underneath. His tattooed arms, including one with two guns crossed, peek out from under his rolled-up sleeves.

His Hillsong Church NYC holds at least six sermons every Sunday in a ballroom-style concert venue that has hosted such bands as U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. People squeeze into whatever space they can find and take notes on iPhones as Lentz marches across the stage, peppering his sermon with Bible verses, jokes, pop music lines and street slang.

"If you're new to our church, we love you," said the 34-year-old Lentz. "Don't be alarmed by the craziness you see. One time somebody said, 'Y'all are crazy in your church,' and I said, 'You ever seen you dance drunk? Don't be judging us up in church.'"

New York has become a magnet for startup evangelical churches in recent years. There are currently more than 200 in Manhattan alone, according to Tony Carnes of the research project, A Journey Through NYC Religions, and Hillsong is one of the fastest growing.

After a little more than two years, Hillsong estimates it draws 5,500 people to Sunday services each week. Crowds lining up are a regular weekly scene at Irving Plaza near Manhattan's Union Square. Hillsong often has to add additional evening sessions, which could last well into the night.

"I've gotten used to seeing bar stools and club stuff in the place that we have church," Lentz said, adding "that's church to me now."

Steve Dagrossa, a 31-year-old who says he is a recovering heroin addict, attended all six sermons on a recent Sunday, for a total of 12 hours. He has even styled his hair like Lentz's.

"It's unconventional but we're not a conventional city," Dagrossa said. "This isn't the Bible Belt. This is New York."

Meredith Anderson, a 27-year-old church member who also works as an assistant to Lentz, said she "went from being a drug addict party animal to becoming a Christian living a full, healthy life."

"If it was a church that was all buttoned up, you know, what everybody thinks about when they think about church ... that's not necessarily something that would speak to me," she said. "But because it's young people, because there are young people there, I feel more comfortable."

The church is a branch of the popular Australian-based Hillsong Church, the Pentecostal church that draws more than 21,000 weekly to its services. Hillsong is best known for its concert-type settings where they play Christian rock and praise music, which often appeals to a younger demographic of churchgoers.

Much of Hillsong NYC's success can be attributed to its unorthodox leader. Lentz is a hyperactive, self-proclaimed insomniac who would rather stand than sit. His gift for gab lends itself to creating hype for the church. He loves hip-hop music and often calls getting the word of God out "a hustle."

At one service, he broke out Coolio lyrics. At another, he called the biblical Saul the "LeBron James of Judaism." He is an avid basketball fan and player, and is a fixture at New York Knicks games.

Lentz has established himself as his own brand. He has more than 67,000 followers on Twitter and 59,000 on Instagram, where you can find pictures of him standing next to Jay-Z and NBA star Kevin Durant. Justin Bieber posted a picture of himself eating lunch with Lentz, "talking 'bout our savior Jesus Christ."

Hillsong is far from the first church to attempt to win over a young demographic, but few have been able to pull it off as successfully as Hillsong, according to Carnes.

Still, Hillsong is just as susceptible to the downfalls of any modern progressive church, and there is always the danger that the trendy concert culture could overshadow the message, Carnes said.

"This church is always only about Jesus. ... It's always, it's only about Jesus." Lentz said in a recent sermon.

Lentz declined to discuss same-sex marriage, a polarizing issue that young evangelicals have said in repeated surveys that they do not want to be a focus of church. Many evangelical pastors starting churches in New York avoid addressing the topic from the pulpit, a decision that has drawn criticism from evangelical leaders who consider the issue one of the most important for traditional Bible-believers.

Lentz said he enjoys having critics.

"They give me fuel for the fire," he said.