'Jesus Is the Ultimate Crossover': Christian Act Hillsong United on Why Their Message Is for Everybody (Including Justin Bieber)
"Church goin' up -- on a Saturday!" yells Carl Lentz, the toned, tattoo-covered co-pastor of the New York outpost of Hillsong Church. It's a timely reference to rapper-singer ILoveMakonnen's hit "Tuesday," and one that the 5,000 diverse, mostly young attendees of the first of two Saturday services at Central Park's Rumsey Playfield on a cloudy May afternoon knowingly laugh at. With a hip haircut and leg-hugging black pants, Lentz, 36, spiritual adviser to celebs like Justin Bieber and Kevin Durant, could easily be mistaken for a rock star. "If I dive, would you catch me?" he asks, perched at the edge of the stage and clutching a Bible brandishing an "Occupy All Streets" sticker.
Welcome to Hillsong United, the hippest, loudest church service-cum-rock band on the planet. What is it? Both a powerful form of outreach for Hillsong Church -- which is based in Sydney but has 100,000 members in branches across 11 countries -- and arguably the most important act in Christian music today. The attractive 11-member collective, fronted by Lentz's co-pastor Joel Houston, is debuting songs from new album Empires (out May 26 on Hillsong Music Australia), and the response to the Coldplay-size anthems feels, well, heaven-sent. Tears flow freely from teen and 20-something fans lined at the front barricade.
"People connect to the music and the message," explains Houston, 36, in an interview the day before the show. "We take away a lot of the things that people think of when they think about church, and instead try to present something that's as real and honest as possible."
While the United States seemingly grow less religious -- one-third of 25- to 33-year-olds are unaffiliated, up 9 percent from 2007, according to the Pew Research Center -- United is succeeding where other Christian bands haven't, by mobilizing a young audience to services that feel more like epic rock shows. Hillsong Church has long focused on musical outreach, releasing almost 140 albums through several different acts, including Worship and Young & Free, since its 1983 founding. But it's United that's making the most noise today. Since releasing 2007 studio debut All of the Above, United has sold more than 1.2 million albums, according to Nielsen Music. And Hillsong Church, a nonprofit that reported $69.7 million in global revenue in 2013, is reaping the benefits. In 2014, it earned $4.4 million stateside from United and its other music releases, Billboard estimates. And that doesn't count United's ticketed concerts -- a December show at Los Angeles' Nokia Theatre grossed $231,480, according to Billboard Boxscore. The group's biggest hit, 2013's "Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)," spent 45 consecutive weeks atop the Hot Christian Songs chart and reached No. 83 on the Billboard Hot 100 -- the first Christian Songs No. 1 to crack the tally.
"Jesus is the ultimate crossover guy -- literally," quips Houston. The natural leader of the group, he speaks often for the four other vocalists -- Matt Crocker, 29; Jonathan "JD" Douglass, 31; Jad Gillies, 34; and Taya Smith, 26 -- who look straight out of an H&M ad. "Jesus came," continues Houston, "and said, 'This whole God thing? It's not just for your genre, it's cross-genre.' Our message is for everybody."
Part of what makes that message so accessible are United's lyrics. The group's missive -- "that God is love," says Houston -- is often communicated subtly, through universal themes. At Rumsey, where fans are encouraged to tithe using the app Pushpay, lyrics from "Oceans," a big ballad fit for Katy Perry, scroll across a giant screen as Smith and the Converse-clad band sing, "My soul will rest in Your embrace/For I am Yours and You are mine." Without the capitalized pronouns, the song could be mistaken for a secular rock slow-jam -- an approach some traditionally devout Christians have criticized.
"Our thing is to never be 'religious,' " says Lentz, who helps Houston lead services in New York but isn't in the band. "I don't like religion. What we're offering is a relationship with God, and out of that comes your faith."
Breaking the rules is old hat for Houston, whose parents, Brian and Bobbie, co-founded Hillsong Church with his grandfather Frank. As a member of the youth ministry, the Sydney-born singer-songwriter embraced his self-described "rebellious side" and joined with like-minded members to play worship songs that would appeal to their generation. In 1999, United released its debut live praise album, Everyday; nearly annual live releases followed. Two studio LPs -- 2007's All of the Above and 2011's Aftermath -- set the stage for 2013's Zion (also the name of Houston's 1-year-old son with wife Esther), which hit No. 5 on the Billboard 200 and has sold more than 300,000 copies.
This fall, United will follow the release of Empires with Hillsong: Let Hope Rise, a documentary distributed by Relativity Media. Director Michael John Warren, whose résumé includes Jay Z's 2004 Fade to Black doc, spent six months following the group on tour. "This isn't a scam," he says of its music and look. "Yes, they have a flashy show and cool clothes, but they're some of the most beautiful people I've ever known, spiritually. Of course, they're also suspiciously good-looking on top of that."
With Hillsong Church opening branches in Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires later this year, United's film and music will have a built-in customer base on five continents. But Houston says he's keeping his eyes on the sky. "Our hope is not in getting high, or finding that right person, or dealing with heartbreak," he says. "For us, it's taking that yearning and connecting it to the God of the universe -- the God of love."
This story originally appeared in the May 30 issue of Billboard.