It is about 6:30 p.m. on a chilly Sunday and attendees are already snaked around the corner of East 15th Street outside of Irving Plaza. Below the red neon sign hangs a “Welcome Home” banner. The longtime concert venue, which recently booked Paul McCartney on Valentine’s Day for a night all about love, hosts weekly events about a different kind of love—an unconditional love of Jesus Christ.Welcome Home

Every Sunday, people gather to one of New York City’s “hottest” clubs to worship, pray and praise Jesus Christ. While Irving Plaza may be one of the last places to be called a “church,” once the doors are closed, hands are raised, eyes are closed and people are ready to experience God.

Hillsong NYC takes over not only Irving Plaza but also Best Buy Theater in Midtown and Wellmont Theater in Montclair, New Jersey, every Sunday at three separate times: 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and at 7:30 p.m. The New York congregation is one of the many international offshoots that were launched by its mother ship in Sydney, Australia. And since its first Sunday service in October of 2010, Hillsong NYC has been successful in bringing thousands of young New Yorkers back to the feet of Jesus every Sunday.

“I come here every Sunday to simply encounter God, get closer to Jesus and to seek a relationship with Him,” said Jasmine Yi, a 21-year-old student at Fashion Institution of Technology from Vietnam. “It is a place where I feel safe and secure.”

Whether it is Hillsong NYC’s come-as-you-are and love-equals-cross approach or the nonconventional style of worship and praise, the church is doing what seems impossible in modern day America: attracting Millennials to enter through church doors and staying.

Yi said it was the different vibe that first attracted her to Hillsong NYC. While she was always raised in a Christian family back in Vietnam, she said Hillsong NYC is different from the Korean church she attended back at home. What the leaders talk about within the churches walls was what surprised Yi the most. The church talked about the sensitive topics that most Korean churches like to avoid.

“The most memorable sermons from Hillsong NYC was about forgiving and loving all, no matter what,” Yi said. “The sermon talked about rape, gossip, different types of abuse and that was refreshing.”

Church leaders has a significant role in bringing the younger generation back on to the religious train during the times of culture wars, says Geoffrey Pollick, a New York University professor in the Religious Studies department.

“Hillsong’s leaders—as with other evangelicals hoping to break into NYC, like Jay Bakker, who led Revolution Church in a Brooklyn bar before relocating to Minneapolis—have begun to blunt some of the sharp doctrinal edges that associated evangelicalism with the abortion-and-gay-rights focus of conservative churches during the 1980s and 1990s “culture wars,” Pollick said.

Carl Lentz

Hillsong NYC’s 36-year-old co-pastor, Carl Lentz, who is known for his “hipster” sense of style, definitely did not shy away from questions that were being asked during one of Hillsong’s Wednesday night services. The midweek service that is often called the Exchange dedicates its time to allow members of the congregation to explore their faith, their walk and their doubts in Jesus.

One segment of the night was called, Questions and Response, which happens to be one of Pastor Lentz’ favorite things to do in ministry. After a time of worship, the rest of the night allowed anybody to ask Pastor Lentz any questions and he would try his best to provide an answer or at the very least a satisfying response.

And one of the questions asked by a young, African American woman was about homosexuality and what to do when Christians were asked about controversial topics. Before going directly into the topic of homosexuality, Pastor Lentz first advised the attendee to be able to discern whether people were asking the question out of pure curiosity or if they were looking for a fight, especially those in the Christian community.

Then, he went on to say that before digging into any controversial questions, he told the congregation to bring Jesus into the conversation, first.

“Lets talk about Jesus first. Who was he, what did he do, what did he say, what did he claim, what did he fulfill. Oh, we’ll get there. Sexuality, though. Here, sexuality comes out of the enemy. Let’s talk about who Jesus is, let’s talk about what he said, let’s talk about what he asked for and if we have questions down the road, so be it. We’ll go all day,” Lents said. “We’ve had conversations in our church with people who are directly in the thick of this. We don’t have all the answers for some of these stuffs but what we will do is fight to the nail to have the conversation.”

He went on to say that Hillsong NYC tries its best to give people in the church the best tools to handle the most controversial topics; in a way the culture is not. Moreover, he did say that the Christian community needed to change its method on address the gay community.

“One thing is for sure, we can’t do what we’ve been doing. We’re losing that way. We’re losing the way the churches handle the gay community. Not working. Not. Working. So we’re not going to continue to do the same stupid thing over and over again,” Lentz said.

Pastor Lentz says that he is okay with other churches not understanding and even taking shots at the church for their different approaches. He is even okay with having full on conversations with people in the church that “don’t get it” and even disagrees with him.

“We don’t have to agree on everything. We have to agree on love. But we can disagree on something in our church and still call this our home. This is not a cult. I’m not God. I just run with it,” Lentz said as he ended the “response” to the question. “We’re obligated, absolutely, to give clear answers, and we’re working on it.”

Millennials are craving and seeking depth and that is exactly what David Kinnaman, the author of “You Lost Me” and “unChristian” found in his 20 years of studying millennials and challenges they are facing today. Kinnaman is also the president of an evangelical Christian polling firm in Ventura, California called Barna Group.

He said in his study on reasons why millennials stay in church that, “many young Americans say life seems complicated—that it’s hard to know how to live with the onslaught of information, worldviews and options they are faced with every day. One of the specific criticisms young adults frequently make about Christianity is that it does not offer deep, thoughtful or challenging answers to life in a complex culture.”

Barna Study

In the same survey, it foundthat 52 percent of the Millennials have not attended church in the past six months in 2013—an eight percent increase since 2004.

Another recent Barna Group survey found that not only are Americans divided on the importance of attending church, but it also calculated the numbers of millennials who valued church attendance. The 2014 survey found that two out of ten find the importance of attending church while 35 percent take an anti-church stance.

While the numbers illustrate the failing attraction of religion in America, Hillsong NYC paints a different picture. According to several news outlets, the New York City branch of the Pentecostal, Aussie mega church draws an estimated of 7,000 people to its Sunday services every week. And the majority of its congregation is the “lost” millennials that Barna’s survey reported as those who do not “paint an optimistic picture for the importance of churchgoing.”

According to Yi, a lot of her friends whether they were raised in a traditional, Christian family or they are part of the gay community, find peace and comfort in Hillsong NYC. Yi said she thinks that it attracts a lot of young adults around her age because they feel accepted and loved.

“The church seems to understand what twenty-something year olds want from church. Not to be judged. Not to be told what not to do, but to really have us feel like God really loves us for who we are,” Yi said. “And when Lentz preaches, the Holy Spirit is in that room and it moves people’s hearts. I had many friends cry and tear during the sermons.”

Since 2014, Hillsong NYC has expanded from downtown and midtown Manhattan to New Jersey. That is a total of nine different services every Sunday. And the different locations are continually attracting the demographic other churches seem to have trouble bringing into their church doors. No wonder New York Times called Hillsong Church a phenomenon. The church is also attracting rich and famous residents of the Big Apple.

The world of social media, particularly Twitter and Instagram, caught a glimpse of Hillsong NYC’s celebrity congregation after Bieber posted a photo he took with Lentz on a Sunday morning in 2013 as well as his tweet: “Love to my guy @carllentzNYC for the amazing sermon at church this morning. Love you man. I broke down today. Thank.”

kevin durant

Another picture was uploaded on Instagram with Pastor Lentz, Kevin Durant and Jay-Z in the summer of 2013 as Durant signed a sports management deal with Jay-Z. The caption reads: “HGB’s (Hillsong Gangster Bloods) #LoveThyNeighbour”—the hashtag matched the graphic on Pastor Lentz’ grey, low-cut t-shirt. The Instagram picture received 104,000 likes.

Durant was also baptized by Pastor Lentz in 2013. Later, on July 23, 2013, during one of Hillsong NYC’s Sunday night services, the NBA basketball player sat down with Lentz and spoke about his baptism experience in front of the congregation.

“When I came out of the water, I just felt different,” Durant said. “Basketball is so important to me and I carry that emotion with me all of the time and before that I would be so mad at the smallest things, my coaches, my teammates my fans. After that, I was just so positive.”

And when Pastor Lentz sat down with Byron Pitts from ABC Nightlife in 2014, Lentz said the church is aware of everyone it is reaching in this urban jungle.

“Celebrities are part of New York City. We always figured we are going to reach everybody here,” he said. “We say from the faceless *air quote* to the famous.”

Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Hugh Jackman, Bono are amongst the many celebrities who have sat down in one of the chairs at Hillsong NYC, listened to Pastor Lentz messages and have shown their love and support for the church. Selena Gomez even posted a video on Instagram of her cover on “Oceans,” a hit song by the church’s very own band, Hillsong United.

While Hillsong NYC has Hollywood knocking at its doors, the church has also been raising its very own “celebrity.”

Hillsong Church originated in Sydney, Australia. Brian Houston, the Senior pastor at Hillsong Church, founded the church in 1983 and now, 32 years later, there are about 14 international offshoots all around the globe including in London, Barcelona, Moscow, Los Angeles and multiple campus sites planted all across Australia. The church even has its own record label. Hillsong Music and a contemporary Christian band called, Hillsong United. The band included members that played the electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboard, and the drums. It was definitely not your typical Sunday school choir.

The church first attracted widescale notice, according to Billboard, in 1986 after the Hillsong Conference, an annual event for contemporary Christian musicians. Year after year, young adults who were drawn to the contemporary worship styles of Hillsong gathered at church. The church’s non-conventional praise songs was first introduced outside the church’s door in 1992, when they launched their first live CD. And after a decade, in 2004, the band was accepted into the world of mainstream music, when the album, “For All You’ve Done,” topped the mainstream Australian pop charts. Then two years later, Hillsong Church had more than 19,000 people attend its weekly services in Australia.

united

Since its earlier successes, Hillsong United has sold about 16 million albums, was 2014 Billboard’s Top Christian Artists, its latest album was No.1 on iTunes, and 50 million people from different churches sing their songs every Sunday.

Music seems to have a similar affect in America. Whether it is a mega church like Hillsong NYC or a church that has less than 100 members in its congregation, Hillsong United’s contemporary music can be heard within the churches’ walls every Sunday.

“Every since I lead praise team for the youth ministry, I always remember playing at least one Hillsong’s song,” said Joseph Kim, a 23-year-old Rutgers University student who is currently studying biology. While he has never attended a Hillsong NYC’s Sunday service, Joe has been to many Hillsong concerts and is familiar with their music because he is a worship leader at his church.

Kim led his first praise team when he was in eighth grade, when he was part of the youth ministry at So-Mahng Presbyterian Church in Palisades Park, New Jersey. Even though he had graduated from youth ministry to English ministry for young adults at his church, he is still leading worship every Sunday at 1 p.m.

“I don’t know what it is about music that makes me feel connected to God. Maybe it’s the lyrics or the worshipping environment,” Kim said. “To be honest, I think I would’ve had a different experience at church and in my faith if I wasn’t a praise team leader.”

Kim revealed that even though Rutgers University is about 40 minutes away from So-Mahng Presbyterian Church, he commutes back every weekend to lead worship for the young adult ministry.

The music seemed to have opened the eyes of Hollywood as well. Michael John Warren was approach by Hollywood to take on the challenge of directing a music documentary about the mega church’s contemporary Christian band—Hillsong United. Pastor Brian Houston’s son, Joel Houston is the current leader of the band and is also the co-pastor of Hillsong NYC.
After being persuaded by the musical talents of the Christian band, Warren decided to attend one of the services at Hillsong NYC. And very much like Hillsong’s music, he was impressed. The non-conventional, multicultural congregation was eye opening, especially the warm vibe of the Sunday service.
“It was hands in the air, people singing every word,” Warren told Relevant Magazine. “It was a very moving environment, and that’s when I first started thinking that this was going to be a pretty compelling movie. You start to understand the church and what the band has done and you realized that there’s a lot of story here. That was critical for me: making sure there was going to be a plot more than just music. That started to reveal itself to me.”

Whether it is through the mouth of Pastor Lentz that delivers the messages on Sunday mornings or through the contemporary music styles of Hillsong United band that is touching the heart of the young New Yorkers, it seems like Hillsong Church planted its “local” church in the right location in 2010.

Professor Pollick said that New York City is the perfect location to plant a church like Hillsong NYC. While New York is perceived as a center of secularism, it has actually been a location of religious vitality.

Therefore, the combination of personal informality with rock-concert-style staging, performed in architectural spaces that mimic shopping malls and concert halls are what Professor Pollick believes is bringing the millennials back to church.

However studies and experts seem to disagree. A Barna Group study, Designing Worship Spaces with Millennials in Mind, found that the younger generation isn’t looking for the cool factor in the churches they explore—it isn’t about hipper worship bands or even the nonconventional church buildings.

The Barna Group study found out that 67 percent of millennials prefer a quiet church more than a loud one; 67 percent said classic is more ideal than trendy and 77 percent chose a sanctuary over an auditorium.

“Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates – edgier music, more causal services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving,” said Rachel Held Evans, the author of “Searching for Sunday: Loving and Finding the Church,” in her CNN blog. “But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.”

What millennials want is to be included in the conversation and decision-making process of what goes on in church. They want to make a difference in the world they are living in. A Nyack College student, Taehwan Baik, who is studying biblical studies and is pursing to go into pastoral ministry, said all he wants is to love people and help those that are in need. That is what he believes God called everyone to do on this earth.

“It says in the bible: In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, it is more blessed to give than to receive,” Baik recited.

At the end of the day, it isn’t about being the hipster church, the famous church, or the big church—which Pastor Lentz denounces. He refers to Hillsong NYC that gathers 7,000 people every week as “a small church with a lot of people.”

“We have a church that has an influence. Once in awhile people are going to know you. I’m… I’m a dad. I’ve got real friends, real life. It’s an honor to have influence but I don’t believe the fame. And sometimes the Christian world wants to cipher stuff from our culture for some random reason—we’ll have celebrity pastors, lets use these terms—but it’s a load of crap,” Lentz said at The Exchange. “We don’t believe it. We don’t subscribe to it. Don’t even look at it. Not interested in it. We focus on what God is calling us to do here.”