Los Angeles — A toned and sunburned 32-year-old Australian with the letters F-A-I-T-H tattooed onto his biceps strode onto the stage of a former burlesque theater here and shouted across a sea of upstretched hands and uplifted smartphones: “Let’s win this city together!”
The crowd did not need much urging. Young, diverse and devoted to Jesus, the listeners had come to the Belasco Theater from around the city, and from across the country, eager to help an Australian Pentecostal megachurch that is spreading worldwide establish its first outpost on America’s West Coast.
The church, Hillsong, has become a phenomenon, capitalizing on, and in some cases shaping, trends not only in evangelicalism but also in Christian youth culture. Its success would be rare enough at a time when religion is struggling in a secularizing Europe and North America. But Hillsong is even more remarkable because its target is young Christians in big cities, where faith seems out of fashion but where its services are packing them in.
Powered by a thriving, and lucrative, recording label that dominates Christian contemporary music, it has a vast reach — by some estimates, 100,000 people in the pews each weekend, 10 million followers on social media, 16 million albums sold, with its songs popping up in churches from Uzbekistan to Papua New Guinea.
Founded 30 years ago, Hillsong has churches in Amsterdam; Barcelona, Spain; Berlin; Cape Town; Copenhagen; Kiev, Ukraine; London; New York; Paris; and Stockholm, as well as multiple campuses in Australia and, now, an embryonic congregation in Los Angeles.
The Hillsong empire might appear to be a musical powerhouse first and a church second. It is, after all, a multimillion-dollar enterprise, drawing large crowds to arena concert performances; one of its bands, Hillsong United, is even the subject of a documentary scheduled for release by Warner Bros. next year.
Its songs, with a folk rock sound and simple, accessible lyrics, pervade the Christian charts and have transformed the Christian songbook.
“They are without a doubt the most influential producers of worship music in Christendom,” said Fred Markert, a Colorado-based leader of Youth With a Mission, a Christian organization. And Ed Stetzer, the executive director of LifeWay Research, an organization based in Nashville that studies practices in American Christianity, declared in an analysis of Hillsong, “In sensory stimulation, Hillsong’s productions rival any other contemporary form of entertainment.”
But its critics, and there are many, deride Hillsong as hipster Christianity, suggesting that its theology is thin, its enthusiasm for celebrities (Justin Bieber is among its fans) unbecoming, its politics (opposition to abortion and a murky position on homosexuality) opaque.
“It’s a prosperity movement for the millennials, in which the polyester and middle-class associations of Oral Roberts have given way to ripped jeans and sophisticated rock music,” said R. Albert Mohler Jr., the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “What has made Hillsong distinctive is a minimization of the actual content of the Gospel, and a far more diffuse presentation of spirituality.”
For young Christians in cities where Hillsong has churches, it has become a magnet, combining the production values of a rock concert, the energy of a nightclub and the community of a megachurch. Many of the worshipers say they are drawn by the music but have stayed because of the opportunity to be with other young Christians, and because they believe that the churches can help transform cities, both through prayer and through direct social services.
“I want to be part of something bigger than myself,” said Tricia Hidalgo, 29, who said that she first heard Hillsong music played in her childhood church in Ontario, Calif., and that as a young adult she gave up studying to be a teacher to move to Australia to attend Hillsong’s Bible college. Now, she is volunteering for the church in Los Angeles.
“We’re going to love the city, love the people, and, to me, I feel like love can break any walls,” she said.
Amanda-Paige Whittington, 32, recalled hearing Hillsong’s first huge hit, “Shout to the Lord,” as a girl in a Southern Baptist church in Mississippi.
“I told my mom, ‘One day I’m going to Hillsong,’ ” said Ms. Whittington, who also attended Hillsong’s Bible college in Sydney and now lives in Orange County. “The music drew me to the church.”
Hillsong Los Angeles, as well as Hillsong New York, which opened four years ago, is an example of a growing phenomenon in global Christianity: big church brands taking on big secular cities. This year, Saddleback Church, the Orange County megachurch led by Rick Warren, opened its own campus in Los Angeles, while several years ago, Willow Creek, the megachurch based in South Barrington, Ill., opened a campus in Chicago.
“There’s no question there’s a real current of evangelical enamorment with cities,” Mr. Stetzer said. “Evangelicals have been a rural people historically, and the cities were the places where sin was. But cities are also where the people are.”
Hillsong chooses cities not only because of population density, but also because of their impact on culture.
“These are tough, hard, dry towns for contemporary churches,” said Brian Houston, the Sydney-based senior pastor of the Hillsong empire. “We want to be strategic, and really impact cities of influence, so that the influence can reach far beyond.”
Hillsong has critics who monitor speakers at its conferences, and utterances by its leaders, for deviations from Christian orthodoxy (of concern to the right) or evidence of social conservatism (of concern to the left). Its finances have been scrutinized by the Australian news media; its preaching is tracked by a critical blog. This year, Mr. Houston issued a clarification after being criticized by other evangelicals for suggesting that Christians and Muslims serve the same God.
Hillsong, founded by Brian Houston and his wife, Bobbie, has been anti-abortion and has described gay sex as sinful. But recently, church leaders have moderated their tone; the pastor of Hillsong New York, Carl Lentz, passed up two opportunities this year to express a view on same-sex marriage, in interviews with Katie Couric and The Huffington Post.
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In the United States, Hillsong is nondenominational; in Australia, it is associated with the Australian Christian Churches, which is an affiliate of the Assemblies of God. For a time, Mr. Houston was the head of the denomination, and in 2000, he fired his father, Frank Houston, who was serving at another church, after the elder Mr. Houston acknowledged having abused a boy decades earlier.
One of Brian Houston’s sons, Joel, is Hillsong’s creative director, performs with Hillsong United and serves as a pastor at Hillsong New York. Another son, Ben, is the pastor of Hillsong Los Angeles. Ben has the “Faith” tattoo on one arm, as well as tattoos of the characters +=♥ (Jesus Is Love) and the names of his three daughters, surrounded by images of flowers and butterflies, as well as that of a lion, “to remind me I’m a man.”
Hillsong’s worship style is charismatic, meaning there is an emphasis on the Holy Spirit and on divine healing, but there is little speaking in tongues, which is seen at more conventional Pentecostal churches.
The Houstons like to say that worship should be enjoyed, not endured. Services are often held in dimly lit concert venues: In New York, the church started at Irving Plaza and then relocated to the Grand Ballroom at the Manhattan Center; in Los Angeles, a debut was held at 1 Oak, a West Hollywood club. There are lines to get in, and fewer seats than worshipers. Some worshipers share images and thoughts on social media during services.
The sound has evolved over the decades, but is now sometimes compared to U2’s. Tom Wagner, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Edinburgh, said Hillsong’s music was characterized by rich orchestration, but simple harmonies, and was often regarded by listeners as “spiritually anointed.”
“They’re very good at writing songs that are catchy,” Mr. Wagner said. “They know what works.”