Soul Searching is our series about how the most secular generation in history is changing the face of religion.
Toward the end of his Friday night sermon, Pastor Josh Kelsey tells a story about resilience. It ends in a quip about gentrification. He’s virtually ageless, a clean-cut guy with a Roman nose and excellent teeth, fond of bomber jackets and self-deprecation. At the moment he’s preaching to a crowd of more than 100, people who know all the words to the harmonized songs about Jesus’ love the eight-person band plays with tears in their eyes, people wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the name of his ministries.
But once upon a time, he reminds the congregation, it wasn’t quite so easy. When he said, four years ago, that he was going to build a church in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he was told it was the “graveyard of pastors,” a place where “no one will receive God.”
In a sense, the doubters were correct—attendance in the neighborhood’s traditional churches has been plunging over the last few decades. National data shows younger, more affluent, and liberal populations abandoning church; only one-third of people in their twenties and thirties attend regular services across the U.S. And the North Brooklyn area, where rents have risen almost 80% since 1990, has been consumed by that statistically secular population.
Churches founded in the ‘60s by Spanish-speaking immigrants have switched to English-language sermons and thrown block parties to court the youth. Others hold services in bars, rent out their spaces to pay the bills. Once, I saw a popular DJ play on a Saturday night in one of these churches, at one point a Slovakian Mission. In an impressive attempt to meet people exactly where they’re at, the friars stood smiling behind a makeshift bar at midnight, hawking Coors for a few bucks apiece.
But Williamsburg, this “graveyard” of fallen churches, is in fact where Pastor Kelsey went, and he had success: His church, C3 Brooklyn, holds several services a week in locations across the borough, including in this white-brick Bushwick warehouse. There are more than 1,000 regular members, and the church is growing fast.
And so the pastor uses his success as a way to remind us of the value of overcoming adversity, of moving through fear. And then he makes a joke about the fact that we’re actually in Bushwick, which the realtors tell us is basically Williamsburg anyway, these days. It’s the kind of joke only a certain kind of New Yorker—one acquainted with the take-no-prisoners real estate market around here—would appreciate. Everyone chuckles.
And Pastor Kelsey certainly knows his audience. In the course of his sermon he compares waiting for Jesus to waiting for the subway, deliverance to something promised by a boss or a CEO. Holding out for intermittent swells of faith, he says, could sometimes feel like anticipating the perfect wave—Kelsey, an Australian native, is an avid surfer. In a recent Instagram post he wrote that on his day off he would #prayforwaves.
C3 Brooklyn is one of more than 400 franchises of an Australian-based Pentecostal megachurch founded in the ‘80s. (The three Cs stand for Christian City Church.) The church’s constitution favors expansion over strict continuity; ministries are custom-built to appeal to the demographics of the 64 countries in which it has satellites, from Uganda to Bulgaria to China and France. Pastor Kelsey’s parents were the first to import C3 to the United States, with a church in Long Island in 1989.
Being a member of an expanding franchise like this, especially one so concerned with growth among the young urban set, gives biblical literalists some flexibility. In Silicon Valley, the C3 chapter near the Googleplex once paid for billboards that read, “Not Religious? Neither Are We.” Which is a nice bit of false witness, actually: The global website for the C3 church plainly states the denomination’s positions: that the Bible is the word of God, and that there is an “essential need for new birth by faith in Jesus Christ” to heal the “spiritually lost condition of all people.”
Like Hillsong, another Australian Pentecostal megachurch imported to New York, the North American C3 churches don’t relish advertising certain illiberal positions. During the service I attended, Pastor Kelsey made a point of preaching no judgement on the issue of premarital sex. (Though he reiterates that he himself waited for his wife, who is also a pastor at C3, and wants everyone to know how worth it it was.)
So it’s unlikely the pastors at C3 Brooklyn will take the stage and condemn homosexuality any time soon, and none of the church’s website copy mentions a word about it. (As of press time, the church hadn’t responded to request for comment.) But two years ago one of C3’s members, Samuel, was featured in a harrowing video testimonial, one of many the church produces.
Samuel describes himself as a sex addict who slept with men. When he came to C3, he unloaded his troubles to Pastor Kelsey, who prayed for him. “With all the wounds I still had about masculinity, his leadership mattered,” he says to the camera.
Samuel no longer identifies as gay, which he understands is a controversial position. “I don’t know if people are ‘born gay,’” he says. “But I do know that Jesus offers us a fresh start to be born again.”
C3 Global reported $100 million in revenue in 2015; it plans to add 1,000 more ministries globally by 2020. Being a missionary of this kind requires some creativity; in Silicon Valley the C3 chapters use tech-friendly metaphors like “going public” to spread the good word. Here in Brooklyn I repeatedly hear the church referred to as a start-up. Its congregants, who work in fashion and media, describe themselves as creatives.
Somewhere in the early 2000s, the horizon line for certain Evangelicals shifted, and like secular Americans they became obsessed with the young. Pews emptied out, coffers were lighter, and church leaders debated how best to maintain the legacy—was it by diluting the message, or doubling down? Cool Christianity, with its rad-dad pastors and DJ sets, saw the future in the “emerging” church: a nebulous movement, but one defined by more “conversational” gospel and trendier venues. Ties were loosened, light shows commissioned, pastors fluent in social media hired.
Concurrently, arena rock salvation for teenagers, most famously embodied by massive Acquire the Fire youth gatherings (produced by Teen Mania, now bankrupt) proved it was possible to get youth into Jesus with a megatron and some catchy salvation tunes. Now, kids who wept into each others’ jackets at Teen Mania rallies are in their mid-twenties, and Justin Bieber’s been baptized by a hot pastor in a leather jacket. Cool Christianity can look like a parody of itself.
The whole point of young Evangelicalism as embodied by Acquire the Fire was that, as Laura Sandler observed in her book on the subject, goths and preps could find salvation by transcending their respective teenaged scenes—it was a “dominant ideology without a dominant aesthetic.” But elsewhere the push for a more youth-friendly church bred homogeneity.
Soong-Chan Rah, a Chicago-area theologian, recalls going to conferences at the height of the trend and seeing the same “blond-haired, 29-year-old, white male, replete with cool glasses and a goatee,” offered as the future of American Christianity. And youth-focused churches in urban centers like Los Angeles and New York are certainly more racially diverse, says Brett McCracken, who wrote a book on cool Evangelicalism some years ago. But they do tend to attract almost exclusively young people, many of relative affluence.
There are seven other Pentecostal churches in the neighborhood where C3 has its Bushwick services. Like many churches in the city, they reflect the ethnicities of the enclaves in which they were founded. The Church Cruzada de la Fey is one. Built in the ‘30s, it holds three services a week in its small chapel, primarily in Spanish, blocks from where C3’s Bushwick service is held.
Almost everyone who attends Cruzada de la Fey lives in the neighborhood. One of its elderly parishioners lives across the street and has been attending her whole life. Her 40-year-old son remembers being fed there, during a daily free lunch that has since been abandoned. The church is shrinking slowly and hasn’t put much effort into outreach, but it’s lucky it owns the building; other Hispanic churches in the area have been forced to close as residents are priced out.
Some attendants of C3 told me, as we stood in front of the warehouse next to a vat of cold brew, that they’d left other churches because such ethnically specific neighborhood churches had felt homogenous or stifling. One member said the Carribean church she’d been going to for the last four years was too focused on propriety. Another had found a Latino-dominated ministry not quite diverse enough. Racially, C3’s service was remarkably diverse. Generationally, it’s not: The oldest member I could find was in her mid-thirties.
As in nearly every other aspect of life, lower-income people of faith have been hit the hardest by the rising real estate prices and shuttering of institutions that have attended New York’s transformation. In Harlem, historically black churches are being converted into luxury real estate. A 2015 reorganization of the Archdiocese closed 55 parishes in New York, most of them founded in the ‘50s and ‘60s to serve immigrant and non-English-speaking communities.
For the young people who attend C3’s services, it’s easy to see the appeal in attending a church that caters to what can only be described as the global creative class: a new generation of immigrants with its own language, communicated through social media and graphic design. But the gap between C3 and a church like Church Cruzada de la Fey feels a little like how when a neighborhood starts to change you have two coffee shops, two bars, two groceries—one representing the neighborhood as it was and the other the neighborhood as it will soon be.
Instagram is an important medium for Kelsey’s church. C3’s “creative team” works hard; the church has, maybe as much as a distinct theology, a look. Pastor Kelsey might make a point of preaching no judgment on the issue of premarital sex; I imagine there’s a little less wiggle room when it comes to C3’s style guide. The church’s media output is prolific, its logo—which hangs around the necks of eager volunteers when I visit—appropriately bespoke. Everything is denim, white cursive on black backgrounds. C3 Brooklyn’s Twitter account reminds us we’re “co-workers with Christ.” And as one of the church’s pastors will write approvingly on Instagram next to a black-and-white photo of 20-somethings breaking bread together: “This ain’t kinfolk. This is church.”
Before the service there’s a bright, omnipresent soundtrack of EDM. Painfully good-looking people in floppy hats and high-waisted jeans hang around. Most of the “welcome team” is made up of recent transplants from other parts of the country; as C3 reminds its congregants often, New York can be an alienating place. Here, you can “find your family.” Waiting at the mouth of the rented warehouse for the service to begin, this feels like any show I would have gone to on this block. But people don’t really talk to you at those things, and here everyone is really, really nice.
But it was the sizzle reel for Jesus that really nailed C3’s appeal, projected behind the pastor in the rented warehouse with exposed beams. There were Baptisms filmed in the style of extreme sports video, and a segment in which one of the church’s members, a model, testifies: “I have to find my identity in God, not in Vogue.” In one short video, a pastor reads scripture silently in a white cathedral, the color of his T-shirt vibrant rendered through an Instagram-adjacent filter, music booming behind him. Everybody claps. Which isn’t to say the members of 3C aren’t earnestly moved by the spirit—they clearly are. But to me, a heathen and something of a Luddite, such high-production videos look like the conspicuous consumption of gospel more than anything else.
Filmore Boulder, a 26-year-old assistant pastor and the leader of the high school youth program, moved here from Detroit a few years ago specifically to help create this “millennial-appealing ministry.” The aesthetics are important to him, he says. He describes himself as a creative type. And “if we believe God created the universe,” he asks rhetorically, “shouldn’t we reflect that creativity?” And then about 20 teenagers in braids and belly shirts swarm him, members of a partnership with a local school.
Where other churches have been forced to clumsily adapt, the C3 franchise had the privilege to start with a clean slate, to reverse-engineer a culture that would appeal to the urban young. The church is planning on opening more locations soon, perhaps in the Bronx, moving toward its goal of a C3 in every neighborhood. And to do that, they’ll need tithing (which you can do using a customized app).
A couple months ago, Pastor Kelsey, in a sermon at the Bowery Ballroom, compared buy-in to the church to the difference between owning an apartment and being a guest at an Airbnb. Which is a pretty appropriate metaphor, actually—one of C3’s central pitches is that it’s “three locations, one church,” promising ease and cohesion no matter where in the city (or world) you might be. Such a frictionless, familiar style of worship might be more viable for the young and upwardly mobile, but an embedded neighborhood church it’s certainly not.
McCracken, the theologian, tells me scores of cool churches have risen and fallen since he wrote his book about them eight years ago. He worries that hinging your faith on what’s trendy isn’t always sustainable. When he was in New York, C3 wasn’t even around. But “one thing I do lament,” he tells me, “is that there are these dying congregations in urban areas, and then these hipster churches that swoop in. I think it would be cooler if they would partner with them.” But, as he notes, there’s a lot of difficulty in that. The Kinfolk look is known for its bland, global reproducibility, not its ability to adapt.