The Brand Is Belief
Have you ever been to a church where the Jesus music is so loud that some congregants—young, hip urbanites all—wear earplugs? Where the Christian pop-rock stirs people into such rapture that they jump up and down, both feet leaving earth, both hands raised ecstatically skyward, as if in a mild-mannered mosh pit? Where half the pastors, band members, and congregants have nose piercings and the other half have forearm tattoos, and a teeny-tiny beanie is the accessory du jour?
When you picture a house of worship, does a concert venue come to mind? A nightclub? What about a converted warehouse that’s only hours removed from hosting a rave, the kind of nightlong hedonistic vortex where strangers looking for drugs befriend strangers willing to part ways with theirs?
Wait, wait: have you ever seen a pastor crack jokes about Williamsburg’s gentrification and being a dolphin with “porpoise” while wearing Nike high-tops, acid-washed jeans, and an Apple Watch?
No? Then you’ve never seen Josh Kelsey, the public face of the hippest chapter of what might be the hippest church on earth, come onstage to preach the Gospel.
When you picture a house of worship, does a concert venue come to mind? A nightclub? What about a converted warehouse?
Kelsey—Pastor Josh to everyone who knows him, which, from what I can tell, is a lot of people—is the lead pastor of C3 NYC, which holds Sunday services in five New York neighborhoods (Bushwick, Williamsburg, downtown Brooklyn, Gramercy, and Long Island City). C3 NYC is one chapter of C3 Church Global, an international “movement” of evangelical Pentecostal churches catering to young people. C3 was founded by Phil Pringle and his wife, Chris, in Sydney, Australia, in 1980. The inaugural meeting of the church, then called Christian Centre Northside, saw 12 people gather on Easter Sunday in a small surf club on Sydney’s northern coast. Its contemporary music and laid-back vibe soon attracted so many people that it expanded to a warehouse and partnered with neighborhood churches, becoming known as Christian City Church. Nearly 40 years and one rebrand later, C3 has “planted” more than 550 churches in 64 countries. Its goal is a million weekly members but, for now, C3’s weekly services are attended by more than 112,000 people worldwide. In the United States, wherever there’s a large urban population of young people—in Atlanta; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; and so on—there’s probably a fast-growing C3 church where believers revel in the bright, pulsing, polychromatic glory of God.
Or in the strobe lights, which are as integral to the C3 experience as beer is to a football game.
C3 doesn’t look or sound like a traditional church, not least because most of its locations don’t have a single physical church. Sunday services are generally held in large, rented-out venues such as high-school auditoriums and downtown dance clubs. There are no pews, effigies, or imposing wooden crosses behind the pulpit, because those things are old-school, which C3 tries very hard not to be, and they scream religion, which C3 tries very hard not to shove down anyone’s throat. Its ethos is one of practiced casualness: Come as you are, but be chill about it. Services start with a buzzy period of socializing over coffee. A Christ-loving band then plays its Christ-loving music, which might sound like a pop-rock chart-topper to someone not paying attention to the lyrics. Then it’s preaching time. Sermons are led by youthfully ebullient pastors who go by their first names. These pastors look and dress just like their congregants, people whose “Sunday best” is indistinguishable from their “Saturday-night best.” They make pop-culture references and tell self-deprecating jokes. They talk about the alienation caused by technology, the loneliness of being young in a big city, the carnal temptations of the modern world. They say things like, “We’re just so pumped to do life with you guys.” Onstage, they might hold an iPad and a Bible.
This whole shtick isn’t new or unusual. Hip, youth-focused, media-savvy Pentecostal megachurches have been sprouting up since the early 1980s. Hillsong, which has locations in 31 countries, is one you might’ve heard of, if only because its celebrity congregants are TMZ bait. There’s also Churchome (six locations), whose lead pastor introduced Justin Bieber to Hillsong’s lead pastor, who baptized the Biebs in a bathtub in 2014. And Zoe Church (three), which got its start at exclusive Los Angeles nightclub 1 OAK. And Mosaic (five), which produced an ad for the Doritos 2010 “Crash the Super Bowl” commercial contest. And Vous Church (two), led by the man who pronounced Kanye West and Kim Kardashian husband and wife.
Unlike those star-studded churches, though, C3 has managed to multiply its flock without relying on the headline-grabbing power of celebrity congregants and pastors. That’s because C3 is a distinctly 21st-century manifestation of a church—a church optimized for the Instagram age. It’s been aesthetically engineered to be as appealing as possible to young people, then packaged for global reproducibility online and off. Like a pair of cheap but prominently branded underwear from a high-end clothing designer, it’s accessible while still being aspirational.
In short, C3 has refashioned religion as a trendy lifestyle brand. But when your version of Christianity says that the Bible is the literal word of God, the devil is real, we’re all spiritually lost, premarital sex is a sin, and gay marriage is definitely a sin, it can make the branding part a wee bit complicated.
On my walk toward the Music Hall of Williamsburg for a Sunday-morning C3 service, I’m trailing a pair of 20-something black women with legs so long and hair so glossy and faces so angular that I’m absolutely sure that if they aren’t already runway models, they’re going to be scouted today, maybe on the street or maybe at a trendy church. Which, it turns out, is their destination, because of course it is. I watch them float merrily past the just-slightly-less-attractive people standing outside the very venue that I’d planned on entering. As I observe the scene from 50 feet away, a wave of anxiety rises in my gut. Do I look cool enough to be here? Am I cool enough? My fight-or-flight response kicks in. I pretend to be a curious passerby and stroll right past the church to a nearby café, where I spend a few minutes sitting quietly in the influencer-free sanctuary. By the time I return to the Music Hall of Williamsburg with a large cup of cold brew, my liquid security blanket, most people are inside. I hear shouts and bass rumbling from the belly of the beast.
In the lobby, a diverse, smiley crew serves coffee in C3-branded cups that look cool enough to Instagram, which a handful of churchgoers will later do. C3-branded streetwear in trendy colors like lime green and millennial pink hangs neatly from clothing racks. I suppress my consumerist urges and open the door to the venue. Sonic Christian energy immediately blasts my poor ears. “I am chosen / Not forsaken,” a singer belts. “I am who you say I am / You are for me,” she croons, addressing God as if he’s a lover. Two members of the hipper-than-thou band, comprising gifted C3 members, are wearing flannel; two are wearing black turtlenecks. In the crowd of 100 or so, I spot various permutations of black boots, black jeans, black leather jackets, and black wide-brimmed hats. Not everyone—not even close to everyone—is white. This surprises me. The impressive number of hot congregants, however, does not. C3 seems to be the Lake Wobegon of church, a magical place where everyone is young and good-looking. Some, I later learn on Instagram, are professionally good-looking: C3 NYC’s members include fashion bloggers, SoulCycle instructors, social-media influencers, models, and at least one fairly famous actor (Anthony Ramos, one of Hamilton’s original Broadway cast members and Lady Gaga’s best friend in A Star Is Born).
After 20 minutes of music, the first preacher, Filmore Bouldes, a young black man with nearly 43,000 Instagram followers, comes onstage. He’s wearing a Black Panther baseball cap, a black turtleneck tucked into light-wash dad jeans, and black Oxford-style Dr. Martens—the exact same pair of shoes on my feet, only shinier. “Woo!” he cries, sounding like Ric Flair. “That song. It’s true.” Pastor Filmore is an enthusiastic hype man for God and for C3, in that order. When his encouragement to “give God a shout of praise” is met with only scattered murmurs, he shakes his head and says, “Come on, I think Jesus deserves a little better than that!” Cue the noise. “You can tell anxiety, ‘God is good!’” he exhorts. He tells us to say the same thing to bullies, enemies, and depression.
C3 is a distinctly 21st-century manifestation of a church, aesthetically engineered to be as appealing as possible to young people, then packaged for global reproducibility online and off.
We reach the money part of the service. I mean that in the sense of cash, not the slang adjective that roughly means “cool”—though the video update on C3 NYC’s finances, projected on a screen behind the band, is rather slick. I learn that advertising in Williamsburg costs $3,825. A new C3 NYC-branded truck costs $20,000. There are other expenditures, too, but the multimedia spectacle is so enthralling that I forget to take notes. Pastor Josh later texts me those financial figures, all of which are philanthropic: $27,500 to help persecuted church planters in Central Asia and the Middle East; over $26,000 to purchase land for a school in Uganda; $14,000 to support schoolchildren in India; and $2,000 a month to fund an urban garden in New York. “There are many other things we do to help people,” he says. But you can’t help others without first helping yourself, so the video ends with an urge to C3 members to give, aka tithe. Which, naturally, can be done with a mobile app. “We can never out-give God,” C3 NYC’s website says, “so when it comes to our finances, we can be extravagantly generous with our tithes and offerings.” The message is clear: Give money to our church and God will reward you financially and spiritually. Not that C3’s coffers are empty. Like most tax-exempt churches, C3 isn’t keen on revealing financial figures to the public, but in 2005, an Australian business magazine reported that its global revenue was believed to be over $100 million. At the time, C3 had only 100 churches. And it didn’t have a tithing app sending push notifications.
The second video is a testimonial in which a forlorn C3 member boards the L train, squats in front of street art, and walks into a vinyl shop, among other things. Playing in the background is is a promotional spot for DAUGHTERS, the church’s women’s ministry, led by Pastor Georgie. (Caps lock features prominently in C3’s branding, because all-caps looks cool.) Though it doesn’t make clear what, exactly, DAUGHTERS does, the video is an energizing starburst of color and cheer. In one scene, five exuberantly dressed women strut arm in arm down a narrow, brick-walled street in SoHo.
“Let’s lean in to the Word,” Pastor Filmore says. He welcomes Pastor Josh onto the stage.
A few weeks later, I meet Pastor Josh at Made by We, a new café/coworking space/retail concept from WeWork, in the Flatiron district of Manhattan. It seems like the kind of place where C3 would host a post-church meetup. Australian baristas are serving Australian-inspired coffee in a white-walled, high-ceilinged space decorated with vibrant art, including a neon sign that says, “Don’t look back, you’re not going that way.” (Its arrow points, amusingly, to the restrooms.) Pastor Josh, in addition to the requisite leather jacket and jeans, is wearing a black crew-neck sweatshirt that’s identical to the one I have on. “Good taste,” he says, chuckling. He has the teeth of a dentist. His close-cropped hair is flecked with silver near his temples, but, at nearly 40, he looks a decade younger. He’s friendly and charismatic. Within a few minutes of meeting him, I’ve come to the conclusion (not without some cynicism) that Pastor Josh is a good, genuine dude.
Growing up, he split time between Sydney, where he was born, and New York, where his parents, who’d been a part of C3 since its Christian Centre Northside days, moved in 1989 to plant a church on Long Island—the first C3 in the United States. After returning to Sydney, Josh Kelsey became Pastor Josh, at age 25. But he felt a calling to help people find God an ocean away. “Every time I came back to New York City, I just saw the need,” he says. “I saw people isolated, lacking community, lacking faith, stability. Especially young people.” In 2013, he moved to Williamsburg with his wife, Georgie, and their six-month-old son to plant a C3 in Brooklyn. They hosted weekly dinner parties in their apartment, and “all sorts of people from all different backgrounds” would show up to “talk about faith and talk about things that matter.” The dinner parties outgrew their space, so Pastor Josh began searching for a venue where he could spread the Word on Sundays. But venue owners didn’t understand what he was doing. A churchless church? Sounds like a cult. “It was like, ‘What?’ It was just kind of a foreign concept for people,” Pastor Josh says. Eventually, a former textile factory in Williamsburg, Villain, opened its arms. Pastor Josh liked the name. It suggested that God could save the villainous parts of all of us.
Six years later, dinner parties remain elemental to C3 NYC. “Our prayer is that no one would be isolated in this busy and intense city,” its website reads. So every Wednesday, more than 50 church members across the city, from Forest Hills to the Financial District, Bed-Stuy to the Bronx, host dinner parties in their homes. Anywhere from 5 to 35 people show up. They’ve been so popular that C3 NYC is now helping other C3 chapters adopt the dinner-party model.
“Every time I came back to New York City, I just saw the need. I saw people isolated, lacking community, lacking faith, stability. Especially young people.”
The dinner party I attend is a block from the Music Hall of Williamsburg, in a glitzy modern building. The moment I open the door to the apartment, people start introducing themselves to me, smiling as they stick out their hands. One person takes my coat. Another pours me a cup of red wine. I’m encouraged to grab pizza, pasta, salad, whatever. The friendliness would be alarming if it weren’t so genuine; at this point, no one even knows that I’m writing a story about C3.
I start chatting with a guy named Shaun, the founder of an ad-tech firm. He turns out to be the host. “These dinner parties aren’t supplemental,” he says. “It’s Sunday that’s supplemental. This”—he gestures around the room—“is where we make real connections.” A few minutes later, someone mentions that he often plays pool with dinner-party people. “So they’re more than just once-a-week church friends?” I ask him. “Yeah,” he says. “They’re friend-friends. Normal friends.”
Of the 25 or so people at the dinner party, fewer than 10 are white, and only one of them, John, is old enough to have gray hair. John has been a painter and photographer in New York longer than I’ve been alive. He was raised Catholic, he tells me, but became “spiritual” as an adult, doing yoga and breathing exercises, reading the Bhagavad Gita—those kinds of things. Then a difficult period of “breaking down and building back up again” led him to give Christianity another try. He ended up at a C3 service and felt, right away, that it would fill the emptiness deep inside him. I comment, by way of being supportive, that we all deal with that lonely feeling, especially in New York. “No, no, no,” he says. “It’s not loneliness. I think this fills a basic human need.”
Later, he tells me, “You can’t do it alone.” He’s talking about worshipping and being mindful, but we agree that it’s true of most things.
At 8:59 p.m., a woman shouts, “One minute to Jesus time, guys!” People laugh, aware of how silly “Jesus time” sounds, but they’re sincerely enthusiastic about it. We gather in a circle and start with an icebreaker straight out of Bible camp: Say your name and how you “stepped out in faith” recently. One by one, the anecdotes pour forth. God gave me the confidence to ask for a raise. God rewarded me for tithing by blessing me with a lucrative freelance gig. God gave me the courage to tell my new coworkers that I wasn’t going to any old dinner party tonight, but to Bible study. One woman says that she’d been dating a guy she thought was The One because he had “the looks and the money,” but God let her see that he was dragging her down. When she says she broke up with him last week, cries of “Fuck that guy!” and “Yeah, fuck that guy!” fill the room.
Over the course of the night, the religious and the secular mix in fascinating ways. People quote Ephesians 6:17 (it’s about wearing the “helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit”) and, minutes later, talk about social media and Trump. They make “Not today, Satan” jokes, but in reference to “enemies,” the people in their lives who make fun of them for being so into God. They liken their daily “spiritual battle” to LeBron James having to defend an NBA title. They mention that they listen to worship music as they get ready for work; once on the train, they check Instagram, feel guilty about it, and read Scripture instead—in their Bible apps. Over and over again, they make comments that amount to: New York City is a hard place to live, but that’s what C3 and God are for.
Near the end of the dinner party, a woman sitting near me says that her dream is to start a Christian spin class. I turn toward her. “You could call it”—I pause for dramatic effect—“SoulCycle.” The room erupts with laughter.
At one point in our conversation, Pastor Josh tells me that he wanted the church’s culture to be built on “friendship and relationship. We didn’t just want it to be …” He pauses. “It’s not a show. It’s not, like, a performance.”
But the music! The lights! The energy! I ask him about what I see as a troubling dichotomy between C3’s expensive-looking branding and its stated desire to build a strong, humble community at the ground level. What matters, he says, is being relevant.
That word, “relevant,” is one of three words that stick out to me—words that, in all my time among C3’s leaders and followers, the church repeats most often, as both affirmations and evidence of anxiety. The second word is “authentic.” The third I’ll talk about later.
“Relevant” is what every church, even one with a cool and popular Instagram, struggles to be in an age when traditional organized religion has never been less cool or popular. The number of American adults who are religiously unaffiliated (self-identifying as atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular”) grew from 6 percent in 1991 to 25 percent in 2016. “Nones,” ironically, now comprise the country’s largest and fastest-growing “religious group”; according to a 2018 study by Deseret News and Brigham Young University, nearly half of millennials and Gen Xers are “nones.” Pastor Josh knows that when you or I or really anyone this side of baby-boomerdom thinks about church, “a whole bunch of perceived ideas,” as he calls them, immediately come to mind. He knows he’s battling two millennia of sordid church history. Still, he thinks what he’s preaching is “timeless and relevant for every human soul.” Timeless because Jesus is ancient, and relevant because we, as a society, have never needed Jesus more.
Sam Picken, the head pastor of C3 Toronto, which has two locations and more than 1,500 congregants, is the poster boy for C3’s millennial-friendly vibe. In 2017, in an interview with Global News, he said that his goal is, simply, to “keep the message relevant.” In a 2016 interview with CBC, he said, “People can look at religion and draw a conclusion that it’s boring and irrelevant based on marketing. I don’t want to create barriers. I want to create bridges for people to come and discover something new.” That means making his Sunday sermons “applicable, so you can actually use that knowledge and use that teaching from Monday through Saturday.” C3 makes a point of connecting the digital church of the present with the analog church of the past. Pastor Josh mentions the song “Amazing Grace”: today, we associate it with pious solemnity, but in 1835, its lyrics were put over a now-famous tune, “New Britain,” that was popular at the time. “People would have heard the melody and gone, ‘Oh, okay, I recognize this,’” he says.
More than once, Toronto’s Pastor Sam has said that if Jesus were alive today, he’d have an Instagram account. In 2017, he told the Toronto Star, “I think he would wear similar clothes to what we wear. I think he would hang out at Trinity-Bellwoods”—a Toronto park and quintessential “hipster” hangout—“and he’d probably drink coffee from many of the cafés that we go to today.” I wonder: how would Jesus feel about flagrant self-promotion on an app that’s also reportedly causing young people psychological harm? How would he grow his personal brand with only 12 followers?
After the service at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, I walk back to Bedford Avenue. The area around the Bedford L-train stop has become ground zero for brands—skin-care start-ups, technical-outerwear companies, movie-review aggregators, brands, brands, brands—selling to millennials. Sans-serif capitalism covers every free surface. One hand-painted mural, covering the second and third stories of a brick building overlooking Bedford Avenue, reads, “LOVE NEVER GIVES UP.” I always assumed it was for some dating app or self-help startup, or maybe the lingerie boutique immediately below it. In reality, it’s for C3 NYC, though you wouldn’t know by looking at it—“C3.NYC,” a URL that hints at nothing, appears in small font at the bottom of the mural. It’s one of the church’s biggest brand-builders, Grace Hazelgrove, the creative director of C3 NYC, says. People often check out the church after seeing the mural on social media. With its white faux-scrawl against a striking black background—like a color inversion of the cover of Drake’s 2015 mixtape, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late—the mural practically begs to be Instagrammed.
Less than three miles away, a similarly enigmatic, photo-friendly C3 billboard towers over the Jefferson Avenue L stop: “YOU MAY NOT BE ABLE TO MEASURE GOD’S LOVE, BUT YOU CAN CERTAINLY EXPERIENCE IT.” This pronouncement seems to me like a subtle indictment of how we calculate our self-worth with likes and retweets, and a suggestion that God is an experiential escape. In Toronto, C3 made headlines for a Drake-themed billboard that read, “FOR GOD SO LOVED THE 6,” a reference to the rapper’s preferred nickname for his Canadian hometown.
Though many C3 members join the church because of in-person invitations, social media is its most impactful channel for recruitment and self-promotion. Jordan, a C3 NYC member and recent college graduate from the South who now lives near Prospect Park, Brooklyn, thinks Instagram is “one of the biggest things that catches people’s attention.” Pastor Josh thinks it sparks curiosity. “People go, ‘Oh, okay, what’s this church?’ And they look at the account and say, ‘Oh, it’s creative, it’s beautiful, it’s relatable.’ They like the design. That kind of settles them, so they don’t feel like it’s going to be too weird.” Hazelgrove likens social media to the stained-glass windows of a grand European cathedral. “It’s not just for within,” she says. “It shows the world what’s happening [in the church] so that they see the light of Christ, so that they see beauty and creativity.”
C3’s theology would appear to be at odds with how the church presents and markets itself. Isn’t humility one of Jesus’s biggest lessons for humanity? Isn’t social media inherently narcissistic?
“Social media is a form of communication,” Pastor Josh says. It’s inherently neutral, like a stage or a microphone. What’s important is how you use the platform. “So someone can post selfies all day, or you can be posting messages about faith, hope, and love, things that people need to hear, and do it in such a way that’s inspiring and creative and expresses the beauty and the glory of God, versus something that’s just part of the noise and static of social media.”
I bring up a remark that Chad Veach, the founder of Zoe Church, made to the New York Times in 2018: “Instagram built our church.” This elicits a chuckle from Pastor Josh. He concedes that, yes, Instagram is a great tool for getting out the Word of God, or the word of a new church. But Pastor Josh thinks Pastor Chad was just being tongue-in-cheek, and if they or Pastor Carl (of Hillsong) or Pastor Erwin McManus (of Mosaic Church) were to say what really built their church, they’d point to Jesus. “It’s God’s love that builds the church,” Pastor Josh says. “But Instagram, again, is just a neutral thing.” Later, I pose the same question to Hazelgrove, whose answer reveals just how well-oiled the C3 machine is. “First and foremost—and Pastor Josh probably said this to you—Jesus built our church,” she says. “And then people continue to build it. It’s Jesus first and then it’s people. And whatever tools we can use to show people that, we use.”
Those tools rely on algorithms, which is probably why C3 feels like an algorithmically curated brand that happens to love Jesus—the Airbnb of religion. C3’s global sameness, the facile reproducibility of its aesthetic, feels unsettling. Just copy C3 San Diego and paste it in Honolulu. Copy C3 Boston and paste it in Chicago. I can’t help but notice that one of C3 NYC’s taglines, which appears on its website and is often repeated during services, is “One church, five locations.” And that C3 Toronto’s is “One family, two locations.” And that C3 Portland’s is “One church, two locations.”
If you removed the Jesus references from C3’s marketing but kept everything else, you’d end up with something like a lifestyle start-up’s pitch deck. For the most part, C3’s is a secular language. C3 Fulham, for instance, says on its website that it’s “designed to meet the challenges of living in the 21st century in London.” C3 San Diego, on its website, describes itself as “fresh, real, powerful.” C3 Salt Lake City promoted its “relaunch” on Instagram last September, as if the church were an app doing a back-to-school sweep of bug fixes. C3 Los Angeles runs a series of church-hosted classes called “Growth Track,” which happens to be the same name as a series of marketing panels hosted by the software company I once worked for.
C3’s theology would appear to be at odds with how the church presents and markets itself. Isn’t humility one of Jesus’s biggest lessons for humanity? Isn’t social media inherently narcissistic?
The second word that C3 obsesses over, after “relevant,” is “authentic.” Not coincidentally, I associate the word with digital-branding firms hired by outdated corporations to tell them what millennials want: They’re big on authenticity, okay, and realness, and being true to their core. I’m not sure what a sentence like that could possibly mean. I’m even less sure what “authentic” means in the context of a church, especially one so insistent on its own authenticity. C3’s print magazine, This Is Us, claims that “authenticity” is one of the things you’ll find when you walk into any C3 church, along with other intangibles like “vision” and “excellence.” C3’s 2017 global report says one of the church’s differentiating factors is this: “We have authentic relationships. We are real.”
C3’s pastors argue that all the hoopla at their services—the band, the smoke machines, the raining confetti—isn’t hiding anything. “It’s a strategy,” Pastor Sam said last year on a panel called “An Evangelical Pitch to Millennials” that was hosted by Canadian television station TVO, “and being authentic and real and open.” Pastor Josh describes his congregants as “genuine” and “authentic” people who “really believe in Jesus.” Is the key to being “authentic” just believing in God? Maybe. Hazelgrove says C3’s marketing campaigns are “centered around people, because people want to see people, and people want to hear people’s stories,” and telling people’s stories is “the most authentic way to get your message out.” Later, she calls authenticity “the heartbeat of who we are.” When I mention that Pastor Josh had also emphasized the word, I can almost feel her enthusiasm through the phone. “Yeaaaaahhhh, totally,” she says warmly. “Yeaaaahhhhhhh!”
It’s not just the language of C3’s marketing and publicity that’s steeped in the secular. Look at the social-media photos and website galleries of any C3 location and what strikes you isn’t how “cool” Christianity looks, but how devoid of religion the church’s shiny surface is. How much it mimics the branding of the companies its members know so well. C3’s “24 Hour Witness” T-shirt, for instance, cleverly co-opts the recognizable logo of the 24 Hour Fitness chain. C3 Toronto shares soft bedroom scenes with the date superimposed in on-trend neon green, aestheticized snapshots of time passing lazily by. C3 Los Angeles shares group portraits resembling those taken by a hired photographer at an office holiday party. C3 NYC attempts to capture the ethos of an entire city on its Instagram, posting fuzzy shots of the Manhattan skyline, monochrome portraits designed to resemble flyers pasted to the city’s walls, and a Hopper-esque picture of empty seats on the subway (overlaid with a message about how much God cares about you). If a PG-rated meme or fashion or design trend exists, C3 has appropriated it to promote its message, which, Hazelgrove says, “should be just as compelling as an ad you see when you’re walking in SoHo.”
The message, the message, the message. What is C3’s message, exactly? Well. I’ll just say that the third word I hear a lot—from pastors talking about the spirit or character or moral compass of their congregants, and from those congregants talking about themselves—is “broken.”
“The people in this church, we’re all broken,” Pastor Sam said on the TVO panel. “You don’t come to church because you’re not broken. You come to church because you’re searching and you do own mistakes and you are broken.” Pastor Josh explains, “Even if you’re successful or your life looks put-together, something in your soul realizes that we are all broken. We all face a level of emptiness, and we’re trying to fill something inside of us, fill the gap in our heart.” For Jordan, opening up to other members “was a way of saying, ‘This is who I am. I’m depressed, anxious … struggling with addiction to visual stimulation.’ … It’s me just admitting personally that I’m broken.”
The word isn’t always “broken,” exactly, but it’s often something with a similarly negative valence: “empty,” “struggling,” “rejected,” “depressed.” The emotional foundation of one of C3’s ongoing marketing efforts, a series of confessional-style videos called Stories, which are posted on YouTube or Vimeo or a C3 church’s own website, is something short of happy. C3 NYC has shared roughly 200 such Stories, many from people with traumatic pasts. R.J. mentions being molested at eight years old, getting “heavy, heavy addicted” to porn, becoming a party promoter, and “getting involved in things that are not of Him.” Cynthia describes the “dark years” of her life, when she lost her job, her apartment, and, for a time, her daughter. Carson reveals his struggles with depression and a lack of faith. Bella recalls being sexually assaulted by someone she trusted. You don’t need to watch any Stories fully to know how they all end: “… and then C3, and God, saved me.”
Certainly, C3’s penchant for edginess is part of its appeal. Jordan likes how C3 doesn’t shy away from saying that we’re all fucked up in our own ways. “If you have a lying problem,” he says, “or you’re dealing with alcoholism or addiction to pornography—you deal with anything, you’re not less of a sinner than someone who’s dealing with homosexuality.”
Dealing with homosexuality. I’d noticed that the “What We Believe” page on the website of C3 Church Global has 12 points, the last of which are about marriage (“exclusively between a man and a woman”) and sex (“only appropriate within and designed for marriage”), respectively. I’d also noticed that on the website of C3 NYC, the “Our Beliefs” page has ten points. The final two, the biggies, are omitted. When I ask Pastor Josh about the discrepancy, acknowledging that this is my long-winded way of asking about his and the church’s views on homosexuality, he answers slowly, hesitantly, as if stepping his way through a socio-verbal minefield.
Like any pastor of C3 or Hillsong or another hip Pentecostal (or formerly Pentecostal, since Hillsong recently became a denomination unto itself) church, Pastor Josh is personally guided by Scripture, which he considers true and good because he considers it the literal word of God, and God, in Leviticus 18:22, says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” But Pastor Josh knows that some of his congregants are gay—or, in his words, “would say they’re gay”—and he’s happy to tell them where he feels “the truth lands on the issue.” He just doesn’t want “the conversation” to end the moment someone reads on C3’s website that gay marriage is an affront to God. “To me, that’s a shame,” he says. “I’m trying to show, ‘Hey, I'm not judging anyone. I’m not condemning anyone.’ We’ve all got our views and attractions and all those kinds of things.” He knows that young people, especially, inhabit a complicated, alienating world.
“I think every one of us is searching for love,” Pastor Josh says. “Even though we might disagree on where the best place to look for love is.”