By Ruby Samuels
Have you ever wanted to go to a Sunday mass off campus? Feel too awkward to visit a congregation that you aren’t part of and don’t intend to join? Maybe you aren’t even Christian. I’m certainly not. I was raised on the upper west side of Manhattan, infamous home to the Seinfeld jew. But And yet, I’ve always been curious about what Sunday mass is like. I I never had a real preference for what sort of mass I wanted to attend, whether it’s the kind of beautiful black gospel that Elvis claimed and crowned himself with, or the European type of service that I’ve only seen depicted in movies like Chocolat.
This past Sunday, at 3 in the afternoon, I finally found a mass to attend. I felt a bit awkward going in my beanie and flannel- as though people would say, “look at that secular Jewish girl let loose by herself in a church”- but when I arrived at the church doors I blended in.
In fact, I was more dressed up than many amidst the throngs of people waiting to enter. The sidewalk outside the Manhattan Center where the service would be held looked more like the line outside Stephen Colbert’s Late Show than a church. That’s because this was Hillsong Church, the pop music, purple disco lit, Evangelical megachurch of Manhattan.
Hillsong’s website must be on some social media intern’s Pinterest board. There are faded Instagram-esque pictures of rock music stages, modern amplified cursive, advertisements for indie rock music records and books, plus several social media links. Hillsong was founded in 1998 in Sydney, Australia by Brian and Bobbie Houston, a couple who believe in Evangelical and Pentacostal Christianity. I was there to do research on a paper about the use of media in religion, so the blonde Australian models singing about Jesus’s blood on a stage that could be mistaken for any major pop music venue was perfect for me. Standing every ten feet were “hosts” dressed in all black, smiling enthusiastically and holding trays full of gold-foil wrapped chocolate eggs. The sermon was delivered by an Australian man with tattoo sleeves, plenty of alcohol-related joked and an African American partner who seemed to be there for to laugh, look very cool and bring diversity points to the Church admin.
To be standing amidst balconies full of people swaying and singing along to the Christian indie-rock was something else. There was an ongoing music video, projected onto a giant screen behind the stage, of guitars, rock-concert stages nature scenes and subtitles so that everyone could participate. At one point, the music video was interrupted with pictures of last year’s “Prom Remix” which is a major fundraising and community building event that happens every February (if you are interested in attending, this year’s Prom is on February 10th and tickets are $10 each).
After Heidi Klum and Chris Martin doppelgangers finished their indie Christian rock concert, a tattooed pastor told a story about his five year old son offering a quarter to his doctor after a regular check up, as a way of instilling moral common sense of giving and reciprocity in the congregation before asking the hosts to “pass those containers around.” He wasn’t what I expected from a pastor, and I realize that he is most likely not a pastor that most of my Christian friends and acquaintances would be familiar with either. He made jokes about day-drinking and references to rap songs. He seemed to be entertaining the congregation first and preaching second. However, he could be appealing to a young Christian population that might not otherwise practice their faith because of outdated church services that cannot compete with modern digital devices and entertainment venues. In any case, Hillsong Church is clearly drawing large crowds of diverse people who are happy and excited to be participating in their own form of modern, media-centric Christianity.
If you are curious, go to 311 W 34th St, New York, NY 10001 on any Sunday at 10am, 12 pm, or 3 pm.
Ruby Samuels is a junior at Barnard and Editor for Barnard Bite