Coronavirus Forces Hollywood’s Celebrity Churches to Livestream the Gospel
And Hillsong, the celeb-packed church attended by Justin and Hailey Bieber, even posted a video called, amazingly, “The Contagious Nature of Church.”
Sunday morning, 11 days after California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency over the novel coronavirus—which has so far afflicted 335 people in the state, put another 11,500 under self-monitoring, and sent everyone else into “social distancing” protocols—influencer-pastor Chad Veach uploaded a video to Instagram from a crowded room. “Alright we’re here, we’re getting ready to record,” Veach told the camera, walking around the makeshift sanctuary of Zoe Church LA, the neo-Pentecostal congregation where Justin Bieber and Chris Pratt have been known to hang out. “We’ve got a nice little group of people gathered.”
The group of at least two or three dozen had gathered, mid-quarantine, for Sunday services at Zoe Church—pronounced zo-ay, “like Beyoncé,” as Veach often says. The congregation belongs to a phenomenon Vanity Fair dubbed “the new Great Awakening”: the newish glut of “cool churches” like Mosaic, Radius, Churchome, VOUS, and global juggernaut Hillsong, which boast huge social media followings, chart-topping albums, and an extensive list of celebrity clients. (“People say we cater to celebrities,” a Hillsong pastor told GQ in 2015. “And I say, yes, we do. Celebrities deserve a relationship with God.”)
These churches have split from the stained-glass vibe of conventional Christianity to repackage scripture as something sleek and Instagrammable. They serve third wave coffee and sing hymns that sound like Edward Sharpe. Their ads look like scenes from Euphoria. Their pastors look like bandmates from fun. They all have apps—and conveniently hazy stances on abortion and gay marriage. “At the end of the day I am a Bible guy,” Veach told The New York Times about his views on abortion. Hillsong’s Carl Lentz has said that while he believes homosexuality and abortion are sins, he welcomes all sinners to his church. When asked about whether he would officiate a gay or lesbian wedding, Churchome’s Judah Smith said: “I do not like blanket statements.”
Like many congregations, the cool churches are now grappling with the rapid global spread of COVID-19. But unlike the average chapel, Zoe and its peers are nearly digital native—born on Instagram, spread by influencers, broadcast online and from apps. “Instagram built our church,” Veach told The New York Times in 2018, and now, it’s what’s keeping them in action, even as everything else shutters for quarantine. For Zoe, this has primarily meant livestreaming their services rather than hosting them in person, which is why Veach and his group had gathered at their ministry center on Sunday morning.
“Look at this room right here,” Veach said in the video, stepping into another room, also decently populated by young men in beanies and widescreen Mac computers. “Look at this room, it’s a production studio. This is our makeshift sanctuary.” From there, he led the camera behind a black curtain into a huge performance hall, filled with bright purple light. In the background, more people set up music equipment, cameras, and several rows of chairs. “We’re very excited. Church at home! We’re going to be streaming here live from the ministry center,” Veach said. “I love you so much. This is Church.”
At noon, the service kicked off with a concert, a series of well-produced ads for their various spin-off businesses, including Zoe Leadership College, and a sermon on trust issues. Unlike nearly every sporting event in the country, the presidential primary debate, and all of late-night television, Veach spoke before a live audience.
Of all the churches contacted for this article, only Churchome responded to comment on their response to the pandemic. “Due to the continued reports of cases of Coronavirus (COVID-19), we choose to exercise caution to support the safety and health of our community, and therefore, closed our Seattle and Los Angeles Churchome locations until further notice,” a spokesperson for Churchome wrote. But others released statements outlining new measures. “The reality of the Coronavirus is here. It is evident that the virus will continue to spread over the coming weeks and possibly the next several months,” Radius wrote in a statement announcing the suspension of services for March. “VOUS Church will not meet at our regular locations until further notice,” VOUS Church in Miami posted on their website. Hillsong did not explicitly address the virus, but amended a note on their homepage about online services, and posted a video called, amazingly, “The Contagious Nature of Church.”
But as cool churches close their physical chapels, their digital ones are in full gear. Radius will livestream their services at 9:30 and 11 a.m. each Sunday. Hillsong offers videocasts from 19 different locations. VOUS has online services on Sundays every two hours from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. And Churchome offers an “interactive online church experience” through their Churchome app, where services are held four times each Sunday, alongside daily Guided Prayers, community prayer requests, and a feature called “Pastor Chat,” where trained pastors can answer questions. “These services include an inspiring message, time to connect with God through music, and the ability to meet with others in the digital Lobby,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement to The Daily Beast. Anyone who wanted to keep up with their activity, could text the phrase: “CHupdate.”
There’s an uncanniness to the cool church digital mitigation, to seeing the basic need for comfort and human contact, heightened in this moment of isolation, filtered through app interfaces. Flipping between livestreams and minimalist apps, the contrast between the users’ raw fear and the depressingly clinical aesthetic was at once jarring, grim, and genuinely moving. On Sunday morning, the Churchhome application’s prayer page, where users can submit requests and crowdsource community responses, was flooded with concerns over COVID-19. “I’m from Wisconsin,” a user named Tiffany wrote. “The coronavirus has caused my entire city to shut down. Yesterday, I learned there was a confirmed case in my apartment complex. I spent half the day paralyzed in fear.”
Beneath her description sat two pink buttons branded with the praying hands emoji and a line of instruction: “Press down with two fingers while you pray.” Pushing on the buttons sent a flurry of small animated hearts across the screen. “I’m also writing this,” Tiffany concluded, “to encourage you all to continue to live.”