Is God online? Inside the world of the Insta-preachers

Helen Chandler-Wilde
Rapper Kanye West, who has taken to hosting celebrity-studded

The Lord is my shepherd, but He also has a sideline as an Instagram influencer. As congregations dwindle in mainstream churches, “hipster” worshipers are spreading the word on social media, bringing a young, cool crowd to Christ. 

At first glance, these Christian accounts are hardly different to anything else on Instagram. Biblesandcoffee, an account run by a 27-year-old woman from Los Angeles, posts beautiful shots of her home, bookshelves artfully crammed with hundreds of Bibles. In another picture she clutches an iced coffee, showing off a flawless gel manicure. In curling calligraphy, the cup has a message saying: “A little coffee, a lotta Jesus.”

Other Christian accounts post inspirational quotes laid over images of pretty landscapes. “The Lord is my light and my salvation”, says a post on daily_bibleverses, on top of a sepia-toned picture of New York. Another shows a woman with tousled hair and sunglasses slack-jawed with joy. “Nothing can separate you from the love of Christ”, says the caption. 

Arguably the leader of fashion-conscious faith is Hillsong, a Sydney-based church established in 1983 by Bobbie and Brian Houston, an Australian couple with almost a million Instagram followers between them. Hillsong’s website and social media accounts are full of pictures of young, attractive types wearing ripped jeans – who just happen to be singing hymns. Christianity with Hillsong is aspirational, a habit to complement hot yoga. This genius marketing strategy has worked: they have built a global congregation of tens of thousands of people.

Hillsong has branches across the world, including 10 in the UK. They call their locations “campuses” in the vein of tech companies like Facebook. 

The Sunday services are set up like concerts, with preachers ditching the pulpit and speaking from a stage shining with neon lights. Pastors sometimes wear a hat with their Sunday best, usually a baseball cap worn backwards. 

The mega-trendy megachurch has its own spiritual pop group, Hillsong United, which takes its music on tour around the world including London’s O2 Arena, which has a capacity of 20,000. 

This slick marketing has attracted a range of celebrity followers including actor Chris Pratt and model Kendall Jenner. Actress Vanessa Hudgens told the New York Times that she loves attending services there, praising its nightclub-like atmosphere. “It feels like [rock band] Arcade Fire – it’s epic like that”, she said.

The star most closely connected with the church is Justin Bieber. A few years ago he was a former squeaky clean child star who had picked up a drug habit on the rocky road to adult stardom: then, he found Hillsong. He was baptised by Carl Lentz, leader of the New York church, in an NBA basketball player’s bath at 3 o’clock in the morning. 

Lentz is so much a presence on the celebrity circuit that he is well-known in his own right, and has over 600,000 followers on Instagram. He preaches either in a leather jacket or in a short-sleeved T-shirt, showing off his heavily tattooed arms. 

Hillsong’s message, however, is less modern.

There is a separate organisation run for the women of the church, like the Anglican Mothers’ Union. And then there are their not-very-2019 views on LGBT people. “We are not a church that affirms a gay lifestyle”, writes founder Brian Houston in a blog post. “Can [gay people] take an active leadership role? No”, he writes, adding: “I do have gay friends”.

Even tattooed hunk Lentz is out-of-step with woke views. In an interview with Vice News he said he does not agree with gay marriage: “We would say the Bible is really clear that marriage is between a man and a woman”. He continued: “and I believe the Bible says what it says, and I interpret it exactly as the Bible says.”

For those who want another selfie-friendly option for Sunday mornings, there is the world of celebrity-only worship. Kanye West once complained: “If I talk about God my record won’t get played,” yet has started running “Sunday services”.

Unlike normal churches where anyone is welcome, these appear to be highly exclusive, with guests selected from Hollywood’s finest. Like a lot of what West does, the services look fairly odd: the music is a mixture of sacred fare and his own records. Instead of pews there is an area cleared for dancing. People dress to a strict code: head-to-toe white one week, all black the next. Famous attendees film the prayers on their phones and post on Twitter: one week, the service was held at Adidas’s headquarters. 

Christianity’s new image isn’t just helping to get people through the doors, it is also lucrative. Brian Houston of Hillsong revealed in 2010 that he made a salary of $300,000AUD (£163,000), as well as receiving benefits like free travel, while its online shop sells tie-dyed T-shirts and sweatshirts sporting the church’s logo. I can’t say I remember reading much about branded garb in the Holy scripture, but if religion really does need a rebrand, this looks like the Instagram-friendly way to do it.