August 22, 2019

Hollywood's Holy Hipsters

“I am in the mosh pit of West Hollywood’s El Rey Theatre, jangly from two cups of Zoe Ministries’ excellent self-branded coffee. Twenty 20-somethings in mom jeans, sneakers, and colorful baggy shirts are singing Disney-radio-inflected anthems about God while we gently shoulder-bump one another. Soon, preacher Chad Veach takes the stage in a baseball cap, rainbow-hued kicks, and a denim jacket that says “Veach” on the back. He bounces on the balls of his feet, referring to Jesus’s disciples as “his crew.” Whenever he says anything vaguely profound, people yell “WOW!” which is the “Amen” of cool, young churches. Veach warns the first row they’re going to get wet from his spit. He’s preaching pure Pentecostalism, and I’m prepared for snake handling, for speaking in tongues, for a deaf man to hear and then say that the music here is a little generic.

Veach is part of the new Great Awakening. Interest in Christianity is blossoming in America’s biggest, bluest cities, partly promoted by celebrity Zoe-goers such as Chris Pratt and Katherine Schwarzenegger. Young people listen to Spotify lists of songs performed by the bands at one-name churches that sound like rehab centers: Hillsong (a global megachurch that started in Australia), Mosaic, Vous, Radius, Churchome. The center of this Great Awakening is Los Angeles, where the Word comes in many denominations. In January, Kanye West started hosting Sunday Service, at which Tyler, the Creator; Katy Perry; Orlando Bloom; Kid Cudi; DMX; and 070 Shake have listened to him sing about God. On Easter, West built a hill on a fenced-in area attached to the Coachella music festival, joining in with a chorus in matching mauve ponchos.

Halfway through the service, Veach (who likes to say that Zoe is pronounced “Zo-ay, like Be-yon-cé”) slows his sermon down. His 34-year-old brother-in-law, he informs the crowd, was supposed to preach this Sunday for the first time, but he had a stroke while on vacation with his family and died. It’s shocking and tragic, and then Veach reveals that his daughter, Georgia, who has an incurable brain disorder that will likely prevent her from ever walking or talking, got more disheartening news. He has a “g” tattoo in her honor, as do Zoe regulars Justin Bieber, Hailey Baldwin, Selena Gomez, and Ashley Benson

The sermon suddenly feels authentic. There is a man in front of me grappling with his faith. Then I realize that all that has preceded this—the merch giveaway from children’s pastor Tommy Two Guns, the number for automatic text tithing, the promo video that looked like it was for the next Saw—was equally authentic to these young Angelenos. When Veach asks the nonbelievers to accept Jesus, nearly 200 raise their hands. I want to lift my atheist arm to feel whatever they’re feeling, but my hand won’t go, which makes me wonder if God is real and is keeping me honest…”

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