It’s 7 p.m. on a Friday, and across New York City, happy hours are winding down and group chats are lighting up. Outside the Kings Theatre in Flatbush, Brooklyn, hundreds of young women are standing in line.
They look like the women you’d see on any Brooklyn-bound subway: white, black, Asian, and Latinx, wearing boilersuits with Vans, cropped wide-leg pants with pointy-toe mules, tracksuits emblazoned with logos. A few are dressed festively, or festival-y, in flower crowns and colorful wigs. Some have been standing here for hours, sacrificing the entire day for a seat close to the stage, spirits undampened by the cold April drizzle.
They’ve come for Colour, a two-day conference dedicated to placing value upon “everyday women of all ages, backgrounds, and cultures,” put on by the evangelical megachurch Hillsong. Inside, the ornate French Renaissance theater has been transformed into a 2019 vision of feminine self-love. A sculpture of old TVs and faux flowers serves as a backdrop for selfies; a pamper booth offers makeup touch-ups and dry shampoo samples. There’s a shop selling spiritual self-help books, Bibles, and T-shirts that say, “Choose Empathy.”
Filing into their seats, two young women are talking about someone in gushy, breathless tones. “I’m just so in love with him,” one says. She’s wearing a tiara. “I know, me too,” her friend replies. “I’m obsessed.”
I don’t even have to ask whom they’re talking about. I’ve been attending Hillsong services for the past few months, so I already know. They’re talking about Jesus Christ.
As far as icons of female empowerment go, you could do worse. In his day, Jesus preached a profoundly egalitarian worldview; the New Testament says that everyone—male, female, slave, master, rich, poor—is equal under God. But Christianity’s interpretation of the Bible over nearly two millennia of patriarchy has not, by and large, kept pace with women’s changing roles in society, and many American feminists finger conservative religious activism for our country’s current state of diminishing reproductive rights and oppression of the LGTBQ community. While many liberals consider Christianity to be a byword for misogyny, there’s an issue with that perception. Actually, there are more than 3,000 of them, and they’re sitting under the gilded ceiling of the Kings Theatre.
Through many conversations over several weeks, I’ve come to understand that what these women are seeking is a sense of belonging and purpose that secular feminism doesn’t readily provide. Their theologies are individual and personal—some disagree with Hillsong’s stance that the Bible is “clear” on marriage being between a man and a woman—but each of them believes that Jesus Christ and his teachings can make the world kinder and more equitable for women.
They are, for the most part, young, creative, and independent. They’re still in college, or embarking on cool careers. Many admit a fondness for drinking and looking cute on social media—but they also believe in God, marriage, and community. Hillsong doesn’t ask them to align their lifestyle with their faith. And, at Colour, they’re presented with something rare: a space to think about how to be both a good Christian woman and an empowered one.
Alana Frazier, 33, describes herself as a fan of Hillsong, and she founded her faith-based apparel line, God Thinks I Am, with these women in mind. Her most recent lookbook features diverse models with Instagram-ready brows wearing tees that say,“Then, God Made Woman,” styled with high-waisted pants and minimalist sandals. “In 2019,” Frazier says, the Christian woman is “multifaceted and doesn’t subscribe to groupthink. She wants to be like her [favorite] celebrities and influencers. But at the same time, [she’s] saying, ‘Hey, I’m a real woman, I’m not perfect, but the one thing you need to know about me is I believe in God and I’m ready to tell the world.’ ”
Few organizations are more visibly updating Christianity for the twenty- first century than Hillsong. Founded in Sydney in 1983, the church has ties to Australia’s conservative Pentecostal tradition, but has become influential around the world thanks to its deep coffers and chart-topping worship rock.
Last year, the church announced it had “outgrown” denomination, and today it serves up broad-brush, feel-good Christianity while minimizing its more dated beliefs. Hillsong fills ballrooms in Los Angeles, New York, and London with the help of aspirational churchgoers such as Justin and Hailey Bieber, Kevin Durant, and Kylie and Kendall Jenner. Services are live-streamed; donations are collected via the church’s proprietary, Venmo-style app; and, unlike in some conservative Christian denominations, women can serve as pastors.
Hillsong’s most visible female ambassador is Bobbie Houston, who cofounded the church along with her husband, Brian Houston; together, they are the church’s global senior pastors. According to Bobbie’s 2016 book, The Sisterhood, the idea for Colour came directly from God, during a coed Hillsong conference in 1996. She heard God’s voice speaking to her: “Bobbie…Create a conference for women…a conference and environment for young women, but girded about with older women…and tell them…tell them that there is a God in heaven and a company of others who believe in them,” she wrote.
Hillsong held its first women’s conference in a western suburb of Sydney in 1997, under the name Colour Your World. Today, Colour has expanded to London, Cape Town, New York, Los Angeles, and Kiev and is attended by nearly 50,000 women per year.
A pamphlet promoting Colour 2019 (this year’s ticket price is $159) features women of varying ethnicities, naturally lit and believably happy. A rainbow wall hanging frames one girl’s Afro; another wears a shirt proclaiming, “Wage Peace.” Colour, the text says, is a “movement of women” who want “to change this world from the inside out.”
This year’s theme, “Be Found in the New,” is taken from the Book of Revelation. But if you didn’t know that, the pamphlet could be an Urban Outfitters catalog or an Everlane lookbook—a sign of both Hillsong’s cultural fluency and marketers’ awareness of consumer fatigue. A new sofa or cute leggings are just the window dressing in a life of purpose—a way to transcend exhaustion, loneliness, and low self-esteem, and step into a world of our own making. Which, when you get right down to it, sounds a lot like religion.
The number of young adults (18 to 29) who identify as religious “nones”—not affiliated with any religion—has nearly quadrupled in the last 30 years, from 10 percent in 1986 to 39 percent in 2016, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. And among those who are practicing Christians, about half are more reluctant to evangelize than earlier generations were; 47 percent believe it’s wrong to try to change other people’s religious beliefs, according to the faith research organization Barna Group.
But the Pew Research Center says that most millennials—like their parents and their grandparents—still believe in heaven. And 55 percent of them think about the meaning and purpose of life. Also of note: More than half are willing to accept astrology as a science, according to a National Science Foundation survey. That last fact rings especially true to me, a “none” who has been to sound baths, tarot card readers, psychics, and reiki healers. If I can believe in witches and magic rocks, why not Jesus Christ dying for our sins?
Kinsey, 19, attended Colour last year in Los Angeles, when she was a student at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. Kinsey, who has long auburn hair, with bangs that sometimes fall into her eyes, was raised in Texas by a Baptist mom and a Catholic dad, and attended a Lutheran school. She liked Hillsong’s lack of rules and routines, compared to other denominations. “You don’t have to be perfect walking in the door,” she says. “It’s a very ‘Come as you are’ community. Here’s God; He loves you anyway.” Seeing so many women come together at Colour, celebrating God and one another, was unlike anything she’d ever experienced. “The community is really why I stick with it,” she says. “You don’t get that a lot in the big city.”
I know what she means. Everyone at Hillsong seems genuinely happy and open in a way I haven’t experienced since I was a small child, before social interactions came with asterisks and preambles. People smile, strike up a conversation, and ask if they can hug you.
While we’re waiting in the rain for Colour to open, a young girl offers me her umbrella, and I stare at her way too long, dumbfounded and, later, ashamed at how suspicious a stranger’s kindness makes me. When I find my seat, I make a point of chatting up the woman sitting next to me.“My work friends think Hillsong is weird,” she says. “They’re like, ‘What is it you do—go to a concert in a church?’ ” I ask her what she says to them. “I tell them I’m not religious. I’m a Christian.”
The lights go down at the Kings Theatre, and a spotlight illuminates a white piano. Every Hillsong service begins with a concert, and the one that kicks off Colour is supercharged: A cast of female violinists comes out and does a choreographed dance while playing. Three thousand women throw their arms up and cheer.
Welcoming the crowd, Bobbie Houston is self-deprecating and a bit scatterbrained. She loses her train of thought and then finds it again, saying, “Praise the Lord, Amen!” She quickly introduces Carl Lentz, the superstar pastor with 629K Instagram followers, perhaps best known as the man who helped Bieber get his shit together.
Wearing sunglasses and a black baseball hat, Lentz talks about the wage gap.“Today, women earn 56 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in the United States,” he says. The audience cheers. “4.8 percent of CEOs at the top [Fortune] 500 companies are women.” The audience cheers again, and Lentz corrects them. That figure is actually not very good. He adds that over 40 percent of men don’t even believe the wage gap exists. “And women, if one of those men is your husband, I’ma pray for you.”
Behind Lentz, a screen lists the ways that audience members can donate to the church. He begs them to be generous. “If you look at how bad the disparity is, you’ve got two options,” he says. “You either look at the status quo and go, ‘Well, we’ll [acclimate to this].’ Or you come to a conference like this,” he says, his voice raising to an ecstatic shout, “that champions every single woman in the world to find the supernatural presence of God!”
This idea, that spiritual salvation is the key to gender equality, only starts making sense when I’m told to look beyond the zero-sum economics of life on earth. “Jesus is love; He is truth and equality,” Claire, a 24-year-old budding baker, tells me as we walk to get a coffee during one of Colour’s breaks. “If we have everything we need in this world—money, a good job, whatever you think you need—but we don’t have Him, then really, what does it matter?” Accepting Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior is the most empowering thing a woman can do in her life, according to this view, because it’s the only thing that will matter after she dies. Despite the inequality separating us now, we might one day all hang out as sisters in heaven.
As with all evangelical churches, Hillsong’s goal is to get every person to that ultimate destination. But bringing in as many people as possible to the church itself also has the benefit of bringing in more money, in the form of donations, to save yet more people. Hillsong views tithing, the biblical practice of giving 10 percent of your income to the church, as a testament of spiritual commitment (though I wonder whether 8 percent might be sufficient from women, considering the aforementioned wage gap). In 2017, the East Coast churches (which include New York City; Montclair, New Jersey; and Boston) brought in more than $8.8 million in tithes and offerings.
The church’s charitable arm includes a long-standing relationship with Compassion, a global humanitarian organization dedicated to raising children out of poverty while giving them the “opportunity to hear the Gospel of Jesus.” During Colour, Ugandan women tell us via promotional videos that they’re doing great, thanks to Hillsong. Later, everyone in the audience is given a bar of soap that Houston says has been made by refugee women in Iraq. The crowd goes wild; the soap is all-natural and smells like chamomile.
The male pastors of Hillsong and its American offshoots might appear in paparazzi photos with Christian celebrities, but to the women at Colour, their wives are the real stars. There is Esther Houston, the glamorous wife of Bobbie’s son Joel, who lives in New York City but Instagrams from Cabo San Lucas; Montauk, New York; and the White House. In Southern California, there is Mikaela Simila, a model and the wife of Hillsong campus pastor Diego Simila; and Courtney Lopez (née Barry), a friend of Selena Gomez’s and the wife of Hillsong pastor Sam Lopez.
In New York, one of the Colour headliners is Dawn Cheré Wilkerson, who, along with her husband, Rich, is cofounder of Miami’s Vous Church, which owes a lot to Hillsong’s youth-driven, trendy take on Christianity. Wilkerson has celebrity pals (her husband married Kim and Kanye) and a short-lived Oxygen reality show, Rich in Faith, to her credit, but like most of the women in Hillsong, she is mainly known through her Instagram. “I love following all of them,” Claire tells me. “It’s such a good reminder when I’m just scrolling through my phone. Like, Oh yeah, right, God. That’s what’s important.” She adds, “A lot of them are really good at Insta.”
Evangelical churches have long been early media adopters, using radio and television sermons to spread the word. In his Vision 2019 video, which outlines Hillsong’s goals and predictions for the year, founder Brian Houston proclaimed the power of social media: “I believe that we’re going to see a gathering of influencers like never before! Influencers are gathering!” In Houston’s terms, people with great lives on social media are “kingdom builders”: “These are groups of people who believe that God blessed them so that they can bless the house of God mightily,” he has said.
The belief that God wants you to glow up—and that praying to Him will help you do so—is known as the prosperity gospel, says Marion Maddox, an Australian academic who has been studying (and critiquing) Hillsong for the past 15 years. Maddox sees Hillsong’s social media success as evidence of what she calls “envy evangelism.” As she describes it, “Basically, it’s ‘Make yourself into a walking billboard for Jesus.’ ” Maddox says that at Hillsong and similar churches, the image of the pastor and the “perfectly groomed wife” replaces the more conventional iconography of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
If Instagram is to be believed, these wives are living the 2019 dream: They have health, wealth, and enough time to play with their cherub-faced children and still make it to wine o’clock with their best girlfriends. “Having a perfect sex life is another element to it,” Maddox says. “Bobbie has even said [in her audio series Kingdom Women Love and Value Their Sexuality], ‘Hey, we need to make sure we, as Christian women, are having hot sex.’ So that you can say, ‘Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, I have a great sex life, and the reason is Jesus.’ ”
These women are seen as religious leaders but seem to exist above the fray of the culture wars that occasionally demand statements from Hillsong’s male pastors (Lentz, for example, has been criticized by more conservative Christians for being too soft on abortion, and has used social media to clarify the church’s position: Abortion is a sin, but sinners are welcome at Hillsong).
According to Maddox, envy evangelism and the prosperity gospel teach that “people’s difficulties are generated by the individual rather than the social structure.” Wealth is available to everyone, the thinking goes, so if you’re not wealthy, you’re doing something wrong. Likewise, if you’re one of the privileged, there’s no need to feel guilty about the country’s growing inequality.
“On the contrary, you’re doing right by putting yourself in a position of influence, which is exactly what you’re meant to be doing,” Maddox says. Lea Ceasrine, a former Hillsonger who left, in part, over the church’s stance on LGBTQ rights, says the church’s social media stars left a bad taste in her mouth. “You have these young people who are supposed to be role models exhibiting more of the status symbols that come with influence, and that’s just really bad messaging,” she says. “That doesn’t exist if you go to a normal church. It’s a totally opposite thing.”
But Hillsong congregants say that Christian influencers are a source of inspiration, proof that Christian women can be cool, too. “I definitely think Hillsong has made me be even more open about my faith,” says Nicole, a 21-year-old I meet through Hillsong’s L.A. campus. “In life and also on Instagram.” She is studying to be a set designer; her Instagram bio includes a cross emoji alongside the words “Be obsessively grateful” and a link to her side hustle, a hair-care consultation service. Kinsey and a friend talked recently about how they could use their own Instagrams to spread the word. “[We were] looking at our posts and going, ‘How can we make this to glorify God and maybe actually get more people to come?’ ” she says.
Frazier, the Christian T-shirt designer, believes the end game of Christianity, unlike other lifestyles sold on Instagram, at least offers relief from society’s moving goal posts and the roller coaster of self-esteem. “One day you’re beautiful; the next day you’re not. One day you’re doing a great job at work, and one day you’re not.” God, on the other hand, doesn’t change. “That’s why [I call my brand] God Thinks I Am…. God thinks I am a masterpiece; God thinks I am intelligent and capable of doing anything. I didn’t make this up. It says that in the Bible. We are God’s masterpiece. And that never wavers.”
Wilkerson uses her Colour sermon to draw back the curtain on her picture-perfect lifestyle. Kind of. She talks about her “weaknesses”: the time she was unable to finish climbing a mountain with her now husband; the day she got into “multiple bike wrecks” on her way to school. She got winded running down the hallway the other day. She confesses that once, when she was pitching at a charity softball game, she wound up “nailing the girl in the back.”
“If you [can be] just a little more honest about your situation, a little more open with your sisterhood,” Wilkerson says, “then strength will come into your broken situation and He will fix your broken heart…and yes you will be found in the new!” She ends with a spot-on rendition of Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker,” including the Jay-Z rap.
These moments of realness are a highlight for Katie, a 25-year-old former dancer who traveled from Minnesota for the conference. “Everyone on the stage was super-authentic to who they were,” she tells me later. “They weren’t trying to be someone they were not.” Houston’s final remarks, in particular, stick with her. “It was the closing of this huge conference—thousands of women are there—and I remember Pastor Bobbie was like, ‘I don’t know what to do now.’ She literally said that in front of thousands of people: ‘I don’t know what to do.’ ”
No matter how imperfect the Hillsong woman may cop to being, it is taken for granted that she will eventually be married. To a man. During Colour, Lentz—who recently applauded his own wife on Instagram for “never choosing our kids over our marriage”—advises the audience: “If you’re single, like we say every year at this time, you hang on to Jesus.”
There’s something unfeminist about this “Jesus is my boyfriend” talk. As Maddox has written, “Men identify as co-leaders in the image of a passionate [male] God,” while women are taught to aspire to be “a male God’s desired ‘sweetheart.’ ” Worse, it assumes that the right kind of love is between a woman and a man. Hillsong maintains that it is not “anti-anyone,” but its enthusiasm for heterosexual marriage is to the pointed exclusion of any other kind of romantic partnership.
According to Nicole, the future set designer, the idea that Jesus is your boyfriend has less to do with gender roles and more to do with faith itself. “It’s difficult to explain,” she says. “I just imagine He is right here beside me. Like, literally, beside me, supporting me and loving me through everything.”
Before Nicole started going to Hillsong, she was dating someone she probably shouldn’t have been. After joining Hillsong, she says, “I was like, ‘What am I doing? This is not how I want my relationships to work.’ ” Which is not to say she now sits at home, waiting for her future husband. Nicole goes out, has party weekends with her girlfriends, and owns a closetful of crop tops and T-shirt dresses. She can see how other women might find casual hookups empowering, but personally, she’s “not the biggest fan.”
“Even if you don’t think it’s a big deal [to sleep with someone], you see that person walking down the street, and you’re like, ‘Oh my God,’ because your soul still feels something,” she says. “That pain is not empowering.” Recently, a guy approached Nicole at the mall and asked for her number. In response, she asked if he believed in God. “Because if the answer is not an immediate and resounding I’m-so-excited ‘yes,’ honestly, I’m going to say no,” she says. “I’m just cutting to the chase.”
Centering God in relationships can be clarifying, according to Kinsey. Living in L.A., she says, it’s easy to get caught up in wanting attention and comparing yourself to other girls. “Hillsong keeps me grounded in God, knowing that He should be the center of all social situations and dating life,” she says. “It’s not about you. It’s not about the other person. You do everything for God.”
The women I meet at Hillsong are looking for equitable but essentially traditional romantic relationships. (And so are a lot of my secular feminist friends.) “I think the guy should lead the family,” Nicole says, “but it also has to be a partnership. Even if he’s the one making the decisions, it has to be based on what you both want, not just what he wants. If it was the girl leading the family, it would be the same thing.” Personally, Nicole believes in gay marriage. “I have so many friends that I can’t imagine them not together. God made everyone, and I just can’t imagine God not loving them and not wanting them to be happy.”
Hillsong’s anti–gay marriage and anti-abortion stances seem at odds with the female empowerment message of Colour, but the young women I spoke with hold more nuanced views. Frazier told me she wouldn’t get an abortion herself, but she wouldn’t ban them for other women. At Colour, the politics of Hillsong seem far from attendees’ minds, or else part of a compromise they learned to make a long time ago, to be part of a group without unanimously supporting it. There is a chance, after all, that these women will stay involved, know their worth, and assume leadership, to the point that one day their nuanced views could become church doctrine. Kate Wallace Nunneley, a pastor whose Junia Project advocates for the inclusion of women in Christian leadership, says Christian women across denominations are “pushing back, asking questions, and the result is a move toward greater gender equality,” she says.
Back at the Kings Theatre, Houston has one more surprise for the women in the audience: a shower cap. A group of dancers appears in shower-themed ensembles, and little girls dressed as rubber duckies storm the stage. There is some half-baked symbolism here, about washing ourselves of superficial judgment and historical baggage so we may be found, fresh and clean, “in the new.” But the messaging is fuzzy. “Maybe there isn’t a deeper meaning,” Katie tells me. “Maybe it’s just, ‘Hey, to go along with this soap, here’s a shower cap.’ ”
As Colour comes to a close, Taya Smith Gaukrodger, a singer in Hillsong United (one of the church’s three bands), takes the stage, wearing skinny jeans and an oversize blazer, her short platinum hair tucked behind her ears. As she sings the pop hymn “Clean,” her voice resounds through the theater, powerful and heartbreaking. Thousands of women sway together and embrace. Many of them are crying, still wearing their shower caps, each one a different color. The kaleidoscopic effect of the shower caps swaying is kind of ridiculous but also deeply moving. Or maybe you have to be there. If I weren’t, it occurs to me, I would probably be in a bar around the corner, drinking an overpriced cocktail, staring at my phone, and jumping out of my skin if anyone tried to talk to me. Here, seeing me alone, the woman next to me puts her hand around my shoulder.