On any given Sunday, thousands of New Yorkers flock to the Manhattan Center Grand Ballroom to attend one of six services at Hillsong Church, a Pentecostal mega-church based in Australia with satellite churches across the globe. As one walks into the ballroom, the entire room is packed with enthusiastic churchgoers, mostly those of a younger age than one would find at a typical Sunday service elsewhere. The experience feels more like attending a rock concert than a church service. The crowd huddles around the stage, hands raised in worship, singing and dancing to the live music. Mostly played on the guitar and sung by young vocalists, the music is amplified and contemporary, clearly departing from traditional church hymns. Bright and colorful lights and decorative displays are projected both on the stage and throughout the room. However, what really makes the experience of this church service unique is how everyone is dressed, particularly, Pastor Carl Lentz.
Hillsong’s deviance from the norm of the traditional church is further expressed through fashion. The worship band members typically wear ripped black skinny jeans and beanies. They also wear plaid button-down shirts or graphic tees. Pastor Carl Lentz is dressed in a way that seems like a cross-section between a stereotypical Brooklyn hipster and a rock-star. He almost always wears black skinny jeans, a leather jacket, a tee shirt, and motorcycle or combat boots. He will even wear items as casual as denim jackets and hoodies. His beard is grown out, his hair is slicked back, and he has multiple tattoos. Also, he accessorizes his rocker-chic outfits with chain necklaces. He personifies the grunge of the city yet is always polished and well dressed, projecting an unidentifiable cool factor through his style and manner that so clearly makes him magnetic to the young, hip, New York City crowd. An article in The Blaze claims, “Carl Lentz is the prototypical Brooklyn hipster. With his scruffy beard, artsy tattoos and cuffed shirts, Lentz, 34, embodies the young, rebellious feel of New York City’s most populated borough” (Hoilman).
Church attire is typically understood to be one’s “Sunday best:” conservative and formal. Therefore, most observers would be shocked at the sight of a pastor and an entire congregation in ripped jeans, leather jackets, and “Brooklyn hipster” style dress. Pastors are usually distinctively set apart from the congregation by wearing even more formal or specific attire to indicate their position. Authors Roach and Eichler explain how adornment can be “a reflection of macro-religious condition” (Roach, Eichler 120). Especially for church leaders, “clothing can indicate position and rank within a religious structure, with different dress prescribed for different clerical ranks,” and certain items of adornment “identify relative positions in a hierarchical system of prestige, responsibility, and power” (Roach, Eichler 118). As Lentz is the lead pastor of the church, there is an expectation that he should be dressed in a way that indicates his position of power and authority. His decision to dress in a way that eliminates his visible distinction as a pastor and disrupts society’s expectation for how people should dress in church is a “violation of the authorized codes through which the social world is organized and experienced” (Hebdige 91). Although one person alone cannot be considered a subculture, Lentz’s method of using style to subvert expectations has certain similarities to Dick Hebdige’s analysis of subcultural style. Hebdige explains that the style of spectacular subcultures is “obviously fabricated,” with the intent of “communicat(ing)… a significant difference” (Hebdige 101-102). By intentionally wearing unconventional clothes while preaching, Lentz is drawing attention to the fact that society has codes which render certain fashion and behaviors as natural and normal within mainstream church culture, and seeks to establish himself and his church as different than the mainstream. Additionally, his style choices demonstrate how meanings ascribed to certain objects are indeed arbitrary since those meanings can be changed. Specifically, leather jackets are usually associated with toughness, rebellion, and rock music, but when a pastor wears a leather jacket, it subverts the conventional reading of leather jackets and creates the possibility of a new meaning. Overall, his use of unconventional style indicates a desire to signify difference from the traditional church.
Lentz has been titled a “hipster pastor,” due to the way he uses fashion to appeal to his audience. However, the term hipster also carries negative connotations since it is associated with using elitist taste as a marker of distinction from the mainstream and for gaining social prestige within the subculture. Pierre Bourdieu’s findings suggest, “that taste is a set of class norms inculcated through socialization (Marwick 8),” therefore demonstrating how, “ ‘superior’ taste was not the result of an enchanted superiority in scattered individuals” (Greif). Mark Greif explains that members of the hipster community use taste as “a means of strategy and competition…Groups closer in social class who yet draw their status from different sources use taste and its attainments to disdain one another and get a leg up” (Greif). Bourdieu coined the term “cultural capital,” which is knowledge that increases over time and can be exchanged for social or economic benefits. Lentz dressing like a Brooklyn hipster in order to gain acceptance or to validate his authenticity amongst the younger crowd could be seen as a negative way of using “subcultural capital,” cultural capital that operates within a subculture. Especially in the context of the church, where worldly superficiality is frowned upon, the use of style and taste as a barter for social and cultural gain is considered particularly distasteful. Lentz’s construction of a conscious aesthetic that tries to rebrand Christianity is unsettling to critics for similar reasons to why hipsters pose a cultural threat; there is a growing concern over “a generation that is so consumed by the desire to have style that it trumps issues of substance” (Khaled 11). However, using fashion as a way to relate to the church audience is not necessarily superficial or inauthentic. Brett McCracken, the author of Hipster Christianity: When Church & Cool Collide claims, “pastors like Lentz wear skinny jeans and beards and quote Jay-Z. They gain authenticity from caring about the same things as you do” (Kahn). Lentz’s fashion is both casual and stylish, which adds to his appeal as an approachable pastor; and therefore, is arguably authentic.
Naming Lentz a “hipster pastor” seems to be more of a way of pinning down his edgy, street-style vibe that can be appreciated as “cool” by a younger generation, rather than a substantiated attack on his authenticity. Overall, Lentz’s careful attention to style is used as a way of creating difference from the traditional church culture and as a way to connect with his congregation, showcasing how fashion is a powerful tool for segregating and uniting.
Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Habitus and the Space of Life-Styles.” Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984. 191-209. Print.
Greif, Mark. “The Hipster in the Mirror.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 Nov. 2010. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/books/review/Greif-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0>.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture, the Meaning of Style. NY: Routledge, 1998. Print
Hoilman, Carly. “Tattooed and Scruffy-Bearded Preacher Shatters Traditional Pastoral Image — and His Church Is Exploding in Popularity.” The Blaze. N.p., 19 July 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. <http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/07/19/tattooed-and-scruffy-bearded-preacher-shatters-traditional-pastoral-image-and-his-church-is-exploding-in-popularity/>.
Kahn, Howie. “Jesus Christ’s Superstar (The Gospel According to Carl Lentz).” Details. N.p., 1 Oct. 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. <http://www.details.com/culture-trends/critical-eye/201310/pastor-carl-lentz-hillsong-church-nyc-pentecostals>.
Khaled, Heidi PhD. “The Enduring, Insufferable Hipster: Popular Critiques of Art, Commerce, and Authenticity Through the Ages.” University of Pennsylvania. 2012.
Roach, Mary Ellen and Eicher, Joanne Bubolz. “The Language of Personal Adornment.” Fashion Theory: A Reader. Ed. Barnard, Malcolm. New York: Routledge, 2007. 109-21. Print.
Marwick, Alice. “Conspicuous and Authentic: Fashion Blogs, Style, and Consumption.” 2011.
All Images are from @hillsongnyc Instagram account
1. October 19, 2014 from @hillsongnyc instagram. https://instagram.com/hillsongnyc/p/uW1RyXuaLF/.
2. November 19, 2014 from @hillsongnyc instagram. https://instagram.com/hillsongnyc/p/vmurNRuaJY/
3. November 2, 2014 from @hillsongnyc Instagram. https://instagram.com/hillsongnyc/p/u6Hq3cOaGf/
4. November 17, 2014 from @hillsongnyc instagram. https://instagram.com/hillsongnyc/p/vfWgn0OaBW/
5. November 10, 2014 from @hillsongnyc instagram. https://instagram.com/hillsongnyc/p/vOX1pKuaKk/