Could Going To Celebrity Church Make Me Feel Better About Trump?
I wake up on November 9, 2016 vaguely wanting to die. I'm in Los Angeles for work, which means I'm alone in a burlesque-themed hotel room; there are blackout curtains on the windows and a sealed soda can full of novelty sex toys for purchase on the nightstand next to me. My eyelids are swollen and my stomach feels like I've swallowed a family of live crickets. I decide I will live the rest of my life in this hotel room, never again engaging with the outside world, subsisting on $9 Pirate's Booty. And then I remember that tonight — the night after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States — I'm expected in church.
I'm headed to City Church, an evangelical-but-in-a-hip-way place of worship targeted at millennials that boasts among its constituents Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, the Kardashians, and Tim Tebow. City Church has outposts in Washington and Guadalajara, but I'm invited to its L.A. iteration, which hops around weekly from the Montage Beverly Hills to the Wilshire to the Saban Theatre. At the helm is Pastor Judah Smith, who I'm scheduled to interview and who has, I'm told by the publicist representing him, “been dubbed Hollywood's A-List Pastor.” Before Trump's America mutated rapidly from ironic dystopian fiction into grim reality, I thought it'd be fun to talk to Smith about meeting the idiosyncratic needs of his celebrity flock; now, I wonder, unprecedentedly, if a trip to a spiritual center where everyone is grappling with the same dark questions might make me feel 10 percent less despondent about the state of the human race.
I arrive at the Saban at around 7 p.m., accidentally dressed for a shiva: I haven't showered since the election, and I'm wearing no makeup and a sort of roomy shawl that would appear in a Cathy comic about a manic late-night run to the grocery store. A few wildly attractive twentysomethings are milling around the bar — which was serving coffee and tea — sizing up each other's top knots and strategically-ripped denim. Pastor Smith's publicist meets me in the lobby and leads me backstage, where Smith is sitting in a de facto greenroom, chatting with friends.
At 38, Smith has the poker face of Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood, the fashion sense of an overgrown Bieber — carefully askew black beanie, wire-rimmed aviators, torn Rag & Bone skinny jeans, baggy white t-shirt, white Common Projects sneakers — and the upbeat charm of a children's TV show host. “I’ve just enjoyed fashion my whole life,” he tells me when I ask if he dresses like this to ingratiate himself to his youthful flock. “There’s no way to explain it. So I didn’t change the way I dress or change my hobbies to connect with young people. This is me to a T. I have multiple glasses that go with different outfits. I believe there's fall colors and summer colors. All I can do is be who I really am. Anything else is artificial and can be snuffed out and sniffed out by millennials in a New York second."
Our interview zigs and zags; Pastor Smith and I talk about everything from the election (more on that in a bit) to spray-tanning (Smith thinks he needs one) to Smith's 17-year-strong marriage (“Our moms were pregnant together at the exact same time, and they were like, ‘Let’s have a boy and a girl, and wouldn’t it be great if we got them to marry each other?’”) to the impetus for Smith's preaching (“As far back as we can tell, I’m a seventh-generation preacher — it goes all the way back to a circuit-riding female preacher who carried a gun and a bible in New Mexico”) to how City Church L.A. got its start. According to Smith, it all began, improbably, seven years ago at the home of E! News host Jason Kennedy. Smith, who's based in Seattle but now flies to L.A. three times a month to lead services, began teaching Bible study courses to Kennedy (“one of my best friends”) and some of his E! News peers in monthly sessions that soon grew in size and frequency because, as Smith puts it, “a lot of them felt loved and I think just wanted to keep hanging.” The group grew from 30 to 40 to 80 to 90 and then somebody called the cops.
Now more than 1,500 young Christians — Smith prefers to call them “Jesus followers” or “my friends” — gather every Wednesday in a venue zoned for commercial use to listen to Smith preach. Smith believes he's filling a gaping chasm of millennial need: “I think there’s just a hunger amongst millennials for authenticity and genuine relationships and connection, something that changes them on the inside spiritually.” I ask Smith why he thinks millennials have turned away from organized religion (only 27 percent attend religious services on a weekly basis). “I think, historically, a lot of horrible things have been done in the name of God. A thinking person would go, ‘Religion, that term, that name, that classification — religion has done a lot of deplorable things in human history,’” he says. “And so I have no issue with people who have issue with those horrible things that have been done.”
In fact, this sort of rejection only encourages Smith to make Christianity more palatable (read: cool) for his vernal congregation. “I think those of us who believe in God and those of us who follow Jesus, who believe that Jesus is God and the Messiah, I think we have a responsibility. I think it’s an honor, but it’s a responsibility to carry this differently. The narrative is changing, and we’re getting back to actually what Jesus did say and how he lived, which I think is the ultimate in scripture — if we could live, love, and look more like Jesus, no matter what you believe about him, whether or not he’s God and savior, the world would be a much better place.”
Now that we've breached the twin topics of “fucked-up things done in the name of God” and “living like Jesus,” I ask Smith about a story that broke last year about Hillsong, an oft-profiled parallel hip-young-celebrity church whose membership overlaps with City Church's and whose pastor, Joel Houston, is Smith's pastor as well. A conservative blogger wrote a screed criticizing Hillsong NYC for allowing gay couple Reed Kelly and Josh Canfield to lead the local choir, garnering national attention and forcing senior pastor Brian Houston to confirm the church's non-LGBT affirming stance in a statement. “So if you are gay, are you welcome at Hillsong Church? Of course!” wrote Houston lopsidedly. “You are welcome to attend, worship with us, and participate as a congregation member with the assurance that you are personally included and accepted within our community. But (this is where it gets vexing), can you take an active leadership role? No. This won't make everyone happy and to some, this stance may even be seen as hypocritical. We are a gay-welcoming church but we are not a church that affirms a gay lifestyle.”
I ask Smith if City Church, which he describes as “connected relationally” to Hillsong, has a similar policy, and how he reconciles the idea of getting back to the OG idea of Jesus — by all accounts a pretty accepting dude — with policies like this. It's the first time I see him get flustered. “I think all of those issues can be so hurtful, so painful and so divisive across the board,” he says. “I think it’s imperative what we focus on, what I focus on. So I genuinely don’t even go there, I don’t even respond to the question or answer the question. If I could be honest, I think in the day and age in which we live there are far more important things for us to talk about, such as love —” I interrupt him to explain that I think it's probably an important issue for his gay constituents.
He nods respectfully and starts again. “I think that when you start talking about sexual preferences, here’s what I truly believe, across the board, talking sexual preferences. That’s a very personal, intimate thing that I have chosen to establish friendships and relationships with people before I ... I do not like blanket statements. Blanket statements can be very misleading and misunderstanding, so I have chosen, and will continue, and asking even our team, that we are going to take these very personal pains and journeys, particularly sexual preference ... I am very deliberate in doing that personally with people.” He does confirm that City Church has no “written policy” on gay leadership.
Smith seems similarly uneasy talking about the political aspect of the election, preferring instead to focus on its emotional impact. “We all need church tonight, that's for sure,” he says. “I don’t think this is about policies anymore. I’m glad the election is over. But I think now it’s about people. It’s always been about people. It’s sad that it became about policy, because I think we had two polarizing figures. It wasn’t even about the issues, because they didn’t even really talk about the issues.” I ask him if he endorsed a candidate or plans on addressing either by name in his sermon tonight. “No, I’ll never do that,” he says firmly. “I just decided policies are too divisive. The Bible actually tells us that we have a ministry, and it’s the ministry of reconciliation to bring people together, and so my passion is to bring people together and not emphasize things that divide. We’re very divided, aren’t we? It’s almost down the middle now. It’s just astronomically painful.”
After wrapping up my one-on-one interview with Smith by asking him if he believes that I, a Jewess, am going to hell due to my failure to accept Christ into my heart (“I honestly don't know, I have no idea, but I know God knows”), I meet my editor, Leah, another Jewish gal, in the main theater. It's our third meeting in 24 Bizarro Hours: Leah and I had spent election night together, at first jubilantly making margaritas and elaborate dips and weighing the idea of themed Hillary hats for a small election-night party, then eventually sobbing in front of her TV, drinks melting in our glasses. We'd also spent the entirety of today together in the office, crying quietly at our laptops. At the Saban, we greet each other like survivors of a tragic, spontaneous alien invasion.
We expect City Church's atmosphere to be similarly solemn and tortured. Instead, it's more akin to Church Coachella. Everyone is extremely hot and serene and mostly white, milling about and chatting offhandedly between rows. We spot approximately 16 fedoras, dozens of carefully tousled blowouts, and at least one of the actresses from Twilight. While none of the aforementioned A-listers appear to be in attendance, everybody looks like a derivative of a celebrity, a famous-face stunt double. Leah and I ask each other, “Wait, is he on Teen Wolf?” about no fewer than six men.
And then there's the hugging. The beautiful, blithe constituents of City Church greet each other with such intimate, lengthy, erotic hugs that it becomes abundantly clear that at least half of them are Here To Find Somebody To Have Sex With, Perhaps Long-Term. Though the few congregants I speak to expound animatedly on how City Church drew them in by fulfilling promises of real friendship and “feeling good” (one tells me she came to church because “I heard Pastor Smith was really funny, and makes you feel like a friend”), the pre-service socializing vibe is a little more Tinder than Touched by an Angel.
Pastor Smith is a fashionable 20 minutes late to the stage. While we wait, a cavalcade of Bieber hits tumbles from the speakers, and eventually, a sexy Christian rock band — made up of other non-famous, very hot Jesus followers in backward hats and the apparently required distressed denim — sets up and begins to jam languidly.
“I am full of faith for the community, you, the future,” Smith begins earnestly, the rapt congregation following his emotional lead. “And I am full of grief at the same time, because of so much pain and division in our country. No matter what you believe about policy, tonight we’re in an elevated conversation. This space is about people, it’s not about policies. Policies come and go; people are eternal.”
Abruptly, and without warning, he changes lanes. “My name’s Judah, I’ve been married to my wife 17 years as of November 5,” he yells, to raucous cheers. “It was an awesome anniversary celebration and there was just a lot of sex. Chels and I have determined that we literally have had sex more than 2,000 times. We actually counted. Can I say something about sex for a minute — can we elevate the conversation?” More cheering, loud laughter. “If you had sex with the same person 2,000 times, you get good. I’m just saying. I’m having a lot more fun than you are. I can guarantee you that, buddy. I love you guys. I adore Chelsea. We have three kids — a 10-, 12- and a 7-year-old, and they love life and they love God. You know God makes sex, right? So if we’re God worshippers, Jesus followers should have the best sex on the planet because it’s sacred sex and it’s dedicated sex and it’s in the context God intended sex, so it’s the best sex.”
Without missing a beat, Smith veers right back into the sermon, which is long — almost an hour — and peppered with exclamatory “wows” and “amens” from the crowd. He begins by sharing the biblical tale of Paul and Timothy, which deals with the concept of poor leadership, and what Christians should do when faced with leaders “puffed up with conceit.” According to Smith — who projects the word “FIGHT” on a PowerPoint behind him for much of the sermon — the correct course of action is “fighting the good fight of faith.”
There's a long and baffling tangent about how, in the first grade, he kicked his friend Jeff in the dick repeatedly until his friend was peeing blood. Jeff's offense: speaking to Smith's girlfriend on the playground. Smith tells this story, oddly, with a sort of faux-blaccent, swinging back and forth between remorseful defensiveness (“So, don't judge me for this, OK, because since I've atoned, OK”) and broad comedy (“My girlfriend was the type of person that gets embarrassed and gets really red in the face — I feel so sorry for people like that who get all red in the face, ’cause it's like, we know you're feeling embarrassed”). But again, he winds it back down to his central, if vague, theme — this idea of “fighting the good fight.”
The audience seems to know what he means by this, but I'm not totally sure. Is Smith suggesting that we literally fight back against Trump, whom he never addresses by name? Is he not addressing him by name because 81 percent of white evangelical Christians voted for Trump, and he doesn't want to rock the boat that's carried him this far? Does he think us millennials are grossed out or frightened by open political discourse? Is it unbecoming of a Cool Pastor to directly address or incite political revolt? What, exactly, does Smith want his Jesus followers to do in the wake of the election?
Smith never answers this, not tangibly. Instead, he speaks around it carefully, in the same way he spoke around the question about gay leadership and my potential trip to the underworld. It would seem, to Smith, that fighting that good fight doesn't really mean fighting in the literal sense, neither kicking Jeff in the dick nor sharing a dissenting political opinion. To Smith, “fighting” means to maintain wonder in the face of God, to trust that He's got your back, to focus on what unites us rather than what divides us, to stay out of the earthly fray in favor of the divine. “What Paul was trying to teach Timothy — he says, ‘If you have awe and wonder you can [relax] into the arms of your heavenly father,’” says Smith. “And then he says, ‘That is how you get ahead in life.’ That is how you get ahead of the culture. The culture filled with fear and anxiety... Trust in the only one who can save us from ourselves.”
Smith also reminds his audience that all of this — “this” being the human experience — is impermanent and therefore not quite the big deal we all think it might be. “For we brought nothing into the world and you ain't gonna take nothing out,” he yells. “Can everybody, can we just take a collective calm down? And realize that this is temporary. All of this is temporary. And everything that we are groping for and trying to get is going to fail. It's going to fail. And so, if I have food and I got clothing, and more important, if I got a heavenly father that holds me in his arms, I can exhale.”
Though his intentions are honorable — to comfort, to relieve pain — it appears Smith “genuinely won't go here” regarding the very real dangers of a Trump presidency, either. After spending two hours with this man, I'm not completely clear about whether he's a progressive who's too afraid to speak out about Trump and risk alienating his audience, or quietly supportive of our president-elect. His is a nice idea, though, especially seductive to an overly anxious person like myself: the idea that politics are debasing and temporary, that we should elevate ourselves by focusing on the long game of our eventual death. Smith is so charismatic and compelling and convincing that I imagine it would be easy, as a young Jesus follower, to listen to these words and feel soothed.
I can't help but notice, though, that these words are only applicable if you know you'll always have food and clothing and all of the the basic rights and protections that a decent government should provide — in other words, if you look like Smith. Smith's good fight of faith is a privileged one, an exhale that can really only be expelled by those fortunate enough to have the choice to let go, to put it all in God's hands, to turn off CNN and spend the next 50-odd years having sacred sex and tasting artisanal beers and smelling the roses and calmly waiting to die. Most of us — including the not-insignificant number of women and people of color and queer youth scattered through Smith's audience — can't just exhale for the duration of our natural lives; we've still got to breathe.
When the sermon is over, the sexy Christian rock band starts up again, and this time, the congregation joins in — eyes shut, arms in the air — on a slow-burn, Creed-esque ballad about putting faith in God. The woman sitting next to me disengages, writing up a to-do list on her iPhone. “Make soup,” she types. “Creative time.” As the song ends, a female City Church staffer runs up onstage and reminds the audience to buy Smith's newest book, How Is Your Soul?, which, as he animatedly explained during our interview, asks questions like, “Have we lost ourselves? Have we dehumanized our experience and existence by pursuing our arbitrary stuff, things, accolades, social media followers? Are we spending all our efforts on what is temporary? Or are we going to give time and attention to what is eternal?”
Leah and I stumble into the heat and wait for the valet to bring her car around. We joke about how we stood out so clearly in the service, surrounded by tranquil hotties, both bedraggled and visibly shell-shocked by the dramatic tonal shift in our day. We'd woken up crying; I'd gotten into a virulent screaming match about Trump with a family member; we'd comforted friends in far more terrifying positions than we. Then, impossibly, we'd pressed pause on it all for two hours, quipping about seducing the Michael Fassbender look-alikes surrounding us while listening to a likable man tell everyone to calm down, that it'd all be OK in the end, because in the end we'd be napping on Jesus's bosom.
I ask a young Latina woman on her way out how she felt this morning, before church, and how she feels now. “With what's going on, everyone's so anxious. I was filled with nervousness, because I don't know what's gonna happen,” she says. “This was definitely soothing.” I watch a pair of strapping young white men hop into a white Porsche; a white woman I recognize from Instagram jumps into a chrome Audi, laughing. A gorgeous Asian woman with braids leans out of the window of a white SUV. “Bye, friends!” she yells, grinning. Leah and I get into her 2002 Honda Accord, roll down the windows, and take a few deep breaths.