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Rebel pastor - Unconventional megachurch booming in New York City

Published:Sunday | July 21, 2013 | 12:00 AM
In this July 14, 2013 photo, Pastor Carl Lentz (centre) leads a Hillsong NYC church service at Irving Plaza in New York. - AP


Carl Lentz is not your typical pastor. Along with his half-shaved head and slicked-back Mohawk, he's dressed in his usual Sunday attire: black jeans and an unbuttoned denim shirt with a tank top underneath. His tattooed arms, including one with two guns crossed, peek out from under his rolled-up sleeves.

His Hillsong Church, New York City (NYC) holds at least six sermons every Sunday in a ballroom-style concert venue that has hosted such bands as U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

People squeeze into whatever space they can find and take notes on iPhones as Lentz marches across the stage, peppering his sermon with Bible verses, jokes, pop music lines and street slang.

"If you're new to our church, we love you," says the 34-year-old Lentz. "Don't be alarmed by the craziness you see."

New York has become a magnet for start-up evangelical churches in recent years.

There are currently more than 200 in Manhattan alone and Hillsong is one of the fastest-growing.

After a little more than two years, Hillsong estimates it draws 5,500 people to Sunday services each week.

Crowds lining up are a regular weekly scene at Irving Plaza near Manhattan's Union Square. Hillsong often has to add additional evening sessions, which could last well into the night.

"I've gotten used to seeing bar stools and club stuff in the place that we have church," Lentz said, adding "that's church to me now."

Steve Dagrossa, a 31-year-old who says he is a recovering heroin addict, attended all six sermons on a recent Sunday, for a total of 12 hours. He has even styled his hair like Lentz.

The church is a branch of the popular Australia-based Hillsong Church, the Pentecostal church which draws more than 21,000 weekly to its services.

Hillsong is best known for its concert-type settings where they play Christian rock and praise music, which often appeals to a younger demographic of churchgoers.

Much of Hillsong NYC's success can be attributed to its unorthodox leader.

Lentz is a hyperactive, self-proclaimed insomniac who would rather stand than sit.

His gift for gab lends itself to creating hype for the church. He loves hip hop music and often calls getting the word of God out "a hustle".

At one service, he broke out Coolio lyrics. At another he called the biblical Saul the "LeBron James of Judaism".