Sleek West Coast ministry Churchome is, by all accounts, poised to become the next big name in mega-church circles, now that Hillsong’s once illustrious reputation has fallen into disrepair. Once called City Church, it has a glitzy new board of directors, effective January 1; Among them are venture capitalists, Hollywood power players, and sports superstar Russell Wilson. Its website peddles the sort of all-serif aesthetic most commonly utilized by Instagram-popular brands, and its flagship couple, Pastors Judah and Chelsea Smith, are airbrushed beautifully, with a softened black and white vignette. But most importantly, its mission statement boasts of a home for all people, the lost and astray among them. “Welcome home.”
It’s no wonder that Justin Bieber has found his way into Churchome’s loving embrace. In November, Bieber’s once confidante and personal on-call pastor, Hillsong leader Carl Lentz, was outed as a philanderer; Page Six reported that the woman with whom he had cheated on his wife, 34-year-old fashion designer Ranin Karim, said Lentz “needed to do something that would excite him.” In the months since, Lentz has checked himself into treatment for “pastoral burnout,” anxiety, and depression. By December, Page Six further reported that Hillsong had, for many years, been stuffed with “inappropriate sexual relationships.”
Back to Bieber. On Monday, the singer blasted another report in Page Six that he had studied to be a pastor at Hillsong. He called it “fake news,” and wrote, on Instagram Stories: “AND BTW HILLSONG IS NOT MY CHURCH.. FOR CLARITY I AM A PART OF CHURCHOME.” It wasn’t the first time Bieber distanced himself from Lentz; rumors of a schism between the once inseparable duo date back to 2018. So with Hillsong set adrift and left to ruin, it’s obvious why Bieber has moved onto Churchome: its front page is almost indistinguishable from Hillsong’s own website, or that of sister ministry Zoe Church. For example, Hillsong and Churchome both feature the statement “Welcome Home” in their respective mission statements and on the front page of their sites.
Churchome’s About page reads:
Why would God want to hang out with people like us? There’s only one answer: love. Extravagant love. Love that is on a level beyond time and space. Divine love. And this is the kind of love that is toward us today. The big idea behind our community is that every woman, man, girl and boy—every age, every race—would find a home in God. A home where they belong. God has made us a family, and we want to be a community that operates as a family.
Its mission statement also explains that “whether prodigals or prodigies, artists or intellectuals, rebels or rejects, God’s arms are open to all.” I couldn’t paint a larger bullseye for a famous person if I tried.
Elsewhere, the website is primed with messages of racial justice. “Churchome recognizes the killing of Black people as a national crisis. As a collective community, we grieve, as God grieves, by the continued targeting, torturing and killing of Black men, women, boys and girls.” It continues: “We recognize the ongoing issue of racism in America and around the world, and the fatal consequences that results.” On the same page, Churchome claims that “we are committed to instituting ongoing training around anti-racism and unconscious bias for our staff.”
Bieber is also not the church’s only brush with celebrity. While Wilson currently sits on the board of directors, Selena Gomez, Maria Shriver, the Kardashians, and Tim Tebow, among others, have all been spotted at its Los Angeles location. During this initial spate of popularity, back in 2016, reporter Rachel Handler asked lead pastor Judah Smith to clarify the City Church’s stance on homosexuality. Lentz, who Smith described as “connected relationally” to his own ministry, had just come under scrutiny after Hillsong pastor Joel Houston claimed that LGBTQ+ churchgoers would not be allowed to participate in leadership, and asserted that Hillsong was “not a church that affirms a gay lifestyle.” To answer Handler’s question, here’s what Smith had to say:
“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.”
When pressed, he confirmed to MTV News that City Church had no “written policy” on gay leadership. In an interview with Marie Claire in November 2019, Smith and wife Chelsea were similarly reticent to answer the question. “Our hearts are for the people, and that is where we land, absolutely,” she told a reporter for the magazine.
Elsewhere, Churchome offers a direct-to-pastor chatroom, which a cheery message on its front page: “Get in touch with us. We’re here for you!” I asked: “I am a little hesitant that so many celebrities go to this church, that I have heard a lot about. I was wondering how the church handles that level of press attention for the average member?” After a brief survey taken in the chat, eventually, someone got back to me: “Hi Joan! That’s a great question. Our top priority is that everyone feels welcome at Churchome, no matter someone’s level of fame and to respect their privacy. We treat everyone the same and do our best to ensure that everyone is able to worship without being bothered.” I asked if paparazzi or press attention had ever been a distraction to services, and the helpful representative told me no, “not in my experience.”
But with Bieber now publicly pledged to the church, having disavowed his once mentor and holy ground at Hillsong, Churchome is undoubtedly on the up and up. And by the looks of their sleek website and quick customer service, that same glitzy leadership seems poised to welcome any and all expatriates that might come their way.
(Updated 3/2/22 with new details)