Los Angeles Churches Make Worship…Hip?


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Worshipers sing and dance as the band plays at Mosaic church in Los Angeles, which holds as many as four services on Sundays.

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John Francis Peters for The New York Times

LOS ANGELES — Just before 10 a.m. on a sunny Sunday in November, a crowd gathered in front of a white modernist building here on Hollywood Boulevard. An inscription on its side, “H/N,” short for “Here and Now,” stood out from a block away.

Twenty- and 30-somethings spilled onto the steps and the lawn, dressed in crop tops, moto jackets, and jeans torn deliberately at the knees.

“How was your party last night?” a young woman in a shirt dress and bootees asked a guy in aviator sunglasses and a swath of chains. “I heard it was amazing.” He replied: “Girl, can you stop losing weight? You’re going to disappear.”

They sought not physical but spiritual nourishment. The building? Mosaic, a church that counts thousands of young people among its congregants, offering sermons rife with pop-culture references, musical performances that look like Coachella, and a brand cultivated for social media. (Church events are advertised on Instagram; there’s a “text to donate” number).

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While Christianity is on a decline in the United States, at Mosaic and other churches like it in the Los Angeles area, the religion is thriving.

“We have a hundred people every week who come to faith in Jesus,” Erwin McManus, Mosaic’s founder and lead pastor, said after the first of four services that Sunday.

This being Hollywood, famous faces are among the faithful. Joe Jonas has been to Reality LA, a new-age church in Hollywood that meets in an unadorned high school auditorium. (There, congregants send prayer requests via text messages.) Viola Davis is a regular at Oasis, a neon-hued service inside a Koreatown cathedral. Justin Bieber supports Hillsong.

But Mr. McManus, 57, insists that his congregants are there for the message, not celebrity-gawping or networking. “This isn’t sanitized,” he said. “This is not Jesus-lite.”

Services start with music from a live band, their lyrics projected onto a giant screen. Lit by multicolored spotlights, they bring the crowd to its feet, hands in the air.

A few singers take turns leading songs, most of which are originals that praise God’s glory. Mr. McManus’s daughter, Mariah, 23, is a regular frontwoman, belting out breathy “hallelujahs” on a recent Sunday to a packed house of over 700 people.

After a half-hour, Mr. McManus emerged onstage dressed in black skinny jeans, black leather high-top sneakers and a long black T-shirt, his hair slicked back in a trendy undercut style. He could easily have passed for a pop star swanning through the doors of the Chateau Marmont. In fact, one of the early iterations of Mosaic, back in the ’90s, was held in a Los Angeles nightclub owned by Prince.

“I thought it was kind of iconic,” Mr. McManus said. “It was really nasty. I wanted to take what people considered to be a safe haven to the most profane space possible.”

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Top, a live band, lit by multicolored spotlights, brings worshipers to their feet at Mosaic.

Credit
John Francis Peters for The New York Times

Born in El Salvador, Mr. McManus grew up with a variety of religious influences: His maternal grandmother was Roman Catholic, his mother Buddhist and his father Jewish. He studied philosophy and psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and at 20 decided to follow the word of Jesus. He went on to receive a master’s in divinity from Southwestern Theological Seminary.

Soon after, he moved to Los Angeles to work as a futurist and found himself helping friends, as he put it, “come to faith.” He had an epiphany at a screening of “Braveheart,” watching Mel Gibson’s character rally his troops for battle.

“I had this visceral response and I thought to myself, ‘I can’t let the most meaningful moment of my life be watching a movie,’” Mr. McManus said. “Sunday needs to feel like this. You go to church on Sunday and you don’t have any sense of the heroic. We have a really powerful heroic narrative here, of the extraordinary good you can do in the world.”

The nightclub gathering expanded into a network of nontraditional churches throughout Southern California that grew so big that in 2009, Mr. McManus stepped away. “I didn’t want to manage it,” he said.

He dabbled in film and fashion — producing men’s wear, leather goods, bags and jeans — before his children persuaded him to start a scaled-down version of Mosaic in 2012. (He sometimes relates fashion to faith, likening the cracks in his white-painted Maison Margiela Converse sneakers to the way God reveals himself in curious ways.)

The church doesn’t adhere to a specific strain of Christianity and encourages followers to unleash their creative spirits. Mr. McManus attends TED conferences and invokes Burning Man.

“The Bible was taken and used as a manuscript for conformity and we want to turn it into a manifesto of creativity,” he said after a recent sermon. “We want, whenever someone hears the name Jesus, to go: ‘Oh. Creativity, beauty, imagination, wonder,’ instead of, ‘Rules, laws, conformity, judgment.’”

Earlier this fall, at a Wednesday-night service known as the “50-yard line to Sunday,” Joe Smith, another Mosaic pastor, called on congregants to trust God the way they trust Waze, the Google-owned traffic navigation app crucial to getting anywhere in Los Angeles.

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Erwin McManus, the founder and lead pastor of Mosaic.

Credit
John Francis Peters for The New York Times

“What Waze is doing is navigating the scene,” he said, to a chorus of “yeahs” and “mm-hmms.” “It’s taking in all the information, it’s taking in other people’s traffic patterns, it’s taking in, what’s happening that we don’t even know behind the scene, and Waze makes decisions for us that we don’t realize is for our benefit.

“What we need to do when we interact with God,” he said, “and he tells us to go somewhere, we need to be like Waze, where we are excited about the journey, to take turns that we didn’t even realize were ahead of us. We’re going to go to places that we weren’t even certain we wanted to go.”

Mary Tanagho Ross, a lawyer and longtime Mosaic congregant, said the church’s style of preaching resonates. “I love that I can understand what they’re saying, and I don’t need somebody to interpret that for me,” she said. “It just feels really real, really authentic. I think that’s what people want: authenticity and simplicity.”

Kristina Van Dyk, a wardrobe stylist, chimed in: “There’s something that Erwin has said,” she said, referring to Mr. McManus. “‘Relevance to culture is not optional. Culture is always changing, and if we’re not creating a space that has anything relatable, it wouldn’t be enjoyable.’”

Other churches employ similar tactics to “really meet people where they’re at,” Reality LA’s head pastor Jeremy Treat said, “instead of saying, ‘You need to convert to being a 1950s American Christian.’”

Talking about Christian hymns during a service last month at Oasis, the pastor Philip Wagner joked that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” was one of them.

“What we’ve found is that this generation, particularly the millennials, they don’t want to know the theory,” said Holly Wagner, Mr. Wagner’s wife, who founded Oasis with him in 1984. (It was born out of a Beverly Hills Bible study that counted Donna Summer among its attendees). “We make the Bible very practical and helpful and find humor in it. To the best of our ability, we’re trying to have fun while doing this.”

Inspiring and entertaining thousands of people every Sunday is a production. At Mosaic, two dozen assistants hustle through the aisles, talking into headsets and waving flashlights. Between services, Mr. McManus retreats to a makeshift green room behind two doors with punch-code locks. Inside, on a Sunday in November, there were bowls of raspberries, blueberries and granola. A live feed of the stage played on a small television; Mr. McManus sat in a plastic chair and sipped a smoothie from the Body Factory. He gets louder as he preaches and can grow hoarse, bordering on hysterical, when making a point.

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Congregants gather before a service.

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John Francis Peters for The New York Times

Mr. McManus’s son, Aaron, 27, heads Mosaic’s design team, finding minimalist photos of palm trees and dreamy Los Angeles cityscapes to project on the big screen to encourage people to donate and get involved in Bible study groups. A Mosaic music video with cool kids skateboarding through Hollywood plays as people file to their seats.

“Sometimes at Mosaic, it can feel a little commercial, when it’s just, like, this really homogeneous hipster-y space of selling Mosaic and they kind of get into this mode of ‘Hey, fill this out, tweet, link up with us,’” said Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari, an actor who commutes to Mosaic from his home on a yacht in Marina del Rey, Calif. “When that happens, I think it’s a little obnoxious. But I try not to think about that and redirect my attention inside.”

Reality LA plays down the performance part of its music, lighting band members in such a way that their faces can’t be seen from the auditorium seats. “There’s a tendency to focus on the talent of the musicians rather than on God,” Mr. Treat said, “especially in Hollywood, where being on stage, that’s accentuated even more. We want the focus to be on Jesus, not on whoever’s playing lead guitar that Sunday.

“It’s not an event to come and watch,” he said. “And, unfortunately, some churches have turned into that, where the church is a show and the people who come are consumers.”

Reality LA is not particularly welcoming to openly gay members. “We have lots of people who say that they experience same-sex attraction but who are not acting on it because they’re following Christ,” Mr. Treat said.

Mosaic is more accommodating. “We have people in our community who are gay and live openly gay lifestyles,” Mr. McManus said. “We have people here who would say, ‘Homosexuality is clearly against the scriptures and is wrong,’ and we’re teaching them how to walk together. Our position is, you have to be for each other.”

At a recent Mosaic Bible study for young professional women, Ms. Van Dyk, the wardrobe stylist who hosted the event at her home in West Hollywood, Calif., began by asking if anyone had bought the new Justin Bieber album. Two women burst into one of his songs. “What about his hair, though?” another asked. This prompted a brief discussion of his cross tattoos.

Before opening their Bibles, Ms. Van Dyk laid out a couple of house rules: “Whatever’s said here, stays here,” she said. “We all have beautiful and interesting lives, and we don’t need to be gossiping or talking about someone else’s.”

Despite the neon lights, social media accounts and the casual style of dress, these churches preach about the same God and the same things that, as Reality LA’s Mr. Treat put it, “most Christians have believed for the last 2,000 years.” But they can scramble the signals of traditional churchgoers, even young ones.

“I think it kind of bedazzles people,” said Mr. Bakhtiari, who once brought four foster children he works with to Mosaic. “When I first mentioned it, they were like, ‘I don’t want to go to church.’ But they were into it. They were super-confused in a cool way.”



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