NEW YORK – Carl Lentz, senior pastor of Hillsong New York City, never imagined that a deal he had roughly 10 years ago with Joel Houston, son of Hillsong Church's founder Brian Houston, would actually pan out one day.
Today, the long-time friends from Bible college lead Hillsong NYC, the first U.S. location of the Australian-based Pentecostal megachurch.
The Manhattan-based church, which meets at Irving Plaza near Union Square, recently kicked-off weekly services on Feb. 13, 2011 following it's official launch on Oct. 17, 2010.
The Christian Post spoke to Lentz this week about how he got involved in Hillsong NYC, his response to critics who ask why New York City needs "another church," and what the vision of the church is all about.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
CP: Can you give me a brief history on how Hillsong New York started?
Lentz: I think Brian and Bobbie has always had it in their heart to do something in America but the when and the where has been in development for the a long time.
Joel and I, I think we were 20 (years old), were talking at Bible college one day and I said: "I'm going back to America and you're going to stay here. I wonder if we will ever work together again."
Joel said that, "If my dad ever did something outside of Australia, that would be kind of cool."
I said: "Yea, it would have to be somewhere like New York."
And he said: "Yea, New York would be awesome."
And I said: "If he did, we have to do it together."
And he said: "Yea, it's a deal."
I said that, not thinking it would happen.
CP: What year was that?
Lentz: It was in mid-Bible college so I was there from 19 to 23 (years old) or something. It's hazy.
CP: How old are you now?
Lentz: I'm 32.
How did you get involved in Hillsong NYC?
Lentz: So, I talked with Joel. And last New Year's Eve, I flew up to New York City and he was visiting. We had a conversation about it.
He said: "Man, my dad is thinking of something in New York."
I said: "That's crazy. Who's going to do it?"
He said: "I'm going to do it but I always thought we would do it together."
I said: "Man, I'm going to pray about it but I can tell you right now that I want to do it. That's what I want to do."
It's kind of impulsive. It seems quick but it's kind of years in the making in my heart.
CP: There are a lot of churches in New York City, thousands in fact. Can you explain what is the need for Hillsong New York and what is the demographic that it wishes to serve that might not be served by other churches?
Lentz: You are asking in really cool way but often times people ask me that in a really critical way, something like: "Why does New York City need another church?"
It is really sad to me. There are 20 million people in this city. There are a lot of people who don't know the Lord. It's like asking: Why does the city need another restaurant. It's like one person going to McDonalds unless I have any other food.
You know, the gospel is relevant and makes sense to people in different ways. Sometimes, different churches have different feels. Maybe someone will not connect with Hillsong New York City but they go down to your church and connect with that. So if it saves one person then that church is worthwhile.
So for us, we really believe in building the local church in general and we feel like we have a lane. We often use the analogy of a running lane. We are all running the same race with the same destination. We're not running your lane. It's not better or worse, just different.
But I think the way that Hillsong does worship is appealing to people. And the way we teach the practicality of this Gospel is helpful to people.
Brian Houston is known for really practical teaching that takes something really complex make a whole lot of sense. That to me is...See, when I fell in love with Jesus it was through Hillsong Church. It was through this message of church. So there are a lot of people like us and it just makes sense.
CP: For example, Redeemer tries to reach out to city professionals. I attended a Hillsong NYC service back in November and I noticed that there were a lot of young people, and dare I say a hip, young crowd. Is this a group or generation not being reached in New York?
Lentz: I think there are some churches reaching people like that. It is what it is. We are never going to say we are about this or about that. Because I just don't feel God is that narrow.
When a church says we are reaching out to city professionals, I would say we are too. We also reach out to the elderly, the single mom, the young person.
We're young. We're 32. On the senior pastor realm, Laura and I would be on the younger scale of that and some of our draw would reflect that. But last night there were some CEOs of companies and people who New York City would consider some very big players who are calling Hillsong New York City their home. So, we absolutely believe that the grace of God will be appealing to everybody.
Yea, I think there is a hip, young factor that is wide open in this city, and we are part of a number of churches who are going after that group. But at the same time, it's not intentional. We don't sit there and go, okay, how can we appeal to the hip, young people. We just sit there and go how can we lift up the name of Jesus with how we see fit and let the chips fall where they may.
If it was as easy as picking a demographic, we would be doing a lot better as churches. So I don't even believe that works.
CP: Now, Hillsong New York is a church plant from Hillsong Church based in Australia. The leadership is made up of Australians. Are there any concerns about bridging the cultural gap or adapting the church to a U.S. audience? Or is it not relevant?
Lentz: No. Zero.
I think Australian leadership is fantastic but I don't think there are that many.
I'm a true-blue American, born and raised in Virginia, and went to college in North Carolina State University. I'm from the South! So if I can understand then I think it's going to be fine.
There are very few cultural differences as far as doctrine or philosophy. If anything, it's just awesome because the Australian way of loving Jesus is sometimes so free that we miss that in our religiosity in America. So it's very refreshing. So often Australians can come to a place like this and have a pretty big impact because the way they work it out and it's a lot of fun.
CP: You told the audience during a church service back in November that this is "not a concert" but "a church service." Do you think there are a lot of people who attend Hillsong New York because of the popularity of the worship music? How do you build the core membership and not only attract people who just want to listen to worship music from Hillsong?
Lentz: Yea, I don't think it's a problem - people who want to come to church because they love to worship. I think we're going to keep showing up week in and week out. We have 20 minutes of worship normally. So if you're coming because you think it's a concert then you going to figure out within two services that this is a church. So we never once thought what we are going to do if people come because they love the music. That's just a huge bonus.
Every bit of music that comes out of the church is because it's a church. It's not the opposite. It's not a band that has a church attached to it. It's the music that comes out of the church. It takes 10 minutes to explain that. I say that not for Hillsong music but we have visitors who don't know what church is like. So when I'm talking to people and say, 'Hey this is not a concert, this is not a spectator sport,' I'm not talking about people thinking it's a concert. But because they just don't know what it is. We're not just here listening to a band and just singing, but we're singing to God. That's why I do that.
CP: You blogged on Sunday that over 200 people have given their lives to Christ and 400 people have signed up to be volunteers for the church. How does Hillsong follow up for people who have made decisions for Christ and what kinds of activities volunteers are involved in these days?
Lentz: There are dozens of areas to volunteer as any other church.
Follow-up wise, we're going to do some innovative things. We're going to do what every church tries to do. If anyone ever gives you a quick answer for what they do for follow-up then I would probably be very skeptical because if anyone figured that out by now....It's very different to do.
For us, we're building the church based on the Acts model where the Bible said they devoted themselves. We'll tell people: You got saved here. We're going to get you details. We're going to do everything we can to support you in this decision. We're going to give you options to grow, to learn, but we are not going to chase you down. We don't believe in that philosophically. We're not going to bang on your door and ask why you are not coming to church. We're going to put the tools in your hands. It's going to be a new way of thinking so we're pretty excited about it. We've seen some success from that.
A shorter answer is that we're going to give people classes, mentorship, and immediate connect group activity which is like you get enrolled in a small group, so with the hope of saying that you have the option of walking into a family.
CP: What kind of activities are the volunteers doing?
Lentz: We are brand new church. We are not trying to build Rome in one day.
We have music, ushering, hospitality team, a greetings team, a new Christians team, a welcome team, a children's program, and a community team which will probably be developed over the next year as we know the city better and the organizations that we're going to partner with. We have a couple of homeless organizations that are kind of on the radar right now. We are meeting with them to decide which one we can fill our lives into. We are not going to start our own homeless ministry. We're going to find one that is working and put our weight behind it.
CP: Is the church active in any homeless ministry currently?
Lentz: We don't have a specific one endeavor.
Right now, what we have planned is that we are going to meet with one organization. There is a woman in our church who runs a pretty fantastic operation, feeding people in different programs. So right now our plan is to mobilize our church to do it all together.
Our plan is not to have an outreach ministry. I think that's a pretty much a tragic term because if it's not outreach in general it should not be a department. We don't like to say that we're going to do outreach. Everybody is an outreach every day of the week they walk out the door.
CP: What are the roles for Joel and you at the church?
Lentz: Well, my wife and I would be the pastors on the ground here. When it comes to the leading, the teaching, the preaching and the motivational aspect, that's us. When it comes to the music and some of the things we do around the country, whether it be some of the worship tours we're involved with, Joel has handled every decision we make.
Every key decision, Laura, myself and Joel make it together in agreement. It's pretty much a joint effort in everything we do.
He's such a good musician. I'm not a good musician. So that's a no-brainer. He can handle that by himself.
CP: What are some of the main challenges you see in planting Hillsong NYC?
Lentz: Main challenge is for us to keep our vision big enough. When it comes to challenges, there is no mountain here that God can't move in a day.
For us, it would be to never narrow our little human minds and try to get our heads around this because if we can stay with the big picture, God will stay bigger.
So everyday we are going to wake up and say: "Okay, Lord, we're going to dream huge. No matter what someone tells us, you can't use this venue– nope, we can. You can't reach those people–we're going to believe we can reach them."
CP: What are your hopes and prayers for Hillsong New York this year?
Lentz: If I told you my prayers, I would probably have to kill you. Nah, I'm just kidding.
We're just believing that we are going to help more people than we've dreamed. I think our church is in a really strong place to begin with. I think it's a pretty successful place to be. Rather than start from scratch, we have a foothold like we do already.
We plan on having an army that is in full force. If I can look back a year from now and I can say, we are active in the community, our services are helping people, and everywhere you look in New York City, there's someone from Hillsong New York that's making a difference, we're going to be in a good spot.
We just don't know all the ins and outs of where God is going to take this. We kind of wait with anticipation going, okay Lord, whatever you have in store, we're not going to limit it. So I guess you can say we're going to stay out of the way of what God wants to do and just let him use us how he sees fits.