The A-List God Squad: From Kanye West to Justin Bieber, celebrities are tapping into the power of the almighty. LAURA CRAIK asks if the new star-endorsed ‘megachurches’ are really about religion or just good old showbiz self-promotion
RRIIIING! Eight o’clock on Sunday morning and the alarm has woken me far earlier than last night’s party deems expedient. My daughters are equally unimpressed. ‘Why do we have to go to church?’ the three-year-old complains. ‘To get you into the good C of E School that isn’t in our catchment,’ I say. ‘Now eat your Weetabix, for God’s sake.’
This isn’t strictly true. My husband is a fully baptised believer. He studied theology at university. We’ve been going to our local church since our youngest child was a baby, way before we knew about catchments.
During the 11 years that we eventually end up spending in worship at the altar of good SAT results – sorry, God – he becomes immersed in the church and its good work, supporting many of its endeavours in ways that sound too boasty to list. Self-aggrandisement is never holy. To quote Philippians 2:3-4, ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.’
Alas, these theological teachings go unheeded by Kanye West, the 45-year-old rapper who proclaims he’s ‘too busy writing history to read it’ and whose ‘greatest pain in life is that I’ll never be able to see myself perform live’.
West is at the vanguard of a new celebrity God Squad, an ever-swelling coterie of high-profile believers who proclaim their allegiance to Christ with a vehemence that would shame John the Evangelist.
His weekly Sunday Service, which debuted in 2019, is religion for the social media age: big on pomp and spectacle. Held in a variety of pop-up locations, including his ranch in Wyoming, it sees fans gather for prayer and song – the latter performed by a gospel choir doing versions of popular hits by Nirvana, Drake and West himself.
Alas, these theological teachings go unheeded by Kanye West, the 45-year-old rapper who proclaims he’s ‘too busy writing history to read it’ and whose ‘greatest pain in life is that I’ll never be able to see myself perform live’. West is at the vanguard of a new celebrity God Squad, an ever-swelling coterie of high-profile believers who proclaim their allegiance to Christ with a vehemence that would shame John the Evangelist (stock image)
‘It’s just an idea we had to open up our hearts to make music that we felt was as pure and as positive as possible, where people can come together and feel good with their families,’ West told David Letterman. Alas, it wasn’t enough to save his own family: his wife Kim Kardashian filed for divorce last year.
Cynics have questioned the timing of West’s Sunday Service launch, coming as it did shortly after his divisive allegiance with the then President Donald Trump in 2018, a move which alienated much of his fanbase. Whatever his motives, West is far from alone in proclaiming his love of the Lord.
Other high-profile God Squadders include actors Mark Wahlberg, Matthew McConaughey and Chris Pratt, actress Letitia Wright, Olympian Usain Bolt, boxer Tyson Fury, singers Justin Bieber (and his wife Hailey), Carrie Underwood and Robbie Williams, who credited God for curing him when he caught Covid. ‘I never normally do it but I got down on my knees and prayed,’ he told a newspaper in 2020. ‘Within 30 seconds I had lifted my vibration. And do you know what? The symptoms and the fear went away.’
Clearly, some celebrities’ faith runs deeper than others. One whose devotion extends beyond praying to be delivered from flu-like symptoms is model Miranda Kerr, 39.
Sandwiched between an Instagram post about her trip to Disneyland and another celebrating her five-year marriage to Evan Spiegel is a 20-minute video reel in which she treats her 13.5 million followers to a chat with her ‘dear friend’, priest John Macnutt, in a regular slot which Kerr brands Spiritual Sunday.
‘What does faith mean to you as a wife, a mother and a businesswoman?’ asks Macnutt. ‘My journey began as a little girl when my grandmother would read the Bible to me,’ Kerr replies. ‘She would say that God lifts the veil from your eyes when it’s time to understand Him.’
Kerr then shares details of her grandmother’s prayer about sunbeams and light which she now reads to her three children. Unfortunately the exact words are unclear due to Kerr’s erratic internet connection – a harsh reminder that in the world of online spirituality, any service is only as good as your service provider.
Kerr’s Spiritual Sunday concludes with her playing a short burst of The Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’ (to which you could add: And Reliable Wifi) to which she and the priest appear to dance – or at least sway – along to.
Judging by the comments and 22k ‘likes’, her followers are ecstatic. ‘I have been suffering from depression but this session gave me energy and pushed me to move on,’ says one. ‘Where did you get your blue dress?’ asks another.
It’s easy to mock. Christianity has always been a soft target, how else would the term ‘Bible basher’ have come about? Yet for many, online worship has been a genuine lifeline, particularly during the pandemic.
My local church in North London has observed an uptick of people coming through the doors who were first introduced to its services online. ‘Thanks to Covid, it’s very possible that these people have sampled church for precisely the reason that they could do so ‘safely’ online, without crossing the threshold,’ says the Reverend Mark Wakefield.
‘For those of us used to church it’s easy to forget how daunting it can be – what should I wear? What’s expected of me? How will I know what to do? Online services negate these concerns.’
While it’s tempting to label the actions of the celebrity celestial crew – such as when Chris Pratt, who found religion as a teen, posted pictures showing he is now so devoted to Christianity that he once built a cross in his garden to celebrate Easter – as virtue signalling, most of them are too consistent and heartfelt in their messaging for this accusation to be valid.
Whether thanking God in every awards acceptance speech is good for their brand is a moot point. But if the Kardashians doing a prayer circle before shows encourages someone to explore their faith, where’s the harm?
We live in challenging times. Little wonder that people are looking for help, guidance and enlightenment in spiritual form – even if it’s only on TikTok, where the #Christiantiktok hashtag has had more than 18 billion views.
‘All religions must be tolerated, for every man must get to heaven in his own way,’ said the Greek philosopher Epictetus. Whatever your views on religion, it’s hard to argue with that.
Know your megachurches
CHARLOTTE VOSSEN lists five of the biggest celeb-magnet congregations
What? Controversial (accused of being anti-LGBTQ+), Hillsong was visited by Hailey and Justin Bieber, Kendall and Kylie Jenner, as well as Bono, before its ‘hypepriest’ – so called for wearing expensive streetwear – Carl Lentz was fired in 2020 for unspecified ‘moral failures’.
Where? Founded in Australia, now with branches in 30 countries including the UK, and a global attendance of 150,000 weekly.
Instagram followers: three million
Controversial (accused of being anti-LGBTQ+), Hillsong was visited by Hailey and Justin Bieber, Kendall and Kylie Jenner, as well as Bono, before its ‘hypepriest’ – so called for wearing expensive streetwear – Carl Lentz was fired in 2020 for unspecified ‘moral failures’
What? Whether you call it Sunday service or a Justin Bieber gig, Churchome and lead pastor Judah Smith know how to draw an audience. Lana Del Rey and Kourtney Kardashian are regulars. There’s an app offering guided prayer and chats with the pastoral team.
Where? US cities only, including LA, Nashville and Washington DC – as its homepage states, ‘The point is not having a big church but building a community of big-hearted people.’
Instagram followers: 133,000
Whether you call it Sunday service or a Justin Bieber gig, Churchome and lead pastor Judah Smith know how to draw an audience
What? With its lead pastors Rich Wilkerson Jr (famous for marrying Kim Kardashian and Kanye West and having his own reality show Rich In Faith) and his wife, DawnCheré, Vous Church is where Christian faith meets pop culture. Just as with any other celebrity merchandise, this church’s includes everything from graphic tees and shorts to slogan hoodies – and they often sell out.
Where? Miami, plus YouTube services.
Instagram followers: 275,000
With its lead pastors Rich Wilkerson Jr (famous for marrying Kim Kardashian and Kanye West and having his own reality show Rich In Faith) and his wife, DawnCheré, Vous Church is where Christian faith meets pop culture
What? Led by pastor, author and filmmaker Erwin McManus. Its worship band Mosaic MSC has nearly a million monthly listeners on Spotify, plus there is a podcast titled Battle Ready that touches on topics such as mental health, as well as a TV show. Ben Affleck and Usher are among its celebrity attendees.
Where? Seven branches in the US.
Instagram followers: 141,000
What? Rumoured to be where Chris Pratt met his wife, author Katherine Schwarzenegger, Zoe Church was founded by pastor Chad Veach – another close friend of Justin Bieber. His services are live-streamed on YouTube and Facebook every Sunday and attract thousands of viewers.
Where? Los Angeles, California.
Instagram followers: 88,000