“The way I try to preach is the way I tried to write this book,” Mr. Lentz said, his words dancing with a hint of the South, carried through from Virginia Beach where he was raised. “I’m going to preach straight, and hopefully open a wide enough door that even if you don’t believe what I believe, you can glean something from it.”
Credit Andrew White for The New York Times
“Own the Moment” is essentially written like a collection of sermons; Mr. Lentz said he constructed it so that each chapter is a stand-alone, the better to reach people who are not inclined to read a 300-page book. It is chatty rather than polished and occasionally hokey, populated by entertaining allegories and regular flashes of humor. There is a sprinkling of Scripture, but the text is not openly paved with it, and it is possible to forget at times that the book is written by a preacher. Until he reminds you that he believes that premarital sex is “not remotely optional, regardless of how many people try to say otherwise.”
Mr. Lentz said that his previous writing experience came in the form of sermons and really long Instacaptions. He has more than half a million followers on Instagram, who are treated to pictures of his wife, Laura, who is also a lead pastor at Hillsong NYC, and their three children, along with the occasional shot with Oprah Winfrey or Justin Bieber.
The book also contains a small clutch of big names. Mr. Lentz tells a story about baptizing Mr. Bieber in a custom bathtub belonging to Mr. Chandler, who is 7-foot-1. Mr. Lentz also includes that he baptized Kevin Durant in a swimming pool.
Richard Flory, the senior director of research at the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, said that evangelicals have a long history of hitching their Christianity to famous people as a way of drawing in congregants and making believers feel validated. Billy Graham had ties to Ronald Reagan, while the athlete Tim Tebow, the former action movie star Chuck Norris and the actor Kirk Cameron, have all been visible about their faith.
“That kind of celebrity culture weaves through evangelicalism really from the early 20th century,” Mr. Flory said. “‘Here’s this enormously successful person, and they believe like I do.’”
But some have criticized Hillsong as too enamored of celebrity, a complaint Mr. Lentz appears eager to pre-empt in the “Disclaimers” section at the beginning of the book, where he says he hopes to harness the star power for “something redemptive and meaningful.” Indeed, Hillsong has plenty of critics on either side of the aisle. There are those on the left who regard it as insufficiently open-minded on social issues, and those on the right who describe the church’s theology as “thin” and say it strays too far from Christian orthodoxy.
“There isn’t a great deal of historical Christianity or explicit theological content in their worship,” said R. Albert Mohler Jr., the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “I think there is a determined effort on the part of these churches,” he continued, referring to Hillsong and others, “to avoid dealing with hard theological questions that might offend people.”
Critics notwithstanding, the church has been growing fast. Mr. Lentz said it has 9,000 or 10,000 congregants in its 7-year-old New York City congregation and about 100,000 worldwide. It also draws a lot of young people and a fair amount of racial diversity, which many American churches struggle to do.
Observers say that Hillsong has stayed largely on the periphery of charged social battles, walking a delicate line as evangelicals running churches in liberal American cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Church leaders appear to have tried to create a welcoming environment for gay people, for example, without actually coming out in support of gay marriage. But Mr. Lentz has spoken out on issues of race in the past, and he devotes a chapter to it in his book called “If You’re Racist and You Know It, Clap Your Hands.” Mr. Lentz said that Opal Tometi, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, was a part of his church for several years.
“Racially speaking, are things better?” he writes. “Yes. But that statement is like saying, ‘If you have been shot 10 times before and recently have only been stabbed five times, are you in better shape?’ The issue is constant attack, not different types of pain.”
Credit Andrew White for The New York Times
Sitting backstage at the Hammerstein Ballroom preparing to give his sermon, Mr. Lentz said that while he long planned to write a book, and hopes that this is the first of many, this felt like an important moment to join the public conversation.
“There’s some stuff that’s really basic to me that I feel is in jeopardy right now, like decency, awareness, humanity. Stuff that shouldn’t be complicated is complicated,” he said. “I feel like the national climate has made it more urgent.”
A few minutes later, he covered his tattoos and the frayed sleeves of his T-shirt with a blazer, walked out onstage into a flood of music and preached.