I’m sitting in the fourth row of the Saban Theatre in tony Beverly Hills, California. It’s Wednesday night at the L.A. chapter of Churchome, the Seattle-based church led by Pastor Judah Smith.
The 2,000-capacity venue is packed to the gills, with the majority in their early 20s—girls in braids and crop tops, guys in ripped jeans and earrings. I feel undeniably old and bewildered by the abundance of youth that fills this Art Deco house of worship, buzzing on coffee and prattling away in the lobby as if waiting for a concert to begin.
It’s not just millennials and Gen Z that make up Churchome’s congregation; celebrity attendees populate the first few rows, which are marked with “RESERVED” stickers to ward off the masses. Kourtney Kardashian sits in front of me, wearing a long, tiger-striped coat and accompanied by best friend Larsa Pippen. On the other side of the stage sits Hailey Bieber, newlywed to Justin, wearing sweats and holding a baby (presumably the friend’s sitting beside her).
I’m here to find out why Christianity seems to be experiencing a resurgence amongst celebrities. Justin Bieber dropped Purpose. Kanye West launched Sunday Service. And churches like VOUS and Hillsong have garnered near-celebrity status themselves. But none have gained the same cult-like following as Churchome, which even sends text alerts notifying attendees of upcoming services.
When I arrive at the Saban I’m whisked to the newly-remodeled backstage, which has several private rooms adorned with jars of candy and snacks—and where Judah is known to get a haircut and pray with friends before the big show. On this evening, a man is strumming the guitar as Judah’s pal (and Bieber stylist) Ryan Good stands idly by.
Judah is tall and thin, wearing black skinny jeans and very large glasses. He readily admits that he fits a common Angeleno stereotype (“I’m gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free…”), and treats his sermon like a stand-up set, garnering hearty laughs from the crowd. When he makes a sex joke, the audience is equally shocked and amused. But his light-hearted banter is, to his acolytes, part of what makes him so relatable, as the 41-year-old expounds on issues both biblical and modern.
As he tells me, Judah comes from a long line of preachers. His father pastored before him, and his father’s father before him. He inherited Churchome’s predecessor, The City Church, from his dad, the late Wendell Smith, who founded it almost 30 years ago. “My dad was my hero,” he says. But times have changed, and with the popularizing of the mega-church model that rose around the early aughts, Judah is stretched increasingly thin.
“I once spoke 11 sermons on a Sunday at a friend’s church. The most I ever did at our church was eight on a Sunday. You can imagine that’s not very good for longevity,” he says. “One of our challenges is this current model is not sustainable.”
So Churchome is returning to where it all started: a friend’s house in L.A. Almost a decade ago, Judah began holding small gatherings at E! News host Jason Kennedy’s, before moving to Bieber-favorite hotel the Montage Beverly Hills, to hold a larger crowd. Soon word had spread about the weekly gathering and they needed even more space, eventually welcoming the public at the Saban. Now, Churchome is launching the 2.0 version of its app—and introducing a new way to experience church, at home. Hence the name-change: Churchome.
Despite the notion that Christianity is having a moment, research says otherwise. According to the Pew Research Center, Christians make up 65% of the U.S. adult population, down from 77% in 2009, and less than half of millennials identify as Christian. A quarter of the adult population identify as “none”—atheist or agnostic, or not identifying with a specific religion.
“I think the concern and questions millennials have about organized religion—or even Generation Z—is invigorating to me, and I think it sets us up for innovation, sets us up to question some of the old traditions,” says Judah. “These customs and traditions that are not essential for a life of faith.”
One of these traditions, Judah says, is the concept of meeting in a physical building. With the Churchome app, Judah hopes to capture more people, create community, and share the story of Jesus through technology. So of course, I ask whether we all really need another reason to look at our phone. Don’t we already have a harmful relationship with technology?
“Absolutely. [With social media] we’re actually creating social anxiety, we’re creating FOMO [fear of missing out], all these things. Now they’re just, like, catchphrases in our culture and they’re the result of the negative part of comparison and feeling like your dinner table is never cool enough, your vacation is never awesome enough,” he says.
But, Judah assures me the Churchome app is different. It’s a positive platform—one that he hopes will create a sense of community among Christ’s followers near and far. The app will also offer a new guided prayer every single day led by Judah or his wife, Chelsea.
I first heard about the “Guided Prayers” feature via Justin Bieber’s Instagram stories.
“I told JB [Justin Bieber] about it, and he’s like, ‘Can I have them? I need them, I want to use them.’ And I was like, yeah for sure! I want to see if you like them.”
For the unaware, Judah and Justin have been close friends for about a decade now,
“We’ve been brothers for 10 years,” Judah tells me, with an obvious affection for the pop star. The two even share a tattoo, “Better at 70,” a motto they have with friends. “We were in Switzerland at 3 in the morning maybe, which is not too abnormal—obviously you’re on tour,” the pastor recalls. “We cried a lot, and he’s like, ‘Let’s get tattoos tonight,’ and I was like, ‘I’ve been waiting.’”
The two started their friendship after Pattie, Justin’s mom, called Judah, asking if he’d meet her son. As fate would have it, they’d met years earlier when Judah was hosting an event in Toronto. Eight-year-old Justin purchased one of Judah’s cassette tapes and listened to it in bed every night.
“The first thing he ever said, he’s like, ‘Do you remember meeting me?’ I was like, ‘Dude, I’m so sorry I didn’t,’” says Judah. “And he’s like, ‘Yeah, you put me to sleep at night.’” And the rest is history.
“He’s got the biggest heart in the whole world, he forgives very easily, [and] he believes the best very readily,” Judah says of Bieber. “[We] talk all the time and pray a lot and think a lot together.” Indeed, Churchome made national news back in August when Bieber led prayer services there—an incident that was immortalized on TMZ.
But when I ask about Justin’s September wedding to the aforementioned Hailey Bieber (nee Baldwin), Judah tells me little, confirming only that he officiated the ceremony.
“I performed the wedding…it was awesome. It was one of the most special days of my life,” he offers.
And while Justin may be one of the more well-known members of the church, Judah’s circle includes several prominent artists and musicians across the globe. I ask him whether he thinks celebrity involvement in the church influences his congregation.
“I think anything [celebrities] do influences others,” he tells me. “So to sit here, or for any pastor to tell you, no it doesn’t—well, of course [it does].”
One thing Judah makes no apologies for is his steadfast decision to accommodate the VIPs at Churchome. He regularly brings them in the back door and sits them in the front row (Amazon even filmed a Churchome reality-show pilot). Judah tells me he wants to give celebrities “a fair opportunity to sit in peace and quiet without being distracted and bothered.” And church at home, he explains, is a “wonderful opportunity for someone who’s very well-known.”
While celebrities are a privileged few, Christianity has long been criticized for its lack of inclusion. Churches (like Hillsong, led by Judah friend Pastor Carl Lentz) have been the subject of intense scrutiny over their stance on divisive issues like abortion and gay marriage. When I ask Judah point-blank if he has a viewpoint on these, he shakes his head, no. But it’s not really that simple.
He emphasizes that his role is to stick to scripture; the Bible says life begins at conception, and so he believes it. “Those are topics that I think are very important, but I wonder sometimes if we are approaching them with people in mind, or policies in mind,” he says. “And I’d love to err on the people-minded side.”
“I’d just much rather build bridges than walls,” he adds of why he doesn’t speak on these topics publicly. And while it’s an easy out, it’s not hyperbole. Judah appears to have a genuine desire to make real connections, facilitate real conversations, and says that in the brief time he gets to address his congregation each week, he’d rather speak about God. And despite the skepticism he knows may remain in the hearts of young people, he wants Churchome to be a place that challenges your views, your feelings, and your values.
“Though we know or are passionate about what we believe, I hope that we’re [the church] a part of…moving society and culture forward,” says Judah.
At the end of Judah’s sermon, the house band led the crowd in worship, closing the night with a string of gospel favorites. Justin Bieber never showed up, but the crowd didn’t seem to care. They raised their arms and sang along to “Amazing Grace,” proving once again that all old things can be made new.