Church or Show

Alisha Steindecker
Nov 14, 2016 · 15 min read
A Sunday C3 Church service at the Bowery Ballroom.

His face said it all — and he admitted it later: If he weren’t Muslim, he would have come back for another Christian service at the hip church in the Bowery Ballroom.

Over a hundred of the faithful were gathered there for a service that felt like a concert — loud pulsing music, disco balls, blue and pink strobe lights, and lots of happy, energized young people.

“It’s like an Avicii concert,” he yelled over the music, likening this pre-service show to an event by the famous Swedish electronic musician and DJ.

It was a Sunday morning in October at C3 Brooklyn — C3 is short for Christian City Church. There were similar services taking place at three other C3 venues across the city: both in Midtown and at the Music Hall of Williamsburg that morning, and later in the day at The 1896 Studios & Stages in Bushwick. This morning’s service was the first held at the Bowery Ballroom.

C3 Brooklyn is part of a network of more than 400 churches in 64 countries that make up C3 Global, a religious movement founded in Sydney, Australia in 1980. The founders’ goal is to have “planted” 1,000 churches around the world, each with an average membership of 500, by the year 2020.

Back at the Bowery Ballroom on that Sunday morning, the young Muslim man was so excited that he started to Facebook Live the service, and several people started watching and commenting. They were engaged.

Until pastor Josh Kelsey stepped onto the stage and the room got quiet, it was impossible to tell if this was really church or a show.

That was the point.

A Strategy?

Sunday morning services at C3 start with an eight-person band that includes singers, guitarists and drummers. They call everyone to their feet. Next, it’s time for a video story of a congregant, created by the C3 production team — usually about how C3 has dramatically changed that person’s life. Congregants are then encouraged to make donations. Pastor Kelsey, dressed like many in the crowd — ripped skinny jeans, boots, a green bomber jacket — follows and delivers his sermon to a captivated audience.

“There’s no real formula to this,” he later says.

Still, marketing professionals who have seen videos on C3 Brooklyn’s website are impressed, especially because the church now, just three years old, boasts a solid membership of about 1,000 people.

Dr. Karen Berger, a professor of marketing at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business, said that according to C3 Brooklyn’s website, it seems they know how to market themselves. “It’s a very nice set of promises that this will be unlike any other church you have gone to,” she said. “Very unchurch-like — you don’t have people sitting quietly, you have music playing, you have people interacting.”

“They know the demographic they are targeting,” said Josh Nass, CEO and founder of New York City-based Josh Nass Public Relations firm. “They are in Williamsburg. They keep up with the kind of hipness that is in the culture there, and their marketing efforts clearly reflect that and reflect a depth of understanding.”

Nass even said that C3 Brooklyn’s strategy is one that other companies may even want to follow.

C3 Brooklyn’s website centers on the social aspect of the church, more than the religious aspect. It is sleek. First, a visitor sees a photograph of a room full of people with their hands outstretched in the air. The words, “You’re Invited,” in large, white letters appear on the page, overshadowing the small letters that spell out “church.” To the young Muslim man’s point, it looks like a snapshot of an Avicii concert.

A visitor to the site will soon find out about the different programs that C3 Brooklyn offers, such as Daughters, which caters to the women in the church, and Dinner Parties — there’s one on “every block”— that happen every Wednesday night.

“Imagery is focused on key comfort elements like food, music, friends and gatherings versus god imagery,” said Tatiana Krymsky, who is a marketing manager in the financial services sector for Capital One Bank, but who was speaking in her own capacity. “Notice, there isn’t a Jesus or cross, or any kind of religious imagery to be found.”

“It gathers its influence by linking what millennials look for when they seek comfort — friends, food, music, events, large groups of people and exclusivity — to a light sprinkle of religion,” Krymsky added.

Krymsky also noted that, from the website, it appears much of the strategy of C3 is “built around creating connections between like-minded millennials through popular elements of comfort and happiness,” instead of actual religion. The language on the website is meant to be inviting.

“Our vision is Jesus Christ, our mission is people, our cause is love,” the website says — but that’s about the extent of its religiosity.

The Missing Piece to the Brooklyn Puzzle

C3 Brooklyn is just doing what the C3 Global Constitution tells it to do: to put forth “Godly principles and character” and ensure that the style of the church matches its environment, or surroundings.

Kelsey said that’s one of the reasons he and his wife, Georgie Kelsey, first planted C3 Brooklyn in 2013; the Williamsburg area was lacking something.

“There wasn’t a church that expressed where the community was heading, a church for young people and a church for the cross section and demographic of the neighborhood,” Kelsey said, adding that he felt there was a need to connect to an inherently young demographic.

He personally was following in his parents’ footsteps, as they were the ones who actually planted the first C3 Church in the United States, which opened in 1989 in Huntington, Long Island.

Kelsey grew up in Northport from the time he was seven until he was 16 years old, and then moved back to Sydney with his parents, who continued to work as pastors at C3 Church in Sydney, Australia. When he turned 25, he too began his work as a pastor at C3 in Sydney.

In 2013, after visiting a few times, Kelsey and his wife made the leap across the world to start C3 Brooklyn because of a connection he always felt to the city.

“My wife and I, we pinch ourselves every day,” Kelsey said of the rapid growth of C3 Brooklyn. “I think with everything that you start you would love to see it grow and do well for the benefit of others.”

Kelsey said he believes that across the country, and even the world, millennials will start coming back to church, despite what statistics say — that they are the age group most disconnected to religion.

“They think it’s going to be something that’s going to ruin their life. They think it’s going to be boring, irrelevant, so why would I even put a foot in the door, so therefore that is the trend now,” Kelsey said of millennials turning away from the church. “We don’t think we are the answer to that; we just want to play our part.”

A Sunday morning service at the Bowery Ballroom.

A Tweet a Day…

C3 Brooklyn is all over social media. Volunteers are tweeting daily, even live tweets during Kelsey’s sermons, as well as Instagramming photos and videos. And, there are advertisements, specifically billboards, on the streets around Brooklyn.

But these initiatives all just add to the appeal of C3 because it garners awareness, Kelsey explained.

“I think it helps so they feel invited and they feel welcome, so that’s our intention,” Kelsey said about the Brooklyn community. “I think because of the quality and the creativity — people in the city are so talented and gifted, when they see something that resonates with them immediately, it opens up their mind and heart to check it out.”

One of C3’s main goals, Kelsey said, is to make the church feel like home, like a place where people in the community want to go to have a conversation about Jesus. “What we are inviting people into is a relationship,” he said.

Indeed, several videos posted on C3 Brooklyn’s Instagram appear to do just that. They are like professional advertisements, and they showcase the different programs available to the congregants, encourage them to get involved and form personal relationships with other members. “Find your family,” one post says.

There’s no shortage of opportunities for that, as there are several teams available for members to join: worship, creative, production, kids, welcome, prayer, crew, hosts, usher and hospitality.

“The power of digital marketing: you know your target audience, you know their kind of media, what kind of social media interfaces,” Berger explained. “The campaign to get you to come, the immediate appeal or call to the target market is local, and they [C3] make a point that they are a local community.”

Still, Kelsey noted that authenticity is the best approach to having a church that works. The flare can only go so far — and it won’t work at every church.

“The team and the people, they genuinely love other people, like they really want other people to feel like they are not alone in the city,” Kelsey said, adding, “like they want to show that God really loves them, so I think that’s our defining difference.”

“I think you can’t just see the outside or see what we do and say, ‘Oh that’s gonna work somewhere else; it’s really the heart behind why you do it, and if people see why you’re doing it and trust that, then they want to be a part of it,” he said.

Pastor Josh Kelsey at a Sunday service at the Bowery Ballroom.
Pastor Josh Kelsey

It’s Not Black and White

C3 churches across the United States each appeal to their own local demographics in unique ways. One current C3 Brooklyn member, Travis Shafer, who used to attend a C3 Church in Silicon Valley, California, explained that the latter appeals much more to the technology scene than C3 Brooklyn does.

“There are a lot of creative people in Brooklyn, like a lot more than in Silicon Valley,” he said, noting that he works as an engineer for Bloomberg News. “I don’t know if you know, but Silicon Valley is like engineer-land. When I was in California, I was like more of the creative people, and now I am more of the engineering people in the sea of creators.”

Shafer said he thinks the differences between C3 churches are important because they show that the organization really know who their audiences are. For example, every month at C3 Brooklyn there is a new “series,” such as “Purpose Driven Life” or “Motel ,” and each involves a tremendous amount of work on the part of the different teams.

“They do all their own logos, do all their own media, really fancy nice ones that you would like see in an art museum or something, and every week they like tell a story of one of the congregation members. So there is like a team of people that do an actual call time, and makeup artist, and hairstylist, and actual production every week,” Shafer explained, impressed, about the work that goes into C3 Brooklyn all the time. All time spent is on a volunteer basis; there are only six paid employees.

“I think the impression of The Church is that the graphics and the design has no aesthetic and lacks quality,” Kelsey said, explaining that this aspect is especially important because people can relate to creativity. “The church in centuries past used to lead in the field of art. The greatest artists came out of the church so I feel like there is really a recovering of that, a renewal of that and we feel passionate about reclaiming to say that the church can lead in these areas and can be truly creative.”

Big Vision

Dr. Scott Thumma, a professor of the sociology of religion at the Hartford Seminary, and the director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, explained, however, that C3 Global is not exactly unique in its mission: It is just one of a group of several megachurches around the world that has this vision of growth that gets its members excited to look toward the future, toward something bigger.

“It is kind of to generate excitement,” Thumma said of the goal of 1,000 churches by 2020. “You are part of something that is moving and that’s successful. They have to find a way to make you want to do that, and so part of the way to make you want to do that is to get you excited to be a part of this movement that is creating all of this kind of change.”

Thumma noted that C3 and several other megachurches, such as Hillsong, which also has locations throughout New York City and across the world, aim for a certain demographic — or a certain type of people. “Essentially what they are doing is replicating a kind of cultural style of worship that resonates with other upwardly mobile, urban, professional, young people of sorts.”

Kelsey said there is no specific formula to C3 Brooklyn itself, but Thumma explained that megachurches in general, including C3, usually do have a strategy, an organizational way of getting things done. To open a new congregation, only a few people need to like what they are “selling” because the organizational structure already exists, Thumma said.

He compared it to a franchise.

“If you buy a McDonalds franchise, you don’t have to recreate McDonalds, they sort of give it to you — you know exactly what you’re going to get,” he said. “You don’t have to be the creative person, you just have to be the person that puts up the money, takes the risk, and delivers the goods.”

The Community Appeal of C3 Brooklyn

C3 is doing something right. At a time when millennials are drifting away from religion altogether, C3 churches are attracting them.

“You have this huge evangelical megachurch movement appealing to New York young, urban people out of college…meeting spiritual needs in a great, dark city,” said Dr. Mark R. Silk, the director of the Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life and a professor of religion in public life at Trinity College.

That’s why 24-year-old Demarius Edwards, who has been a part of C3 Brooklyn for just over a month now, finds the church appealing, he said.

Even though he grew up attending a Baptist Church in Chicago — he now lives in Harlem — C3 Brooklyn’s dynamic nature is exactly what Edwards wanted to feel in a church. “When I got there, I saw that everyone was like pretty similar to me: young; they were involved in things creatively — graphic design, film, some were artists, actors. And I was like wow,” he said one Sunday in October, the first day that C3 Brooklyn’s Bowery location opened.

Edwards, simply, said that C3 Brooklyn is relevant to his life and isn’t far removed from the other activities he enjoys. “You need something that is going to apply to you genuinely to what you go through on a day-to-day life, and I think — well, not I think, but I know for sure — that C3 has done an awesome job at applying the urban setting to God and seeing how God fits in this scheme,” he said.

Similarly, Tricia Davila, an actress — who grew up in a Christian household in Babylon, Long Island — searched for a church when she moved to New York a few years ago. A coworker of hers attended C3 Brooklyn and took her along, and she immediately felt at home, from the minute the welcome team greeted her at the door. And that’s saying a lot; she had even been to C3 Manhattan before that, where she did not get the same vibe.

But it’s all subjective, Davila explained.

“The word was being spoken — it was just style. I just think Pastor Josh’s style varies from this pastor — unfortunately I don’t remember his name,” she said. “It did not draw me nearly as much as what C3 [Brooklyn] did.”

Pastor Kelsey has a good sense of humor too. At a recent service before the presidential election, he was speaking about citizenship and being a citizen of God. Of course, he said, he was also happy to be a citizen of Australia himself. That is, if a “certain someone” became the president of the United States.

“Invest in Your House”

To a loud round of applause, and with the help of the band, one congregant told the room full of more than 150 members at just the second service at the Bowery Ballroom that it’s time for congregants to take ownership of their church.

If they attend and like it, it’s time for them to invest in it, he said.

“Does anyone here Airbnb their house?” he asked the room. “Yeah? We love it. It’s like a great way of paying the bills when you leave.”

He went on to say, however, that what an owner may love about a house — say, its unique oddities — a guest may not because he is only there temporarily.

“So my point is we need to start bringing more of a mentality of ownership to church,” he said. “All the blessings that happen in the house, if you’re a partner in the house, they are actually because of you. They’re like your blessings and you get to share,” he said.

“Yeah!” the room responded, enthusiastically: They understood his point.

“Let’s say someone comes in the house the first time and meets Jesus,” the congregant told the Bowery, “that happened in your house and you actually share in the blessing and the joy of that — because you’re a partner.”

C3 has its bases covered. The church offers various ways of giving, on its website or via an app, as well as by passing around a donation bucket during services. Tithing — giving 10 percent of your income — is encouraged, but Kelsey stressed that giving itself is not mandatory and that it really depends on an individual’s financial situation. Many of the congregants are also young, he noted.

“I think as people discover purpose and who Jesus is, they start to give,” Kelsey said. “We encourage it because that’s how the church functions and that allows us to provide more space to the community and what not.”

Thumma explained that churches that generally have 3,500 people attending make about $6 million in income, though that figure is based on megachurches all over the country. It’s rare that churches get all of their congregants to tithe, Thumma said, though that is always the goal.

“In many cases, C3 and some of these other movements are really targeting young people and young people don’t usually have lots of money,” he said.

Shafer and his wife tithe because it’s in the Bible, Shafer explained. “Biblically, when people would give, they would give…the first fruits of their labor, the first thing they are paid is their contribution to the church,” he said. “Once you see already the blessings you have received, then you can bless others and one way we do that is through the church.”

There is no way to know definitively how much C3 churches — or any churches for that matter — make in the United States because they are exempt from filing an annual information return unlike other non-profit organizations. But in New Zealand, limited nonprofit information is available online. Christian City Church Auckland for the year ending March 2016 had income of $2,338,032, and records indicate most of it was from donations. It spent about $1,726,281 that year, all in New Zealand currency.

In Australia, C3 Church Sydney has declared that it has revenue of more than 1 million Australian Dollars, though information regarding its exact revenue was not available. Other C3 Churches do not declare that they have nearly as much revenue.

Despite C3s scope in New York and around the world, several other area churches, such as the Williamsburg Pentecostal Church, All Saints Roman Catholic Church in Williamsburg and the Greenpoint Reform Church, had never even heard of the movement.

“We feel a little bit under the radar and just doing our own thing,” Kelsey said, laughing.

And that’s even with all of their charity work: giving $12,000 to building a church in Baghdad, as well as donating $2,500 to Habitat for Humanity.

Perhaps C3 Brooklyn’s goal of five churches in just five years will change that — after all, they are not that far off.

The Brooklyn Ink

We’ve got Brooklyn covered

Alisha Steindecker

Written by

Reporter & digital marketer living in NYC.

The Brooklyn Ink

We’ve got Brooklyn covered

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