The audience at C3 North Hollywood church's evening services is always comprised of a swath of young, beautiful people with edgy haircuts who exude a distinct industry musk. Behind the church's main glass window there is a tauntingly visible espresso machine manned by people with even edgier haircuts, churning out frothy lattes. The mood is friendly: Everybody is smiling, sipping and intermittently embracing and checking their iPhones. A spectrum of aesthetics, ranging from hip-hop to light rocker to young missionary, is embodied by the crowd's clothing and the band practicing at full volume in the back room.
Hoping for a hearty helping of Truth, or at least some Anointed Chex-Mix, I ducked in one Sunday to investigate how this Charismatic Pentecostal church — the same denomination as those nutty folk on Christian TV that are constantly swooning from an infusion of too-much-Jesus — invigorated the entertainment-centric 20-somethings in Los Angeles.
The answer, it seems, is astute marketing and a community vision geared towards creating a makeshift extended family for oft-dispossessed Hollywood made-it and made-it-nots, a demographic not historically known to dominate church pews.
Dean and Jill Sweetman are a couple of blond, good-looking, lilted-accented Aussies, who, in addition to functioning as the C3 resident Sr. Pastors, have established themselves as revamped patrons of the arts. But instead of traditional remuneration, they offer the wealth of a life under the guise of Jesus.
“Young, artistic, lost souls” are encouraged to hone their craft within the church,” Dean Sweetman explained. “Using your gift in church is different than outside the church. Outside the church, you're performing. If you're inside the church, you're worshipping. So what we have to do… is to slowly teach them, by showing most of the time, that this isn't about you being the man and being great. You're actually trying to deflect your talent and put it onto God.”
The Sweetmans, not artists themselves, told me they developed a heart for creative types after living in the North Hollywood Arts District (where the church is located) for several years and intuited their need for more structure.
“Creatives usually need someone around them to provide some boundaries for their lives,” said Jill Sweetman. “They've got a lot of talent and they've got ideas going everywhere, but when it comes down to it, they're like, 'Can you give me some guidance as how to hone this ability?' So there's people in the church that actually have made it and can give them some ideas.”
One such person is Marlyne Barrett, an accomplished actress who had a recurring role on The Wire. Barrett moved from Manhattan to help grow the North Hollywood church when her husband felt they were called to do so.
C3 says it offers a warm, accepting environment that, unlike the greater Pentecostal community, welcomes sexual minorities. Dean Sweetman, a self-championed “branding man,” works hard to market the church as “relevant.” A recent mass email included a link to Jill Sweetman's new book, God Sex: Sexuality, the Bible and the 21st Century. The Amazon book description calls it “an exploration of human sexuality through the eyes of the One who created sex,” using a combination of biblical truths, social theory and contemporary research.
But perhaps the lurking variable behind C3 North Hollywood's incredible traction is the fact that a majority of these nascent worshippers are expats from all over the United States who left their birth city to pursue the Hollywood dream. I did not meet a single parishioner that was born in L.A.
According to Jill Sweetman, many of them grew up in church and have retained those core values. “So they come here and they find that L.A. can be a pretty scary place and they're on their own…so then they seek out church,” she said. “I think they think of us a bit as a mom and dad.”
The Sweetmans cultivate a charming, hyper-local atmosphere in the North Hollywood campus, but C3 is a global organization that began in Australia in 1980.
The North Hollywood branch's services follow a basic structure: After some quality schmoozing, everybody goes into the dim, larger back room for worship. The services are reminiscent of an impromptu amateur variety show and on any given night might feature hip-hop dance numbers, singing solos or other acts by local performers who volunteer their talents on a rotating basis. The church even has its own competitive dance team.
On the occasions I attended, a rock band played religious songs, and a large projector in the back displayed uplifting metaphorical animation sequences, like a resilient barque navigating the rough seas. Many people had their phones out. I thought they were checking their text messages, but the woman next to me was actually looking at the bible passage Dean Sweetman was referencing in his sermon.
Worshippers are encouraged to stand up, dance, raise their hands and emote as they see fit. When the Pastors addressed the congregation, infrequent but audible “yeahs” and “uh-huhs” echoed through the crowd. People swayed and sang, but the energy was contained.
“We're trying to develop an atmosphere where God can move. We're very tactile,” Dean Sweetman said.
“If you go to a big concert and have fun and show emotion, why should we not do that in church?” Jill Sweetman continued.
Despite the church's modern flourishes — like Dean Sweetman reading his sermon off of his phone — its theology is conservative and very much Bible-based. “You know, we're not heavy people,” Dean Sweetman said, “but we're into prayer, we're into the bible. For us that's life, not heaviness.”
Pentecostal Charismatic churches embrace the nine gifts of the holy spirit outlined in 1 Corinthians, chapter 12. Those gifts include speaking in tongues and prophecy, which I witnessed when Dean and Jill Sweetman prayed over a group of its parishioners who were then on the verge of opening up a new C3 church in Silver Lake. The cacophony of muttering in tongues blended in eerily well with the ethereal live synth music.
The Sweetmans intend to found (at least) three more C3 churches in L.A. in the next few years, and are considering West Hollywood for their next location.
C3 North Hollywood services are held at the Noho Performing Arts Center every Sunday at 5:15 p.m. C3 Silver Lake services are held at the Hyperion Lyric Theater every Sunday at 10 a.m.