It’s 2014 and Justin Bieber is staying with Carl Lentz, pastor of Hillsong Church, New York. The world is at the peak of Biebermadness and stories about all kinds of antics are appearing in the tabloids.
One night, it seems, everything that’s happened over the past decade catches up with him: the stories, the drugs, the women...Bieber has hit rock bottom. And there, in Lentz’ apartment, the biggest pop star on the planet drops to his knees and, while sobbing, says he needs Jesus.
So Pastor Lentz and Justin pray. Justin Bieber and the pastor of Hillsong NYC – praying Bieber’s way into the kingdom. And when they’ve finished praying, Biebs says two words: ‘Baptise me.’
Lentz starts to search for a date and time for this to happen, but Bieber isn’t having it. ‘I want to do it now.’ That’s baptism, right? Bieber realises he can’t continue to live the way he’s been living and realises that right now, in that very instant, he needs a fresh start. If this is some biblical analogy, Lentz has become Philip and Justin Bieber is the Ethiopian eunuch (we might need to leave that particular piece of imagery there).
Hillsong NYC has a swimming pool in a Manhattan hotel that it regularly uses for baptisms. (Of course it does.) When they turn up at the hotel, the press and hundreds of fans are already there – word has got out. So Lentz calls one of his friends, this particular friend being one of the best basketball players in the world, Tyson Chandler. Chandler’s building has a pool. So they shoot over to New York’s Upper West Side only to find there’s no access to the pool. Bieber is getting itchy baptism feet.
But there’s another thing about Tyson Chandler. He’s absolutely massive. 7ft1in. So Chandler is one of the handful of people on the planet whose bathtub is big enough to baptise Justin Bieber. Off they head to Chandler’s apartment. Chandler’s wife prepares food and lays down towels and Bieber, soaked through, is on his knees in an NBA player’s bathtub, sobbing into a Hillsong pastor’s chest, reborn.
THE RISE OF BIEBER FEVER
After being discovered on YouTube in the late 2000s, some canny marketing and support from major labels and huge acts (including Usher) saw the singer quickly sell out shows and delight teenage fans across the world. Bieber’s ‘Baby’ became one of the most popular music videos ever.
'We have the greatest healer of all and his name is Jesus Christ'
With acclaim came both derision and terrifying fandom. To many he was the epitome of the synthetic pop star – a money-spinning persona created for the pre-teen female market – and Bieber became the butt of a thousand cruel jokes. Meanwhile he produced a devotion among his fan base that verged on hysteria. On Twitter, trending topics were dominated by followers talking about his latest songs, and in one scary incident, #CutForBieber, young ‘Beliebers’ self-harmed in an attempt to get the star’s attention.
Unsurprisingly, Bieber found it difficult to adjust to his heightened profile, quickly going off the rails and hitting tabloid front pages on a regular basis for teenage pranks, drugs, turning up late for gigs or smashing up sports cars. If ever a pop star needed a miraculous turnaround, it was Bieber.
So let’s take the two extremes of Bieber and join the dots: the teenage kid who everyone realised was a wrong’un, and the 20-something crying in Tyson Chandler’s bath. Somewhere in the interconnect between those two orbits, Bieber befriended the hipsters’ mega-pastor of choice, Seattle’s Judah Smith. How did this happen? Here’s what Smith told Premier Youthwork a couple of years ago: ‘His mom came to a conference and heard me speak. She got a couple of my cassette tapes, and would play them for him while he fell asleep at night. When we first met several years ago, he said, “You used to put me to sleep with your preaching.” I said, “Justin, that’s not what preachers want to hear.”’
So Smith and Bieber strike up this pastoral friendship and a little later, when Bieber is really struggling, Smith calls up Carl Lentz in Bieber’s hometown, NYC, and says he needs some help. And that’s how Justin Bieber ended up in Tyson Chandler’s bathtub.
Here’s what Carl Lentz recently said about Bieber: ‘This boy is 21. He’s in a horribly toxic world. He is trying to do his best to figure this out. He has never been anybody but who he has professed to be, which is a work in progress.’
Bieber by numbers
As of 2015, Justin Bieber had sold 46.5 million records in the United States, including 10.7 million albums
He is worth $200m and earns $60-80m per year, according to celebritynetworth.com
His My World album went platinum only 3 months after its release
He gains an average of 207,788 fans on Facebook a week
He was listed three times by Forbes magazine among the top ten MOST POWERFUL celebrities in the world in 2011, 2012 and 2013
Work in progress is an apt description of Bieber in 2016. His latest album Purpose was released last year and was not only his most honest, personal work to date, but also his best. Purpose sees him asking the same questions about life and faith as many of us, as well as facing up to his headline-grabbing mistakes. ‘Sorry’ sees him address this clearly, with the lyrics: ‘I know that I let you down, is it too late to say I’m sorry now?’
Reflecting on the last few years, Bieber recently told Complex: ‘I shouldn’t be on the planet still. I think it was by the grace of God.’ Later in the interview Bieber said: ‘My faith has gotten me to where I am. My faith has brought me to a whole other level. I love talking about my faith. I think that with Christians, they’ve left such a bad taste in people’s mouths. Just like, overly pushy with the subject, overly churchy and religious. I’m not gonna let [my voice] not be heard anymore. I’m gonna use my voice for a reason.’
It was at this point in the interview that he started preaching: ‘I just wanna honestly live like Jesus. Not be Jesus – I could never – I don’t want that to come across weird. He created a pretty awesome template of how to love people and how to be gracious and kind. If you believe it, he died for our sins. Sometimes when I don’t feel like doing something, but I know it’s right, I remember, I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t feel like going to the cross and dying so that we don’t have to feel what we should have to feel. What Jesus did when he came to the cross was basically say, “You don’t have to feel any of that stuff.” We could take out all of our insecurities, we could take away all of the hurt, all the pain, all the fear, all the trauma. That doesn’t need to be there. So all this healing that you’re trying to do, it’s unnecessary. We have the greatest healer of all and his name is Jesus Christ. And he really heals. This is it. It’s time that we all share our voice. Whatever you believe. Share it. I’m at a point where I’m not going to hold this in.’
POP STAR PREACHER
In the run-up to Christmas 2015, with Bieber having dominated the charts and seemingly heading towards the coveted Christmas number one position, he threw his support behind the NHS Choir, tweeting: ‘For 1 week it’s ok not to be #1. Let’s do the right thing & help them win. It’s Christmas. @Choir_NHS good luck.’ Gone was the egotistical, selfish brat. He’d been replaced by a mature young person who seemed to understand his place in wider society.
The most extraordinary track on the Purpose album is ‘Life is Worth Living’. Lyrics from this song include: ‘God sent an angel to help you out. He gave you direction, showed you how to read a map but that long journey ahead said it ain’t never over even in the midst of doubt...They try to crucify me. I ain’t perfect, won’t deny. My reputation’s on the line. So I’m working on a better me…People make mistakes. Only God can judge me.’
As if all this wasn’t enough, at a recent LA concert, Beiber invited Judah Smith on stage and once again preached. The LA Times reported it like this: ‘He talked about the importance of maintaining a positive spirit and surrounding himself with encouraging people. He credited his connection with God for helping him to get back on his feet after a string of widely publicised tabloid troubles. And when a fan in the audience – one of a dozen or so selected by the singer’s team for a question-andanswer session – asked if he had any advice on how to get through a romantic break up, he demurred, flashing a bit of the humility that every religious leader knows is crucial in establishing a bond with one’s flock.’ Similarly, in a recent interview with Billboard magazine, Bieber took the journalist to church, hugging the reporter while singing ‘How He Loves Us’.
Bieber took the journalist to church
This isn’t an isolated story. At an event on the night of the Paris attacks, Bieber stopped to lead the crowd of tens of thousands, as well as millions watching at home, in prayer. ‘God, we just thank you so much through all the pain and all the darkness,’ he said, eyes shut, his right hand nervously clutching his left bicep. ‘God, you still shine your light. Help us to just focus on you through it all.’
PEDESTALS AND PROGRESS
So, what do we do with Bieber? Invite him to our churches to preach? Hail him as the 21st-century Cliff Richard – a pop star reaching the masses with a Christian testimony? Put him on a pedestal that he’ll inevitably fall from? As tempting as it is, we need to avoid that. Despite exciting baptism stories and the confidence of a young man prepared to use his platform to share his faith, let’s temper our expectations of Bieber (and other celebrities who confess a Christian faith). Rather than put all our hopes and expectations on this young man, let’s celebrate that one of the most famous young people on the planet has found Jesus. Let’s rejoice when we hear him inviting pastors on stage and quoting Bible verses midway through gigs. But we have to avoid the flip side as well: let’s not jump on him when he (inevitably) has a wobble, or cast him out of our cosy in-crowd. The Church has already done that to Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and a host of other pop stars. We heralded them when they had a conversion experience, then castigated them when they failed to live up to our expectations.
Having said all that, let’s allow ourselves a moment to remember how great this is…Justin Bieber is singing about grace, hope and redemption. He’s sharing the ‘work’ that is ‘in progress’ with the world. And gloriously, his baptism seems to have resulted in him hitting his artistic peak. Bieber is no longer a punchline; he’s a story to be shared and celebrated. He’s not someone to warn our young people against, he’s becoming an example for them to follow – a story of a life transformed via a huge bath and some brutal honesty.
We’re all Beliebers now.