Justin Bieber abruptly canceled the last 14 dates of his Purpose world tour this week, leaving fans asking “What Do You Mean?” (Sorry.) The pop star has been vague about his reasons for pulling out, but critics said his performances on the 16-month-old tour had often been worryingly listless. “You guys ever feel like sleeping all day?” he asked a stadium crowd in Brooklyn last year, lying flat on his back on the stage. “That’s me all the time.” His longtime manager, Scooter Braun, said this week that Bieber’s “soul and well-being” have to come first.
No one know exactly what that means, but the Australian press quickly produced a rumor that was too delicious to ignore: Bieber may be planning to start his own church. “The real reason he’s come off the road is because he wants to reconnect with his faith and maybe even planning to start his own church,” entertainment reporter Richard Wilkins said on the Australian television show Today Extra. “That’s the word from an inside source.”
TMZ soon chimed in with a report the singer had “rededicated his life to Christ,” according to several people associated with the Australia-based Pentecostal church Hillsong. There have been several stories on Bieber’s growing closeness with Hillsong leaders, particularly New York–based pastor Carl Lentz, whom the site depicts as a svengali-like figure who also influenced Cleveland Cavaliers star Kyrie Irving’s decision to leave the team. Lentz and Bieber have spent almost every day of the last month together, TMZ reported on Thursday, with Bieber seeing the pastor as a father figure. A different story this week quoted a source saying Bieber is “becoming the Tom Cruise of that church.”
Needless to say, we wouldn’t want to give too much credence to the vagaries of “inside sources” weighing in on celebrities lives. Wilkins’s sourcing is sketchy, to put it kindly. But anonymous sourcing aside, there is plenty of real evidence that Bieber is becoming increasingly dedicated to his faith, whatever you make of its authenticity. The singer attended a Hillsong conference in Sydney earlier this month, his third trip to Australia in two years for church-related events. Even his megastar mishaps revolve around churchgoing these days: On Wednesday night, he accidentally hit a paparazzo with his truck after leaving a church service in Beverly Hills. (Bieber stuck around and seems to have behaved like an all-around mensch in the aftermath.)
Hillsong has dozens of huge congregations all over the world, and celebrity fans including Kevin Durant, Vanessa Hudgens, and Bono. Its leaders are known for being not just cool compared to typical pastors, but genuinely sexy and fashionable. Last year, the church’s touring “worship band,” Hillsong United, was the subject of its own stylish feature-length concert film. It’s no mystery why Bieber would be drawn to the Hillsong aesthetic. Underneath the tattoos and hipster glasses, Hillsong promotes a fairly traditional evangelical theology similar to the one Bieber has long espoused.
He’s no Christmas-and-Easter dilettante who just drops by services for the Instagram opportunities. According to Taffy Akner’s touching 2015 profile of the church in GQ, Bieber has been involved with Hillsong for at least seven years now, and it seems to have brought him genuine comfort in times of bewilderment, exhaustion, and jackassery. (The piece, worth reading in full, opens with the line “What if I told you I had a Justin Bieber story that would break your heart?” and does not disappoint.) Akner also suggests that Bieber’s connection to the church is as personal as it is spiritual. A few years ago, Bieber moved in with Lentz and his family for about six weeks during a rough patch, and he’s been photographed leaving a nightclub with another Hillsong leader. A few days before he canceled his tour this week, he gave a goofy interview in which he rested his head on Lentz’s shoulder. “I just want to love people more,” he said. “I just want to love Carl more.”