On a strip of Wilshire Boulevard, not far from where the rapper Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in a drive-by shooting some 20 years ago, a black plastic pool had been placed on the sidewalk outside the El Rey Theater. It was a balmy December afternoon, and the theater had been transformed into an assembly for Zoe Church, a two-and-a-half-year-old evangelical congregation that got its start in a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard.
Today was Baptism Sunday and nearly a dozen adults signed up, cheered on by a crowd of mostly 20-somethings who were gathered behind a metal barricade. Chad Veach, the 38-year-old founder of Zoe, who moved to West Los Angeles from Seattle in 2014, chewed gum as he danced to a pop gospel playlist blaring overhead. “Let’s go!” he shouted, clapping. A pair of muscular men dunked a woman in the waist-high water. She surfaced, arms pumping the air, as a friend snapped photographs that were later posted on Instagram.
One man behind the barricade was so moved that he called for the preacher to purify his soul right then. He slipped a black Zoe T-shirt over his jeans, covered his nose and waded into the pool. Afterward, he looked dazed, swaddled in a black towel.
Zoe — pronounced “zo-AY, like, be-yon-SAY,” as Mr. Veach often says — is one of the newest in a wave of youth-oriented evangelical churches making their homes here. While most are content to have a church and a campus or two, Mr. Veach is claiming nothing less than Los Angeles County and its population of 10 million. “We’ll have many locations,” he said of Zoe. He is opening a San Fernando Valley campus on Sunday and plans one more per year for the next decade or so.
Mr. Veach has many neighbors. Hillsong, the Australian granddaddy of them all, arrived in Los Angeles in 2014, taking over a theater downtown. Seattle’s Churchome, formerly known as the City Church, has an outpost in Beverly Hills. Mosaic, a homegrown megachurch, has three churches, including in Pasadena and Venice. Zoe resides somewhere in between, within the Miracle Mile, a neighborhood nickname derived from retail that now seems newly apt.
Mr. Veach has eagerly embraced his adopted city. Nearly 1,600 people show up for his weekly services. He recently started Zoe TV on a YouTube channel. In 2017, he published, “Faith Forward Future: Moving Past Your Disappointments, Delays and Destructive Thinking,” which was promoted on Instagram by the actor Chris Pratt, a Zoe regular. And Mr. Veach is a 24-hour-a-day presence on Instagram: photographed at the gym or beach, singing car karaoke with the pop star Justin Bieber, watching the Lakers, even waiting for the valet.
“Instagram built our church,” he said one afternoon at his office here a block from the El Rey Theater. “Isn’t that fascinating?”
Mr. Veach believes he can save souls by being the hip and happy-go-lucky preacher, the one you want to share a bowl of açaí with at Backyard Bowls on Beverly Boulevard, who declines to publicly discuss politics in the Trump era because it’s hard to minister if no one wants to come to church. Jesus is supposed to be fun, right?
“I want to be loud and dumb,” Mr. Veach said with a wide, toothy grin. “That’s my goal. If we aren’t making people laugh, what are we doing? What is the point?”
SOURCE: LAURA M. HOLSON
New York Times