BY RILEY CARDOZA More than 100 millennials flock to the stage as the lights dim, squeezing past each other to get closer. When the song begins, they don’t look at the screens because they already know the words, and when the chorus comes, they run in circles, a swirling, chanting mass. Faces are illuminated here, arms there, as bright lights flash. With the slower second song, they settle, swaying with their arms high, their faces turned up, their voices loud.

Every Sunday evening, young adults gather in midtown Manhattan’s Hammerstein Ballroom, not for a concert, but for the 7:30 Hillsong church service. Founded in Australia in 1983 by pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston, this Christian church now includes 21 locations, from Moscow to Kiev to Buenos Aires. The Manhattan campus was opened almost seven years ago, occupying clubs and concert venues like Irving Plaza, Playstation Theater, and Hammerstein Ballroom since it doesn’t own a permanent space.

A few months ago, Delaney Sipprelle, 20, a southern California native, worshipped at the stage at her first Hillsong service. “Jumping into a mosh pit was the weirdest thing I have ever done, let alone at church,” she says. “It set a tone for the rest of the night that we were there for one reason and it should be a fun, enjoyable experience.”

The 18-25 year olds surrounding her, called the Bløck, comprise the church’s steadily growing college community. After moshing every Sunday, they jam the balconies to listen as service continues with a message from a pastor on staff.

Their consistent weekly turnout is unusual as millennials are less likely to affiliate with churches than past generations, according to a Pew Research Center study. While they believe in heaven and hell and pray, their spirituality isn’t linked to a specific church or religion. The Bløck has seen massive growth since its start three ago, expanding from 16 members to a few hundred. Hillsong NYC, a Christ- centered Bible-based church, has somehow tapped into millenials’ interests and values to bring them through its doors and keep them there.

One of the initial draws is the music. Because the church’s affiliated band, Hillsong United, has released 40 albums since 1992, most worshippers are familiar with their songs. “Oceans” topped Billboard’s Hot Christian Songs chart in the U.S. for a record 61 weeks.

The interaction with these songs seems to draw millennials in, and the mosh is a staple at the 7:30 service. Bløck members crowd the stage, raising their arms in worship and crowd-surfing assistance. Isaac Lee, 22, an NYU music major from Los Angeles, has a front row view as he leads worship.

“It’s wild. Sometimes I’m terrified at how energetic the mosh is,” Lee says. “It’s incredible to see our congregation genuinely enjoying church. It looks like heaven.”

The worship environment allows for authenticity not found elsewhere, says Charity Thompson, 21, an NYU education major from Virginia and a Bløck leader. “Lights off and music loud lets people be real in a way that lights on music on doesn’t,” she says. “At my home church, you sit in pews and act stoic. If I raise my hands, everyone looks. It’s a different comfort level here.”

The sight of moshing college kids may not seem like church to some and is bashed online by different anti-Hillsong blogs. Jaco Hamman, an associate professor of religion, psychology, and culture at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, sees nothing wrong with this enthusiasm. Although some Christian churches frown on playfulness, he finds it leads to peace and tranquility. “I think it’s one of the most transformative experiences we can engage in,” he says.

Hamman also praises Hillsong NYC’s casual dress code. It isn’t unusual for the pastors to sport a Sunday best of leather jackets and V-necks. “Putting on a robe to do my sermon communicates an authority most millennials would frown upon,” Hamman says. “If I show up in a tee shirt or jeans, I communicate that I’m one of you. Together we are going to discover something.”

That struck Jona Ji, 21, an NYU queer identity major from Los Angeles, when he entered Hillsong two years ago. Carl Lentz, the lead pastor, was on stage with ripped jeans and tatted arms. “Carl really deconstructs societal ideas of what a preacher should be or look like,” Ji says. “It was empowering to see.”

Lentz and his wife, Laura, have led Hillsong NYC since the start after moving from Virginia Beach. Sometimes referred to as a “rock star pastor,” Lentz is often featured in the media, whether for his friendship with Justin Bieber, his segment with Oprah, his #BlackLivesMatter panel, or his stance on welcoming LGBTQ members.

For a queer millennial like Ji, Lentz’s controversial open-mindedness is essential and welcomed. Ji grew up in a Korean immigrant church where his father pastored and his family was subjected to high expectations from the congregation.

“NYU was my dream school because I had to get as far from the church as possible,” he says. He tried Hillsong to please his parents, who urged him to attend a Christian service, and found he was drawn in by more than the pastor’s attire. He was engaged by Lentz’s message that promised Jesus loved him, no matter who he was or what he had done.

“Trying to understand my queerness growing up, church was the worst place for me,” Ji says. “I struggled to understand how Jesus could love me. At Hillsong, I finally found a Christian community who loved one another no matter who they were.”

Instead of criticizing this openness as more conservative organizations have, Hamman believes other churches should mimic it. “The one thing the church can learn from millennials is building community across difference even when others don’t believe the way you do or their sexual identity is different than yours,” he says. “Churches too close to doctrine or tradition have a hard time doing that.”

Taking note of similar issues that matter to millennials will be more important in the coming years than ever before, according to Hamman. Mainline Christianity peaked in the 1960s and has annually lost one half to one percent of their membership. With millennials choosing personal spirituality over church affiliation, that will continue unless changes are implemented.

“Before any other crisis will come, it will be financial,” Hamman says, citing a Blackbaud Institute study claiming baby boomers are the most generous generation. Once they die out, Hamman fears for religious establishments not catering to

millennials. “Unless the church reaches out to this generation, it will basically be obsolete.”

Hillsong isn’t just compassionate when it comes to who attends, but also who serves. Thompson, the Bløck leader, also leads a connect group of 10-15 people who meet weekly to hang out and discuss Sunday’s service. Being selected for a ministering position was not based on her degree of spirituality. “Having a teachable spirit, loving God, and loving people — those things qualify people for leadership,” Thompson says.

These connect groups – the “heartbeat of church,” she calls them – provide an intimate experience in a church boasting a congregation of 10,000. “The goal of everything we do is that people find home,” Thompson says. “It wasn’t until I was in a connect group for a month that I started coming and feeling like home. I walked in like I knew the place, told people in line to sit by me.”

For some, the number of congregants is off putting. Evelyn Jones, 19, an NYU English major, attended church with Ji, but eventually stopped returning. “I felt overwhelmed by the largeness of the church,” she says. “I didn’t feel as plugged in as I hoped to.”

Jones wasn’t part of a connect group, but Ji joined an NYU-specific one that meets in the school’s student center. “It’s scary to think about finding community when you walk in,” he says. “With a connect group, you see the same faces constantly.”

Volunteering also increased Ji’s commitment at Hillsong. He serves on two teams, checking in on new members and looking after children during service. “I feel

like I’m doing something impactful for the church now,” he says. “I’m a valuable player.”

Engaging millennials through volunteer work is another way to get them to connect, Hamman says. “The millennial generation wants to make a difference in the world,” he says. “They need to find a larger narrative to guide their ethical behavior and life.” Millennials prioritize helping others over owning a home and having a high paying career, according to a Pew Research Center study.

Hamman believes this speaks to the future of church. “Church communities are very reluctant to be politically involved, forgetting that politics literally shape a city,” he says. “The millennials with their activist natures and social media fluency bring a deep desire to shape the city differently.”

With church attendance dropping, providing a space for things that matter to millennials, like social justice, will have a huge impact on the future success of churches. What exactly those churches will look like remains unknown.

“We’re the next generation,” Thompson says. “We’re the ones who get to decide.”