On a strip of Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, not far from where the rapper Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down 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 2 1/2-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 and a former Puyallup resident, 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.
Zoe — pronounced “zo-AY, like, be-yon-SAY,” as Veach often says — is one of the newest in a wave of youth-oriented evangelical churches making their homes in Los Angeles.
While most are content to have a church and a campus or two, Veach, who moved to West Los Angeles from Seattle in 2014, 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 and plans one more per year for the next decade or so.
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 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. “Isn’t that fascinating?”
Veach believes he can save souls by being the hip and happy-go-lucky preacher, 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,” 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?”
A family of preachers
The pastor changes his dialect depending on his audience. He sometimes mimics the Texas twang of Joel Osteen, the televangelist and a friend who runs one of the largest megachurches in the country.
Recently interviewed by the journalist and activist Maria Shriver, Veach sounded nearly professorial. Most of the time, though, he uses so-called street talk. (“Whaddup dawg!”) It is a holdover, he said, from the early 2000s when he was a youth minister in East Los Angeles. (He graduated in 2002 from Bible college in San Dimas.)
His father, Dave Veach, an administrator with Foursquare Church in Tacoma, who oversees more than 200 congregations, has a theory about all this.
“A 38-year-old pastor,” he said, “is four years away from saying, ‘I have tried on this person, and this person, and, now, I will find my voice.’”
The Veach family lived on Whidbey Island, where Dave Veach ran a small church and ministered mostly to people who worked at a nearby naval air station. Chad’s two siblings are pastors.
As a teenager, Chad exhibited easy charm, his father said, but mostly wanted to enjoy himself.
“He wasn’t solid in his faith at all,” Dave Veach said. He said he told his son then, “You are going to take a lot of people to heaven or hell, and you have to decide where you are taking them.”
In 2004, Chad moved to Puyallup, where he counseled teens and young adults at the United Generation ministry. He married the former Julia McGregor, who also grew up in a pastor’s home, in 2008.
In 2013, he began working for Judah Smith, who became well known after taking over the leadership of Churchome in 2009, a megachurch started by Smith’s father, Wendell. Judah Smith is a spiritual adviser to Bieber, who credits Christianity with turning around his personal life.
In Bern With Bieber
Last summer, Smith and Veach joined Bieber for part of his “Purpose” tour.
“I think he wanted, ugh, I hate to use this word, but ‘positive influences,’” Julia Veach said of Bieber.
Veach was there when Bieber performed at the Stade De Suisse Wankdorf in Bern, Switzerland. After the show, they drove a couple of hours to Bieber’s hotel. He posted a video of them singing in his room, while Smith howled in pain in the background. He was getting a tattoo.
This was not a frivolous gesture. The Veaches have four children, and one of them, Georgia (born in 2012), suffers from lissencephaly, called “smooth brain” disorder because the folds of the brain don’t develop. (It is the subject of Veach’s 2016 book, “Unreasonable Hope: Finding Faith in the God Who Brings Purpose to Your Pain.”)
After Veach got a “G” tattoo in 2013 to honor his daughter, others got a similar marking, including Bieber and the model Hailey Baldwin.
Veach said he does not abide celebrity culture, even though he is around it a lot.
“He just fits in the glitz and glamour,” said his father. “He was into doing grandiose things and that is what L.A. is.”
The Veaches started their venture by holding informal spiritual gatherings, first at home and then at a small church in Santa Monica. (Thirty volunteers from Seattle joined them when they moved, Chad said.)
A friend reached out to the owner of 1 Oak, the West Hollywood club where Leonardo DiCaprio was a regular and where the rapper Suge Knight had been shot. Would the owner be interested in renting the club to Veach for his church?
When Zoe opened on Aug. 23, 2015, “there was a line down Sunset Boulevard, two blocks,” Veach said.
“We had so many people, they couldn’t fit everybody in the club. The next day the owner emails me, ‘You can never have church here again.’ He goes, ‘You’re too big of a liability.’ I go, ‘Liability? My crowd is sober.’”
The next week the Veaches moved to the El Rey.
Eric VanValin, 35, works in television casting at Warner Bros. and attended Zoe’s opening. He and his wife moved from Virginia to Los Angeles in September 2014 and began following Veach on Instagram after a friend told him about the pastor’s account. VanValin attended early meetings at the Veach home.
“It gave me and my wife a community,” he said. “We immediately had a support system.”
That is especially true in Los Angeles, he said, which isn’t the most welcoming town.
“It’s such a hustle,” he said. “A lot of the time you have to sell yourself, your work. It’s a competitive environment.”
But saving souls is a business like any other. Pastors today who want to start a ministry for those 40 and under follow a well-traveled path.
First, they lease an old theater or club. Next, they find great singers and backup musicians. A fog machine on stage is nice.
A church also should have a catchy logo or catchphrase that can be stamped onto merchandise and branded — socks, knit hats, shoes and sweatshirts. (An online pop-up shop on Memorial Day sold $10,000 in merchandise its first hour, Veach said.)
And lastly, churches need a money app — Zoe uses Pushpay — to make it easy for churchgoers to tithe with a swipe on their smartphones.
Veach said he modeled his church after Hillsong, with its vibrant youth community, and Church of the Highlands, whose pastor teaches other pastors how to start churches like his. He spent two days learning the basics at Highlands’ headquarters in Birmingham, Alabama, before Zoe opened for business.
One of the programs Veach adopted was “Growth Track,” a four-week intensive study to vet potential volunteers. In Week 3, attendees take a personality questionnaire that breaks down natural abilities (“I can tell when someone is insincere”) into “spiritual gifts.” Zoe, too, offers a program, “Connect,” to find other like-minded members.
“You are inheriting people,” Veach said. “L.A. is this convergence of people from all over the world. And, so, you’ve, kind of, got to go, like, ‘Hey, this is what we are about. Do you want to join? If not, cool.’”
Veach has read “Death by Meeting” and “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni, an expert in organizational health. His favorite book is “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” the self-help classic written by Dale Carnegie in 1936.
“One day I want to write my version of that book,” Veach said.
He also would like a talk show like Ellen DeGeneres’s.
“I watch Ellen and I go, ‘Gosh, she’s doing it right,’” he said. “She’s making people laugh.”
Veach’s father shrugged about his son’s equivocation.
“Last thing you want to do is turn off a whole demographic,” he said of today’s pastors. “If you draw lines in the sand, people are going to think God hates them.”
And Veach wants Zoe to be a refuge for many, against the rhetoric of so many other dogmatic evangelicals.
“From the time I’ve entered, and, maybe, just what we grew up in, it’s, like, you don’t bring politics into church,” he said. “We’re here to preach good news. We’re here to bring hope to humanity. We’re here to talk about God.
“This is not the place for a political agenda. This is the last place. When I come to church, you know what I need? I need encouragement.”