No matter where you look right now, it seems like Hillsong is there. And it’s not just in church circles. In addition to Hillsong being present in many worship services each week, you can also come across it while stalking the Instagram feeds of celebrities like Justin Bieber and Kevin Durant. In spite of being a church and a worship band, Hillsong has arguably become a pop culture icon.
A fascinating long-form article in GQ (published December 17, 2015) marks the most recent example of Hillsong in the spotlight. The piece, a favorable work of journalism from the publication, offers a from-the-outside perspective on the church, specifically those who make up Hillsong NYC: worship pastor Joel Houston and lead pastor Carl Lentz. Through multiple interviews and visits to the church, the writer—whose background is Jewish—not only walks away from the experience moved by the graciousness and authenticity displayed at Hillsong NYC, but also by the reality that there may just be such thing as a “cool church.”Hillsong has been a major player in transforming Christianity from a communal lifestyle to a spectator sport.
Of course, despite its sympathy and the ways it recognizes many of the good things happening through the ministry, the GQ piece inadvertently brings to light some of the central problems with Hillsong—and, probably most notably, the band. In spite of good intentions and a running list of favorable contributions to the faith—not to mention the fact that God has indeed used the church to draw many, many people to faith in Jesus—Hillsong has been a major player in transforming Christianity from a communal lifestyle to a spectator sport.
More specifically, in the past 10 to 15 years, Hillsong emerges as the leading culprit in infiltrating the modern evangelical worship service with an “arena culture”—a “cool,” me-first, experiential approach to church marked more by performance and entertainment than participation and tradition, which might just be counterintuitive to the very thing they are seeking to accomplish.
The Hillsong Effect
Despite being known for their music, Hillsong started as a church and, to this day, remains a church. In fact, they’re not just any church—they’re a gigantic church with an immense size and reach, embodying the term “megachurch” in about every way. Founded in Sydney, Australia, in the early 80s by Brian and Bobbie Houston, the Assemblies of God congregation launched with only 45 people and, over the years, has grown into one of the largest churches in the world.
According to Christianity Today, the church now has “over 30 worship services in Australia, plus extension services in multiple languages, including Mandarin, Cantonese, and Spanish. They also have more than ten other independent sites in London, Kiev/Moscow, South Africa, New York City, Paris, Stockholm, Germany, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Barcelona, and Los Angeles.” They have an estimated 100,000 people attending these churches every weekend and over 10 million followers on social media.
Houston, the lead pastor, can be seen regularly preaching on television. His weekly sermons are broadcast in nearly 200 countries across the globe, with about 10 million people watching on a given weekend. He stands out amongst his televangelist peers—you know, those known more for wearing big smiles and expensive suits and asking for money than actually preaching from the Bible. With a hip, fitted suit and stylish haircut and, of course, a distinct Australian accent, Houston may not offer a message too different than his peers, but he sure looks and feels different.
There’s also Carl Lentz, the lead pastor of Hillsong NYC. Lentz is an American who played NCAA Division I basketball at North Carolina State and who has been featured on CNN and elsewhere as a leading voice for evangelicalism. With 228,000 followers on Instagram and 128,000 followers on Twitter, Lentz has become somewhat of a celebrity pastor, showing up in a number of photos with professional athletes, actors, and musicians. Those who know nothing about Hillsong, or even the evangelical faith for that matter, might not recognize him as a pastor but, instead, as a close friend to a number of A-list celebrities.
Even with Houston’s and Lentz’s platforms, though, Hillsong is typically thought more of as a band than a church—in other words, Hillsong is Hillsong because of its music. As an article in the New York Times states, “The Hillsong empire might appear to be a musical powerhouse first and a church second. It is, after all, a multimillion-dollar enterprise.” While the church itself started in the early 80s, Houston and his staff began to garner attention with the birth of the Hillsong Conference in the late 80s, mainly because it was the first place to publicly feature the church’s praise and worship band. The conference marked the inauguration of Hillsong Music through a handful of choruses written by a Christian singer-songwriter named Darlene Zschech, putting Hillsong on the map.
From there, Hillsong released its first album, The Power of Your Love, in 1992, setting in motion what must be the most influential worship movement in church history. Now, year after year, Hillsong puts out record after record, becoming increasingly popular while setting the standard for contemporary worship music. Since its humble beginnings, the Hillsong brand has also grown larger than just one band—there’s simply Hillsong and then there’s Hillsong United, Hillsong Young and Free, Hillsong Kids, and more. Over the years, the church has been led and represented by a number of worship leaders who are viewed as rock stars in the world of Christianity, including Marty Sampson and Reuben Morgan. That said, Brian Houston’s son, Joel, also the creative director of Hillsong and the worship pastor of Hillsong NYC, is now seen as the heart and face of Hillsong music—again, the means by which Hillsong music has become so successful.
And to say that Hillsong has been successful would be an understatement. Commercially, Hillsong has released over 120 albums and sold more than 16 million records across the globe. Practically, the band has influenced the modern evangelical movement so much that it’s hard to find a local church—no matter the denomination—not singing and playing Hillsong music week in and week out. In fact, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, data in 2011 showed that a quarter of all contemporary worship songs in Australian churches were written by Hillsong, which even included a handful of Catholic congregations.
But it’s not just Hillsong’s music that has spread like a wildfire into the pews of congregations across the United States and beyond—it’s the entire ethos of the band that permeates church worship services each weekend. This ethos, marked by a performance style—from the hip fashion tendencies to the way that the musicians appear to play for the crowd and not with the crowd—and high production values all made visible through the band’s live DVDs and international tours, has not only affected the content of the modern evangelical worship service with its songs, but it has also affected the shape of the modern evangelical worship service with its forms. It’s essentially made church today feel like a U2 concert.
A Commitment to Excellence
As anyone knows, there are a lot of things to like and celebrate about a U2 concert, specifically the profound quality of music and production values. With that said, you can criticize Hillsong for other reasons, but you certainly can’t criticize them for a lack of creativity and craft. From high-level musicianship to a distinctive, original sound that continues to evolve and develop over time, Hillsong has in so many ways changed Christian praise and worship music—and simply “Christian” music—for the better, namely through a dedication to artistic excellence. They set a standard unmatched by any Christian worship band—and on par with the quality of popular “secular” music.
In an interview with a Christian music blog called Whole Notes, Joel Houston says, “We want to do everything with excellence not just for the sake of excellence but because if we’re going to do something we might as well do it the best we can. That’s one of our mottos. Why should it be bad? Not that it’s awesome, but we want to do the best we know how as long as it’s to the glory of God and helping people connect with God.”
With Hillsong representing the “canon” for contemporary Christian worship, churches now feel a healthy pressure and motivation to, as Matthew 22:37 says, love the Lord God with all your heart, soul, and mind, which implies technical excellence when it comes to music—especially music directed specifically to God himself. This theological understanding of art falls in line with how the church historically operated in centuries past, always on the cutting edge of culture, with individuals such as Bach and Mozart leading the way.
Through its approach and success, Hillsong, in other words, shows that good intentions and good messages simply aren’t enough when it comes to Christians making art and music. They, instead, demonstrate that a good message essentially proves void without a good vehicle to deliver it. This can even be seen in Hillsong’s branding and marketing—their campaigns and designs consistently compete with the best of what tops brands are doing worldwide.
On the flipside, for a brand known first and foremost for its unique style, Hillsong also boasts its fair share of substance. Contrary to critiques from certain streams of Christianity, especially those in the neo-reformed or neo-calvinist movement, Houston and his team write songs that aren’t just theologically rich and based in Scripture but that are also intensely poetic and literary—in the same vein as the hymns that came before them. It’s a quality of songwriting that has earned Hillsong attention from a number of critics and publications, including Billboard and the New York Times.
The same can’t really be said about Brian Houston’s sermons, which sometimes flirt with the prosperity gospel and sometimes lean toward what author and scholar Christian Smith of Notre Dame calls “moralistic therapeutic deism,” though Lentz seems to be more committed to a pure gospel message. Nevertheless, it’s hard to think that Hillsong’s heart isn’t in the right place, and the music is, without question, dedicated to the proclamation of the gospel and orthodox Christian teaching. As researcher and writer Ed Stetzer observes, “They’ve focused their music on a universal idea that God is worth praising, and since all Christians agree on that, Christians around the world embrace Hillsong Music even if they don’t know much about Hillsong Church.”
The Faults of the ‘Concert Hall’
Where Hillsong—specifically Hillsong music—actually causes problems for evangelicalism is not necessarily in their style but in their approach, which subtly comes up in the GQ piece as the writer talks about Hillsong as if it were a product or performance. In conjunction with the ideas and sensibilities of the seeker-church movement, which started in the early 90s as a way of trying to make church buildings and services more appealing and attractive to outsiders and has grown through the likes of megachurches such as Fellowship Church in Dallas, Newspring Church in South Carolina, and LifeChurch.tv. in Oklahoma, Hillsong has literally changed the way people do church, turning the worship service into what feels more like a concert or production.
It’s not uncommon for churches to do sermon series based on a popular movie in theaters, to offer a coffee shop and bookstore in the lobby or to even feature smoke and light shows during services. It’s an individualistic, consumeristic approach that attempts to use all the latest gadgets and goods of popular culture to draw in people from the outside and entertain them enough to bring them back the next week—or, at the very least, to do so because it seems like the cool thing to do. That result has made church feel far more personal and far less corporate.
And, while on the surface, this whole approach might seem more like a practice in keeping up with the times—and, in Hillsong’s case, actually having the appearance of cool—than the commitment of some horrendous sin, it nevertheless comes into direct conflict with nearly 2,000 years of tradition. Whereas historically the church gathered regularly to take part in the liturgy, doing “the work of the people,” in services that were almost wholly corporate and participatory, today’s church gathers in services that are almost wholly individualistic and observatory, and Hillsong proves as much to blame as anyone.Hillsong’s approach isn’t a matter of stylistic preference or playing the music too loud; it’s a matter of the church utilizing principles and concepts that run contrary to the very message of the gospel.
Worship pastor and author Mike Cosper has written extensively about this subject in his book Rhythms of Grace, exposing the problems with where the church is today and offering a solution for believers. Though he doesn’t call out Hillsong by name, it’s easy to read between the lines: Cosper notes that, because Christians have made worship so individualistic and consumeristic, the church now looks more like a “concert hall,” where churchgoers operate as passive observers and critics, rather than a “banquet hall,” where they participate and commune together. For example, throughout church history, Christians sang hymns and praises as a way of proclaiming the gospel to one another and modeling the understanding that they are “one body” in Christ. However, based on today’s concert hall approach—the approach modeled and championed by Hillsong—the volume levels in churches are so high that they drown out the voices of the congregation, diminishing the communal aspect of worship and making it more of a private affair.
Writing for Christianity Today, Dorothy Greco believes that that this new way of doing church is actually failing a generation of Christians. Looking at the individualistic nature of the seeker-church and the approach that Hillsong has modeled over the years, Greco writes, “Churches that bend into their mercurial whims foster a me-first mentality. This actually plays into one of the potential root sins of this generation: self-absorption.”
In other words, this approach actually seems to be counterproductive to the mission of the church and falls into a popular behavior of our secular age, what Hubert Dreyfus of Berkeley and Sean Dorrance Kelly of Harvard call “whooshing up” in their book All Things Shining—the emotional “high” experienced at a sporting event or concert. Dreyfus and Kelly describe this arena culture as a new way of living within a world that rejects eternal truth, an alternative way to finding enjoyment and pleasure that never goes beyond the surface. They argue that in our arena culture, “whooshing up” is the only spirituality available to us, encouraging readers to therefore embrace it.
In an “open letter to praise bands,” Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith, who has done an immense amount of research on the liturgy of the church and the formative nature of cultural practices and artifacts, deconstructs the arena culture that has taken over the church. Subversively taking Hillsong head on, Smith breaks down the problem more thoroughly:
“We’ve unwittingly encouraged you to import certain forms of performance that are, in effect, ‘secular liturgies’ and not just neutral ‘methods.’ Without us realizing it, the dominant practices of performance train us to relate to music (and musicians) in a certain way: as something for our pleasure, as entertainment, as a largely passive experience. The function and goal of music in these ‘secular liturgies’ is quite different from the function and goal of music in Christian worship.”
In adopting what Smith calls “secular liturgies” within weekend worship services at church, namely those associated with performance and entertainment, Christianity consequently suffers—discipleship is skewed and haltered. Christians are still being discipled, to be sure, but they are being discipled toward a vision of truth, goodness, and beauty that does not necessarily line up with a Christian liturgy, that of historic orthodoxy, but instead with secular liturgies with an altogether different purpose and agenda when it comes to human flourishing.
Smith goes on to say, “If we aren’t aware of this, we can unwittingly adopt what seem to be ‘neutral’ or benign practices without recognizing that they are liturgies that come loaded with a rival vision of “the good life.” If we adopt such practices uncritically, it won’t matter what “content” we convey by them, the practices themselves are ordered to another kingdom. And insofar as we are immersed in them, we are unwittingly mis-shaped by the practices.” For Smith and others, Hillsong’s approach isn’t a matter of stylistic preference or playing the music too loud; it’s a matter of the church utilizing principles and concepts that run contrary to the very message of the gospel.
So, on the surface, the way that Hillsong—along with the entire seeker-church movement—has influenced evangelism may seem inconsequential or, perhaps, even a good strategy for getting people back in the pews. Yet, as many have argued, it appears that much more is at stake. This new way of doing church may very well be discipling believers more into the image of something else than the image of Jesus Christ. In a quote he uses frequently, Brian Houston himself actually says it best, stating that “worship should be enjoyed, not endured.” It’s this kind of thinking that, in spite of good intentions, might just be leading evangelicals in the wrong direction. After all, worship should be challenging, laborsome and endured—and it certainly won’t always be “cool.”