Last Sunday night, Katherine Hudson went to Hillsong, to find out how the church attracts so many of her fellow youth.
Small extremist groups dominate our discussion of religion. Infamous organisations like Islamic State, which survive on the commitment of the fervent few, and feast on the fear and loathing of those who oppose them.
But the attention we give these extreme few, allows us to avoid a critical assessment of the religious conservatives amassing power and converts in our own society.
Hillsong, a monolith of modern conservative Christianity, is constantly underestimated. The liberal intelligentsia often malign Hillsong, as merely where the God squad go to party on down for Jesus.
But Hillsong is spreading. From Baulkham Hills, the capital of Sydney’s bible belt, this church has breached the inner city – a supposed heartland of the progressive non-religious left – and now has 13 international locations.
I can understand how people are mesmerised by the siren call of Hillsong: the service was a higher quality production than offered at most professional theatres.
Three TV cameras filmed the show. The preacher read her sermon from an auto-cue. Even the ushers were audio-linked. None of which is wrong, but indicates that a Hillsong service is not a traditional religious gathering found at any old street corner church.
Instead, this church offers a spectacular of devotion for the truly faithful.
To kick-off, the young people gathered at the front for the ‘praise party’, rocking out to pop-ified Christmas carols. But distinct from any other mosh pit, no-one partied together.
Out of step and out of time with each other, the faithful cupped their hands towards their face, or extended their arms out to the side palms up, or reached forward. This introverted moshing indicated “you surrender yourself to Jesus” said a girl next to me. Self-surrender was a full on way to begin proceedings, I thought.
After four songs, we all took our seats. Still on an adrenaline high, powered by JC rock, the MC asked us for donations. But there was no traditional ‘pass around the plate’. Donations to Hillsong were placed in the ‘Home: Building God’s House’ envelope found under your seat, or through a weekly direct debit from your bank account straight to the Hillsong coffers.
Today’s preacher, April wore a white chiffon shirt, blue jeans and black heels. She exuded confidence and casual chic. Her theme was ‘call to praise’.
Yet, April’s sermon wasn’t a call, rather a concerto. As she spoke, a man strummed a guitar. When she crescendo-ed more instruments joined her accompaniment.
Her address did not analyze the Gospels or offer a new theological perspective on Leviticus. Instead, April used the personal anecdote.
She relayed the story of her first date with her first boyfriend, now her first and only husband.
April’s tale was she never agreed to go steady with said date, but told all her friends she now had a boyfriend, which thoroughly confused her ‘boyfriend’. This narrative became a tortured analogy for Hillsong’s message that the faithful should always praise Jesus.
April’s musical oration troubled me. She told us to praise Jesus without any justification for her interpretation of God’s word. But the congregation shouted, “oh yes”, “praise the lord”, and “thank you Jesus”, to punctuate her address and Hillsong university students even took notes.
I wanted to speak to April, but was informed that she’d come from another service at five, had spoken at this one at six, and was off to give the speech again at seven.
“The services have to be efficient, so we can spread the good news to the most people,” a young leader told me.
Maybe God’s word doesn’t take questions any more.
After the service we gathered in the foyer. I saw a young believer with the sign, ‘Bible Pickup Point’, distributing free copies of ‘Word’ Hillsong’s heavily revised bible, that begins with a confronting double-page spread of a butchers’ knife, complemented by Hebrews 12, ‘the word of god is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edge sword, butting between soul and sprit, between joint and marrow.’
I guess if the service didn’t excite you enough to join the church, photo-realist terror might motivate membership.
I passed a stall called ‘Next Steps’, which one enthusiastic young woman told me was Hillsong’s way, “to guide people on their journey to Jesus”.
Everyone I’d spoken to this evening had talked about ‘their journey’. Hillsong claims to hold the real map to salvation, with every step further embedding followers into the organisation.
At this church, you’re either a believer on the road to Jesus or a non-believer reversing away from Christ, there are no other paths.
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