hal-post

Your church is too small

Deep darkness is punctuated by the flash of a thousand cameras; rumbling bass rattles through my bones. Throughout the arena I can hear the burbling, surging, building crescendo of music ready to erupt—and then, with a synthesizer burst, lights erupt throughout the stadium, only to be extinguished just as quickly.1

They flash again, synchronized to the beat. Hundreds of brightly lit white stone cubes are carried down walkways, passed from hand to hand, winding their way to the central stage.

A man’s voice rings out, and words appear on the screens:

You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house. (1 Pet 2:5a, NIV11)

 

In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Eph 2:21-22, NIV11)

The stones are gradually carried to the centre and piled together, building upwards and outwards, as from the ceiling a huge cross—made from the same chunks of brightly-lit stone—descends to rest on the newly-constructed foundation in the middle of the stage. The cross of Jesus, amidst his people, built together to be a dwelling place of God.

We stand together, and the atmosphere continues to build through the first few songs towards the signature song of the week:

My hope is built on nothing less

than Jesus’ blood and righteousness,

No merit of my own I claim,

But wholly trust in Jesus’ name.

. . .

Christ alone, cornerstone,

Weak made strong in the saviour’s love

Through the storm, he is Lord, Lord of all.

Along with 20,000 others, this was my introduction to the 2012 Hillsong Conference.

The movement of the movement

I decided to go along to the week-long convention to get a feel for where Hillsong was up to. I went expecting a fairly different experience to my normal church life—and sure enough, it was an astonishing few days. There’s just something about a Christian conference with that many people that makes it an experience like no other—from the infectious enthusiasm of a stadium full of people joyfully singing about Jesus’ death for them and their life in him, to the high fives from volunteers as you leave for the evening, to the stumbling but sincere efforts of one guy behind me to evangelize the Hindu man on the train home.

But I can already hear some of you saying “Wait… what? Another article on Hillsong in The Briefing? Why is this necessary? Didn’t Tony and Gordon write a pretty scathing piece about the Hillsong conference a few years ago?”

“I’ve been wondering if Hillsong is a movement that evangelicals can work with in the gospel.”

Well, yes. But it has seemed to me for some time that Hillsong as a movement—for that is really what it is, with the church itself, the music ministry, and the conferences expanding not only here in Sydney but around the world—has enjoyed more and more legitimacy in the evangelical circles I’m in. This seems to be true more so now than even five or six years ago. Our churches sing the songs, teenagers head over to the bigger Hillsong campuses in Sydney for band nights, members of our congregations go (often en masse) to the conferences, and there’s even joint training programs and events for music and worship that are co-sponsored by Hillsong and mainstream evangelical churches. So I’ve been wondering if Hillsong is actually a movement that evangelicals can, broadly speaking, work together with and alongside in the gospel, enjoying the “passion for the local church” they champion at their conference. Or is it, as Tony and Gordon feared it might be several years ago, a mainstream Christian movement adrift from its Christian moorings, and increasingly less recognizable as faithful, biblical Christianity?

No blank slates here

We need to acknowledge at the outset that no-one approaches a topic like this—or, indeed, a conference like this—in a vacuum. I’m no exception. Whether you’ve been a Christian for eighty years or you’re an avowed atheist, we all have a set of preconceived ideas about church, doctrine, music, and the rest, based on anything from ignorance to decades of experience to intense study of the Scriptures. In fact, this might be an excellent time for you to stop reading what I have to say for a moment, and evaluate your own preconceptions of not only this church, but of this article itself. Given I’m the editor of The Briefing, what have you already assumed I will say? What do you expect from this article? Is there anything I could tell you about the conference and the church that would push you from what you already believe?

As I went to the conference, several things were on my mind. One was that it is slightly unfair to judge a church on the basis of a conference: after all, it is by definition an exceptional event, not regular church life. (It’s only slightly unfair because in this case everything is produced by the one church; that’s in contrast to, say, someone assessing a particular Sydney Anglican church on the basis of a Katoomba Convention.) To offset this, I’ve been out to the main Hills campus on many occasions both before the conference and since, to get a broader view of things.2

In addition to this wariness, particularly relevant in my case was my own personal Christian background. You see, I grew up going with my parents to a small Pentecostal church in Christchurch, New Zealand, and then to a very large Pentecostal church in Sydney, Australia: Christian City Church, now C3 at Oxford Falls. My parents knew the leadership team quite well; my dad was a deacon; we were in with the movers and shakers. Yet my parents walked away from the church and from the faith for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the way that prosperity teaching had overtaken parts of the church. Needless to say, I reserve a certain fiery part of my heart for those who teach that financial and physical blessing are a result of faith in Christ—and, more to the point, for those who draw the connection between suffering or need and lack of faith. For that reason, I approached this conference wary of a few things, particularly given that two of the main platform speakers were Joyce Meyer and Joseph Prince. Meyer is known for her folksy form of wisdom teaching about claiming the benefits of the Christian life, and Prince’s catch-phrase is that in Christ “we reign in life” (over demons, sin, poverty, sickness, and so on).

The other relevant part of my experience with Charismatic churches that shaped my expectations going in to this conference was my memory of how passionate these Christians are. By and large they’re obviously joyful about Jesus, his power to transform them, and his word: many of those I knew from C3 had the Bible flowing off them constantly. They knew the Scriptures well, and used the language and phrases of the Bible in everyday conversation—an enormously edifying practice.

Both of my pre-existing suspicions were partly confirmed, and partly not—but more of that below.

An expansive vision

Hillsong is big, and believes that much more is in store.

At several points throughout the week, we were reminded of the growing network of Hillsong churches around the world, and the successful (read: large and growing) church plants from Melbourne to Kiev. We heard interviews with those doing social work with street kids in Mumbai, educating and feeding children from the slums. The Cornerstone album was launched at the start of the week, and we were informed before the end of the conference that it was on the top-five list on iTunes both in Australia and the US. Everyone on the platform came from a big church, or a big movement, or had a big vision.

But it’s not just about the wide reach the church has now, it’s about the impact of the church going forward: Hillsong Conference this year (2013) is all about Revival. Drawing on a “prophetic word” about Australia, the conference brochure starts like this:

“Australia you have been chosen by God for a great move of the Holy Spirit. This move of God will be the greatest move of God ever known in mankind’s history and will start towards the end of the 20th century and move into the 21st century. This move of God will start a great revival in Australia, and spread throughout the whole world…” (Smith Wigglesworth at the beginning of the 20th century)

Brian Houston, senior pastor, said of this, “I’m claiming that in Jesus’ name”, and stated regarding the following year’s conference that they were “believing for many conversions”. Joyce Meyer quite explicitly connected this prophesied movement with the current and ongoing success of Hillsong.3

Several years ago Tony and Gordon noticed that some of the hard edges of Pentecostalism were being downplayed: speaking in tongues, prophecy, direct revelation from God, ecstatic experiences. It seems now that some of those Pentecostal/Charismatic distinctives are claimed, but cast in a broader network of “evangelicalism” (even if you need to stretch that term almost to breaking point to accommodate the range it covers). So big evangelical names are used in the ‘Revival: 2013’ promotional material—Billy Graham and Martyn Lloyd Jones, for example—and teachers such as Rick Warren are keynote speakers alongside Pentecostal preachers Judah Smith, TD Jakes, and Joel Osteen.4 The absence of name-it-and-claim-it teaching from several of the keynote speakers in 2012 was notable, especially in comparison to some of their recorded and printed works.5

So it does seem that some of the distinctively Pentecostal or Charismatic practices of Hillsong have been softened. Sure, there were places for them: the very first prayer at the conference was for healing; there was space for speaking in tongues during the ‘Surrender’ song on Tuesday night. But by and large the Hillsong message appears to be positioned more and more as mainstream evangelicalism. Having said that, however, the mainstream evangelicalism they are part of has many of its sharper edges being rubbed off too, smoothed to a more acceptable message (in the eyes of popular culture, perhaps) about the blessing God has in store for you.

Explicit prosperity teaching was absent from the conference, but then again so was any indication of: our need for salvation from our sins; the judgement of God that will come on those who are not in Christ; the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf; the idea of taking up our own cross and following our Lord, or indeed of his lordship over each aspect of our lives. In its place was a much vaguer idea of blessing—not simply in financial terms, although that is part of it—which God desires to bring on those who believe in Jesus’ name.

“Many of the talks were a reversal of the sermon illustrations that many of us are used to.”

The speakers did not say anything that I would call specifically wrong with regards to the Scriptures (although there were some notable exceptions); they simply talked about other things in place of the emphases of the Bible. The talk on forgiveness, for example, was about letting go of past personal hurts in order to be able to move on in life. So the latter part of Jesus’ phrase in the Lord’s prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”, was the subject of an entire talk to the complete exclusion of the former phrase. In fact, other than one throwaway line, there was no appreciation for or recognition of the need for forgiveness from God. To give you an idea of the tone of many of the talks, it was a little like a reversal of the sermon illustrations that many of us are used to: instead of a personal story helping to clarify a biblical idea, the biblical text was an illustration for a broader personal narrative. The preaching on the main platform was almost entirely about us, and the widely-varying blessing God desires to bestow on us, including health, wealth, and success.

You’ll be getting the impression by now that I didn’t appreciate the teaching at this conference. (That is correct.) In fact, my brief summary to those who asked me what the conference was like was this: “The preaching was simply terrible; everything else I went to was excellent.”

Strange contradictions

Alongside the main sessions, a host of smaller sessions and workshops throughout the week focussed on aspects of the life of the church, broadly categorized into three streams: social action, leadership, and ‘worship’.6 These seminars were examples of the many astonishing contradictions of the conference, and—as far as I can tell from visiting the church on a number of occasions before and since—church life as well.

On the main platform, the content of God’s word takes a back seat to a number of other ways of experiencing God and hearing from him. Off that main platform, however, my constant impression was that everyone involved was keen to be shaped by how God has revealed himself in his word, and to align their ministry and understanding of church to that. For sure, they came up with conclusions that at times I disagreed with, but the principle of carefully reading Scripture and forming how you act on that foundation was both clearly in place, and widespread.

My seminar on Wednesday afternoon run by a few people from the training college—a sort of open day to the public—was a prime example. Different people from the administration and faculty talked through how the college seeks to equip their students for ministry in a wide range of areas by teaching them how to read the Scriptures carefully, and to speak the gospel to others in a variety of circumstances. They read broadly, from a range of theological traditions. They grapple with serious issues. After the conference, I caught up with one of these lecturers for coffee, and we had a warm, stimulating conversation about church, preaching, social engagement, and ministry. He was a humble, godly man with a keen desire for the gospel to go out to Sydney and for people to hear Jesus’ name and submit their lives to him.

One of the other lecturers at the college spent a little while with us doing a “worked example” of the sorts of theological thinking they do at the college. The topic he chose was “the problem of evil”. You probably know the one: Christians claim that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and good, yet there is evil and suffering in the world; clearly God must therefore be either limited in his power, or not good (or both).7 His talk on this topic would not have been at all out of place at Moore Theological College. If I squinted a bit, he could have been one of my ethics lecturers. Jesus was central to his argument; he was logical, thoughtful, pastoral; in the end he was careful to affirm our brokenness and yet declare the glory of God.

Given the experience of both the church meetings and the main conference sessions, this was not the approach I had expected from the Hillsong training college.

The music was a similar story. In fact, it was even better.

The public face of Hillsong is the music they produce and the musicians (‘worship leaders’) who perform it. I thoroughly expected the quality of the musicianship to be very high; they did not disappoint.8 The atmosphere, the build-up and release of tension, the astounding ability of the musicians, the sweetness and power of the voices—all of this was simply brilliant, as we have come to expect. Hillsong has, after all, been at this level for some time now.

“The music covered more elements of Christianity than any other part of the conference.”

Surprisingly, at least to me, the lyrics were also really (really) good. The 2012 album Cornerstone contains some cracking songwriting that matches or exceeds the level of songs I would sing at my own church. The music covered more elements of Christianity than any other part of the conference. Almost the only references to salvation from sin were in the songs. (They weren’t in the preaching.) The extent of the lordship of Jesus was something we sang about, but didn’t hear about much elsewhere. We sang about Jesus’ death and resurrection, but heard precious little of the cross from the platform. In fact, I heard a senior Hillsong pastor talking about the very involved process they’ve now instituted for approving songs, and one of the checks is how much it talks about Jesus. Simple stuff, really, but if you’ve heard as many vague songs about something God-related as I have—including from Hillsong in the past—it’s a step you’ll appreciate.

Somewhere along the line, therefore, there seems to be a disconnect between the way that various ministries of the church operate, and the church package as a whole. Behind the scenes—or at least out of the spotlight—Hillsong seems to contain plenty of faithful, enthusiastic Christians who want to see Jesus glorified in what they do, and who give Scriptural thought to what they do. But the church experience, whether at the conference or on a Sunday morning, is one that results in de-emphasizing not only the way God has told us he speaks to us, but what God has told us he has done for us.

My hunch is that it’s tied very closely to how you expect to hear from and come to experience God. If, as in Charismatic and Pentecostal theology, you have an encounter with God by his Spirit in any or all parts of the gathering—the music (especially the music), a direct word from God, the prayer, the dramatic, artistic performance, or the empty spaces between—then the encounter you have with God in his word is relativized. As has been the case for some time, the use of music and the theological grid it’s placed in serves to diminish what ought to be central in a Christian gathering. Despite having top-notch songwriting and excellent musicianship, the music is cast as a means of encountering God that reduces the impact of God’s word in relating to him. At best, the Bible is just one way amongst many in which you can hear from God.

To take this even further, preaching is generally spoken of as a step removed: the preacher has decided to bring to you this word he had from God. In fact any content from the Bible, whether it’s from the preacher or another church member, is spoken of in these terms. Brian Houston and a few others had an open conversation about preaching at one point during the conference, and that was how they spoke of it: that preaching is bringing the word that God has spoken to the preacher to the congregation. In this way, the encounter with God in his word is something that the preacher has done in his study during the week, alone—the congregation don’t actually hear from God’s word directly (at least, not in the sermon).

Previously, Hillsong church leaders have indicated that the main meetings of the church (and by extension, the conference) are about belonging before believing: people are drawn in by the excellent, non-threatening church package, and the biblical instruction is supposed to come later in smaller discipleship groups. The best scenario in this case is that the inspirational can-do attitude the preaching seeks to inspire merges with some biblical Christian discipleship from the music and (hopefully) the small groups. But we’re still left with the public articulation of what the church is about being a long way short of the biblical gospel.

This means that we have a fairly major disagreement about the nature of church, evangelism, and ministry—that all of these things ought to be built very firmly on the gospel and the word of God. Hearing and speaking God’s word is not a distinguishing feature of a Hillsong church service, which suggests that Hillsong church is not ‘evangelical’ in any meaningful sense.

John the Baptist

Let me give you an example of how this plays out in the preaching on the platform. Nothing quite captures the way that the biblical gospel is glossed over, truncated, and domesticated than the final talk of the 2012 conference. Steven Furtick from Charlotte, North Carolina, preached to us from Matthew 11. It started out as the most biblical main talk of the conference so far, including a reading of the first 11 verses. This passage is a clearly Messianic portion of the Gospel, as Jesus declares to John the Baptist’s followers that he is the one who fulfils the promise of God. In answer to their question of whether he is the one they had hoped for, Jesus recalls Isaiah 35, pointing out that he has done the signs that indicate the coming of the Lord.

“Great!”, I thought. Sadly, the three points from this talk were about the encouragement John the Baptist would have received from Jesus, and by extension what we can be encouraged about:

  • You’re doing better than you think you are.
  • You matter more than you think you do, yet it’s less about you than you think it is.
  • There’s more in store than you think there is.

I’ll spare you the details of how he managed to get this out of the passage while remaining completely silent on the thrust of Jesus’ words (i.e. that he is the Lord, come to deliver his people). I could only sit and wonder how God’s word about Jesus bringing in the day of the Lord could turn into a talk about what good God is doing in your life, and how much better he’s promised to make it in the days and years to come. The final talk of the conference was essentially a vacuous Jesus-believes-in-you motivational speech, delivered to “Amen!”s and fist-pumps all round. It left me wondering about the discipleship and biblical instruction that was supposedly taking place in small groups and other contexts. What sort of Bible study was it, if it led to people being so enthusiastic about such appalling misuse of the Bible?

Your church is too small

There’s a reason the Scriptures place such a high burden on teachers of God’s word—from Ezekiel’s call to be a watchman (a burden taken up by the apostle Paul) to the instructions in the Pastoral Epistles to find men of sound character, godly convictions, and ability to teach the word of God faithfully and well. One reason such a burden is placed on the teachers of God’s word is to ensure that the people of God are actually taught God’s word. That seems like a self-evident statement until you see how they aren’t fed. No-one who came to that conference heard of the need for forgiveness (by God, that is, for our sins). No-one heard about what Jesus accomplished. There was no mention of salvation from God’s wrath through the atoning work of the cross, or of how God’s Spirit works in us to make us more and more like our Lord Jesus, or of how we look forward to and long for the day of his return.

“There may have been 20,000 people gathered as one church, but the church was too small.”

There may have been 20,000 people in the room, gathered as one church under Christ, but the church was too small. It was too small because the gospel being proclaimed was too small: it was just about you and me, and how God makes our lives better. We weren’t really being gathered together under Christ, we were gathered together as a large collection of individuals. Not only was the form of preaching individual—the preacher sharing what God had revealed to him or her personally—but the content was individual too: God’s revelation to the preacher is about a promise to make your life better. How unlike the way that Paul talks about what God has done in and for us! God chose us before the foundation of the world:

In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph 1:7-10)

God’s work in gathering us together to be his church is a story that is so much grander than my personal circumstances. But my personal circumstances, my life and what God has done and is doing in it: that is the size of Hillsong church. I simply don’t think that my life is big enough to be good news.

Downstream effects

The effects of this individual focus are felt in a number of places, but let me pick on just two: the way that the Christian life and evangelism are construed (to the extent that they are talked about at all).

As I mentioned above, prosperity theology in the bold, financial categories of the 1980s is not part of the Hillsong package, but blessing—understood broadly as being over our whole lives—is what God desires to give us. Houston often warns against spiritualizing ‘lack’, as if not being amply supplied for (in a material sense) is an expression of godliness.9 He’s right, of course, at least in some sense. There’s nothing intrinsically godly in being poorer than someone else. However, where he takes this is that to be the blessing to others that God truly desires you to be you need to be one who is overflowing with (material) blessing, able to give to others and bless them with no constraint. That is, a house and substantial income are the blessing of God to you, for the blessing of others. That’s the good news that Jesus brings.

It follows then that sharing that blessing of Jesus with others is about sharing that material blessing. There appears to be no tension between evangelism and social action at Hillsong, because providing materially for others is the blessing of God you are called on to share with them. In both the Christian life and in evangelism the majesty of God’s work in Christ is shifted to improving my personal circumstances, all the while giving thanks in Jesus’ name.

Why does all of this matter?

During the conference, I tweeted and posted to Facebook occasionally. I was intentionally even-handed, praising where it was due (to the point where the conference Twitter account re-tweeted some of my material to their followers), and critical when it was appropriate. I had people contact me privately and say one of two things. Some urged restraint, worrying that I was simply pushing the same old divisive character that is unnecessarily painful and (not to put too fine a point on it) arrogant. Others worried that by being positive about certain aspects of the conference I would encourage some Christians to see Hillsong in a positive light, when, in their opinion, they are simply false teachers. Is this just another instance of being divisive, picking up on points that in the broader scheme of things are irrelevant or not such a bad thing in context?

From everything that I’ve seen and heard, at the conference and visiting Hillsong church on a number of occasions, there’s simply no guarantee that if you go or take someone along to church there that you’re going to hear the gospel. No doubt you will be drawn into enthusiastic fellowship with people who love being part of the church, and (literally) sing Jesus’ praises constantly. There’s no question you will meet many lovely, faithful, committed Christians. Yet I cannot see any reason to believe that if you go regularly that you will be taught God’s word, or be instructed to sit under it and let it change you and form and re-form you. In fact, I have good reason to believe that you will be taught something else altogether.

You will hear an attractive message about the God of the universe, committed to you, promising you many good things you can receive if you honestly believe in them. You will hear about the blessing God has planned for you, the better job or bigger house or healthier future in store. But you are unlikely to hear much biblical, orthodox Christianity.

I cannot in good conscience commend fellowship with Hillsong. I can’t recommend that anyone go and make this their church. I can also understand why many churches decide not to sing their songs, given that singing them profiles Hillsong and gives a tacit endorsement to their movement. The fact that there are good things about the movement and good people in the movement is not really the point; the gospel message championed by the church is distorted, and in the end being part of that is not the way that we love or care for people.

By far and away the best articulation of orthodox Christian belief over the entire conference was one song, ‘Beneath the Waters’. It out-stripped anything else on the platform by a long way in speaking about sin, judgement, salvation, resurrection, and hope. My prayer is that the leaders and teachers at Hillsong take seriously the words of one of their own, and testify to the lordship of Jesus in more than just the songs that bookend the meeting. My prayer is that they take very seriously the dramatic extent of our death to sin and new life in Christ, so that the life of the church would not consist just of what God is doing in their lives, but of the life of the Lord Jesus himself:

I stand to sing your praises

I stand to testify

For I was dead in my sin—

But now I rise,

I will rise,

As Christ was raised to life,

Now in him, now in him

I live.

  1. For those with long memories for Briefing articles, no this is not a U2 concert.
  2. Spoiler: church and conference are pretty consistent.
  3. What other Christian movement, she wondered aloud, started in Australia towards the end of last century and is now drawing many people not only in Australia but throughout the whole world?
  4. See http://hillsongconference.com/sydney for a full line-up.
  5. This was particularly true of Joyce Meyer and Joseph Prince. This is pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if they were instructed to tone down the Word-Faith message on the Hillsong platform, perhaps even in response to previous criticism. Even if that were the case, however, we’re a long way from a repudiation of prosperity doctrine.
  6. Let the reader understand.
  7. For a church tradition that has stereotypically talked poorly or not at all about suffering, this was an interesting choice.
  8. Especially the drummer. He was amazing.
  9. See, for example, his sermons on ‘Lack versus Overflow’, parts 1 and 2, available as a podcast on iTunes (amongst other places).

55 thoughts on “Your church is too small

  1. Thanks for the gracious and truthful reflections. I notice a pattern that many of Hillsong’s more lyrically edifying songs are penned by Scott and Brooke Ligertwood (/Fraser).

    I’m thinking of songs like “Beneath the Waters / I Will Rise”, “Lead Me to the Cross”, “Soon”,

    The recent “Man of Sorrows” remake they released at Easter is also really helpful, e.g.

    “Man of sorrows Lamb of God
    By His own betrayed
    The sin of man and wrath of God
    Has been on Jesus laid”

  2. Thanks Sam – Really appreciate the way you have tried to “speak the truth in love”
    1. Your review reminded me of Rob Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral Church a while back. Hard not to be critical, or even very critical for some, of what was seen on our TV screens, but behind the shop-front window (and thats how they saw it) was a great deal of serious deeply biblical ministry and evangelism (according to friends who attended and staff i met from over there – ie one guy)
    So Hillsong platform seems far weaker than their other stuff.
    2. The person i have interrogated most who went to the H’song Women’s convention 2013 came out determined to read her Bible with far greater discipline, though she and others i spoke to felt the platform was mixed.
    3 The other thing that i noted, personally, is that when people get excited at Hillsong Women’s, they go and do something for the needy (either here or over there), and they very often DO ……whereas much of the time when i have talked with “our” people, when they get all keen and excited for Jesus, the next phrase is something like – I need to go Moore. Interesting contrast.
    4 Lastly Sam, WE need to be aware as sharply as possible of OUR weaknesses much much more than the weaknesses of our neighbours. Please don’t miss hear me, not saying at all that some occasional biblical reflection on big things near us is wrong,
    But it can be, Can be, part of our problem if we do not with real courage ask – “What in the world is wrong with US”, that so that there is so little evidence of God doing great works through us, since we are so very right in so many areas. I have a number of friends who have finally left Syd Evangelicalism Anglican churches – very godly, biblical, really evangelising, financially generous Christians (not me – obviously) who don;t know each other BUT they left for very similar reasons, of which part was our capacity to critique others but not willingly to look at or speak to the man in the mirror.
    Hope that is not misread as a slap at Sam – thanks mate
    ian powell

    • Thanks Ian.

      On your last point, I’m totally with you—the log in your own eye has priority over the speck in someone else’s. We need to keep evaluating our own lives & ministry in the light of Scripture. This is something I’m keen that the Briefing keeps helping us do.

      Part of that, which is what I’m trying to do here, is to use the contrast with a different group to shine a light on our own thinking & practices, for good and bad. So while I believe the social action arm of Hillsong is built on a foundation that leaves a lot to be desired, at least some parts of what they are doing are worth commending. And further, if we can see that there’s a better-grounded theological motivation for evangelism and loving “the least of these” as Jesus did and commanded, and we’re not doing it, then that’s a pretty significant spur to action in my book.

    • I also agree with Ian, that our Sydney Anglican churches and especially many of our clergy tend to be very review-resistant, with the exception of Chappo in particular helped us establish the expectation and practice of sermon critique.

  3. A very helpful, even handed post Sam. Thanks. Ian, your point is also very helpful; we are not always very good at self-critical analysis. I think myself that the problem we have is an increase in the lack of careful theological reflection. What seems to go with that is a certain arrogance that we are the ones bequeathed with the means to evangelise the nation. In other words, I see more humility among those who seek to be theologically driven than those driven by the latest fads.

  4. Thanks Sam, very helpful. I wonder if you know someone from Hillsong ( or elsewhere) who could observe a KCC conference and a few traditional style evangelical churches, and could write a similar review for your readers?

  5. Sam,

    I have found myself attending a church that is similar at least in part to Hillsong, it is Charismatic and has committed believers attending. The music is well done and I certainly enjoy spending time with the people there, though I have been realizing that the Gospel is in some ways assumed as opposed to explicitly taught from the Biblical text. We also have these “discipleship” groups in which there is a legitimate opportunity to talk about doctrine, but only if I am intentional toward creating that environment. I am currently attending Bible college and other students attend the church with me, we all have conversed at some point about this trend. What do you recommend for a believer attending a church like this who hopes to reverse the trend back to a more historic biblical orthodoxy? We are small currently and I do have a good relationship with the pastor, but I do not wish to cause dissension in the way I approach this, though dealing with the issue is a large concern of mine. Your article addressed much of my concern with the Charismatic movement, and my own church. So basically my question is this: what would you recommend to Christians who are committed to a Church, but nevertheless are concerned with the Bible being taught well in an arena in which it is more individualistic and based upon oneself?

    Thanks for any input you can give me,
    C.

    • Hiya,

      [Note: I've gone and anonymized the previous comment to make sure that private discussions remain private.]

      Great question, but very difficult to answer in the abstract without knowing you or your situation very well.

      My broad suggestions would be twofold:

      - To talk with your pastor about the kinds of things you have been talking about in your groups and with your fellow students about doctrine and it’s application. Talking about how you’ve found that to be really useful for your lives as Christians frames the whole discussion in a positive light rather than an antagonistic one (i.e. “we’ve been doing this, and it’s great, can we have more?” as opposed to “why don’t you teach us properly?”).

      - To keep doing that sort of thing in your discipleship groups. (Note I put this after talking with your pastor, as you don’t want to set anything up as an undermining or splintering influence.) What you can do is start to instil and spread a culture of wanting to know the Scriptures and be shaped by them in discipleship. As you do it, it spreads, as more and more people are talking about the Scriptures, and how they impact on all sorts of things in life. Tony Payne and Col Marshall talk about this in terms of getting a sense of Christian discipleship, but the idea carries across (cf. the audio podcast or transcript).

      Yes, that’s very general, but I hope it helps a little.

      Cheers,

      Sam.

    • i once was in the exact position you are now in. May I just say… I know of that hardship and that quiet desperation. I am so very sorry you are in that position now. I remember treading as soft as I could and my leaders… They still wounded me very dearly. I shall pray for you. I hope you get a response back from this. And if I may just add… if it does end poorly… please remember our King is busy at work in the hearts of those that have begun to assume the Gospel. Take care!

    • I had the same issue in my Church. To be honest I got too tired of it and left. I tried talking with my pastors but they just agreed to everything I said, but nothing ever changed. Then the Rob Bell controversy rocked my church, half of them endorse him and pastors were recommending his stuff, older stuff anyway. I just couldnt take it, to be honest, I exploded at one of the pastors as he was taking (perceived) stabs at me on social media. Which he denied but given the circumstances and topics at hand at the time, I found it very hard to believe. Sick of content less preaching. Yes men who cant stand up to anything and fence sit issues. Teaching so vague that you can barley tell what they stand for.

      Its worth a mention, I did apologize to the pastor and he to me. But gospel less preaching that barely challenges is useless. When one scripture is all thats used to talk about something completely off topic. That was a large Brisbane pentecostal church – lots of numbers(1000′s), little content. Now my wife and I attend a baptist church – that uses 20+ scriptures a sermons. Its incredible. I love it. And they aren’t stiff. Worships great, they prophesy, believe in healing and movements of the Spirit. Its what I think a church should look like. Glad Im out of the social club church. dont get me wrong, im still friends with many there, and even a pastor there – I just think how they do church isnt exactly biblical.

  6. Pingback: The Briefing on Hillsong 2012 | kt-rae

  7. Wow. So so many thoughts in my head!
    First off thank you so much for the article. There are obviously parts of it i love and parts of i dont love and would lovingly disagree with you, but as a brother in Christ I love that you have kept the Gospel at the very front and center of everything.
    I will say this, Sydney is changing, young people are leaving Anglican churches, for fairly similar reasons. The weaknesses of most Anglican churches are becoming apparent to this generation.
    This generation of young believers desire a few things, but most of all this – churches which offer faithful biblical teaching that fuels a joyful ‘experience’ of God within the heart. I am not saying Anglican churches fail altogther to offer this to this generation, but I fear for too long Anglican churches have become so reactionary and fearful of the things churches like Hillsong do wrong and as a result have swung their pendulum to a place where Anglican churches fail to engage both the mind and heart and offer a biblically faithful experience of God. Too long Anglican churches have been fearful of ‘emotions’, ‘experience’ and ‘affections’. The time has come where churches need to stop being reactionary to one another. I think churches in Sydney are often reactionary. I see more conservative traditional anglican churches react to pentecostal churches and i see pentecostal/charismatic churches like Hillsong react to more traditional/conservative churches. This saddens me deeply, from both ends of the scale.
    If we could only be at peace with the beautiful truth that knowledge, biblical truth and preaching, the engaging of our minds is for and not against engaging the heart and our emotions and our affections, these two facets of our being, our minds and our hearts, are completely for one another!
    I absolutely love Hillsong.
    I love that they are unashamedly about Jesus and the Gospel.
    I love that I see in the lives of so many of my Hillsong friends and those I meet a desire to follow Jesus and live for the fame of His name.
    I love that I also see a passion and excitement for Jesus in the lives of its congregational members cultivated from scripture, knowledge and truth which engages emotions, affections and heart.
    I am so thankful to my heavenly Father and His complete sovereignty in bringing me along the Hillsong run event ‘youth alive’ many years ago and for sitting me down in a seat where I would unknowingly hear the Gospel faithfully preached and be adopted into His great family. That night I went from death to life through the faithful preaching of the Gospel, which the power of the Holy Spirit wielded in my heart, regenerating my soul and giving me spiritual eyes to see the Glory and beauty of Jesus. Praise God!!! And praise God this is happening in Hillsong and many other churches all across Sydney! We are blessed!
    Years after that my best friend was down at the skatepark (a non christian at the time) and was befriended by a Hillsong community group leader. The love and care and urgency this man showed toward engaging and befriending my best friend through the sovereignty and compassion of our great God led very soon after to my best friend becoming a christian. Praise God!
    We both were at Hillsong for a few years and we are both so thankful for the years God edified, built us and sanctified us through attending Hillsong.
    This does not mean Hillsong is a great church, nor when this happens at any other church does it mean it too is a great church, but nevertheless I am so personally thankful to God for the fact that I heard the Gospel preached through Hillsong’s ministry and My Father decided to make me His own. Praise God!
    I attended Christ Church Gladesville after that for about six years and absolutely loved that! And am too so thankful for those years in which God sanctified me and continued to mature me as His child. I now attend a church plant in Balmain and am so truly thankful for my experiences at all three of these churches and the work I saw God do in my own heart and the hearts of those around me. All three of these churches I have absolutely no doubt all shared the same end point, that is, the Glory of our great God among all nations and people.
    The reason I left Hillsong was not primarily because but partly the result of the mishandling of the scriptures in preaching, not always but regularly. This often occurred sadly and I think this is where Hillsong continues to let itself down is through conference speakers and visiting preachers. In saying all this I have witnessed over the years Hillsong become a place where the word of God is handled with far my reverence and faithfulness, and has been a great push from its core leadership.
    I believe the tides are shifting, I think in a few years time Hillsong conference especially will be a very different place in terms of preaching, I think gone will be the days of having big name preachers let them down through bad teaching and preaching, I think there is evidence this year for this shift in Rick Warren, Craig Groscheal and Judah Smith (who although is charismatic/pentecostal, is a very faithful bible teacher) all being invited to preach and teach at this years conference. It baffles me and saddens me in some senses that Hillsong leadership still thinks it is a good idea to invite guys like Jakes and Osteen to speak, but I feel this will shift in the coming years.

    I got here and cannot be bothered typing anymore. So many thoughts. I pray that whatever I have said that is unfaithful and wrong would be swiftly and graciously rebuked through a brother or sister. I have so so much to learn but these are my thoughts :) I pray whatever any of us say is faithful and helpful and loving. Love you brothers and sisters :)

    • ^ Sorry. So many gramatical and spelling errors. I did general english.

    • Jono,

      Praise God for how he’s worked in your life and in those who brought the gospel to you. It’s really great to hear. I hope you’re right about the direction of the conference: it would be a great thing if that turned out to be the case.

      • Thanks brother! Man so blown away by your humility , thanks so much for responding :) Yeah I couldn’t agree more, its just such a blessing and gift, but also such a huge responsibility, to have such a platform like conference to preach the Gospel faithfully from! Praying so much that the preachers this year preach faithfully, passionately and with conviction from Gods word! How precious is Gods word! I get overstimulated at the thought that i will attend this years conference and i will sit in a room full of 20000 others and hear the Gospel preached!!!

        Please Jesus make your glory known through the very very good news of the Gospel through the preaching of the word of God!

    • I learnt alot from this comment of yours.
      We are too often reactionary instead of being thoughtful and humble.
      There is a focus and it is Jesus. We should encourage each other, be open to lovingly disagree with someone. Humility in being open to rebuke.

  8. Amen!

    “Things aren’t that bad. They are much worse than that.”

    – Gerhard Forde

    But, we do have a Savior. We really need one.

  9. may the same and other concerns everywhere be boldly offered without partiality.

    • Hey David :) what do you mean by this comment out of interest?

      I’m not asking in an arrogant way just genuinely trying to rap my brain around your comment and want every comment to help my own thinking through things :)

      God bless. Thank you

  10. Hm. It seems to me that some of the major purposes of having meetings together — indeed, of Church in general — is to encourage one another, stimulate growth, and fullfil the great commission by making disciples, teaching them to obey all that Jesus has commanded us.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fairly conservative evangelical Christian, and have been in all the years I’ve walked with Jesus. If, as the OP suggests, the result of the Hillsong church structure as a whole is more and more people who know and love Jesus, and know and love scripture as a means to know and love Jesus, then what is the problem? They are creating Christ-followers, are they not? They are passionate, are they not? They love Jesus, each other, and those in need, do they not? That is an awful lot better than many “evangelical” (in this article defined as having a primary emphasis on textual studies of scripture during services) churches are doing, or will do.

    If it ain’t “broke” in that the church structure is producing what Jesus loves, why fix or even criticize it? Is the reallocation of emphasis on exegesis such a sinister thing — does it make us that uncomfortable?

    Just a few thoughts.

  11. I appreciate your fair and well reasoned overview of the Hillsong Conference. (Hills is Assembly of God, I believe, correct?) I have never attended a conference, but did attend a “concert” a few months back here with the Hillsongs worship group that was releasing their newest album. As a worship leader/vocalist, it was an interesting experience. As you said, the musicianship and quality of the vocals was impeccable. The crowd was an interesting mix of hipster young adults/youth (many of whom were dressed like they were going to a club to party), middle-agers like me who cut our teeth on a lot of Hillsongs’ tunes, and some folks, like the teen in front of us who spent his time desperately trying to get the teen girl next to him to adore him instead of God. Being with 20K+ people glorifying God is a pretty heady experience. Yet something was lacking for me…but I think it had more to do with the culture of modern Christian worship than the Hills crew. It seemed people were there to worship worship. Not all, of course, but I’ve seen it before…especially in our larger churches where a premium is placed upon the worship being on the level of what Hills has built or to at least be equivalent with what the “world” can do musically. But back to your article…

    A question related to your lack of being able to recommend Hills for people to attend: If there are godly people there who are saved, who are committed and even solid Christians, how did they get there? If it wasn’t because Hills is creating a platform where genuine, Biblically-sound disciples are being birthed, then how did they get there? Transplant growth? just curious. In all of your review, I didn’t see you addressing the “fruit” of the ministry in terms of whether people are coming to Christ through the ministry. Are disciples being made? If what is happening outside of the church meetings or big conference venues has solid Biblical content, could it be that people are being fed solid Biblical content in smaller groups, personally, etc., whereas the conference venues are for encouraging on a more general scale? Not assessing the rightness or wrongness of that model if it is the case, but just wondering if Hills is seeing the fruit of salvation? In conference do they give invitations? Do people respond? Or is your assertion that even if they are receiving Christ, then after that they are either not growing or just remaining babes in the faith? Just curious as to what you observed in that respect and your conclusions.

    (I live in and grew up in the American South in a Baptist church. Left church (and God) during university and eventually came back in my mid-twenties to my Baptist roots, but eventually left for a Calvary Chapel, then an Assemblies of God for a long time, and then spent almost 11 years at C3.)

  12. Ouch. You set this article up like you had a change of heart about Hillsong and then you ripped them to pieces.
    I think we need to look at what Jesus commanded. Did he command us to create a gathering where we had one speaker who preached?
    Or did he ask us to feed the poor? Make disciples of him?
    ‘But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves’

    I think we have preconceptions about the church and preconceptions about what church history has taught us. I think we have preconceptions about God that put him in a box.

    If indeed a revival is coming from Australia, it isn’t coming from a sermon.

    10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” 1 Cor 1

    Do we say: ‘I follow the sermon model,’ another, ‘I follow the worship model’, and another, ‘I follow the discipleship model’

    • Habitang. I completely understand where you are coming from and I very much hear through your statement a passion for Jesus and people coming to love and cherish Him.

      Though.

      I believe your first question is very much the wrong question to ask and is avoiding the issue at hand.

      Did Jesus command us to preach the word faithfully! YES
      Did He ask us to feed the poor!? YES
      To Make disciples of Him?! YES
      Be doers of the word and not just hearers!? OHH YES HOW HE LONGED FOR THIS!

      HOW HE LONGED FOR (ALL) OF THESE THINGS BROTHER!

      The thing is i hear you brother, especially the part of not putting God in a box! Theology, biblical teaching, faithful preaching all these things show us it just stupid to think we can box God in! Praise God!!! Knowledge and theology are completely for us not putting Him in a box!!

      An intimate, affectionate, personal, emotional, joyous, happy and heartfelt relationship with our beautiful Saviour – well the word of God is the never-ending fuel for that flame within the hearts of His children (Very Piper). The Holy Spirit brings life to those words in our hearts, helps us believe those words, helps us cherish Jesus and adore Him in the Gospel, He brings those words with power! He helps us actually believe those words! And He helps us actually be doers of the word!!! He brings those words to life, ohhh how we need the words of the living God to be more than knowledge stuffed into our head! but overflow richly and abundantly into our hearts and lives. How fearful I am that churches would be full of people who know abou God and do not know Him. (Knowing God J.I Packer, one of the best books on this!!) Praise God!!!

      Brother, once again I would say you like so many people from both sides of the debate have swung the pendulum to far and need to realize all these things you mention are FOR ONE ANOTER. But i hear in what you say the same reactionary tone that many conservative churches have toward Hillsong and other charismatic churches. Your comment that revival isn’t coming from a sermon, well it might not come from one sermon, but it will come where the Gospel is being faithfully preached and where the Holy Spirit blows!!! Amen! Praise God!

      Man how we need in this generation to go back and read about the great revivals of the past!!!

      I love Lloyd Jones – I am profoundly convinced that the greatest need in the world today is revival in the Church of God. Yet alas! the whole idea of revival seems to have become strange to so many good Christian people… [This] is due both to a serious misunderstanding of the scriptures, and to woeful ignorance of the history of the Church…
      My prayer is that as we read it and are reminded of “Our glorious God,” and of His mighty deeds in times past among His people, a great sense of our own unworthiness and inadequacy, and a corresponding longing for the manifestation of his glory and His power will be created within us.

      Read Sprague as well! And Simeon! And so many others!
      May we have a hunger for God, a hunger for Him! A hunger for His Glory! A hunger for His Gospel! How desperately in need am I of all these things, and how desperately in need is the local church of these things!!

      How large is the heart of God to see people redeemed!! Sinners repent! And for many lost sheep to be carried on His Sons shoulders into the gates of Heaven!!! Lord bring revival!

      • I agree that I had the same reactionary tone. I think I need to take an extended time out from these internet discussions.
        Hopefully it is is just the internet, everywhere seems to be clouded with these arguments.

        Praise God for his holiness and his love! I really liked your response that re-directed my attentions to God’s character and goodness.

  13. Just a quick observation from afar, from an outsider who is interested and follows the Sydney Anglican scene in Britain.

    1. Due the the proximity and ‘excesses’ of Hillsong, Sydney Anglicanism dismisses the whole charismatic movement, and sees charismatic Christianity through a Hillsong prism.

    2. Australian evangelicalism (to my limited knowledge) has never had a movement like New Frontiers or Sovereign Grace – a reformed charismatic church grouping. Indeed New Frontiers are a great blessing here in Britain, heavily involved in supporting UCCF (AFES equivalent in Britain), and New Word Alive, the growing and dynamic Christian conference held at Easter time in north Wales (like Katoomba).

    3. From friends who have visited Australia and Sydney, one or two impressions they have had of godly, Christ centred and Christ honouring Sydney Anglican churches, is that some – some! – in the preaching was very dry, and dull.

    Anyway, just a quick few thoughts from afar…

  14. Hi Sam,

    Thought provoking article. As an Anglican from the UK, who is studying at Hillsong college I’d love to start up a dialogue with you around your thoughts and your concerns, both to grapple with them and broaden my own understanding. Also it would be great to share some of my journey in regards to starting out two and half years ago, and my attitude and views then, through to today, where both I and Hillsong are different.

    I’m not sure of you can see the email I’ve used to post this, but I really would love to start an open, challenging, grace filled and love fuelled conversation, that would expand my view and understanding.

    Thanks

    • Niall, I am encouraged by your gentle and patient response. It challenges me in my own critical attitude, all I see on the internet is the church attacking itself and to my shame I have joined in on that conversation.

      • I in return thank you. It’s so easy to leave faceless attacks on the Internet in comment sections, and is part of the reason I have petitioned Sam for a private, relational and relationship building dialogue. I also would want to commend Sam on anonymising an earlier comment and his response to said comment. His actions and the way he has approached his article show a real pastoral heart and love of others. One thing I have learned at college is that there are so many beliefs and varying expressions of faith. I am challenged daily in my own beliefs, and I do enjoy challenging others.

        On a further positive note- I am encouraged to know, both within hillsong and outside, a number of young scholars who are working and striving to truly delve into biblical theology and church history in a way that could promote a greater unity in diversity than we have ever seen.

        Thank you again for your comments and thank you for the article Sam

  15. The impression I’ve had for a long time, both with my own visits to Hillsong, speaking to past and present attendees, and listening to their music, is that much of the church is striving to teach and treat Scripture better, but that that change is coming from the grassroots and the middle level, and not from the top. In fact, from two separate people at Hillsong currently, I have been told that Brian Houston’s preaching is the worst and least useful part of any given service at which he preaches (and these people are by no means Reformed evangelicals!).

    I also know of one person who went through the Hillsong Leadership College, and I have actually noticed since she’s been out, that she is constantly quoting not only Scripture and not only Pentecostal theologians and pastors, but also large helpings of Piper, as well as (just to mention a couple) some Driscoll, as well as other Christian writers such as Chesterton and Bunyan – a much more eclectic collection that I usually see from people with long term involvement at Hillsong. Don’t know how much of that came from HLC, and how much from just her own reading, but it’s something I wouldn’t have expected to see even six years ago.

  16. I am not sure one can conclude that Hillsong or any similar group does not teach the bible, and at the same time conclude the many, many people who participate are in fact Christians.

    If they are committed Christians, then why are they participating in what really must be seen as a sham ‘church’? They themselves by their participation are also responsible for the continuation of a body that distorts the bible, and for that they surely cannot be blameless.

    It is striking that the things described as positives, both by Sam and the enthusiastic supporters of such organizations, appear to relate to the individual and to their own self perception. But I should point out the obvious, large numbers of excited happy people does not a Christian group make. One can go to a mall any weekend of the year to find the same.

    I went with my son to a Metallica concert a year or so back, and I was amazed at the similarities in the behaviour of the audience to that of a Pentecostal church. The excitement, the singing, the closed eyes, hands raised in the air, the music, the lights. Amazed and sickened I must admit.

    There is nothing in loud music, flashing lights, smooth talking, or happy people that denotes Christianity. On the contrary it tends to smooth over the problems that Sam points out, in particular, a disconnect with the actual beliefs of the Christian church. For that reason alone, such things should be regarded with caution. The teaching of Jesus surely does not require such gaudy, cheap additions? Does it?

    Are only those who lead such organizations responsible for the distortion of the gospel that Sam points out? No I would say those who consume the product of the organizations have something to do with it also.

    • Comments like these annoy me because I don’t think it is helpful. It agitates me to want to strike back with counter-reasons and assaults.

      That is how these discussions end up.

      How awesome is God though? How awesome is he when he was above the tabernacle with Israel in a cloud of fire! How awesome is God when Jesus died on the cross and rose again in 3 days! How awesome is God that when I was against him, he brought me to faith and gave me new life!

      I wonder, would our discussions be filled with more salt that when we feel agitated, we turn to God and praise him instead of fighting back.

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  18. I think the article is fairly close to the mark having worked in a school that would align itself closely to hillsong for the last year and a half. They do many things right, but the teaching is all about me and my life. Before I started working there I had no idea what Jeramiah 29:11 said (and I knew some scriptures) but now I know it off by heart! Many Christians of this persuasion use it as a comfort in times of trouble.

  19. Thank you for your article. Having been brought up as a Charismatic and then trained at an evangelical/conservative college I have experienced the good and bad sides of both traditions. My own reflection here is that along with many other traditions in the Church we become so gettoised by fear of the “motes” that we end up forming a holy huddle of “planks”. I was brought up in a western culture of education which tends towards the critique style of engagement, what was lacking/wrong/could be better, and I think that many in the church have this as their starting point. Is my God so small that I think He needs me to defend Him with my amazing articulation of doctrine? I am still struggling when I meet with “false doctrine” but more now with what does the love of Jesus look like here? “They will know you are my disciples if you have love one for another” is surely where we must start, and only when we are convinced by the love that we share will we be able to speak in love. In all my time at college it always seemed to me that we got it the wrong way round. “We speak the truth, and the love will follow”. While I agree with some of your points, I do wonder whether your statement “there’s simply no guarantee that if you go that you’re going to hear the gospel” is suggesting that the only issue that the gospel covers is the point of salvation. While I affirm the need for forgiveness and the atonement as being God’s means of restoring us to relationship with Him, maybe what Hillsongs are focusing on are what happens as a result of the Cross, while conservative evangelicals focus on the activity of the Cross. The two are difficult to separate, they are not meant to be independent of each other and this may be why the ‘church’ as a whole is made up of so many different traditions which help us continue to grow to maturity in Christ. We need them all working together as a body to reflect Christ’s glory to the world.

  20. While this article does make some valid points, in the end I find myself so very saddened by it because rather than celebrating the work that God is doing through Hillsong, it draws lines in the sand. I grew up in a Seventh Day Adventist church, then my family attended a non-denominational house church, I later attended a charismatic church and I am currently attending a conservative “orthodox” seminary. I have found immense value in all of these experiences. Each one of these valid expressions of Christianity has taught me things that have taken me deeper in my faith. I genuinely believe that God is working across denominational lines and that rather than disagreeing with each other over doctrinal differences, we ought to be known for our love for each other. I love my my charismatic church, and I love my conservative (non-charismatic) seminary, both are valid, both are Christian, both are different and both are being used by God. Please know that I am not suggesting we simply lovingly accept heresy, but I am saying that at the end of the day, we ought to be known for our love for each other, not our ability to point out inaccurate doctrine.
    So I guess I must practice what I preach: Sam, thanks for writing this article, I guess you can tell that I struggled with aspects of it, but I know your heart is to build up the Church and speak truth, and I truly appreciate that.

  21. Forgive me if I repeat something already mentioned in the previous comments. I admit I didn’t take the time to read them all because there were quite a few. Having said that, I appreciate your article. It is well-thought out and helpful. I find it interesting that here in the US, Hillsong is immensely popular musically, but to be frank, most have never even given a thought to Hillsong’s church itself. I know that they come from a large church. I know it has charismatic leanings. Other than that, I enjoy their music and use it as best we can in our small church plant setting. I suppose I’ll have to do a bit more research now. Thanks.

  22. Without commenting on the Christian devotion of Hillsong people- I think that must go without without saying unless there is strong evidence to the contrary-I would like to ask if Greek and perhaps Hebrew are offered in minsitry courses, or if not are students encouraged to undertake such studies at a universiity. Most of the great revivals in western churches and communities have been led by men with considerable learning, including biblical languages. I ask the question because I have seen nothing on the Hillsong website to indicate study of those languages.

    Another thing that concerns me a bit is that under the heading “worship pastor” there seems to be an assumption that worship requires “artistic” leaders. If we are to worship God with the whole of our lives and every part of a church service or meeting, being artistic hardly seems a priority.

    • In reporting for Eternity I discovered there has been a huge shift at AlphaCrucis College, the main ministry training institution of the ACC. The basic qualification has gone from diploma to masters level and it does include studying Greek. About a third of ACC ministers have gone through the new course. Like you I would expect studying at least one biblical language will have an impact. It will be fascinating to see how this pans out.

  23. Billy Graham is an exception to my point above, although for the most part his work would probably not be classified as revival.

  24. Thankyou Sam for an excellent article. I think you have noticed the discomfort many of us have with Hillsong, without lampooning or deriding the ministry that goes on there. Let’s keep praying for Hillsong (and I hope they are praying for us)

  25. I’ve experienced a wide variety of churches but am now involved in a reformed charismatic church in London, UK. Although I agree with most of what you’ve written I’m perhaps a little concerned with the statement ‘there’s simply no guarantee that if you go or take someone along to church there that you’re going to hear the gospel.’

    I wonder if, actually, our church being too small ought to also include the concept that somehow some guy studying hard and preaching for an hour is only one way that the gospel can be preached. I’m fully with you, I love good solid sermons, but surely the gospel can be preached through well-articulated songs (how can anyone sing a song like Cornerstone or Saviour King without recognising the biblical truth there?), small groups and a good ol’ conversation?

    I think Dave Leaf above would agree with me on this – surely the best attitude to have when attending a conference that’s clearly different to the church you’re used to is to learn everything possible that they’re doing better than we are in humility – I’m sure we could all do that from one another.

    Thanks for taking the time to write the article.

  26. By what means does an individual determine whether an institution is actually a Christian church, or just a pretender? Surely you must establish that the group has a firm grasp with orthodox Christian beliefs?

    If you reduce Christianity to the golden rule, being nice to each other, Christianity as a separate belief system is done. Redundant. So if you want to argue you don’t need all that boring old irrelevant orthodox doctrine, you are really saying you don’t need a church at all. Just go to the mall, have a cappuccino, go to a show, be nice to someone. It’s all good!

    Doctrine or beliefs should be clearly and rigidly defined. And they should be apparent in the actual arrangements of the organization. It is not for anyone outside Hillsong to go to conferences and try to assess their doctrine from afar. It is for Hillsong to produce their defined doctrinal statements in detail. Where are they?

    It is for Hillsong to organize itself so that it is crystal clear the statements of belief have been put into effect. And critically, it is for those who attend Hillsong to pay attention to the importance of orthodoxy and the importance of the definition of doctrinal beliefs. Beware the siren song of warm and fluffy feelings.

    There is more to Hillsong than an apparent lack of connection with orthodox Christianity. As a ‘Christian’ group one would expect to find some good old Christian love on show for the church goers that is enshrined in their legal Constitution. Instead you will find that the church goers don’t exist in the Constitution.

    Yes that’s right, no one who attends Hillsong Church has any defined relationship with the legal entity that is Hillsong Church. Sound strange? Funnily enough for all the warm and fluffy statements in the Hillsong Church Constitution about Christian beliefs, Jesus, etc, the good old church people who lap it all up each Sunday with their wallets open, don’t even cop a mention. Why is it that the people, who the leaders of a truly Christian church should be serving and loving, don’t even get a mention in the Constitution?

    Hillsong Church Ltd changed their legal constitution in 2010. It was by a special resolution of the ‘Members’. In the Hillsong constitution, the Members are also the Elders. So how many members you may ask? Ten members. Hillsong Church apparently has ten members. Their vote is enough to change their Constitution.

    Wow the churches that became the Uniting Church in the 1970s and agonized for years over the basis of their union (because they understood how important it was) would be dumbstruck. Ten people (nominated by Brian) enough to rewrite the Constitution of an orthodox Christian Church (to amongst other things name Brian Senior Pastor forever)!

    You see one of the really awesome things about the Hillsong Church constitution is that you can only become a ‘Member/Elder’ of Hillsong Church if you are nominated by Brian Houston! Awesome for Brian Houston anyway. Another is that the current constitution nominates Brian Houston as Senior Pastor, forever.

    Another cool aspect to the Hillsong Constitution, is that the ‘Board’ that controls the entire Hillsong operation (including all that beautiful cash) is limited even further. No surprise it includes Brian Houston as permanent Chairperson. Extra cool and awesome (for Brian Houston) is that you can only get on the Board if first you have been nominated to be a ‘Member/Elder’ of Hillsong Church by Brian Houston, and then he has approved you to get on the Board. Two barriers to authority, both held by one person! The permanent senior pastor! How good is that?

    It is really good, for Brian. But I think comparison with the set up of any orthodox Christian Church would show pretty clearly that there is a gaping divide. If you want some credibility Hillsong Church, how about put Brian on a salary, make the administration of Hillsong Church truly independent of the vested interests (especially that of Brian Houston), and set up a Property Trust to hold the assets to keep the obvious conflicts of interest away? I won’t hold my breath.

  27. That’s good to hear. I find a knowledge of ancient Greek a great help in understanding many NT passages and I have no doubt of its value for a minister of the Word. I was careful in my comment to refer to courses being “offered” rather being compulsory because I am sure that a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew are not essential in the making of a good Bible teacher. They are nevertheless of great value and should be offered wherever possible. Perhaps at least Greek should be compulsory for master’s degrees in this field of learning.

  28. Pingback: Friday’s Fantastic Five! | The Entire Gospel

  29. Thank you for the article Sam.

    As someone who has undertaken theological education and chosen to leave institutionalised Christianity in order to grow in Christ and enjoy more meaningful relationships with fellow believers and unbelievers I can’t help seeing the discussion ultimately as a comparison of commercial models of religious empire building by professional pop stars. I appreciate Tom Adam’s realism. As T D Jakes notes: “Jesus is the product”. I have found Frank Viola’s books very encouraging:1. Pagan Christianity 2. Reimagining Church 3. Finding Organic Church.

  30. The article is a fair appraisal of a mega church in Australia, but what is concerning is the way it is ‘shared’, among Christians. The more this issue is ‘shared’ it gains a priority in Christian conversation that is disproportionate to an anger that God’s name is not declared on all corners of the earth! It would be wonderful if Christians lent their efforts to ‘sharing’ articles and getting passionately angry about the lost!

    The opposite of church obsessed with size is not orthodoxy. Good doctrine can result in Christians thanking God for personal salvation that is just as individualistic. When Christians are radically transformed into an army on fire with a cause for the lost, that is a story worth sharing!!!

  31. Thanks Sam. Great article. Balanced, informative, very helpful.

    You mentioned some friends who were worried about portraying Hillsong in a positive light. I can understand that. Clearly there are often ‘good Christians’ in such churches. Clearly there are positive things they do and say. But it makes me think of my favourite Matthias media product: the Blueprint.

    The paper on Jesus’ death speaks about not approaching God on the basis of experience, but on the basis of Jesus’ death. We may be dealing with Christians who mean to honour Jesus, believe in him and his death, but don’t believe in the fully articulated view of Jesus’ substitionary death on the cross as the only way to make us right with God. And so, the paper says, we are led to have fellowship with people who have a different view of the cross and redemption (however sincere their motives). The fact that Jesus and his death (the gospel) were hardly mentioned from the public platform is clearly indicative of this.

    This leads me not to want to promote Hillsong at all. That’s not to say there might not be positives about them. After all we can plunder the Egyptians! That is, if pagans have good things to say and teach us, how much more our brothers and sisters at Hillsong. But I still would not want to promote a ministry that is based on the ‘experience’ box/ approach to God, rather than the Bible. There’s plenty of good Evangelical music out there.

    Finally, for those who point out our own mistakes, of which there are many – that’s just a furfie masquerading as humility. The important thing is whether a ministry/ church has the Bible as their supreme authority. Do we approach God on the basis of the substitionary death of Jesus, not on the basis of experience? Of course we are sinful and make many mistakes. But we’re not comparing like with like: Evangelical with Evangelical. We’re comparing experientialists with Evangelicals. The warning is necessary, and greatly appreciated.

  32. Hi Sam,
    Thanks for the balanced and well-written article, and for actually going to the conference before writing it. And totally agree about the amazing drummer- mesmerising!

    I was a little disappointed by your conclusion though… it’s a very strong and potentially hurtful statement to say that “I cannot in all conscience recommend fellowship with Hillsong”. Although I know you personally are balanced and fair, you must realise statements like that are bound to be very divisive. It seems that most of your criticisms relate to the preaching of the (mostly guest) speakers at a single conference (and visiting a ‘few times’). I thought I’d share my thoughts on that, for what they are worth!

    1- Hillsong Conference is aimed at church leaders- its not an outreach conference. I’m not saying that church leaders don’t need to hear the gospel, but there was probably a lot of assumed knowledge in this case.

    2- I can’t agree with you that Hillsong doesn’t teach the gospel- they do it all the time whenever I’ve been there! There is also legitimate debate to be had about how sharing the gospel can/should be done. Personally, I find the way Hillsong does this (a separate mini-sermon with ‘sinners prayer’ at almost every service I’ve been to) to be more natural and helpful in many ways than the weave-the-gospel-message-into-every-sermon-no-matter-how-forced method.

    3- I’m surprised that you seem to overloook the potential of songs as teaching tools- its a (rightly) proud tradition of Sydney Evangelicals that singing is meant to teach and instruct. I know that singing isn’t for everyone… but although I can’t remember much about last weeks sermon, I will have ‘Beneath the Waters’ running through my head all day now.

    4- I think the difference between Hillsong Conference and weekly church services are more significant than you have assumed. I don’t want to play the ‘I’ve been to Hillsong more often than you” card- but I also think that visiting a few times is not really a strong enough basis on which to draw that conclusion.

    5- Hillsong do some amazing things in terms of social action- and I’m usually very cynical about these types of things. A small example among many is the quadriplegic patient I worked with (who is now in heaven)- he spent most of his day in bed, and Hillsong Citycare were the only people who visited him. Contrast that to the time my Mum tried to arrange guys from our Anglican church to visit a quadriplegic patient of hers- and NO-ONE responded. I think you were too dismissive of this in your comment- Jesus is very strong in his teaching that the fruits of our faith will be shown in how we love the disadvantaged, and I see a huge gap between what the Hillsong movement does and the culture of Sydney Evangelicals. Seeing the gospel-in-action stuff that goes on through the work of Hillsong has been the single biggest encouragement in my Christian walk over the last few years.

    6- I agree that careful study of the Bible isn’t a strong part of what Hillsong offers in their sermons- and that this is an area for growth. I’m not sure whether people that attend Hillsong would have a deep/thorough academic understanding of the Bible unless they were personally motivated to study this e.g. at their college or in their small groups. However, the talks I’ve been to at Colour Conference have been the biggest inspiration for me to read my Bible that I’ve had in a long time.

    If I were to write the article, my conclusion would have been different. I think Hillsong have changed a lot in the last 10 years, and they very strongly and clearly proclaim the gospel- in their songs, many of their talks, in a separate gospel presentation during weekly church services, and in their actions in the community. The events and services I’ve attended clearly show they love the Bible and Jesus. Although I’d advise a person to make sure they are studying the Bible in addition to listening to sermons, and listening to guest speakers with a loving but careful ear (which we should be anyway), I’d not hesitate in recommending Hillsong to someone looking for a church.

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