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?”
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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
- For those with long memories for Briefing articles, no this is not a U2 concert. ↩
- Spoiler: church and conference are pretty consistent. ↩
- 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? ↩
- See http://hillsongconference.com/sydney for a full line-up. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Let the reader understand. ↩
- For a church tradition that has stereotypically talked poorly or not at all about suffering, this was an interesting choice. ↩
- Especially the drummer. He was amazing. ↩
- See, for example, his sermons on ‘Lack versus Overflow’, parts 1 and 2, available as a podcast on iTunes (amongst other places). ↩