My thoughts on Hillsong

I was asked late last year by a former attender of the church I led what I thought of Hillsong. I’ll try and keep it short! I have friends that are on staff at Hillsong, I’ve met Brian personally and I’ve attended three or four Hillsong conferences so you can decide if I’m biased or just better able to make some comments!

Hillsong is THE flagship Australian church in terms of profile and impact. It’s broken all the mindsets about church size and dynamics. It’s really reinvented the landscape of Christianity in Australia and shown us what’s possible. I’m fairly certain Shout to the Lord is probably THE most popular christian worship song in the world – which, coming from Australia says something. There aren’t many churches in our country that you can attend that won’t be singing one or two Hillsong choruses (even if they don’t like Hillsong – ah the irony of it).

Hillsong really pushed the envelope in making Christianity contemporary – i.e. music, language, services, buildings, programs etc. that speak to ordinary people. It’s been a wake-up call to churches that are a victim of stodgy, boring traditionalism. Much of the resentment toward Hillsong comes from churches who hate to see their “success”. Hillsong is one of the very few Australian churches that are actually growing with a good proportion of new commitments.

I have loved Hillsong conference. It’s really exciting and can be life changing. I’d certainly recommend everyone goes at least once!

Every church has its downside though. Hillsong is huge and that has it’s own disadvantages. It runs very much like a corporate machine. The stress on staff is massive. They have huge vision so the budgets are enormous which always attracts attention from outside. It’s a fairly controlled environment – they do that by establishing a “Hillsong” culture (again this is a corporate/business idea) so there are certain ways to talk, certain language, dress and behavior that’s subliminally peer reinforced, which suits some people I guess, but can be a bit restricting for others. I for one, would never work there under any circumstance. Staff are required to attend a minimum of three weekend services and I simply wouldn’t ever want to do that.

As far as any “scandals” go, there aren’t really any (sadly for the media) – well, no more than any other church with flawed people in it. As with any organisation, there are always people who do stupid things but aren’t necessarily the fault or responsibility of the organisation itself. Brian Houston had to deal with his dads moral failing before he passed away. No fault of Hillsongs’ there. They did get some grant money for certain projects and had to return it because a third party organisation they partnered with folded. Now it looks like Gloria Jeans might be facing insolvency, but the only connection with Hillsong is that they share a board member (very common in big business to share board members with other companies). Mercy ministries folded last year and the directors have been ordered to pay every consumer that was in the program, but again, Mercy is a US organisation that Hillsong partnered with. They got burned there, but it wasn’t necessarily their responsibility.

One prominent homosexual has been trying to paint Hillsong as homophobic, but I don’t think he’s gained too much traction in mainstream church circles, perhaps only in the gay community and the media. He obviously had a pretty bad experience, but homophobia is not actually the position of Hillsong. Never has been, and never will be. No doubt there will be homophobic believers there (church attenders are fairly representative of the population), and believers who embrace homosexuals, just like any other church.

I think Hillsong spends around $1.5m on meeting practical needs in their area (my figures are probably rusty, but that’s the order of things), so it would be nice if the media also covered the good things they’re doing.

The issues that make the media are usually about money. You need to know that no church prints money, and no church is “for-profit”. That means money in = money out. They spend whatever they get on growing the church and meeting needs. It’s not accumulating anywhere. Sure Brian and Bobby, and Darlene etc. are quite wealthy compared to the average Australian but that’s from royalties from songs – good luck to them. The reality is that the top echelon of Hillsong are extremely talented entrepreneurial individuals. If they weren’t working in the church arena, they’d probably be wealthier working in big business. They certainly have that X factor that organisations pay big bucks for. They give plenty of their blood, sweat and tears, so they do earn every dollar.

Personally I wouldn’t be part of Hillsong if I lived next door to it. It is a certain model of doing church that is very “successful”, but is fairly unique to Brian Houston and a small handful of others. I respect him for that – he’s built a church fairly and squarely on his gifts and talents. He’s been his own man and refused to listen to the naysayers and done what he’s felt God has called him to do…. that’s the lesson that other pastors should be learning – not trying to copy Hillsong (which usually results in fairly lame churches). I don’t think the Hillsong model is very reproducible because it’s built around Brian. Trying to replicate it is just that! Very trying. So many pastors out there are awkwardly staggering about like David wearing Saul’s armor. I don’t think even Brian’s top guys pull it off that well. Imitating Brian is quite painful to watch and it will be interesting to see what happens when he retires.

The model is too corporate for me, built on leadership principles transferred from the business world. I’m looking for something more organic, less directive, less top-down, more “ground up”, less pretentious, less structure, less like hard work. More freedom, less about buildings and appearances (Hillsong are notorious for their fashion). It’s quite an institutional model which I think has been taken to the limit and is a bit maxed out. It’s pretty hierarchical. There are important people there, and no so important ones. The important ones are very hard to even get to and seem to have a fairly privileged life (although they pay for it ultimately). I’m not sure that numbers or prominence or great music equals success, I guess everyone differs on how to define success in the church setting.

The ones to watch (if you want to watch at all) are Hillsong United (Joel Houston and his scruffy looking pals). I think Brian realises he’s taken the Hillsong paradigm to its limit (I secretly think he’s over it actually), and if the church in Australia is going to continue to engage grass-roots (non-sydney) Aussies in a more real, authentic “Australian” post-modern way, then the next generation are going to have to figure that out – just like he did 30 years ago. Hillsong United have been given a huge amount of freedom to basically reinvent church again. These guys seem to be respectful, non-conformists focused on music, media, social justice, and more into tapping into the psyche of Gen Y than Hillsong ever has. They’re becoming more a “movement” than a “church” – which is probably what church was always intended to be…. Watch this space!

Mark Tindall takes a dimmer view in his blog post after attending a morning service, and to be honest, I totally get where he’s coming from and can more than empathise with his perspective. I think his thoughts are fairly representative of those who aren’t fans of Hillsong. But then again, there are loads of stories of people who feel Hillsong has been great for them.

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The Attractional Church III

I believe the attractional church has had its day. While it has some great successes (Saddleback, Willow Creek – thumbnail left, Hillsong and many more), these are a tiny percentage of the churches who are actively trying to pull this off. And let me tell you, it’s hard to pull off. By virtue of it’s description – attractional – it has to be done really well, or it’s pure and simply a farce! I’m sure every one of us who have visited different churches at various times (we like to visit other places when we go on holidays) have seen or experienced things done in church that have just made us cringe. There’s very little distance between being attractional and being cringeworthy and it can happen as quickly as the remote microphone batteries running out when the hot visiting singer is launching into the bridge/key change.

One of the biggest problems with the attractional church, is the money that’s involved. It does take lots of money. I’ve been there, and I’ve been involved in the budget process and I know how much it costs. For one thing, because it’s building centred, you must have a big building to hold the crowds, and big buildings cost buckets of money. It’s very hard to avoid having your own big building, because the other options (such as using a school hall) simply aren’t attractive. No, you need a building and you need it to be slick and state of the art. You’ll need a PA system which will cost probably around $1000 per head of congregation. You’ll have data projection, children’s rooms, a kitchen or cafe, a reception or lounge area, loads of glass, offices, hard wearing carpet, comfortable chairs – the works. Of course, none of these are bad or wrong, it’s what happens on the way to obtaining them or paying them off.

The money involved is absolutely huge. The building and land depending on where you live, will cost $5,000 per head of congregation and that’s on the cheap. So you love Willow, you’re excited about building your own Dream Centre, or Hillsong Church, now you need to find some money. You get a word from God. You cast the vision. You have a miracle offering. You may ask your board to re-mortgage their own homes (as Hybels did) if they really believe God is in it. You fund-raise, you take pledges, you keep it in front of the people every moment (because they will dwell carelessly unless they have vision). You develop business partners in the church who will give tens of thousands. You get visiting speakers who are gifted at talking about money to come and do their thing (and pay them thousands to do it). You get people to believe in the dream. You have architects draw it up and show pictures and video walk-through’s of the new building and talk about building the kingdom and how many souls will get saved as a result.

But little by little, the dream of the building inexorably and inevitably begins to erode and compete for headspace (or is that heart space?) that would otherwise be focused on building the people. Slowly but surely, the people become a means to an end. But Christ died because people were THE goal. We rationalize that it’s all about people, and the building and all its trimmings will serve the people, but I can tell you, once you take out a loan and start the building process, the pressure is enormous, and even the holiest saints’ motives and perspectives become clouded and compromised.

Kudos if you pull it off and become the next Willow Creek, but you might want to do your homework and see if there isn’t a better model for you than the attractional church.

The Attractional Church

Last weekend, my former church hosted a Doctor of Clinical Psychology (not shown on the left) who is an “internationally recognised … expert consultant in post-traumatic stress” who has ministered to “tens-of-thousands of victims of war, sexual exploitation and natural disasters throughout the world”. A very compelling blurb with a winsome color photo covered the postcard. Everyone was encouraged to bring their friends and invite their families. The building was full (according to my wife) and it sounded like everyone who went enjoyed themselves.

A couple of years ago, I hosted Brother Yuen, author of The Heavenly Man, a pastor who was incarcerated and tortured by the chinese government for his faith. An inspiring individual and a compelling book, made him widely known and we had that much interest, we packed the building twice over.

On any given week at church there will be events, services and programs in the building drawing groups from anywhere from a dozen, to hundreds. Guest speakers, vibrant sunday services, children’s programs, feeding the poor programs, youth events, rocking music, thought provoking video, good food, comfortable seats, all make for a very attractive church. It’s the attractional church model through and through. The idea is to have a fantastic building, and host fantastic (the word awesome is used liberally) events, using the best speaking, video and music available and then invite as many people as you can to come and receive it. It’s not unlike Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams idea; “If you build it, they will come”.

I would have to say, that the attractional model has been around since Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek pioneered it back in 1975, which means it’s had a pretty good run, and continues to enjoy good successes in many places. I would also say, I think it has had enough iterations and permutations (or maybe just mutations) to have pretty much reached its full potential. It’s a cow that has been thoroughly milked. I have nothing against the attractional model. I for one, absolutely love big meetings and rockin music that you can feel. But I just don’t think it can be improved on anymore.

“So what?” you ask?

Well, it’s just that if we put it under the microscope and look at how effective it is at A) reaching our communities with the gospel and B) making disciples of those who are involved, it’s fairly limited. For one thing, it’s only done really well in a handful of places and the rest are wannabe’s trying to recreate the few successes that get so much coverage. I’ve seen terrible examples of churches trying on the attractional model in such a cringeworthy way that you hope to God there are no non-christians present.

The attractional model, is actually much harder to pull off than you think. I met a man called April at our church once. I was glad he came to tell you the truth, but unfortunately he didn’t stick. April is a cross dresser and an extremely bad one at that. When you looked up close, the makeup failed to cover the whiskers, the clothes were ill fitting and unsuitable, the hair ragged. It goes to show that it’s a lot harder for a man to look like a woman than you would at first think. And it’s a lot harder for a church to attract the world than we are led to believe by watching Hillsong DVD’s.

Could we maybe call it a day at trying to push the attractional model’s envelope any further and possibly think about some other paradigms?

The Attractional Church Part II

PR and BS

I recently watched a doco about the infamous Monty Python comedy team and they showed a great clip from “The Life of Brian” where Brian is “preaching” (aka begging the crowd to leave him alone) and was telling the people that they were all unique. In unison they all shouted “YES!” except for one old fellow who said “I’m not”. Which I find very funny. Maybe you need to have seen it or appreciate British humor, but there’s such a sweet irony in that little vignette.

It’s amazing how “crowd control” or the use of PR (public relations, aka propaganda) can be used to produce a strong pressure to conform in a church situation. I used to employ it all the time, but I hated it. I did it for the “right” reasons, but in hindsight, the means didn’t justify the ends.

I’ve wanted to write about this, but needed the time to think it through. I saw a status update some time ago on the Facebook wall of a young pastor who was re-posting something that he attributed to a tweet from Brian Houston, pastor of Hillsong Church in Australia. I haven’t checked his source, so it’s just hearsay, but it essentially said this; “Opinions don’t build the house, wisdom builds the house”. Instantly I was piqued at this comment, because I knew where it was coming from but didn’t have the organized ideas to express why I could smell a rat.

But after going to church on Sunday, I’ve organized my thoughts. It’s about producing conformity – we sell it as unity, but it’s no more than a strategy used by pastors for crowd control, and to apply pressure to a group of people to behave and think in certain ways that will ultimately help you achieve your goals. The motives were pure, the method’s weren’t.

You see, the moment you say “opinions don’t build the house, wisdom does”, it enables you to write off anything that is contradictory to your paradigm, philosophy, strategy, vision, values, and culture as an “opinion” and label anything that reinforces your modus operandi as “wisdom”. It’s really clever. You pump this stuff out subversively and within a few minutes you’ll have the majority censoring the minority with “wisdom” versus “opinion” judgments. Non conformists after all and viewed darkly as threats to “unity” without which God will not command the blessing.

The reason I was able to organize my thoughts was because of going to church on Sunday. The senior pastor who replaced me was relating how exciting his week was in the preamble before the giving and mentioned that someone had come up and said they wanted to give a thousand dollars to the church. Another had approached him and asked where they could serve in the church. He attributed these conversations to the work of the Holy Spirit and summarized by saying that if the Holy Spirit is moving in your life, you’ll get involved. I have no problem with this… except that if you look through this prism the other way, you end up with the idea that if you’re not involved, the Holy Spirit is not moving in your life.

I used to drop these kinds of statements in all the time. It was a way of communicating to people very subtly and cleverly a kind of group-think that reinforced certain ideas and behaviors designed to achieve some ulterior purpose.

But if it was for freedom that Christ has set us free, maybe we shouldn’t let ourselves be enslaved by PR, or worse propaganda, or even worse… BS.