Megachurch With a Beat Lures Young Flock
The Hillsong church has become a phenomenon, capitalizing on and even shaping trends in evangelicalism and Christian youth culture. Hillsong’s worship style is charismatic, emphasizing the Holy Spirit and divine healing, although there is little of the speaking in tongues seen at more conventional Pentecostal churches. The Australian Pentecostal megachurch is spreading worldwide to establish its first outpost on America’s West Coast.
In the United States, Hillsong is nondenominational; in Australia, it is associated with the Australian Christian Churches, which is an affiliate of the Assemblies of God. Hillsong has churches in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Cape Town, Copenhagen, Kiev, London, New York, Paris, and Stockholm, in addition to multiple campuses in Australia and now an emerging congregation in Los Angeles.
Hillsong was founded by Brian Houston and his wife, Bobbie 30 years ago. For a time, Mr. Houston, now senior pastor of the Sydney-based empire, was the head of the denomination. In 2000, he fired his father, Frank Houston, who was serving at another church, after the elder Mr. Houston acknowledged having abused a boy decades earlier.
The Hillsong empire, with its multimillion-dollar enterprise that draws large crowds to arena concert performances, might appear to be a musical force first and a church second. Its richly orchestrated music, with its simple harmonies and catchy lyrics, has evolved over time and often has been viewed as “spiritually anointed.” This successful recording label dominates Christian contemporary music and gives Hillsong a vast reach—by some estimates, 100,000 people in the pews each weekend, 10 million followers on social media, and 16 million albums sold, with its songs popping up in churches from Uzbekistan to Papua New Guinea. “They are without a doubt the most influential producers of worship music in Christendom,” said Fred Markert, a Colorado-based leader of Youth With a Mission, a Christian organization.
But Hillsong’s many critics scorn the megachurch as hipster Christianity. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, characterizes Hillsong with “a minimization of the actual content of the Gospel, and a far more diffuse presentation of spirituality.” Hillsong has critics from the right and the left who monitor speakers at its conferences and utterances by its leaders for deviations from Christian orthodoxy to evidence of social conservatism. Australian news media have scrutinized its finances, and a critical blog tracks its preaching. And this year, Mr. Houston issued a clarification after being criticized by other evangelicals for suggesting that Christians and Muslims serve the same God.
The organization’s target is young Christians in big cities, and it has become a magnet where it has churches. Hillsong chooses cities both for their population density and for their impact on culture. Said Brian Houston, “We want to be strategic, and really impact cities of influence, so that the influence can reach far beyond.” (The New York Times, 9/9/14) [IT 6.1 2015]