Lights. Camera(s). Action. Coloured light sweeps the stage, the drum kicks into gear, the first guitar lick penetrates the already electric atmosphere in the auditorium. I’ve walked into a pop rock concert, right down to the cheering, the mosh, the stage backdrop, and – later – fans taking selfies with singer Taya Smith.

It’s a show, a very impressive one, smoothly executed from start to finish. So this is what the hype is all about.

There’s a line in one of the new Young & Free songs that goes: “I couldn’t imagine why/I would do this all for hype.” It makes me cringe because I’m certain a bunch of the kids in the mosh are there for the hype.

And maybe the spectacle is all I would have seen if I’d attended a regular Sunday service. But thanks to the Hillsong Leadership Network Open House, I got to see more – the show and the machine behind it, unmasked and revealed to us mere mortals.

2015-11-18 Hillsong Open House

“Do you know Hillsong?” is the first question I get asked by Latino Christians. Yep, questions about Hillsong Church outnumber questions about boxing kangaroos and cuddly koalas. Given their massive reputation, I was always a little shy about admitting I’d never been to a Hillsong church or event; I felt positively unAustralian and unChristian.

Just last week, Hillsong launched their church in Buenos Aires with four packed services, attended by thousands of believers, including some from overseas. The Argentina branch joins churches in Barcelona, Johannesburg, London, Moscow, New York and Paris to name just a few, which bear the Hillsong brand though they are not directly run by Hillsong. Then there’s the various “campuses” and “extensions” across Australia. The Hillsong brand is a juggernaut that spins millions of dollars a year and attracts tens of thousands of people to its conferences and events.

Secular Australian media seems to harp on about Hillsong’s finances being questionable although I didn’t hear a single trace of the prosperity gospel in the three sermons delivered or in any other part of the Open House. It’s the music Hillsong is truly famous for: their songs are known and loved everywhere, translated into and sung in several different languages; Hillsong’s bands tour the world; their music videos receive millions of views on YouTube. The production values are top class.

2015-11-20 10.30.20

During the two-day Open House, someone asked about Hillsong’s excellence and how they achieve and maintain that. It’s a fair point: what they do, they make sure they do well. Everything looks great and sounds great.

What some might criticise as being a focus on the superficial is, I believe, actually the opposite: it’s a commitment to quality, even in the detail. In that sense, production matters. Excellence glorifies and honours God – it’s the least He deserves. We can’t dress up a half-baked effort as humility, claiming that even our two mites bring Him glory – no, not when we have far more than two mites to give.

In the workshops, which covered topics from MC-ing to community outreach to video production, you can see a professional and business mindset in the way Hillsong does things. I don’t mean “business” in a capitalist or any negative sense – I mean they try to do things in the best possible way to get the best possible result. They’re committed to improving their methods and output.

In the senior leadership “C-Team” meeting held live before the audience and in the dissection/analysis of a worship service, the team showed us how they steer the Hillsong ship. What stands out is how it’s all very intentional whilst maintaining a level of flexibility to allow service leaders to tune in to and follow the Spirit (and the “vibe”).

The leadership and the staff know what they’re doing, where they’re going and who they’re doing it for.

2015-11-17 Hillsong Open House
This photo courtesy of Eliu Chea.

Now, I could critique the minutiae of what I saw of Hillsong. Such as Brian Houston’s frustratingly Kiwi accent and cockiness. Such as the older guy who engaged in positive heckling all the way through one of the sermons. Such as the fact that the worship song called The Transfiguration kinda refers more to the incarnation of Jesus (don’t take my word for it, they explain the lyrics here).

This points to a more serious issue about Bible teaching. When it comes to preaching, Brian is an accomplished speaker and his messages and arguments are both clear and legitimate – what bothers me is the way he cherry-picks Bible verses (often out of context) to fit his argument, rather than drawing an argument from Scripture. As to Hillsong’s experiential model of church, I’m undecided – that’s an ongoing debate for me.

Overall, the Open House was an effective way to simultaneously dispel and reinforce the myth around Hillsong and to encourage other churches by showing us how Hillsong does it. I learned a few things (thanks to their Creative team, I’m now on Pinterest!) and that was the point – to learn from them for our own context, not to try to be the next Hillsong.

I left Baulkham Hills with lots of productive questions about how we do church. I also left with the clear impression that Hillsong is a church that does much for the Kingdom, despite its flaws; a church that values and invests in people, achieving a degree of authenticity even through all the glamour and the hype.

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