Wednesday, 21 Aug 2019

A church with rock concerts and 2m followers

As Christian churches throughout the US face widespread decline, one church is bucking the trend. But is Hillsong a triumph of marketing or faith?

If someone were to choreograph an ideal concert audience, it would look something like this.

Everyone has their hands up and everyone is swaying. The opening bars of each song are met with a roar of frenzied recognition. For the few who don’t already know them by heart, the lyrics beam down from massive screens flanking the stage.

The songs sound expertly engineered to elicit an emotional reaction. The melodies rise, fall, then rise again like a more dramatic version of Mumford and Sons. The band, Hillsong United, had sold out the Anthem, among Washington’s favourite venues.

The collective style of the 10 members on stage is mirrored by their audience: skinny jeans, over-sized T-shirts and tattoos. This uniformity makes the fans look less like a crowd and more like a congregation.

There are a few hints that the members of Hillsong are not your average rockstars, different to a musician like Billie Eilish, who took the same stage just days before.

First, there is no alcohol being sold anywhere in the venue. Any related branding has been hidden. Second, there are volunteers in blue vests slowly circling the concert floor, seeking donations for a Christian ministry group. And third, there is a massive CGI recreation of Jesus Christ on the cross, beamed up above the stage.

This isn’t just a concert, this is church.

Celebrity following

The band, Hillsong United, is a vital limb of Hillsong Church. Founded by husband and wife duo Brian and Bobbie Houston in Sydney, Australia, in 1983, the ministry has expanded into a global Evangelical phenomenon.

It spans six continents and claims churches in 23 cities. Every Sunday, an average of 130,000 worshippers will attend a Hillsong service somewhere around the world.

Hillsong’s congregation now boasts a celebrity following: Justin Bieber and his wife, Hailey Baldwin Bieber, are famed members. NBA players Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have been known to seek guidance from Hillsong New York’s head pastor, Carl Lentz. Chris Pratt, Kylie Jenner and Kourtney Kardashian have also been tied to the church.

Hillsong declined repeated requests for an interview.

“They are one massively impactful ministry right now,” says Mack Brock, who opened for Hillsong during its North American tour this year, after more than a decade as a worship leader at Elevation, a megachurch based in North Carolina.

Hillsong calls itself a “contemporary” Christian church, “on a mission to see God’s kingdom established across the earth”. This mission is being manifested in its ministry and its sprawling brand. Hillsong lays claim to two colleges (one in Sydney and one in Phoenix, Arizona), annual conferences, a 24-hour TV channel, community service initiatives and a music label.

Of these, Hillsong United is arguably the most visible and, certainly, the most accessible to the mainstream.

The band has more than 2 million followers on Instagram, with an additional 1.5 million combined from its 10 members. Their songs have almost 3.5 million weekly listens on Spotify. Their followers nearly double that of the platform’s Top Christian channel.

Its most popular song to date, Oceans, has been played more than 155 million times on Spotify alone. For context, that is more than twice the plays than Billie Eilish’s recent collaboration with Justin Bieber.

2 millionfollowers on Instagram

3.5 millionweekly listens on Spotify

155 millionSpotify plays of the band's hit single

The tie between Christianity and rock music is not new, but the expanse of Hillsong’s reach may be. The North America leg of its People tour included stops in more than 30 cities in the US and Canada. In November, they will take on Latin America, covering Brazil, Argentina and Peru.

Hillsong is “on the forefront of church music” Brock says. “They’re the ones that I think do it best.”

The meteoric rise of Hillsong, in all its various forms, is particularly striking given persistent declines in religiosity worldwide. For years, the Christian share of the US population has fallen, paralleled by an increase in those who do not identify with any religion at all.

Over a period of seven years – 2007 to 2014 – the percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christian dropped by almost eight percentage points. This drop is most pronounced among young people, a demographic that is especially enthralled by Hillsong.


‘I’m going to cry my eyes out’

At the Anthem, the line to enter formed about an hour before the doors to the venue opened, more than two before anyone started singing.

“We’ve waited our whole lives to see them” says Danielle Caputo, 27, as she waited to see the band in July. “On earth, it’s the easiest way to see God’s love in person.” Her friend, Kristin Maghamez adds: “Hillsong concerts are a place where you can truly worship.”

Most of the people I spoke to answered with some version of this: Hillsong’s music is an embodiment of their faith, and their concerts are a chance to share in it with others. “You feel like sometimes there’s nobody with our views,” Maghamez says. “[Christianity] is almost looked down upon.”

Many intimated a visceral connection to Hillsong or, as Caputo put it: “I’m going to cry my eyes out.” And there were plenty of tears, especially when Hillsong, the band, leaned more toward Hillsong, the church.

“God’s been doing something,” says lead singer Joel Houston – son of Bobbie and Brian – to the crowd, resting his hands on his guitar. “I believe there’s not one person here by accident.” “I believe God is going to meet you where you’re at.”

This notion – of meeting followers where they are – is central to Hillsong’s mission, and to its appeal.

Hillsong is located squarely in the thoroughfare of the young and hip. Hillsong’s band sells out arenas, its church services fill Manhattan’s Hammerstein Ballroom, its pastors sit courtside at NBA games.

Brock and other followers interviewed reject the idea that Hillsong’s designer aesthetic is either a deliberate choice on the part of its leaders, or a calculated marketing scheme. But to an outsider, Hillsong’s initial appeal lies in the visuals. Its brand looks and feels like your cool friend on Instagram.

“They’re relevant,” says Joe Adevai, who attended Hillsong College in Sydney before becoming a worship leader in New Jersey. “They’re keeping up with the culture,” he said. “How do you stay cool and be a Christian?”

‘We do not affirm a gay lifestyle’

Whatever the packaging, Hillsong is, fundamentally, a religious institution. More specifically, it is an Evangelical church, one that sees the Bible as “accurate, authoritative, and applicable to our everyday lives”.

To some, this presents an inherent contradiction: a church marketed widely, with contemporary branding, that remains decidedly conservative.

Josh Canfield knows this tension intimately. He first joined Hillsong in 2008, soon becoming a vocalist on their worship team. Compared to the church of his youth, Hillsong seemed “edgy”.

When Canfield, who is gay, joined Hillsong, he was still grappling with his sexuality in the context of his faith. While his parents’ church was explicit in its stance – homosexuality is a sin – Hillsong was less transparent.

“It did feel like a “don’t ask don’t tell” kind of situation,” Canfield says. “No one is going to ask, because no one wants to ask.”

Sermons were resolutely positive, Canfield tells me, calling upon congregants to love the marginalised, immigrants and the poor. “But it does seem like they just forget about the LGBTQ group,” he says.

In 2014, Canfield appeared on the reality show Survivor, speaking openly about his sexuality and his role at Hillsong. Canfield had told leadership at Hillsong New York of his plans, who “gave the go-ahead”.

But after episodes began to air and Canfield’s storyline gained media attention, head pastor Brian Houston publicly “clarified” Hillsong’s stance on homosexuality.

In a blog post on Hillsong’s website called Do I Love Gay People, Houston wrote that “God’s word is clear” on homosexuality.

“Hillsong Church welcomes ALL people but does not affirm all lifestyles,” he said. “Put clearly, we do not affirm a gay lifestyle and because of this we do not knowingly have actively gay people in positions of leadership, either paid or unpaid.”

Canfield was asked to step down from his position with the vocalist team. After a series of private meetings with New York’s head pastor, Carl Lentz, Canfield decided to leave the church.

“My problem is not that Hillsong believes that homosexuality is a sin, that is their prerogative to have that belief,” he says. “But the problem is they’re not being completely open about their beliefs because they don’t want those people to leave… is that lying? In religious terms, is that a sin of omission?”

The semantic two-step in Houston’s statement is a common refrain among Hillsong congregants: the church welcomes all people, but does not condone all “lifestyles”. They prefer to talk about what they are for rather than what they are against, turning to some version of “love the sinner, not the sin”.

“I think the Bible calls it out as a sin,” Caputo says to me of gay marriage, a few weeks after the concert. “I don’t think it’s wrong to say that, but it needs to follow up with: God will love you anyway.”

Steven Paulikas, a priest at All Saints Episcopal Church in Brooklyn and a doctoral student at Oxford’s school of theology, argues there is a cost to this type of nuance.

“If a church says that it’s welcoming in one part of its way of being, but explicitly says it’s not welcoming in another place – those things are irreconcilable,” he says. “And one thing trumps the other.”

Paulikas did not comment specifically on Hillsong, but spoke about churches in general that include all people, but not all parts of them.

“That form of bait and switch is a type of spiritual violence,” Paulikas says. “As a queer person… it’s profoundly disturbing.”

‘Evangelism or marketing?’

On the surface, Paulikas’ steepled church lacks some of the star power claimed by Hillsong. And though he says that his own congregation has grown in recent years, he acknowledges the institutional slide hurting others like it.

“We see our numbers declining and it is very distressing,” he says. Looking at churches like Hillsong, “there are feelings of envy because our institutions are by and large losing people”.

Paulikas and his colleagues talk about ways to expand their circles of faith – something Hillsong has mastered – “to an obsessive extent”. But he objects to the “success” of a church being measured in relation to its fan following. The shine associated with Hillsong is of no interest to him.

“I see that as a distraction,” he says. “Is that Evangelism or is that marketing?”

Moral teaching is strongest when it is removed from earthly markers of success like wealth and popularity, he continued.

After leaving Hillsong, Canfield has turned to a smaller congregation, one without the celebrity of Hillsong.

“When the cameras aren’t there, and no one is interviewing you, that’s where most true Christianity resides,” he says.

But he is still defensive of his former church.

“You walk into Hillsong and it’s cool and it’s dark and there are lights going and there are all these people around you who are your age who are smiling and talking,” Canfield says. “And then the music starts and it washes over you… the noise of outside gets cancelled out.”

“The music is so beautiful and uplifting and it makes you feel better,” he continued. “I don’t think there’s anything in the Bible that says we can’t feel good.”

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