Hillsong brings religion to a new generation

It is not yet 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, but already two long lines of people trail down 34th Street from the Manhattan Center building in New York City. They chat amongst themselves while a corps of volunteers passes out cookies and coffee, welcoming everyone and making small talk. Many of the people in line are young professionals or students, but a few middle-aged adults also mingle among the crowd. Ethnically speaking, the group assembled here is a model of diversity. There are blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians, people from as close by as New York University and as far away as Denmark. Suddenly the doors open, and everyone shuffles inside. We ascend seven flights of stairs and emerge into a large ballroom, where the crowd fans out to find seats.

After the long wait outside, the sensory experience of the ballroom is overwhelming. An empty stage bathed in colored light commands the room from one end. Music blares from the speakers, and the pulsing bass throbs in my chest and mixes with the din from a crowd that now numbers well over 1,000 people. Giant video screens flank the stage on either side, featuring clips of young people dancing, skateboarding and surfing, along with messages like “He is using us all.” That’s He with a capital “h,” also known as God. Until I read that, I almost forgot I was going to church.

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The crowd around me at the Manhattan Center has come to worship, and this is their Sunday service. This is Hillsong. The church has made a name for itself by packing auditoriums around the world with young urban worshipers and, through its record label, Hillsong Music Australia, creating a music empire that spans the globe.

Like any great empire, however, Hillsong had humble beginnings. It started in Australia with Bobbie and Brian Houston, who founded the church in 1983 as a Pentecostal Sunday night outreach with 45 members. Seven years later, however, their congregation had grown enough to fill a large concert hall, and by 1999 the church was holding conferences in the Sydney Opera House. Meanwhile, its reach expanded far beyond Australia, and satellite churches opened in cities like London, Paris and eventually New York and Los Angeles.

It is no accident that the Sunday services at Hillsong New York bear a strong resemblance to a night out at the club. The church has won hearts and minds—and made a fortune—from its music. At the Manhattan Center ballroom, I find my seat on the balcony overlooking the stage just as the house band starts to play. The crowd rises to its feet and sings along, hands raised, voices joined in unison. The lyrics are projected onto a screen above the band, but nobody seems to need any hints. After about a half hour of music, the pastor of Hillsong Copenhagen, a guest for this weekend, strides onstage to deliver a sermon. His speaking style is engaging and fluid, and he talks to the crowd as if they are a group of friends lounging in his living room. He expounds on the importance of having a relationship with Jesus, as opposed to following the dogmatic strictures of organized religion—ideas that are key tenets in Hillsong’s brand of Christianity.

The reactions of those around me vary. A few people thumb through Facebook on their phones; most listen attentively. Daniel, a young culinary student from Dallas, scribbles notes in a small notebook, hanging on the pastor’s every word. The feel-good vibes continue during the group activity after the sermon, which involves hugging your neighbor. After an exhortation to sign up for next year’s three-day Hillsong conference—individual tickets go for $179—and another song, the service ends, and I join the crowd filing back down the stairs. As we burst into the autumn sunlight, I’m surprised to see 34th Street looks exactly as I left it: two long lines of people fill the sidewalk, attended by volunteers with cookies and coffee, already waiting for the next service.

Searching for Zion

Long before he ever set foot inside one of its services, José Matos got his first taste of Hillsong from a CD. I meet Mr. Matos in a cafe on the campus of Fordham University in New York, from which he graduated in May. Tall with tanned skin and short, wiry black hair, he moved to the city from Venezuela to attend school. He grew up as a Protestant in what he calls “a very religious family” and went to Catholic schools. He also grew up with Hillsong’s music. Despite being thousands of miles away from the closest Hillsong outpost, easy access to its music gave Matos an introduction to the church. “I actually knew a lot about them,” he says.

Hillsong United is the church’s main group. Their last album, 2013’s critically acclaimed “Zion,” ranks as their biggest success so far. It went gold in Australia and hit the number one spot on the U.S. Billboard Christian chart. The album’s sound is expansive yet comfortably mid-tempo, and it supports lyrics that center around finding hope and strength in God. Growing up, Mr. Matos developed a deep appreciation for the positive messages in United’s music. “At any point in my life, any situation, every day I can just listen to it,” he says, adding that it gives him the “strength” he needs to overcome life’s challenges.

José Matos is not alone—Hillsong has mastered the practice of gaining followers though its music. Its record label releases music for three other groups besides United, and it has also put out albums featuring the most popular Hillsong tracks sung in nine different languages. It is difficult to overstate the influence this music wields. Michael Paulson writes in a recent New York Times article that Hillsong’s bands “pervade the Christian charts and have transformed the Christian songbook.” To date, Hillsong has sold more than 16 million albums globally. According to its 2012 annual report, over 25 million people sing the church’s songs in services around the world each week. Their concerts are a big draw as well. Last winter United headlined the Winter Jam Tour through the United States, where thousands of fans filled stadiums normally reserved for Beyoncé or professional sports teams.

The inside of a Hillsong church is a clear reflection of the marketing savvy that turned the Houstons’ quaint Sunday outreach into a global empire. Ed Stetzer, author of multiple books on modern Christianity and a pastor himself, notes that “in sensory stimulation, Hillsong’s productions rival any other contemporary form of entertainment.” If Christian values are what’s most important for the church, production values are a very close second.

A Different Scale

When José Matos moved to New York, a friend of his brought him to his first Hillsong service, and he attended services there 10 more times over the next year and a half. The intensity of the experience impressed him on his first visit. Recalling his initial reactions, he notes that the style of worship at Hillsong was “very enthusiastic, very passionate” and that the music was “the most attractive thing” about the service. “That is one of the reasons I really like Hillsong,” he says.

Placing the church in a wider religious context helps shed light on what exactly makes Hillsong so unusual. Philip Francis is a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York; he specializes in the relationship between religion and aesthetics, including music. By creating audiovisual feasts for Sunday worship and marketing its music around the globe, Hillsong has gained a great deal of attention in the past few years. Professor Francis, however, argues that the church’s aesthetics spring from traditional Pentecostalism, where music has always been central to worship. “It’s not categorically different from other Pentecostal traditions,” he says. “I think it’s just on a different scale.”

But it’s the kind of people Hillsong attracts that really makes the church unique. Its satellite outposts are thriving in major Western cities, locales with a notoriously harsh climate for religion. A 2012 WIN-Gallup poll reported a “notable decline across the globe in self-description as being religious.” Take France, for example, where Hillsong operates two churches: 34 percent of French respondents identified as not religious, and well over a quarter identified as convinced atheists. Since 2005, average religiosity across surveyed countries has dropped 9 percent. The trend is even stronger in Australia, Hillsong’s home turf. In his overview of the church, Stetzer points out that nearly one in three Australians do not identify with a religion.

“Having 30,000 people on a weekend in Dallas is noteworthy,” he writes. “Having 30,000 people in Australia was inconceivable—until Hillsong.”

A Personal Connection

Unearthing the source of Hillsong’s widespread appeal requires deeper sleuthing. Professor Francis says that Pentecostalism may hold a particular attraction for young Western urbanites. In his view, the key factor is that Pentecostalism is “more visceral, more emotional” than other religious traditions. Whereas the Catholic services I grew up with focused on tradition and ritual, Pentecostal churches emphasize feeling the power of the Holy Spirit and showing it through outward signs of religious ecstasy, like singing and speaking in tongues. For Pentecostals, the goal is to cultivate a fervent personal love for Jesus. “And if I was going to say that there was one reason that it’s so powerfully spread, I would say it’s that,” Professor Francis says.

Pentecostalism’s focus on a personal connection with the divine may appeal specifically to millennials, who live in an interconnected world thanks to smartphones and social media. Even as secularism increases in many places around the globe, Pentecostalism might even have the power to win over atheists, who sometimes are included among the larger category of the nones, people who mark “none” as their religious affiliation on surveys. “This kind of movement can appeal to the ‘nones’ in that it’s a little counter to that [secular] trend within a generation,” Professor Francis says.

Evangelical religions like Pentecostalism also have a strong appeal for some Catholics. According to a Pew Forum poll in 2011, about half of all those who have left the Catholic Church later joined a Protestant church, and of those, most joined an evangelical church. Seventy-four percent of those who joined evangelical churches say they felt “called by God” to do so. Their motives for switching are highly personal—they sought a distinct relationship between themselves and God, a relationship they felt they could not fully pursue in a Catholic Church. In an evangelical church, however, that relationship takes on new levels of importance.

For Matos and others who have made Hillsong a part of their lives, all this is true to varying degrees. In their words, however, the appeal boils down to the message. Like the lyrics in its music, the themes in Hillsong’s services are straightforward but compelling: the redeeming power of Jesus’ love and finding strength in God. The theology here is pretty “vanilla”; what is important is that it is tailored to Hillsong’s unique audience. Speaking about the church’s success in The Christian Post, Hillsong’s New York pastor, Carl Lentz, remarks: “‘I think the way that Hillsong does worship is appealing to people. And the way we teach the practicality of this Gospel is helpful to people.’” For him and the other Hillsong pastors, making the Gospel practical means applying it directly to the lives of their flocks. At Hillsong services, congregants hear how Jesus understands their lives and the problems they face—the breakup, the lost job, the cancer diagnosis—and are given Bible interpretations to prove it. The direct, personal approach has caught the attention of millennials and more than a few adults worldwide.

“They base their message on the Bible, of course,” Matos says. “They just try to break out the points according to what the Bible says, but put it in a way that all people can understand it.”

“The messages are very relevant,” says a regular at Hillsong. She appreciates the way Lentz connects faith to the lives of his flock. “He talks about things that everyone can relate to.”

Its relevance is perhaps Hillsong’s most striking aspect, and its most important lesson for the Catholic Church. Even amid the afterglow of the Second Vatican Council and the dynamism of Pope Francis, the church has a long way to go before it can meet millennials on their terms. But Hillsong has found a winning formula. By making faith personal and palatable, it has gained a following that is large, young and growing.

A Real Presence

The sky has long been dark outside the cafe where Matos and I are chatting, and we sit now amid empty tables. Our conversation has turned to his own faith, which he explains to me between bites of pizza. He seems to have taken the Hillsong message to heart: God has a very real presence in his life. He prays frequently and notes that “at least once a day” he takes time to “really think about God.” I press him for more detail, and his eyes light up as if he were describing a prized possession. Matos explains how his faith provides him with comfort, hope and a way of relieving stress. He takes another bite of pizza and pauses, deep in thought. Then, he looks at me and sums up his faith life very simply, in a way that would make any pastor proud: “I just leave it all to God.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, the statement that Pentecostalism may hold a particular attraction for young Western urbanites was incorrectly attributed to Pope Francis. It should have been attributed to Philip Francis, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
John Wotherspoon
2 years 1 month ago
Hillsong is very controversial in Australia. Google "Hillsong court cases"

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