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Hillsong: an American view

(Is this the first time the doyen of American ‘public theologians’ has commented on something emanating from DownUnder?)


Monday | Sept 15 2014



“Hillsong.” Never heard of Hillsong, the Australian Pentecostal megachurch? Readers of the New York Times have no excuse to be in the dark, thanks to the (Sept. 9) headlined story, “Megachurch with a Beat Lures a Young Flock.”

The Times’ main religion reporter, Michael Paulson, by concentrating on Hillsong Los Angeles, Hillsong’s first church-plant on the West Coast, gave a glimpse of the now world-wide initiative. Anything which attracts young people, “millennials” and all, to religion of any sort is likely to draw attention, given the easy-to-gain perception that the numbers who are serious about religion are declining in Western Europe and North America.

It’s too soon to assess the odds on the potential expansion, survival, and durability of Hillsong. Will it have its hour and then wane, as did “Mainline and Catholic Charismatic Movements,” “Jesus People,” and the like? Or will it live up to its promise, its pledges, and its advertisements?

In its favor is the fact that it is connected with Pentecostal/charismatic movements in Africa, Asia, etc., where these movements are prominent. Paulson’s Times article (see “Sources”) describes it as a “megachurch powered by a recording label that dominates Christian contemporary music.” Hillsong, he writes, “has become a phenomenon.”

That “up” contrasts with Hillsong’s “downs” noted in the Paulson piece: “Washington: Closings and Layoffs for Megachurch” and “A Brash Style that Filled Pews, Until Followers Had Their Fill.” There’s also the drastic come-down of Mark Driscoll, inventor of a once-prospering Seattle church-empire, or “Archbishop, Under Fire Over Abuse, Apologizes but Says He Won’t Resign,” in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

More positive, to those who favor these subjects: “U.S. Religious Leaders Embrace Cause of Immigrant Children,” or “Pastor Led Son’s Gay Wedding, Revealing Fault Line in [United Methodist] Church.” Follow the links in Paulson’s piece for more details.

My point: this Jesus-centered explosion would be classified as “Evangelical,” as opposed to “Catholic” or “Mainline.” But if Evangelical ever meant “conservative,” forget it, in these trends and terms. Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research observes, “In sensory stimulation, Hillsong’s productions rival any other contemporary form of entertainment.”

Paulson reports that this “hipster Christianity” is thin on theology and thick on enthusiasm for celebrities (Justin Bieber, etc.). He quotes R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who judges that Hillsong’s distinction is its “minimization of the actual content of the Gospel, and a far more diffuse presentation of spirituality.” Yet attention must be paid. How can it not?

Stetzer reminds us that “Evangelicals have been a rural people historically, and that the cities were the places where sin was.” Yet Hillsong is in love with cities. In more and more of them, on several continents, the “spiritually anointed” gather in former ballrooms and night clubs, and deal with long lines of young and youngish people attracted to these forms of worship
There is some change within the church founded by Australians Brian Houston and his wife Bobbie. Some observers have seen a few Hillsong positions moderating a bit after their early-on disapproval of abortion and gay sex. Leaders may be responsive to theological and social critiques from left and right alike. But for the moment, Brian Houston says, they are busy being “strategic,” and are making headlines.

As for me, I’ll join Stetzer and others in listening and observing—from a safe distance.


Paulson, Michael. “Megachurch With a Beat Lures a Young Flock.” New York Times, September 9, 2014, U.S. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/10/us/hillsong-megachurch-with-a-beat-lures-a-young-flock.html.

“Michael Paulson.” New York Times biography. Accessed September 14, 2014. http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/p/michael_paulson/index.html.


Chaves, Mark, Shawna Anderson and Jason Byassee. “American Congregations at the Beginning of the 21st Century.” 2006-07 Duke University National Congregations Study. Accessed September 14, 2014. http://www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/Docs/NCSII_report_final.pdf.

Image: Hillsong Sydney, Australia, Thursday night Praise and Worship
Image Credit: James Kirsop / Compfight creative commons

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit http://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings-archive.
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.


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