Hill$ong & the Thinking Theologian
By Phillip Powell
The Thinking Theologian (http://thethinkingtheologian.blogspot.com/) temporarily retired from “the public arena in order to revise and restructure his musings into a more formal dissertation.”
CWM notes with pleasure that he has returned with some most thought provoking “blogs” about a number of things. We commend him and recommend that our readers regularly visit his site and participate where possible. As promised in CETF # 49 Volume 15. 3 (September 2009, page 16) we now re-publish parts 4 to 6 on the Hillsong scenario. There is some more up to date stuff on Hill$ong so you can anticipate a sequel to this in the new year.Also try your own searches on CWM website @ http://www.christian-witness.org/search.html Try Brian and Frank Houston and/or Barney Coombes or Danny Gugglielmucci etc
At the heart of Hillsong... (Part IV)
Mega-churches, particularly in the United States, boast church membership of tens- of-thousands. The accompanying television broadcasts attract even more. But the mega-church phenomenon begs the question: Can such a huge group of people legitimately be called 'church'?
Employing nothing more than logic and common sense, let's break down the church's purpose: what it provides for the individual believer and, of equal importance, what a believer provides for the wider church body (get buildings out of your head for a moment, if you can).
The church is Jesus' body, His physical presence on the earth. As such, its purpose is identical to that of Jesus' own, spreading the gospel. Now, to this end, Jesus' followers are eager to develop themselves spiritually and form an ever-closer relationship with Him. In order to do this, they need to keep themselves 'fed' by God's Word, and in communion with other believers. This is no doubt what the traditional church service aimed at achieving.So, Bible study and fellowship, leading to closer relationship with Jesus, which enables us to spread the gospel, is vital.
Now, for argument's sake, let's go to the extreme and take the building and accompanying facilities out of the equation altogether. We have a group of people with nowhere to meet for a church service. Or do we? Most of this group have homes, surely? These would suffice as a meeting place, albeit on a smaller scale.
Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in My name, there I am in the midst of them”. He didn't mention anything about flashing lights, or huge cinema screens. All this set-up breeds is performance-seeking attendees. A Christian who won't go to church unless it's “cool” and got “good music” is hardly a Christian at all, in the true sense of the word.
So, although the altar (or floor-in-front-of- the-platform) may well be “full of repentant sinners”, one has to ask what it is they're being “saved” to.Let's look again at our simplified purpose, which I'll condense to
and 3) apostleship.
It is possible (though often difficult, and in some cases not achieved at all) for fellowship to happen at a mega-church. Members of small groups sit together during the sermon, and go out for coffee afterward, for example.
There's certainly more opportunity to serve at a mega-church, because there's so much to do in order for a service to take place. But let's not confuse servant-hood and discipleship. Disciple means follower (of Jesus Christ, not Brian Houston incidentally!) Now obviously servant-hood is a natural outcome of discipleship, but it is possible to serve without following. True discipleship is achieved at the personal level, and thus far better encouraged amongst as small a group of people as practical.
”Apostleship” relates to the mission of spreading the good news. The word means, “to be sent out”. About the most you can do as a member of a mega-church is invite people to church. From there they may make a commitment, and possibly join a small group. But there's a watering-down that takes place as friends of Christians come to church, get saved, invite their friends etc. The goal is less “discipleship”, and more “church-building”. People grow less concerned with following Jesus than being part of the mega-church
So, fellowship is achieved predominantly through small groups, negating the need for, and certainly effectiveness of, mega- church on this point. Discipleship, as well, is fostered far better through intimate friendship circles. The mega-church model skims these foundational aspects of the Christian's walk, and focuses instead on a pseudo-apostleship; the goal of which is to grow the church in number, however shallow that crowd's faith is.
At the heart of Hillsong... (Part V)
Quite a large part of the mega-church worldview comprises a performance mentality, which basically believes that a good church attracts people, and in order to attract people you need to put on a good show for them. Hillsong is a perfect example of this, and Brian has made it clear on numerous occasions that they put most of their effort into the weekend services.
Praise and Worship
There has been more and more emphasis placed on praise and worship over the last few years, perhaps directly attributable to the rise in prominence of popular music in our society generally. But whereas praise and worship traditionally involved a few hymns before the sermon, in the more contemporary church it is moving further and further toward the centre of the church service. Hillsong's praise and worship has become their signature, and it is a veritable industry. Much of their income is made through sale of praise and worship “resource”.Music touches people emotionally. But when does music become emotional manipulation?
Worship leaders talk about “creating an atmosphere” (using the analogy of Genesis, where we see God create an atmosphere, then fill it. This, we are told, is now our role: we are to create an atmosphere, and He will fill it). Although the link to scripture here is just nonsense, this is nevertheless what the worship teams are mandated to do: create an atmosphere. But what does this mean?
The wrongful use of the scripture just mentioned conjures romantic ideas of the creative process, once initiated by God, now to be carried on by His servants. But what has that got to do with anything? What's really being worshipped in this case is creative talent, not God as creator. As for “atmosphere”, I am sure that all this means, is to heighten the emotional state of the congregation in order to open them up to the ideas preached from the platform (including that incessant tithe-talk!)
Hillsong sermons (and, I suspect, those of similar mega-churches) are nothing but motivational seminars, and the revered pastor little more than a self-help guru or life coach. (Interestingly, I know of many pastors who do life coaching on the side).
The trend seems to be to take a scripture verse, and link it in some tenuous way to an idea that you want to talk about. Once this shaky foundation is established, and the topic has taken hold in the minds of the audience, the message continues, entirely Bible-free, and yet unquestioned by its hearers. By way of an example, I remember Brian preaching at a staff retreat a few years ago, from a scripture about “as the fathers, so the sons” (I don't even remember where it was from!)
The scripture wasn't expounded, and in fact was totally irrelevant to the message (or, more importantly, the message was irrelevant to the scripture). The scripture's only use, was as a catch-phrase. And this is often the basis of sermons and books by Brian and others like him.Another trend seems to be to define a word's meaning, perhaps by contrasting it to a synonym (one that begins the same letter (alliteration) is always good!) and then extolling the virtues of the former, and deprecating the latter. Anyone who's sat through a Connect Group study will be able to relate to this dichotomous use of language. But what's wrong with that?
Surely we need to be on the same page if we're to appreciate the sermon's content? True, but my point is that there is no sermon content! All there is, is an introduction to an ideal – defined by one word, and contrasted with another – which the listener is encouraged to uphold.And in this way, nifty quips and one-liners become “holy writ” and, by and large, replace the true gospel.
For example, “You'll never come second place by putting God first” (Brian Houston) may be an alluring piece of rhetoric, but my Bible tells me something quite different. Jesus Himself (oh, tough choice I know; Brian or Jesus!) said that to follow Him would bring persecution. I wonder if Brian had been preaching in the third century to Christians being marginalised, tortured, and horrifically murdered, whether he'd use such glib expressions. I imagine the martyrs peering down from on high every Sunday morning, shaking their heads at these pathetic crowd-pleasers. (
Of course they don't for the Bible teaches they are at rest, not taken up with our silly games.)The emphasis on church as a performance or event, has gently drawn people away from what Christianity's truly all about (a relationship with God), and replaced it with a lifestyle “choice”. Rather than being “in Christ”, people are content simply to be “in church”, and they are persuaded that this is all there is, or even that these are one and the same thing.Hillsong pays lip service to Christ the Saviour and to His Church; but it points to Brian Houston the entrepreneur, and exemplifies commercialism.
At the heart of Hillsong... (Part VI)
Besides the performance mentality and all its associated mass-marketing, there are deeper issues which spring out of the Hillsong world-view. I have touched on the church service, and discussed the sloppy theology inherent in sermons and worship; now let's have a look at the foundational beliefs behind this malpractice.
If anyone questions the appropriateness of trends or methods, or even events; they are likely to be told: “church has to be relevant”. Do we really need to reduce our worship to a rock concert? Must we have black-light dance parties after youth services? The answer is always the same: “Relevance”.On the face of it, being relevant seems all well and good, but what does it actually mean? To hold an event at a nightclub (Hillsong London!) in the interests of being relevant to today's youth culture is a questionable application of a term that has not been adequately defined. Where is the qualification? The church can become more and more relevant until there is no distinction between it and the world.Perhaps the church should be relevant to the world only insofar as paracetamol is relevant to a headache?
I remember sitting in a night rally at Hillsong Conference a few years ago, reflecting (yes, my capacity for free-thought was not entirely quenched!) on this ideal of leadership. And it occurred to me that there's a glaring inconsistency there.We're implored to practise our “God-given authority” and “take a stand”, or to “invest in yourself” by purchasing the preacher's latest and greatest product – uh, I mean, “resource”.
But wait a minute… if we live according to all these sermons and books, all we've really achieved (apart from lining the preacher's pocket) is becoming more like Brian (for instance). We may even one day become a popular preacher too. But what then? We inspire others to become like us? But this is just recreating leadership and influence. These things are means to an end, perhaps; but certainly not the end in themselves.Leadership is only worth something if it leads people somewhere. If you're only leading people into leadership, then your purpose is circular and not meaningful in any way at all.
And the outcome is a group of people more concerned with being leaders than with simply being Christians. Perhaps there is even a sense in which people become “Christians” (“make a commitment” as they say) only in order to climb the ladder of leadership?Ego is an ugly thing. But in the Church, it's a life-destroying virus.
I should say here that I don't think Hillsong church is strictly a cult. But there are staff and other members of the church who are undoubtedly cult followers. They hold to Brian's teachings unquestioningly and unswervingly. They'd defend the teachings, and Brian himself, to the bone. One could place the responsibility of such cultish behaviour solely on the followers in question, but their behaviour is condoned, even encouraged, by the leadership –
some of whom are also cultish in their follow- ship, and expect the same level of devotedness from their underlings.I've talked a bit about this “cult of personality” in my reflections on the Michael Guglielmucci case, so won't go on anymore here. Suffice it to say that the true Church is a gathering of believers, not the following of a personality or celebrity.