For my birthday weekend last year I was lucky enough to be in Melbourne visiting my family. They had arranged to fly me down and take me out to dinner at some fancy place in the CBD on the Sunday evening.
As all good Melburnians do, we caught the tram into the city from my parents ‘cosy’ manse residence in West Preston. After disembarking the tram we had a short walk through the heart of the city to our destination, where we would be meeting my brother. By pure chance we happened to walk past the Melbourne branch of the Hillsong franchise, who were gearing up for what looked like some sort of worship concert. There was a red carpet out the front to guide the herd inwards, a ‘selfie wall’ complete with logos of corporate sponsors, and generally just a bunch of young and beautiful people hanging around in what I perceived as eager excitement.
My Dad, wry fella that he is, smiled at me and asked if I would like to cancel the dinner and head on in to the concert, or service, or whatever it was. Imagining nothing worse, I replied that I was more than content with the current arrangement, and in any case I was definitely not young or attractive enough to get past security. We soldiered on to the restaurant and enjoyed some mighty fine Pinot Noir instead, leaving a tad drunk on a non-biblical spirit.
Now, my aversion to Hillsong on this occasion was purely aesthetic. Having declined the offer to attend the meeting and listen to B. Houston’s finest pontificate about whatever issue of the day was on the agenda, all I could confidently say was that- based on external appearances- the soiree was certainly not to my taste when it comes to Church services. Yet because my disdain was quick and aesthetic only, it can and should be interpreted as an individual opinion. Clearly there are loads of people who think differently, and who am I to elevate my tastes above the choices of others?
The real danger of the Hillsong phenomena, however, has less to do with the way it presents itself visually and aurally and far more to do with its theological emphases, with which I take most serious umbrage. The fact that Hillsong attracts the ire of the media fairly frequently due to the huge amount of tax free money it makes is but a symptom of a ‘theology’ (if I can use such a lofty word) that appears to find justification in certain parts of Scripture. It is a theology that believes living a certain way means that God has some weird obligation to bless us materially and financially. Brian Houston’s You Need More Money and wife Bobbi’s ‘I’ll Have What She’s Having’ should give you a hint as to what kind of theological ‘teaching’ you might expect to hear at a Hillsong do (i.e. none). As such, it is a theology of extreme ‘immanence,’ in which the language of Christianity is co-opted to give spiritual legitimacy to what is little more than a glorified form of life coaching and personal development. In such dogmas, God is overly concerned with ‘us’ in our own little world in the here and now (immanence), and as such what matters most is one’s own individual experience of God and life. Faith in this context is considered a response to God that will enable a better life, or even just a sense of individual purpose and hope. That the vast majority of Scripture is testament to the fact that God owes us nothing by way of the material is a reality that has apparently been overlooked in this school of thought. When millions of the worlds citizens live in war-torn zones and abject poverty, we can hardly interpret the theologically ‘justified’ pursuit of money and personal success as anything less than obscene. In the life and teachings of Jesus we of course have the ultimate challenge to the value we place on the material. Jesus’ emphasis on extolling both the value and inevitability of poverty and suffering for genuine faith remain as counter-cultural now as they did in the first century, and are clearly anathema to the likes of the Houston’s.
Consumerism masquerading as some sort of Christian theology is a familiar and not particularly new idea, as the history of American tele-evangelists demonstrates. It can take many forms, but broadly speaking it has come to be known as prosperity theology, and in the long term it is a disastrous but inevitable development In Christian history. Defenders of the Hillsong guide to living often tell me that countless young people have ‘found God’ through their activities, or that young people at Hillsong are ‘so passionate’ about their faith. Or they may say that given its ongoing success it must surely be doing something right. I am sure this is all true enough. Yet these same people also candidly speak of the ‘revolving door’ of Hillsong, for as many people it attracts it also churns out, as the ‘system’ of it inevitably fails in the face of a complex and difficult world. These people leave dismayed, and are often never seen or heard from again. Their expectations of who God is and what God does crumble in the face of this cruel deception.
We need to remember that passion and emotion in themselves are not faith, and that ‘becoming a Christian’ is not a single event, but is actually part of an ongoing life of struggle and transformation that has zero guarantees for success in this life. Hillsong actually works against faith development by both mistaking it’s own cultural practices as normative Christian behaviour, and (more significantly), perpetuating the silly idea that God’s primary concern is your happiness. Whatever Hillsong is, it is most certainly not a Church. Instead of propping up this spiritual shopping mall, save yourself a Sunday morning and go to a Cafe. At least it will have better music.