Hillsong – An Australasian Perspective

Australia has a very interesting Christian landscape. Mainline churches including Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and Uniting Church (formed in 1977 out of Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregational Churches) are in radical decline. Integrating Pacific Islanders, Koreans, Sudanese, and other groups is a major concern to the Australian church as well as supporting Aboriginal ministries. In South Australia where I am involved in a three-month consultation, there are currently 286 Uniting Churches. Some project that within five to seven years one-third of the Uniting Church congregations in South Australia will close. These are great people and very responsive, but the age demographic weighs heavily toward those seventy and above in many congregations. After more time here, I’ll reflect more on this experience.

An Introduction to Hillsong

One cannot escape the influence of Australia’s largest congregation Hillsong when traveling in the urban centers of eastern Asia. In 2004, I spent two weeks in residence in the Hillsong congregations in downtown Sydney and the nearby suburb, Parramatta. As in all congregations that I visit, especially overseas, I ask similar questions – a few are listed just for starters:

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Justin Bieber attends a week-long Hillsong Conference in Sydney in 2015
  • How does music function in the congregation’s worship?
  • What is the balance between the congregation’s singing and the designated musical leadership?
  • What do the songs say about the theology of the congregation?
  • How does the music reflect the mission of the congregation?

I can’t answer all of these questions here, but will attempt to offer an Australasian perspective.

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Hillsong founding pastor           Brain Houston

Hillsong is Pentecostal megachurch with its roots in Sydney and is affiliated with the Assemblies of God branch of the Australian Christian Churches. The congregation has several sites on the eastern coast of Australia and, more recently has added a campus in Darwin, Northern Territory. In addition, the Hillsong Family Churches include over 25 sites around the world in various locations in Europe, South America, North America, South Africa, and Mumbai, India. The Hillsong website http://hillsong.com/ invites all to join them at various locations in South Africa, New York City, France, Stockholm, Germany, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Moscow, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, and Phoenix. The congregation was founded in 1983 by New Zealanders, Brian and Bobbie Houston. Like Willow Creek, near Chicago, their structure is are based on small groups of 10-20 that offer fellowship and nurture.

Internationally, Hillsong’s chief export, and perhaps the primary ecclesial export from Australia, is its music and musicians. To get a handle on the significance of Hillsong in Australia and Asia, perhaps a few facts might be helpful:

Know Your Hillsong Quiz

  1. Multiple Choice

Which of the following contemporary Christian composers are published through Hillsong Music Publishing (extra credit for all of the artists you recognize from the list below):

Geoff Bullock
Karl Cashwell
Matt Crocker
Joel Davies
Ben Fielding
Russell Fragar
Hannah Hobbs
Joel Houston
Aodhán King
Brooke Fraser Ligertwood
Scott Ligertwood
Salomon Ligthelm
Ruben Morgan
Jonas Myrin
Marty Sampson
Dean Ussher
Darlene Zschech

For the answer to #1, go to the following link: 10.1 Answer 1

  1. Short Answer

Who followed Darlene Zschech as worship pastor of Hillsong?

For the answer to #2, go to the following link10.2 Answer 2

  1. Multiple Choice

Of the top 100 songs according to CCLI Australia listing (as of May 23, 2016), how many are Hillsong related composers?

  1. 10 of 100
  2. 20 of 100
  3. 25 of 100
  4. 35 of 100
  5. 40 of 100

For the answer to #3, go to the following link: 10.3 Answer 3

Asian Connections

Many congregations have been influenced by Hillsong even though they are not a part of the Hillsong Family Churches. You can find these in places like Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Indonesia, to name a few. During a 2015 tour of the lead band Hillsong United to Asia, they made stops in Manila, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and Seoul.  Some brief reflections on this tour may be seen at the site: Hillsong United Asian Tour https://hillsong.com/collected/blog/2015/05/the-asia-tour-diaries/#.V0Ku05N940o. I think you will find the short videos interesting – catchy, but perhaps more about cultural stereotyping than mission.

I am dividing my observations between three kinds of congregations: a Hillsong affiliated congregation (New Creation), a Hillsong influenced congregation (City Harvest), and a Hillsong Family Church (Jakarta Praise Community Church). While each congregation takes on its own character, perhaps one can gain insight into Hillsong and its influence by getting a glimpse of these congregations.Let’s begin in Singapore.

New Creation (Singapore)

Two large Pentecostal megachurches dominate the landscape in Singapore. The first is

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Pastor Joseph Prince

New Creation http://www.newcreation.org.sg/ under the leadership of Pastor Joseph Prince. While not listed as an official Hillsong Family Congregation, New Creation was a part of the Hillsong United Asian Tour in 2015 and the congregation hosted a Hillsong Conference with Pastor Prince as the featured speaker. Thousands attend each weekend. My experience with this congregation is that it is a neo-Pentecostal congregation with some speaking in tongues and healing rituals. The band was quite professional, though in my experience, they did not generate the same energy as Hillsong United did in Sydney or Parramatta.See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31hyMw5dSDU for a video of the band from New Creation.

During one service in 2011, communion was observed. All received a small plastic container at the door that held both the grape juice and the small wafer. Following the healing service (led by Pastor Prince electronically via a video from an earlier service rather than in person), the Lord’s Supper was observed. While the Words of Institution were on the screen, they were not spoken. Pastor Prince held the wafer and said, “If you eat this bread and truly believe, you will be healed.” Then he followed, “If you drink this cup and truly believe, you will be blessed.” – certainly an interesting variation on the historic understanding of sacramental practice.

At the conclusion of the service, the offering was taken. It was at this point that I understood more clearly what it meant to be “blessed.” A testimony was given via a high production video from a man who appeared to be in his mid-30s.

He noted that he was an architect with his brother. While not explicitly stated, one had the impression that he was affiliated with New Creation. He explained that as a new architectural firm, he and has brother had a difficult time getting contracts. They decided to tithe with the hope that God would bless them. Within a few months they were blessed when they received a contract for the world’s largest swimming pool. This pool spans three 55-story towers on Singapore’s harbor front and has become the signature architectural structure of Singapore – perhaps comparable to the Sydney Opera House on its harbor. Those three buildings over which the pool spans comprise a controversial casino complex.

IMG_3648
World’s largest swimming pool spans three 55-story casino hotels in Singapore harbor.

City Harvest Church (Singapore)

The second Singapore congregation is City Harvest Church (CHC) http://www.chc.org.sg/. The website states that CHC holds 14 worship services each weekend, and hosts more than 500 cell groups and five additional fellowships in Singapore. In addition, they send missionaries to numerous cities (82 in 2012) and provide a School of Theology with “49 branch and affiliate ministries as well as 2 Bible schools globally.” In this regard, they are similar to Hillsong who also is involved in educational enterprises. However, the connection to Hillsong, while not directly apparent on the City Harvest website as it is with New Creation, has a very similar feel and style of worship.

sun-ho-and-kong-hee
Pastors Ho Yeow Sun and Kong He

CHC was pastored until recently by Kong Hee who has been charged along with five other church officers of misusing approximately SGD$ 50,000,000 (approximately US$36,000,000). These funds were used to support the solo performance career of Kong Hee’s wife, Ho Yeow Sun. The appeal before the Singapore Court will take place between September 19 and 24, 2016. See http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/city-harvest-case-appeal-hearings-set-for-september-before-a-three-judge-panel. Ho Yeow Sun has assumed leadership of the congregation. For a 2009 controversial YouTube of Sun Ho (Ho Yeow Sun) in her attempt to break into the rock scene, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GgxsfODXrI.  This video cost millions and is probably not appropriate for church (!). To see Sun Ho lead music at CHC, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QOc1z57bVHA.

Once again, in my visits (2007, 2011), the bands have been very professional and the media of a very high caliber. In my first visit, communion was observed. The 8,500 persons received the plastic cup/wafer unit, the Apostles’ Creed was spoken (in place of the Great Thanksgiving), the elements consumed, and the empty containers taken up – all within five minutes! However, it took approximately twenty minutes to prepare for the offering. Several testimonies were given (via video) of persons who had been blessed. I recall the final plea before the offering quite clearly. After alluding to the ATM machines in the foyer, Kong Hee stated, “God loves credit cards.”

In 2011, I recall that the practice of speaking in tongues briefly (60-90 seconds) took place two or three times in the service. Furthermore, I found one statement that revealed much about Kong Hee’s use of scripture. He listed his top ten biblical passages. All were from the Old Testament except one, and it was from Hebrews making reference to the Old Testament.

Jakarta Praise Community Church (Indonesia)

See the lead photo for a recent image from the Jakarta Praise Community Church, April 24, 2016.

In April of this year, I attended Jakarta Praise Community Church (JPCC) http://www.jpcc.org/en/index.html. This congregation was founded in 1996 and is listed as one of the Hillsong Family Churches. Jakarta proper is a city of 10,000,000 people, but the larger metropolitan area has estimates as high as 27,000,000. This is one of quite a number of congregations in this city that meets in a mall. Because of the extreme traffic congestion in Jakarta, more than 100 multi-storied malls are a part of the landscape. Travel by automobile is very time consuming. Thus each mall contains not only all of the shopping one would need, but many include a hotel, multi-storied condominiums, and a church. The malls are glad to have the church because it generates business. The churches are glad to be in the mall because parking, always at a premium in Jakarta, is available.

JPCC Kasablanka Mall Site. Pastors Angela and Jeffrey Rachmat

JPCC’s worship space holds at least 3,000. Outside the space is a coffee shop and store with books, CDs, videos, and other church-related items. Young people line up an hour in advance for the two Sunday services at 10:30 AM and 3:30 PM in the mall – Upperroom Jakarta. Another site, The Kasablanka – has three services. Thanks to one of my former sacred music student, Budi Taniwan, MSM ’12, I was able to avoid the lines and was taken to front-row seating and, later in the service, welcomed by the associate pastor from the stage. (Asian hospitality is extremely gracious even if I would like to remain anonymous at times.) Like the Singapore settings, the band was well prepared and sang in both English and Bahasa Indonesia. Unlike the Singapore congregations, they did not appear to be a neo-Pentecostal congregation and no offering was taken. Receptacles were provided at the door as people left. The sermon was focused on practical living tips with little scripture used. It was well presented and geared for the predominately under-30 crowd.

For a brief video taken on my iPhone, see the following. The quality is not the best, but it reflects the energy of the band: .

Concluding Observations

Hillsong, the Hillsong Family Churches, Hillsong affiliated, and  Hillsong influenced congregations are a global phenomenon. Since my initial study of the Sydney and Parramatta congregations in 2004, I would make a few observations.

  • Musical styles change quickly. Between the Geoff Bullock years (1987-1995), the arrival of Darlene Zschech (1996-2007), and the formation of Hillsong United with Reuben Morgan a worship pastor beginning 2008, one will find three distinct musical and leadership styles within a twenty-year period. Compared to mainline USA congregations, this is a lot of musical change!
  • Since my 2004 observations, the number of Hillsong composers has multiplied and some of the earlier Hillsong United leaders have moved from Australia to lead other congregations: Reuben Morgan to London and Joel Houston to NYC. Joel also serves as the “Creative Director for Hillsong Church globally.” Marty Sampson, a Hillsong United mainstay, continues with the Sydney congregation where he has been for over 20 years.
  • Hillsong United, the premier band, has become a global phenomenon and has had several world tours including Africa, Asia, Europe, and the USA. Key personnel have changed since my introduction to Hillsong United in 2004, but they are still one of the premier worship bands in the world.
  • Hillsong received some criticism for their “vertical” focus in worship between the worshipper and God. They have responded to this lack of attention to ministry to human need by aligning themselves with Compassion, an organization devoted to children’s poverty: https://hillsong.com/bwc/compassion/.
  • Hillsong has had a significant impact on congregational song within Australia as is evidenced by Hillsong composers contributing at least 35 of the top 100 songs according to CCLI Australia charts. However, it is interesting to note that during my current visit to Australia, musicians and pastors from the Uniting Church, one of the largest Protestant groups in Australia, are distancing themselves from Hillsong music to some degree. When asked about worship services, several echoed the refrain, “we have a contemporary service, but don’t sing just Hillsong music.”

The purpose of this blog has been to present a basic orientation to Hillsong and its influence, especially in Asia. I am not offering a critique or a major introduction to the Hillsong Church per se, but attempting to provide a snapshot of the Hillsong phenomenon. As someone who observes worship in a number of cultural settings in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, my purpose has been to glimpse the ecclesial foundations of this congregation and a few representative case studies within Asia. It is not complete by any means. However, we can say that Hillsong’s outreach around the world is significant. Most Hillsong compositions appear in several European and Scandinavian languages as well as Korean. Worshippers in many areas of Asia commonly sing in English while sermons are in a local language. Just as the missionaries of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries spread the gospel around the world, especially using the Gospel Song genre, Hillsong uses Contemporary Christian sounds to spread the Word. Some may call this the latest form of missionary cultural imperialism. Others see it as a movement of the Holy Spirit. Regardless of one’s perspective, I think that we can agree, however, that Darlene Zschech’s “Shout to the Lord” has truly been heard worldwide.

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