A new documentary from Discovery+ promises to "expose" the Hillsong megachurch. But as a regular attender of a Hillsong Church in the UK, Jonty Langley finds much of the criticism to be foreign
It’s only fair, I guess. The Catholics have been getting all the stick for a really long time (or at least since the heyday of Protestant televangelists). It’s our turn.
A new documentary is taking aim at Hillsong, seemingly accusing the international megachurch brand of “cool” shallowness, abuse, cultishness and (no exaggeration) a thirst for world domination. Hillsong’s new(ish) lead pastor suggests the documentary is more attack piece than balanced journalism. I think the truth is a little more complicated. And localised.
Cards on the table: I go to a Hillsong church. I can’t be unbiased here. But my experience of Hillsong has been so positive, I find the picture painted by the trailer utterly foreign. Maybe I’ve been lucky. I’m not in leadership, not behind the curtain or backstage. I can only speak to my limited perspective and positive experience. Maybe my small local branch (or Hillsong UK) is different. Or maybe Hillsong has some awful people in it, like most global organisations.
The accusation that Hillsong is “cool church” is fair I guess. There’s an effort to eliminate cringe and meet potential seekers where they are in terms of what they might be used to. It can feel like a show at times, but I quite like shows. A show with opportunities to pray, learn, worship and see people come to Christ sounds like a good time to me. I hear all the time about how mission overseas needs to be contextual, to respect and integrate with local culture. To me, that’s what Hillsong does here.
Is it “cool”? Not to me. I’m a Goth at heart, so it all feels pretty vanilla. But that’s fine. I don’t need my specific aesthetic to be catered for. I need to worship and pray and hear God’s word. I need opportunities to be part of what God is doing through his people. I get that at my Hillsong.
It can feel like a show at times, but I quite like shows
I also get an experience with higher production values than I have seen at other churches. Is that the most important thing? No. Is it helpful to me as an easily distracted Comms professional? Yes it is.
And let’s be clear: song words on screen often stray from where the worship leader is, microphones come on a bit late, preachers lose their place and videos fail to play, just like they do in your church. But the aim is clearly a more professional presentation with good music, mood lighting and high production values. I like that, in the same way that I liked the ropey organ music in my old high Anglican church, because it signified that the focus here was liturgy, structure and contemplation.
Call me a hippie pluralist, but I think churches can have different styles and all still be seeking after God.
Not a cult
There are limits, of course, to what is good and holy and helpful. The suggestion that Hillsong is a cult seems pretty serious to me, because so much religion seeks to control and conform people, often in abusive ways. Have Australian and American branches of Hillsong promoted cultish cultures? Have leaders here overstepped? Quite possibly. They’re churches. Every church has that potential if it teaches that faith is about our whole life and not just Sunday services. Every church that seeks to create a community and support network of believers can easily fall prey to bullying personalities. But it hasn’t been my experience. I can’t even find a home group! (Not a criticism, Hillsong – just a sign that this is hardly a well-oiled and sinister manipulation machine.) And considering that my intellectual activist Christian friends always raise their eyebrows at Hillsong because they think the teaching is weak, that seems hard to square with a culture of mind control.
In fact, that’s one of my Hillsong’s strengths. Diversity. Ethnic, age, class and theology seem broadly represented in the people I see and meet there as well as the up-front leadership. As a far-Left immigrant with a lip-ring and painted fingernails, I can say I’ve never felt the pressure to fit in.
Does that mean Hillsong is perfect? No. My good experience doesn’t negate survivors’ awful ones. Abuses have taken place and should be answered for. Cover-ups in the name of forgiveness are never okay. God wants honest, servant leaders, not princelings and pursuers of power – and he hates abuse of the vulnerable. So there is a need in Hillsong for repentance. As there is in every denomination and organisation of size.
It’s naïve to write off every criticism in these documentaries as “the attacks of the enemy”. But it’s equally naïve to pretend that successful, slick and popular expressions of faith won’t be natural targets for those who dislike religion. Our job is to interrogate our churches and keep them honest, safe and humble. The rest can be left to Hollywood.