Hillsong and the Baptism of Pop-Culture

Recently GQ published a well written article titled “What Would Cool Jesus Do?” The article chronicled Taffy Brodesser-Akner as she shadowed Justin Bieber and Carl Lentz (pastor).

Read it here> http://www.gq.com/story/inside-hillsong-church-of-justin-bieber-kevin-durant

The cresendo of the piece is the emotional whirlwind baptism of the Biebs. Justin has a genuine conversion experience when he gets on his knees and he cries, “I want to know JesuBaptismofpopcultures”.

The moment of conversion I found endearing and authentic. My critique of the themes in this article are not with “Did Justin Bieber get saved?”, “Are people at Hillsong type churches Christian’s?”. This is a realm I don’t want to tread on, as I’ve seen God’s spirit show up in the stodgiest of places and the most progressive of places. I’m no judge of what happened in the heart of young Bieber.

The logical knee-jerk argument often tossed about whenever one critiques a church like Hillsong is “but God is using them”. I’m not interested in the ‘ends justify the means’ type of conversation. We too often emphasize the most obvious, pragmatic cultural signs of success. Albert Einstein said, “That which counts is often the most difficult to count.” I’ve found this to be true. Our location in a post-industrial, Western, efficiency-economy has influenced our framework for ministry.

We are conditioned to think in terms of verifiable stock-market type results, seeing churches like machines.

We tweak this program and adjust that presentation, add some marketing, throw in a great personality, crunch the numbers; an “if you do this, you get that” mentality. I’d rather confront our contemporary assumptions about what it means to be the church.

The grief that welled up for me as I moved through the article has to do with the larger landscape this story situates in. I don’t question the sincerity of Pastor Lentz and crew. I’m not tossing suspicion that behind closed doors the leaders of Hillsong NYC are monsters or money mongers.  As one who has been employed in settings similar to Hillsong, often leaders in these environments are passionate, sincere, and are fueled by faith convictions.

The grief I feel is the larger phenomenon that erodes the nervous system of the Church and its ensuing consequences on fan boys and fan girls.

I’ve attended two Hillsong worship gatherings now. I’ll tell you what, it’s hard not to feel something. The sheer sensory overload is inescapable. The crowds, the wall of sound, the precise communication and the ridiculously good looking people gracing the stage… gosh I felt cooler just being there.

Attending Hillsong tells you something about what is unconsciously drawing thousands of people to these events every week.

I believe the fear of the ordinary is what is rallying young adults into the vortex of hipster versions of this uber cool church construction. Many of us have a nervous anxiety about our personal impact on the world, experiencing an inner apocalypse around what it means to matter in our social stratosphere. This anxiety disfigures how we personally measure our footprint and I contend that Hillsong’s presentation-culture mirrors this paranoia. Hillsong’s self-exaltation is what “the people want” because it’s what they crave in their own personal lives.

In my humble opinion, Hillsong merely mimics the terrorized ego that causes us to be utterly afraid of being ordinary.

Hillsong is anything but ordinary and it’s attendees want to be anything but ordinary. No matter what is said from the stage the packaging screams extra-ordinary to the world. Hillsong is designed as a spectator event. Everyone expects the people on stage to perform while they watch the spotlighted musicians deliver their well-rehearsed presentations. The gravitational pull, the attractive force, the sensational veneer is what makes its mark, let’s be honest, without it there is no Hillsong, its what keeps people addicted to event-culture. The people in the pews know they pale in comparison to the dynamic personalities holding the microphones. The medium is louder than the message.

The medium is “the experience” which establishes a consumer oriented relationship.

The product is so good, so sexy, so moving, so refined that this covertly becomes the magnet. Consumerism tricks us into believing that we will find deeper meaning by imbibing something that makes us feel, feel something, feel profoundly. Through consumption, we search for meaning.

On the surface what we consume appears to move us deeply but it has very little transformational qualities, let alone discipleship qualities. In the long run it mitigates discipleship because on a weekly basis we’re already receiving the sensational return we’re looking for.

We must rebel against being mesmerized by what is sensational. The Apostle Paul shares his own resistance to being sensational when he says to the church in Corinth “You’ll remember, friends, that when I first came to you to declare the testimony of God’s work, I did not try to impress you with polished speeches and eloquence. I deliberately kept it plain: who Jesus is and what he did—Jesus crucified. I came to you in weakness, feeling inadequate; if you want the truth of it I was unimpressive…” (1 Cor 1:1–4 msg)

A church like Hillsong might in theory agree with that passage but in practice not so much. We are panic stricken by the prospect of being boring and unimpressive. We are clawing, reaching for any quantifiable sensation that something special is happening.

We are frightened of being ordinary, even claustrophobic by the mundane.

Yet it’s in the mundane that God’s Kingdom is most present, beckoning us to listen and look beyond the most obvious noise. Hillsong is not a collision with the messy, raw, minimalistic, clumsy people of God portrayed in the letters of the Apostle Paul.

What is profound when it comes to the vitality of the 1st Century church is its minimalism; it’s stripped down quality, leaning on the ordinary essentials. At places like Hillsong I’m not sure they’re acutely aware to how buildings, budgets, bands and big personalities can easily crowd out the DNA of the 1st Century Church.

As a whole, commitment to an ordinary community of Jesus-followers, committed to the genuine discipleship path of Jesus is traded for commitment to a sensational faith brand.

A Hillsong worship service is an escape into an out-of-this-world polished experience, convenient for consumption that offers a scrumptious emotional surge.

The Desert Father’s called this the demon of Acedia – that raging desire to escape from the ordinary. Acedia was described as a state of listlessness, leading to a state of being unable to place value on what is embarrassingly ordinary. The demon of Acedia holds an important place in early monastic psychology. The Desert Father John Cassian observed this heart sickness that would come over monks who lived dwelling on an “ideal” all day. It made them have increasing disdain and reduced commitment to the everyday discipleship with their brethren. I’ll say it again…we’re frightened of ordinariness.

I felt the tragedy of young Bieber’s career; caught in a world of vanity, perfection, personality branding and constant performance while the ecclesiology (the structure of being the church) he inhabits unintentionally baptizes many of the same values.

Alan Wolfe, political science professor at Boston College, describes this cool church movement best when he writes, “American faith has met American culture—and American culture has triumphed.”

Pop-culture places the anxious “self” at the center of existence.

Our cultural language focuses on the self. How can I feel better about me? How can my career advance? How do I appear to others? I’ve listened to a few Hillsong messages, so it might not be an exhaustive sample but even though “Jesus” is preached, preoccupation with the self is still cozy at the center, driving the subconscious environment. Many are squirming under the weight of apprehending and self-generating a preferred image.

The Prosperity Gospel marketed to Millennials is not cars and money, it’s the fulfillment of personal aspirations.

Evangelicals have a deeply neurotic relationship with  popular culture and the celebrity world. We’ve elevated these cultures so much that we can’t imagine the church making an impact without leveraging them.

What does sensational packaging do to the substance of belief, and what does embracing celebrity culture do to the product of discipleship?

17 thoughts on “Hillsong and the Baptism of Pop-Culture

  1. Great, great article!! I agreed entirely.. This type of church is fast food, we enjoy it first, we feel the pleasure, but with time the “lack of real nutritions” makes us feel empty and sick.. And it’s in this moment that many end up losing their faith.. A Faith based in sensations is a weak faith, because feelings are weak and futile.
    This is why I like Pope Francis, although all the crazy sh*t from Catholic Church, he’s been bringing the simple and minimal back to Christianity..

  2. In reading your article again, I’m wrestling with what I think maybe an healthy tension: yes, God is in the ordinary and mundane, but we are also called to be “co-laborers” with Christ being a channel of transformation for our world. Is it good to aspire to be a hero?

    1. Good question David.

      If we are talking about aspiring to be a “hero” within the framework of the modern imagination I would say it’s unhealthy. To be a Hero in the popular sense is to be exalted over and above our peers, a chasing after affirmation.

      In my opinion, to be a Hero in the biblical sense is to be faithful to the ordinary mission God has called us to and allow God to exalt us in his due time because of cultivated humility.

      Most of my article is poking at the manufacturing, and twisting and turning to make our self’s significant and how this only perpetuates more inner anxiety.


  3. Hey Dan!

    I appreciate your thoughts concerning this topic! I am also a little thrown off sometimes by the performance character some church services seem to adopt, because it might distract people from the creator. However, don’t you think that they are just sincere Christians who are doing their best when it comes to represent the church? (You mentioned, that you don’t question that they are genuine believers)
    I would like to know, how you would want Hillsong or churches like it to change so that they will more look like the church God intends it to be…I mean when you are a good producer, why don’t you worship God by making the church services an amazing experience with all the talents God has given you? or should the band focus less on making he songs tight and maybe have arrangement that are more “free to change” wherever the Spirit leads? Isn’t the creativity in this service a great way to display the creator?
    I really like your article, just whenever I have attended a very well produced church service I was overwhelmed by the effort people would put into a nice church service simply because they want to give Him their best.
    So if you could change something, how would you practically change a Hillsong service?

    I would love to hear your thoughts on that!
    Thank You!

    1. Hi Phillip,
      I too am impressed by the amount of work that goes into an excellent worship presentation yet I’m not sure “the experience” was ever intended to be the focus or highlight of the church. When I read the narrative of the New Testament I don’t see excessive performance as the witness of the church, I think that is an American mental construct. I do value the Sunday worship gathering but community, mission and discipleship are what marked the 1st Century Church. You might appreciate reading some other things I’ve written on this topic> http://danwhitejr.com/2014/03/missional-minimalism.html

      I also wrote a book dealing with this topic> http://wipfandstock.com/subterranean.html

      I do think there is a difference between giving our best and capitulating to the excessive nature of our culture. Additionally the Apostle Paul does talk about self-restraint in assembly to worship in 1 Peter, 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy.


  4. Thanks for a thought provoking article. I was encouraged by your introductory statement when you affirmed God’s ability to work in a variety of environments and inferred that you would not judge. It was disconcerting that the article immediately followed with a sharp criticism of Hillsong’s methodology. I am equally troubled by the lure of “entertainment worship” and the bent toward criticism toward anything in the christian community that is done with excellence.

    Serving as a leader in a church with a significant number of gifted artists (Orlando has a ton of them), I am grateful that the church provides an outlet for their gifting. Musicians, vocalists, lighting and technical experts find a place to use their talents and abilities as an expression of worship to the Lord.

    Your are correct that God is often found in the mundane. We must not ignore the truth that every sunrise also reveals that He is also God of the spectacular. The magnificence can be found in all of His creation, including mankind.

    The Hillsong expression of worship may not be your preferred genre, and it certainly can be skewed to something profoundly unhealthy. But the “stodgiest” of church expression is often skewed into something profoundly unhealthy as well. The truest determining of ministry health is found well beyond the methodology in presentation. We must look at the outcome of discipleship, outreach, etc.

    My prayer is that the church continues, with it’s diverse ministry palette, to provide a point of connection for the entire spectrum of the great mission field. There is more than enough room for Hillsong alongside the more reserved and traditional worship expression.

  5. Dan, a helpful reflection! In the end what may be most misleading and damaging about Hillsong is what is similarly damaging in the wider church – the professionalization of ministry. Without intention, professional ministry marginalizes the “ordinary” believer. We not longer have the courage to exercise our “ordinary” gift of – speaking, teaching, singing, leading, counseling, compassion – because we have seen what a professional can do. And so in the simple act of professional ministry we disempower God’s people, with all the implications of restricting the ordinary activity of the Spirit to the 5%.

  6. Why is it considered a prerequisite to be culturally sensitive and relevant when we send missionaries to Africa or Asia or wherever, but the same does not apply on home soil in the US of A. Maybe using culture is using a tool, a method a means to an end and not an end in itself to reach a person that can only be met when their cultural language is spoken. Without that cultural paradigm the unreached would not have a frame of reference to receive the message that is intended. I have to disclose that I have never attended a Hillsong event and I am not a fan of their music style. I have listened to several of their CDs and watched a church service or two on TV but it does not speak to me in a way that deeply moves or touches my heart. Not that it is bad, it is just not my preference. So, I am not writing this in defence of Hillsong but rather as a question to the premise of the article as it pertains to reaching an American cultured young person who dazzled and razzled by the incredible machinery of their country’s entertainment industry. Maybe Hillsong using a culture cloaked message will touch them and move them to a place of salvation that another cultured message will not. After all, every church, denomination or event has a culture that they feel is most relevant to the people they are hoping to minister to.

  7. There is nothing wrong with doing our best in anything and that includes worship. Where I see a great problem and therefore agree with the author’s position is that the Congregation which technically is the Church is in a state of apathy. If the church was engaging for Christ in all Christ has mandated then the worship would probably be legitimized by being in a state of giving not just receiving. The church is the people of God and the people of God have been ordained by Him to be ministers for God. This begins with making Jesus Lord of our lives; not as a cliche, but in a real sense. The church (members) who serve God through obedience and in truth have the right to worship however the Spirit leads them. All that to say its really not about Sunday morning, it’s about serving God all week long through obedience to His requirements, i.e. love God, love others, evangelize, disciple, serve those in need such as orphans and widows, be His ambassadors etc.. etc.., then we will be prepared to worship Him together as Church. Jesus came to save us, but He also provided us a great example of how to follow Him. We follow the one that washed the feet of others, the servant of all, the God of heaven and earth.

  8. Thank you for a great article. I hope more people will consider these thoughts. I have long been aware of youth meetings especially, and now in larger church, of the medium overpowering the message. And I wonder how many people remember the emotional impact of the worship, but find the preaching less impactful. p.s. I’m 74 !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *