Hillsong and The End of Evangelicalism

Hillsong Patheos Carl Lentz Andy Gill

Mid-October of 1949 William Hearst, then publisher of the LA Times infamously gave a two-word directive to “Puff Graham.” The front-page article of Billy Graham instantaneously catapulted him into a celebrity like status. Graham went from tent revivals to stadium filled “crusades.” He took advantage of radio and television to become the first notable televangelist. He dined with celebrities, highly publicizing his interactions and conversions of these celebrities. Not only did Billy open up his own movie studio in Hollywood but he managed to earn a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame for his ability to market Christianity.[1]

This is, arguably, the birth of evangelicalism.

Fast-forward 65 years in mid-September 3,000 miles across the country the NY Times features the quasi-prosperity driven Christian institution Hillsong on the front-page. Figuratively speaking current publisher, Arthur Sulzberger,  of the NY Times gave a two-word directive, “Blast Hillsong.”

Hillsong has managed to also take advantage of radio and television. There is no question they dominate the charts in the Christian music industry. They also sell out entire venues filling stadiums to capacity with devoted Hillsong fans. Like Graham, their pastors interact with celebrities and publicize these interactions via social media.

A photo posted by Carl Lentz (@carllentz) on

The Times praises Hillsong’s presentation and ability to market, but question Hillsong’s theology and ability to find depth.

This is, arguably, evangelicalism’s beginning to an end.

“Its finances have been scrutinized by the Australian news media; its preaching is tracked by a critical blog. Hillsong, founded by Brian Houston and his wife, Bobbie, has been anti-abortion and has described gay sex as sinful. But recently, church leaders have moderated their tone; the pastor of Hillsong New York, Carl Lentz, passed up two opportunities this year to express a view on same-sex marriage, in interviews with Katie Couric and The Huffington Post.”[2]

It’s fair to ask “What’s the problem with Hillsong?” As I also have listened to their music, attended their services, and gone to a couple of their events, that is up until recently I just couldn’t allow myself to do so anymore. The problem with Hillsong has to do with the problem of manipulation through marketing, and a theology that is not representative of Christianity. Although I’m aware of the manipulation other’s are not.

Take a 23 year old out of college in their first job. Straight out of the suburbs transplanted to one of the cities Hillsong has strategically planted a Church. This is one of their first and biggest life transitions. They want community, they want hope, they want something that is familiar but relevant at the same time.

**Enter Hillsong**

Having researched demographics, they now spend 100,000 dollars on choreographing lights, throw in some back ground music, rent a club/bar out and then hire a ridiculously good looking, funny, authoritarian leader and then water their theology down to please everyone… promising us that God will solve all our problems in our most vulnerable and loneliest seasons of life.

Who in that situation would not open their wallet, surrender to God manipulation and commit to Hillsong’s brand? [3]

Many who attend these services do not know that denominationally they’re charismatic fundamentalists, Pentecostals with strong affiliations to the Assemblies of God. “Gays are welcome,” but theologically gays are still an ‘abomination.’ Hillsong, they’re not upfront with this. They are taking advantage of vulnerable millennials, adults, and youth alike and in return receiving a loyal customer. 

How do I know that they’re more committed to a brand than they are the person Jesus? Research has shown that if you ask a churched millennial to tell you what the gospel is they are predominately unable to articulate this.

To be clear, Hillsong Fan’s can recite a majority of Hillsong lyrics but are unable to properly articulate the gospel.[4]

Pro-tip, if you want the Church to survive, then your support for Hillsong won’t keep it alive. Research is showing that while mega churches are growing all other churches are dying, this is because the mega churches are just taking from smaller churches that can’t afford a staff of 40 pastors and 100,000 lighting systems. But that’s what happens when you take the system of capitalism and use that as the foundation of your churches growth.

To the naysayers saying right now that, “It matters for the one person who Hillsong’s messaged changed.” This would be true, that is if your mission was not supposedly Jesus. This logic is almost as shallow as their theology. If you grew up in a different setting you might have been taught the bible, and come to find that Jesus is a lot different than what they present or teach. Jesus did not manipulate. He told people how it was:

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next…” – Jesus [Matthew 10:16-23]

I agree with the Houston’s saying, “Worship should be enjoyed not endured…” But I also believe that congregants should be given truth as opposed to being manipulated.

They are reaching into the pockets of broke millennials and impoverished Americans [North, South, and Central America] and promising them prosperity but robbing them of their autonomy. In other words, they’re promising earthly riches at the small cost of having faith in Jesus. This is manipulation. This is Hillsong.

I would have less of a problem with this if they were upfront and said that their goal was profit, fame, and money. I get upset when anyone uses Christ and salvation as a means of emotional manipulation. I think A.W. Tozer says it best:

“Promoting self under the guise of promoting Christ is currently so common as to excite little notice.”

Hillsong, they are not so much driven by the spirit as they are driven by really good marketing.

[1] New York Times

[2] Michael Paulson, New York Times

[3] Apparently you have to be a supermodel as a pre-requsite to become an onstage “pastor” or presence. I mean but seriously take a look at their staff.

[4] To be fair this is a weakness in all denominations. Not to mention that their songs mostly consist of two line chorus’ repeated for 15 minutes, but not going to lie… they do it so well.

 

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • http://demiurgiclust.net shelly

    Christianity Incorporated at work.

  • http://www.janaleemiller.com/ Jana @ One Drawing a Day

    I had no idea-wow!

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Good analysis here. Hillsong is a complicated animal. I think there is sincerity among the leadership at points, certainly among the congregants, but there is also a terrible lack of transparency/honesty about how the machine runs. I think the article called it a “multi-million dollar empire” at one point, and that phrase in itself should be cause for major alarm. Yet, Hillsong-ers pass this article around like it’s a big win because they LOVE publicity, even if there’s a light critique. It’s proof of God’s favor, which is measured in giant crowds, celebrity followers, and dolla dolla bills ya’ll.

  • Carl Lentz

    Hi Andy: I disagree w/ my friend Zach Hoag on this, and the conclusions you have to come to in this post. I hang out in Brooklyn, if you would like to express your views in person and answer some questions I have for you, id love that. Carl Lentz

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Carl, I don’t question your motives – I’ve told you that in private, and my comment here is not a personal attack at all. I don’t have any interest in taking you guys down – as if I could ;). I was tweeting back and forth with Tyler at Relevant about this and I do think an open dialogue is good. My critique is focused on the excessive celebrity culture that Hillsong (like others) is creating and the way the world understands Hillsong’s values. Q: does Hillsong make its budget/financials public, including the music sales? I wouldn’t trust any nonprofit that doesn’t make its budget public – conversely, doing so would be transparent and honest and help to offset the image of big crowds, celebrity, and money that HIllsong projects.

  • http://www.www.patheos.com/blogs/andygill/ Andy Gill

    Hey Carl, got your DM via Twitter, my apologies I didn’t get back sooner, I’ve been in between school, work, and a friends birthday. I’ll shoot you a text tomorrow. ‘preciate your engagement.

  • Andy

    What do you suppose Tozer would say about gay marriage Andy?

  • Carl Lentz

    Hey Zach! I wasn’t taking it personal at all and your not an attacker by any means! We do make our budgets public and in particular the music..always have..I also think it’s important to note that when you say the “celebrity culture we are creating”, as I’ve told you, that’s your opinion. Which I respect and listen to..stating it like it’s a fact, I do take issue w/ that because I don’t believe we do that. But as you know, I appreciate and glean from the dialogue and do totally agree that the more transparent we can be at all times does absolutely help shed light on all the things we are apart of..100 percent. I appreciate peoples right to write opininated blogs like this..and also the fact that often there isn’t a conducive medium to actually discuss these things because people on my end TYPICALLY don’t respond or ignore.. As you know I don’t do that. My hope is that blogs like this would reach out, ask questions, try to gain understanding and then perhaps, write away.. But some of this is in my opinion silly And never gets confronted. I enjoy the people like you who are not afraid to not only write, but stand by it and be open to, CONVERSATION.. Which was my motive for commenting!

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Hey man, glad to hear those things are public. Are they viewable anywhere? I think being able to view budgets, etc., would help folks who have concerns like the ones in this post. And I hear you about my opinion vs. your perspective from the inside – but maybe that’s the point? That the culture is something that is created in concentric circles out from the center. The intention towards the center might not be a celebrity culture, but theology, ecclesiology, and lifestyle communicate that message regardless. The on-blast actions of key leaders communicates it clearly. That’s why every media outlet talks about Hillsong money, crowds, and celebrity followers. And even though I’ve seen you resist that in interviews, Hillsong people embrace and promote that publicity and interpret it as God’s favor. And it draws new people who are enamored with celebrity.

    All that said, you know I support you personally, and see the good things that HNYC is doing in a tough place. You’ve got AOG/evang. conservatives dogging you and probably the hardcore progressives too! I meant it when I said that your ministry can be a “third way” kind of ministry. I just want to see this superficial celebrity stuff resisted in the culture of younger charismatic churches. It’s a trend that we charismatics have struggled with for a loooooong time, and it leads to corrupt, gospel-damaging things. I’ve seen it happen way too much in my (obviously illustrious) lifetime. Our generation is no exception to those same tendencies.

    Also thanks for engaging publicly. I actually think this is an important way – maybe the best – to discuss these things. I’ll save my questions about Kanye’s recent antics for a private email though ;).

    Peace bro.

  • Carl Lentz

    Zach: as always, well articulated, points recieved.. I look forward to the Kanye email!! Much love..

  • Mathew Garrett Reames

    @andygill:disqus, I enjoy this article. I think it has some valid points and concerns. I agree that whilst Mega Churches are thriving, the small church is dying. However, I do not feel this is due to a lack of Money or Marketing. As someone who is in my late twenties and has traveled the world preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What I have found is that the churches who embrace this generation and their unique culture are growing. However the churches that believe that their tradition trumps culture are not.

    It is not to say that we should back off from scripture and the truth of the Word, but that We need to recognize that not every generation thinks, acts, and lives the same. Culture ebbs and flows and as we live out Christianity in the current era we have an ability to Have an expression that reflects our curent world, but also have a solid anchor to a timeless faith that stretches throughout the ages and roots back into Christ.

    I Don’t always agree with @carllentz:disqus, but I really respect and appreciate Him. I have never seen him express anything less than Love for people. He is desperate to see lives connected to Christ and I commend him for it. I also love that You, Carl, take the time to read and respond to articles like this. Whilst some might see it as trying to control media and marketing, I see it as a leader who is making himself available in the digital age. The Church has gone worldwide thanks to social media, and you are interacting world wide. Thanks for that.

    @zachhoag:disqus I fully agree about the need for financial transparency. I am wary of anyone who cannot show me the impact that my dollars are making. I see Christ and the Disciples living a vastly different lifestyle from the majority of leaders in the body of Christ. Whenever there is ample finances, there is the danger of letting materialism creep in and upset the movement and message of the gospel.

    I am really enjoying this discourse and thanks to all the brothers for it.

  • Genghis7777

    Hi Andy, I can see your point. Everyone is on a different journey as they grow and nurture their relationship with God. Perhaps Hillsong assists people along that path but may not suit every part of that journey.

    Few churches can cater for every need covering all the different stages of one’s life. I believe this is why quite a number of believers shift from church to church. It’s the only way to gain knowledge and experience across all the diverse aspects of life. I’m not saying that this is a good thing, just an observation.

    Over the year’s I have attended the odd sermon from Hillsong here and there and I can also see why people have accused them of pushing a prosperity message but more recent sermons have focused on other issues.

    Slick presentation shouldn’t be criticized out of hand. There is a place for it.