Australian Idolatory – the growth and growth of Hillsong

Australian Idolatory – the growth and growth of Hillsong
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As an album of Christian music outsells Beyonce and Lady Gaga down under, now seems like a good time to audio-blog my experience earlier this year discovering Australia’s fastest-growing Pentecostal mega church – Hillsong

By Chris Price

Prime Minister Julia Gillard may be a confirmed atheist, but if the Australian music-buying public is anything to go by, she’s a tad out of step with her electorate. You might say she’s not singing from the same hymn sheet. God Is Able, an album of contemporary Christian music released by the stratospherically successful Hillsong mega church in Sydney, recently debuted at Number Three in the Australian chart, becoming the 10th album of Christian pop to reach the Top 10 there since 2002.

And Hillsong has broken America without so much as breaking a sweat. Last year its youth ministry house band, Hillsong United, went in at Number Two on the US iTunes album chart, just behind Eminem. If it’s true that the music industry is in its death throes, then nobody told Hillsong.

Joel Houston

Hillsong Music is the ‘resource arm’ of Hillsong Church, a local Pentecostal ministry in Sydney which began in 1983 with a congregation of 45, and which now boasts a membership of 21,000, an annual conference attracting 28,000 faithful attendees, and a growing international footprint with churches in London, Paris, Cape Town, Stockholm and Kiev. In 2009 Hillsong London celebrated 10 years of worship in the capital with a service at the O2 London Arena. More than 14,000 people attended.

Needless to say, any church funded by a “dynamic music label”, as its promotional materials describe it, is foursquare into the realms of “non-traditional” financing models. But Hillsong is no traditional church. It is ministry with marketing strategies and corporate visions, communion by focus group, where clergy are CEOs and pastors head up “creative teams”. Services take place in “state-of-the-art worship centres”, where chancel is jettisoned in favour of multimedia ministry and PowerPoint presentations. Hillsong London’s website, whose front page features a group of smiling twenty-somethings in chic winter wear, bears closer resemblance to a Gap advert than a call for cash and congregation. And possibly taking a leaf out of Scientology’s book, Hillsong now looks to the power of celebrity to spread the gospel, recently hosting an “Evening with”-style event in which tele-survivalist Bear Grylls talked of Everest expeditions, alligator wrestling and the “quiet strength” of his Christian faith. Jumble sales and church roof appeals it is not.

Masterminded by founders and senior pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston (no self-respecting mega church is seen dead these days without an alliterating husband-and-wife team at the helm), Hillsong’s brand of ‘prosperity theology’ found a hungry market in Sydney’s affluent, conservative Baulkham Hills district during the 90s. ‘Health and wealth gospel’, popular with Pentecostal churches in America at the time, proved an elixir for middle-class Christians in prosperous, suburban Australia, as the success of Brian Houston’s book You Need More Money: Discovering God’s Amazing Financial Plan For Your Life attests. Spiritual health and material wealth go hand in hand, says Houston; humility and sacrifice are not unimportant, but nor should the faithful be ashamed of material success.

And Brian should know. In the last year for which figures are available, Hillsong’s annual earnings were in the region of $60m, roughly half of which came from its congregation. Record sales aren’t the church’s only source of income. Tithing – such an archaic-sounding word among all that corporate speak – is still a vital part of Hillsong’s income. Houston admits to a personal package of $300,000 a year plus company car (Bobbie’s salary is undisclosed), but his company Leadership Ministries Inc – “the entity through which Bobbie and I conduct our broader ministry” – bought two waterfront properties from the couple shortly after the company was set up in 2001. Let’s hear Brian conducting his ministry for a moment, for it is a thing to behold:

And it’s very much a family business. Joel Houston, Brian and Bobbie’s son (and incidentally a spit for Westlife’s Brian McFadden), leads the creative team behind Hillsong Music, the multi-million dollar hit machine that powers the operation. He is also the singer in Hillsong United, a “next generation praise and worship” outfit which has released a new album every year since 1999, making Prince look positively idle. Churning out mostly live albums recorded at services and conferences, the Hillsong Music stable is so prolific that just as one release reaches the end of its chart life, another is waiting in the wings to take its place. Evidently the received wisdom in the music industry – that live albums don’t sell – doesn’t apply to Hillsong either.

They’ve done their homework, too. If it felt like Snow Patrol were following you around for three years from 2006, it’s because radio stations and music television channels the world over were banking on audience research which decisively crowned ‘Chasing Cars’ as the stickiest song of the noughties by a country mile. Hillsong, if you can imagine this without wincing, sounds like Snow Patrol singing from a prayer book. And in case you’re tempted to seek out this music for yourself, be warned. For the purposes of journalistic thoroughness I’ve listened to more than my fair share of it the past few days (you’re welcome); it’s marginally less excruciating than chewing tinfoil.

Contemporary Christian music – CCM to its friends – is changing the market in other ways. For All You’ve Done, the first live worship album to debut at Number One in Australia, drew widespread whingeing from disgruntled record labels upset that almost all its sales rang through the cash registers at Hillsong’s annual conference. It’s hard to know which is more telling – the pointless display of sour grapes from the mainstream music industry, or the fact that sales at a religious conference can outstrip the buying power of an entire nation. In 2007 Hillsong hit the headlines again, amid accusations of vote stacking in the Australian Idol talent quest. Idol issued a formal, on-air statement refuting the allegations, although four of the eight finalists – Matt Corby, Tarisai Vushe, Ben McKenzie and Daniel Misfud – did in fact turn out to be from the Assemblies of God Pentecostal church, of which Hillsong is an affiliate.

Idolatry – 1, Idol – nil.

(continues overleaf)

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14 Responses to Australian Idolatory – the growth and growth of Hillsong

  1. Princess Stomper September 2, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    Kudos to the author here for not sneering. I find sneering almost as odious as holier-than-thou lecturing – it all just casts humanity in a bad light. Most people believe something, and if it’s not the same as you, it comes off as a little strange. Sure, this bunch seem a little out there, but then you could levy the same accusations at your average Catholic mass, which is also a bunch of elaborate rituals taking place in an opulent building – all far removed from the “protect the poor” pleas issued by a sandal-clad hippy in the Middle East 2,000 years ago.

    What would have been of interest to me is if the article had included the question of why the members of Hillsong are buying its records in droves. I would suspect that it’s not music in the conventional sense – to be listened to actively for its own sake – and more like how New Age adherents have CDs of whalesong or ambient noise to form a sound blackout for their meditations.

    In which case, the music industry complaining about Hillsong’s relative prosperity would be a lot like lightbulb manufacturers grumbling about the Wiccan community’s candle habit.

    I’d worry more about Idol being rigged if I didn’t think that Idol was always rigged to start with.

  2. Gerry September 3, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    Are these bountiful album sales due to the lack of illegal downloading performed by Hillsong’s audience?

  3. Andrew McMillen September 5, 2011 at 9:55 am

    This is a good piece. Thanks Chris.

  4. Chris Price September 6, 2011 at 6:29 am

    Thanks all for your feedback – much appreciated. @ Princess Stomper – you’re right, more of a ‘bought the tour t-shirt’ purchase perhaps? @ Gerry – interesting perspective. I wonder if Christians really do have a stronger imperative to pay for music. “11. Thou shalt not download music illegally”?

  5. chris west October 27, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    Really enjoyed the article,I would love to visit Hillsong sometime. I agree, their music is unlistenable pop crap. For some strange reason I always find Hillsong CDs in opportunity shops and they sell well when I put them on ebay! Do people buy them when they are in a religious frenzy, play them once when they get home, and then think, wow this does stink?

  6. mostlyzac January 2, 2012 at 1:02 am

    I don’t go to Hillsong but I have some good friends who do and from what I understand, while the music and weekend meetings are a big part, the real ‘congregation’ (and sustainability) happens during mid-week small meetings which are much better suited for for such activity.

    It’s notable that you didn’t enquire about the ‘extravagant’ benevolence the church instigates, but that’s not very fun is it?

    Sure, keep ’em honest but I think you’ll find that more than by-and-large they are. It seems that there isn’t much (anything?) they can do without getting misread/understood or insufficiently analysed (mostly) from a distance. Thanks for not being a much of a jerk about it.

  7. navindramasterofdivinity February 17, 2012 at 12:42 am

    The word of god does not return to him void ,Hillsong is doing a fine job of spreading the gospel of jesus christ to the world .what are you doing to help spread the gospel whit your crabs in a barrel mentality?how perfect is your life ?

  8. JesusLovers February 23, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    this blog is a crap. go read the bible before you post something like this.
    hillsong is not about a “worldly fame”. they are known to share the gospel to people who are lost by music. and of course! everyone needs MONEY!.
    even catholics asks for money.

  9. GOAT YAY April 20, 2012 at 10:14 pm

    Would true men of god all wear black? just sayin’

  10. Chris $Man June 24, 2012 at 6:09 am

    Very nice work blogging with embedded audio clips and nice photos, but it’s too bad you’re the wrong person to be writing about Hillsong!

    Having an athiest like yourself write a review of Hillsong Church is tantamount to asking the director of the Sydney Opera House to write a review of Britney Spears’s latest album. It is clear that, despite not believing in God, you have a lot of rooted presuppositions about what church ‘should be’ like, and your visit to Hillsong didn’t match up to them — thus the critical tone. Why is this your business? Who asked for your input?

    Hillsong Music has been an incredible blessing to Christians in Australia and has top fans clear across the ocean in my neck of the woods — Chicago, USA. I do disagree with them with their prosperity theology and view on earthly riches, and although that is a significant difference for me, I appreciate how the whole Hillsong operation is repackaging the Gospel for young people in the twenty-first century.

    Some of us replying here might start praying for you, so watch out — you may find yourself occupying a seat in Hillsong’s “Worship Centre” one of these days raising your hands and singing to the top of your lungs in praise and adoration of the omnipotent God you currently don’t believe in! 🙂

  11. Briony Mackenzie July 1, 2012 at 3:30 am

    Loved this piece. Vomited at the music. Cried during the sermons (disclaimer: NOT tears of joy and rapture). Someone very close to me, a great musician and young escapee of the Hillsong congregation was conspiracy theorising today, telling me he had it on inside authority that Hillsong actually owns Australian Idol. Not a journalist myself, my superficial internet research (which led me to this article) yielded nothing but a conspicuous lack of information on the subject. Do you know anything about this? BM

  12. Jim Peters June 20, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    I agree with Princess Stomper. Australian Christian Music, as used, bought and played by Christians is a different animal from most other australian music genres.

    It is used a lot as one might call “meditation support”. And yes, you have to be into ‘soft pop’ to be able to handle it…

    I laugh when I hear about conspiracy theories and money sucking juggernauts and then associating them with Hillsong. I have some friends who work there, as well as a friend’s son who is involved with their young people’s work.

    1/ The staff don’t get paid much – and if it can be done by a volunteer it is…
    2/ Despite the appearance of wealth, Pastor Houston gets paid a standard Pastor’s salary by Hillsong. (He does, however, receive income from his book sales, but as you have found out, it is all declared, nothing is under cover)

    Regarding “Idol” conspiracy’s – the Christian Church in Australia, if it were a venue, would be able to boast of providing the most opportunity for up and coming non-professional singers to learn their craft and perform. With thousands upon thousands of churches around Australia gathering – many on multiple times – every Sunday, all featuring live music as part of their meetings, it is no wonder that shows like Australian Idol and The Voice feature a higher proportion of Christians than the non-churched population.

    Thanks for taking the time to look at Hillsong. As a negative opinion/review of contemporary soft pop, it is fair comment. As a hard hitting piece on hypocrisy, I think you may have succumbed to tall-poppy syndrome.

  13. Truth December 17, 2013 at 7:15 am

    Hillsong is full of crazy people, they brain wash you, they tell you how to believe in Jesus, you can’t have a relationship with Jesus for your self, even Pastor Brien’s sister is fake, so who knows thousands of people being miss lead. Fake prophet , your not being saved.
    believe me I’ve lived it, it’s a world of fantasy, everything thinks their holy, their prophets, they are arogant, you have go to with what people believe , their pussy, and to start with if your really in personal issues before you know it you have been brain washed and it only comes to realisation that you have being brain washed because you keep having clashes with people’s arogance, in every aspect of life it self. Disgusting people, disgusting life, disgusting mind set, just people with a deceitful heart and that’s the truth .
    And they talk like faggots

  14. Ala June 4, 2014 at 5:42 am

    Hillsong – false doctrine, $ making machine, who ever Brian Houston is worshiping, I can tell you now, it is not The Jesus Christ that died on the cross for our sins.


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