Australian Idolatory – the growth and growth of Hillsong
On Christmas morning last year, finding myself with a few hours to kill before barbecued turkey and trimmings with my Sydney hosts, I went to see Hillsong for myself. I should state for the record that I’m an atheist humanist, and justified my godless sneering on grounds of journalism (I was researching a book). But I still felt like a frightful interloper, a joyless clown en route to a children’s party with the sole intention of popping balloons, stealing party bags and calling the birthday boy names. Worse, I was a freeloading interloper arriving on the Hillsong courtesy shuttle service.
So to ease my conscience I vowed to be the perfect houseguest, making every effort to participate, in as far as I could do so without compromising my principles or seeming to take the piss. If there was singing, I would sing. If there was hugging, I would hug. I drew the line only at praying.
Arriving at the church – sorry, worship centre – I was welcomed into a cavernous modern atrium by a model-pretty hostess bearing glad tidings and armfuls of Christmas candy. Dean Martin sang ‘Winter Wonderland’ over the speaker system. Free lattes and valet parking were available to all comers. All good, clean fun so far. Being slightly behind schedule I pressed on past the crèche and headed straight for the main room. (And if ‘main room’ sounds a tad super-club, it’s not so far off the mark.) Five enormous TV screens flanked a wide stage, upon which Hillsong stalwart Robert Fergusson was already in mid-flow, hammering home the prosperity gospel as the gifting envelopes went round, and encouraging us to be as ‘extravagant’ with our money as God is with his love:
Then two incredibly happy men appeared and invited all the kids onto the stage to show and tell what they got for Christmas.
“What did Santa bring you, little fella?” beamed Happy Man number 1.
Little boy: “An iPod Touch.”
Whoops and clapping from the audience.
“And what about you?” said Happy Man 2, turning to another little boy.
“A remote-controlled car.”
Happy Man 1: “Well, we’ve got some great prezzies to give away today, for the big kids as well as the little kids. But first we’re crossing live to our Hills campus, where our senior pastor Brian Houston is going to say a few words.”
I’ll say this for Christmas at Hillsong: that’s an ambitious technical feat they’re pulling off. All this “crossing live” felt like Live Aid – it was terrifically exciting. As the Hills service appeared on the screens behind, another show and tell session was finishing up across town. A third happy man was talking about prezzies for big kids and little kids, and then Houston himself was striding back and forth across the stage in front of foot-high chapter and verse, a bible in his hand and a flesh-coloured Madonna-mike clamped to his cheek. Swap the bible for an iPad and he could have passed for Steve Jobs unveiling his vision for the exciting next phase of the company.
He launched into some impassioned stuff about Emmanuel – punctuated with fists in the air about his GRACE and DIVINITY – which I confess was where I started to tune out. It’s not that I wasn’t listening, just that a sort of glazing over took place. The same thing happens when I listen to evangelical preachers on the radio, which I often do. It’s a little like listening to the shipping forecast on BBC Radio 4 – fantastically hypnotic, but utterly meaningless unless you’re in on the lingo. Very often the welcome end result is blissful slumber.