by N. Jaruchik
Some years ago, while working as a filmmaker for a Christian organization (which happened to be pentecostal), our boss called us to his office. At this time we were preparing for the yearly conference that was to be held in Jerusalem. Music was a big thing in this event and we were assigned to do several videos. For inspiration, our boss played a video for us. (1) The film, aesthetically impeccable, features four wandering characters who leave their old homes to find their true Home. The fictional part of the video cuts intermittently to a more realistic scenario: Hillsong’s church office. There, some of its most prominent leaders sit around the table talking about the church.
My colleagues loved the film. I did as well but … I felt there was something wrong with it. It wasn’t the narrator, which was difficult to understand at some points or the aesthetically-heavy environment, it was something else. Not long after I realized what it was. The film was not talking about Christ or his church, it was promoting Hillsong Church. The home that they were preaching about was not the home that God has prepared for us, it was the Hillsong home. True, part of the film talked about the prodigal son and his return home (and it sounds almost biblical), but most of the video centers around Hillsong. It’s impossible to see it as any other thing but a promotional video. After all, this is what the organization I was working for was trying to do. And this is why we ended up copying the promotional aspect of the video
But Hillsong is not just a ‘church’, it’s an industry, a mega music enterprise. According to Rolling Stone Magazine, (2) since 1992 more than 55 million albums have been sold worldwide, more than 1 billion tracks have been streamed on-demand, and 50 million people sing their songs in church each week! As to their revenue, in 2017 an independently audited report estimated over 109 million—about 14 million coming directly from music.
Unfortunately, many Christians won’t care about these statistics and they will even blame you for criticizing them. They will say that “they deserve it as much as any secular artist” or they might ask, “why can’t a Christian make a living singing or writing worship music?”
Well, I probably wouldn’t complain if I saw some Christian singer trying to get some support to bring some bread to the table. But when you tell me that some guy in Australia called Brian Houston, which happens to be Hillsong’s director, earns around 10 million a year, (3) or that another pastor from Hillsong (in New York) named Carl Lentz, which likes to wear expensive designer clothes and wear gold chains, happens to have a net worth of 2 million, or that Darlene Zschech, former Hillsong worship ‘pastor’ sold her house for 4 million dollars, well… maybe, just maybe, there might be something wrong with the whole thing.
This is not an issue of making money with music. This is an issue about making money with worship music—if we can call it that. Whatever the case, since when has worship music become a business? For sure, it wasn’t a business when the first Christians walked on this earth. Or when Saint Augustin wrote his City of God. Or when Luther hung his thesis condemning the atrocities of the ‘Church’. Why suddenly has it become okay to get rich singing worship music?
But the problem with Hillsong's music is not just about the money, it's about… well, pretty much everything. The trance-like type of music, the atmosphere, the symbols… We could write a whole book about all of these things. Here I just want to quickly analyze one: the lyrics.
Some of Hillsong songs don’t appear to have anything wrong in them (at least not at first glance). Yes, they might be superficial and unclear but not necessarily wrong. Yet, others have something in them that makes you want to press Ctrl + del. What a Beautiful Name is one example. The song starts okay. Yes, I would use different wording but it doesn’t seem to be anything overtly wrong: “You were the Word at the beginning /One With God, the Lord Most High… What a beautiful Name it is / Nothing compares to this…” The problem comes in the fourth verse:
You didn’t want heaven without us
So Jesus You brought heaven down
Do we even need to say that this is completely unbiblical? Jesus didn’t die for us because he was feeling lonely or because he needs us. God was perfectly fine before he created us. He doesn’t need us in heaven. Ben Fielding, from Hillsong, writes:
“In a recent exchange on the first two lines of this verse, my friend Glenn Packiam, who I admire as a great thinker and songwriter suggested this clarification of context: ‘Heaven– God’s space– and earth– human space– were one. But sin fractured the union of heaven and earth. The beauty of the Gospel is that God’s solution was not to come down from heaven to airlift us out of earth, but rather to bring heaven down to earth in such a way that it would renew everything’. I agree completely. Through the incarnation and ministry of Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven has been brought down to earth.” (4)
Well, I do not agree. Sin did not fracture the union between heaven and earth, sin fractured our relationship with God. “The beauty of the Gospel” is not about the union between heaven and earth, it is about the union between God and man. Furthermore, the Kingdom of Heaven is not yet here. At least not in its full context. It’s quite apparent that Hillsong is promoting the Kingdom Now theology, a dangerous doctrine that teaches that we can (and should) regain and dominate this world.
The omission of Jesus and Christ is prevalent in many songs. In a concert performed in Israel, Taya Smith, one of Hillsong’s main singers appeared with her head shaved (like a prophetess preparing to utter his oracles) ready to sing Oceans, a song with more than 40 million views on YouTube. When listening or reading the lyrics we immediately think about Jesus walking on the waters, yet we don’t see his name mentioned a single time.
Taya Smith’s bio in Hillsong’s website says the following:
“Taya is most passionate about worship that points people to Jesus and her hope is to lead people to worship more authentically and passionately as they discover more about Him” (5)
And if not Jesus, who is going to point to? But worship is not about pointing people to Jesus. Worship is about praising him—period. Worship music is not a method to attract people. It’s never been that and it shouldn’t be today. Unfortunately, this is exactly what many churches around the globe are doing today: conforming their music to the world to attract souls. But it makes me wonder: what do they mean by worshipping more “authentically and passionately”? I hope they can answer that someday because I’d like to know.
So Will I is yet another song that raises a red flag. Supposedly, the song is partly based on Psalm 19:1: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” But if one reads the whole chapter he will quickly find little or no resemblance to the lyrics of the song. It almost seems like it was composed by some contemporary deist. And even worse, a contemporary deist that believes in evolution (like so many of them do).
God of creation
There at the start
Before the beginning of time
With no point of reference
You spoke to the dark
And fleshed out the wonder of light
And as You speak
A hundred billion galaxies are born
And as You speak
A hundred billion creatures catch Your breath
Evolving in pursuit of what You said
If it all reveals Your nature so will I
You're the One who never leaves the one behind
Some people will argue that ‘evolving’ doesn’t really mean ‘evolving’. Or that it was a wrong choice of words. But, given the context, it’s hard to see any other meaning. And if it was a mistake why not admit it? Why not fix it?
But the problem with Hillsong it’s not just about the lyrics, it’s also about the men behind them. Just last year, Marty Sampson, one of Hillsong’s music writers openly admitted of losing his faith:
“Time for some real talk. I’m genuinely losing my faith, and it doesn’t bother me. Like, what bothers me now is nothing. I am so happy now, so at peace with the world. It’s crazy. (...) I am not in any more. I want genuine truth. Not the “I just believe it” kind of truth. Science keeps piercing the truth of every religion. Lots of things help people change their lives, not just one version of God. (...) All I know is what’s true to me right now, and Christianity just seems to me like another religion at this point.” (6)
Sampson later said that he wasn’t losing his faith but that it was on “incredibly shaky ground.” As to his position with Hillsong, he said:
“If anything, all I have ever received from Hillsong is support and the opportunity to follow my own mind, and they have always taught what I perceive to be sound Pentecostal doctrine.” (7)
Sampson admits that Hillsong gave him free rein to follow his own mind. First, this is the last thing a caring pastor or church should do. We should be subject to the Word, not to our own minds or desires. Second, how does this affect Sampson’s lyrics? Surely, Marty’s doubts didn’t just pop out into existence. Will people continue to sing his songs? Are they going to be analyzed by Hillsong?
Interestingly (and sadly), Sampson believes that Hilllsong has "always taught what I perceive to be sound doctrine.” So a man that has almost renounced his faith and that questions the Christian faith believes that Hillsong has a good doctrine! Either Sampson is lying, or Hillsong is teaching an unbiblical doctrine. I believe that the second option is probably the right one.
But doctrine is what’s really at stake here. Among other things, Hillsong embraces and teaches the prosperity gospel. This theology or doctrine teaches that God always wants the best for their children. Meaning that His desire is to bless everyone financially. The health and wealth gospel, another name for this religious belief, also teaches that God wants to heal everyone—as long as we have faith. So faith is what is required. But do not be deceived. This is not faith is Christ, it’s faith in the object. It’s believing that God will give you whatever you ask for.
It is not surprising, given Hillsong’s music and doctrine, to see once in a while some controversial news headline about Hillsong. Like the time Diego Simila (one of Hillsong’s pastors) appeared on stage —wearing nothing but his underwear and cowboy hat— doing one of his performances (not to mention the time he appeared on Instagram half naked and wearing a Santa’s hat). Or like the time when Reed Kelly and Josh Canfield, an occasional singer and ‘worship’ leader, came out saying that they had been in an openly homosexual relationship while serving in Hillsong NY (the same place where Carl Lentz, the guy that like to wear expensive apparel, serves as pastor). Or like the time that the same pastor from New York did not want to openly condemn abortion because, apparently, they “want to stay relevant.”
And relevance it is. Perhaps this is one of the few things they are open about. Hillsong wants to be “the voice” that will change the world. They are the ‘church’ that will metamorphose culture. In Brian Houston’s own words:
“Just like any home, Hillsong Church is a culture, and our culture is building an atmosphere of faith and of hope, a belief that all can fulfill their God-given potential.” (8)
But, excuse me Brian, how do you think you’re going to change the world? Is it by copying the same style of music that we hear on the streets? Or perhaps by allowing worldly behavior? Or maybe by arousing in people the desire for wealth, health, and prosperity? Isn’t that what the world is already looking for?
Unfortunately, Hillsong is not alone. Today, many Hillsong-type of churches and bands abound. Coming out from Bethel Church, a mega charismatic church based in Redding, California, we have Bethel Music and Jesus Culture, two well-known music making machines that mimic Hillsong. Meanwhile, from Charlotte, NC, we have Elevation Church with its Elevation Worship band. Both of these are multi-million organizations with deeply questionable theologies. And these are just two of the thousands of Hillsong-type of churches worldwide
Now, you might blame me for pointing my finger too much. And you are right, sometimes we are supposed to do that. But my aim is not to blame a certain church or group. We are living in troublesome times and unless we want to see some change —some true change— we should start by examining ourselves. I believe that most of us, if not all, are to blame for the stage we’re in. Either by not speaking out, by not caring about this issue, or simply by being carried away by it, we have something to repent of.
It is difficult to know for certain the exact figures of Brian Houston’s net worth. 10 million is an estimate.