What Hillsong Got Right
The early 1980s witnessed the emergence of many culturally-defining trends and demographics. MTV launched in ’82, and many sociologists consider it the beginning of the “Millennial Generation”—the kids who grew up with countless colour television channels, digital pets and memories of telephones with cords. By the time Millennials started having kids of their own, books had shifted from printed pages to the back-lit screens Kindles and iPads.
It is also when Hillsong began in Australia (1983), a church plant which grew to a music movement less than a decade later as conferences became conduits for burgeoning songwriters defining a craft for corporate gatherings. Hillsong has become both an umbrella over several congregations—from Sydney to Kiev, London to Los Angeles, Cape Town to Copenhagen with Paris, Seoul and several others in-between—and a platform upon which Contemporary Christian Music has stood for years. Like any “big” thing, it suffers criticism for having become some kind of “sell-out”—or worse, some kind of “mega church”. Healthy discernment is helpful (see Luke 6:44), and immature criticism is not. Anybody can pick on someone’s use of fog machines and arguably superficial lyrical content. Yet as years have passed, I’ve been increasingly impressed by what Hillsong has accomplished and contributed. Here’s why:
- FOG MACHINES AREN’T EVERYTHING. Sometimes, fog-machines and fancy lights help a high-schooler engage. And when you want to engage a stadium full of young adults, you pay for fog machines and fancy lights because it helps them engage. Hillsong has gathered young adults en masse for years and provided an environment conducive to encounter—even if it required silly means to a serious end. Who knows what Jesus spoke to so many individuals over the course of so many gatherings?
- LANGUAGE MATTERS. Particularly palatable language. While linguistically-wealthy hymns of old knit poetry and doctrine like little else offered by today’s writers, there is a humble dignity in Hillsong’s arsenal of songs compatible with large gatherings—and adopted by so many fellowships across the earth. Notable preachers A.T. Pierson and J.C. Ryle both spent years in higher education so they could “sound smart” when they preached, only to abandon lofty effort when they realised what the common man needed was an educated man to gently pull him higher. Charles Haddon Spurgeon felt the same way, and all reflected on this principle in their writings and memoirs as they trained young leaders. Hillsong has withstood criticism and given songs to a generation.
- PIONEERS USUALLY CAN’T BUILD. Hillsong didn’t just build the platform for CCM—they helped pioneer CCM altogether. It takes unique gifting and leadership to not only conceive and birth a movement, but stick around long enough to raise and shape the movement until the baby is old enough to run the household themselves and grow a family of their own—and it requires healthy parenting to let your kids grow up and take over, without white-knuckling a movement to its own grave. Hillsong has raised up new leaders and replicated themselves beyond toxic extinction. This is no small feat.
- THEY CARE ABOUT THE CRAFT. Hillsong is nothing if not excellent. Their technical execution has set and shattered standards, with no sign of slowing down. Having broadened their creative team to include industry-standard filmmakers, cinematographers, sound engineers, photographers, and composers, there is little in terms of media that Hillsong cannot accomplish in-house.
- THEY MAKE FRIENDS. Reaching out to others in the global Body of Christ for something like The White Album was to the benefit of everybody—especially our ears.
- HE IS PREEMINENT IN ALL THINGS. Most importantly, Hillsong bows to Jesus as King and exalts Him as God. Thirty years after their doors first opened, I’m grateful for their testimony.
In her third decade, Hillsong is “middle-aged,” and will have much to offer as grey hairs begin to sprout from her head. I look forward to seeing her mature, and appreciate all she’s given to the world and Church thus far.