Monday, November 2, 2009

Hillsong – Christianity as Emotional Entertainment

Clayton McIntosh

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world...” (Romans 12:1-2)

Throughout the world, Pentecostal Christianity is growing (Connell 2005:315-316). In Australia, and other Western countries, a new form of Pentecostal Christianity has emerged, with an emphasis on emotional rock/pop music, and a step away from traditional Pentecostal practices (such as speaking in tongues). Hillsong, a mega-church from Sydney is the exemplar of this kind of pentecostal Christianity, and will be the focus of this essay. Hillsong focuses on music and singing to express worship and praise. This type of emotional, music-driven Christianity attracts predominantly young people as it is fun and promises a deep experience of God. Hillsong is impressive and entertaining, yet Christian and Bible-based. In this essay I address whether Hillsong, as an example of contemporary Pentecostal Christianity, is entertainment or religion (Christianity). I propose that entertainment is the central focus of Hillsong, and the gospel of Jesus is secondary.

In Australia and throughout the world there has been a rise in pentecostal Christianity, particularly among youth (Connell 2005:315-316). Formal religious observance has been in decline, yet mainstream pentecostal churches, such as the Assemblies of God and Hillsong Church, have been growing (Connell 2005:315-316). Hillsong is now Australia's largest church, with a weekly attendance larger than all of the 216 Anglican parishes of the Diocese of Melbourne combined (Payne 2007:3). Hillsong has spread from Sydney to around the world with branches in London, Paris and Kiev (Payne and Cheng 2007:11). The church offertories and income reach over $50 million annually (Payne 2007:3).

Hillsong has a very distinctive brand of pop/rock, pentecostal worship music, which regularly charts in the Australian top 10 and is famous worldwide (Payne 2007:3). The church broadcasts a weekly TV program which is available in 160 countries, including on free-to-air Channel Ten in Australia (Connell 2005:315-316). The church is influential enough that politicians such as John Howard and Peter Costello have appeared on stage. Hillsong is a very influential church on many levels – in peoples' lives, religiously, politically and in the media (Connell 2005:315-316).

Hillsong is a Bible-based church attempting to reach and influence people (Connell 2005:319). Hillsong is directed at mainstream people who are interested in religion ('seekers'), rather than mature believers (Connell 2005:317). It is typical for Pentecostal churches to tailor their programs to meet the needs of those people who have not been to church (Connell 2005:317). The talent, money, resources and multimedia that Hillsong has invested in is unmatched by any other religious group (Tyson 2006:10). The church is a place of fun, culturally acceptable pentecostal worship without a focus on traditional pentecostal elements, such as 'slaying in the spirit', 'speaking in tongues', 'prophecy' and 'holy laughter' (Maroney 2008:58; Payne and Cheng 2007:14-16).

According to Tyson, Hillsong “...taps into this hyper modern youth spirituality. You need big money and high quality performance talent to do this sort of church” (2006:10-11). The church focus is on its worship, mainly through the use of music (even during prayers) which appeals to young people (Payne and Cheng 2007:11-15). According to Connell the mega-churches bring in the youth because:

“...they are specifically targeted to meet the needs of the young; younger people, unattached to more established religions, are more mobile and attracted to megachurches ‘that better meet their needs through options such as youth groups, lively music, smaller prayer groups and interactive services’ (Delaney 2005:13 cited in Connell 2005:317)” (2005:317)

The worship at Hillsong is an emotional interactive experience, unlike a typical sermon, and the division between Christianity and entertainment is blurred. Payne and Cheng liken the Hillsong conference to a late 80s U2 concert, the only difference is that the lead singer is saying how much he loves Jesus (2007:11). Mega-churches such as Hillsong are often criticized for attempting to use money to draw people in – to “sell themselves” (Connell 2005:317). According to Connell: “Pentecostalism has grown through a combination of the development and influence of mass media, especially television, increased mobility, electronic communication ... and suburbanisation” (Connell 2005:315-318).

Hillsong places music and singing at the center of their gatherings as a way to connect with God (Payne and Cheng 2007:11-15; Percival 2007:20-23). There is an earnest and sincere desire to worship God well:

“The music for Darlene and for many of those present, is an outflow of emotion, of a simple heartfelt desire to connect with God, to honour God, to feel God. They want God, and they want to please him, and they feel that the music helps them do both. And so music becomes central to the Christian life and to church life” (Payne and Cheng 2007:13)

Yet when the music becomes the center of worship, of church, and of Christianity, the gospel of Jesus takes a secondary role. When the gospel is secondary, and music and singing is primary, then the church leans towards entertainment rather than biblical Christianity. Percival argues that “a good song, like those found in Scriptures, will fuse the truth of salvation with an authentic, emotional response” (2007:23). Thus the use of singing and music does not need to place Christianity secondary.

Singing in the Christian faith is not a new form of worship, it is referenced in the Bible over 400 times, with at least 50 direct commands to sing (Kauflin 2008). Singing can engage the words emotionally in profound and subtle ways; it is a language of emotion in every culture in every age (Kauflin 2008). It is an act of worship, which can bind and unite people as they proclaim the same message (Kauflin 2008). Yet biblically it is not the only form of worship, or even the central way in which we are to worship. Romans 12:1 tells us how to worship: “...present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” This verse tells us that spiritual worship is about how we live – in a sacrificial way, holy, and in a way that is acceptable to God.

Although singing can obviously be a part of this worship, Hillsong makes the emotional experience of singing the center to worship (Percival 2007:20-23). “Darlene Zschech and the music is Hillsong, more than Brian Houston and the prosperity teaching and everything else” (Payne and Cheng 2007:13). Hillsong strive to give you the feeling of experiencing the presence of God through emotions and music that meets your needs (Percival 2007:20-23). Hughes argues that worship is not about what we get out of it, it is not intended to meet our needs, but rather worship is God's (2001:110). He argues it should not focus on being entertaining (although it can be enjoyable) or some kind of emotional lift for ourselves, but it should be in “...spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Evans argues that when any other element replaces Christ in church, then the meeting becomes devoid of truthfulness (2000:57).

Hillsong's focus on emotional singing leans towards entertainment over clear preaching on Jesus. The words Jesus and salvation are used often, but what they mean are not explained (Payne and Cheng 2007:8-18). According to Payne and Cheng, Hillsong “...seemed so transparently staged and emotionally manipulative” (Payne and Cheng 2007:13). Yet this is not the intention of Hillsong. They aim to reach and influence people, change their mindset, and empower people, based on the Bible (Connell 2005:219). But the entertainment side has over-shadowed the evidence of this intention, and the gospel is hard to find in Hillsong gatherings.

Payne and Cheng attempt to find what Hillsong's gospel is, and whether it is true to the Bible (2007:11-18). After researching Hillsong, and attending the week long Hillsong conference in July 2006 they concluded that overall, the gospel is not preached (Payne and Cheng 2007:11-18). They argue that scripture is rarely used and when it is it is misquoted, and the gospel of judgment has been abandoned (Payne and Cheng 2007:11-18). They claim many other aspects of Christianity that they find important are absent from the gatherings, including “the cross, the blood, ... the sinfulness of man, the pursuit of holiness, the glory of the resurrected Christ and his Lordship in all of life...” (Payne and Cheng 2007:14). This is in line with Trueheart's assessment of mega-churches: “...No crosses. No robes. No clerical collars. No hard pews. No kneelers. No biblical gobbledygook. No prayerly rote. No fire, no brimstone. No pipe organs. No dreary eighteenth century hymns.” (1996:37).

Preaching is not the center of a Hillsong gathering - music is, but there is in some form a sermon or preaching (Percival 2007:20-23). The church has not abandoned all Christianity theology as a whole, but do not preach the offensive and negative parts (Payne and Cheng 2007:16). Sin in occasionally mentioned, but in regard to the immorality of the world, or as negative thinking and attitudes destroying God's purpose and direction in our personal lives (Payne and Cheng 2007:16). God's wrath and condemnation are not preached, neither is the rebellion of every person (Payne and Cheng 2007:16). There is also no explanation of why Jesus died, just that he died 'in our place', and is usually used as an example of purpose, or a source of healing or overcoming difficulty's (Payne and Cheng 2007:16). The response of a Christian is based on blessings ('prosperity doctrine'), positive thought, the power of choice (Payne and Cheng 2007:17). These things make up the 'theology of Hillsong', yet they are still hidden within the 'show' of Hillsong. It is about a positive experience, rather than Salvation in Jesus.

The feel-good, emotional, self help nature of Hillsong is comparable to the world wide phenomenon The Secret. The Secret is a is a semi-spiritual self-help book (and movement) written by Rhonda Byrne and published in 2006 (Velarde 2007:1-6). The secret reached world wide attention after it was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show. The self-help book claims to solve life's problems through positive thought and self empowering (Velarde 2007:1-6). The universe, through a form of law of attraction, will repay positive thoughts with joy, financial prosperity, and good health (The Secret 2009). Furthermore, the universe will repay your negative thoughts with negative experiences. The Secret claims to be compatible with Christianity (Velarde 2007:1-6). Hillsong, as it does not make Jesus (or Christianity) the center of its gatherings, but rather music, has more in common with the self-help movement the Secret that biblical Christianity.

Both Hillsong and The Secret have become popular though mainstream media and entertainment. They both focus on positive thought and blessing, and both claim to be Christian, or compatible with Christianity. Both Hillsong and The Secret are popular world wide phenomenons, yet will they last? Do they provide more than just an entertaining craze? Maroney argues that Pentecostal churches do not attract members for very long (2008:58-59). A 16-25 year old will only stay at a Pentecostal church for 18 months. As it is the entertainment and emotion that attracts people (particularly young people) to Hillsong, what happens when people no longer feel the emotions? What happens when people are no longer entertained by the music and singing? There is no desire to return after this time.

Hillsong, as an example of contemporary Pentecostal Christianity, has music, singing and entertainment at its center. Feeling God, and experiencing emotions to connect with God are the main aspects of Christianity at Hillsong, which neglects important central aspects of the Bible. Jesus, salvation and judgment are secondary to entertainment, if they are part of the content at all. Although this particular brand of Christianity attracts many young people, it does so on its entertainment and experience aspects, rather than on being true to the gospel. Hillsong uses emotion and entertainment as the primary way to reach people, rather than the gospel of Jesus. Once the emotions and entertainment are gone, there is no desire to return. Because music and singing is central to Hillsong as a church, it leans more towards entertainment, and less towards Christianity.


Connell, John (2005) 'Hillsong: A Megachurch in the Sydney Suburbs', Australian Geographer, 36:3, 315-332

Delaney, B (2005) ‘With song in their hearts’, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 January, 13

Evans, Gary (2000) 'Spiritual Deviations: Worship verses Entertainment', 57-59

Goh, Robbie (2007) 'Hillsong and “megachurch” practice: semiotics, spatial logic and the embodiment of contemporary evangelical protestantism', Material Religion, 4:3, 284-305

Hughes, Kent (2001) Disciplines of a Godly Man, Crossway Books, 109-123

John 4:24, The Holy Bible. English Standard Version.

Kauflin, Bob (2008) 'Words of Wonder: What Happens When We Sing?' Desiring God, Accessed on 29/10/2009, Available at

Maroney, Michael (2008) 'An exploration of contemporary youth spirituality among senior students in three Catholic schools', School of Religious Education, Australian Catholic University, 1-90

Payne, Tony (2007) 'A week at Hillsong', The Briefing, 3

Payne, Tony and Cheng, Gordon (2007) 'The surprising face of Hillsong', The Briefing, 11-18

Percival, Philip (2007) 'God is in the house', The Briefing, 20-23

Romans 12:1-2. The Holy Bible. English Standard Version.

The Secret (2009) 'The Secret' Accessed on: 2/11/2009, Avalible at

Trueheart, C. (1996) ‘Welcome to the next church’, Atlantic Monthly 278, 37-52

Tyson, Paul (2006) 'A Spectral View of Contemporary Australian Youth Spiritualities & Evangelical Youth Ministry', 1-31

Velarde, Robert (2007) The Secret Reveled: Assessing The Latest Self-help Phenomenon', Christian Research Journal, 1-6

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