Tony Payne and Gordon Cheng report from Hillsong Conference, 2006.
The sound hits you like a wave. The bass is throbbing. The drums kick through your diaphragm with each beat. The guitars thrum and swell. The lead singer is a good-looking guy with unkempt hair and stubble. He stands, arm raised, head thrown back.
The crowd moves and sways like a rippling sea. We roar. We sing. We stomp.
Two guys stand next to me in leather jackets and dreadlocks, repeatedly pumping the air with their fists. They look at each other, and one mouths the word “Awesome!”
Loudspeakers flank the stage and rise up above the crowd in curved banks. Images flash and morph in sync with the music on billboard-sized video screens.
As each verse of the song leads towards the anthemic chorus, the momentum builds. The rhythm drives us forward. The chorus arrives in a rush of sound, and sweeps us on. The singer holds his mike towards us and gets us to sing. We belt it out.
The year is 1988, and U2 is wowing them at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. Bono is on stage telling us how much he loves this town.
The scene goes blurry as the daydream fades, and the present snaps back into focus. Almost every detail is the same, except that the lead singer is saying how much he loves Jesus.
It is July 2006, and we are with 15,000 people at the 20th Anniversary Hillsong Conference at Sydney’s Acer Arena.
Why were we there? We had decided that it was time to experience Hillsong for ourselves firsthand, and this conference seemed like the ideal opportunity. It was a week-long celebration and showcase of all that Hillsong stood for—including its desire to bless, train and influence the wider church. “To champion the cause of the local church”, as the conference motto said.
We went with various questions in our minds. We wanted to see what Hillsong was doing to ‘champion the cause of the local church’. What were they offering churches? What did they want the closeon 40,000 people who attended the conference at various times during the week to take away with them back to their own ministries?
We also wanted to take the temperature of Pentecostalism more generally, or at least Hillsong’s particular brand of it. Hillsong is Australia’s largest and most prominent pentecostal church. As well as two large campuses in Sydney, with a combined attendance of more than 20,000 weekly, it has branch churches in London, Paris and Kiev, an extensive community action arm, and a massive music publishing business. Hillsong songs are sung in churches all around the world, and their albums frequently make it into the secular top 10 in Australia. So large has the Hillsong profile become that the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, the Federal Treasurer, Peter Costello, and even the then Premier of NSW, avowed atheist Bob Carr, accepted invitations to appear on their platform.
Where was this large and growing movement heading? What trends and directions would we observe? And what relation did that direction have to pentecostal and evangelical churches more broadly?
As evangelicals, we also wanted to get some idea of where we stood with Hillsong. Was this a church and a movement with whom we could basically work in harmony, and agree to differ about some things? Or were the differences more significant than that? What was the Hillsong gospel, and was it the same as the Bible’s gospel?
As we arrived, we couldn’t help having certain expectations. Given Hillsong’s history and reputation, we expected music and lots of it. We expected prosperity teaching. And we expected the trappings of pentecostal style and emphasis, like healings and miracles and lots of talk about the Holy Spirit.
We also came hoping to be surprised. And we were.
The first surprise was to see Rick Warren stride onto the stage as the opening speaker on Monday afternoon. Warren would be seen by most as a mainstream evangelical. He was trained at the theologically conservative Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and whatever one may think about some aspects of the Purpose Driven Life phenomenon, you wouldn’t class it as an exercise in Pentecostalism. Yet here was Rick Warren on the platform at Hillsong, alongside a range of speakers from Australia, the USA, the UK and Europe representing a broad spectrum of charismatic and pentecostal theologies.
Why was he here?
For the conference organizers, getting Warren onto the platform was a coup. In Christian circles, he is a superstar, the author of the best-selling Christian book on the planet, a widely respected church leader and visionary. As a conference drawcard, it’s hard to imagine a more appealing name to put on your brochure.
We ran into some evangelical friends at that first session. We greeted each other with that slightly quizzical ‘what are you doing here?’ look. We said we were there for the week to observe. They said they were there for the day to hear Warren.
From Hillsong’s side, they had a crowd-puller who added evangelical credibility to the conference. But what was in it for Warren?
At one level, it was an obvious opportunity to keep extending his profile and influence into new areas. As Warren himself made clear, after the phenomenal success of The Purpose Driven Life and the massive income and fame it provided for him and his church, he felt his responsibility under God was to use the platform and influence he had been given to unite Christians everywhere around the great purposes of God—which he took to be evangelism and fixing the terrible problems of our planet. He made this clear in the two powerful addresses he gave on Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning.
It wasn’t quite what we expected to hear at Hillsong. Warren has been an outspoken critic of the prosperity gospel in other forums, and while he didn’t explicitly address it, he did make it very clear that our life here on earth isn’t at all about amassing wealth, but about giving it away, about storing up treasure in heaven. He spoke of the millions he had earned through The Purpose Driven Life and the fact that he still drove an old car and lived in the same small house. He spoke of suffering and weakness as the normal Christian path. And he powerfully urged everyone present to give themselves to evangelism and service of others, and to sacrifice their all—whatever it takes—to be part of the great mission, the cause, the kingdom.
Was this what the delegates came to hear? Would this somewhat unexpected opening to the conference shape its agenda?
Monday night showed us that the Hillsong platform is broad enough to encompass an evangelical-sounding Rick Warren and a more straightforwardly pentecostal bundle of energy like Matthew Barnett. Barnett, who talked very fast and very loud for an hour, took us on a wild and very entertaining ride through all the miracles that God had done for him in setting up a ministry called The Dream Centre in Southern California. And at the end there was an altar call to release the miracle inside your heart and be a miracle for God. To which hundreds came forward.
On Tuesday morning it was Rick Warren again, giving his ‘five purposes of God’ talk. The contrast between the two presentations was striking, but if the rapturous crowd sensed any change of gears or inconsistency, it wasn’t showing it. Perhaps Rick Warren was providing a clue to what was happening in his prayer at the end of his talk: “We’re never going to unite around doctrine or style, but we pray that you help us to unite around the eternal purpose of God”.
If it wasn’t doctrine or style that provided the unity, what did?
She has, quite possibly, the most photographed throat in all Christendom.
Her head is flung back, eyes closed, blonde hair flowing down her back, one hand holding the microphone, the other stretched out and up.
Darlene Zschech and the music is Hillsong, more than Brian Houston and the prosperity teaching and everything else. Coming to the conference, we knew there would be music. But we weren’t prepared for how much and how long and how loud. Of the two hours or so of each of the 14 rallies throughout the week, around half the time was a rock concert, led by Darlene and an array of special guest singers with names like Alvin Slaughter and Israel Houghton. The quality was superb; the style a mix of energetic pop and soft rock, interspersed with gospel-soul and pop ballads.
And it was everywhere. When we arrived on Monday afternoon, a live band was playing in the forecourt. As we entered the arena, piped Hillsong music was playing over the PA. Behind most of the prayers, behind the announcements, at nearly every point except when the speakers were actually speaking, there was music.
The crowd seemed to thrive on it. As each rally opened, an impromptu mosh pit would form at the front. The energy in the arena was palpable. They loved Darlene. They loved Marty (the other main song-leader). They were delirious for Delirious? (a British Christian rock band that played on Thursday night). And in some slightly hard-to-define way, it was all connected with God.
After each morning rally, we split up into three streams: Pastors & Leaders, Worship & Creative Arts, and Community Action & Evangelism. Over at Worship & Creative Arts, a huge crowd milled around the entrance to the pavilion. The red t-shirted volunteers were everywhere. Sounds of clapping and whooping and cheering leaked out from the main doors. As we entered, we realized that all the excitement was for us! A gauntlet of cheering clapping volunteers was there to greet us, to tell us that they were thrilled we were there, to give us high-fives, and to assure us that it was going to be an “awesome session”. The band was playing. The place was humming. We took our seats—around 2000 of us—and another worship concert was under way.
Half an hour later some of us were flagging, but the majority were still on their feet, as pumped as ever. There was a talk—by a different speaker each day—and then more music before we headed off to electives.
Down at Darlene’s ‘worship leadership’ elective, the hall was again full—perhaps 600 or 700 people.
“How is everyone?” Darlene asked.
“Awesome!”, said a voice behind us.
Darlene’s talk was about the nature of leadership and the challenges of running a ‘worship team’. She discussed the importance of hard work, excellence and quality, quoting 2 Samuel 24:24 (“I will not bring before my king that which costs me nothing”). She urged us to bring a culture of energy and inspiration to our teams, to fire them up with the dream of what is possible in God, and to slay the giant of injustice (for some reason). It was all very personable and warm and scatty, which seemed to be the essence of Darlene. At the start of her talk, she laughed about the lack of structure in her notes. “Don’t worry”, she said. “I’m just talking. Just being a girl.”
And she pulled it off. She was just too positive, genuine, and heart-on-sleeve gorgeous to resist. You might complain (with some justification) that her presentation was sentimental, incoherent, and rather light on content—that it was all anecdote, misquoted Bible verses, over-sharing and assertion—but it almost seems wrong to judge her on these criteria. 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.
There’s a paradox at the heart of all this. It seems to be all about the Spirit lifting us up to the heart of God as we sing our praises to him—a supernatural connection with the divine—and yet it’s also very manufactured. An enormous amount of planning, preparation, rehearsal and hard work goes into the whole operation. Darlene stressed how much dedication and diligence went into preparing worship that was truly honouring to God.
Not to mention the technology—the billiard-table-sized sound desks, the banks of computer monitors, the mics, the loudspeakers, the sophisticated lighting, the smoke machine, the video screens, the crane-mounted cameras sweeping the audience. The Hillsong ‘worship experience’ throughout the week was a massive production, an artifact of incredible human ingenuity and skill.
And yet it was also an act of mysticism. It was predicated on a rejection of rational, mechanistic approaches to God—as if we simply read his words in a book and automatically come to know him. The music was meant to be the language of the heart that lifts us to immediate experience of God.
When Cindy Cruse-Ratcliff—the worship leader from Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas—led one of the worship times, Darlene stepped forward to express her thanks. “These guys have led us into the presence of God in such a magnificent way this morning. Let’s just praise him now. And tell him how much we love him.” And she proceeded to pray a long and emotional prayer about obstacles in people’s lives, and how she sensed a Spirit of overcoming in this place this day that would lead us to freedom, and on in the same vein for five minutes or so, the music behind her words all the time, swelling and fading, swelling and fading. To us, it all seemed so transparently staged and emotionally manipulative. But were they conscious of this? Or were they so used to doing things this way that it just seemed natural?
Later that day, in the afternoon rally after Delirious? had played a short set, Brian Houston talked about how great the evening rally was going to be that night. “The Holy Spirit is going to do something awesome tonight”, he promised. He was quite explicit about the reason for his confidence in what the Holy Spirit would do—Delirious? was going to be given more time on stage.
This sense that we can be led into God’s presence, and experience him, via music and similar activities was a constantly recurring theme of the conference. It came out in numerous heart-revealing idle words—like those just mentioned—but also, with an interesting twist, from Bill Hybels.
At different times during the conference, both Hybels and his creative arts director Nancy Beach were explicit about the need to plan for moments of transcendence in the church gathering. They both quoted (or misquoted) Acts 2:43—“everyone was filled with awe” (NIV)—to show that church ought to contain moments of awe, moments when people are moved, and inspired, and lifted out of themselves. And this needs to be planned for and achieved through drama, music, video, testimonies and other means. Hillsong makes it happen through the simpler, blunter instrument of extended, emotive music. But the goal, and effect, is much the same.
When Bill Hybels was in Sydney in the early 90s speaking to packed conferences of evangelical pastors (mostly Anglicans) about leadership, and Brian Houston was up the road leading a lively, growing pentecostal church called the Hills Christian Life Centre (as it was known then), you wouldn’t have thought the two had a great deal in common. And yet here was Bill Hybels on Thursday morning at Acer Arena, 15 years later, warmly commending the Hillsong ministry, and adding some further evangelical street-cred by his presence on the platform.
What was going on here? Had Hybels moved towards Hillsong, or vice-versa?
After a week of close observation, it seemed obvious that their trajectories were converging. What united them now was much more significant than what divided them; they were promoting much the same kind of church ‘package’.
One of the best descriptions of this package can be found on the website of the ‘Australian Christian Churches’ denominational grouping, of which Brian Houston is president. It describes itself in these terms: “Australian Christian Churches is a coalition of charismatic and contemporary churches committed to communicating Christianity within Australian society through social action, community care, contemporary worship and relevant preaching”.
The three core elements here are:
- enjoyable, superbly run meetings that people enjoy and want to come back to, and which create ‘transcendence’ through music and the arts;
- preaching that is relevant, practical and inspirational—that connects with my daily life and needs and struggles,
and helps me to flourish;
- a culture of activism, volunteer service, social action and community involvement.
This is the Hillsong ‘package’ in a nutshell, and increasingly that of contemporary charismatic-pentecostal churches around Australia—Riverview Community Church in Perth, Paradise Community Church in Adelaide, Christian City Church, Oxford Falls, and many others. It’s also a fair description of the Willow Creek and Saddleback packages, and of many evangelical congregations throughout the Western world who have followed their lead.
There’s no escaping what a powerful and appealing package this is. It works. If you were even remotely inclined towards churchgoing, wouldn’t you want to go to a church like that? It’s not only entertaining, upbeat and inspirational in the midst of the trials of life, but it provides a cause to be part of—to have a significant impact on society, to heal the suburb and the city and the planet.
What’s striking about the evolution of this ‘package’ is how the historically distinctive marks of both Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism are being left behind in the process.
From the evangelical point of view, it has been noted by numerous commentators that many of the American evangelical mega-churches soft-pedal core aspects of evangelical theology.1 The cross, the blood, the judgement of God, the sinfulness of man, the pursuit of holiness, the glory of the resurrected Christ and his Lordship in all of life, the systematic exposition of the Scriptures—all the evangelical staples tend to fade into the background.
We didn’t particularly expect to see many of these evangelical touchstones on display at the Hillsong conference, nor did we. They were all virtually absent.
What surprised us, however, was how many pentecostal distinctives were also hard to spot at the Hillsong Conference. There was no slaying in the Spirit, no speaking in tongues, no talk of baptism in the Spirit or words of knowledge or prophecy, no holy laughter, and only the most fleeting mention of healing.
This is not to say that Hillsong Church (or the conference organizers) no longer believe in these doctrines or practices. It was possible to do an afternoon elective in ‘Moving in the Spirit’ at which participants could “Learn how to hear God’s voice and gain a better understanding of the Spirit world”, as well as “learn how to help someone through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, how to be filled with the Spirit and how to live a Spirit-filled life”. And if you were to go to Hillsong’s website and read the statement of faith, you’d find things like this:
We believe that in order to live the holy and fruitful lives that God intends for us, we need to be baptized in water and be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit enables us to use spiritual gifts, including speaking in tongues.
We believe that God wants to heal and transform us so that we can live healthy and prosperous lives in order to help others more effectively.2
But at the conference, pentecostal distinctives were not on display. Even the controversial prosperity teaching which is associated with many contemporary pentecostal churches was almost entirely absent in the teaching of the conference. In fact, there was far more talk about compassion for the poor than about God making us rich. This was as surprising as it was welcome.
Indeed, just about the only mention of the prosperity doctrine came in Wednesday morning’s address by Brian Houston in which he criticized those who have written or spoken against this aspect of Hillsong’s teaching. Speaking from Exodus 18, and Moses’ appointment of able men to help him rule the people, men who “hate covetousness” (v. 21, NKJV), Houston argued that the problem is not having lots of wealth or possessions; you can have as much stuff as you want, so long as you don’t long for what someone else has got (i.e. ‘covetousness’). The problem with those who criticize the wealth of others is that they do so out of envy. They are really the covetous ones.
In the midst of a week where the overall tone was relentlessly positive and upbeat, this message stood out as jarringly defensive, yet oddly vague. It was very clear what was being defended, yet not at all clear what was being positively affirmed. The take away seemed to be: don’t criticize our wealth, and don’t focus on our finances.
This was difficult to do, because at the conference finances were never far from the surface. The whole conference dripped with money—the venue, the staging, the light show, the equipment, the speakers jetted in from around the world. We were told more than once that the week-long conference was costing $4.69 million to stage, and that the registration fees (ranging from $189 to $269 per person) didn’t go close to covering this amount. At each of the 10 afternoon and evening rallies, one of the younger pastors stepped forward to give a special separate giving talk before the main address, exhorting the crowd to “sow into this ministry” before sending the collection bags around.
The prosperity and blessing that Hillsong is renowned for may have been on show, but it was not explicitly taught. And this lack of prosperity teaching— indeed, the lack of many other pentecostal distinctives—was one of the most surprising features of the week. What did this represent?
In their face to the world and to the wider Christian community, there is little doubt that contemporary pentecostal movements like Hillsong have ‘mainstream’ ambitions. They don’t wish to be labelled or parked off to the side as upstart or fringe ‘pentecostals’. In fact, you have to look hard to find the word ‘pentecostal’ or ‘charismatic’ on Hillsong’s website or in any of its publicity. The same can be said for many other contemporary pentecostal churches.
The dropping of pentecostal distinctives seems to be part of the growth strategy—that is, they have discovered that it is easier to grow a church by downplaying some of the harder-to-sell aspects of older-style Pentecostalism. Was the absence of explicit prosperity teaching at the conference part of this strategy? Will it be the next distinctive to fade into the background, given that Hillsong has been receiving a regular hammering in the secular media on this issue? Or did they simply decide not to bring it to the fore at this particular conference?
Whatever the reasons, there is little doubt that Hillsong is representative of a growing and very influential stream of modern Pentecostalism that looks less and less like traditional Pentecostalism with each passing year.
You had to look hard to see examples of older, classic Pentecostalism at Hillsong Conference. But it was there at least in one person.
A highly emotive, revved-up, German holy-roller might sound like a contradiction in terms, but that’s Reinhard Bonnke. He not only had the best name at the conference, but one of the most dynamic rhetorical styles—he roamed the stage, the microphone held close to his mouth, the strongly accented German voice loud one minute, a whisper the next.
Bonnke ticked more of the traditional pentecostal boxes than anyone else on the platform. He spoke in tongues, he preached the power of the Holy Spirit over demonic forces, he believed in miracles and healing, and even claimed to perform several major miracles on Friday night. He promised married couples who were barren that they would be holding their own baby in their arms in nine months time. He promised cures for cancer, for people with damage to their spines, and for those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. He asked us to stand and place our hands on the parts of the body where we were sick or on the top of our own heads, and promised that we were healed and that our life spans were returned to normal. The fact that he himself wore glasses at all times before, during and after these sessions seemed to matter little to him or the audience.
Reinhard Bonnke was the most distinctively pentecostal speaker of the week, and he was the only one to explain the gospel. He was also the only speaker to open the Bible and read an extended section. On Thursday afternoon, he opened up Matthew 25:14-30, the parable of the talents, read it for us, and then worked through the passage. Did he say, as we expected him to, that we should put our skills, gifts and money into God’s hands so that they would be multiplied? Not at all. Reinhard insisted that the talents were the gospel, which is best protected not by burying it or surrounding it with barbed wire, but by exposing it to the world and preaching it clearly and openly.
And what is the gospel?
This is what he said:
I tell you, we talk so often about details that don’t matter. Rescue the perishing! Dig out your talent, put it in the bank of God, and you will produce for eternity.
Let me leave the 99 and talk to the one lost sheep.
Jesus saves. There is no other saviour. You can look where you want. I say to the people in Africa [where he conducts many of his missions], nobody, absolutely nobody, can take away the cross from Christians, because nobody else died on the cross for the sins of the whole world than Jesus.
Whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord Jesus shall be saved!
But that is not automatic. You have to call on the name of the Lord.
Suppose there are two skydivers, two parachutes. One jumps and falls quite rapidly and says, “I am absolutely safe. I’ve got a parachute on my back.”
He still has the parachute on his back when he hits the ground. I will say that man jumped to a fast conclusion!
The second man is more clever.
He says, “I’ve got to do something”. He pulls the cord, and like an explosion the parachute opens.
I found the ripcord in the Bible. Romans 10:13—“Whosoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”.
Pull that ripcord!
It doesn’t just stop you. It pulls you higher, and higher, and higher to the new Jerusalem.
Do it now! It is my greatest honour to help you.
After a week of the most cavalier mishandling of Scripture, and the absence of any discussion of anything really central to Christianity (such as the cross and the blood of Christ), we nearly stood and cheered for old Reinhard. He may have made outrageous promises of healing for barren couples, and talked in an exaggerated way about devils and demons, and his explanation of faith and repentance might have strayed towards Arminianism, but alone of all the singers, guests, announcers and preachers, he gave us some gospel.
Reinhard Bonnke’s passionate preaching of at least some of the gospel brought into sharp focus just how loose and undefined the message of the conference had been. We had come hoping to find out what the Hillsong ‘gospel’ was, so that we could know whether—at that most bedrock level—we were on the same page. By the end of the week we were no wiser. Words like ‘Jesus’ and ‘salvation’ were proclaimed loudly and often, but what these words meant was never explained, and what we took them to mean was never mentioned. It was clear that further investigation would be required.
Tracking down the Hillsong gospel is not easy, not least of all because careful definition or exposition of doctrinal views is not one of their great interests. We watched and listened carefully all through the conference, and started doing further digging afterwards. As we did so, we discovered that Sydney pastor Nathan Walter had been busy working on the same project, in response to continued questions and discussion among his congregation—most of whom have visited Hillsong Church at least once. At a recent seminar, he outlined the fruit of his research about the nature of the ‘Hillsong gospel’.
Walter started with the assumption that ‘core gospel content’ must at the very least include some basic truths about:
- sin—that we are rebels against our holy, creator God, and deserve nothing but his wrath and condemnation;
- Jesus—that he is God’s perfect obedient Son, who died as a penal substitute for our sins, and rose victorious and vindicated as Lord and Christ;
- our response—that in the gospel God calls on us to turn from sin in repentance, to put our faith entirely in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, and to wait for his return, when he will judge the living and the dead, and bring salvation and eternal life to those who have put their trust in him.
Having looked extensively at Hillsong books and publications, listened to a range of audio and televised sermons (especially those that purported to deal with these subjects), and visited Hillsong church on serveral occasions, Nathan Walter arrived at some unsettling conclusions. These three core subjects are certainly touched upon and discussed, but the content and emphasis is disturbingly different from what we might expect:
- when sin is spoken about, which is not often, it is usually in terms of immorality in the world or else negative thinking and attitudes that destroy God’s purpose in our lives, and limit our potential;3 there is no concept that we are under God’s wrath or condemnation because of our personal rebellion against him, or that there is a connection between sin, death and judgement;4
- it is asserted that Jesus is God’s perfect Son and even that he died ‘for us’ or ‘in our place’, but what this means is not explained; not a single example was found expounding Jesus’ death as taking the penalty for sin on our behalf so that we might avoid God’s wrath on judgement day; instead, Jesus’ death and resurrection is usually quoted either as an example (of overcoming difficulty and living with purpose),5 or explained as the source of healing and empowerment for living an abundant and healthy life;6
- our response to the Christian message focuses heavily on the power of choice God has given us, on the need to change mental attitudes and thought patterns so as to live in the blessing God has for us, and on the biblical ‘law of cause and effect’— that if we obey Bible principles we will succeed and flourish in life, as God intended.7
Nathan Walter summarized his findings like this:
In their understanding of humanity and sin, Hillsong distorts the diagnosis: it’s not so much that we’re sinful rebels against God our creator, and therefore objects of his righteous anger and judgement, under the sentence of death; it’s more that we have allowed all kinds of bad choices and negative thinking to get in the way of reaching the purpose and potential God has in store for us.
This means that although Hillsong still believes in and proclaims the historical events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, they understand these events differently. They do not proclaim Jesus’ death as a substitutionary atonement, turning aside God’s wrath so that I can receive forgiveness and be saved on the day of judgement—rather, Jesus’ death and resurrection function as an undefined entry point into the life of blessing that God has for us, and serve as an example of what a fully devoted life in tune with God’s purposes looks like (effectively a ‘moral influence’ view of the atonement).
And because they have twisted both the problem and the solution in Christ out of shape, their account of how we should respond to the gospel is also badly flawed. It’s not about clinging to Christ in faith for forgiveness of sins, and pursuing holiness through the work of the Spirit—it’s about choosing to change how you think, and obeying the Bible’s principles, so that you can move into a period of success and flourishing in every area of life.8
If Nathan Walter is right—and it certainly squares with everything we saw at Hillsong Conference, as well as our own subsequent research into Hillsong teachings—this is a very troubling diagnosis indeed, both for pentecostals and for evangelicals.
Traditional Pentecostalism was an offshoot of Evangelicalism. It had some important distinctives (such as belief in ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ as an experience subsequent to conversion evidenced by speaking in tongues, and the continuance of miraculous gifts today). But in nearly every other respect its doctrinal position was straightforward Evangelicalism. A quick look at the ‘Statement of Faith’ for the Assemblies of God (UK), to take one example, bears this out.9
However, it seems that Hillsong-style ‘contemporary Pentecostalism’ is becoming both less pentecostal and less evangelical as time goes on. The pentecostal distinctives are being watered down or dropped, and the underlying evangelical heritage seems already to have been left behind. (It’s an interesting exercise in this connection to do a close comparison of the UK Assemblies of God ‘Statement of Faith’ and the Australian one, which happens to be identical to the Hillsong version.)10
In this sense, Hillsong seems to present more of a threat to evangelical Christians and churches than more traditional Pentecostalism. Hillsong looks less pentecostal, and more mainstream, and so is more inviting. Its music is a natural bridge or entry point, and once inside evangelicals will not be pressured into accepting baptism in the Spirit or speaking in tongues. Instead, they will find themselves enjoying a superbly produced ministry package with a powerful emotional punch. Yet at the level of core gospel content—the bedrock platform on which we both might stand in fellowship and explore our differences— there is an alarming disconnect. The gospel is not preached. Its content is not expounded. Its great terms and concepts are not taught or explained. Whatever is driving the bus, it’s not the gospel.
If this assessment is accurate, it explains much. If the biblical gospel is no longer driving a church or Christian movement, certain consequences almost invariably follow. DB Knox put it this way:
A gospel that minimizes or omits judgement must concentrate on this life and the benefits that Christ brings for this life. Most modern preaching, whether liberal or evangelical, falls into this mistake. The liberal preacher may emphasize a social gospel, for example, one of alleviation of poverty or political oppression; the evangelical may emphasize a happy life, love, joy and forgiveness.11
A package that focuses on uplifting music to connect me to God, relevant messages that will help me to flourish in life, and social and community action to alleviate poverty is exactly what one would expect to find if the gospel of future judgement has been abandoned. The focus shifts from judgement and the coming kingdom to living an awesome life now; a life of personal flourishing and growing impact upon society.
In this sense at least, Hillsong retains its links with historic Pentecostalism—a movement which has always focused more on blessing now than judgement and glory to come.
By Friday afternoon of Hillsong Conference 2006, as we sat in the forecourt and tried to process all that we had seen and heard, it was becoming clear that we were witnessing a mass Christian movement deep in the process of losing its gospel and biblical foundations. The labels and banners were still there—‘Jesus’, ‘sin’, ‘salvation’, ‘grace’, ‘blessing’, ‘worship’—but their content was unrecognizable. They were like old friends who had gone overseas for 20 years and come back different people.
We also realized that this concern of ours was in all likelihood not shared by the vast bulk of other delegates. We’re evangelicals. Ideas and content matter to us. We measure what we hear against the Bible. We hate sloppy thinking and inconsistency. When the Bible is misquoted or mangled, we cringe (as sadly we did for most of the week). When the gospel is unclear or absent, we grieve. We expect people to have a thought-through theology that informs what they do.
This was simply not the mindset of Hillsong—neither of its organizers nor of its delegates, judging by the enthusiastic reception given to pretty much everything that was served up during the week, regardless of its content or quality or consistency. Everything was ‘awesome’.
We thought back to Rick Warren’s prayer on Monday afternoon: “We’re never going to unite around doctrine or style, but we pray that you help us to unite around the eternal purpose of God”. As a prayer, it was powerfully and dangerously appealing. But what did it mean?
Almost nothing, at one level. You could believe what you want, and still be a fully paid-up servant of God’s eternal purpose. Pentecostal. Charismatic. Evangelical. Catholic. Representative of a denomination, any denomination. You could still be embraced by this great big bear-hug of a petition.
At another level, Warren’s prayer perfectly encapsulated the mood of the conference. We remembered Jentezen Franklin’s address on Wednesday night. Jentezen committed serious exegetical crimes and attempted to bury the body as he made an impassioned plea for unity. He invoked the picture of God on the mercy seat of the ark of the testimony, between two gold angels (Exod 25:20-22) to justify an appeal for interdenominational co-operation at the expense of church style and theological belief. Where was the Lord? He was “in the midst”, seated on the mercy seat, as he continues to be today—siding with neither the left wing nor the right wing (not of the angel but of politics); siding not with Baptists, Methodists, pentecostals or evangelicals. We were told that the middle letter of the word “midst” was “d”, and that if you took out the middle you were left with a “mist”. So to avoid such a mist, it was important to reclaim the middle ground.
There was no attempt to understand or apply what Scripture was actually saying at any point—just a continuous jazzy riff along on a theme that had long ago been set adrift from any biblical moorings. The audience loved it, and as a piece of rhetoric it was stunning. By the climax, there was no resistance from the entire arena to Jentezen’s command to rise to our feet, link hands with the person next to us, and form an arch to “dedicate the middle ground”.
It was powerful. It was awesome. It was nonsensical.
After a week at Hillsong Conference, we left saddened and more than a little disturbed. If this was a showcase for Australia’s largest church and the standard-bearer for a new mainstream Pentecostalism, there was little reason for optimism and much cause for alarm. On all the evidence of that week, backed up by our other investigations, this was not a platform or organization that we could support or recommend to anyone. It did not faithfully and clearly teach the gospel of Christ—and this was not through denial or outright heresy, but through distortion, replacement and omission.
For all the hype and hoopla, we were not directed to the narrow gate and the difficult way that leads to salvation. Instead, we found ourselves being beckoned down a broader and far more awesome road; a road paved with promises of blessing and divine purpose; a road with inspiring tour-guides, thousands of warm and enthusiastic fellow-travellers, and a soundtrack to die for.
1 See, for example, the critiques of Gary Gilley,
This little church went to market: Is the modern church reaching out or selling out? (Evangelical Press, Darlington, 2005) and Bob DeWaay, Redefining Christianity: Understanding the Purpose Driven Movement (21st Century Press, Springfield, 2006).
3 See, for example, Brian Houston’s sermon series on ‘My Deadly Seven’, which doesn’t deal with a biblical doctrine of sin but with destructive thought patterns such as negativity, regret, comparison, opinion, narrow-mindedness, indifference and blame.
4 Notice, for example, how God’s wrath and judgement are completely absent from the account of sin and salvation in Bobbie Houston’s Heaven is in this House, Maximised Leadership, Castle Hill, 2001, pp. 24-27, 180-81.
5 For example, Brian Houston, For this cause, Maximised Leadership, Castle Hill, 2001, pp. 14-15.
6 Brian Houston, How to Live in Health and Wholeness, Maximised Leadership, Castle Hill, 2005, p. 5.
7 For this cause, pp. 42-45; and Brian Houston, How to Live a Blessed Life, Maximised Leadership, Castle Hill, 2002.
8 Nathan Walter, unpublished seminar paper, 2006.
10 http://www.aog.org.au/AboutUs/WhatWeBelieve/tabid/109/Default.aspx. NB. Brian Houston is the President of the Assemblies of God in Australia.
11 DB Knox, Selected Works: The Doctrine of God, vol. 1, Matthias Media, Sydney, 2000, p. 60.