It’s nice to be home in Australia for January, after completing two and a half years of a PhD program at Fuller Theological Seminary in Los Angeles! A perk of being in Sydney (aside from reconnecting with family and friends) is attending my home church, Hillsong. I grew up in the congregation, and returned in 2010 before relocating to the USA. it’s the thing I missed most passionately while away. Of course, an announcement was just made about a new LA Hillsong plant in 2014 – so if I end up in Pasadena for dissertation writing (crossed fingers), I can worship there.
Because the new-ish Manhattan Hillsong plant is going so well in the USA, there’s growing interest in the church; well, among American theologians and religious scholars I spoke with. Academics are turning their attention to global Pentecostalism (or in this specific case, Oceanian charismatic evangelicals who really *don’t* like ‘tags’ being applied to them). This fuels more interest in Australia. A recent thread on a brilliant Australian theologians’ facebook wall, a casually delivered sermon by Joel and Julia A’Bell and a few other coincidences raised recurring themes for me, so I thought I’d write a little important something about growing up a “Hillsonger” that I’ve meant to say for a while. I hope you can hear me out.
My staunchly Anglican family joined Hillsong Church after the charismatic movement hit Sydney in the early 1980s. In California by this time, charismatic-ism was well established and the music of John Wimber dearly beloved. Furious debate on the role of the Spirit in everyday Christian life was merely a simmer. But Australia, positioned at the edge of the world, so to speak, tended to get things decades after other countries. Put it down to strong border control. My parents’ Rector successfully refuted all theological arguments, clamping down on charismatic eccentricities (now we know he was an AngliCAN’T and there are many AngliCANS). He didn’t realize our house on a Tuesday night was full of adults praying and studying bible passages on spiritual gifts, trying to work it out. I’ve since found out it was very Methodist of them to supplement Sunday’s liturgy with additional worship.
Ultimately, and pretty uneventfully, they sought a new church on the outskirts of the city, near the one-acre farm lots dad admired so much. He loved driving past cows and sheep on Sundays. Surprisingly for this location, Hillsong allowed my parents to re-imagine Christianity in a completely fresh way – a technologically savvy service that included children, youth and young adults, and even allowed speaking in tongues at times (quietly, during prayer requests, and in member events). After so many years of sneakily raising their hands, they just wanted to move on, and help build a new, charismatic biblically-based evangelical Australian church. They loved Brian and Bobbie’s forward-thinking vision, permeated by the energy of the Hills District with anticipation of growth and progress. And, conversions occurred every single week, something that astounds them even still. They consider the altar call a sacred moment – my dad sheds tears talking about the joy he feels in seeing people accept Christ. Even in its early venues, there was a sense that something incredible was taking place at Hillsong and no one person was in control – perhaps the Spirit was (??) – and because of this, our family wanted to be present as it happened.
So I guess Hillsong Church initially chose me, care of my parents, but it soon became my church, and my parents merely attended as far as I was concerned. It all happened at that Summer Camp of 1998, after which first generation Hillsongers suddenly had to cope with what were eventually dubbed “Jesus is my girlfriend” lyrics, as well as a growing group of bouncing teenagers dancing in the front rows (which they endured or loved, depending on which member of their generation you ask). We had what the church came to explain as “revival”, a completely unexplainable energy that flowed in and through the youth group – leaving visible and tangible evidence in new groups of Australian youth: skaters, surfers, geeks and university students, preppies, grungy kids, even a few goths. They just kept on coming. By 1996, we had thousands of youth. Someone had to roster the youth bands, and photocopy the music charts, which is where my involvement started. With a photocopy code.
The genius of Hillsong was the way multiple voices could be heard within the same space; and with so many new Christians, there was a diversity of views on every and any topic. Not only did the church represent many of Sydney’s all-pervasive territorial cultural barriers (people traveled from all over Sydney each week), but ethnic barriers seemed to recede as Hillsong embraced Sydney’s newer (and older) migrants. The elders are people of mixed Australian, New Zealander, Tongan, Scottish, Armenian, Iranian, Chinese, British, (and more) descent, and while multicultural assimilation was the Australian norm, Dr Gordon Lee pioneered language services even in the early days. Women and men also held important roles side-by-side, modeled by Bobbie and Brian.
I’ve been the first person over the years to admit Hillsong church wasn’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. But one benefit of so many people was that when something annoyed me, it often also annoyed others – and was being worked on behind the scenes. It was in the Hub, those crazy think-tank rooms that I truly fell in love with my church. Within all the vocal diversity was a consensus. The offices were a hive of volunteer and staff minds engaging problems and working towards creative solutions, contributing, as they were encouraged to do in Romans 12:3-8. It was always out of space, with offices in storage cabinets, or dug out of the very foundations. Almost everybody was building their leadership, and ministries grew strangely, organically – with nearly as many endeavors abandoned as sprung to life. There was freedom to try, and even to make mistakes, because somehow Pastor Brian had a sixth sense to fix things that weren’t flourishing quickly, re-channeling energy elsewhere when necessary, and opening up new areas no-one thought possible (e.g. acquiring the city congregation). All the Arts flourished – in Sydney, no less – with many thanks to Darlene Zschech. The spiritual gifts of ‘discernment’, ‘prophecy’ and ‘wisdom’ my parents had spent so long looking for were explained in Pastor Brian’s phrases “supernaturally natural” and “extraordinarily ordinary”. The inexplicable was explained with 1 Cor 2:14.
However, I quickly found out that on the North Shore, where I lived, mention of my church risked a slanderous tirade. My local high school, Cheltenham Girls High School, considered Hillsong a cult. This hit an all time low when they declared the “Shine” deportment program to be under-cover proselytism in violation of the tenets of feminism. Whatever the heck feminism now means. Seriously though, I’d love the memo, because I must have missed it in my six years of high school. Clearly nail polish application and teaching which fork to use is a no-no. But dressing girls in bright pink “feminine” uniforms is OK. Well, as a second generation “pink elephant”, I hope they understand me when I say I find this quite ironic. These complaints worked in collusion with Sydney Morning Herald journalists to expose and shut down some programs. But for the record, my mother and I worship along with many other former CGHS students who do not consider Hillsong repressive for women.
As its fame grew, Hillsong appeared irregularly in the media. Atheist journalists labeled it many things; money hungry, a sham, flamboyant, and corrupt. Friends I grew up with turned to secular papers to cash in on their stories about the congregation. They were screened on television, usually during the dinner hour. At school the next day, I would lay low. And the following Sunday, church leaders were hurt, upset, defensive and irate. It caused them to decry “intellectuals”, “academia” and “education”, because this seemed to be the problem. Sigh.
This tension came to a head in my honours third year of Political Economy at The Sydney University in the year 2000. Our garage style youth band, United (a name representing the youth groups merging together for special events) had gone gold on the Australian music charts, and in the busy-ness, I’d fallen one point behind on my required mark, a small little typed ’16’ I will never forget. I rang the university, and was engaged by a course administrator who tersely informed me I must choose between my faith and academic career. It was an engagement I had been regrettably primed for. I loudly and clearly declared that I was withdrawing from the course, and faded into the congregation, working as a barista on the side (for the entirely separate company Gloria Jeans), with my dreams of policy-writing and international development work shattered.
I slowly and cautiously re-entered academia, applying for a suitably “Christian” masters in Theology. A genetic susceptibility to research lead to another degree, and although I pleaded with my supervisor not to ask me to research Hillsong, she convinced me otherwise. I nervously presented my Masters of Philosophy to the Australian Catholic University music department in 2009 and received my first question “what does Hillsong do with its money?”
This seemed to suggest my questioners were not aware of how vast Hillsong actually was. Um… it pays its huge staff. It turns the light bulbs on and makes sure fridges are stocked for volunteer coffees. It develops young Australian leaders in skills like reliability, character development, and virtues society often forgets. It hires a bus to give over 80,000 food items away at Christmas. But “I don’t think this is pertinent to my thesis” seemed the best answer at the time. I played a Brooke Fraser United clip, and received some comments about the brain-washing repetitive nature of charismatic choruses. I returned to my Melbourne hotel shaking, but having passed.
Somehow, it has become normal to start the Hillsong story with “questionable theology”, or sexual abuse … not its later implemented counseling programs (many offered by outsiders lest God forbid, and I mean that quite literally there be any abuse cases). It has become normal in Australia to pick up the paper or open the computer and read blogs like this (my entire family votes Labor, so he had a strangely blue crowd for the city) or this. So normal, in fact, that when I recently questioned an American journalist about why she’d summarized the last twenty years of the Sydney Morning Herald articles, she furiously informed me that she had “even flown to Australia to write the story”. Touché.
The thing is, there’s only one side presented. Today I talked to a key leader, and she requested people ask her before assuming. Does she believe in prosperity theology? No. And I thought about it – do I? No. Does my husband? No. But are there people in the congregation that do? Sure! Almost every shade of thought imaginable is present. Hillsong members are not clones. While the leadership has a statement of belief, it presents basics, and for the rest, members aren’t conformed to one idea. Pastors Robert and Amanda Fergusson edit all songs for orthodoxy. But they also leave room for poetry. I’ve found members to be meticulous about finding strengths of varied theological arguments, not flaws. They want to leave debates open-ended until they gather all the facts. They are committed to exploring all verses of the bible, and humbly listening to each other’s perspective, even when they secretly think it may suck. They want to get central bits sorted out and leave the edges open-ended. That might be a different processing mode than your church, but no less Christian.
Look, I have close friends who genuinely hate Hillsong, and are incredibly fearful about me attending. I still manage to make it through online chats, or coffee dates. We even laugh about it at times. To be clear, I don’t believe human tragedy, pain or abuse should ever be covered up. In fact, I believe the opposite. The bible says that we should bring sin into the light.
But I honestly believe, in the same vein, that scandal-trading is an inappropriate mode for journalists to deal with Australian religious groups. This perpetuates stereotypes that are continually recounted time and time again. Any church is an organization, and my church is made up of thousands of ordinary Australians, with a variety of stories. Just like me. So in 2014, my New Years wish is that we can stop smear campaigns run by Australian journalists against religious groups. And maybe, in seeing the diversity of the people of the brand, we could even humanize what it means to be an Australian attending Sydney’s Hillsong Church.