“The Low-Down”: Hillsong Conference 2014

(This post was written in July 2014 directly after attending Hillsong Conference, and is edited only for clarity)

After seeing my social media posts, some of my coolest academic friends asked me to write a summary of the annual Australian Hillsong Conference, 2014. This is partly because Hillsong is only emerging now on the radar of the U.S. mainstream, with its second church plant in Los Angeles earlier this year. One friend suggested I could do this summary privately, but after thinking, I realized that I don’t want to write anything that isn’t appropriate to share publicly. So this is the “low” view of Hillsong Conference, from the perspective of a long-term Sydney church member with some breaks, and a 2014 conference volunteer (who happens to be doing a PhD in theology in Los Angeles).

Hillsong Conference’s mission statement has always been “to champion the cause of the local church”. And the theme of this year’s conference was ‘No Other Name’. It was an intentional and shameless promotion of the name of JESUS. This was hammered home in Stephen Furtick’s first address, which was essentially an anti-marketing manifesto. Of course, you might say, this is from the church that has arguably the best branding strategy in the world? Oh, Yes. (FYI you can see here my peer-reviewed article in the Australian Journal of Communication on Hillsong Church’s Branding, as well as my thesis that covers Hillsong Music’s branding development). So will it stop marketing? Not any time soon. One of Hillsong’s greatest attributes is its capacity to hold two things as true. You can call this “irony” if you’d like, which liturgist Gerard Moore points out is a very Australian trait. But here at the conference, it was refocusing itself on the biggest name of all, Jesus.  Screen Shot 2014-07-05 at 2.44.07 PM

There are a couple of newspaper reports you can read to get the Australian media take on this event. It’s no small thing to have 30,000 Christians together in the largest stadium in Sydney. And, there are always the annual, obligatory Anglican warnings of Hillsong’s heresy, that are released a couple of weeks beforehand to warn clergy against attending. This has become the annual cycle of Australian Christianity.

Of course, these blogposts always are published just as Pastor Brian Houston (the founder of Hillsong Church, along with his wife Bobbie) lands in Sydney and prepares his preaching. They find him ready with a platform to address their claims. And so, his message on the Wednesday morning on ecumenical relationships was probably the best I’ve ever heard on this topic, pitched directly at senior pastors, who are most likely to set the agenda of their congregations in regards to schoolyard, workplace and online interactions.

But it was, in Pentecostal style, delivered orally. So, unless you were there or ordered it through the website, you wouldn’t know. In that sense, the written word trumps the spoken one at Hillsong yet again. The thing is, I think it’s working. The goal posts shift every year, slightly further in favour of the lay-people’s church.

IMG_0550It’s hard to get people up to speed on thirty years of Hillsong Conference – all the way from Geoff Bullock with a piano singing contemporary choruses, through to Ron Kenoly and Alvin Slaughter singing gospel renditions of ‘Shout to the Lord’. It’s easier not to try. So I’ll just start with where we are, and hope people can catch up.

It has always been a future-forward (escahtological) movement. It’s not a conference where you would wallk away remembering the content, but definitely you would feel the momentum of the Australian church. And, despite the criticisms, I think there are some signs that things are becoming more clarified at Hillsong, and that this movement is maturing.

First, the conference is getting easier to attend, and is more focused … for example, there is a simplification of the amount of classes offered. The conference has been in the past made up of thousands and thousands of electives. This signified the diversity of the people coming – something for everyone. But luckily, gone are the days of keeling over breathless while walking to a venue forty minutes away. There are intentional common conversations being sparked, and the topics are better than they have ever been. Most notable was the session from “The Catholic guy” Bruce Downs, who has used Hillsong’s resource to revitalize the Catholic church in Perth,  on Australia’s West Coast. This really brings up questions on how resource is being used in the church – a good question for the church at this point in time.


The second sign is how relevant these sessions are to Christian community-building. There were sessions on very practical issues that local church leaders face, including how to think through a theology of the Holy Spirit, how to write a songlist, that kind of thing. It is a pastor’s conference. In that sense, itinerant ministries, touring worship bands, NGO workers and/or academics may now feel more uncomfortable being there, but I am incredibly pleased about the focus getting back to communities of faith. I can’t clap loud enough.

This year Hillsong Church leaders described a consolidation of the departments and ministries away from their separate ‘silos’. In the past, there were ‘worship leader’, ‘senior pastor’ and ‘community action’ streams, in which people learned practical skills. To be in the ‘worship’ stream meant that you never engaged ‘biblical studies’, or ‘community action’. Hillsong almost encouraged the church to specialize. Now, ‘elective’ sessions are freely offered to all delegates. This makes it easier to be a worship-leading pastor or a community-minded worshiper. And so, the conference was also brought back to its main focus – championing the local church. In this sense,

I believe both the conference and church are well poised for their future. It is a local church with a global mindset, helping local churches. And that’s the difference between Hillsong Conference and the other conferences out there.

This doesn’t suggest that it, as a local church isn’t facing real issues in Sydney. Here are three theological and cultural areas Hillsong itself is grappling with, that an average bystander may not be aware of. In this sense, I’m presenting them as points of prayer, and also to illustrate the way Hillsong navigates the concerns at hand. One thing I know is that the church continues to grow and challenge itself, and that the collaborative solutions it comes to will be as important as these debates themselves.

1) The first is Australian politicians that proclaim Christ and yet represent some of the most inhumane policies the country has ever known, in particular indefinite detention of refugees, including children. Australia’s political system has two main parties, and a few smaller ones. Both main parties are complicit in our current policy of detaining asylum seekers in indefinite detention. This is most visibly backed by the current Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison, a former member of Hillsong (by that he means Sydney Christian Life Centre or ‘The City Church’ before acquired by Hillsong). He now attends an affiliated church in Sydney’s southern shire area, called ShireLive.

Many of the Christian denominations in Australia are standing against this immigration policy, however unfortunately Hillsong hosted Morrison recently on behalf of the Prime Minister Abbott (they may have been forced to do so as the PM’s representative?). So the question hangs in the air – does Hillsong stand with other Australian denominations in decrying inhumane government policies? It’s never gotten involved directly in politics in this way, so I suspect it doesn’t know yet. But, Pastor Brian staged a prayer two weeks ago at a mega prayer night FOR refugees. This marks a change in their stance to date.

(I should here add that Hillsong has a Sydney campus in the Villawood Detention Centre, for refugees and asylum seekers. It has been practically on the ground assisting for decades with the provision of services to individuals and families. I am here talking about protesting inhuman government policy). 

The echoes a question often directed at me in my seminary behind closed doors – is the Pentecostal movement capable of seeing the evil within the system as sin? I hope so. Why? For the sake of justice.

Although, at the moment, I’m reading countless tweets and emails coming out from pastors and lead figures in the movement that warn against the “politicizing” of the gospel, as it leads away from evangelism. There *are* many Pentecostals that vote conservatively, and lean towards the right. Although, my personal position is pretty clear by what I’ve written. The resolution of this situation remains to be seen.

IMG_05572) The issue of women speaking the gospel is as yet unresolved in Sydney. The state church is currently in the midst of an enormous debate as to whether women should be permitted to preach or speak in church. John Dickson, an Anglican theologian affiliated with the Centre for Public Christianity recently presented the book ‘Hearing Her Voice’, pushing back against the strong hardline stance of Sydney evangelical seminary, Moore College, that has for decades stood against women preachers. Many evangelical churches in Sydney do not believe that women should be leaders either. This new book has led to a recent, incredible, and perhaps unprecedented facebook show-down between Mattias Media guys who published the book and are receiving criticism for doing so, and Dickson. I’m not completely sure what happened. I think Mattias Media reserved the right for board members to disagree with the contents of the book, although Mattias had published it. John Dickson debated these leaders’ views very publicly, on his facebook page, for weeks.

In Sydney, NeoPentecostal movements such as Hillsong were, until recently, the loudest voice for the progressive side. They have promoted women as leaders in church. This is best represented by the Colour Your World Hillsong Conference, which is a feminine conference, with *only* female speakers (with a few exceptions here and there). It has been described from the platform before as a quest to empower women.

Unfortunately, as Hillsong has grown, in the last five years secular universities and theologically liberal commentators have now entered this debate, complicating it further by presenting what they consider Hillsong’s oppressive position. In some ways, this was precipitated by former insider Tanya Levin’s famous expose of the church, entitled ‘People in Glass Houses’. Marion Maddox at Macquarie University in 2013 presented (adding to her range of articles on Hillsong’s “growth theology”, politics, and economics) a so-called Hillsong “Princess Theology” from a quasi-theological feminist perspective. Sigh. This voice is largely promoted by secular women now, who believe that Hillsong is as oppressive as any other church when it comes to women’s voices.

And now, the discourse extends in multiple directions. Most troubling to me is the claim that Hillsong defers in issues of domestic violence to headship theology.

That’s not to say there haven’t been issues with Hillsong’s presentation of gender over the years. Key leaders admit freely to me that there was an infiltration of values from the magazine industry that were promoted unintentionally from the platform, and, because of this perhaps some claims that Hillsong women are “hyper-feminized” are correct. But whether the church generates these problematic values and images, so far in my research, everyone has denied this.

Jacqueline Grey, the Dean and Old Testament scholar at the Assemblies of God denominational college, may differ with my assessment. The Pentecostal Bible College, Alphacrucis, is now a leading voice in regards to Australian women’s rights, particularly regarding ordination. However, the most vocal feminist of this group, Shane Clifton — attends Hillsong Church. Despite the claims that Hillsong is ‘oppressive’ to women. Yes. So. Well, I hope this accurately paints the absolute confusion in Australia on this issue.

Look, I might have been more sympathetic to Maddox’s viewpoint except that she sat in front of me in a seminar at the American Academy of Religion Conference, Baltimore in November, and waxed lyrical that she was from “the heartland of Hillsong”, proceeding to list its characteristics – that were clearly based in scanty understanding of the community. I was just glad I’d recently written a chapter on Australian Pentecostalism for the presenter, who caught clear view of my grimace.

Anyways – back to Hillsong – the greatest shock for me of the conference was related to this debate and the announcement that Mark Driscoll would be a speaker for next year. There are no women on the 2015 headline – yet again. Driscoll’s views on women are known. I’m a little nervous about him standing next to women who freely preach, sing and minister at Hillsong. But I think it’s evidence of this continuing wrestling.

So. The issue of whether women should speak in church, whether they are “allowed” or “permitted” to do so by men, and on what platform they may speak is, in my opinion, still being resolved at Hillsong, whatever Maddox may say. Whether Hillsong is pro-woman or indifferent to gender, scholars have evidence for both viewpoints. The role of a Christian woman is unclear in the Sydney church as a whole. I say this as a well-educated, second generation Hillsong attendee, who rarely feels prevented from any spaces due to gender. But I, and other women, want to know where the church really stands, if only to refute the misleading perceptions in Christian and secular scholarly circles.

3) Thirdly, the last issue I think Hillsong wrestles with valiantly is race and ethnicity. The church is often believed to be “white” by North Americans. And, I don’t want to ruin an intelligent marketing strategy, but this is far from the truth. Neither the church nor the conference “white”. I can tell you that definitively.

One thing that emerged from the new system of conference group seat allocation is that it created a way of “seeing” the diversity in the stadium when people were seated. This was a smart idea to try and facilitate better relationship-building in a very large venue. I almost died when the All-Blacks Football team were mentioned, and the Māori section next to me started trumpeting. We could argue that more segregation occured, as those who couldn’t afford registration and came only to the cheaper night sections were in the top two levels of the stadium. I know because I was giving out bibles – there was hardly a white person among them.

Either way, I think there is need for greater Asian, and indigenous Australian representation on stage. This doesn’t mean I’m suggesting that people be promoted because of race. I just think that it’s important to ensure that Hillsong includes some awesome voices that are representative of these groups attending the conference. Chinese-Australian Steve Chong would be a brilliant speaker, if he’s willing to stand on the stage alongside Mark Driscoll, his mentor. I think there are *many* other people from the Asian-Australian or Asian-American community they could include. Francis Chan.

One clear win for broader notions of diversity was African-American Robert Madu, who was given Friday night (the penultimate night and largest crowd) to preach at. I cannot express *how* popular he was in the top balconies, nor the appreciation for his off-sider Af-Am artist LeCrae. Let’s just say the roof was quivering and threatened to fly off. In the past, T.D. Jakes has been a valued contributor (although of course, he’s on the Anglican hit list for Oneness theology). Alvin Slaughter and Ron Kenoly were both beloved Hillsong Conference artists in their day. So I’m *really* glad that Madu proved that he could be invited back. He forged a clear place in the Aussie church’s hearts.

My main question is, can the Australian church include and promote its own black leaders who are similarly carving it up? I would say the platforms we are giving indigenous leaders are only our side stages at most. I believe we are ready for that new season of true equality. I can’t wait for THAT day!!!!!

Indigenous flag stamped with the 2014 conference (and album) theme, created by an indigenous Hillsong Church member.

Well, there’s lots else that happened – great sessions on leadership by the Hillsong team, great sermons, awesome songs, amazing energy to the conference. God was there. all in all, this was a brilliant conference, and I know as always, the messages and themes will be unpacked in Australian churches for months…. maybe it’s worth flying out, North American academic friends… it truly has to be seen to be believed.

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6 thoughts on ““The Low-Down”: Hillsong Conference 2014

  1. Would LOVE to have heard Brian’s Wednesday morning ecumenical message. How was the rest of the Conference? Did you go every night?

    Enjoyed your thoughts on women in this one!

    1. Yep! I went every night… it was very fun. I can totally recommend all of Brian’s “Lets Talk Church” sessions, although the Thursday one was really intense. xx

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