Hill$ong Church video
“The backstage corridors of London’s O2 arena are a hallowed place, lined with pictures of Jay Z, Beyonce, The Who and Dolly Parton — legends who have packed the venue and left a signed picture or hoody as tribute.
Tonight I’m here for a different kind of star. Past a soundstage packed with volunteers are closed doors flanked by security. Inside is Hillsong’s lead pastor, Brian Houston.
He’s just stepped off stage from a sermon at the church’s annual Europe conference where 15,000 devotees have come from 20 countries to hear him speak at opening night of the three-day event that is translated into eight different languages.
“One thing I do know is that Hillsong church and Hillsong conference isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I’m fine with that,” says the charismatic 61-year-old New Zealander. “I don’t feel like everyone has to do it the way we do it. But there is a lot of other people …. who really love this and who want to be a part of this.”
He’s talking about the incredible growth of a church from Sydney suburb Baulkam Hills that has morphed into a global mega-brand attracting millions of followers.
Earlier, the reason for its success became clear with a full-blown rock concert with professional lighting, sound and visual effects. The opener included a lone pianist in a Daft Punk-style helmet playing a cover of Mad World as drone-like workers trooped around the ‘land of the forgetful’. Then Hillsong United, the band led by Houston and wife Bobbie’s son Joel and singer Taya Smith, got the audience rocking with not a single twerk or nip-slip in sight.
The rockers set the scene for Houston’s rousing introduction where he welcomed visitors and said over the next three days those with trouble in their work, finances, marriage, relationships or health could get the answers they need. Broken hearts can be fixed, anxieties can be washed way. As the only nonbeliever there, I started to wonder if I was the one missing something.
Then came the pitch: “A lot of people assume with this many delegates this conference just pays for itself,” he told the crowd who paid £140 ($298) for an adult ticket.
“Giving is never a ‘have-to’. You don’t have to do anything,” he reminded them. “People give out of their heart because they want to. When you have to it’s really not giving at all.”
Outside the south London venue, delegates appear straight out of a Uniqlo ad: Fresh, young and healthy with gleaming trainers and artful quiffs. Selfie sticks are definitely not banned.
Luke recently returned from bible college in Sydney. He joined the church at 19 after trouble with drugs, alcohol and police and says Hillsong provided him a new lease on life.
“I’m now a lot happier and more content. I used to be depressed. I don’t have depression anymore and I’m not an addict anymore,” he says, adding that his friends are happy for his turnaround. “They don’t necessarily see that it’s for them but they respect that it’s been a really good thing for me.”
Nigerian-born teens Kaldora and Zaneta grew up watching the DVDs at home and follow the leaders on social media.
“You always feel like you’re the only one, especially being our age, but when you come here and you see everyone else who is there because they want to be, it’s really good,“ Zaneta said. Young pastors Nathan and Laurence say the music and fresh approach has engaged a new generation.
“They’re willing to take risks and to break out of what people expect church to be. To focus on the next generation and to be ruthless with that,” said Laurence.
During Houston’s 50-minute sermon, the captivated audience tapped notes as he spoke of how faith allowed the church to grow from renting a venue slated for demolition for $1 a month to selling a Sydney campus for $41 million. It’s recently bought a factory in Melbourne and have venues planned in Kiev, Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo while expansion into Asia is also on the cards.
“Where the church should be young and relevant and contemporary and full, so often it’s old and empty and irrelevant and I don’t think it has to be like that. We like to think about keeping the message, which is sacred, but being very open to changing the methods,” Houston says backstage.
These new methods include everything from kids and women’s conferences to documentaries, albums and books, all artfully packaged into a cohesive experience. Want to stay close to Jesus on the road? Get Hillsong United’s album for your car. Stay up to date while travelling? There’s an app for that. The business of believing is booming.
Australian National University sociology researcher Matthew Wade said Hillsong’s genius is the combination of being consumer savvy and multi-platform that has given people a “digital entry point” to the brand.
“Your average ‘seeker’ is incredibly unlikely to simply turn up at the Baulkham Hills church on a whim, rather they will likely learn about the church through a news story, a shared song,” he said.
Not to mention the attendance of celebrities like Justin Bieber, Kendall Jenner and Selena Gomez, which has showered the brand with global attention. Mr Wade said the PR team doesn’t get enough credit, however Houston denies it’s a marketing ploy, saying it’s all part of their “faceless to famous” philosophy.
“I think [Justin Bieber] is genuinely trying to find help, he’s just trying to change the foundations in his life. I think he’s got a long way to go because he went straight from there to putting up a naked photo of him in Vanuatu or something!” he joked.
Hillsong’s success has led to inevitable criticism, specifically over its finances and whether or not it should be paying tax. Houston has also had to testify about his father, Frank Houston, to a Royal Commission inquiry into child sexual abuse (he has repeatedly condemned his father’s conduct).
More recently, the church dropped controversial US preacher Mark Driscoll from the bill after he called women ‘penis homes’.
Anti-violence campaigner Natalie Collins protested outside the O2 in support of those she says are “seriously damaged” by Driscoll. “There are people who are going to be in therapy for the rest of their lives because of what he’s done so I’m just here making a statement,” she said.
However for Houston, the reason the church is “treated with suspicion” is because he believes it’s misunderstood.
“It breaks all the rules – everything says that churches shouldn’t be like that. In Australia, religion is on the decline and churches are empty. For a church to be young and full and relevant and alive, people don’t understand that and what they don’t understand, they tend to criticise.”
As the concert wraps with a prayer and people head off into the night, it’s clear Hillsong’s mission is far from complete.
“All I have to do is walk down my little street where I live in the Hills District in Sydney and there might be one or two houses that come to our church or any church but the vast majority don’t. So to me the mission is huge,” he said.
“I’ve always been a visionary. I wanted to pastor a visionary church.”