Australia’s Hillsong Church exports its influence

Senior Pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston in prayer at Hillsong Church. (RNS Photo courtesy Hillsong Church)

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SYDNEY (RNS)—The ubiquitous praise song “Shout to the Lord” echoes through the worship centers of many American churches any given Sunday. Few probably realize it comes from a megachurch on the outskirts of Sydney, which has emerged over the past 30 years as one of the most influential evangelical bodies on the world stage.

hillsong concert400Joel Houston of Hillsong United performs before more than 15,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl in June 2013. (RNS Photo by Andy Barron/courtesy of Merge PR)Combining Christian rock, charismatic energy and Australian accents, Hillsong Church has found a winning combination that is shaping Christian life in major cities across the globe.

Perhaps most remarkable is that the church could flourish at all in Australia, where in 2011 nearly a third of Australians said their religious affiliation was either ‘no religion’ or not stated.

“In a country where 55,000 people indicated ‘Jedi’ as their religion (from the 2006 census), and most denominations are in decline, Hillsong’s continual growth is stunning,” said Ed Stetzer, president of Nashville-based LifeWay Research and a close observer of evangelicals.

In any given week, Hillsong estimates more than 30,000 people attend one of its six Australian campuses. But an even greater number, estimated at more than 50,000, attend Hillsong off-shoots in London, Cape Town, Paris, Kiev, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Copenhagen and New York. A new campus is slated to open soon in Los Angeles.

Fhillsong church400On Oct. 27 at Hillsong Church main campus just outside of Sydney, members celebrated the 30th anniversary of one of the most globally influential churches. (RNS photo by Sarah Pulliam Bailey)ounders Brian and Bobbie Houston oversee the Hillsong empire. Their son Ben will oversee the Los Angeles branch, while their other son, Joel, leads the New York congregation, which has become one of the city’s fastest-growing churches, attracting celebrities like singer Justin Bieber and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant.

While widely admired, Hillsong is no stranger to criticism. Some question the church’s support of women pastors. Creationism proponent Ken Ham has decried Brian Houston for not adhering to a belief in six-day creationism. Others scrutinize the church’s traditional teachings on homosexuality and gay marriage. American evangelical John MacArthur has criticized the church’s Pentecostal teaching that the Holy Spirit enables spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues.

The church has a tricky relationship with the Australian media, with each treating the other with great suspicion. “If anybody is an expert in media opposition, it’s me,” Brian Houston said in a sermon, later referring a reporter to a church spokesperson to answer questions.

Theologically, some say Hillsong treads near the “health and wealth gospel” found in other Pentecostal churches. Brian Houston, for example, wrote a book titled You Need More Money. But observers say he has dialed back on prosperity gospel-sounding theology, focusing more on stewardship than success.

hillsong anniversary400A musical performance during the Hillsong Church 30-year anniversary celebration at their main campus just outside of Sydney. (RNS photo by Sarah Pulliam Bailey)“It is dominated by a more contemporary style than many older ‘traditional’ Pentecostal groups,” said Scott Thumma, a megachurch expert at Hartford Seminary. “I know there has been some concern about Hillsong’s preaching of prosperity, but that has been tempered.”

One of the biggest criticism Hillsong faces is its finances, which under Australian law are not required to be publicly disclosed. Proposals to tax a congregation like Hillsong remain controversial.

Hillsong’s Sydney location reported $64 million in revenue in 2010, the last year available, but its report does not reveal income from its worldwide music sales.

The church spent almost $10 million on “welfare, missions and overseas aid,” $6.2 million on a Bible college and $6.7 million on conferences.

hillsong conference400Hillsong Conference at Radio City Music Hall. (RNS Photo by Andy Barron/courtesy of Merge PR)In 2010, Houston disclosed a salary of $300,000 ($285,000 U.S.) from Hillsong and its related global outreach ministry, and he said his wife’s salary is “significantly less than mine.” A church spokeswoman did not respond to a request to view financial details of the larger Hillsong organization.

One of Hillsong’s largest exports is its conference business. Its most recent U.S. conferences featuring the band Hillsong United sold out the iconic Radio City Music Hall, Hollywood Bowl and Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

Cassandra Langton, director of Hillsong’s creative ministry, said this summer every week more than 45 million people sing songs written by Hillsong in U.S. churches, an estimate most likely based on the number of churches paying licensing fees. A non-commercial church reproduction license for worship usage includes $10 per song for 12 months.

The church remains politically and socially influential in Australia, attracting a parade of politicians. It also seems to be shaped by leading American evangelicals. The church’s bookrack features many U.S. megachurch pastors, including Joel Osteen, Max Lucado, T.D. Jakes and Ed Young.

hillsong church jesus400Members celebrated the 30th anniversary of one of the most globally influential churches at Hillsong Church main campus just outside of Sydney. (RNS photo by Sarah Pulliam Bailey)“We believe a basic charismatic/ Pentecostal theology, but we don’t build strong on theology,” Brian Houston said. “We make it about Jesus, about the grace of God, and we try to have a net so it’s broad, not narrow.”

Because he believes in targeting Hillsong’s growth in less religious large cities, Houston said it’s unlikely he’d ever try to plant a church in the Bible Belt. “I really have a passion for big centers of influence,” he said. “I think the message is timeless, but the methods have to change if we want to keep reaching society and not become an insular little island.”

Despite some of the controversy surrounding theology or finances, there’s little doubt Hillsong’s greatest influence is its music label. The church originally was known as Hills Christian Life Centre, but the music became so famous the church appropriated the Hillsong name.

To date, the Hillsong United label has sold more than 14 million albums. Its recent album Zion debuted at No. 1 on iTunes’ overall albums chart in the United States and in seven other countries, and was listed at No. 5 on the Billboard 200.

Hillsong music’s Twitter account has more than 680,000 followers, and Hillsong has more than 4 million Facebook fans. Its popular songs include “Mighty to Save,” “God is Able” and “God is in the House.”

Influencing the way people ‘do church’

“I always wanted to have the kind of church which influenced the way people do church,” Brian Houston said. “People may be divided on doctrine and theology and other things, but worship tends to transcend all of that.”

While his church is known for its music, Houston is not a musician.

“I was the church drummer until—this is a true story—in New Zealand, as a kid, the organist one time got very frustrated, jumped up off the organ, walked over, grabbed both of my drumsticks, and sat on them on the organ stool,” he said. “That was the end of my drumming career.”

Hillsong also is active in local and international aid projects, with ministries in Cape Town, South Africa, and Mumbai, India. The church gave $500,000 toward the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami relief efforts and frequently partners with other evangelical organizations, including Compassion International and the Salvation Army. The leader of Hillsong’s A21 campaign that fights sex trafficking, Christine Caine, is a featured speaker at many U.S. and global conferences.

“I think sometimes people miss the social care, which is the undergirding foundation of our church, but really that’s the fuel,” Bobbie Houston said.

Salvation Army roots

John Cleary, a religion journalist for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, noted that Brian Houston’s father initially was an officer in the Salvation Army, where his son became a Christian. Hillsong is part of the Australian Christian Churches, formerly known as Assemblies of God in Australia.

“They’ve got the Salvation Army’s musical sensibility. They’ve stripped it of the uniform and strict disciplines and what emerges is a charismatic praise concert,” Cleary said. “It’s only in recent years Hillsong has recovered the Salvation Army’s emphasis on social work.”

Because Australians take a dim view of self-promotion, the Houstons tread the marketing line carefully. While some U.S. megachurches revolve around celebrity clergy, Hillsong’s influence extends well beyond the husband-and-wife team at the top.

“I’d guess that globally, they’d be in the top 10 influential evangelicals in the English-speaking world,” Stetzer said.

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