(This post written from the perspective of one FROM the churches of Christ, a disgruntled
church cult member of sorts.)
As told by the scorned, the victimized, the believers-turned-atheist, and generally, all-around-disgruntled, I am finding the new documentary exposé dealing with Hillsong Church provides a You-Are-Here, star on the map of Christendom for me personally, and illuminates the lay of the land in general. I never heard of Hillsong Church and never cared one way or the other what Justin Bieber is doing before this documentary, but like I am finding depicted there, these things have been influencing me and those around me quietly for a long time. Once they are brought into the light, I see I am involved in this mess too.
How to make sense of it now?
First off, allow me to speak from personal experience. This means stepping back – a lot. It means that my story, much of it up until this week, makes no mention of Hillsong at all, but once that name comes up, there is an instant, retroactive analysis, finding Hillsong under stone after stone all through my story. And if not “Hillsong” in name (and it turns out there is insidiously far more of that than I would have ever dreamed), it still means the same spirit infecting Hillsong infects me and my church through other channels.
I grew up in “the churches of Christ.” We were a “nondenominational” sect, though we would not use that word “sect” for ourselves, and by “nondenominational,” we meant something other than it’s more current meaning in popular parlance. We were separatists in the deepest possible sense of the term.
If you were a member of “the church of Christ,” with super-rare exception, you believed you were one of the few who were truly saved by Jesus, that you belonged to the only true (real) church, and that all, literally ALL, of the others were just posers. They were dangerous snares sucking people into the devil’s deception.
There was, of course, a smug and moral superiority in that attitude which stunk to high heaven, an attitude which eventually collapsed under the weight of its own stench. But I ask you to consider the “upside” of that attitude a moment, not to indoctrinate you, but to understand my experience, and thus the bit of illumination I can also bring to the map which the Hillsong Apocalypse reveals for all the world to see.
If you trust and believe that you found THE TRUTH in the TRUE CHURCH which is so clearly defined as separate from all the posers, then you can trust your religious experience is authentic salvation of your soul. (This had high value in a day when Calvinism held sway and left common believers wondering if they could be, or were, saved.) You have found the mystery of the kingdom of God, the pearl of great price, the thing even prophets longed to see but could not. You are now the ultimate insider!
There is a kind of security in that.
There’s a secure feeling when all the other insiders continually help define these boundaries inside of which you enjoy your salvation by demonstrating the false claims of outsiders, thus exposing them as imposters. This process illuminates the outsiders’ damnation in the wrath of God. Your sense of salvation is cemented in eternal security.
That is the “upside.”
It’s just a feeling, really, but it is a good one, and who doesn’t chase “good feelings”? Isn’t that pretty much the driving force behind Hillsong’s “success” with their music ministry?
Of course, getting your good feeling(s) off the expense of damning other honest, spiritually seeking pilgrims has its cruel and dark side, but if you aren’t giving your attention to that stench, being an insider feels really good. (Hey! You don’t have to be a Nazi in 1930s Germany to find yourself in denial of certain stenches arising from those smokestacks out there in the woods!)
So, I grew up in THAT church experience.
Over the course of my life, “the churches of Christ” struggled to face our dark side(s) and make appropriate changes. There was much struggle to keep what was good (not just the feelings, but substance of our faith) while opening ourselves up to humility, to open mindedness – to “grace.” Not all quarters of the church made these changes, and of those that did/still do, not all changes came at the same time or in the same way, but “change” has come in an effort to be “graceful.”
Let’s consider the music.
I’m jumping ahead to mention this, but Hillsong’s apostacy seems to come through its music, largely. Therefore, to set the stage for that discussion, allow me to look more closely than usual at the music of the heritage I grew up in too.
Our effort at “grace” and change has not had some uniform meaning from one congregation to the next, and certainly not for outsiders looking in. Consider this: churches of Christ are known, to the extent we actually are known, as non-instrumental. One of our traditionally staunch teachings was that we use no piano or organ in worship. In fact, we use no instrumentation of any kind.
This was, of course, a deeply held conviction in the church, but it was neither the most deeply held nor was it held devoid of any reason. Nevertheless, it has arbitrarily become the defining characteristic. If you ever heard of the churches of Christ, that is probably the first, and often the only, thing you know about us. We are the church that refuses to use instrumental music. You probably sense that moral superiority attitude, too. (We have not been a big draw on new people in several generations now.)
However, over the course of my life, churches of Christ sought so much change, and this is one of the changes which have come down the pike. It’s not universal, but several – perhaps many – churches of Christ now offer a worship hour featuring instrumental music.
If you visit such a congregation in worship, you will find it is very much like any worship experience in almost all other Protestant churches. And, in fact, you will probably know many, if not all, of the songs the band leads worship in singing – largely because, as it turns out, they are published by Hillsong! (But we will get to that later.)
Here’s where the rub comes in, as I see it: The music issue simply is not the defining issue for churches of Christ and never was. Not really. Important? Yes, very, but not the defining thing.
To us, we were “the true church” honoring Jesus properly. The non-instrumental worship always was an important part of that, but not the end-all/be-all. It was part of a larger package. Yet the tail came to wag the dog at several levels.
But then in addition to that, the “grace” found in our change movement suggested that having an instrument in worship, was not a damnable offense. We simply could not hold that against other churches as being damnable. You might see it as a mistake, an error, or what have you, but you could not judge others to hell over it. This just did not make sense of either the Bible (in our most legalistic sense of reading it) or of God’s love.
The fact is you are not saved by WHAT you know, but WHO. And therefore, you really can (and do) have some mistaken ideas about Jesus and how to worship him properly, but if you LOVE him… well… he LOVES you too.
This is not an excuse to just chuck opposition to instrumental accompaniment, but it is a reason to stop judging others to hell over it. There is a fine, but important difference there.
It is yet a further step to say that instrumental music in worship is “okay.” It is yet another step again to say it is warranted or necessary. I hope you can see the continuum I depict here.
Meanwhile, churches of Christ began fanning out all over the map in these positions. Many of us stepped through the door of fellowship with other “churches” and “denominations” saying Jesus does not fault them for getting this wrong. Others claimed there wasn’t anything wrong with it anyway. But insofar as that goes, all those within churches of Christ who made these changes were at least on that page together that we no longer judged churches for using instruments. But only some of us moved further into the change process and began endorsing the changes within our own ranks.
This meant that as a member of the church of Christ, I could hold out a hand of fellowship with Baptists and Methodists and Pentecostals and acknowledge that those people love Jesus which warrants his salvation, and their use (even abuse) of instrumental music does not disqualify the grace of God. However, I could still hold to the idea that the music is wrong, just that Jesus is graceful with it. Or I could hold to the idea that we had previously been wrong, not merely to judge others over this, but that the instrumentation is in fact welcome in praise of Jesus.
I sense that by today’s atmosphere, splitting these hairs is an exercise in anachronistic futility to nearly anyone who might read here. Who cares about this stuff anymore? It used to be important to somebody, but most of those somebodies are either dead and gone or have moved on to other things by now.
But this is where the retroactivity of the Hillsong insights beg to differ.
While most churches of Christ (even now) continue(d) to worship a cappella in style, there was a social pressure, a sign of the times, which dictated we update our worship songs just like the Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals were feeling and dealing with independent (so it seemed) of us. The only difference being they used instruments, we still didn’t (mostly).
In the 1980s and especially 1990s, the influence of Christian music radio came to bear on the church.
Now… this is where my observations get really tricky. The thing is this: I rarely – in fact almost never – cared for “Christian music.” I was aware of it, but… what can I say? I am an old metal head. And, yes, there were Christian heavy metal bands around, and yes, I gave some of that stuff a chance and even liked a little of it. But the mainstream, Christian music was so far off my personal radar, I wouldn’t recognize a song to save my life.
Except in most of the churches of Christ I either attended or visited, we began singing “new songs” which were not typically found in the old hymn books. I personally had no idea where they came from. I am not a music artist at all. I can’t sing or play an instrument. I just croak out whatever we are singing in church. I was one of the young people Hillsong was reaching out to, but I happened not to be one they caught in their net.
Thus, I was just oblivious, mostly.
I liked some of the new songs, but I had no idea the average church member was listening to the radio version of these same songs all day every day. It took a long time before I caught on to that, and when I did, it didn’t seem terribly significant to me. I certainly didn’t start listening to Christian radio.
But that’s just me.
One amazing thing I am learning in the Hillsong documentary, though, is how close my experience is to those who were listening to the radio. They were not scrutinizing where this music came from either, what it was doing to them, or why. They were just slow boiling in it.
Meanwhile, there was a very serious marketing ploy being developed behind the scenes, and now the documentary uses words like “infiltrate” and “weaponize” to describe the process by which these songs came to dominate church worship in churches all over the world. We were slowly becoming unified in Hillsong music without any critical analysis of it.
It turns out, right when many of us in churches of Christ were getting our minds open to unity with other denominations, we were unifying, in part (a very significant part) not around Jesus and his Spirit, but around the music which was the product of these marketing ploys. There is a difference, and the good folx publishing the Hillsong documentary see it and articulate it well. Here are two interesting quotes:
“Are you crying because the Lord is staging some sort of intervention in your life, or are you crying because the cord structure is built to make you cry?” -Kelsey McKinney
“… so critical to their hypnosis. The music is completely weaponized for whatever the church’s needs are…” -Tanya Levin
(I encourage you to watch the documentary and get a better feel for the context from which I lift these quotes, but they serve my purpose well enough as they are for now.)
There is far more scandal in Hillsong Church than just the music business, and that is worth exploring too. Turns out child molestation is not the sole domain of sin of the Catholic Church, but really, if you THINK about it, you knew that already anyway. (We had a child molester in the church of my youth too, but ours didn’t make headlines.)
The music biz, though, that is sinister enough, and I think we NEED to talk about it more because if we don’t, we just give it a pass. I don’t know anyone who looks at child molestation in the broad light of day and thinks that is just okay. No. That is horrible and shameful, and no one defends it. But the music biz, I fear, not only gets a pass, but quietly becomes the foundation stone the builders accept while rejecting Jesus.
Is there something inherently wrong with any given song published by Hillsong?
I don’t think so. But the culture being cultivated with it is not the Jesus emblazoned on the tee shirts either.
The fact is this: underneath those otherwise awesome songs is worship of Mammon. They don’t overtly praise Mammon, but they serve him quite purposefully. In fact, you can’t run a Christian radio station that doesn’t “make ends meet” and observe “the bottom line.” The bank wants its investment back.
Ahhh… but you can’t even have a church building without a Return On Investment (ROI).
And if you have been reading here, you surely know that I have been hitting that point too for some time. In fact, I really saw, perhaps for the first time, that the church of my youth (if not all churches everywhere) can, and should be, plotted on a health-n-wealth-gospel continuum way back when Hurricane Harvey it Houston, Texas and exposed Joel Osteen as one who turns away the needy. (See a link to that post here if you must.) Many of us are not overtly health-n-wealth oriented, but the influence seems substantively to have taken hold below the surface at least.
Church has subtly become a business – pretty much across the board. We are in the business of selling spiritual experiences of various kinds.
We used to be church, as in the body of Christ, something completely OTHER than a business, but not anymore. Even in very recent posts, I have been critiquing all the professionalism of church work these days, all the schooling alone makes my case. You rack up a debt in school loans, and then you enter church ministry driven my Mammon just to pay back your debt. Never mind the FACT that Jesus says “forgive the debt” and preaches the Jubilee. You can preach “grace” if that is what the public is buying, but you gotta pay your bills!
This comes back around to matters of serving the homeless since rather than seeking the image of God in them, forming the image of God in them, and certainly rather than finding the image of God in them, we instead seek to remake them in the image of sober, hard-working, independent, bill and tax paying Americans. Corbett and Fikkert promote the use of microfinance loans as a way of discipleship, after a fashion. All this addressed to a church offering small business classes and teaching Capitalism instead of Jubilee anyway.
I noticed church became a business some time back, actually.
The idea of selling everything you own, forgiving debt, giving your wealth away to the poor, counting your riches in heaven, taking up a cross and following Jesus… well… NONE of those things actually have anything to do with the modern church. Not where I go, not where you go, and certainly not at Hillsong. At best, those teachings get passing mention, or maybe treated as somehow metaphorical in nature.
Hillsong Apocalypse, in one sense, shows us merely one more chapter in this hypocritical saga. Between Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, there is actually a long list of both small and mega church defrocked pastors littering “The Way” with the carnage of their infidelities and greedy practices. But in another sense, Hillsong’s story of a music empire with its attraction to celebrities, its marketing of “merch,” and the infiltration of every other church around the world with its music show the power of this particular gimmick.
There are other gimmicks too, of course, but it is worth our time to list them side-by-side to categorize them. You have your send-me-your-money faith healers, your send-me-your-money get-rich-quickers, your send-me-your-money diet planners, and now your send-me-your-money musicians. It turns out music sells better than prayer shawls and blessed water!
According to the documentary, this one-church music empire boasts an income of one hundred million dollars a year! The list of celebrities associated with it is long, and though I cannot exhaustively repeat it, I find this sampling there for sure (some you surely admire): Bieber, Jenner, West, Kardasian, Bono, Winfrey, and more! This is “cool church”! And it’s cool to be rich.
The name “Jesus” is plastered all over the merch, the arena, and the tattoos, but with the exception of crowd size, there seems little in common with Jesus. Glitz and glam are not what jumps off the Gospel page at me.
Maybe you cry because the cord structure was built to have that impact on you.
Hmmm… Come to think of it, there are plenty of songs out there on the Billboard hit radio rotations that move me deeply and yet have nothing to do with Jesus – not even by name. I never killed a man before, but when Freddie Mercury sings it, I feel it, and when he says, “Mama, I just killed a man,” and “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all…” I know that feeling too. When Metallica says, “… the healing hand held back by the driven nail… follow the god that failed…,” I get that too. But when Oliver Stone wanted to make a movie about Vietnam, he wanted a soundtrack that would break your heart, and he chose Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which is known as “the saddest melody ever written.”
The saddest melody ever written has no words. It’s strictly a melody. It and Ave Maria are the two go-to songs for 9/11 commemorations. They have cord structures built to make you cry. Metallica has cord structures built to make you angry. Queen has all kinds of cord structures, but nearly all of them move you emotionally and spiritually, but that doesn’t make them praise songs or the feeling a gift from God.
I hate to split hairs about unity, but if we are being unified over a feeling which we think is God’s Spirit enrapturing us to heaven when really some musicians and marketers are manipulating us to spend money, then we are unified around a lie. I don’t wish to reject a good song, per se, but we need to call the bluff on the lie!
I have become concerned of late about Right Now Media as well. Right Now Media is replacing church libraries of all denominations with their digital upgrade services. At your fingertips you now have all of the latest in best selling Christian authors and teachers. But don’t go thinking that is just the same as an old fashioned library.
No. Much like your google searches get tailored to your taste, marketers are subtly promoting various teachings in the church through their Right Now Media apps. We are being unified by teachings, but are they godly?
Who challenges this or that doctrine?
Who challenges the processes by which they are presented to your church?
Oh… and notice that both your church and the Baptists across the street, the Methodists down the lane, and the Pentecostals on the other side of town are all using this service and being directed this way or that by the same market researchers back at HQ.
Again, I hate to complain about the service which makes being equipped so darn convenient, but the unity it drives us toward may or may not have anything to do with Jesus.
Just look at the success of Corbett, Fikkert, and Lupton! Who is challenging the ironically un- and anti- biblical things they teach? But on the other hand, how many people at your church have read their books and swear by them???
Church is a business today, at least the way we do it.
As one of the commenters on the Hillsong documentary point out, we are not supposed to be making consumers of people, but disciples. Even within discipleship, there is plenty to iron out! But when we get these two categories confused, that part hardly matters anymore.
There are so very many different observations I could make and directions I could go with this, and that too is part of the complexity of it. But I will stop with just one more thought. Coming full circle from my opening, I notice that so many of the presenters in the documentary are former members, disgruntled, victimized, disillusioned, and hurt. These are not unbiased voices! Yet they expose the truth of our churches that the churches don’t tell. Personally, I believe them and scrutinize the insiders, largely because I too see what these disgruntled members see and experience (at least in part) the things they claim to experience.
Telling the truth is the job of disciples. The modern church takes the name in vain. When we love others, I don’t mean to promote some asceticism, but we are not caught up in our own vanity – in designer clothes, luxury cars, sprawling mansions, private jets and the like. Instead, we live much more transparent and sacrificially, sharing our wealth freely.
The Hillsong Apocalypse is not simply a cautionary tale about sexual indiscretions and/or crimes (though it is definitely that too), but it is a warning to us all. And if we listen closely, we find a continuum, sort of a map of the spiritual wasteland of modern America where “church” is doing business, and we can locate ourselves there in the light of revelation.