Australian Idolatory – the growth and growth of Hillsong

Australian Idolatory – the growth and growth of Hillsong
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As an album of Christian music outsells Beyonce and Lady Gaga down under, now seems like a good time to audio-blog my experience earlier this year discovering Australia’s fastest-growing Pentecostal mega church – Hillsong

By Chris Price

Prime Minister Julia Gillard may be a confirmed atheist, but if the Australian music-buying public is anything to go by, she’s a tad out of step with her electorate. You might say she’s not singing from the same hymn sheet. God Is Able, an album of contemporary Christian music released by the stratospherically successful Hillsong mega church in Sydney, recently debuted at Number Three in the Australian chart, becoming the 10th album of Christian pop to reach the Top 10 there since 2002.

And Hillsong has broken America without so much as breaking a sweat. Last year its youth ministry house band, Hillsong United, went in at Number Two on the US iTunes album chart, just behind Eminem. If it’s true that the music industry is in its death throes, then nobody told Hillsong.

Joel Houston

Hillsong Music is the ‘resource arm’ of Hillsong Church, a local Pentecostal ministry in Sydney which began in 1983 with a congregation of 45, and which now boasts a membership of 21,000, an annual conference attracting 28,000 faithful attendees, and a growing international footprint with churches in London, Paris, Cape Town, Stockholm and Kiev. In 2009 Hillsong London celebrated 10 years of worship in the capital with a service at the O2 London Arena. More than 14,000 people attended.

Needless to say, any church funded by a “dynamic music label”, as its promotional materials describe it, is foursquare into the realms of “non-traditional” financing models. But Hillsong is no traditional church. It is ministry with marketing strategies and corporate visions, communion by focus group, where clergy are CEOs and pastors head up “creative teams”. Services take place in “state-of-the-art worship centres”, where chancel is jettisoned in favour of multimedia ministry and PowerPoint presentations. Hillsong London’s website, whose front page features a group of smiling twenty-somethings in chic winter wear, bears closer resemblance to a Gap advert than a call for cash and congregation. And possibly taking a leaf out of Scientology’s book, Hillsong now looks to the power of celebrity to spread the gospel, recently hosting an “Evening with”-style event in which tele-survivalist Bear Grylls talked of Everest expeditions, alligator wrestling and the “quiet strength” of his Christian faith. Jumble sales and church roof appeals it is not.

Masterminded by founders and senior pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston (no self-respecting mega church is seen dead these days without an alliterating husband-and-wife team at the helm), Hillsong’s brand of ‘prosperity theology’ found a hungry market in Sydney’s affluent, conservative Baulkham Hills district during the 90s. ‘Health and wealth gospel’, popular with Pentecostal churches in America at the time, proved an elixir for middle-class Christians in prosperous, suburban Australia, as the success of Brian Houston’s book You Need More Money: Discovering God’s Amazing Financial Plan For Your Life attests. Spiritual health and material wealth go hand in hand, says Houston; humility and sacrifice are not unimportant, but nor should the faithful be ashamed of material success.

And Brian should know. In the last year for which figures are available, Hillsong’s annual earnings were in the region of $60m, roughly half of which came from its congregation. Record sales aren’t the church’s only source of income. Tithing – such an archaic-sounding word among all that corporate speak – is still a vital part of Hillsong’s income. Houston admits to a personal package of $300,000 a year plus company car (Bobbie’s salary is undisclosed), but his company Leadership Ministries Inc – “the entity through which Bobbie and I conduct our broader ministry” – bought two waterfront properties from the couple shortly after the company was set up in 2001. Let’s hear Brian conducting his ministry for a moment, for it is a thing to behold:

And it’s very much a family business. Joel Houston, Brian and Bobbie’s son (and incidentally a spit for Westlife’s Brian McFadden), leads the creative team behind Hillsong Music, the multi-million dollar hit machine that powers the operation. He is also the singer in Hillsong United, a “next generation praise and worship” outfit which has released a new album every year since 1999, making Prince look positively idle. Churning out mostly live albums recorded at services and conferences, the Hillsong Music stable is so prolific that just as one release reaches the end of its chart life, another is waiting in the wings to take its place. Evidently the received wisdom in the music industry – that live albums don’t sell – doesn’t apply to Hillsong either.

They’ve done their homework, too. If it felt like Snow Patrol were following you around for three years from 2006, it’s because radio stations and music television channels the world over were banking on audience research which decisively crowned ‘Chasing Cars’ as the stickiest song of the noughties by a country mile. Hillsong, if you can imagine this without wincing, sounds like Snow Patrol singing from a prayer book. And in case you’re tempted to seek out this music for yourself, be warned. For the purposes of journalistic thoroughness I’ve listened to more than my fair share of it the past few days (you’re welcome); it’s marginally less excruciating than chewing tinfoil.

Contemporary Christian music – CCM to its friends – is changing the market in other ways. For All You’ve Done, the first live worship album to debut at Number One in Australia, drew widespread whingeing from disgruntled record labels upset that almost all its sales rang through the cash registers at Hillsong’s annual conference. It’s hard to know which is more telling – the pointless display of sour grapes from the mainstream music industry, or the fact that sales at a religious conference can outstrip the buying power of an entire nation. In 2007 Hillsong hit the headlines again, amid accusations of vote stacking in the Australian Idol talent quest. Idol issued a formal, on-air statement refuting the allegations, although four of the eight finalists – Matt Corby, Tarisai Vushe, Ben McKenzie and Daniel Misfud – did in fact turn out to be from the Assemblies of God Pentecostal church, of which Hillsong is an affiliate.

Idolatry – 1, Idol – nil.

(continues overleaf)

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