The Sydney-based Hillsong Church will today wrap up its annual conference, an enormous production of spectacle and a heady mix of the sacred and the secular. In Australia, where religious expression tends to be muted and reserved, such exuberance is a surprise.
Yet each year the Pentecostal megachurch takes over the Allphones Arena and surrounding facilities in Sydney Olympic Park for a week. More than 20,000 people attend each day.
Conference highlights include headlining pastors from around the world with rock-star personas and followings. Speakers at previous conferences include Pentecostal icons such as Joyce Meyer, Rick Warren and Joel Osteen. Daily “rallies” feature worship songs that ably mimic contemporary trends as well as rousing promotional videos with slick production values.
Also on the program are workshops for church leaders and performers, and – like any festival characterised by youthful enthusiasm and devotion – there is a vigorous and seemingly unending hawking of merchandise.
By the way, all this is streamed live for the folks at home. It’s a spectacle that Amanda Lohrey pithily encapsulated in her Quarterly Essay Voting for Jesus as “lively but largely inchoate”. Her appraisal of the sermons was tough: “… on the level of the banal pep talk … akin to New Age feelgoodism, with Jesus thrown in as a bonus”.
Banal or otherwise, it works.
Hillsong’s rapid worldwide growth is based in large part on these festivals of fervour. This is boosted by the popularity of their music releases and the young congregation’s affinity with the church’s charismatic figureheads. Hillsong’s doctrine of “prosperity theology” aligns perfectly with already dominant practices of consumption. The promise of spectacle, though, is the key pillar.
Indeed, Hillsong represents a distinctly contemporary form of evangelism in that their strategy for attracting newcomers to the Church relies on providing a sensory experience that both mimics and attempts to better any affective experience found outside traditional faith settings.
Forget the dour asceticism of the past, religious expression under Hillsong is stylish, sexy, and fun. Oh, and always, unfailingly, spectacular.
Evening sessions of the conference are open to the public. Essentially, the aim is for the curious newcomer to be “blinded by fun” and subsumed within a collective emotional outpouring.
To bring about this kind of spectacle evangelism requires extensive capital resources – which are acquired via heavy merchandising of their products, as well as by devotees tithing their income. Moreover, the Hillsong spectacle requires the affective labour of participants, their willingness and enthusiasm in both producing and consuming an arena of feeling.
In this regard Hillsong’s music output is suitably stirring – even if it is lyrically bland and woefully bereft of narrative. The frequent use of second-person pronouns (almost all songs are addressed directly to God) can at times render them awkwardly reminiscent of torch songs. Still, the talent of their performers and the high-level production quality are undeniable.
Hillsong’s music arm is particularly noteworthy. In the trailer for its forthcoming doco, Hillsong claims sales of albums totalling 16 million units worldwide.
Worship albums – often strategically released to coincide with conferences – regularly hit the top spots in the ARIA charts. Last year’s Zion album debuted at number one on the ARIA charts, toppling the likes of Pink, Bruno Mars, and Nick Cave. The Church estimates that their music reaches a staggering 30 million churchgoers across the globe in any given week.
Hillsong around the world
Indeed Hillsong is now a global franchise, a powerful, diffuse brand with locations in London, Kiev, Moscow, Cape Town, New York City, Paris, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Barcelona and Los Angeles, all complemented by a television program screened in over 150 countries. Already announced during this year’s conference is a forthcoming documentary to be distributed worldwide by Warner Bros.
London’s annual conference will take over the O2 Arena for three days later this month. The NYC conference, in October, will be held in no less a venue than Madison Square Garden. It will be helped along by a promotional campaign that featured a striking takeover of Times Square’s iconic billboards.
The pitfalls of media savvy evangelism
With its juxtaposition of religious expression and corporate branding, this PR coup might be jarring to some. In fact, it is the perfect visual representation of Hillsong’s pragmatic, media-savvy approach to evangelism.
But herein lies the problem. Can a Pentecostal church evangelise to the masses using the means and methods of corporate-style marketing – without damaging the very “product” they are selling?
Put Jesus up on a billboard between Calvin Klein and Budweiser and sooner or later the Gospels may likewise become background noise. Add to this the heavy reliance on merchandising and tithing to fund the Hillsong project. Eventually what was once sold as respite from the crush of capital, image, colour and affective stimulation becomes infected and confected by those very same corrupting drives.
As a result faith and the promise of redemption become something to be “consumed”, delivered in standardised packages by way of the franchise. Listen to enough Hillsong songs and sermons (or just take our word for it). You will begin to notice a stultifying pattern, a seeming informality and looseness that is actually choreographed down to the smallest detail in order to best extract your affective capacities. Hillsong is evangelism by way of calculated seduction.
In radically distinguishing itself from other faith-based institutions Hillsong has enjoyed immense success. But, as it becomes a globally recognisable brand there’s a risk that they will start to resemble every other purveyor of seduction up on those billboards.
Hillsong certainly evangelises to the masses – but its loud, bright, and stylish promised land may in time be its very undoing.