First up, i need to give you 2 warnings:
1) This is a long blog. But it’s long because what I’m dealing with is no light matter. I’m writing about matters of eternal hope, for thousands upon thousands of people in Australia.
2) I’m going to say some fairly brutal things about Hillsong Church towards the end. But I hope that, if you stick with me and read the whole blog, you’ll at least see where i’m coming from. You’re more than welcome to leave a comment if you’d like to respond.
If you can stomach those 2 warnings, read on…
I recently had the opportunity to visit 3 churches in Sydney and thought I’d share some thoughts. The first wasn’t really a church – TWIST (‘The Word In Song Together’) is an annual music ministry conference run by Emu music – but the main sessions ran very much like a church service, including singing, announcements, prayers, interviews, a sermon, and time to mingle together afterward. The second church I went to was Hillsong, the main service at Baulkam Hills. The third church was called Resolved, a new non-denominational church plant in Newtown with a view to reaching out to musicians and artists in the age bracket of 18-30. All three church experiences were very different.
The reason I want to compare these 3 churches is so that we can reflect together, as a church family, on how best to honour God with our own church services at SCPC. Are there other churches that honour God in ways that we aren’t? Are there things about our church service we’re doing well? Are there things we can change about our services to more honour God, spurred on by the example of other churches?
I’ll share about TWIST and Resolved first, and then come back to Hillsong at the end.
TWIST conference was a thoroughly encouraging day – it ran from 9am-6pm, including 2 main sessions and 2 optional seminars. Justin Moffat’s two talks on Colossians 3:1-17 were exceptional – I can only describe them as hearing the voice of God, loud and clear. His careful, faithful and entertaining exposition of the passage kept me rivetted in my seat and hanging off every word. I found myself confronted with the depths of what Jesus has done for me by dying on the cross, and compelled to live as if I’ve actually died and risen with him, to a new life clothed in the character of Jesus. The time singing together was good – there were at least 500 Christian musicians gathered to hear and respond to God’s word, and the band were talented professionals. But with much hesitation I have to say that, for 500 Christian musicians, the singing was actually disappointing. Despite excellent song-leading – especially by Lara Goudie – I noticed that I couldn’t really hear many people singing other than the guy standing next to me. I was close to the front so I turned around quite often, and most people wore expressions on their faces bordering on boredom and apathy. Some people seemed excited about singing praises to God and encouraging each other – but not most. It may have been just where I was standing; it may be that the songs coming out of Emu music, while biblically faithful, just aren’t musically cutting the mustard for most people (I confess i’m not a big fan myself); but for a key gathering of Bible-believing Christians to learn about serving God in music ministry, the corporate singing was slightly ordinary.
Sadly I’d have to say that, in comparison, we at SCPC are pretty similar. The ones who seem to cherish singing God’s word together in our church family seem to be remarkably few. If we mean to be overflowing with praise, and spurring one another on with our singing – as we should be! – we’re doing an ordinary job. But back to TWIST.
Mark Peterson – writer of songs like ‘Hallelujah to the King of Kings’ and ‘See Him Coming’ – gave a great seminar on how church leaders should be supporting their music team. I walked out of the seminar thanking God that not only do our church leaders at SCPC do everything that Mark encouraged them to do – they do a whole lot more (thanks Pete and Steve)! The highlight of TWIST for me was a seminar by Michael Jensen on church music in the 21st Century – about how the chuch should ALWAYS be adapting the new music styles of the time (Coldplay is the best current example), but that Christian expression should nuance the style so that while it’s still recognisably similar to the original style, the gospel-influence will create a unique ‘Christianised’ version of that style, which will be attractive to both the church and the non-believing world, for the glory of Jesus.
Resolved was possibly the most encouraging church experience I’ve ever had in Sydney. Having only started meeting together in March 2009 with a core group of 5 people, they meet in a small-ish local hall in the Neighborhood Centre (more often used for Alcoholics Anonymous) on the main street of Newtown. It was a very minimal set-up – just a bunch of chairs, a tiny sound-system, a screen, and about 30-40 people. Myself and the two people with me were very warmly greeted at the door, and continuously approached by people to be welcomed, and introduced to more warmly welcoming people who would do the same – very impressive! The first thing the service leader said after welcoming us was that, “If you only remember one thing about this church, we want you to know that we’re all about Jesus and His death on the cross in our place, so that we can be right with God. More than anything else, we’re all about Jesus, and we want you to know this Jesus. We’re going to hear God speak to us as we read the Bible, and if you don’t have a Bible, we want you to keep the one you were given at the door as our gift to you, so that you can come to know Jesus yourself.” The band was just 1 acoustic guitar and 1 singer, but – my goodness – I’ve seldom enjoyed congregational singing so much! From the first song it was evident that this small bunch of people knows what it means to sing together – that they’re praising and thanking God with overflowing hearts, that they cherish singing God’s word, and that they mean to spur one another on to follow the Jesus they’re singing about. Some hands were raised and some weren’t; some clapped and some didn’t; some moved around and some were still; but ALL were singing with a full voice and a visual expression that revealed the spiritual health of their small congregation. All of a sudden I was seeing what seemed to be missing from both TWIST and SCPC. I’m told that they have non-Christians amongst them every week, and I’d say that the singing alone – with words full of the good news about Jesus – would be an extraordinary witness. Some have walked in off the street to join them just from the sound of their voices – they’re LOUD! The songs were a mix of about half-hymns/half-contemporary, but what they all had in common was biblical faithfulness and deep richness. There were around 8 songs in total, including one item during the Lord’s supper – more than usual in a Bible-teaching church, and up to 3 at a time – but it worked extremely well. I found myself wishing that the singing at SCPC was more like the singing at Resolved – they really seemed to cherish Jesus and be delighted to boast about him with their voices.
The sermon went for about 40mins, but again, i was on the edge of my seat the whole time. One girl I spoke to afterward described the pastor’s (Hans Kristensen) preaching as “like an axe that cuts through your hardness with the gospel.” As he preached on the subject of ‘Money’ from Luke 12:22-34, he continually addressed both the believers and the non-believers amongst us with an absolutely uncompromising exposition of the gospel. Again, I found myself hearing the voice of God, and compelled to respond to the gospel by changing my life. I was confronted with the importance of storing up riches in heaven rather than wasting my money on temporal riches in this life, in a response to Jesus giving up everything to save me into the riches of relationship with him. Hans wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea – he’s younger than even I am, and unafraid of loudly getting in the face of those he’s preaching to. He even swore during his sermon – which didn’t bother me, or seemingly anyone else who was there. For the people they’re trying to reach out to, I think he’s doing a fantastic and greatly needed job at proclaiming the gospel to 18-30s. After church I was invited to dinner with about 10 others where I and those with me continued to be encouraged by this little community following and proclaiming Jesus in the big, stinky, pagan city of Sydney. Out of the 500ish-people gathering at TWIST and the 3,000ish-people gathering at Hillsong, this tiny church was by far the most encouraging experience out of the 3 churches. Since then I’ve repeatedly found myself thinking, ‘If only we at SCPC would cherish singing together that much! If only everyone didn’t look so bored out of their brain during the songs! If only we took to heart the words we’re singing together, and the opportunity we have to spur each other on! And if only the lost people around us couldn’t help but hear our song, and out of sheer curiosity come in to join us!’ If only…
And then there was Hillsong. I’ve been listening to and watching Hillsong’s CDs and DVDs for several years now, and downloading Brian Houston’s talks on iTunes. While there are a thousand things I could say about their music, and about Brian Houston’s talks, I’ll limit what I have to say in this blog to my experience of attending their church on a Sunday morning. I’ll add that I tried to make an effort to disregard everything I knew about Hillsong already, and tried to arrive at the service with an open attitude. I’ll divide what I have to say into good things (of which there were many) and bad things (of which there were few, but they’re big).
First of all the good things. They were excellent at welcoming. We (my mother came with me) were greeted at the door and welcomed by the service leader during the service. As we arrived there was a slogan across their enormous screens saying ‘Welcome Home’. After the service we had free Gloria Jeans coffee and choc-chip biscuits in their cozy welcoming lounge, and a couple of people engaged us in conversation, gave us welcoming packs, invited us to join a ‘Connect Group’, and asked if there was anything they could do to help us. Not bad hey? Then there was their excellence in reaching out to people. There were over 3,000 people there, and that was only one of their multiple services at multiple campuses in multiple countries happening that day. At one point during the sermon the preacher asked everyone who was born outside of Australia to raise their hands – I was astonished to see more than half of the 3,000 or so people raise their hands: Hillsong are doing a BRILLIANT job at connecting with immigrants and welcoming them into their community (though there was one people-group inconspicuously missing, just like in most Australian churches: Australian Aboriginals – Hillsong share our failure of reaching out to our own indigenous people). Then there was the production. I’ve been to literally hundreds of concerts, and I’ve NEVER heard sound quality so good. The clarity was astonishing. Likewise their visual show – the 3 enormous screens, the pre-filmed announcements, the camera-work throughout the whole service constantly being projected on the screens – all of it was top-notch, and worthy of our envy and aspiration! And – with some surprise – i find myself saying that the music was largely good. I didn’t notice any lyrics that were biblically unfaithful, and most of them did a good job at teaching us what God is like. There was one song in particular (called “It’s Your Love” by Darlene Zschesch, which you can hear and read the words of here) which was a beautiful, appropriate, and moving exposition of Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins, showing the great love of God in saving us. I really enjoyed singing it, and found myself rejoicing in Jesus’ death for me. And, as I expected, the band and singers were all-round brilliant musicians – they sounded fantastic.
In all of these good things, we can and should aspire to improve our own church services at SCPC. Obviously some of them will require money, but as we continue to grow as a church family (and as we reflect on what Hans preached on from Luke 12:22-34 about riches in heaven), we should be eager to use our money for the sake of the kingdom of God. But being as welcoming as Hillsong are (and as Resolved are) – and as eager to connect with the immigrants all around us – we don’t need more money to be doing that. We could do that straight away.
And now for the bad things. I’m sorry if what follows is upsetting for you, but I hope that you’ll see, in the context of what I’ve described about the other two churches, and reflecting on what God’s word tells us the Church should be, that there’s good reason for saying what I say. Feel free to disagree, and feel free to leave a comment, but please – do carefully weigh up what I say, and try not to dismiss it without reflection, prayer, and turning to your Bible. I write with a heavy heart, deeply wishing that what I’m about to describe wasn’t true.
Firstly – the song-leaders, the service leader, and the preacher all made one thing very clear: we had gathered that morning to experience the presence of God. When we entered the church building, we entered the house of God, to worship him in his presence. The unspoken flipside to this message is: God is not in the car-park. Once you leave the building, you leave the presence of God. The only way to re-enter the presence of God is to come back to another Hillsong service. This message was resoundingly proclaimed from the start of the service to the end (including the announcements about other Hillsong events where God would be experienced), and is profoundly unbiblical. I’m astonished that a church which emphasises the wonder of having God’s Spirit in our hearts could proclaim that it’s only in ‘the house of God’ – the church building – that you’re in God’s presence. Hand-in-hand with this teaching was that we come to church to ‘worship God’ – which seems to mean the same thing as ‘singing to God’. Although I know of one author/musician from Hillsong who does emphasise worshiping God as an ‘all-of-live’ activity (Darlene Zschech), during the service I attended it was repeatedly proclaimed that we were there to ‘worship God’, and no-one was called to worship God in any way other than singing to him during church. This meant that the singing entirely lacked the ‘horizontal dimension’ of singing together as God’s people. Although I did enjoy singing most of the songs, there was no sense of our ‘singing together’, and I rarely heard anyone else’s voice at all (except during a few acapella sections). The singing was very much promoted as a ‘me-and-God’ time, rather than a time to encourage each other in fellowship. I found the words and movements of the song leaders (or ‘worship leaders’ as they call themselves) distracted me from what I was singing more than helping me to sing it. We were repeatedly instructed to close our eyes and raise our hands so that we would feel the ‘touch of God’ in our ‘worship’. These teachings are a serious misconstruing of what God tells us about his continual presence with us by his Spirit, about what worship is, and about what our corporate gatherings and singing are for (Eg. Matt. 28:20; Rom 12:1-2; Col 3:15-17; Heb. 10:19-25). I hope you’ll agree that what Hillsong teaches about these things is unbiblical, and potentially damaging to anyone who hears and believes it.
Secondly – and this one’s worse – there was the preaching of the gospel. Or, rather, the LACK of the preaching of the one true gospel, and the consistent proclamation of multiple false gospels. Having just finished a 3-week series on false gospels at SCPC, i’m saddened to say that all 3 of the health, wealth, and stealth gospels were proclaimed during the 1 service I attended. The service leader prayed to God for those who were sick and those who were experiencing financial difficulty, proclaiming that ‘God PROMISES to grant our requests for healing and blessing’ – and after the prayer we gave God a big clap for doing so (I couldn’t bring myself to say ‘amen’, or to ‘give God a clap’). If you’re an eagle eye you may have already spotted the ‘stealth gospel’ in the song link above (‘It’s Your Love’): that Jesus’ scars are proof that ‘we were worth every nail’ – as if Jesus died for us because ‘we were WORTH it’, rather than because of the boundless mercy and grace of a loving God for UNworthy sinners (an unfortunate addition to an otherwise precious song). The service leader echoed the stealth gospel again and again. The sermon itself – which went over half an hour – didn’t mention Jesus once. His main message was that “you can’t let life get in the way of your dreams”, and he gave us advice on how we should live. The Bible wasn’t read during any other part of the service, and although the preacher did read out several verses, he didn’t teach anything from them. At all. My mother – who is a qualified Social Worker – described the sermon as ‘accurate pop psychology’ – but it certainly wasn’t biblical, or even Christian.
At one point the preacher posed the question: “What is our greatest need?”
Stop for a minute… “What is our greatest need?” What would you say? Remember at this point that there are over 3,000 people in front of you, from all around the world who are about to hear your answer. Surely it’s to trust in Jesus’ death on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, so that we can be RIGHT WITH GOD! Surely?
The preachers answer: “You need to be RIGHT WITH YOURSELF. You need to FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS, and not let life get in the way of reaching your full potential.” He consistently gave us advice on how to live a successful life, and never once mentioned sin, Jesus, the cross, or eternal life. (I jested with my mother afterward that if I took this teaching seriously I’d have to quit my job, leave my church, and try to join either Metallica or Smashing Pumpkins as the lead guitarist.) Although he did call people to become Christians at the end of his talk, he never even told them how to do so. In case I was tempted to think ‘this isn’t the usual senior minister and he might be different’, the senior minister himself (Brian Houston – who is well-known for his book on the wealth gospel) video-conferenced in after the talk to apologise he wasn’t with us and tell us that, “I know about the word from God that you’ve had preached to you this morning, I’ve heard it was great, and I hope you believe every word and feel the touch of God on your life today – thanks for a good sermon Mike, and I hope you all come back to our service tonight!”
For me, that was quite enough. Over 48 hours later as I write this, I’m still absolutely furious. A church that fails to proclaim the one true gospel, and successfully proclaims multiple false gospels, has failed to be a Christian church (Gal. 1:6-9 – DO READ this one). If it wasn’t for that one precious song which proclaimed the death and resurrection of Jesus for our sins – such a small fragment of the service – the one true gospel would have been entirely absent. From the 1 Hillsong service I attended I can confidently say: God was not honoured. False gospels were repeatedly proclaimed, and Jesus hardly even got a mention. I really wish I was writing something different – but what I’m writing is the sincere, sad, and devastating truth, for thousands upon thousands of people in Australia and beyond.
Well if you’ve gotten this far you deserve a medal. It’s a tale of 3 churches – two of which proclaimed Jesus, and one which failed. Take what you will.