Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Clap Me Happy

For the very first post in the Into the Wood guest series, Annik Skelton goes undercover to review one of the biggest entertainment brands in the country.

Hope for my arse

Hillsong Church in Sydney sure knows how to draw a crowd - 20,000 per week to be exact. Growing up around Norwest in the late nineties, I was frequently urged by my Hill-Singing schoolmates to join them at youth group every Friday night or attend a Sunday service. At first I refused because I preferred to spend my weekends drinking with boys, then later in life I had a reputation to preserve. Besides, if I wanted to watch people swaying with arms outstretched and delirious expressions on their faces, I’d just go to Parklife.

As a kid, I attended a small traditional Anglican church in Northmead. But after fourteen years, I got bored and left. I disagreed personally with certain fundamental points of the Christian faith and quite frankly, I had better things to do with my time, like shoplifting. I didn’t believe enough to practise Christianity outside of church, and the services weren’t interesting enough for me to attend simply for the sake of it. Maybe they just weren’t trying hard enough to engage me?

Eight years later, I decided to check out the most notoriously entertaining church around – Hillsong. On Sunday night, my friend Julia and I headed North-West and pulled into a carpark buzzing with unusually good-looking, smiling people.

Straight ahead for the kool-aid?

“Welcome to church!” a man greeted us as we entered the building.

“Okay,” I replied as we made a beeline for the gift shop. Here we browsed the books, DVDs, stationery, and impressive selection of Hillsong music. I considered making a purchase, but then I figured I could just take a $50 note and wipe my arse with it.

Actually, it was roughly 5:50pm

“PLEASE MAKE YOUR WAY TO THE AUDITORIUM WHILE THERE ARE STILL SEATS!” a voice boomed overhead, interrupting our shopping.

Inside, there was a mad scramble for seats. We shuffled down several rows, only to find that most of the chairs had been “reserved” with a bible, a jacket or a handbag. We pushed them onto the floor and sat down while the ushers weren’t looking.

Our father who art in heaven, guide me to a fricking seat...

The stage was lit up like a KISS concert, with four wide-screens above, and then additional screens placed throughout the higher seats on each side of the auditorium. Smoke machines billowed around the stage and several hundred young people stood crowded up the front. As Brian Houston walked towards the microphone, the room erupted with cheers and applause and immaculate orgasms. He smiled and informed us, “You have brought the presence of God here with you tonight.” I was pretty sure the only things I’d brought were a notepad and a packet of cigarettes, but whatever.

It’s the Holy Spirit! No wait, it’s just $100k worth of stage lighting.

Brian proceeded with his introduction, his voice gradually gaining speed and volume as one of the keyboard players added some dramatic strings in the background. “Tonight people will be healed. Tonight people will be touched! TONIGHT PEOPLE WILL BE SAVED!
The band hit it and we were away. I took a lot of notes throughout the service. Below are some points I jotted down about the presentation and format of the service:

1. Music – I counted nine songs during the 90 minutes before I bailed. During each song, they killed the house lights and brought the focus in on the stage where 20 odd musicians were spread out. The strobes and smoke machines kicked in and the screens showed a black & white live stream of the band members. The lights were carefully themed for each song and emphasised the music’s intensity impressively. For the final chorus, the camera zoomed in on the main singer’s chiselled face through the raised hands of those in the “mosh pit”. All very MTV. Hillsong has cleverly emulated pretty much every element of the soft-rock music industry. And holy shit, the kids love it and want to buy their records!

2. Tithing – this was opened by a cute little anecdote about the joy of giving (10% minimum, please, and we will accept various forms of payment including your first born child.) Again, the strings built tension in the background and the lights were dimmed and brightened in accordance with the speaker’s intensity.

3. Fodder – some cool videos were shown of “Church News” and “Church Life” describing upcoming events where we were urged to bring friends and family. Fuck, even I wanted to go to some of this stuff. They’ve got break-dancing and live album recordings and celebrities and free stuff. All you need is a hip flask of vodka and you’ve got yourself a pretty sweet Saturday night! Between each video, we were shown ads for Hillsong products or services. Because there wasn’t enough Hillsong branding around already.

The toilets in God’s house never run out of paper.

4. Speakers – each speaker used the same techniques to get the crowd hyped up. Sentences were heavy on verbs (empowerment) and abstract nouns (attainment), with constant mentions of eternity (where do you want to spend it?) Repetition is the key. Repetition is the key. They were fascinating to listen to as they gained momentum and intensity. I found myself wondering where it would end... Would Brian Houston’s head explode, splashing glitter and long-dead brain cells on those in the front rows? Would the devoted crowd, high on joy and conformity, lose control of their pent-up teenage lust and trample each other to death in a rush to get to the stage and touch Brian? Unfortunately, no.

5. Open prayer – okay, this was when shit started to get a bit heavy. The lady who introduced the open prayer time kicked things off by speaking to us in tongues. Apparently I was the only person who was bothered by this, as everybody else jumped up and reached out and started yelling and chanting and rambling in various languages. The lady in front of me was swaying and murmuring feverishly as she hugged herself. The boy next to me was on his knees with his hands clenched into fists high above his head, shouting “FOREVER YAHWEH!” I was playing Spider Solitaire on my iPhone.

I hope nobody notices I forgot to put on deodorant..”]

At no point during the service did I glean any learning of the Bible or the Pentecostal beliefs. I began to wonder what the whole point of the service was, other than the odd $50k I estimate were paid in tithes and listening to a pretty decent band. Every part of the night was structured with the intent to keep eyes on the stage – even the brief Bible reading involved dramatic background music, red lights and smoke machines.

As I walked out the door, a man stood at the microphone (strings in background) and shouted out:

“You didn’t come to a performance tonight! You didn’t come to a concert tonight! You didn’t come to a show tonight! You came to a CELEBRATION of GOD!”

Celebrate my arse.

You can find more storytelling goodness from Annik over at Hide & Neek


Sketchy Fletchy said...

Forever 'Yahweh'? 'Yahweh' (also known as the Tetragrammaton) is the hebrew name of god. Y'know, in the Jewish faith. I thought hillsong was all superhappy christian?

Does hillsong actually align itself with any particular faith or is it more "Bring all your own beliefs in god so long as you bring your cash"?

Annik said...

@SketchyFletchy - they're Pentecostal, but it's mainly "bring your wallet and talk in tongues." They're not very accepting of variations in beliefs, as far as I'm aware, but they place such a strong emphasis on joy/celebration/love/passion that people tend not to notice. Honestly, there was zero teaching involved at the service I went to. Just big on exalting God and on exalting Hillsong and everyone who goes to Hillsong. They know how to make people feel happy/special to be part of something. From memory, things such as homosexuality aren't tolerated at all, but they will generally avoid having that conversation. Or it would go something like this - "I'm gay" - "That's okay, we can help you overcome that because god is so amazing!"

The Yahweh thing - some dude was shouting on stage about all the different names for God and how they're all good. I believe Yahweh was referenced in the chorus of one of the songs they did. I'm not positive though - I had a migraine and was scanning the room for my nearest exit.

The Thinking Theologian... said...

Thanks for your blog. It's important that people realise what Hillsong "church" is really all about.

I had the misfortune to work there for 5 years, and have blogged about it at: http://thethinkingtheologian.blogspot.com

Nathan Bush said...

They are a smart bunch. Imagine if they hooked up with High School Musical - they could take over the world!

Tiphereth said...

Your description is very evocative, and what interests me is that it operates like a cult. Language, interaction, even the lighting and music are all designed to make people feel part of a religious elite. What's frightening is Hillsong's mainstream power - see how they beefed up Australian Idol's voting when it was one of their own a couple of years ago. At least the current Prime Minister is not on their payroll unlike the previous one. Boycott Gloria Jeans if you don't want to give them your money.

Julian Cole said...

I want to go soooooooo bad!!!

I have always wanted to be able to speak in tongues! That would be sweet.

mike said...

Great blog post. interesting how the various atheist and humanist movements are gradually finding confidence, and a voice. Hillsong gets the 'rock band' marketing, maybe we need a counter voice; i love him dearly, but dawkins is probably Bob Dylan to their MGMT.

I predict a full-on ideological battle in the west (not America, obviously) in the next little while. Bring it on! Note: Still no atheist bus advertising allowed in Oz; and did Bill Maher's "religulous" get a release? I think not.

acatinatree said...

Sounds like a top night out! Highly amusing post, nicely tempered with awareness of the insidious & ultimately pernicious nature of this cult...

Katie Harris said...

Brilliant post Annik. I've always wondered about them. Not too far off from what I imagined.

: O

Mark Pollard said...

Yeeerrrrrrssss. Insightful post. Why do we love to hate these institutions? They are smart operators and do EXACTLY what other organisations do - sport, politics, entertainment.

Is the Castle Hill thing? :)

Churh-suasion: How the church games you

Annik said...

@The Thinking Theologian - interesting site. I'm surprised you lasted there for so long. ARE THEY COMING FOR YOU?

@Nathan Bush - very smart. Personally, I don't think they overdo it on the direct advertising. You might even miss them until you catch a news story about them or see a billboard. I think they manage to maintain a bit of mystery & that's what gets people like me through the door. Unfortunately for them, though, I have a brain.

@Tip - I would rather drink MUD than Gloria Jeans coffee. Well, I'd go to Starbucks anyway which is close enough. Hopefully the happy clappers will never become the majority in a situation that truly matters. (Don't personally count Idol as one, heh.)

@Julian - you *can* speak in tongues, my son. Anybody can. This one time, I smoked some weed and did too many cream bulbs and then I was tongue-talking like the best of 'em!

@mike - thanks, dude. I think Hillsong have always had the confidence, but now they're gaining cold hard cash. Me and my friend Tom are starting a new musical project where we will bust into the hip hop, rock, blues and nerdrap genres all at once, so we will be the counter voice.

@Cathy - seriously, if you are shy on cash and don't want to sit bored and alone on a Sunday night, get yourself to a "Touching Heaven" service, or whatever other bullshit they're doing. Massively entertaining!

@Katie - it's pretty much what you see on TV, but scarier because the people next to you, in front of you, and behind you are all off their faces on Jesus juice. Keep your children safe.

@Mark - I probably would have been a lot more open to Hillsong if it hadn't been shoved in my face all throughout highschool. I think they made a mistake there. Also preventing teenagers from leaving Friday night youth group early, under the guise of "ensuring their safety" is a little fucked up. Kate actually directed me to your post when I told her I was planning to write this piece. I think my fave point was your observation of physically large or extravagant objects to make church-goers feel smaller. So simple, yet effective. The Hillsong Norwest auditorium alone makes you feel completely insignificant. That is, until Brian starts talking and seems to be speaking right into your heart.

Matt Granfield said...

Ah Kate, will you marry me? This could be my favourite post of the year/eternity. So are you going back next week?

crustyadventure said...

I am so glad you went on this anthropological expedition. I have lived behind the Waterloo Hillsong church for 5 years and shudder as I walk past. Occasionally, I've wondered what craziness is going on inside as the sound of the bass drum emanates through the neighbourhood and fashion-victim youths ride their skateboards in the streets with a bible under their arms. Their parents BMW's park haphazardly wherever it will most irritate the local residents and in recent years vast numbers of Americans can be seen coming and going through the doors (where are they coming from? why are they here?).

You have gone such a long way to answering some of my many questions.

Anonymous said...

The speaking in tongues sounds disturbing.

@SketchyFletchy You're right, Yahweh = YVHV aka the tetragrammaton (which means 4 letters) = Jehovah in English.

It comes from the Jewish language (Hebrew).

The first half of the Bible (on which all Christian religions are based) was written in Hebrew. Jesus was a Jew, and spoke Hebrew.

Christianity was based on Judaism... but it changed after Jesus Christ's death... new adherents droped the strict Judaic laws and became Christian's instead.

Great article.

Alex said...

Very amusing blog post. love it.

I feel i should offer you an apology though - last sunday night was our album recording @ hillsong. about 12 songs i think.

a normal service would consist of 4 songs and a sermon. On any other night, your notebook would have come in handy!

I hope you come back on a "regular" sunday night.

Annik said...

@Matt - I'll let Kate respond to your marriage proposal. Personally, no, I will not be going back to Hillsong, unless somebody pays me.

@crustyadventure - how do you sleep while they are celebrating Jesus' love so passionately only minutes from your home?? The cheers alone at the sight of Brian's face can be heard within a 10km radius, it has been rumoured... I am half planning to check out a Waterloo service and compare it to the Norwest one, so I will kick those BMWs and think of you.

@Alex - why did you love it? I bagged out your church and everyone in it.
When were we told it was a live album recording? (I won't lie, I tuned out at some points.) And why did they tithe during an album recording? Or speak in tongues? It wasn't just the service containing so many songs that bothered me. It was more what was said in between the songs, and the way the speakers attempted to drive the punters to such a frenzy. Oh and then they ask for money straight after. I wish I could get people so enthusiastic about the Annik Needs Bond Money Fund!

Jessica B. said...

Ooooh controversial. This is a great post Kate. It is scary the powers of persuasion at hand here.

I reckon the hill-song cult gives people an opportunity to liberate themselves from responsibility, concerns over death, their destiny etc. (within the constraints of their "code" of course), speak in jibberish and live a holy rock star lifestyle without the sex and drugs...

One can kind of understand the appeal...

Anonymous said...

is this taking it too far? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XmLHv1P_2Do

Anonymous said...

Does anyone need any printer cartridges?