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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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