Wednesday, November 28, 2007

On Hillsong, Discernment and Bribery in the Police Force

Here's a thought.

Everyone who has heard of Hillsong Church in Sydney has an opinion of them. Even Americans do. Maybe that will always be the case. They have grand plans, and anyone with grand plans must allow for rigorous and public scrutiny. The Sydney Anglican Diocese certainly cops it. And perhaps this is a good thing.

Let me say upfront: I certainly have problems with the Hillsong movement. I always have. This is not new or a surprise to those who have known me. I used to be militant in my critique of them. I have mellowed a little over the years, thinking soberly of Paul's comment in 1 Corinthians 3 that 'God judges each person's work', and 'the day bringing it to light.' I also found helpful Jeremiah 23:28-29:
Let the prophet who has a dream tell his dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?" declares the LORD. "Is not my word like fire," declares the LORD, "and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?
But at the same time, I've been realizing that many people I know have recently been giving Hillsong a free pass . And that's partly because they simply love the music. And they are tired of the critique. And they are willing to forgive a whole lot for the wonder of the 'worship experience'.

So what is my problem with Hillsong?

It isn't that they are always doctrinally incorrect (They aren't, and I have heard a sermon from the youth team that was a good and valid exegesis of Romans 7). It isn't just the money and prosperity stuff (although there are major major issues here.) It isn't that they aren't passionate and it isn't that there aren't great people there (there are many many wonderful people serving there). And it certainly isn't that 'they' don't believe in the Gospel (the ones I know who go there do.)

Here is my biggest problem:

Lack of discernment.

I've been a few times. I've got great friends who are or who have been there. I've read lots, and listened to their messages. I may be wrong, and am happy to be corrected, but one week you'll receive something good; the next, something weird. At one conference, you'll get a good speaker; then next up someone odd. One week, you'll get the promises about prosperity, with verses (used spuriously) to introduce a giving time; the next nothing on the topic. One week will be about Jesus' death, then next will be all about You.

I think that this accounts for some of the confusion we have. It is also a reason many are giving them a free pass. You'll hear people say that it was good when they visited Hillsong, and that they heard nothing inappropriate. And then someone else will go another week, and they will recount some theological and pastoral horror story. You'll go to the conference and hear relatively orthodox speakers like Bill Hybels, and then you'll get TD Jakes! You'll get some music that has little substance, and then some that elevates Christ and his blood shed on the Cross. You'll get great work with the poor, and then news of an investment scandal.

I had some correspondence recently with a friend who is very sympathetic to Hillsong who said that they have heard 4 Hillsong sermons, of which 3 were good, and one dismal. (And by dismal, I don't mean boring).

Now, I don't think that our meetings are always theological and pastorally good. Not at all. I know profoundly how much we get it wrong, and it pains me when we do. But if discernment goes out the door -- in favor of passion and music and the elation -- then the game is over.

Here is the thing: To me, lack of discernment in a church is like bribery in the police force. If you tolerate it at any level, the whole organization becomes tainted. Even the good parts. And that makes me more sad than it does mad.

Hopefully every movement's excesses will be curbed by increasing accountability.

Happy to be challenged on this. (But no anonymous comments allowed on this one)


David said...


I agree totally!

Been thinking about the exact things you've said quite a bit for the last year or two.

Good post.

Don't have time to say anything more... but look forward to discussing further.

- just quickly - i spoke at a school event where i spoke on the same platform as a hillsong guy.

i got the same woots and whistles as he did! yet it was quite clear to me that we were both coming from different theological perspectives.


Dan said...

Thanks. You've helped me see what it is that I couldn't put my finger on. Critiquing the problems in Hillsong is like looking at a magic eye picture 'I swear it was there a second ago!' I think that you are right that problem is not the existence of truth, it's the discernment of the error.

Ben said...

Great post, mate. Helpful to keep thinking a bit more deeply about the problems with Hillsong, like TP and GC at Matthias Media did when they commented that Hillsong isn't charismatic anymore.

Ray said...

The problem with criticising something is that you have to be above reproach yourself. Show me a church that has everything together and has no questionable moments. Hillsong is an easy target because of its size and political stances.
I don't go to Hillsong. I have been a couple of times and have been surprised, pleasantly, by what I heard. Granted this could have been one of those good weeks.
I do love the music, over an extended period it is hands down the best worship there is.
I don't begrudge anyone an opinion, I have my own and it is not that dissimilar from yours. But in the end I really don't care whether Hillsong is right, wrong, good, bad, as I don't go there.

Anthony Douglas said...

Ray, did you really say "hands down" when talking about the music?!!

Good call, Justin, though I wonder whether it's not so much a lack of discernment as incredibly low standards. As long as you look successful, and label yourself Christian, you pass muster for them.

I've visited a couple of times. The things that have disappointed me:
- devaluing the gathering (incredible! At Hillsong!) - suggesting that their Saturday night service wasn't really church, and you had to go on Sunday night for the real thing
- the really casual attitude to the Bible. On one night, the guy doing the money pitch held his Bible but never opened it or referred to anything other than what he'd been doing that week; the guy doing the sermon took a chapter out of 1 Samuel and exegeted it totally backwards. Took verses and interpreted them as meaning the very opposite of what they really were saying. He got an OK application by the end, but it wasn't out of that chapter.

But the thing that really bugged me was that his whole intro was poking fun at the names - Elkanah, Penninah - over and over. I'm not comfortable with laughing at God's Word, and I don't want anyone encouraging me to do it.

Em said...

I disagree, Ray. If you had to be perfect before you could criticize someone, then none of us could ever say anything critical. But the Bible calls us to evaluate, assess and discern (1 Thess 5:21; 1 Cor 5:12-13; see also 2 Cor 2:9, although this is obviously not imperative). I don't think you have to be perfect before you can know what's right.

Stan said...

Great post, Justin. But I wonder what do you mean by "discernment." Do you mean "discernment" on the part of its congregation members or on the part of its staff?

From reading your blog, I got the sense that the word "consistent" might be a more accurate choice.

Discernment is a rare ability to possess. It requires higher level cognitive processes that I'm not sure every human being is capable of for various reasons. Most human beings are able to go as far as familiar/unfamiliar. The hope then is that what is familiar has been good teaching.

To truly be discerning requires a person to be able to break down large blocks of information into constituent premises and logical patterns and then analyze the validity of each portion. I would be surprised if 3/4 of all college graduates are able to do that. From a rough survey of all the people I've ever met, the number is actually closer to 1 in 40 or 1 in 50.

Is discernment the issue? I don't really see how that can be resolved.

HBC-PTC said...

Wow! How to get bloggers to post on your blog... talk about Hillsong?! So much activity. Thanks for being thoughtful Justin.

michael jensen said...

now, is discernment just a matter of sensing the 'vibe' or do you have some criteria for us?

In a way, you have asked us to discern that HS is undiscerning, too. Is lack of discernment something to be discerned?

Clare said...

Hillsong's latest album stops my baby crying in the car. As far as I'm concerned that makes them a gift from God :)

Justin said...

Thanks for your comments all. You are welcome to keep them coming. hbt-ptc -- Have we met? Ray, Stan and Mike, hopefully I'll be able to respond soon.

I just wanted to say thanks to Clare. Do we know each other? Personally, I thank God for his gift of anything that puts my boy to sleep! So I join you in that. (That having been said, your comment does rather prove my point, don't you think?)

Michael K said...

Following mpj & stan my question is whose lack of discernment is the problem - your 'give em a free pass' outsider, HS members, HS staff?
Imagine if you had a seafood restaraunt that was a bit dodgy and 1 night in 4 you had a reasonable chance of being served salmonella salmon. If someone is poisoned who do you blame? The diner who really should have known better? The reviewer who talked the place up? Or the restaraunter who offered up what they shouldn't have? In a way they are all responsible for lack of discernment but the greatest responsbility must be the restaraunter.
I think there's some kind of parallel with church (& not just HS) & its part of the reasons teachers will be judged more harshly. I'm happy with your analysis Justin, as long as you are seeing lack of discernment amongst members, visitor reviewers and staff - but the greatest responsibility falling on staff.

sam said...

Hey Justin... HBC-PTC is me... Sam from Newcastle. We started a google group for the PTC course we are running and it keeps signing me in as that.

Lunch said...

Given the seriousness with which the new testament treats false teaching, and the call to leaders of the church to refute such false doctrine, I don't believe sitting by and doing or saying nothing is an avenue open to us. Biblically speaking, we MUST be critical of Hillsong, or any church that claims to be 'Christian' but mishandles the scriptures.

My experience with Hillsong is similar to Justin's - some good, some bad [which surely is a worrying trend]. But my greatest concern is their seeming lack of a doctrine of sin. Rather, their teachings seem to talk about how Jesus can unlock our hidden potential and innate goodness, an attitude which does not sit well with the biblical view of sin. Instead, it sounds a lot like motivational speaking to me, mixed in with a bit of the bible.

Finally, in regard to the following comment :

"I do love the music, over an extended period it is hands down the best worship there is."

I wonder when church became about the music over and above the Word for so many Christians. My feeling is that going to Hillsong or any church because you like the music is essentially an unbiblical and consumerist attitude to church, and something we all need to be wary of.

First and foremost we must judge a church on their handling of scriptures, and if they mishandle it - whether intentionally or unintentionally - we shouldn't be going along because we like the music.

That's my two cents.

Stan said...

And in regards to this statement,
"I do love the music, over an extended period it is hands down the best worship there is."

I have to ask when did music and worship become interchangable words?

In that case, I guess I have to say that I attend the Free Japanese Church of Punk Rock. Services are held at midnight in Osaka and we pour sake at communion.

All are welcome but please be respectful and come with a crazy haircut.

Richard Mackenzie said...

Good post.

It is great that you have spoken out publicly.People who raise such issues within these Churches are silenced and stonewalled.

I resigned my own membership with a Church closely aligned to Hillsong after fair questions I asked regarding the assertions made in the Business review Weekly’s article “God’s Millionaires: (June 2005) would not be answered adequately by the Senior Pastor - and financials not provided.

After much research, (I am a Business Analyst by profession), I have concluded that these organisations are family owned Businesses - rather than Churches that:

1) Claim “..the books are open” yet detailed financials of all related entities are not provided upon request.

2) Manipulatively promote the teaching on ‘tithing’ which does not stand up to accepted principles of biblical interpretation.

3) Facilitate a ‘networked speaking circuit’ where these Senior Pastors pay each other large sums of money to speak at each others Churches and Conferences into tax-free ‘ministry’ entities that they control.

4) Are autocratically controlled by the Senior Pastor and his appointed Board - allowing these Churches to become ˜inherited family owned businesses (refer to the Articles of Incorporation and you will see what I mean). Many megachurches are passed down Frandk Houston > Brian houston > Joel Houston etc.)

5) Cover up contradictions such as Brian Houston’s “on the record” (”Lords Profits” SMH 2003) statement that “he makes money as a property developer” and later “(He) has never been a property developer” (Letter to Editor, BRW/Australin Story 2005).

I urge all “Spiritual consumers” to be astute and heed the words of St Jerome (345-420 a.d. ) “Avoid, as you would the plague, a clergyman who is also a man of business.”

Peter said...

I have never attended Hillsong Church so I can't comment directly. But I can say that all churches are capable of producing bad sermons. I visited Redeemer a few months ago and almost walked out in the middle of the service because I thought it was so blatantly wrong and misleading. I've only attended Redeemer one time before then; I know they are a solid church but if I was completely unaware of Redeemer's reputation, I would have thought they were doctrinally sketchy based on my two visits.

I have never liked Hillsong worship. There are a handful of their songs that I like but in the end, they don't compare, both with regards to the music and richness of lyrics, to the Soul Survivor stuff (Tim Hughes, Matt Redman, etc.)

If Hillsong is as bad as you suggest, I hope it is not beyond saving. I'm sure God has used Hillsong to advance His kingdom in many ways. As someone who grew up in a charismatic church and also is an unabashed capitalist, I am not immediately alarmed when I see people be very expressive during worship or hear "health and wealth"-type messages. I think as long as those are rooted in solid leadership and in Scripture, they are not necessarily always bad.

Lunch said...

"... not necessarily always bad ..."

Now there's a glowing endorsement!

Justin said...

Richard McK -- thanks for your thoughts. Difficult times. Do we know each other.

Peter -- I'm looking forward to talking with you more about your comment. I certainly do believe that every church is capable of a bad sermon. I am proof of this. :) But a bad sermon (And by bad, I primarily mean bad *content*) is fatal when neither the preacher nor the hearers can *pick* that it is bad. That is the lack of discernment I am referring to, and that's when the game is over.

Peter said...

Well, let me explain what that means. By "not necessarily always bad", all I'm saying is that there is no formula or checklist for building a God-honoring church. Even if you came up with a list of attributes which all "healthy" churches should have and if Church X meets all those attributes on the surface-level, it doesn't necessarily mean that church is healthy or God-honoring. There are a ton of churches out there that claim to have a strong emphasis on Scripture and doctrinal correctness but in the end, don't honor God because they worship their own intellect and fail to do the will of God.

There are lots of doctrinally-weak charismatic churches out there but there are very doctrinally-sound charismatic churches out there too. Being charismatic does not inherently make a church not doctrinally-sound (you could disagree with their theology regarding manifestations of the Holy Spirit but that doesn't mean that they didn't formulate their beliefs about the Holy Spirit without as much considerations as their opponents did).

Similarly, I would argue there's truth in some of the "health and wealth" Gospel message but judging a church based on that without knowing the rest of their ministries and pastoral leadership would be unfair.

The practice of the Christian faith is not black and white and the Christian church today could do a better job of uniting on the essentials and having grace for each other on the unessentials.

Peter said...

Hey Justin. Thanks for writing back. Regarding your comment:

"But a bad sermon (And by bad, I primarily mean bad *content*) is fatal when neither the preacher nor the hearers can *pick* that it is bad."

I agree. The way to build a church of people who can discern the will of God is to instill a love of the Word of God and a spirit of humility in which everyone, including and perhaps especially the pastors, can receive constructive feedback and rebuking. If the congregants of a church are too afraid to raise issues to the pastoral staff regarding things they didn't agree with in their teaching or the way that ministries are run, there's something wrong. I can only hope that members of Redeemer who saw the same flaws that I did in the sermon I heard there responded to the pastors with constructive feedback. I can also only hope that Hillsong is a place where the pastors are humble enough to receive feedback.

Justin said...

Peter -- don't let Lunch bother you. He's a crank sometimes. Although it must be said that he is an incredibly funny crank.


My point in the post is to say that lack of discernment is more problematic to me that the health and wealth stuff.

For example, I went to one service that used Mark 6:1-6 as a reason to give. (His hometown didn't give Jesus money, so no miracles could happen there.) My point is this: how come no-one picks that this is a *lousy* use of Scripture? Every person I spoke to after the service gave that preacher a free-pass on that text.

That could be an isolated incident, right? But the *bigger* thing is when people cannot pick the isolated incident as potentially problematic. That, then, is a systemic problem.

Re Health and Wealth -- this is about eschatology as much as anything, right? When does God give the prosperity He promises?

Justin said...

Our paths are crossing in cyberspace!

If the congregants of a church are too afraid to raise issues to the pastoral staff regarding things they didn't agree with in their teaching or the way that ministries are run, there's something wrong.

You can slice me apart any time you like. In fact, our commitment to truth demands it! (Gal 2:11). Although you could do it nicely. I shall be receptive.

Tam Jonker said...

Here Here. Thanks Justin. Esp for your use of the Jeremiah passage to remind us that judgment is for God, not us.

CresceNet said...

Oi, achei seu blog pelo google está bem interessante gostei desse post. Gostaria de falar sobre o CresceNet. O CresceNet é um provedor de internet discada que remunera seus usuários pelo tempo conectado. Exatamente isso que você leu, estão pagando para você conectar. O provedor paga 20 centavos por hora de conexão discada com ligação local para mais de 2100 cidades do Brasil. O CresceNet tem um acelerador de conexão, que deixa sua conexão até 10 vezes mais rápida. Quem utiliza banda larga pode lucrar também, basta se cadastrar no CresceNet e quando for dormir conectar por discada, é possível pagar a ADSL só com o dinheiro da discada. Nos horários de minuto único o gasto com telefone é mínimo e a remuneração do CresceNet generosa. Se você quiser linkar o Cresce.Net( no seu blog eu ficaria agradecido, até mais e sucesso. If is possible add the CresceNet( in your blogroll, I thank. Good bye friend.

Lunch said...

I don't think I could have put it any better myself.

Phil said...

Hi Justin (and Peter). Thanks for your thoughts.

[Justin, I'm just back from the Strad so I'm catching up on old posts!]

But the *bigger* thing is when people cannot pick the isolated incident as potentially problematic. That, then, is a systemic problem. (Justin)

"The way to build a church of people who can discern the will of God is to instill a love of the Word of God and a spirit of humility in which everyone, including and perhaps especially the pastors, can receive constructive feedback and rebuking. If the congregants of a church are too afraid to raise issues to the pastoral staff regarding things they didn't agree with in their teaching or the way that ministries are run, there's something wrong. (Peter)

I've never studied any church history but didn't a guy called Luther react to this kind of "systemic problem"?

Justin said...

Hope the Strad was fun.

Re Luther -- good observation!

Megs said...

Hi Jud,
Meg here.
Funnily enough, I just had a conversation with Geoff Bullock, which kind of sums up my take on Hillsong. I'll see if blogger'll let me paste it into this discussion.
'Ang on!
Geoff wrote a beautiful song entitled 'IF i could see your face', and was required at Hillsong Church to change it to 'WHENEVER i see your face...' This is very problematic to me, and exemplifies something harmful in the way Hillsong Church is...
Here's the conversation:
Geoff Bullock
10:09pm Dec 10th
Dear Megan,
Very few people have heard that version... I had to change it to:
Whenever I see your face". I would love to know how the original version found it's way to Seattle.
Blessing to you

Megan Ann Ady
12:31pm Dec 12th
Dear Geoff,
i like 'if i could see your face' alot better, since i never have actually seen God's face! how come you had to change it to 'whenever i see your face'?

i'm an Aussie married to an American (whom I met in Argentina!), living in Seattle! I heard 'If I could see your face' visiting friends at Forster Beach Mission NSW in the early '90s I think - I remember walking into the big tent and listening to the words and feeling SO relieved to find in your song that sense I have of not really knowing if God is there - of God being beyond my reach, and me yearning for him.

When people around me are too positive about God, as in 'whenever i see your face', i find it hard to be authentic and honest, and to believe what they are saying about God, because it's just so much more positive than anyone's life I know.

Thanks for listening!
Seeing you wrote those amazing words, i figured you'd relate maybe!

Geoff Bullock
3:58pm Dec 12th
I couldn't agree more!!
Thank you so much for taking the time to write.
Have a wonderful Christmas

Megan Ann Ady
5:20pm Dec 12th

Geoff Bullock
11:05pm Dec 12th
By the way Meg.. if you would like to hear some of my new songs follow the link below... hope you like them
Geoff Bullock

Megan Ann Ady
9:06pm Dec 14th
Thanks. I really like your music, particularly 'All Alone'. Thank you. I don't hear music about Jesus very often, and it is very spiritually comforting to listen to your beautiful music and poetry.

Geoff Bullock said...

Thank you for such a reasoned post to what can be such an emotional topic. I was part of the very foundations of Hillsong and I had to watch the changes that eventually ate away at my conscience. Yes, a loss of discernment may have been been part of their travels. However, I think that some of this may be their attraction to the 'stars and lights'.. the notables in what passes as Christianity in some small but influential circles.
I mourn that days when it was a small and loving church.. but then such is growth. It is easy to criticise I know and in the end, rather than criticism I would prefer to simply say that I am just sad that this is one of the major influences in the 'church' today.
There is much that I could say about their 'worship'. I wish the link between worship and music could be broken. Surely worship is our life response to the life of Jesus and particularly the cross. What we call worship is, in reality, an artistic response to this far greater source of inspiration.
If only we could turn down the songs and the singing and reflect for a while on the beautiful and wondrous basics rather than the spurious lyrics of thousands of songs... mine included

Mike Niehouse said...

I don't recall ever hearing a message that was particularly off, and I've listened to about ten to fifteen. I've never been to one of their services or conferences, because I live in the U.S., and I regularly attend an A.G. church here. I enjoy listening to their music, and it draws me into the presence of God. For the life of me, I can't think of one eyebrow-raising issue since I discovered their music some ten or twelve years ago.

I do think that the larger the church, the more prone you become to problems. But as far as Pastor Houston's teaching, and the music ministry (adult and youth) is concerned, everything's peaches, Mac.

Anonymous said...

I don't go to Hillsong but I do find their music is awesome for my woship time with God. I've never been to a church that was perfect and knew every single thing there was to know about God's word. I think Hillsong as well as thousands of other churches around the world are touching lives. God wants us to reach out to rest of the world and bring people to him. Yes we must discern what is right and what is wrong, what is of God and what is not. You can't say Hillsong is not of God, if these leaders have had words from God for the direction of their church, then you can't stand in the way or bring down what is of God. Gods word says that anything that is not of God, is of the Devil. That's serious stuff to be accusing! I believe the end times are not so far away and we have to be desparate in finding our own purpose God has for our life. We are all the body of Christ, and must lift each other up rather than bring each other down. Look to yourself and your heart and make sure you are humble and willing to do God's work, make sure you are clean and holy before God and leave the judging to God. It really saddens me that people are so quick to judge, God is the only judge for all that happens on this earth. Start praying for churches around the world and leaders that God has called. Prayer is so powerful. I've experienced some amazing power from God in my life through prayer. Find a church that you are comfortable in and where you believe God has called YOU to be for his purpose. Let's not bring fellow Christians down in front of the world, we need to be an example of love, forgiveness and of compassion to each other. Lucky for us God's Grace is so great!!! JUST REMEMBER THAT EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE THROUGH GOD, HAVE NO DOUBT IN GOD'S POWER, HE IS GOD!!!!

Esther Hockey said...

This is a great post. Really appreciate this. My husband and I have been going to Hillsong for the past 2 months and we are still questioning...I've been to a Bible college myself and I was told by the church leaders to wait until I learn the Hillsong culture in order to volunteer/work at their church...They asked me lots of personal questions and when I asked them a question, they basically told me off. I think I'll find a new church...