A toned and sunburned 32-year-old Australian with the letters F-A-I-T-H tattooed onto his biceps strode onto the stage of a former burlesque theater here and shouted across a sea of upstretched hands and uplifted smartphones: “Let’s win this city together!”
The crowd did not need much urging. Young, diverse and devoted to Jesus, the listeners had come to the Belasco Theater from around the city, and from across the country, eager to help an Australian Pentecostal megachurch that is spreading worldwide establish its first outpost on America’s West Coast.
The church, Hillsong, has become a phenomenon, capitalizing on, and in some cases shaping, trends not only in evangelicalism but also in Christian youth culture. Its success would be rare enough at a time when religion is struggling in a secularizing Europe and North America. But Hillsong is even more remarkable because its target is young Christians in big cities, where faith seems out of fashion but where its services are packing them in.
Powered by a thriving, and lucrative, recording label that dominates Christian contemporary music, it has a vast reach — by some estimates, 100,000 people in the pews each weekend, 10 million followers on social media, 16 million albums sold, with its songs popping up in churches from Uzbekistan to Papua New Guinea.
Founded 30 years ago, Hillsong has churches in Amsterdam; Barcelona, Spain; Berlin; Cape Town; Copenhagen; Kiev, Ukraine; London; New York; Paris; and Stockholm, as well as multiple campuses in Australia and, now, an embryonic congregation in Los Angeles.
The Hillsong empire might appear to be a musical powerhouse first and a church second. It is, after all, a multimillion-dollar enterprise, drawing large crowds to arena concert performances; one of its bands, Hillsong United, is even the subject of a documentary scheduled for release by Warner Bros. next year.
Its songs, with a folk rock sound and simple, accessible lyrics, pervade the Christian charts and have transformed the Christian songbook.
“They are without a doubt the most influential producers of worship music in Christendom,” said Fred Markert, a Colorado-based leader of Youth With a Mission, a Christian organization. And Ed Stetzer, the executive director of LifeWay Research, an organization based in Nashville that studies practices in American Christianity, declared in an analysis of Hillsong, “In sensory stimulation, Hillsong’s productions rival any other contemporary form of entertainment.”
But its critics, and there are many, deride Hillsong as hipster Christianity, suggesting that its theology is thin, its enthusiasm for celebrities (Justin Bieber is among its fans) unbecoming, its politics (opposition to abortion and a murky position on homosexuality) opaque.
“It’s a prosperity movement for the millennials, in which the polyester and middle-class associations of Oral Roberts have given way to ripped jeans and sophisticated rock music,” said R. Albert Mohler Jr., the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “What has made Hillsong distinctive is a minimization of the actual content of the Gospel, and a far more diffuse presentation of spirituality.”
For young Christians in cities where Hillsong has churches, it has become a magnet, combining the production values of a rock concert, the energy of a nightclub and the community of a megachurch. Many of the worshipers say they are drawn by the music but have stayed because of the opportunity to be with other young Christians, and because they believe that the churches can help transform cities, both through prayer and through direct social services.
“I want to be part of something bigger than myself,” said Tricia Hidalgo, 29, who said that she first heard Hillsong music played in her childhood church in Ontario, Calif., and that as a young adult she gave up studying to be a teacher to move to Australia to attend Hillsong’s Bible college. Now, she is volunteering for the church in Los Angeles.
“We’re going to love the city, love the people, and, to me, I feel like love can break any walls,” she said.
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