Monday, July 23, 2012

Yesterday I went to Hillsong and heard about Jesus

Yesterday morning a mate and I went to Hillsong's main service at Mt Gravatt. To shamelessly pinch ideas. We wanted to 'plunder the Egyptians' by seeing what good ideas they have to connect newcomers to church.

It wasn't what I expected.

We went in expecting to hear prosperity gospel. We heard nothing of it. Instead, we found ourselves listening to the great news about Jesus. The service went for 90 minutes exactly. 47 minutes of that was the sermon. Dodgy 'health and wealth' talk was totally absent. Giving wasn't mentioned once by the preacher.

We expected a classic 'You need more money' sermon. We heard nothing of it. Instead, the preacher spoke from the story of John the Baptist in John 1. He taught from the Bible!  It was engaging. Interesting. Applicable. Exciting. Not boring. Not too long. Not heresy. We listened to every word. Words. Lots of them. Meandering structurally, theologically a little blunt, but never boring. The only visuals he used were different bible verses he was opening up for us.

He used all these concepts without losing the audience: Trinity, predestination, creation, sin, the incarnation, forgiveness of sin, regeneration and adoption. The only terms avoided were incarnation and regeneration - but he was workmanlike in connecting these complex ideas to the 1500-odd adults there. Trinity was where he began and ended. It was all quite orthodox (although I would definitely want to and have to be much more nuanced on the Trinity). He went from John 1 to Genesis 1 to Ephesians 1.

We expected poor application. Given the main idea of his sermon was that the Godhead is relational in his very identity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit in relational unity), his application seemed appropriate: we shouldn't be surprised that God invites us to be part of his story of saving others from the deadly consequences of sin, by inviting them to church, to hear about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Instead, he said, we should be AMAZED that the Triune God chooses, of his own will, to use frail and sinful human beings, adopted as his children, to bring other people to know him. I was encouraged and fed reasonably well from God's Word.

We expected way too much repetitive singing of generally poorly written songs with inane lyrics. Fluffy stuff. Hit and giggle. But although most were theologically shallow, some actually spoke of the Lordship of Jesus, the cross of Jesus and the forgiveness of sins that comes by trusting in Jesus. Parts were gospel gold. There weren't too many. Instead, there were only 2 brackets of songs - one set at the beginning (20 minutes) and a single song at the end, to close off the sermon and service. We were stunned.

We expected to be uncomfortable. We weren't (not much, anyway). Perhaps the most uncomfortable thing was his story about some guru English preacher prophesying his whole life in a car on the way to Manchester. That makes me uncomfortable, and left me glad to have heard Hebrews 1 last week (Jesus is the ultimate, complete and final revelation, so don't get distracted by any other stuff). There were no nutters working themselves into a lather. No crazy rolling around on the floor. No tongues. No stupid dancer wannabes invading your personal space. No shameless emotional manipulation. Even the altar call was reasonably respectful of the audience.

Of course, we learnt a lot about connecting newcomers. We pinched heaps of good ideas. At the welcome lounge we made good to look like we had no idea what we were doing (surprisingly easy). A lady came and welcomed us really well. I told her directly who we were and why we were there, gauging her response. Looking for any hint of defensivess. But she was entirely gracious. No question was too intrusive. Not a whiff of pride. She went the extra mile. She told us stuff we hadn't even asked about. All she wanted to do was help her fellow followers of Jesus.

Some reflections:
  1. Once again I've been rebuked for my incipient judgementalism.
  2. We are powered by grace. Grace really is the fuel of the gospel that should stoke our lives as Christians every day. And grace must especially be the driving force in the ministry of pastors like me.
  3. People can change for the better; so it makes sense that churches can too. I am left wondering who has graciously and winsomely helped Hillsong to recapture a focus on teaching the Bible. Maybe my sample size is too small?
  4. Kids dropped off to a separate 'kids church' from the get go makes me uncomfortable. I don't think it reflects a healthy idea of church being a gathering across all age groups. Having said that, the service leader explained that over 90 different ethnicities were present in the church, and looking around this rang true.
  5. Not a single mention of the brand 'Hillsong' during the service; yet the visual branding was exceptionally clear and unambigious.
  6. I didn't expect a small choir of 12 people on stage for the first bracket of songs. It worked well.
  7. No one else was singing when the band were performing. It wasn't so much an issue of volume, but the visually communicated expectations (culture?). It was strange and heart warming to be back at Creek Road at night church to hear the whole congregation (much smaller) singing with the band, and even for our band to go silent for a verse or two once we were pumping it out.
  8. They have a massive focus on services as THE main event. Their connect/ushering team would have been at least 60 people.
  9. Starting the service with an instrumental version of 'Simply the Best' was just weird.
  10. 'Next steps' language was everywhere; sometimes clear and sometimes confusing. Too many were mentioned; but this reflected their 'opt-in' philosophy of ministry rather than the pathway thinking I am used to.
  11. The preacher was a pommie. But he seemed like an OK bloke.
  12. He began with an underpants story which had nothing to do with the talk and everything to do with humanising the preacher by connecting with his audience (getting us 'on the train').
  13. They really believe God is at work. They actually expect people will come to church, hear about Jesus and be saved.
  14. They have an energy and enthusiasm which on one level puts me to shame. On another though, it was inspiring. They reminded me just how good the gospel is, and how much we pastors need to keep being reminded of that ourselves, particularly if we're supposed to be sharing it with others.
  15. Lengthy talks doesn't equal boredom. The guy preached for 47 minutes. Even my fidgety mate with the short attention span listened to the lot. Whether people are engaged depends on whether the speaker is engaging. If people are bored, it's not because the sermon's too long. It's because we're boring.
  16. They were unashamedly generous. Why aren't I? Don't we serve the same Lord?
  17. The preacher bled enthusiasm for the Bible. He modelled love for God's word. I think this is one thing we do have sorted - we just need to let it show more.
  18. Simplicity, excellence and organisation are not the enemies of love, sincerity and care.
  19. Doing ministry on a big scale in a big team in a big church does seem to be connecting somehow with our culture in a way that our small-church-planting obsessions don't. (Westfields vs corner stores?)
  20. It may be that we are moving to become more like them, but it seems they may be moving to become more like us. What is it that God is doing here in Brisbane? I'm excited.


  1. Hi Dave,

    I'm curious to know what you're refering to when you talk about the inability of small-church plants to connect.

    Also, what do you think of the recent Hillsong events with speakers such as Joyce Meyer? I guess this is a two-pronged question that asks first what you think of her and second (if you do not support her) what you would say/do about it?

  2. Thanks Dave. Very interesting.

    I hate going to Westfielf (or it's equivalent) by the way. Our corner store gets nearly all our money.

  3. Hey David, yes I have heard similar things about Hillsong in Sydney, from Claire Smith (Rob's wife) who said they were becoming way more bible and gospel focused. You can see that in many of the newer songs coming out of Hillsong, which aren't about 'fulfil your potential', but trust in Jesus' saving work on the Cross. Awesome. People are being saved! Hope the same can be said of our more conservative gatherings. Ros B

  4. Hi Tim
    I'm not a fan of Joyce Meyer. But I am a fan of preaching about Jesus. I noticed yesterday at Hillsong that they were promoting their 2013 Hillsong conference in the foyer. The lead speakers include Joel Osteen. I'm not a fan of him either. There's a lot about Hillsong and it's associations that I've not been a fan of, including a lot of Brian Houston's preaching. That said, I heard the gospel yesterday. I heard atonement. It was at Hillsong. And that messes with my head.

  5. Hi Al
    You're unusual in many ways bro! It's one of the reasons I like you.
    Is that the last corner store open in Hobart?

  6. Ros, that's very interesting - can you point me in the direction of Claire's reflections? Are they on a blog somewhere?

  7. I loved reading your thoughts, Dave, and appreciated your nice balance of wisdom and humility. I've recently been pleasantly surprised by some great teaching from unexpected angles. (I've only listened to a few of his sermons so far, but Steven Furtick is one guy who seems really zealous about teaching practical stuff from the Scriptures -- and with enthusiasm!). The delivery isn't always what we deem to be "churchy", but a lot of people are more stuck into the Word of God than I can at first assume.

    1. Thanks Danielle - who is Steven Furtick? Pardon my ignorance

  8. I'm glad that experience messed with your head a little. We can all do with that every now and then! :)

  9. This isn't surprising. I think FWIW the mainline pentecostal types have worked out that really letting their convictions "hang out" when it comes to some of the ecstatic/miraculous is just too hard to market to the average emotionally stunted Australian. It would be interesting to see what a long term punter there thinks about those core pentecostal doctrines and how they actually play out in their day to day life.

    I think we've got to get past the blanket belief that everyone who goes to those churches has the theological depth of a petrie dish.. 'cos when the boot's on the other foot I haven't encountered a stack of 'depth' in Presbyterian churches. All that 'deep teaching' must have been too hard to understand (?)

    I still think 47 minutes is way too long for sermon. I start misunderstanding the sermon when it goes for more than 25 minutes - and that's when I'm preaching.

    Let's go to an evening service there one week...

    1. Thanks Al. You've just taught me about this reply button!

    2. Jeffy, on the length thingo. My short fidgety mate just messaged me pointing out that the 47 minutes could have been reduced to 25 minutes without losing much. I think he's right on that - a great observation. (Especially considering he's a ministry trainee and never preached a 52 minute sermon in his life)

  10. Thanks Jeffy - you are a classic: "I start misunderstanding the sermon when it goes for more than 25 minutes - and that's when I'm preaching"
    Love it.
    Nah, I think I'll pass on going there everyweek. The good oil is at Creek Road on Sunday nights.

  11. Helpful summary.
    I think across the board overt displays of 'distinctive behavior' have diminished because of the impression it creates.
    Did the point which the preacher emphasised from their text really come as a point that we could assume the writer of the text was intending to convey?
    I think from what you described that you were listening to their lead pastor, who seems a skilled teacher, from the little I've heard.
    I'm not surprised about the songs, because I think their music has been theologically more consistent than other aspects of their teaching, which has created tensions for those of us who might use the music but have reservations about the brand.
    Did they celebrate the supper? How was the offering talk?

  12. In answer to your question Gary, the answer is no. It wasn't an exegetical talk as we would describe. Definitely topical, launching from John 1 but returning there throughout the talk. However, I imagine (but don't know for sure) that he might categorise it as about as 'exegetical' as they get. That's all assumption, and probably incorrect. But my hunch.
    No they didn't do the Lord's Supper yesterday. Neither did we at Creek Road.
    The offering talk was incredibly understated. It was first up after the 20 minutes of singing and the warm up intro and even before the prayer (2.5 minutes prayer by some guy who had nothing to do with the rest of the service - I've no idea where he fits in). However, despite being understated, it was very clear: we expect you to give, to give generously and to give sacrificially. What we expect at Creek Road. But no link was made to God 'blessing you' as a response to your blatant buying him off. Goodstuff.

    1. I meant to ask if there was a Bible reading as well.
      What I keep bumping up against (and not simply amongst pentecostal friends) is preaching that says true things, and asserts biblicity but the true things said don't actually flow from the texts used in the sermon, some of which mean different things.

  13. No bible reading before the talk. But I think he fairly grounded his trinitarian discussion in John 1... he read from verse 1 onwards... although not sequentially. Definitely not the way you or I would do it. And we wouldn't be happy with that in the churches we are serving in. But much better than I expected - that's my point.

    1. Sorry - this was meant in reply to Gary's comment above.

  14. I would prefer to give Westfields a miss, I love the vibe down at my local shops. I guess we all have our preferences.

    1. Hi Tracey
      Sorry my point wasn't clear enough - I think I'm saying that it's not about whether you and like shopping at Westfield or the local corner store. That's irrelevant isn't it - since we are the ones running a store (to continue the analogy)?
      The question is where the vast majority of people in middle class suburbia around us like to shop. It's not the corner store.
      I'm interested in why that is.

  15. I don't think your sample size is too small. I went to the Hillsong women's conference earlier this year (Colour conference) and it was amazing. The two speakers (both American Beth Moore and Priscilla Shirer) were amazing. They exegeted the passage, and also applied it in a way which was emotionally engaging and encouraged us all - both in a comforting way, and pushing us on way. Sure there was glitz, but there was also real genuine, down to earth, gritty faith and love in action. There's heaps we can learn from Hillsong.

    1. Hi Donna and thanks for commenting. Did you hear about Jesus there?