On Hillsong Church & Mainstream Christian Music

Picture a scene of flashing lights, hands high in the air, lasers backing a sonic, synthesized dance track in a historic auditorium. On another day, this could be a concert by the biggest names in hip hop and dance. Yet, this is a Sunday morning, and this is a church. The rapid evolution of Christian music into mainstream consciousness has had a profound effect on both secular and traditional perceptions of religion. Through these changes, a single church has single-handedly fostered a paradigm shift in Christian music and messaging. The introduction of the first global megachurch, Hillsong Church, in the greater context of Christian worship music has greatly influenced Christian culture and popular perceptions of it.

Modern Christian music was first introduced in the 1970s, as the Christian Pentecostal denomination began to introduce an increased tempo to traditional praise music. Up until then, Sunday morning music featured piano, organs, large choirs, and solo vocalists, feeding the congregation a steady canon of hymnody and gospel songs. Suddenly, in the 1970s, an influx of praise choruses and guitars brought about the introduction of praise music, and sowed the seeds of modern Christian music. A grassroots, pop culture-driven movement met a seemingly immovable religious institution, and after years of conflict and controversy, Sunday mornings sound totally different now. The changes, especially in lyricism, are apparent. Lyrics took on fewer direct Biblical and theological references, and instead turned to richer imagery and abstract allusions. A clear example of this is found in late 90s worship songs Marie Barnett’s “Breathe,” and Kathryn Scott’s “Hungry”. In each song, the lyrics explore an intimate, informal relationship between the subject and the audience (God). The terms “You” and “I” are used, rather than “God” and “we.” Lyrics like “I'm desperate for You” , and “Hungry I come to You for I know You satisfy, I am empty but I know Your love does not run dry” (Scott) create music that  appears lyrically like a contemporary love song. Modern Christian music is a paradigm shift from the gospel songs of old, as the upbeat rhythms and wordplay disrupts the tight cadences that hymns usually have, in the same way that pop songs do.

Founded in August 1983 in Sydney, Australia by Brian and Bobbie Houston, Hillsong originated as the Hills Christian Life Centre. At its beginning, Hillsong counted 45 members in its congregation, but quickly grew to 900 within the next four years. A live CD under the name Hillsong Live was released in 1992, featuring singers/songwriters Geoff Bullock and Darlene Zschech, who would become leading singers in on the Hillsong label for decades to come. Hillsong’s brand became incredibly prominent, as its 2004 song “For All You’ve Done” topped mainstream Australian pop charts. Hillsong conferences boasted over 30,000 attendees through its doors. Meanwhile, Hillsong United, the church’s youth ministry band, began to record and produce music. United became the second annual product of the church (alongside Hillsong Church albums), and was promoted heavily in adult services as well as at youth events. These albums achieved cult status with Christian youth, also receiving industry recognition. From there, Hillsong’s global popularity began to snowball. The church expanded to satellite locations around the world. In Australia, alone, 25,000 worshipers a week attend services across four campus locations and twelve extension services3. As a network, Hillsong churches are found in London, Kiev, Cape Town, Stockholm, Paris, Moscow, New York City, and Konstanz, Germany3. Now, Hillsong music and Hillsong church has been regarded as the quintessential 21st century megachurch and music brand. The vast accessibility of its music has “allowed it to spread across more than 80 cities, 21 countries, and five continents, resulting in an estimated 50 million people a week singing Hillsong-branded music across the globe. The sheer appeal of Hillsong music has placed it at the vanguard of modern Christian music, as it emerged from traditional stereotypes to reach a whole different audience, reinventing perceptions of faith and theology.

In the past five years, the intense popularity of Hillsong music has contributed to its outsized cultural impact in not only Christian society, but also in popular consciousness. The rapid evolution of praise and worship music has culminated in music is lyrically and sonically more similar to modern pop music, as opposed to the hymnals of past. Released in 2017, “Wonder,” Hillsong United’s latest album, incorporates elaborate production, dynamic performances, well-crafted lyrics into a generational cultural hit that has been “re-arranged by Gospel and African Choirs alike, and it’s been spun by DJ’s, remixed, and rapped over”. The popularity of Hillsong’s greatest hit song speaks to its vast appeal, with an intricate modern sonic production, and lyrics that resonate with its global audience. Released in 2013, “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” is Hillsong’s biggest hit among religious and secular audiences alike, peaking at 83 on the US Billboard Hot 100, spent a record 61 non-consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the billboard Hot Christian Songs chart, and has ranked in the chart’s top 10 songs for the year in the past four years. The song is a nine-minute ballad, with “sweeping minor keys and swelling guitar”. Recorded by vocalist Taya Smith, the song, a ballad in B minor, features a simple chord progression commonly found in pop songs, overlayed with violin and piano riffs. Smith’s vocals are soothing, and open with the verse “You call me out upon the waters, the great unknown, where feet may fail”. Throughout the track, rich imagery describes the scene — ocean waves, allusions to walking on water, and deeper depths serve as thematic elements that characterize the praise song. As the song progresses into the chorus, sonic guitar and a synthetic drum beat builds, and the Smith sings the second verse at a quicker pace. When the song is at its rhythmic, volumic, and vocal peak, Oceans suddenly vacates the room, leaving only piano and ethereal synthesizer sounds, as the bridge begins.

 

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders,

Let me walk upon the waters,

Wherever You would call me.

Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander,

And my faith will be made stronger,

In the presence of my Savior.

 

One of the most iconic bridge buildups in Christian music, Smith sings this sequence three times, each crescendoing and increasing in complexity as a combination of guitar, piano, strings, drums, and synthetic sounds are progressively layered into the music, creating a sense of chaos, though every addition is underhandedly harmonic. Throughout the song, the minor key baseline backing track creates a melancholic, yet reflective space, for which the lyrics and other musical elements can build off of. Throughout my churchgoing career, Oceans (Where Feet May Fail) is often the third or fourth song in the worship lineup, as the moodier, more reflective ballad follows the upbeat, major-keyed, happier tracks. The song’s familiarity among the audience is far-reaching, and the lack of theology in the lyricism makes Oceans (Where Feet May Fail) accessible to a broader audience. Much of the spiritual meaning must be inferred, and God is not directly referred to; instead the song mentions “You” 20 times, as opposed to “savior” (3 times), and “faith” (4 times), which would be considered more “traditional” religious terminology. The sheer popularity of the track epitomizes the the converging trajectories of Christian praise music with mainstream pop music, especially that of love ballads. Alan Noble, editor-in-chief of the website Christ and Pop Culture, asserts that “that [pop-style worship music] just sounds like a love song, and that if you took out Jesus, it would just sound like any other love song”3. Oceans epitomizes this exact dynamic, and the ballad contains few, if any direct references to Christian themes and ideology. The audience must infer traditional Christian ideas and tenets.

Clearly, Hillsong has revolutionized what it means to write praise music, as their music isn’t tailored for one church in one locale; it’s meant for a worldwide audience. “You can come up with a pop song, it doesn’t matter what it’s about. If it sounds good and feels good, that’s great. For us, you’re putting words into the mouths of people. These songs are written for people to sing, not just to listen to,” says Brian Houston, the founder and senior pastor of Hillsong Church6.  Houston’s statement exemplifies the role of music as a function of emotional expression. Alan Merriam explains that “where an emotion may be either individual or collective, it is the collective aspect that finds expression in song...Underlying all of these [emotions] in greater or less degree is the general function of stimulating, expressing, and sharing emotion.” Especially regarding religious music, “something more than emotion - namely mana or supernatural power-is conveyed” (Merriam). Modern Christian music accomplishes exactly that; it conveys emotion and is central to an experience where ordinary people go to experience the extraordinary. Leaving out the spirituality of Christian theology, the music offers an escape from reality, and people often experience a euphoric sensation through modern Christian music. Unlike secular concerts where the audience is passive, taking in the music, Christian music revolves around audience engagement, and the lyrics to the songs are shown clearly for the congregation to sing along to. Religious music deemphasizes the performance and emphasizes the audience, completely reversing the norms of traditional secular live music performance.

Sunday mornings at Hillsong are a musical experience, and are unlike mornings at any other religious institution. The Fader perfectly epitomizes the atmosphere at Hillsong’s Manhattan campus: “A man plays a guitar and a woman sings lead, along with a bassist, a drummer, four backing vocalists, and a choir of about 15 people at the back of the stage. They play four songs before a local pastor appears with long curly hair, a sleeve of tattoos, and a Hawaiian shirt. ‘This is not Christian karaoke,’ he jokes. ‘I know the words are on the screen, but that’s not what we’re doing here.’ This is a time of worship, a church service — not, I repeat, a concert”6. The service clearly shows the ability for music to create atmosphere, a place where Christianity is portrayed as accessible, approachable, and even relatable. Merriam’s describes of music as a “solidarity point around which members of society congregate,” but he expands on this,  concluding that music “provides a rallying point around which members of society gather to engage in activities which require the cooperation and coordination of the group. Not all music is thus performed, of course, but every society has occasions signalled by music which draw its members together and reminds them of their unity”. Hillsong’s global, far-reaching popularity can be attributed to how its music is easy-listening, uplifting, approachable, and consequently, universally resonates. Vox perfectly characterizes the church as “both high-tech and minimalist, equal parts rock concert and TED talk”4. It continues to state that “the church’s wholesale adoption of what has come to be known in church circles as a ‘seeker-sensitive’ model — maximizing outreach through feel-good rhetoric and the veneer of accessibility.” Through music and message, modern day churches have been able to reach large parts of mainstream society by creating an aura of accessibility, much due in fact to the evolution of Christian music into mainstream consciousness.

Hillsong has pushed the envelope in Christian music, and the work of its multimillion dollar labels Hillsong United and Hillsong Young + Free have blurred the lines between worship music and modern pop and dance.

 

The rapid evolution of Christian music away from traditional hymnals and call-and-response towards a more secular musicality has received criticism. T. David Gordon, a professor of religion at Grove City College published the book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Re-wrote the Hymnal, which comments on the evolution of Christian music, and how mainstream society has influenced its messaging and musicality. His argument is summarized this way: “commercially driven cultural norms that discard historical influence and uphold temporal immediacy have greatly influenced the contemporary nature of the modern church with its desire for novelty and flippancy, which leads to a disregard for the past and transcendence”. In a society where we engage in the constant, neverending search for authenticity, Gordon argues that Christian music has become unmoored from its original meaning, and has been pushed into the winds of society. He advocates for a realignment of worship with traditional hymnals, and argues for the church to return more to its roots. Hillsong has had its fair share of detractors, as a chorus of critics have argued that through its music and messaging, the megachurch has oversimplified Christianity, and no more than a consumerist, well-branded marketing operation.

One of the first things my family and I did when we first visited LA was to attend Sunday service at the Hillsong L.A campus. The Belasco Theater, a soaring two-tiered Art-deco theater, which hosts everything from electronic dance music raves to rock concerts, serves as the venue for the megachurch. As we took our seats, soft, ambient electronically produced instrumental music from the album Without Words: Synesthesia piped through the loudspeakers. As cinematic images of the LA skyline, California nights, and concert videos counted down the start of service, the music slowly crescendoed into a synthetic symphony of instruments, sounds, textures, and beat patterns. My parents and I looked at each other in anticipation, and it seemed like we were witnessing the start of an EDM concert. As the band came out, we stood up, and a collage of flashing lights, colored lasers, and cinematic footage heralded the start of worship. They played a combination of familiar hits and the latest Hillsong hits from the album Wonder. People had their hands up and were jumping to the music, similar to pit seating at a concert. Many members of congregation were family, and were tourists visiting Hillsong LA for the first time.

I’ve been able to see first hand the impact of Hillsong and modern Christian music on both the religious world and the secular world alike. Sunday morning music was no longer relegated to Sundays, as Christian praise and worship reached the world. Evidently, the evolution of Christian music, in the context of Hillsong’s rapid rise to prominence has demonstrated the impact of music on creating space, influencing human emotion, as a method of communication, and on broader culture.

 

 

Bibliography

  1. “Marie Barnett – Breathe.” Genius, Genius Media Group Inc.

  2. “Kathryn Scott – Hungry.” Genius, Genius Media Group Inc.

  3. Riches, Tanya & Wagner, Tom. “The Evolution of Hillsong Music: From Australian Pentecostal congregation into Global Brand”. Researchgate.com, Australian Journal of Communication, Jan. 2012.

  4. Burton, Tara Isabella. “Hillsong: the Evangelical Megachurch That Helped Save Justin Bieber's Soul - and Image.” Vox.com, Vox Media, 1 Oct. 2018.

  5. Olsen, Julia. “Hillsong ‘Wonder’ Album Review.” Jam the Hype, 17 July 2017.

  6. McKinney, Kelsey. “How Hillsong Church Conquered the Music Industry in God's Name.” The FADER, The FADER, 15 Oct. 2018,

  7. Hillsong UNITED – Oceans (Where Feet May Fail).” Genius, Genius Media Group Inc., 10 Sept. 2013

  8. Merriam, Alan P. The Anthropology of Music. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964.