Note to reader: Among Anabaptist circles, discussions about music often cause deep division. Some view the slightest nod to contemporary music as liberal drift; others write off any critique as fuddy-duddy traditionalism. Our desire as a blog is not to feed division, but to think biblically about current issues.
With over 16 million albums sold and a worldwide following, the Christian band Hillsong United continues to dominate the Contemporary Christian market. But even more than a chart-topping success, Hillsong has become an icon, a movement, changing the way people worship. And love it or hate it, Christian bands like Hillsong United are shaping this generation of Anabaptists.
Even in my church – which is staunchly in the hymn camp – most would recognize Hillsong classics like “Amazing Love” or “Mighty to Save.” The recent documentary Hillsong: Let Hope Rise chronicles the band’s rise to success and introduces faces behind the music. Equally valuable, this film offers a backstage look at the movement driving the music.
Interviews with band members and Hillsong Church leaders fill much of the film, but the substantial number of full-length songs and immersive concert shots are no accident. According to the producers, “Let Hope Rise is a new motion-picture genre – the theatrical worship experience.”1 Anyone familiar with Hillsong would agree: it’s hard not to hum along.
Let Hope Rise, however, serves up more than just a concert. As a non-Christian, director Michael John Warren doesn’t share Hillsong’s beliefs, so his outsider approach is refreshing as he seeks to understand what Hillsong is all about.
As the film progresses, a paradox overshadows Hillsong. In public, their skinny jeans and fedoras fit the hipster bill. But once out of the spotlight, real people emerge: men and women with families and ordinary struggles and a genuine desire to serve Jesus. The fans, fog, and flashing lights could be any rock band, but backstage prayer time isn’t for show. So who is the real Hillsong? Unfortunately, the film leaves that question hanging, content to avoid passing judgment.
Behind the Movement
Hillsong United originated with Hillsong Church, which grew out of the vision and persistence of founder Brian Houston. Early in the 1980’s, Houston and his wife started with a small church in Sydney, which has blossomed into a multinational movement with tens of thousands of members. One key to their vision has always focused on young people serving in the church, so Hillsong United started from the youth group leading worship. No one imagined their music would resonate in so many hearts, as these teens suddenly gained global popularity.
Even now, as an established band, the band members still struggle to grasp the weight of their influence. “We’re put in a position where our job is, in some ways, to draw attention to ourselves to draw it away from ourselves,” says band leader Joel Houston. At times, this responsibility rides heavily – most evident as the band develops new songs. “The last thing you want,” says Joel, “is for something you wrote because you thought it was a cool idea or it rhymed suddenly leading people to think something that’s not in line with [the Bible].”
The meticulous effort these singers pour into their work is admirable. Their desire to help people worship comes up a lot in the film. “These songs are written for people to sing, not just to listen to,” Joel explains; “The songs mean nothing if they’re not connecting people with God.”
Beneath the Surface
Here lies the biggest divide over Hillsong worship. What does it mean to worship God? Hillsong’s concerts – with powerful music and thousands of emotional fans – provide a deeply moving experience, but do they change hearts as well as feelings? Do they move people to praise God with their lives or only with their hands? Does the Hillsong brand sell because it touches hearts or has it simply become the poster boy of cool Christianity and relevance? While we may safely applaud Hillsong’s passion and sincerity, we do well to question their methods.
Certainly, Hillsong got something right to start such a global movement: The film shows many who found hope precisely because of Hillsong’s unconventional style. However, rapid growth does not lend itself to quiet reflection. Perhaps no one, not even Hillsong, can see the downstream effects. Time will tell if the Hillsong movement lives beyond its moment in the spotlight.
Let Hope Rise certainly won’t clear up the music debate, but it may help critics and fans think twice about their assumptions. As a musical experience, the film gives lots of screen time to Hillsong favorites. As a documentary, the film shows Hillsong upfront and backstage. But the film falls short on analysis, failing to voice some of the deeper questions. Viewers should take time to ask some of those hard questions about their own music choices. For a great place to start, take a look at some Biblical music principles in Troy’s article.
Ultimately, God’s Word, not personal preference, deserves the final say on our music choices.
|Bryce Wenger lives and works on a small farm near Dalton, Ohio. He has a love for music, literature, and learning. His free time is usually spent backpacking, canoeing, or otherwise enjoying nature. He is passionate about knowing God’s Word and living life to the fullest.
“About The Film.” Hillsong Movie. Pure Flix, n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.
Hillsong: Let Hope Rise. Directed by Michael John Warren, Pure Flix, 2016.