Australia's largest church is now the subject of a feature movie but it is largely style without substance, writes Benjamin T. Jones.
IN THE interest of full disclosure, I should open by saying I was a member of Hillsong church for many years growing up. I outline my gradual disillusionment with fundamentalist, evangelical/Pentecostal Christianity in my book Atheism for Christians.
I still have many friends and family members who are Hillsong members and know many of the protagonists in the new feature film Let Hope Rise, so it was with both religious nostalgia and journalistic curiosity that I took my seat at Event Cinemas, Castle Hill, in Sydney’s north-west Bible belt.
The trailer suggests the film will be a traditional music documentary, following the rise of Hillsong from a small church in suburban Sydney to a global worship empire. Unfortunately, this is not the case. It is closer to a live music DVD with sporadic interviews and behind the scenes footage.
As the movie begins, director Michael John Warren informs the audience that they are about to witness a “theatrical worship experience” and that participation is encouraged. What this means, in practice, is that the bulk of the film is simply watching live performances of Hillsong’s latest hits on screen, complete with subtitles in case anyone wanted to sing along. None of the nine people in my morning session did but, who knows, perhaps at a later session, after a good Bible read or prayer meeting, more devout fans would sing in their seats?
For Hillsong members and the ready-made audience of evangelical Christians primarily in the United States, sitting through song after formulaic song (breathy synthesizer verse, power ballad chorus, anthemic bridge) is probably a treat and a great opportunity to reach that “unsaved” friend. “Hey man, want to come see a movie with me”?
If you do not care for their particular brand of inspirational pop/rock, Let Hope Rise is almost unwatchably boring. It is like forcing a Metallica fan to sit through a Coldpay concert, but with every lyric substituted with a divine nature metaphor.
“The mountains rise,
the oceans roar,
the wind blows,
hooray for God”
In between songs, the godumentary focuses on the church’s youth band, United, who are preparing for a show at the legendary Forum in Los Angeles. The band is desperately trying to finish new songs in time for the show. Band leader Joel Houston, son of Hillsong’s senior pastor Brian Houston, is seen agonising over the lyrics he must write as the performance draws closer.
I’m not sure “bending skies to heal the broken” is quite the Dylanesque gem he imagines (or even a line that makes sense). But nitpicking aside, the lyrics do get written and the emotional crowd express their approval by jumping, raising their hands and shedding the odd tear.
A big theme is humility and the way God can do extraordinary things with ordinary people.
As singer Taya Smith exclaims:
“I’m just a country girl!”
She speaks of her move to Sydney with only $200 when she discovered Hillsong. If her salary is similar to fellow singer, JD, she may still be relatively broke.
We watch JD saying grace and eating dinner with his children, wife, and, curiously, wife’s parents. He explains that people may think a rock star selling out the Forum must live in a mansion, but he lives with his in-laws. Being part of the band is not financially rewarding.
I really did feel sorry for JD. I used to play guitar for Hillsong at their St Mary’s and Macquarie satellite services. The cost in terms of equipment and travel is significant but the real cost is time. By the time you arrive early, set up, practice songs and pack everything away, half a day is gone. Do it at three or four services across a weekend for years and the unpaid labour becomes a significant cross to bear.
On top of that, there is a heavy expectation that you pay a tithe to the church of at least ten per cent of your net income. This is in addition to endless “offerings” expected to be paid for various projects, visiting pastors and special events. It adds up. And while it doesn’t matter that much for a young lad living at home (as I was when I left Hillsong), it does paint a bleak financial picture for a man in his thirties with a wife and two children.
While JD is presented as a Pentecostal St Francis of Assisi, one can’t help but wonder where the money from “the biggest band you’ve never heard of” goes. While Hillsong events are usually free, the church makes over $100 million annually through books and CD sales, conference registrations and the tithes that are collected at every service.
Brian Houston released a statement about his own finances, noting that he earns around $300,000 per annum (though far more in fringe benefits, according to The Daily Telegraph). Given how central the music is to Hillsong’s success, it feels mean that poor JD is on struggle street. Maybe we need a change.org petition: Get JD off his mother-in-law’s couch!
Let Hope Rise is not a documentary in any real sense. It makes no effort to understand the power structures behind this evangelical empire, or the psychology behind its supporters. It doesn’t give a voice to the faithful tithing members who finance Hillsong, or the army of former members who rail against it. There is no attempt to explore the issues that make this mega-church so polarising. Why are its supporters so passionate and loyal? Why are its critics so vocal and determined?
The New York Times has dismissed the godumentary as “narcotizing” and a “torrent of clichés”. It is a shame that Warren does so little with a subject brimming with potential. An impartial look at the rise of Hillsong and the controversies that have come to define it could have been illuminating (someone call Louis Theroux). Instead, like Fade to Black (his 2004 film about rapper, Jay Z), it is nauseating for anyone other than an avid fan.
As I left the theatre, I couldn’t help but compare Let Hope Rise with the new Netflix documentary on motivation speaker Tony Robbins, I Am Not Your Guru. Both Hillsong and Robbins use music, lighting, energy, and stage production to manufacture an emotional experience. Both documentaries are positive to the point of being extended advertisements. Hillsong and Robbins are both fiercely protective of their public image. Perhaps the only way to gain access to insider footage is to forfeit creative control.
Let Hope Rise does not ask any hard questions — or even any interesting ones. At one point, Joel reveals that his greatest fear is to be “underwhelming”. As far as the film goes, underwhelming would be a gentle euphemism; coma inducing, more apt.
For those after a penetrating look at the worship behemoth from Sydney, there is little to satiate. It exists purely for the fans and, perhaps unsurprisingly, has flopped at the box office. Against a budget of $10 million, it has taken in around $2.5 million. My $21.50 ticket will hardly make up the shortfall but they’re welcome to it. In a funny way it felt like one final tithe for old time’s sake.
Dr Benjamin T. Jones is an ARC Fellow in the School of History at the Australian National University. You can follow Dr Jones on Twitter @DrBenjaminJones, on Facebook here or on his blog Thematic Musings.
Brian Houston brings the Word in the Sunday night service at the Hills Campus in Sydney. Published 4 Jan, 2015
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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