Friday, June 07, 2013

Your Church is Too Small- Part 2

Here is the second part from a few days ago. Sam Freney continues his look at some of the good, and disturbing, parts of Hillsong.

Strange contradictions

Alongside the main sessions, a host of smaller sessions and workshops throughout the week focussed on aspects of the life of the church, broadly categorized into three streams: social action, leadership, and ‘worship’.6 These seminars were examples of the many astonishing contradictions of the conference, and—as far as I can tell from visiting the church on a number of occasions before and since—church life as well.
On the main platform, the content of God’s word takes a back seat to a number of other ways of experiencing God and hearing from him. Off that main platform, however, my constant impression was that everyone involved was keen to be shaped by how God has revealed himself in his word, and to align their ministry and understanding of church to that. For sure, they came up with conclusions that at times I disagreed with, but the principle of carefully reading Scripture and forming how you act on that foundation was both clearly in place, and widespread.
My seminar on Wednesday afternoon run by a few people from the training college—a sort of open day to the public—was a prime example. Different people from the administration and faculty talked through how the college seeks to equip their students for ministry in a wide range of areas by teaching them how to read the Scriptures carefully, and to speak the gospel to others in a variety of circumstances. They read broadly, from a range of theological traditions. They grapple with serious issues. After the conference, I caught up with one of these lecturers for coffee, and we had a warm, stimulating conversation about church, preaching, social engagement, and ministry. He was a humble, godly man with a keen desire for the gospel to go out to Sydney and for people to hear Jesus’ name and submit their lives to him.
One of the other lecturers at the college spent a little while with us doing a “worked example” of the sorts of theological thinking they do at the college. The topic he chose was “the problem of evil”. You probably know the one: Christians claim that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and good, yet there is evil and suffering in the world; clearly God must therefore be either limited in his power, or not good (or both).7 His talk on this topic would not have been at all out of place at Moore Theological College. If I squinted a bit, he could have been one of my ethics lecturers. Jesus was central to his argument; he was logical, thoughtful, pastoral; in the end he was careful to affirm our brokenness and yet declare the glory of God.
Given the experience of both the church meetings and the main conference sessions, this was not the approach I had expected from the Hillsong training college.
The music was a similar story. In fact, it was even better.
The public face of Hillsong is the music they produce and the musicians (‘worship leaders’) who perform it. I thoroughly expected the quality of the musicianship to be very high; they did not disappoint.8 The atmosphere, the build-up and release of tension, the astounding ability of the musicians, the sweetness and power of the voices—all of this was simply brilliant, as we have come to expect. Hillsong has, after all, been at this level for some time now.
“The music covered more elements of Christianity than any other part of the conference.”
Surprisingly, at least to me, the lyrics were also really (really) good. The 2012 album Cornerstonecontains some cracking songwriting that matches or exceeds the level of songs I would sing at my own church. The music covered more elements of Christianity than any other part of the conference. Almost the only references to salvation from sin were in the songs. (They weren’t in the preaching.) The extent of the lordship of Jesus was something we sang about, but didn’t hear about much elsewhere. We sang about Jesus’ death and resurrection, but heard precious little of the cross from the platform. In fact, I heard a senior Hillsong pastor talking about the very involved process they’ve now instituted for approving songs, and one of the checks is how much it talks about Jesus. Simple stuff, really, but if you’ve heard as many vague songs about something God-related as I have—including from Hillsong in the past—it’s a step you’ll appreciate.
Somewhere along the line, therefore, there seems to be a disconnect between the way that various ministries of the church operate, and the church package as a whole. Behind the scenes—or at least out of the spotlight—Hillsong seems to contain plenty of faithful, enthusiastic Christians who want to see Jesus glorified in what they do, and who give Scriptural thought to what they do. But the church experience, whether at the conference or on a Sunday morning, is one that results in de-emphasizing not only the way God has told us he speaks to us, but what God has told us he has done for us.
My hunch is that it’s tied very closely to how you expect to hear from and come to experience God. If, as in Charismatic and Pentecostal theology, you have an encounter with God by his Spirit in any or all parts of the gathering—the music (especially the music), a direct word from God, the prayer, the dramatic, artistic performance, or the empty spaces between—then the encounter you have with God in his word is relativized. As has been the case for some time, the use of music and the theological grid it’s placed in serves to diminish what ought to be central in a Christian gathering. Despite having top-notch songwriting and excellent musicianship, the music is cast as a means of encountering God that reduces the impact of God’s word in relating to him. At best, the Bible is just one way amongst many in which you can hear from God.
To take this even further, preaching is generally spoken of as a step removed: the preacher has decided to bring to you this word he had from God. In fact any content from the Bible, whether it’s from the preacher or another church member, is spoken of in these terms. Brian Houston and a few others had an open conversation about preaching at one point during the conference, and that was how they spoke of it: that preaching is bringing the word that God has spoken to the preacher to the congregation. In this way, the encounter with God in his word is something that the preacher has done in his study during the week, alone—the congregation don’t actually hear from God’s word directly (at least, not in the sermon).
Previously, Hillsong church leaders have indicated that the main meetings of the church (and by extension, the conference) are about belonging before believing: people are drawn in by the excellent, non-threatening church package, and the biblical instruction is supposed to come later in smaller discipleship groups. The best scenario in this case is that the inspirational can-do attitude the preaching seeks to inspire merges with some biblical Christian discipleship from the music and (hopefully) the small groups. But we’re still left with the public articulation of what the church is about being a long way short of the biblical gospel.
This means that we have a fairly major disagreement about the nature of church, evangelism, and ministry—that all of these things ought to be built very firmly on the gospel and the word of God. Hearing and speaking God’s word is not a distinguishing feature of a Hillsong church service, which suggests that Hillsong church is not ‘evangelical’ in any meaningful sense.

John the Baptist

Let me give you an example of how this plays out in the preaching on the platform. Nothing quite captures the way that the biblical gospel is glossed over, truncated, and domesticated than the final talk of the 2012 conference. Steven Furtick from Charlotte, North Carolina, preached to us from Matthew 11. It started out as the most biblical main talk of the conference so far, including a reading of the first 11 verses. This passage is a clearly Messianic portion of the Gospel, as Jesus declares to John the Baptist’s followers that he is the one who fulfils the promise of God. In answer to their question of whether he is the one they had hoped for, Jesus recalls Isaiah 35, pointing out that he has done the signs that indicate the coming of the Lord.
“Great!”, I thought. Sadly, the three points from this talk were about the encouragement John the Baptist would have received from Jesus, and by extension what we can be encouraged about:
  • You’re doing better than you think you are.
  • You matter more than you think you do, yet it’s less about you than you think it is.
  • There’s more in store than you think there is.
I’ll spare you the details of how he managed to get this out of the passage while remaining completely silent on the thrust of Jesus’ words (i.e. that he is the Lord, come to deliver his people). I could only sit and wonder how God’s word about Jesus bringing in the day of the Lord could turn into a talk about what good God is doing in your life, and how much better he’s promised to make it in the days and years to come. The final talk of the conference was essentially a vacuous Jesus-believes-in-you motivational speech, delivered to “Amen!”s and fist-pumps all round. It left me wondering about the discipleship and biblical instruction that was supposedly taking place in small groups and other contexts. What sort of Bible study was it, if it led to people being so enthusiastic about such appalling misuse of the Bible?

Your church is too small

There’s a reason the Scriptures place such a high burden on teachers of God’s word—from Ezekiel’s call to be a watchman (a burden taken up by the apostle Paul) to the instructions in the Pastoral Epistles to find men of sound character, godly convictions, and ability to teach the word of God faithfully and well. One reason such a burden is placed on the teachers of God’s word is to ensure that the people of God are actually taught God’s word. That seems like a self-evident statement until you see how they aren’t fed. No-one who came to that conference heard of the need for forgiveness (by God, that is, for our sins). No-one heard about what Jesus accomplished. There was no mention of salvation from God’s wrath through the atoning work of the cross, or of how God’s Spirit works in us to make us more and more like our Lord Jesus, or of how we look forward to and long for the day of his return.
“There may have been 20,000 people gathered as one church, but the church was too small.”
There may have been 20,000 people in the room, gathered as one church under Christ, but the church was too small. It was too small because the gospel being proclaimed was too small: it was just about you and me, and how God makes our lives better. We weren’t really being gathered together under Christ, we were gathered together as a large collection of individuals. Not only was the form of preaching individual—the preacher sharing what God had revealed to him or her personally—but the content was individual too: God’s revelation to the preacher is about a promise to make your life better. How unlike the way that Paul talks about what God has done in and for us! God chose us before the foundation of the world:
In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph 1:7-10)
God’s work in gathering us together to be his church is a story that is so much grander than my personal circumstances. But my personal circumstances, my life and what God has done and is doing in it: that is the size of Hillsong church. I simply don’t think that my life is big enough to be good news.

Downstream effects

The effects of this individual focus are felt in a number of places, but let me pick on just two: the way that the Christian life and evangelism are construed (to the extent that they are talked about at all).
As I mentioned above, prosperity theology in the bold, financial categories of the 1980s is not part of the Hillsong package, but blessing—understood broadly as being over our whole lives—is what God desires to give us. Houston often warns against spiritualizing ‘lack’, as if not being amply supplied for (in a material sense) is an expression of godliness.9 He’s right, of course, at least in some sense. There’s nothing intrinsically godly in being poorer than someone else. However, where he takes this is that to be the blessing to others that God truly desires you to be you need to be one who is overflowing with (material) blessing, able to give to others and bless them with no constraint. That is, a house and substantial income are the blessing of God to you, for the blessing of others. That’s the good news that Jesus brings.
It follows then that sharing that blessing of Jesus with others is about sharing that material blessing. There appears to be no tension between evangelism and social action at Hillsong, because providing materially for others is the blessing of God you are called on to share with them. In both the Christian life and in evangelism the majesty of God’s work in Christ is shifted to improving my personal circumstances, all the while giving thanks in Jesus’ name.

Why does all of this matter?

During the conference, I tweeted and posted to Facebook occasionally. I was intentionally even-handed, praising where it was due (to the point where the conference Twitter account re-tweeted some of my material to their followers), and critical when it was appropriate. I had people contact me privately and say one of two things. Some urged restraint, worrying that I was simply pushing the same old divisive character that is unnecessarily painful and (not to put too fine a point on it) arrogant. Others worried that by being positive about certain aspects of the conference I would encourage some Christians to see Hillsong in a positive light, when, in their opinion, they are simply false teachers. Is this just another instance of being divisive, picking up on points that in the broader scheme of things are irrelevant or not such a bad thing in context?
From everything that I’ve seen and heard, at the conference and visiting Hillsong church on a number of occasions, there’s simply no guarantee that if you go or take someone along to church there that you’re going to hear the gospel. No doubt you will be drawn into enthusiastic fellowship with people who love being part of the church, and (literally) sing Jesus’ praises constantly. There’s no question you will meet many lovely, faithful, committed Christians. Yet I cannot see any reason to believe that if you go regularly that you will be taught God’s word, or be instructed to sit under it and let it change you and form and re-form you. In fact, I have good reason to believe that you will be taught something else altogether.
You will hear an attractive message about the God of the universe, committed to you, promising you many good things you can receive if you honestly believe in them. You will hear about the blessing God has planned for you, the better job or bigger house or healthier future in store. But you are unlikely to hear much biblical, orthodox Christianity.
I cannot in good conscience commend fellowship with Hillsong. I can’t recommend that anyone go and make this their church. I can also understand why many churches decide not to sing their songs, given that singing them profiles Hillsong and gives a tacit endorsement to their movement. The fact that there are good things about the movement and good people in the movement is not really the point; the gospel message championed by the church is distorted, and in the end being part of that is not the way that we love or care for people.
By far and away the best articulation of orthodox Christian belief over the entire conference was one song, ‘Beneath the Waters’. It out-stripped anything else on the platform by a long way in speaking about sin, judgement, salvation, resurrection, and hope. My prayer is that the leaders and teachers at Hillsong take seriously the words of one of their own, and testify to the lordship of Jesus in more than just the songs that bookend the meeting. My prayer is that they take very seriously the dramatic extent of our death to sin and new life in Christ, so that the life of the church would not consist just of what God is doing in their lives, but of the life of the Lord Jesus himself:
I stand to sing your praises
I stand to testify
For I was dead in my sin—
But now I rise,
I will rise,
As Christ was raised to life,
Now in him, now in him
I live.
  1. For those with long memories for Briefing articles, no this is not a U2 concert. 
  2. Spoiler: church and conference are pretty consistent. 
  3. What other Christian movement, she wondered aloud, started in Australia towards the end of last century and is now drawing many people not only in Australia but throughout the whole world? 
  4. See for a full line-up. 
  5. This was particularly true of Joyce Meyer and Joseph Prince. This is pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if they were instructed to tone down the Word-Faith message on the Hillsong platform, perhaps even in response to previous criticism. Even if that were the case, however, we’re a long way from a repudiation of prosperity doctrine. 
  6. Let the reader understand. 
  7. For a church tradition that has stereotypically talked poorly or not at all about suffering, this was an interesting choice. 
  8. Especially the drummer. He was amazing. 
  9. See, for example, his sermons on ‘Lack versus Overflow’, parts 1 and 2, available as a podcast on iTunes (amongst other places). 

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