A disclaimer: my interests have become, of late, rather church and religion adjacent. This is due largely to my choice of vocation and also due to, well, my interests. If you don’t dig on or have any care for the whole church thing, or give a shit about how they do what they do, this may not be your cup of tea. Feel free to disregard, or to read solely for the bits where I’m openly mocking some Christians (sorry). I started writing this for an assignment but it got too fun and so I wrote an assignment and a seperate thing for me and this is the result. It comes off angry, but I can deal with that.
Swathes of inexorably cool young things mill about on the pavement outside the Athenaeum Theatre. A-frame signs bearing the Hillsong logo tell us we’re in the right place and two lots of welcomers make sure we know they notice us. As I approach I say “please don’t leave me- I’m afraid” to a departing friend and I am only half joking. I am attending Hillsong Melbourne City Campus ostensibly to write a case study for an assignment but also to assuage the slight guilt I carry with me for feeling, as a lot of folk of a certain age who are into small and manageable emerging worship type churches do, as though I know all I will ever need to about anything that can be described as a mega-church. If I dislike something, I want to be able to do this with integrity thank you very much.
I managed to avoid (possibly by looking abrupt and scared) the first lot of welcomers who were stood about near the large doors, cool and professional in printed T’s and rehearsed, earnest smiles. The second lot, inside the doors, offered me a murmured “hi” but none of the perfectly designed cards they clutched in their hands. The foyer was wall to wall Hip Young People, and I realised I had no way of knowing where I needed to be for the churching itself. I stood near a table, trying to convince myself that despite my immediate internal default position I was not the most awkward person in the room and that I had every right to be there amongst people possibly 15 years my junior. I set about getting the lay of the land, repeating my surveying of the room and the buoyant kids talking animatedly to one another for ten minutes or so until I saw movement across the foyer; through the throng a small trail of people was headed in a direction that seemed likely to be the church-event, so I set off to follow. This trickle led me to the downstairs doors. As I reached them though, a set of Hillsong T-wearing helpers shut them almost directly in my face saying to one another that “they’re not all going to get chairs anyway”. They did not look at me. I did an immediate U-turn, muttering to myself like a crank and they called after me that I should try upstairs. Not a great start, but I made my way up the stairs as I am fairly robust emotionally and was there for a purpose gosh-darn it.
The theatre itself was mostly dark upon entry. I filed into the large upstairs balcony area in a hush that matched perfectly the theatre setting, and saw the lower portion which is free of chairs at least at the front, brimming with young bodies moving around excitedly, pressed towards the stage the way I used to at gigs. A video was playing on a screen; well-fonted biblical text, images of quasi-spiritual significance, flashes of colour. It was very well made. At some point a band filed on in mostly silence and continuing darkness. They started playing something mounting and electronic betwixt sets of white lights installed in matching patterns either side of the screen, drums rolling us along towards a crescendo. The video and the band worked together, building a mounting feeling within the room, we were all involved now, we all were wondering where this train was going, the images flickered into each other rapidly, colours and shapes jarring together with louder and louder keys, drums and guitar until the music dropped at its peak just as the video stopped on the image of a red cross on a white background. The crowd went frigging nuts.
As the applause for the rock-star cross raged on a solitary woman took to the stage. The lights gradually focused on her and the band, and they began playing a song. On the three large screens began another video clip. The clip involved a lion wandering through an art gallery, and a violin player seated near a sculpture, and other bits and pieces, some lyrics. The song built and with it the singers’ voice, which was quite lovely. It was quite affecting and though I found the accompanying video to be baffling nonsense, I did get goose bumps at the appropriate points as I am not made of stone.
This song finished in a flare of lights and the solo singer left the stage. She was never seen again. To replace her, a troupe of eight very stylish and young singers ran on and one who looked suspiciously like Adam Levine took the lead. The band was very, very well rehearsed, and the initial song a very good copy of the horrible, feel-good, we’re-all-just-going-to-save-the-world-by-dancing-and-being-in-love-on-a-road-trip-to-the-desert pop that is around right now. Simple verses leading to a chorus of Adam singing “I just wanna be where you are” followed by a manipulated keyboard sound trilling a cute little melody while all eight singers jumped around like little wood nymphs kicking their feet, twirling on the spot, spinning in place and full of obvious delight to be worshipping. This went on for some time, three or four songs -an eternity, who can tell- eventually the upbeat songs being replaced with thoughtful and emotive power chords. All around me my compatriots engaged in combo worship manoeuvres; hands up head down, eyes closed arms low, hands outstretched, the sway, the twist on the spot.
A Pastor appeared after approximately four songs to introduce a video link- it seems we were to join Hillsong Sydney for their worship. We saw their band, and our band began playing and singing with them meaning we were watching dozens upon dozens of people by now, all engaged in the same exultant, blissed out mannerisms. This carried on for an additional 2-3 songs. The Pastor had wandered off then appeared again later bopping awkwardly to the music presumably so we’d know he was the Pastor, then wandered off again. He wasn’t seen again till a vaguely racist “pastoral word” he delivered at the end of the thing. But we didn’t need him because… Brian Houston took to the stage in Sydney and began a sermon! Brian! The man himself! In Sydney!
He talked about the Holy Spirit for what felt like forty-five minutes but may have been less. As he talked I realised a great many things. One was “oh I really enjoy structure in a sermon”. Another was “you really believe the Holy Spirit is a man, don’t you?” yet another being “I have truly awful handwriting”. I sat, erratically jotting notes that must have made me seem as if I was finally engaged with what was going on but that in fact hinted at the various emotional reactions I was having to the sermon. I wanted to love the preaching. I longed to be pleasantly surprised by a man who has built an empire and amassed millions of followers because, as certain pockets of the church are fond of saying with a shrug and a sad smile that implies they are bravely acknowledging the truth, “they must be doing something right”. However much I was theoretically ready to be taught something, to have the Word explored and expanded in front of me though, this was not to be.
Brian rasped his meandering thoughts in varying stages of passion and quietitude, occasionally referring to a bible verse to back up his opinions of the Holy Spirit. He paced the stage, not our stage of course, but the stage on our big screen TV, his voice rising and falling like an auctioneer. The Holy Spirit is our advocate. The Holy spirit is our Cheerleader. He had the sense to say at least that the spirit is not just a resource at one point, oh that’s big of you, I thought, though at another he said it is “cheaper than therapy”. This particular point I found vastly troubling, not least because of the murmured responses that came floating up from all over the theatre- our crowd were not, it seems, deterred from encouraging Brian by his not being in the building- got louder at this point as they had at many others, as people sensed he had said something Very True and or lyrically resonant. If, I thought, the Holy Spirit is our therapist, what does that say to the statistically probable whole bunch of folks here who have clinical depression or anxiety or any other myriad reasons one could have for talking to a therapist and which in no way mean they’re not a vessel for the Spirit of God? This Spirit, I was to learn, walks with you to encourage you, and is better looking than Brian, with ‘powerful arms’. This Spirit, I came to understand, was around to Help Me With My Goals. Which, sure, Bri did say should be “about building the kingdom”, but though that got another boat load of affirming murmurs from Melbourne which our preacher will never know about, what I would love to know is, how the fuck the Kingdom is understood if the Holy Spirit is sold to me as an aide to making my life better.
How many times we were told “just to invite him in” – him in this case being the Holy Spirit, lest you had forgotten- I couldn’t say but I was left very confused as to just what exactly that meant. Brian did specify that we already had the Spirit, thanks for that Brian, but there was a clear call to get more somehow? A greater influx? More Spirit less No Spirit if you will, which really amped up at the end of the rambling and sporadically hyper homily when we were encouraged I think to invite him in but this time the band will play and you guys just pray and just invite him in and I wanna feel the spirit moving tonight I do feel the spirit moving tonight I think the spirit is going to move on you powerfully tonight (also by the way the Spirit will help me with my financial endeavours so perhaps I should have tried harder to up my Spirit quota when instructed) all this being assisted ably by the band who were urging us to feel the Spirit move with the perfect combination of chords and rolling drum solos.
Look. I know I’m being crass and unkind, and I know I could be accused of not really going in with an open mind at all, but honestly after a month or so reflecting on this, I don’t really want to be kind. I think that kind of theology is at best unhelpful and at worst dangerous. I think using all male pronouns for all names of God is dumb and outdated and can’t and shouldn’t be supported and to do so with so obvious a lack of consideration, such a blithe assumption of what you know about God makes me mad. I think implying that all you really need for your emotional health is to worship harder is negligent. I think worship shouldn’t just be a big feel-fest to get you all amped up and ready for the week. I think churches should be talking about what the Holy Spirit has empowered us to do in the world around us. I think a lot of churches get things wrong, but that to suggest we should be seeking to emulate certain other movements because they get the kids in the seats and raising their hands is naïve and missing a large part of the point because I don’t want a theatre full of kids raising their hands and hearing tidbits about what God can do for them and whipping themselves into a frenzy aided by spirit keys and repetitive calls to ask Jesus into your heart to be what church boils down to.
I will say this: they run a tight ship. If I had felt so moved, I know I could have found a dozen ways to be “connected in”, though I would have had to be the one initiating contact. I somehow missed the ‘welcome zone’ which I found out was near the doors I was tragically barred from, but they made it clear that I could have talked to anyone in a Hillsong T-shirt and been welcomed and joined up to all manner of helpful groups and lists. I was super bothered by the sermon being streamed in but maybe that doesn’t happen all the time. I hope not. I’d like to believe that they have the resources to find preachers if not to help youngins from their enclaves to try their hand at it. All the volunteers, of which there were many, and the attendees were literally the most representative bunch I’ve ever witnessed in a church. All the colours of the rainbow. Lack of cultural diversity clearly is a problem they’ve left for us, the more staid, less branded congregations.
So anyway, they get the kids in, they get them excited, and who knows, maybe I’m just an asshole and they all go out from there wanting to learn more and see God in the face of a stranger. Or maybe no one ever does and I should get off my high horse. I don’t know, as I’m increasingly convinced no one does, the perfect way to do church. And I don’t want to. Perhaps this service was more than a big old feel-fest, perhaps it doesn’t matter. I did learn a little about myself in there, aside from how much I don’t enjoy Brian Houston’s preaching. The woman who used to be able to engage in some sort of internal surrendering of self during sung worship, is gone. At least for now. She’s been replaced by someone who thinks a LOT about different parts of church, about what people say, about how boring so many church songs are to her, who does not want to lift her arms. She can be a bit of a dick. And she knows that Hillsong, chirpy vibes and friendly volunteers aside, is definitely not for her, and that this is fine.