Hillsong Idol Hijack?

Today Tonight, an Australian current affairs program, ran an exposé on Hillsong earlier this evening which left me shaking my head afterwards. Wish I had a video feed for you.

Why it left me shaking my head was that Today Tonight exposed more about journalistic bias against Christians, and ignorance about Christians, than anything meaningful about Hillsong itself. Why do I say that?

Well, they launched the story with the sensational claim that Hillsong, Australia’s largest megachurch, was “hijacking” Australian Idol! Describing Hillsong as “new age evangelists” (now there’s an oxymoron!), the Today Tonight team proceeded to reveal how “half the remaining finalists [of this round of Australian idol] are all members.” Fascinating if true, I thought. So I listened on.

But if I was expecting enlightenment I was to be sorely disappointed, for the “facts” became increasingly murkier as the story progressed. And I didn’t have to wait long, for after that initial bold statement about Hillsong, it was stated that the finalists were all members or “affiliated” with the church. Hmm, what do they mean by affiliated? Again, I didn’t have to wait long as it was then revealed that one of the select few was a “born again Christian,” as if the “affiliation” were obvious. Hmm, indeed. But it didn’t stop there. It was soon revealed that some contestants from other years were also, shock, horror, “devout Christians.” Hmm, last time I checked Hillsong had no monopoly on that. This Hillsong conspiracy was looking shakier by the minute.

You can see the pattern, the “affiliations” became more and more tenuous as the show progressed. By the end of it I was wondering if anyone who’d had a passing interest in the Acts of the Apostles was a Hillsong plant in their eyes.

It turned into a complete farce when Today Tonight revealed that former Idol winner  Guy Sebastian had declared himself a Hillsong member. How? By performing at a Hillsong Conference! This was just too much. Yes, Guy is a pentecostal, he has always been open about that, but when he won Idol he was a member of Paradise Church, not Hillsong. Hell, even I have gone to a Hillsong conference.

To add insult to injury they then flashed a pyramid diagram up on the screen that implied the entire Assemblies of God denomination was controlled by Hillsong church. Ahhh, at least that explained how general Pentecostals were being taken for Hillsong members. But I was still left scratching my head as to how any “devout” Christian was a Hillsong member.

You can probably see where I am going with this. By the end of the show I still had no idea how many, if any, of the Idol finalists were actually Hillsong members. I gathered half of them were Christians of one description or another, but beyond that I could not tell from the report. It was just too confused.

Now the question was, what had roused their journalistic ire? Well it seems the real insult was that Hillsong had dared to purchase air time during Idol to screen adds for their charity works. The Hillsong marketing machine was behind everything, they said, they’d branch stacked the competition in order to target the young innocent audiences of Idol, they were invading secular air time. Words such as “insideous” and conspiracy laden phrases such as “nothing they do is accidental” were invoked. Though how the lure of charity work and church attendance was really more sinister than the customary sex, drugs and rock inclinations of teens was never quite explained.

Listening to the marketing gurus interviewed for this program suggested to me that they were just peeved that a religious organization was beating them at their own game. Possibly even embarrassed. That was just not kosher.

In fact the only real person who seemed to have any down to earth commentary at all was the Christian radio presenter that was interviewed. Trying to diffuse the conspiratorial air he noted musical performance was just part of the Pentecostal culture. In other words, it shouldn’t really surprise us that a music saturated subculture produces (a) a lot of talented contestants for the voting mill and (b) a loyal audience that votes for them. We don’t have to imagine organized conspiracies, we just need to recognize that’s part of who they are. It’s more grass roots than is often realized.

Now, in case you think I am defending Hillsong unreservedly, think again. I am no fan and I actually agree that they engage in music market manipulation. Of a sort. For when they launch their new albums in concert with their nationally attended conferences and they go straight to number 1 in the charts the next week it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the causal link.

But what I am saying is, what marketing organization wouldn’t take an opportunity like that? Hillsong are just market savvy. And if its a crime to be market savy (leaving theological issues to one side for a moment), then Idol needs to take the plank out of its own eye first. What this exposé really exposes is secular hypocrisy.

So in their defense (sort of), it is one thing to talk about how Hillsong carefully market their own album launches, it is another again to accuse them  of machiavellian plots to take over the album launches of reality TV shows. That’s just plain paranoia. What I hope is a little clearer from the above is that the “devout” Christian culture that feeds into and feeds off Idol is a whole lot broader than Hillsong. There is no Christian Illuminati here.

17 thoughts on “Hillsong Idol Hijack?

  1. Haven’t seen Idol, but from the buzz around the Sutherland Shire churches I understand that one ex-member and one current member of Shire Christian Centre are involved.


  2. Hrmm, its no shock to have anyone stacking a competition like idol with votes and competitors. sure if it was rigged to get the hillsong singers in it would explain the terribly quality of singers this year, though i doubt that.
    However, Hillsong seems quite happy to make matyrs out of their own members to help expand its church? Anyone that wins Idol ends up extorted and mistreated by their record company and would surely suffer severe depression from that inability to make money from their fame.
    It is known how badly these winners are treated, some even have a large debt which they are still trying to repay (and can’t via record sales). And Hillsong doesnt seem to care aslong as it can advertise and bring in more “clients” for it’s juicy back pockets? Doesnt sound very christian to me


  3. Great commentry.. I personaly know 3 of the contestants go to different churches. 2 go to the same church in sutherland and last time I checked Hillsong wasn’t in sutherland..


  4. I think you’ve missed the point Ross. What I am saying, firstly, is that it is far from clear how many if any of the Pentecostals in the Australian Idol competition are Hillsong members. I imagine some are, but some are most definitely not. So the reporters from Today Tonight either had no idea of the difference or were deliberately muddying the waters to sell a story. I’ll be generous and assume the first option for now. Bottom line is blaming the Christian presence entirely on Hillsong is bogus.
    Secondly, it is important to remember the obvious fact that voting didn’t kick in till after the original cull. So even if some of the contestants are actual Hillsong members, and are being loyally supported by other Pentecostals now, Christian voting patterns still doesn’t explain how they got selected in the first place. There was no way Hillsong could have influenced who was selected for the top 100, there was no way they could have influenced the first round selection that followed immediately after that. Why? Because the initial cull was all 100% the judges call, based purely on what they thought constituted talent. So unless you are saying the Idol judges are Hillsong plants we have to take it that their presence there is legitimate.
    Thirdly, I don’t see anything un-Christian about Christians with musical aspirations applying for secular competitions. I may question their taste in music, and why anyone would aspire to a life in the entertainment industry, but I will defend their right to choose their own career. There are a few careers which are inherently un-Christian I realize, but I don’t think entertainment is one of them.
    Finally, my ultimate beef is this, complaining that Pentecostals do well in music competitions is like complaining that Australians do well in swimming competitions. It’s complaining about what comes natural too them. It’s just whining, and that is what is truly un-Christian here. What this really shows is that Australia needs a pub music scene back, so non-Pentecostals have somewhere to hone their craft too. If people want to do something about it try this, get the laws changed back.


  5. Oh, and I should also add that complaining about Hillsong purchasing advertising time during Australian Idol is like complaining about the Salvation Army purchasing advertising time during documentaries on urban poverty. It’s their natural market. And it’s an open market so I believe they have as much right to airtime as anyone else. Are you saying the market should be regulated?


  6. An interesting piece and I’m glad that Today Tonight’s hatchet job has struck other people the same way.
    I’m not a Hillsong member (heck, I don’t even live in Sydney) but as someone who worked as a professional journalist for more than a decade, I know a hit piece when I see it.
    Our take on the matter is here


  7. Thanks Nora, and reading your blog reminded me that there is another interesting tit bit that Today Tonight neglected to mention, and that is that one of the previous Australian Idol winners, Casey, was a Wiccan. She wore a pentagram right through the contest in fact. Now, how does a witch winning Australian Idol gel with their conspiracy theory eh? An iron grip indeed.


  8. Kaleb wrote:
    > last time I checked Hillsong wasn’t in Sutherland…
    That’s not quite true — Hillsong, CLC, CCC and regular AOG churches are are not meaningfully different from each other; Hillsong’s just better organized (if you want to learn worship music or church administration, there is no better place on earth than their ministry training college). Also, Shire Christian Centre’s senior pastor used to be Brian Houston’s associate pastor at Hillsong.
    But none of that is relevant in the case of Idol; their success is already explained by a culture of creative excellence: At these churches teenagers with talent get to play every week with professional musicians, and learn to perform at the same standard. Darlene Zschech, for instance, used to be a session singer, you’ve probably heard her on McDonalds advertisements, if I recall correctly. This culture reinforces itself; many of the best Christian musicians want to use their skills for worship, and naturally collect in these sort of churches (often it must be said at the expense of smaller churches with fewer such opportunities).
    In a service at the old CLC Sydney, I once played guitar with Mitch Farmer, who was drumming for Tommy Emmanuel at the time. (No pressure!) Put someone with real talent in that sort of position all through adolescence, then throw in constant competition for those opportunities, and you’ll very likely maximise whatever natural ability they have.
    And after Guy Sebastian (AOG/Hillsong) and Paulini Curuenavuli (CCC) were successful at Idol, I expect many others thought they might as well have a go.


  9. Tommy Emmanuel eh? You know he was a devoted Christian too. Hmmmm. Could it be that Hillsong was behind his success as well? Sheesh, what am I saying? Of course they were, your story proves it! They’re eeeeeeevrywhere!


  10. hehe nah i don’t have anything against how these kids got into the competition, and if hillsong members want to support their own? sure, good luck to them. thats certainly not am problem.
    I am just opposed to hillsong to be frank. yes ok the salvation army advertise for donations, but they are effectively a charity aswell as a church.
    Hillsong on the other hand, 10% tithings from patrons? atm’s at their church in parramatta? encourage their followers to make as much money as they can, then follow that by saying the more you give to us the more god will reward you?
    No, I would never support such a structure, the Sudanese community in blacktown are still awaiting their community centre that hillsong frauded the funding from the government for (read the papers), whilst the churches leaders drive around in sports cars?
    Hillsong is wrong, if you are a christian, you know god never taught to horde money, and hence them advertising on tv to me is a business objective, not to spread gods word.


  11. Hi Ross — I agree with a number of your points; here’s what I’ll add:
    In 1977 (30 years ago) there were no CLC, CCC or Hillsong (formerly Hills CLC) churches in Australia; that was the year Brian’s father Frank moved to Sydney from NZ. The movement grew in quite an anarchic manner: I’ve sometimes characterized their church planting strategy as “Here’s your overhead projector; if it works out you can join up.” I think this “give it a go” mindset has produced both their conspicuous successes and failures. I’d be sorry to see that attitude disappear, personally, even though it gives such mixed results.
    If you consider how companies grow (and Hillsong pragmatically organizes itself like any other large organization), they worry about getting established before they worry about public opinion, social responsibility, and so on. That seems to me to be what has occurred here. In the past five years the materials that I’ve seen have indicated that they’re getting more reflective: previously Israel’s eighth-century prophets were never heard of; recently “NOW!” (the AOG magazine, produced at Hillsong) can give a whole issue to social justice, globally and at home. Where the CLC Sydney bookshop once had a whole bay of Kenneth Hagin books, the prosperity theme is now much more qualified. I’m not presently sure how long it will take for them to finish making the transition from private club to publicly accountable institution, but they seem to be realizing what’s required and the change appears to me to be happening. In that regard I wish them all the best.
    On the church-business dichotomy: Any large church now will have to be run as a business or NGO would; that seems unavoidable, unless you want to say all churches should be small. I’ve just returned from a conference in Geelong, held at a beautiful, well-situated, and very professionally run Salvation Army conference centre. Business-like is not an automatic black mark for a Christian organisation; it very much depends how it’s done.


  12. Ross, I think what is needed here is some careful delineation between (1) thoughtful critique and (2) scare mongering. I have no problem at all with the former, its the latter that raises my ire.
    As far as I am concerned the Today Tonight expose did NOT represent a thoughtful critique of Hillsong; it represented scare mongering against “devoted” Christians in general. It wasn’t journalism, it was anti-Christian propaganda.
    Now, if they had decided to do a thoughtful critique my tone would have been rather different. As I previously indicated, I am hardly a fan of Hillsong and am indeed critical of them in many ways. Not least with their prosperity theology, I agree it is awful.
    But as with Nigel, I have noticed a shift away from the prosperity theme in recent years. I do perceive signs they are becoming more socially responsible. And the last time I visited (I do that so I can speak informedly) I had to admit that their charity emphasis was now starting to put some non-prosperity churches to shame.
    That is not to say my qualms have evaporated, they most certainly have not, and I think a shift to open book accounting is one which is long overdue. But I feel I must be fair and give credit where it is due. They are not monsters, cult leaders or boogymen. Before you critique them on the 10%, realize that the Sydney Anglicans teach exactly the same thing.


  13. Oh, sure, don’t get me started on Today Tonight, or ACA for that matter, they would say anything for ratings, i despise the 2 shows, i feel they should come under the satirical comedy banner sometimes rather than current affairs, because they are a joke.
    I don’t consider the people in charge of hillsong are trying to make a change out of the good of their hearts. A lot of pressure has been put on them over the past couple of years, if they wished to keep it’s strong growth they had no choice but to make some changes.
    Apologies, It’s near impossible for me to look at them in a positive light, lying about their accounting etc, yes to open their books would be a major step forward, however, i forsee too much image damage if they do. They would not lie to their congregation about it otherwise.
    With money comes power, with power comes greed. As lord acton said to the bishop.. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”


  14. The problem with Hillsong is that they are a business masquerading as religion and belief .
    The problem people have with these new age , super conservative , ultra contradictory movement are the strict views they drown their members are in no way exhibited by senior pastors in the safety of their homes .
    I am not making any specific statement , just expressing opinions formed by the absolute hypocrisy shown within new age movements time and time again .


  15. Hi Andy,

    they are a business masquerading as religion and belief

    Hills CLC was just another AOG church before it took the name Hillsong from its annual conference; the ‘religion’ is not a mask.

    I am not making any specific statement, just expressing opinions formed by the absolute hypocrisy shown within new age movements time and time again

    But you are making very specific statements about hundreds of individual people when you say that.

    the strict views they drown their members are in no way exhibited by senior pastors in the safety of their homes

    There are four or five such ‘senior’ ministers that I’d say I’ve known well enough to judge their private integrity; I’ve variously known their kids, played video games with them (yes, the ministers), been in their homes, and so on. While they all, like anyone, have faults in personality and character (in some cases more than the others), a charge of general hypocrisy is unsustainable either in my direct experience, or on the basis of what their families say about them.
    From a distance we’ve all seen some well-known examples to the contrary. But it is difficult to see how you can claim certain knowledge (“absolute hypocrisy”, “in no way exhibited”) of the inner motivations and private lives of a large class of people. If this is not derived from personal knowledge, then do you have to face up to believing and expressing prejudice?
    It’s fine to be constructively critical of Hillsong, or any church, but these sort of easily-debunked generalizations only give the impression of dogmatism built on ignorance.
    This is greatly compounded by twice labeling the movement ‘new age’, suggesting no direct experience of it at all.


  16. you may love god with out a church
    god will love you without a church
    you worship god with every breath that you take.
    god worships you when you cease to take that breath
    you are not a title you are not in need of others to find god
    when others try to organise your search for god and make you believe that you need them to find him, they decieve you.
    Do not pray to god, live god, it is easy, love and care for others as best you can, live with forgiveness and compassion in your heart and that is all you need to do. god will love you for your attempts and forgive you if you fail. God does not need wealth.


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