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.