Too Cool for the Gospel?

One could read a lot of pages of GQ (and its brethren) before one would expect to find a fair-minded portrait of evangelical Christianity. But behold! a piece on Hillsong NYC, inevitably identified as the church of Justin Bieber (he’s a fairly popular singer, I’m told) and Kevin Durant (a skilled player of basketball).

Friend (and Vancouver pastor) Tim Horman pointed it out to me, and I read it with interest. It is, as one would expect, cleverly written. It takes a nicely jaundiced look at the popularity of “The Hat,” a literally nondescript item that one of the pastors wears and hundreds of hipster parishioners have copied. (God help us, though, when people start taking fashion tips from clergy…or professors….)

I love its characterization of Hillsong music as passionate, even breathy, love songs that jar with clanging Christian images of blood, cross, death, and the like: “My body felt confused.” Uh, yeah.

I noted that the journalist noted that “every single person I met at Hillsong was a churchgoer somewhere else before he or she began going to church at Hillsong.” I don’t fault Hillsong for giving Christians an experience of worship they prefer to what they had before, and I don’t see it as “sheep-stealing.” I want to know, however, whether those people who switched churches also meet Jonathan Edwards’s marks of true piety, such as more fervent love of God, devotion to Scripture, obedience to God’s commands, passion for evangelism, enthusiasm for service to the needy, and the like. If they’re just having a groovier time on Sunday mornings, then they’ve just switched clubs, not churches.

I liked the pastor’s honesty about the conservative ethics of the church, particularly in the hot zones of abortion and LGBTQ+ relationships. I thought he was wise to avoid arguing at length about these issues with people who did not share his premises about the authority of the Bible. And I liked his relentless focus upon walking with Jesus as the core of the Christian religion.

(I was surprised, I should say, by the rather brief and bland acknowledgement by the journalist of the patriarchy of Hillsong, right down to the male-only worship band. I’ve long wondered why so many capable women are attracted to the similarly gendered Redeemer congregations in NYC, apparently dealing easily enough with patterns they would never tolerate in any other sphere of their lives.)

And so I was moved by the journalist’s confession (which says as much about her, and about the providence of God that she was the one GQ had write this piece, as it does about the pastor): “How can I fault someone who is more sincere about this one thing than I have ever been about anything in my life? But on the other hand, if there’s one thing that’s true about Christianity, it’s that no matter what couture it’s wearing, no matter what Selena Gomez hymnal it’s singing, it’s still afraid for your soul, it still thinks you’re in for a reckoning. It’s still Christianity. Christianity’s whole jam is remaining Christian.”

Crucially, however, there was this: “This is what cool gets you. An audience with people with big audiences of their own.”

I have a whole set of questions here. What kind of Christianity is it that people with big audiences—while they have those audiences—find attractive? It’s different when they’re on their way down and they’re becoming aware of the fickleness of fame, the dubious blessings of riches, and their need for meaning in life. But while they’re up, with the values that help them be up, what resonance will there be for the gospel?

As I look at the celebrities featured in the article, I confess I’m not cool enough to know who many of them are. But the few I do know something about seem not to be people I’d be holding up as Christian role models, even as early converts. How much positive pressure are they feeling from the Christianity Hillsong NYC offers to desert what Christians traditionally have called “worldliness,” let alone self-centredness?

I am not asking rhetorically: I really want to know. How much, that is, of Hillsong’s cool is an appropriate indigenizing of the gospel, not quibbling over adiaphora or cultural markers (Fun as it is to make fun of them, no one really cares about hats), but instead offering the gospel in the cultural forms of the target audience? How much instead, as is always the question with indigenization, is syncretism, or flat-out compromise of the gospel in order to make it as attractive as possible to people who aren’t ready yet to surrender very much to Jesus?

At the end, I loved how the journalist connected with the Hillsong gang, how she liked them, and how she missed them when her assignment was over. I felt very sad when she returned to her secular Sunday pursuits, and I hope she has returned to Hillsong as just a person seeking meaning.

I also noted in this regard, however, that the journalist related a story of a very ordinary woman, an un-cool woman, who had shared loving gospel words with her as an eighth-grader and thus gave her what she testified was the most powerful spiritual experience of her life.

So “cool,” ultimately, might prove mostly irrelevant after all. Just the shiny object to catch your attention and draw you in for a while.

Authenticity, love, truth, integrity—these things remain.

And the greatest of these is love.

10 Responses to “Too Cool for the Gospel?”

  1. Stacey Gleddiesmith

    Thanks for this, John. I have a few students who have previously been to Hillsong’s “Leadership College.” They are wonderful students, but–after a year or more at Hillsong–seem to have little to no theology of worship. Perhaps not surprising. I came across this, recently–which disturbed me further (more from a music standpoint, truth be told…. has there ever been a more awkward pairing of music and lyric?!): http://www.piratechristian.com/museum-of-idolatry/2015/12/hillsongs-sleazy-silent-night

    • Tim

      Stacey, the Silent Night act was intended to be an ironic take on the song as part of a larger performance. The point was indeed to show that connecting the beauty and simplicity of Silent Night with bawdy music and dancing doesn’t ‘fit’. Yep, it’s awkward. I’m not defending Hillsong per se, but as usual, context is everything.

      • John

        Thanks to both of you. The disconnection between the song and the performance of it is utterly parodic…so I’m SO glad to hear it was intentional. (Context is indeed everything, and maybe Hillsong ought to take greater pains to say, “We’re making a POINT here!”)

        As a jazz musician myself and one who loves the way jazz can work so well to give new life to familiar songs such as we hear at Christmas, I’ve been increasingly concerned at how arrangers, looking for the new, strip the lyrics away and exploit the melody as simply creative fodder. These are *songs* for at least most of us, and anything musical needs to interpret the lyrics as well.

        Having said all that, the music of this parody is pretty fine…and brings me back nostalgically to my time playing piano for the Queen’s University Jazz Ensemble: 5 trumpets, 5 trombones, 5 saxes, and 5 of us in the rhythm section (two on percussion). Cool, man—cool.

        • Stacey Gleddiesmith

          John, I have a student I wish you could meet. He has a jazz bent–and has been doing some amazing arrangements with careful attentiveness to lyric. His arrangement of “Blessed Be” is a lament musically as well as lyrically. He makes me want to go back to theory classes!

      • Stacey Gleddiesmith

        Hi Tim–thanks for this! Has Hillsong responded to the critique that is circulating? I’d like to read more about the context–as this could be a great class example, and of course I don’t wish to misrepresent Hillsong in any way.

  2. Heather

    Hi John,

    I don’t know anything about this particular Hillsong congregation, but I do have friends who attend Hillsong in Sydney. Before they went there, I was very skeptical of Hillsong – it seemed to be all about an ‘experience’ for the ‘cool people’. However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what they’ve told me.

    Their church is very evangelistic, and is frequently baptising new believers, most of whom are international students. They also have a formal course (of their own design) that these new believers are encouraged to take to give them a grounding in theology. I don’t know anything of the content of the course, so can’t comment on it, but I like the fact that they have one!

    The church is also very involved with an economically disadvantaged community near to where the church is located.

    So, that Hillsong church at least seems to encourage at least some of the things on Jonathan Edwards’ list – alongside the ‘coolness’, the large congregation etc.. I get the impression they are (at least as much as my own comfortably-middle class and not-at-all cool Kiwi Baptist congregation) calling people away from worldliness and towards the Jesus we see in the gospels.

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