Prime Minister Julia Gillard may be an avowed atheist, but if the Australian music-buying public is anything to go by, she's a tad out of step with her electorate. You might say she's not singing from the same hymn sheet. God Is Able, an album of contemporary Christian music released by the stratospherically successful Hillsong mega-church in Sydney, recently debuted at number three in the Australian chart ahead of Beyonce and Lady Gaga, becoming the tenth album of Christian pop to reach the top ten there since 2002. And Hillsong has broken America without so much as breaking a sweat. Last year its youth ministry house band, Hillsong United, went in at number two on the US iTunes album chart, just behind Eminem. If it's true that the music industry is in its death throes, then nobody told Hillsong.
Hillsong Music is the 'resource arm' of Hillsong Church, a Pentecostal ministry in Sydney which began in 1983 with a congregation of forty-five, and which now boasts a membership of 21,000, an annual conference attracting 28,000 faithful attendees, and a growing international footprint with churches in London, Paris, Cape Town, Stockholm and Kiev. In 2009 Hillsong London celebrated ten years of worship in the capital with a service at the O2 London Arena. More than 14,000 people attended.
Needless to say, any church funded by a 'dynamic music label', as its promotional materials describe it, is foursquare in the realms of 'non-traditional' financing models. But Hillsong is no traditional church. It is ministry with marketing strategies and corporate visions, communion by focus group, where clergy are CEOs and pastors head up 'creative teams'. Services take place in 'state-of-the-art worship centres', in which chancel is jettisoned for multimedia ministry and preaching by PowerPoint. Hillsong London's website, whose front page features a group of smiling twenty-somethings in chic winter wear, bears closer resemblance to a Gap advert than a call for cash and congregation. And possibly taking a leaf out of Scientology's book, Hillsong now looks to the power of celebrity to spread the gospel; it recently hosted an 'Evening with'-style event in which tele-survivalist Bear Grylls talked of Everest expeditions, alligator wrestling and the 'quiet strength' of his Christian faith. Jumble sales and church roof appeals it is not.
Masterminded by founders and senior pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston (no self-respecting mega-church is seen dead these days without an alliterating husband-and-wife team at the helm), Hillsong's brand of 'prosperity theology' found a hungry market in Sydney's affluent, conservative Baulkham Hills district during the 1990s. 'Health and wealth gospel', popularised in sixties America by the repellent Oral Roberts, proved to be an elixir for middle-class Christians in prosperous, suburban Australia, as the success of Brian Houston's book You Need More Money: Discovering God's Amazing Financial Plan For Your Life attests. Spiritual health and material wealth go hand in hand, says Houston; humility and sacrifice are not unimportant, but nor should the faithful be ashamed of material success.
And Brian should know. In the last year for which figures are available, Hillsong's annual earnings were in the region of $60m, roughly half of which came from its congregation. You see, record sales aren't the church's only source of revenue. Tithing - such an archaic-sounding word among all that corporate speak - is still a vital part of Hillsong's income. Houston admits to a personal package of $300,000 a year plus company car (Bobbie's salary is undisclosed), but his company Leadership Ministries Inc. - 'the entity through which Bobbie and I conduct our broader ministry' - bought two waterfront properties from the couple shortly after the company was set up in 2001.
And it's very much a family business. Joel Houston, Brian and Bobbie's son (and incidentally a spit for Westlife's Brian McFadden), leads the creative team behind Hillsong Music, the multi-million dollar hit machine that powers the operation. He is also the singer in Hillsong United, a 'next generation praise and worship' outfit which has released a new album every year since 1999, making Prince look positively idle. Churning out mostly live albums recorded at services and conferences, the Hillsong Music stable is so prolific that just as one release reaches the end of its chart life, another is waiting in the wings to take its place. Evidently the received wisdom in the music industry - that live albums don't sell - doesn't apply to Hillsong either.
They've done their homework, too. If it felt like Snow Patrol were following you around for three years from 2006, it's because radio stations and music television channels the world over were banking on audience research which decisively crowned Chasing Cars as the stickiest song of the noughties by a country mile. Hillsong, if you can imagine this without wincing, sounds like Snow Patrol singing from a prayer book. And in case you're tempted to seek out this music for yourself, be warned. For the purposes of journalistic thoroughness I've listened to more than my fair share of it the past few days; it's marginally less excruciating than chewing tinfoil.
Contemporary Christian music - CCM to its friends - is changing the market in other ways. For All You've Done, the first live worship album to debut at number one in Australia, drew widespread whingeing from disgruntled record labels, upset that almost all its sales rang through the cash registers at Hillsong's annual conference. It's hard to know which is more telling - the pointless display of sour grapes from the mainstream music industry, or the fact that sales at a religious conference can outstrip the buying power of an entire nation.
But it does raise the question of why Hillsong music is routing the secular competition so convincingly. Possibly these conference sales are more 'got the t-shirt' souvenir purchases than high-rotation repeat-players. Or perhaps it's just that piracy is less rampant in Christian circles than in the wider market. Downloading music illegally isn't proscribed by any specific commandment as far as I'm aware, but it does seem a very un-Christian thing to do. In 2007 Hillsong hit the headlines again, amid accusations of 'vote stacking' in the Australian Idol talent quest. Idol issued a formal, on-air statement refuting the allegations, although four of the eight finalists did in fact turn out to be from the Assemblies of God Pentecostal church, of which Hillsong is an affiliate. Idolatry - 1, Idol - nil.
On Christmas morning last year, finding myself with a few hours to kill before barbecued turkey and trimmings with my Sydney hosts, I went to see Hillsong for myself. I should state for the sake of transparency that I'm an atheist humanist, justifying my godless sneering on grounds of journalism (I was researching a book). But as I made my way there on the Hillsong courtesy shuttle, I felt like a freeloading interloper, a joyless gatecrasher en route to a children's party with the sole intention of stealing party bags and calling the birthday boy names. To ease my conscience I resolved I would be the perfect houseguest, making every effort to participate, in as far as I could do so without compromising my principles or seeming to take the piss. If there was singing, I would sing. If there was hugging, I would hug. I drew the line only at praying.
Arriving at the church - sorry, worship centre - I was welcomed into a cavernous modern atrium by a model-pretty hostess bearing glad tidings and armfuls of Christmas candy. Dean Martin's Winter Wonderland crooned from the speaker system. Free lattes and valet parking to all comers. Being slightly behind schedule I pressed on past the crèche and headed straight for the main room. (If 'main room' sounds a tad super-club, it's not so far off the mark.) Five enormous TV screens flanked a wide stage, upon which Hillsong stalwart Robert Fergusson was already in mid-flow, hammering home the prosperity gospel as the gifting envelopes went round. In the audio clip below he urges us to be as 'extravagant' with our money as God is with his love:
Then two very happy but slightly stoned-sounding men appeared and invited all the kids onto the stage to show and tell what they got for Christmas.
"What did Santa bring you, little fella?" beamed Happy Man number 1.
Little boy: "An iPod Touch."
"Whoooo!" clapped the audience.
"And what about you?" said Happy Man 2, turning to another little boy.
"A remote-controlled car."
Happy Man 1: "Well, we've got some great prezzies to give away today, for the big kids as well as well as the little kids. But first we're crossing live to our Hills campus, where our senior pastor Brian Houston is going to say a few words."
I will say this for Christmas at Hillsong: it's an ambitious and tightly choreographed technical feat they're pulling off. All this 'crossing live' felt like Live Aid - it was terrifically exciting. On the TV screens behind, another show-and-tell session was finishing up at the Hills service across town. A third happy man was talking about prezzies for big kids and little kids, and then Houston himself was striding back and forth across the stage in front of foot-high chapter and verse, a bible in his hand and a flesh-coloured Madonna-mike clamped to his cheek. Swap the bible for an iPad and he could have passed for Steve Jobs unveiling his vision for the exciting next phase of the company.
He launched into some impassioned stuff about Emmanuel, punctuated with fists in the air about his GRACE and DIVINITY, which I confess was where I started to tune out. It's not that I wasn't listening, just that a sort of glazing over took place. The same thing happens when I listen to evangelical preachers on the radio, which I do often in America, where late-night preaching is among the most compelling speech radio on the dial. It's a little like the shipping forecast on BBC Radio 4 - fantastically hypnotic, but utterly incomprehensible unless you're in on the lingo. Very often the welcome end result is blissful slumber.
So what did this godless impostor make of Christmas at Hillsong? Was it the riot of divinely sanctioned conspicuous consumption I had feared? Not quite, but it wasn't far off. Did it feel like congregation? Emphatically not - it was spectacle from start to finish. And that's what bothered me, if I was bothered by anything at all. This was a show, with high production values and a competitively priced soundtrack available in the foyer on your way out. If I was going to 'get' any kind of worship, as a music lover it should have been this. But Hillsong was more awards ceremony than gig, more exclusive media event than inclusive musical or spiritual experience. The live link ups were impressive and fabulously next generation, but in the end the action was always happening somewhere else. I needn't have worried about crashing the party, because in more senses than one I wasn't invited.
It struck me that, right now, the lavishness of Hillsong could only work in Australia, seemingly the only economy in the world these days untroubled by debt, deficit or danger of default. Anywhere else - including America, where the mega-church model seems to be crumbling - the extravagant giving, all the showing and the telling, would seem a tad inappropriate. Shuffling out of the auditorium, I made my way by courtesy shuttle to my Christmas lunch engagement, gifting a Transformer toy to my hosts' going-on-three year-old as I arrived. He was thrilled of course, but somehow I couldn't shake the feeling that, to truly enter into the Christmas spirit, I should have rocked up with an iPod Touch.
This blog was first posted on Brisbane-based music website Collapse Board.
Chris' book Live Fast, Die Young: Misadventures in Rock & Roll America can be purchased from his Amazon page.