The UK is becoming more secularised, there's no doubt about it. However, there is one faction of Christianity which is growing globally at a rapid speed. Hillsong markets itself as a non-denominational church and is full of youthful energy, flashing lights and loud uplifting music. Their main UK campus is at the Dominion Theatre which hosts at least four full-capacity services every Sunday. The queues outside are reminiscent of a Justin Beiber concert - not surprising for a relatively young church whose carol services at Wembley Arena boast the production values of a Beyonce concert. They even have their own 24/7 TV channel. It is clear to see why they devote so much attention to tithings.
For people who have become tired of the traditional worship offered by more conventional forms of Christianity, it is clear to see the appeal, especially at this time of year. However, behind the glitzy lights and the aesthetically pleasing pastors, the religion is still very much rooted in tradition, regularly referencing the Old Testament.
Although I would generally consider myself to be a atheist (with occasional leanings towards agnosticism), I am always curious to try new things and for six months allowed myself to join my evangelical friend in attending a number of Hillsong services. It was hard not to get swept up in the sheer euphoria of such a huge congregation singing as one and raising their arms in unabashed communal worship.
The problem comes 23 minutes into each service when an exuberant pastor asks the 2,500-strong congregation to pray for healing. I find this uncomfortable as a disabled rights activist, I am very proud of who I am. I find any attempt to change this a very attack on my identity as a severely impaired man. On one occasion, a pastor attempted to heal me and told me that I was in denial when I claimed to be happy as I was. Yes, I face challenges as a result of my impairments, but does that mean I must be the focus of prayer for some kind of miraculous divine intervention just because it might make my life "easier"? A black woman's life is inherently more challenging than that of her white male counterpart, but would it really be acceptable to pray that she is miraculously transformed into a white man? I won't insult you by even answering that question.
On the question of gender, Hillsong has "Colour Conference", a conference primarily for empowering women. It is great that Hillsong acknowledges that there may be reasons to support women. However there seems to be either wilful ignorance of the facts or a blinkered viewpoint in discussing women's issues without mentioning patriarchy, misogyny, feminism or without mentioning the Bible passages that suggest men are more important than women. This makes me uncomfortable.
Whilst the intentions of such preaching may be motivated by Christian values, the resulting injury to the feelings of someone like me is decidedly unChristian, especially at Christmas which is supposed to be a time of inclusion and good will to all. Rather than being made to feel accepted and loved by God for who I am, the true consequence is that I'm left feeling somehow inadequate before a God in whose image the Bible tells me I was created. Hillsong claims to be all inclusive and progressive, but behind the cool clothes and designer stubble of its youthful face, the troubling bigotry of old-fashioned Christianity seems to be alive and well.
As a disabled man, who also just happens to be gay, I seem to be dealt a double blow by Hillsong in terms of acceptance. The head of the church, Brian Houston, has preached that everyone is welcome to attend church, yet he can only preach with his heterosexual hat on. While this isn't contravening any law, it's undeniably and inherently homophobic. Young gay Christians who I've worked with in the past have been traumatised by their family's rejection. This is harrowing and although Hillsong has a lovely overarching 'come as you are' principle, it falls worryingly short in making same sex relationships feel welcome.
By embracing a truly modern approach to worship and inspiring a whole new generation of young Christians, Hillsong has to be respected and admired. They do some incredible charity work and appear to be going from strength to strength in terms of attracting new members to the church. It's just a shame that they are not quite as welcoming as they seem. I, for one, will not be going to Wembley Arena this Christmas.