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10 September 2014

Hillsong: church for a generation

by Chine Mbubaegbu

Wherever there is a Hillsong church around the world, you'll find flocks of young people, full of zeal and utterly devoted to their church. How has the Hillsong brand hit the spot for the millennial generation?

A few months ago, I was on holiday, walking through the hustle and bustle of Time Square in New York and stumbled upon a long queue of young, trendy people. They seemed excited. Eagerly awaiting some celebrity or band's appearance, I thought. But this was late on a Sunday morning. Curious, I walked to the front of the queue and saw that these young people were queuing for… church. Hillsong's New York City offshoot is just like any other of its churches around the world. Young and vibrant, full of life and passion;and smiles. Lots and lots of smiles.

Started in 1983 in Sydney's Baulkham Hills by husband and wife team Brian and Bobbie Houston, the church has becomea worldwide phenomenon;with churches in Kiev, Paris, Cape Town, Stockholm and Alliance member Hillsong London, to name a few.

Over the years, Hillsong has become synonymous with some of the anthemic worship songs sung in churches of all types around the world today, including: Shout to the Lord, Mighty to Save, This Is My Desire and so many more. In recent years, as its popularity among millennials has grown, songs such as This I Believe: Creed re-interprets the Apostles' Creed for a generation of young churchgoers at newer congregations who might not recite it on a regular basis.

But what is it about the church that has made it such a hit with so many and has even attracted the interest of Hollywood filmmakers who were granted full access to the church leadership team for an upcoming film? Warner Bros and Alcon Entertainment will release Hillsong: Let Hope Rise in 2015.I met the team behind Hillsong over the summer –fresh-faced despite being fresh off planes from Down Under. They were in London for their conference, which attracted some 15,000 people at the O2 in London. Hillsong conferences are huge and bring together church leaders from across the globe. 

At next year's conference in Australia, for example, there will be the likes of Mark Driscoll, Rick Warren and Joseph Prince on the same platform. "We're passionate about the Church with a big C," says Brian Houston. "This isn't about looking at us and how great Hillsong is. It's about encouraging others to be all that God has called us to be. Where there's unity, God commands blessing."Part of the attraction of Hillsong for younger generations is the quality of their brand, image and marketing. Aesthetically, anything that comes out of Hillsong looks like something you might want to be a part of. But because of this, it often faces criticism for being far too image-conscious. "I used to avoid the word brand," Brian says. "I was so scared of it. But I think I have changed. I want us to have a strong brand: a brand that's easily recognisable. I'm very intentional about the culture of our church and the parameters of that. We want to stay strong about who we are and what we're about. I feel that ultimately it's our calling to be very clear about who we are and what God has called us to do."

With so many of its leadership team achieving almost celebrity status around the globe, is it easy for them to develop egos? Brian says: "In our church, if you become a prima donna, or you attempt to, it's just not cool. It wouldn't fly. Some of it is just the Aussie way – not to let people get big heads. I pray that we stay that way."

Watch the trailer for the film Hillsong: Let Hope Rise

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