From the Courier Mail in Brisbane, an article which finally identifies the incredible reach of Hillsong.
Hillsong’s message and music has a resonance worldwide that eclipses that of the church’s Aussie birthplace
BRIAN Houston had just paid the bill and was about to head into a cool autumn night when two men approached him and bailed him up in the corner.
Wearing full-length robes and brandishing a camera, their approach was undeviating. It was an ambush.
Had they noticed the intermittent glances this lanky Hillsong senior pastor had been giving them across the floor of Bondi’s starry Icebergs restaurant, in between mouthfuls of pesce del giorno and warm dinner conversation with his American guest?
He couldn’t help it. He was fascinated by them: two maroon-clad Tibetan monks being loved on by a clutch of eastern Sydney arty types. A man of deep spiritual convictions himself, he was intrigued by this harmonious duo who reside at seemingly polar opposites of the religious spectrum; how they reacted, what they ate; whether they were immersed in the no-doubt philosophical thought being bandied around their table.
But now they wanted to speak to him.
“You Brian?” one monk asked. The pastor nods.
“Oh, you are famous, you are famous in Tibet. We all watch you in TV,” he followed.
And now they wanted a photo with him. Smiles, hugs and a warmness that eroded their religious disparity.
This dining room floor is no stranger to such encounters, as starstruck guests rush celebrities for a happy snap in front of eye-rolling wait staff.
But Brian Houston? A church pastor? And one who received his fair share of scrutiny and criticism during his long reign as head of Hillsong Church, from the masses revolting at ill-titled books called You Need More Moneyto disenfranchised ex-parishioners with a tale to tell?
Yet encounters like this occur with frightening regularity for this icon of modern Christendom; just not so much in Australia.
In the jungles of Africa? Correct. Pygmies know his name. Rubbish dumps in India? The kids come running to clutch his gangly legs. Downtown Houston? You’d think he owned the town and gave it its name, such is his appeal with the God-fearing Texans, 50,000 of whom turn up to hear him preach a single message.
Even if they don’t recognise him, they know his brand.
“Not so long ago Bobbie and I were in Uganda and we were at the airport, and there was a long line of people at security and we got talking to someone in front of us who asked us where we were from. I said “Australia”, and she replied `the only thing I know about Australia is kangaroos and Hillsong’,” Brian laughs.
Strangely, for a man who regularly preaches before 30,000 and who has been routinely castigated by some who deem him power and money-hungry, he seems somewhat uncomfortable with the eminence.
“I never cease to be inspired by those stories.”
It’s a rather peculiar oddity: how the Christian mega church birthed in a lounge room in Castle Hill 30 years ago is routinely maligned at home, and worshipped abroad; how Hillsong’s ubiquitous preacher-in-chief is viewed with scepticism by many Sydneysiders, but idolised by foreigners; as if giving a modern spin on the biblical reckoning that “a prophet has no honour in his home town”.
Or, taking the man out of the equation, how a church youth band that the vast majority of Australians would never have heard of (United, Hillsong’s youth band) can reach the US Billboard Chart top five and sell out stadiums across the country.
Could it be that a church group considered fringe by those on the outside, could be Australia’s most powerful global brand?
“Oh yeah, I’d say so. Definitely,” brand expert Richard Sauerman says. “It is huge. It is a movement. It is global.
“They brought the message through music. Music is very powerful; it communicates in deep ways, if you are religious or not. And that’s what they do; it’s rock music and people dig it. It connects. It is contemporary, it is modern, it is now. And it’s working. Hillsong is really on the pulse.”
Sauerman likens the levels of popularity in Australia and enormous commercial success in the US to two other renowned Australian exported brands: Fosters and Billabong.
“You go overseas and everyone is drinking Fosters, but not here. Everybody wants happiness and that’s one of the things the church offers: a strong brand of happiness. In America, where you get these motivational guys like Anthony Robbins, it is very popular, but it doesn’t quite go down well in Australia. That’s probably why Hillsong, with that huge middle belt Christianity, has been much more successful there and has more critics here.”
But it’s not like Hillsong is losing market power within Australia’s seemingly dwindling Christian population. Last month it opened its Newcastle campus, held in a converted cinema on Steel City’s main drag, and a second inner-city Sydney venue at Alexandria, a few blocks over from its burgeoning campus at Waterloo where upwards of five services are held every weekend. Combined with the mothership, a monstrous convention centre in Baulkham Hills across the road from Woolworths HQ, Hillsong attracts more than 24,000 followers to its Sydney campuses, while a further 7500 meet in Melbourne and Brisbane.
But, perhaps surprisingly for the non-churched who view Hillsong as a mere Sydney phenomenon, and nothing else, there are far more followers who attend Hillsong’s churches dotted around the globe than do in its Australian services: an estimated 40,000, the church claims, meeting in key global hot spots of London (10,000), Cape Town (9000), Paris (1800) and the relatively obscure Kiev, where the Hillsong church heaves to the tune of 2000 Ukrainian faithful, led by a pastor who used to play in the church band as a non-Christian and retreat to the street, smoke cigarettes and drink vodka while the sermon was being preached.
The church’s real appeal, however, remains firmly embedded in a nation that proclaims itself a Christian dominion and an outpost of heaven: God’s own nation, the US, where every weekend, the Australian church’s music roars from the stage in hundreds of thousands of halls and auditoriums from Portland to Providence.
It gave Brian Houston an idea.
Hillsong in Manhattan: Sect in the City, if you will.
Since planting an outpost in the heart of New York City in late 2010, Hillsong’s congregation has surged above 5000. In thick jackets and woolly gloves, the faithful snake around several city blocks in order to cram into one of the seven Sunday services on offer, from New York Knicks NBA stars and celebrity fashionistas, to the homeless.
“New York has been an amazing story,” Houston says, while pausing as if to once again soak in the achievement.
“Manhattan is very unique. We sent my son (Joel) and a guy called Carl to New York. Carl was an intern for me for four years and he just got into the vibe of the city. He’s just the most amazing person. He’ll reach out to the worst of the worst, the drug-addicted person, the homeless, not just once, but he’ll take them on board, you know. He’ll be looking for them at 3am in the morning.
“And then he has this crazy ability to also tap into the celebrity world, and connect with (powerful) people. Our biggest problem there is facilities, because we have seven services there on a Sunday and people line up for blocks on end. The last one starts at 9pm and people line up all day to get in; all through winter people are lined up around the blocks to get in.
“Cape Town even more so. In South Africa they tend to be a bit more from a religious background. It still has that God-fearing culture. But it has just exploded. People lining up to get into church.
“It is a phenomenon, and I wish I could explain it. People think that I must be this amazing marketer, but really it’s the grace of God. There are certain things that are unique to the culture of our church and I think we try and take an old and timeless message and communicate it in a relatable way. They are basics, and if we focus on those, which sounds so simple and trite, but it really just comes down to the hard work of building a church – caring for people, caring for youth, caring for children and not being limited in vision.”
So if vision is to be conceived without limits, to what extent does this suit-wearing, bike-riding senior pastor believe Hillsong will continue to grow throughout the world?
Last month, Houston brought together all his senior pastors from around the globe to workshop some vision; to brainstorm and seek guidance on the next phase of Hillsong.
He admits he doesn’t have a master plan, but is fundamentally inspired by big cities. The bigger the better.
It is most likely the reason why Hillsong hasn’t diverted down the pathway undertaken by other expansive and progressive church movements, in creating its own denomination, and giving its name to thousands of small churches that would gladly carry its name and thus attract what the Christian community calls church-hoppers: those happy to follow the trends and park their bums on pews of successful brands.
Houston doesn’t lend the Hillsong brand out lightly. He wants to protect it.
“In my lifetime I would imagine, maybe, 20 significant churches would be what I see ourselves doing, as oppose to thousands and thousands of little churches,” he said, admitting that he is half way there.
“Hillsong has got a credibility that I want to look after. I don’t like using a marketing term, but if you did use a marketing term it is `strong brand’. I don’t want to diminish the brand by just giving it away to anyone and everyone. I try to harness that. I have found that if you find the right person, in the right place at the right time, it always works. But if you only get two of those together? It has less chance of working.”
It is the formula for success that Houston says is likely to be rolled out in two markets that are emerging as Hillsong’s most important – China and India – with the latter a major focus for the church’s foreign aid arm.
The church’s music has already made significant inroads into the two countries that have the fastest growing Christian communities in the world.
In marketing terms it is a gold mine, given music represents 18 per cent of the $60 million revenue the church receives annually, $10 million of which goes directly into local and overseas aid projects, and the sponsoring of almost 20,000 children in the Third World.
None of the rich music revenue goes into Houston’s pocket, but to fund the ministry locally and abroad. In a candid interview with Channel 7 in 2010, Houston admits he is paid $300,000 from the church.
When it comes to Hillsong Music, Houston is happy for the real brand ambassadors to take the acclaim, including his son Joel, who leads the Hillsong United youth band.
The band has just begun a sold-out US tour that is anticipated to break its already lofty feats of previous tours. Last time around, in 2011, it sold out Los Angeles’ Staples Center and set the record for the largest attendance ever in the Sears Center Arena in Chicago, leaving previous entertainers Billy Joel, Elton John and the Eagles in its wake.
The band has more than 3.4 million Facebook friends and its YouTube channel has been eyed by close to 30 million viewers.
When Hillsong United released its Zion album in March, it debuted inside the top five on the US Billboard Charts, peaked as the No. 1 album on iTunes, topped the ARIA album chart in Australia, and set records in South Africa, Sweden, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Singapore, Ghana and Colombia (where it knocked off Bruno Mars).
The sales pushed Hillsong’s total album sales above 14 million, within reach of Justin Beiber (15 million) and almost half of the worldwide album sales of Kylie Minogue and Christina Aguilera.
“The music has been a huge part of our story. When no-one knew who our church was, music kind of started to get a wide appeal in Christian circles 20 years ago. I’ve always thought music is the sound of the church,” Houston says.
“It’s unique; it doesn’t fit into the usual box for Christian worship music. I think it has dared to be edgy and push the boundaries a little bit, and to be honest, these days the lyrics are pretty intelligent. You are not just singing simple little ditties. They are songs that connect with your spirit, and your soul.”
And, apparently, with the entire world.