Sunday, 29 May 2011

Buying and Selling the ‘Christian Experience’

I am concerned about how the evangelical church has quickly accepted that the 'Christian experience' can be made into a marketable product that can be bought and sold. In Australia we have a business/church called Hillsong and they produce music cds and videos, and other religious paraphernalia, they have a church service that is broadcast on the television, and they run an annual pseudo-conference (I'm sure there are similar type organisations overseas - just note the tele-evangelists that pollute our televisions). Hillsong is a very successful business because they make a lot of money, and many mainstream churches use a lot of their songs. In short – they have a huge influence over the general evangelical church, in Australia at least. While they are so popular and successful, I find them highly offensive and little about what they do that I would call Christian. This probably puts me at odds with a good number of people in churches throughout Australia, and as usual, I may well be misguided and wrong. Also, it is important to note that I am not suggested that members of the Hillsong congregations and other disciples of the Hillsong mantra are not Christian or even devoted followers of Jesus, but to me the organisation itself is a misrepresentation of the Biblical church. As I write this, I can't think of a Christian organisation that I personally find more obnoxious, offensive and objectionable than Hillsong.
I guess my position is quite clear, so now I will attempt to justify it to some extent. First and primarily, my concern is that Hillsong has commodified and packaged the Christian experience so it can be sold as a product for a profit. This supports their belief that God is somehow blessing the Hillsong hierarchy with wealth, prosperity and material possessions. At this point I do not want to discuss the heresy of their 'prosperity doctrine', but rather the more pervasive problem of their packaging and selling of Christianity – turning the church into a business. A business that develops and markets so-called Christian worship experiences to Christians and others for a good profit. The gift of God that comes through Christ is indeed priceless, but it is offered freely to all, and therefore, it is a misrepresentation and a disgrace to make it into a product that one can purchase. In this process, this also shifts the focus from God to the purchaser – their Hillsong experiences, whether at an event or in a cd, are about making the purchaser FEEL closer to God.
The activities of Hillsong appear to me to be no different than that of a pop concert, or big sporting event – perhaps a Christian version of entertainment. They provide experiences that are designed to make the purchaser feel something, and then purchase the associated paraphernalia (cds, dvds, t-shirts, etc.) so they vicariously relive the experience again later. In these events you can have an enhanced experienced by being caught up with all the others who have purchased the same experience, and you can enjoy the mob mentality associated with it. You pay for the experience and you enjoy it because it makes you feel something. In the case of Hillsong, this is a so-called 'worship experience' and people will travel from across Australia for their pilgrimage to this annual event so they can feel closer to God. But this in itself is a contradiction – worship is all about God, but these 'worship experiences' are about the clients feeling something – it is about them! So is God pleased when a group of Hillsong clients meet annually to sing songs together that make them feel closer to Him?
I wonder, hypothetically, if Jesus would feel welcome at a Hillsong conference? I doubt he would have wanted to fork out the exorbitant fee to attend! But more importantly, I see little in the gospels that makes me think he would even want to be there – he seemed more interested in people, the poor, issues of equity and justice, and real and honest relationships. Indeed, when He went to the temple and they were buying and selling 'worship experiences' and paraphernalia, Jesus got very angry. He drove those who had commercialised worship out of the temple and called them "robbers and thieves". He was so angry that He sat down and made a whip! Would He want to do this at Hillsong? I don't think Jesus was so angry with those who were buying their 'worship products', perhaps because their intentions were good, but he certainly was exceptionally cross with the marketers. In the same way, perhaps the clients of Hillsong are attending and have genuinely purchased an experience that they believe is pleasing to God. Perhaps others buy it because they want to buy the 'worship experience' because they enjoy it, in the same way someone might enjoy any other concert, or perhaps a sports event. Either way, they are going to get something – something they have paid for like any other product. If their heart is in the right place, then I doubt that they will be judged.
In the end, perhaps none of this matters to anyone else, and you will not be surprised to know that on principle I have no intention of attending a Hillsong event or purchasing a Hillsong product, because to my mind they are corrupt and an embarrassment to the church. They certainly do get the attention of the mainstream media from time to time, but the publicity is rarely advantageous to the Church. In fact, people outside the church seem to be able to easily see the contradictions between what Hillsong represents and Biblical truth. Why then has the church so readily bought into their version of Christianity as a commodified and 'businessised' experience – one that makes people feel close to God, without necessarily needing Biblical-type ways of knowing Him.
Again, I stress that I am not suggesting that Hillsong clients are necessarily anything less than well-intentioned Christian people. I also think that God can work with people, regardless of how His message is presented, and so to this end it is true that some good has no doubt been done through Hillsong. They even have a strand on social justice at their conference – only it just costs nearly $300 to participate in a discussion about helping the poor and needy! As a business they are great – look at the amazing assets they have gathered, but as a Christian organisation they seem to lack any of the qualities or fruit that would be characterised as Jesus-focussed, Spirit-filled, or God-honouring. I am dismayed that we, as God's people, have become so ardent consumers of their products. I am also sure that many who are consumers of Hillsong are strong and committed Christians, and hope these Hillsong experiences, however dubious, will enhance their journey of faith in Jesus.
Of course, this is just my view, and its message will be transformed by the views you bring to reading it, and I could be wrong! At least it is worth thinking about.

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