Hillsong Melbourne Australia

Comedy Theatre, 240 Exhibition Street
Melbourne, VIC, Australia
United States
Senior Pastor: 
Joel A'bell
Assemblies of God
Deliciously high production value, with lots of self promotion. Attracted in spite of myself.

Hillsong Australia, the Sydney based church best known for its widely popular praise and worship music, which is sung in churches all over the English speaking world, started not one but four new campuses in Melbourne this year.  I've been meaning to pop down and check them out for a while, so this morning I drove my car to a bit north of the city and ran the final 3 kilometres to their (main) meeting in downtown (called the CBD in Australia). I thought the 3 kilometre run would throw a few endorphins into the mix, possibly helping me to be more gracious in my review, and it must have worked at some level, as I called my wife afterward to report that overall I had enjoyed myself.

That won't be the last positive thing I'll say in this review, but I have to confess given that the church has a reputation here in Australia for being a bit money-hungry and money-driven, I found my initial experience upon walking through the door deliciously amusing. By far the biggest brightest thing in the lobby was the gigantic display showing off lots of the Hillsong cd's (and dear FSM do people still buy actual hard copy cd's?) and books, including in pride of place a massive wall of the psychedelic-front-covered brand-new-today-not-even-released-to-the-public-yet CD "Young and Free". "Young and Free" strikes me at first as rather too much like the name of a soap opera that never got greenlighted. A close friend however points out that it's likely taken to some extent from a line in the Australian national anthem "Australians all let us rejoice for we are young and free".  Just by the way the Australian national anthem is widely bagged by Australians, who are rather more willing to mock everything, including themselves, than Americans are--a cultural trait I find utterly delicious. If the title IS taken, purposely or subconsiously, from the national anthem, that in itself is a bit strange, as church-based nationalism is a bit unusual and mostly panned here, unlike in the U.S.  Admittedly much of Hillsong's entire take on everything seems very patterned after U.S. Sunday-Morning-Church®-ishness.  But I digress.

As I was saying, I was attracted to this wall of "Young and Free" cd's, and thus the very first thing anyone at Hillsong Melbourne said to me after I came in the door was "Would you like to buy one of our brand new cd's?".  This in an almost gushingly-excited voice from a rather gorgeous young lady of Asian phenotype but entirely true-blue Australian accent (She appeared to be both young and free).  The gushingly-excited tone continued for our entire conversation, which proceeded thusly:

me: (noting the personal pronoun "our") Oh!  do you sing or play on the cd?

she: Oh no I WISH I did!!  I'm just selling them.

me: ah

she: yeah they're brand new hot out of the oven today!!!!

I wandered on into the comedy club (that's where they're meeting), only to be hit by an actual wall of sound as soon as I swished through the curtains over the doorways.  WOW.  I was there 3  minutes late--at 10:33.  They certainly must have started on time.  A full on concert was happening. There were 300-400 people in there, 90% of them in their 20's. And there was a massive screen behind the stage, and two smaller screens to left and right, and 2 guitarists, 2 lead vocalists, 4 back up singers, 2 keyboardists, a bassist, a drummer, a choir of 12 behind all of them with a VERY energetic choir director, and what felt to me like really top-notch video and lighting production.  And stacks and stacks of speakers. And just a wall of sound.  It physically hit me like a truck.  It was amazing.  AMAZING.

A volunteer in a black shirt which thusly identified her as such came over almost immediately to ask "Are you looking for just one seat?", after which she helped me find a seat. This music continued for exactly 24 minutes from the start--10:54, with the typical-for-these-types-of-things hypnotic pattern of upbeat upbeat major chord major chord followed by softer/downish minor chord minor chord. From 10:54 to 10:59 there was what my friend Jim Henderson calls a five minute meeting--everyone was encouraged to greet and chat with those around them.  I chatted with Ferry--a 28-ish fellow from Indonesia who was also there for the first time.  He is checking out churches in Melbourne looking for a church home. Later, he explained to me that churches in Australia are a good deal more upbeat and happy-happy than are churches in Indonesia, and his take on this was that it's because in a very general sense people in Australia have it relatively a lot better and easier 
than people in Indonesia. I checked when I got home and this latter seems to be borne out by some stats--Australia is #2 on the UN HDI for 2012, whereas Indonesia is #121 (out of 187 total). I asked him if he thought he would stay and he said "We'll see what happens."  Ferry asked what about me--why was I there, so I told him about churchrater and said I write reviews for this website sometimes.  I even wrote down the url for him =).

At some point, by the way, after the music but before the sermon, they passed around these massive trays containing individually gold wrapped hershey's chocolate and peanut butter cups.  I took two.  YUM!  How awesome is that? All churches worldwide should start doing this. Although given the state of current cultural memes and so forth in Australia, you'd think Hillsong would have the sense to use fair trade chocolate rather than got-caught-with-their-hands-in-the-slave-trade-jar Hershey chocolate.

Then there was the whole pass the offereing buckets thing, which took a couple minutes.  This was immediately preceeded by some anti-negativity rhetoric.  "Don't let negativity and negative thoughts ruin your spirit!" and "What you think, you are!". I peeked into the bucket that passed me to see if there might be a fiver I could surreptiously snag, but it was utterly empty. Alas.

Since today was the launch Sunday for the new cd, there was a whole long segment of shameless self promotion around the cd, including live video hookup with one of the Sydney campuses where a gorgoues stylish young woman pastor interviewed another 2 gorgeous stylish young youth pastors, one a guy and one a girl, about how this amazing delicious cd came about, and this amazing awesome new sound, etc. etc. etc.  In fact I was amazed and delighted to hear all these amazing gorgeous stylish young pastors regularly use the word "awesome", because by and large A. Australians don't use the word "awesome" and B. when I semi-regularly use it, they tend to immediately pick up on the fact that I used it and mock me incessantly.  Anyway this whole cd promotion thing carried on for about 12 minutes, after which we were asked to stand and clap to honor the Word of God and the Man of God (you could hear the capitals), JOEL A'BELL!!! (cheering and clapping hurrah hurrah hurrah).

Joel was very charismatic, and relaxed, and funny, and dressed down, and altogether likable. He told us he flew in from Queensland late last night as he was speaking at Hillsong Queenland yesterday, and immediately after the service, he said, he had to off to the airport to fly to Sydney where he's speaking at Hillsong Sydney this evening.  A busy fellow! He spent from about 11:12 to about 11:18 promoting Hillsong, talking about how amazing Hillsong is, and all the amazing things hillsong was doing, etc. etc.  Combined with the immediately prior 12 minutes of cd promotion, we had a full 18 minutes of very well done self-promotion.  I literally found myself attracted.  They obviously put a lot of work and thought into this whole deal, and obviously are very very good at it.

Joel then preached from Matthew 22--the parable of the wedding banquet--for 41 minutes.  His sermons was funny and followable and clear and I liked it.  He wanted to speak to us, he said, on the subject of "The Invitation" (you could hear the capitals).  His main theme was that God was inviting us 1. To Come, 2. To Go, and 3. So that we can be together.  He reiterated the "come/go" part literally some 32 times during his sermon.  He was using these words to gently and clearly create the sense for his listeners that God and The Church were their community--their main place, and everything else out there were their 2nd or 3rd places.  So the invitation is always come to god, come to church, and always go to work, go to your community, etc.  never vice verse (i.e. never go to god, go to church--always come). It felt quite effective.

At the end, Joel did the whole everybody close their eyes and those who feel invited by God and want to accept the invitation please raise their hands and pray this prayer out loud with the rest of us. A bunch of people raised their hands--maybe 20?  Joel encouraged those who might have been holding back that they could pray this prayer anytime, but not to take too long, as none of us know what time we might die etc. etc.

Near the end of his sermon Joel was preaching a little bit of Jesus-based mindfulness that I kind of liked.  He was talking about how when we feel stress or anxiety, we can just come into the present moment and be aware that Jesus is with us and loves us.  Of course I don't do the Jesus/God thing, but I AM a big fan of mindfulness, and hey, if this particular form of it works for some people, well then by all means.

There was one last upbeat worship song at the end, and then out everybody streamed, exactly at 12:02.  It was very professionally run. Also those who had raised their hands were invited, quite generally, to see some volunteers on the way out who wanted to give them a free new testament. Everyone who wanted was invited to an after church party down the street at a cafe.  And everyone was invited back for the evening, at which time all four Melbourne campuses are getting together in one venue--something that's happening for a 5 week period right now on Sunday evenings.

In the end, I came away with a sense of being impressed and attracted, in spite of myself.  Maybe it was the endorphins from the running.  Afterwards I continued on my run for another 15k, possibly bookending the church service with lots of endorphins on both ends, making it much more difficult for me to be my usual highly cynical, mocking self.  Ah well.

All that said, I almost certainly won't be going back.  If only there were a Pastafarian version of this whole deal. Oh wait!  there is--and it's coming to Melbourne on 21 November this year.  WOOOT!


Amazing review, Benjamin: thoughtful, constructive, entertaining... I bet people who imagine they would like and those who imagine they would dislike this church will now feel the need to go and see for themselves. You "preconception shatterer," you :)