Is Hillsong Church a Society of Spectacle?
In 1967 French Marxist theorist and writer Guy Debord published The Society of Spectacle, a work which resonates more clearly now than ever before. In this text Debord describes a society driven purely by image and representation. The true nature of reality has been distorted by this image driven society where representation replaces genuine interaction and experience.
This phenomena can be observed in all levels of society from politics, to business, to entertainment. To compete with these institutions some religions have transformed themselves into a modern day spectacle fighting for our attention. Enter Hillsong. A Pentecostal megachurch located in Sydney that is now a worldwide spiritual superpower. Founded in 1983 by Frank Houston and now led by his son Brian Houston, Hillsong continues to redefine contemporary Christianity and provides a wealth of examples to explore the society of spectacle in a religious setting.
Hillsong has created a label for its music under the banner ‘Hillsong United’ and has released over 40 albums and sold more than 11 million copies worldwide. Marion Maddox states in her article Rise Up Princess Warriors that it doesn’t stop there, that the church continues to delve into the consumer market by offering goods and services such as DVDs, books, podcasts and televised services that are available in over 180 countries. John Connell, a University of Sydney professor specialising in social development, argues that such evangelical churches as this espouse a ‘privatisation of religion’. Clearly Jesus isn’t marketable enough when contained in the pages between Matthew and Revelations.
Wade and Hynes in their article Worshipping Bodies state that “For Hillsong, the ultimate products on offer (meaning and salvation) are themselves immaterial in nature. The challenge, then, is to attach these products to the immateriality of the Hillsong brand”
This is in turn is what leads to the society of spectacle that is visible in most mainstream franchise Pentecostalist church around the globe. The modern church setting is no longer a cold and dark space, instead it closely resembles a business or conference centre with a modern minimalist design and feel. The services follow a highly structured routine that begins with praise and worship songs played by the Hillsong band live with lyrics projected onto screens near the stage so everyone can join in. These songs are a complete turnaround from old style hymns and chants and instead could be classified as the pop/rock genre. The songs are simple, catchy and are accompanied by guitar and synth solos. The music is styled as such because as McIntyre states in her article Brand of Choice “At Hillsong, God is experienced through music and it is the medium through which one connects with God and the congregation”. There are lights, fog machines, artworks and stage props that wouldn’t look out of place at a music festival. The messages often feature as Maddox states “prominent references to personal self-transformation, motivation, self-belief, and prosperity” with only a small slathering of Bible verses to supplement. The message almost sound like a self-help seminar instead of regular teaching from the Bible.
These services as Wade and Hynes argue “rival in sensory stimulation any other contemporary form of entertainment”. Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously stated that the “medium is the message” and the message in this sense is thus… A spectacle is required to keep believers in attendance. The traditional service has become “experience orientated” Michelle McIntyre claims. In an effort to represent Christianity on modern terms, megachurches must now contend in the public sphere for the attention and loyalty of ‘consumers’, and consequently have to make church entertaining. The traditional meaning of church has been replaced with a new representation, one that emphasises the spectacle. Hillsong Church has spread around the globe and has ‘franchises’ in Los Angeles, Madrid, Berlin, Johannesburg, Singapore and even India. Tim Foster states that this can be called religious imperialism.
So why a pop culture Christianity?
If people are drawn to entertainment than clearly Hillsong is the most entertaining and accessible institution within the sphere of Christianity. Hillsong projects an image of a faith that is modern, creative, fun and unrestricted that makes it highly attractive to potential adherents. Church goers today do not want traditional hymns and a bible based message. They want loud rock style music with, concert style lighting and stage setting with a motivational speaker who preaches about the health and wealth gospel. The goal for the church may be genuine with a desire to see people come to Christ or much less meek and mild like turning over $100 million dollars a year whilst retaining a tax free status.
Nevertheless it is clear that Hillsong can be defined as a society of spectacle.
This piece is written by John Hundley ☺️