Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Reflections on visiting Hillsong

OK, so this blogpost is very overdue. I've been meaning to write a post about an experience I had in the summer and have not got around to it before now.

While on holiday in the summer I found myself in London on a Sunday. I was faced with the usual question of a Sunday: do I go to church? Do I just ignore the fact that it's Sunday and get on with the day? Or do I seek out a Unitarian church? Or some other church. Anglican? Quaker? Maybe a nice cathedral.

What I decided to do was find the biggest, Evangelical megachurch I could and go along. I did a quick bit of research and decided to go to Hillsong. I thought to myself if they're very successful there are always things to learn. Plus I'm just really fascinated, in a religious studies sort of way, with this kind of thing.

The church meets in one of London's West End theatres and so it was very easy to find coming straight out of the tube and finding it in front of me. It's worth reflecting when we obsess so much about buildings that this church was extremely successful by just renting space.

I was warmly welcomed as I went through the doors, in fact I was given a high-five. The people right there at the door were enthusiastic and joyful and it really showed the culture right there from the first second of the experience.

There was a free cloakroom! Which was absolutely wonderful for me as I was carrying a large heavy bag and felt much better not having to barge my way past people with it. So after depositing the bag I went into the large theatre space and took up a seat about halfway into the space. At that point I think they were encouraging people to fill up the bottom floor (stalls) before letting people go to the next level. I looked around at the people there. They were largely young (I don't think I saw anyone over 50, certainly no one over 70) and the crowd was pretty multicultural. In short, it looked like London. The people in the church were exactly the same kind of people I would see in the streets. I'm not very good at estimating crowds but my best guess would be that there were about 500 people there.

Things got going. The one word I would use to describe the worship experience was LOUD. Like, really really loud. So loud many people would no doubt find the experience unpleasant. The service continued much as I expected it to: beginning with a long period of singing five or so songs; then various bits of talking, prayers, a long sermon, an altar call.

Of course I didn't know any of the songs, but I did my best to sing along, if I didn't object to the words too much. The weird thing was, the music was so loud I couldn't actually tell if the congregation were singing or not. I could hear the guitars and drums and voices of singers on stage, but the sound system was so loud I couldn't hear the congregation. Although in a way this was strange, in other ways I enjoyed the fact that I could not sing some words and no one would notice, or if you felt you were a bad singer, you could not sing and no one would notice. People were joining in in other ways. They were raising hands and all that jazz. The people right at the front seemed to be making a bit of a "mosh pit" going a bit crazy on the front row. Some people were even getting their phones out and taking pictures! That for me felt very weird "in church" but this didn't feel like "in church" in a way. It felt quite a lot like a concert.

Also one unforgivable sin - there was a grammatical mistake on one of the song words on the screen!

The (intercessory) prayer bit I found a bit strange. They had obviously collected prayers from prayer slips or via email before the service, and so on the screen appeared some short sentences for what people were praying for: "my son's GCSE results", "my brother's addiction problems" etc. Fine. I see nothing wrong with that, it's a pretty good way to do that in a large church. But I wanted to sit quietly, and read and honour those prayers as they appeared on the screen. But I found I couldn't really do that because the leaders were yacking on and on about prayer. This was definitely the thing I noticed: I couldn't tell when we had stopped talking about prayer and started praying. It all felt a bit of a jumble to me as the leaders spoke fast and loudly and I felt like saying, "can you please shut up so I can actually pray and honour those joys and concerns that are being displayed on the screen?"

There were no women's voices in the service. I counted four men who contributed but no women. But I might be being unfair in making this comment as it's quite easy that you could come to my church and not hear any women's voices on a Sunday too.

There was very little I could object to in the intellectual content of the service. In the prayer bit there was a theology that God did literally answer prayers. The sermon itself was not particularly conservative at all, nor was it particularly impressive. The basic gist of it was that we have things to do in the world to change it for the better. The preacher spoke about Martin Luther King and various other examples. In some ways it wouldn't have been completely out of place in a Unitarian church. Apart from an aside dig at evolution it wasn't a particularly fundamentalist or conservative Evangelical message.

The young woman beside did play with her phone through a lot of the sermon though, which again I felt a bit shocked by. But then again it was a relaxed atmosphere so you felt no one was watching you. I felt perfectly comfortable reaching into my bag and taking a swig out of a bottle of water, which I might not have done in a different church.

The service ended with an "altar call" of a kind. But they didn't ask anyone to come to the front if they wanted to "give themselves to Jesus" but just to raise their hand. Everyone was standing at this point and my head was bowed so I didn't see if anyone did, or how many.

The service ended and people filed out happily. There was no social time at all from what I could see. No tea or coffee, just spilling out again onto the streets of London. It occurs to me if you had a friend in the congregation you would have to send them a text message to arrange a place to meet them afterwards. You would easily miss them otherwise.

So what do I conclude from this experience? Well I'm very glad I went, and I found it an interesting and somewhat enjoyable experience. In general everything was done well and things were organised and professional. It was a place that was very easy to be anonymous, which is exactly what I wanted that morning. I wanted to slide in, experience something, then slide out without anyone noticing me, and that's pretty much what happened. But it's very tough to build community that way. Clearly they did have a small group ministry programme that they were promoting, but still I felt you could go to a church like that for months without really making any real connections if you were a shy person. These are all the predictable problems of very large churches.

What can someone like me in a little old Unitarian church learn from such a place? Well I think a culture of joy and enthusiasm has much to commend it. As well as being functional outside a building. But ultimately I think the effectiveness of mega-churches is limited, especially outside of large urban areas.

My main criticism though would be the simple impression that it didn't feel like worship for me. Don't get me wrong, I don't object to clapping, loud joyful music etc. But something about the experience did not click for me. In the end there was just too much going on for me to find God. I need a more spacious feel to find God. Places of depth and wonder. For me the loud music drowned out that. And without that, I'm not sure the rest matters so much.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Stephen for this fascinating article. It turns out that mega-churches are not all of the conservative evangelical-charismatic variety. It was noisy too, just like our mainstream culture nowadays. Many of us feel an overload of sensory impressions, communications, a constant stream of pop music, advertising and 'media'. Have you noticed how the TV producers turn up the volume when the adverts come on, to get our attention? Some young people can find a form of transcendence by immersing themselves in a nightclub atmosphere, the psychological overlap with a full-on church experience is attractive to many. I remember the Nine O'clock Service here in Sheffield before it went wrong, was able to provide a familiarity for young people.

To find the sacred by filling up the mind and crowding out the self-centred ego.
To find the sacred by emptying the mind and listening to what is beyond the self.

Which works best for us? We can choose a religion which specialises in one or the other, or a religion with freedom to practice a bit of both as our intuition leads us. I'm not really surprised that the louder, more expressive places of worship are fuller than the quiet, contemplative sort but there will always be room for both. Especially in a society like ours which values the extrovert above the introvert.

Naturally we can't generalise from one example, but it is apparent that churches have much to learn from each other. And even if this style of religion isn't my cup of tea, visiting is a way to respect others and understand their lives. We both share a common root in Protestant Christianity after all. The anonymity is an interesting point too. Is there perhaps a connection with the popularity of cathedrals, which I also like to visit in an anonymous way.

All the best, Nick.

9:23 pm  

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