Hillsong Church, Relevance & Pariahs

on October 18, 2014

There’s a good piece by Andrew Walker in First Things on a popular international church network called Hillsong’s apparent equivocation on marriage. At a recent New York press conference, the ministry’s leader, Brian Houston, declined to answer whether the ministry affirms the biblical position. Instead, he stresses the church’s need to stay “relevant.”

Earlier this year the pastor of Hillsong’s New York’s congregation, the ultra hip Carl Lentz, shared similar views with CNN. His wife added: “It’s not our place to tell anyone how they should live. That’s their journey.”

Hmmm. If it’s not the church’s place to tell anyone how to live, then what is the church’s purpose? Entertainment? Affirmation? Socialization? And if it’s not the church’s role to counsel how to live, then who or what should? Perhaps it’s the central message of our age that each autonomous individual chooses his/her own path without reference to others.

But of course, absent transcendent authority, individuals, no matter how independent, hearken to temporal influences in their life choices, often the passing fads of their culture and age. Typically transient fads are not helpful, reliable guideposts for life fulfillment. So most of humanity does and has looked to religion, at least at times, for more permanent guidance.

All religion, even its most permissive forms, aims on some level to tell its adherents how to live. Otherwise it has no purpose. Certainly Hillsong preachers must fill their sermons with admonitions. A sermon from Lentz in 2013 spoke of complete surrender to Christ: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” He added: “When you take a bite of me, when you really follow me, everything in me goes in you—you can’t pick and choose.”

Indeed, but the more recent Hillsong comments imply there can be some picking and choosing, at least on sexual ethics. Perhaps the Hillsong preachers still privately adhere to Christian teaching on marriage but don’t want to risk public controversy. At his New York press conference, Pastor Houston explained:

“And to me, the world we live in, whether we like it or not is changing around and about us. Homosexual marriage is legal in [New York City] and will be probably in most Western world countries within a short time. So the world’s changing and we want to stay relevant as a church. So that’s a vexing thing. You think, ‘How do we not become a pariah?’ So that’s the world we live in.”

The challenge is that the Cornerstone, Founder and Lord of the Church was crucified as the ultimate despised pariah, and He warned that His followers would often be pariahs. Yet somehow this collection of pariahs, across the centuries, in every culture, preaching the Gospel of an executed but risen pariah, has made His message the most “relevant” message of all time, everywhere.

The Gospel is simultaneously reviled, resisted, acclaimed, and revered. Millions hate it, and millions would also give their lives for it and its hated Preacher. It not only tells people how to live, it tells them to walk a very narrow path, often strewn with sorrows, but also crowned by glory, in this world, and in the world to come.

Among the Gospel’s central themes is that true relevance, the kind the world actually respects, risks not only contempt but also life itself. In Christ’s words: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for My sake shall find it.”

  1. Comment by Methodist in My Madness on October 18, 2014 at 9:06 am

    Thanks, Mark, for a clarifying word on ecclesiology. The Gospel IS relevant; we need not attempt to make it so,

  2. Comment by faithmcdonnell on October 18, 2014 at 11:46 am

    Great article, Mark. This is extremely disappointing.

  3. Comment by Noel Weymouth on October 18, 2014 at 5:25 pm

    This was inevitable. When you put such a focus on music in the church, you’re going to attract gays and lesbians who love to perform, and over time it becomes an “open secret” that Jack or Cathy or whoever is homosexual and the pastor knows and everyone just sort of accepts it, so you end up with a church that’s home to a lot of hypocrites who are either gay or accepting of gays, no different from the Episcopalians down the street except that the Episcopalians admit they are pro-gay and don’t regard homosexuality as a sin. So music may be the magnet that draws seekers, but it also draws the frustrated singers and actors who figure, “what the heck, it’s a place where people can see me perform, I don’t get into all this religion stuff, but hey, people are watching me, and that’s what important.” By turning Sunday worship into Rock Show, the churches brought this on themselves.

  4. Comment by JohnnyLaird on October 18, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    “When you put such a focus on music in the church, you’re going to attract gays and lesbians who love to perform”…did I just stumble into The Onion

  5. Comment by JohnnyLaird on October 18, 2014 at 6:03 pm

    “When you put such a focus on music in the church, you’re going to attract gays and lesbians who love to perform”…did I just stumble into The Onion?

  6. Comment by Noel Weymouth on October 21, 2014 at 10:26 am

    So you think it’s “satire” to state there are lot of gays in the performing arts?

    Where I come from, people who state facts are not called “satirists.”

  7. Comment by MarcoPolo on October 22, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    There should be NO distinction whether the musical talent is straight OR gay, so why even make a comment that suggests that music in churches should be one, but excluding the other?
    And you still haven’t responded to my earlier query… see below, dated a day ago.
    I know you said it’s not fear!

  8. Comment by Ken M on October 19, 2014 at 6:17 pm

    On my Facebook Friend list I have at least 2 college classmates who are lesbians, and one (probably) gay guy classmate, all 3 are active in their churches’ music programs, and I don’t know when they got religion, they sure didn’t have it in our college days. I fear that the fact that a lot of “evangelical” churches have grown is somewhat illusory, because these churches are not so conservative when it comes to teaching Christians who to live biblically in our sexed-up culture. If we were honest we’d admit that a lot of “evangelical” churches have just done a better job of using music and feel-good sermons to create a more emotionally exciting experience than the mainlines have done. So the mainlines continue to decline (as they should, since God isn’t there), but the “evangelicals” are not so spiritually healthy either.

  9. Comment by MarcoPolo on October 21, 2014 at 9:46 am

    Dear Noel Weymouth,

    I thought it was a Methodist virtue to “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord”?

    I trust, you’re not suggesting that Gays and Lesbians aren’t welcome in our churches?
    I have several relatives who lead the Music departments in their respective (Evangelical) churches, and I will now ask them what percentage of homosexuals make up their choir and instrumental sections. ( I personally don’t care! ).

    I know they aren’t performing Broadway Show tunes, but it seems by your comment that the entire Musical aspect of Sunday worship service has gone to “the other side”.

    I know from my musician friends (Gay AND Straight), that music is as vital to one’s physical/mental/spiritual well being as the message from the pulpit. So why such fear?

  10. Comment by Noel Weymouth on October 21, 2014 at 10:25 am

    One thing is utterly predictable: Any post by a liberal will accuse conservatives of “fear.” Anyone whose opinions differ from yours is full of “fear.”

    Not even remotely true.

  11. Comment by MarcoPolo on October 21, 2014 at 11:06 am

    Then what is it that you are concerned about that sounds like fear, but isn’t fear?

  12. Comment by Brent R. Orrell on October 24, 2014 at 10:27 pm

    How will people learn about Jesus if they are left with the impression that their sin – what they see as their defining characteristic – is an irredeemable sin? We say the culture is obsessed with sex and then we obsess right along with it. I think Hillsong is trying to open its doors and create the opportunity for sinners, including those in the grip of sexual sin (heterosexual or otherwise) to meet Jesus Christ who is more than able to persuade a human heart. Not every compromise on language represents a compromise on principle. Perhaps we could extend the benefit of the doubt here.

  13. Comment by Shane on October 27, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    Brian Houston has released a statement clarifying his position on homosexuality. It can be read in its entirety here, http://hillsong.com/media/statement-re-recent-media-comments-on-homosexuality

    In part, it reads:

    “Nowhere in my answer did I diminish biblical truth or suggest that I or Hillsong Church supported gay marriage. I challenge people to read what I actually said, rather than what was reported that I said. My personal view on the subject of homosexuality would line up with most traditionally held Christian views. I believe the writings of Paul are clear on this subject.”

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