"A vehicle by which to introduce non-Hillsongers (Hillsingers?) to the church's rampant aberrance" or reasonably riveting viewing? Author Jaime Lee Rake uses this movie release to delve deep into the questionable side of a "worldwide worship" phenomenon and arrives at some incisive conclusions.

Hillsong: Let Hope Rise


(Disclaimer: I saw this movie while coming down with a brief bout of influenza, highlighted by one of my worst headaches in recent memory and gastrointestinal trouble the likes of which you should be glad to be spared. I doubt better health would have altered my impression of the film, but I believe my physical condition bears noting vis a vis the review to follow)

Go figure that the first among a litany of prevarications and deceptive impressions given by Hillsong: Let Hope Rise occurs from its first frame.

Before we see any members of Hillsong United, the 12-member (!) band associated with the franchised Australian, ahem, "church" responsible for so much praise & worship sung by evangelical churches nowadays, much less its pastorate, the viewer sees an encouragement to participate along with the movie because it's intended to be a "cinematic worship experience."

It might be easier to follow that directive were what's roughly the apex of this documentary, a United concert at The Forum near Los Angeles, featured more fully than five of the flick's 13 songs in full, and the rest presented in snippet form. One of those eight, "Mighty To Save," is heard as a series of snippets, in that it's presented line-by-line sung in various languages from people the world over; the organization and its music has had that wide an impact. Inspiring as that may be if one buys what Hillsong is selling, it's not all that conducive to singing along.

Still, we're talking about Hillsong, the multi-continent movement of congregations so pervasive in its influence and that there's at least one website solely dedicated to its promulgation of, to put it generously, hererodoxy (https://HillsongChurchWatch.com/). The doctrinally dubious and theologically suspect pastorate of Brian Houston and Hillsong's predatory practices that decimate congregations that seek to be biblically faithful have already made actual Christianity an especially endangered faith on their native continent. And however tuneful the praise & worship songs emanating from United and Hillsong's other musical entities - and one of them is fetching enough to have topped music trade magazine Billboard's chart for top Christian radio airplay songs for a few weeks shy of a year - they are nonetheless a vehicle by which to introduce non-Hillsongers (Hillsingers?) to the church's rampant aberrance. Hey, if they're responsible for such catchy, heartwarming ditties, the church itself must be OK, right?
Wrong,But it's not like this puff piece is going to dwell on how its subject leads sheep astray and creates false converts. Were it not for Hillsong's bastardization of the faith existing as subtext to every frame of Let Hope Rise, it would be easy to see the movie as an engaging doc' about a band's rise to popularity and creative process, loosely framed by the professional ascent of their mentors.

That Hillsong United is led by Brian and wife Bobbie Houston's son, Joel, says something about the sort of mentoring the band receives. Considering the depths of bad teaching their parent organization promulgates, it's a bit surprising the band's songs aren't more wishy-washy than they are. Brian admits to submitting his lyrics to others at his church to meet theological scrutiny. Then, too, in one of the scenes surrounding the recording of his band's first studio album in L.A., to the side of his lyrics notebook is a copy of a book by late Netherlander papist mystic Henri Nouwen.

One could be generous to the young Houston and assume he's merely investigating false teaching to be apprised of it. Considering the breadth of foolishness Hillsong nurtures, though, it might be at least as fair to speculate that Brian's 'rents and many of the strange fire bringers sharing the platform at Hillsong's multiple locations are into Nouwen's ecumenical contemplative practices and encouraged for the seemingly serious young Houston to check out. This is one of two moments where the distressingly questionable nature of Hillsong, and presumably the band spreading its brand, are outed.

The other comes about almost innocently, as Brian and Bobbie visit the small building in Sydney where their empire originated in 1983. In what's now an unassuming library, Bobbie notes a rose in the flooring and declares that she found "the stage!" Even if the space was used for theatrical purposes apart from its use for the Houstons' congregation, how telling is it that she didn't instead say that she found...the platform? The salacious, 1920s-styled flappers-in-a-speakeasy rendition of "Silent Night" at Hillsong's London location last Christmas season and the appearance of Times Square's infamously nearly unclad Naked Cowboy at a recent New York City Hillsong women's conference confirm Bobbie's Freudian slip that, alas, entertainment value reigns among the metrics the church cherishes.

If an admission, however backhanded, to that kind of asininity wasn't necessarily unexpected, Brian's confession of his late pastor father's history of pedophilic sexual abuse was a bit of a surprise. Not all that well covered in the U.S. evangelical press, the scandal-and the son's previous covering it up-merited headlines aplenty elsewhere. Somewhat muting the effect of Brian's confession is how it's intercut with the story of the surgery one United member's baby had to undergo in order to correct a birth defect. The combined effect of coalescing the two episodes was likely meant to show that, yeah, multi-campus mega-church life isn't all fun and games. This is also likely the subject matter that bumped Let Hope Rise up from a G to PG rating.

It's still easy to get involved in the stories of United members' lives. One of them comments on the weirdness of how their neighbors know he's in a touring church band whose concerts are attended by sometimes tens of thousands of rapt fans/worshipers at a time. A United member with a growing family remarks on how he'd like to afford a house for his brood, but, regardless sales of over 16,000,000 for the act's albums and the royalties accrued from worldwide radio play and congregational performance licensing, apartment dwelling is their lot for the time being; band members are still considered Hillsong employees and don't share commensurately in the windfalls brought in by their music's success.

United's Taya Smith receives special attention for a compelling back story and her hand in the combo's biggest hit so far. She discovered Hillsong's Sydney location when she was down on her fortunes and looking for solace. Talent and meekness brought her into United's fold and, eventually, singing lead on "Oceans (Where Feet May Fall)." That aforementioned 47-week chart topper became such a smash doubtless due to Smith's vulnerable vocals, an ingenious convergence of melody and arrangement and, probably to be generous, poetic articulation of the doctrine of the Lord's perseverance of those He saves. Smith sounds humble about its success and the effect listeners have told her it has had on their lives. And not to stereotype white Aussie women, but Smith also bears a more than a bit of physical resemblance to '90s-'00s CCM darling Rebecca St. James.   

Humility, affecting lyricism, and a Coldplay-esque soundtrack by its best-known ambassadors, however, can't compensate for the erroneous permutation of Christianity promulgated by Hillsong. As a story of people involved in a unique alignment of artistry and spirituality, however removed from scripture, Let Hope Rise makes for reasonably riveting viewing. Those seeking a more complete overview of what the church and band represent are advised to do more research.

Jamie Lee Rake


Further Reading:

"How Hillsong and Brian Houston Are Destroying Christianity" http://pulpitandpen.org/2016/07/05/how-hillsong-and-brian-houston-are-destroying-christianity/
"What Did Henri Nouwen Really Believe?" http://www.lighthousetrailsresearch.com/nouwen.htm