Because They Can: Hillsong and Social Transformation

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Historically, Pentecostals have been forthrightly resistant to what they have seen as the ‘liberal’ representation of the Gospel message as fundamentally a narrative of social justice. They looked for the ultimate restitution of the world at the end of time rather than its ongoing transformation. The mercy they sought was soteriological in orientation, the hope eschatological. For all kinds of reasons, economic, political and pragmatic as well as theological, the progressive wing of Pentecostalism has in the last two decades moved towards a much more engaged perspective on the world, and this transition is certainly evident in the life and ministry of Hillsong. Furthermore, the church’s thirty years in the public eye means that the evolution of its social engagement projects and ministries can be tracked empirically and their present impact upon the life and culture of the church evaluated. This chapter will evaluate that activity and explore its theological significance for the church and Christianity more broadly.

Hillsong’s perspectives on social transformation are expressed in a variety of contexts. The church’s present activities (and its investment of human, financial and social and other capital into sustaining and developing its projects) are clear indications of its priorities and invite careful analysis and reflection. Its organisational structure speaks to its conceptualisation of social transformation ministries, and the processes by which the relevant departments are held accountable to senior leadership are indicative of the centrality (or otherwise) of their role in the life of the church. But how the church interprets and motivates its work is also key, and Hillsong engages with a variety of forms of public discourse which serve to offer theological underpinnings for its actions and its views. These include the church’s preaching (particularly that of its senior team), publications, blog postings, newsletters, publicity and website materials; its promotion of, and alliances with, varieties of social justice ministries (and, in some contexts, its conspicuous disengagement from spheres of service or agencies); the curriculum of its college and various training programmes; and the frameworks through which it presents its activity in annual reports and evaluations. No study of any aspect of Hillsong’s life and significance, however, can fail to take account of its music, and Hillsong’s lyrics have often reflected a sense of mission and purpose and a comprehensive understanding of the traditional Pentecostal model of spiritual empowerment for service to the world, as well sometimes as a recognition of the need for the transformation of society.

This chapter will therefore draw on this variety of source material to offer critical insight into some of the core theological narratives, explicit and more implicit, which underpin the movement’s engagement with society. The management of such messaging also offers significant insight into the culture of the church, and its core content also speaks to its ecclesiology and self-identification, but the crucial connection between action and theological motivation will be central to the analysis here.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Hillsong Movement Examined
Subtitle of host publicationYou Call Me Out Upon the Waters
EditorsTanya Riches, Tom Wagner
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
ISBN (Electronic)9783319596563
ISBN (Print)9783319596563
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2017

Publication series

PublisherPalgrave Macmillan


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