Being neither Australian nor of the Pentecostal persuasion I had never heard of Hillsong, not the Sydney, New South Wales-based house of prayer (Hillsong Church) nor its training center just down the road (Hillsong International Leadership College) nor its record label (Hillsong Music Australia) nor any one of the bands produced by said label (Hillsong Kids, Hillsong Young & Free, Hillsong Chapel, Hillsong United, and Hillsong Worship, that last one formerly known as Hillsong Live between 1992 and 2014 and plain old Hillsong before that). Fair enough. Like I say, I’m not Australian or Pentecostal. And I’m also not one to attend any of the worldwide places of worship in which some 50 million people sing Hillsong’s songs every Sunday, songs taken from a prolific outpouring of recordings with such non-secular titles as “Stone’s Been Rolled Away,” “God is in the House,” “Touching Heaven Changing Earth,” and “Faith + Hope + Love.” But as an avid filmgoer I would’ve thought I’d have stumbled across one of their many movies—mostly live concert performances—at least. 2014’s Hillsong Live: Cornerstone, for example, or Hillsong United: Live in Miami (2012), or Hillsong: I Heart Revolution (from 2008). Nope. Never heard of them either. So when I first spotted Hillsong: Let Hope Rise adorning the marquee at the AMC Neshaminy 24 in suburban Philadelphia I simply had to check it out. What is—or who are—Hillsong when they’re at home? The answer was right there on Fandango had I only bothered to look. “Every Sunday, 50 million people sing their songs around the world. Hillsong: Let Hope Rise brings the music to life in a theatrical worship experience.” So, for one hundred and three PG-rated minutes I worshipped at the altar of Hillsong. And not even reluctantly so, but with openness and tolerance in my heart. Given the ecumenical clout the Hillsong brand brings to the table I wasn’t surprised to find this so-called “theatrical worship experience” to be both slickly produced and rather fervent. One’s enjoyment of the actual content will depend a lot on one’s enthusiasm for “Christian music,” of which there is rather a lot. But the talking heads, which articulate Hillsong’s “humble beginnings” through “astonishing rise to prominence” as an international phenomenon, warrant attention for their earnestness alone, whether you’re a believer or a naysayer or somewhere in between. My wife, who would appear to be less swayed by shameless marketing practices, tried to talk me out of going, saying she attended an “outdoor Christian Californian church service” once and the music was “extra coat crumble” (she actually said “execrable” but her phone didn’t recognize the word for some reason). She was right of course—she almost always is—but the Power of Christ compelled me. Speaking of which, I suspect I would’ve had more fun at one of those exorcism things.
(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth