Tens of thousands of people packed into a venue illuminated by fluorescent lights and energised by music that vibrates through your entire being – the annual Hillsong Conference has at times been called a rock concert and even a religious Coachella.
The conference website describes the experience as: “Fabulous speakers, guests and artists will bring their finest, and our own Hillsong global team will give all to create a perfect environment for God’s Spirit to move. Innovation, inspiration, worship and creativity will collide to exalt His Name and advance His Kingdom. Hillsong Conference is for all ages – a conference devoted to the cause of local churches everywhere with something for pastors, leaders, youth, children and everyday people from every walk of life.”
It’s a formula that has garnered the Sydney church exponential growth that now sees its “campuses” around the world boast a combined membership that numbers in the hundreds of thousands.
Yet despite the polarising opinion for and against the megachurch that is Hillsong (and we’re in no doubt that the response to Others running this article will be wide and varied), people around the globe have flocked to its annual conference for the past 31 years – and that includes Salvationists.
This year, more than 50 Salvos from across Australia travelled to Sydney’s Qudos Bank Arena to engage in a week of ministry, worship and spiritual refreshment. The combined attendance this year is reported to have exceeded 30,000.
So, why do Salvos attend the conference? The denominational differences between Hillsong, which is aligned with the overtly Pentecostal Australian Christian Churches (previously Assemblies of God), and The Salvation Army, with its Wesleyan tradition, are distinct.
But there are those who believe that despite these differences, you only have to dig a little deeper to find similarities that knit the denominations together. They would argue that Hillsong’s expression of a spirit-filled Church is similar to The Salvation Army that William and Catherine Booth founded, and its community-care arm bears resemblance to our social initiatives.
Hillsong Senior Pastor Brian Houston was raised in The Salvation Army, and spoke of his high regard for its work from the platform at this year’s conference. And it appears it’s a mutual appreciation – Salvos from corps across Australia (some from as far as Perth in Western Australia) made the trip to Sydney for the 2017 conference.
Newcastle Corps, from the Hunter region of NSW, had a delegation that was among the largest group registrations, with Houston promising the corps a bundle of free registrations for next year’s conference as a way of thanking them for their support.
Others spoke to some of this year’s Salvo delegates, including a number of officers, to find out why they come to Hillsong conference, what they believe is has to offer the Army, and also what they think Hillsong can learn from us.
MAJORS LYNDON AND BELINDA SPICER - AREA OFFICERS AND TEAM LEADERS, LIVERPOOL, NSW
“We’ve been to Hillsong 25 times and came because it was about leadership. We wanted to expose our kids to it, which has been phenomenal. They still come, and our grandchildren are here too. They’re only little, but we see that as pivotal in sowing into their lives.
“Psalm 133 says, ‘How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity,’ so it’s also about coming together. We can become very insular or denomination-centric, so when we come here we just see ourselves as part of the Kingdom of God, and that’s something that’s really impacted us, our teaching and the way that we operate as Salvation Army officers.
“One of the things Hillsong has learnt from the Salvos is Christianity at work in the everyday of helping people. Through Hillsong CityCare, they visit prisons, have a drug and alcohol service, and have the social network that should never have been separated from the church in the first place. It’s not just about preaching the Gospel, it’s also about hands to man.
“On the flip side, one thing we’ve been able to learn from Hillsong as Salvation Army officers is the power of raising up a team and empowering people. It’s good for us to step outside the shield to see what’s happening out there, and partner with other churches as we build the kingdom together.”
CAITLIN FREEMAN - BRISBANE CITY TEMPLE, QLD
“This is my first time at Hillsong, and I came to listen to the speakers and gain some more knowledge on how I can stay strong in my walk with God. It’s interesting to see the different ways that people here worship compared to the Army. I know especially at my corps there’s not a lot of handraising in worship, so I think it’s good to get a modern take on the hymns and what’s written in the Bible. “This experience has made me more comfortable with worshipping in front of people – I think I can take that back to church and do it however I want. Young and Free (youth program) has been really good and I think that praising Jesus is the same in all different denominations of Christianity. Hillsong just does it in a different way that appeals to a younger generation.”
LIEUTENANT-COLONELS NEIL AND LISA VENABLES - NATIONAL SECRETARY FOR COMMUNICATIONS; PASTORAL CARE OFFICER, AUSTRALIA SOUTHERN TERRITORY PASTORAL CARE DEPARTMENT
“This is our second time at Hillsong Conference. We don’t really focus too much on the doctrinal differences but take from the conference that which is relevant to us. Attending the conference has enabled us to have a preaching and teaching smorgasbord! Some of what we have heard has been new and helpful, and other things have not resonated with us and that’s okay. “One of the masterclasses we did was ‘Hillsong Under the Hood’, which we found very helpful. It’s really quite basic stuff, but things we could do a lot better than we are now, such as connecting people in well. On the whole, we enjoyed our time at the Hillsong Conference. We were intentional about what we attended and used the opportunity to ponder and reflect. It’s not something we would attend every year, but we would probably go again.”
DR WENDY BURTON - CARINDALE CORPS, QLD
“I have been attending Hillsong Conference for 14 years. The reason I come, is each year I make the time to set aside that I seek and know the face of God. And even though sometimes in the lead-up to it I think, ‘Really, am I doing this again?’, I sit under the teaching and I get a fresh revelation, and it renews my passion. I’ve had the call of God drop on me in these sessions. It doesn’t draw me away from The Salvation Army; it just reminds me of what God has for me.”