My husband and I attended Hillsong college and Church in Sydney, Australia for three years. Needless to say, my time there left me needing much healing in my spirit. Here is my honest and genuine experience with Hillsong United, Hillsong College and Hillsong Church.
I’ll start from the beginning.
I remember the first time I heard Hillsong worship music, specifically Hillsong United. I heard it at my friend’s house, recent immigrants from Kenya. As a black Christian household, naturally I expected to hear black gospel music, so hearing it being played through their computer speakers shocked me.
My friends went on about how great Hillsong worship music was and I didn’t think twice about it. I considered the music “white Christian music” and wanted nothing to do with it.
At the age of 15 I joined a local church youth group. While there, I was invited to audition for the worship team. I had to learn music for my audition and the music I was given by the youth pastor to learn was by Hillsong United.
I spent hours working on three songs by Hillsong United. My audition did not go well, however what happened was even greater than succeeding at my audition.
I had a spiritual encounter with Jesus through Hillsong United’s music. I couldn’t stop listening to it. I learned a lot about the nature of Jesus and His love for me through this music.
I branched out into listening to other styles of worship music but Hillsong’s music always stuck with me.
At age 17, I attended my first Hillsong Conference with my youth group, and the experience was awesome! It was thousands of Christians crying out to God! The team, led by Joel Houston, spoke sermons about loving on others the way Jesus did. There were Q&A sessions with the worship team and at one point I had the opportunity to have a quick chat with Phil Dooley, who was the youth pastor at the time. He was so kind!
After that experience, I didn’t anticipate a desire to attend Hillsong College or Church in Sydney. I didn’t exactly see Hillsong as “my leaders”.
It wasn’t until after I got married four years later that I considered attending Hillsong College with my husband. I wanted to do their Film Studies program and my husband wanted to do their Worship program.
After arriving at Hillsong College in 2014, I learned quickly of a very competitive and proud spirit within the community. It was quite shocking. There was a clear hierarchy within the College and the Church. Students did everything to get the attention of those at the top of the hierarchy.
As a student, I attended classes on faith in Jesus Christ, theology and my specific department, film. The workload was that of the average college/university. However alongside this, we were also required to serve a specific number of hours within the Hillsong Church, College and at all Hillsong Conferences. It was very difficult to do while also having to work part-time as well to pay for our expensive stay in Sydney, Australia. Serving was an exhausting task to participate in alongside the college workload and a part-time job. But it was a requirement.
What was shocking was the expectations of serving at Hillsong Conferences. An experience I would unfortunately say was equivalent to slave labor.
A week before Hillsong Conferences, students had to take courses on how to essentially survive serving at a Hillsong Conference. We were told about the reality of having to serve for ridiculous hours, many from 7am till midnight for the length of the conference (typically four days).
We were taught how to take care of our bodies while putting it through the strain of long work hour; how to work with clashing personalities on our teams, and how to be submissive to authority figures. We were told how to act should we be working backstage and pass by someone at the top of the hierarchy, such as one of the lead pastors, guest speakers or celebrity guests (Justin Bieber has been on this list).
Serving at Hillsong Conferences was always fun at the start. There was this feeling of being a part of something greater than myself. Everyone was bright eyed and hopeful of a great experience. But as the days went by and energy levels depleted, it was a borderline abusive environment.
Many in authority would easily lose their tempers. I was victim to this by one of the lead pastors who lashed out at me for casually saying hi to a guest music artist, (who at the time was my favorite artist). This guest artist was kind but church leadership took offense to me saying a polite hello and left me in tears after lashing out at me.
I saw many of my peers that served at the conference spend time in the medical wing from burnout. It was very common for students to become ill and not complete their required time of serving (which was a requirement to pass their college courses).
My time serving at conferences was unfortunately the worst part of my experience with Hillsong College. I hope now that years have passed, a change has been made to the college requirements.
I got pregnant during my first year of college. It was a blessing in disguise because I simply couldn’t keep putting myself through the unrealistic expectations of the required course load. My husband continued on with his second year of college and we continued to attend Hillsong Church.
My husband made it clear to me as time went on, that he was drained by the hierarchy within the worship course at Hillsong College. He explained that those who were suck ups to those in leadership were prioritized for time onstage.
One of the requirements for his course was a number of hours spent serving on the worship team. He was however not able to complete this because priority was given to the “teacher’s pets”.
While attending Hillsong Church I knew there was the chance of passing by Hillsong United band members who I looked up to and admired since I was a teenager. In fact, many of these members had kids that were in my daughter’s Sunday School class.
When I would bump into them I would address them as I would any other member of the church; a polite and enthusiastic “Hi, how are you?”
It was awesome bumping into Phil Dooley again and reminding him of us having met years ago at the Hillsong United Conference. He didn’t remember me, but he was so excited to connect once again.
There was a very unfortunate encounter with one woman from Hillsong United however, who I truly admired as a teenager. This actually happened while I was at work at the mall. She was alone when I saw her and I greeted her as I would an old friend.
After looking at me in confusion wondering where she knew me from, I explained that she in fact did not know me personally but we attended the same church. Her response was unfortunately quite rude. She said a blunt, “I’m going to go now” and walked away like I had just wasted her time. It’s not at all what I would expect from someone who often stood on stage and spoke about displaying the love of Jesus.
In comparison, my encounter with Laura Toggs (daughter of Brian and Bobbie Houston) and her family as they walked through the mall was very different. They were so excited to be introduced to me. Even when I clarified that they in fact did not know me personally, they exclaimed how nice it was to get to know me away from the church.
During my time at Hillsong Church, I spent some time serving backstage. I led a team of cooks to feed the student choir before going onstage on Sundays. The budget for these meals were often very small and impractical for such a large group.
These students had a green room that was a simply laid-out room back stage. Not many places to sit and it would often become over crowded. We served the simplest of budget friendly meals; mac and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches were often on the menu. We didn’t have a kitchen to cook out of, but a countertop where we plugged in griddles and hot plates.
At one end of this room were large golden doors which we were not allowed to go through. They would open at times and through those doors was the most esthetically pleasing design and layout. From what I remember there was a very large table with elaborate place settings and a chandelier.
In that room were the lead pastors, staff and musicians. It was rumored that the servers cooking for this group had no limit to their budget. In fact, they had a kitchen just beside the room I cooked out of. This kitchen had everything needed to make an elaborate meal. There were times we would beg the servers of this kitchen to borrow their oven to heat up food. But I recall they were not happy to share their kitchen with us. In fact, it was rumored that they would laugh at the budget we had to feed the students.
Those that ate behind those large golden doors with young kids (who were naturally picky) would come into our section requesting our simple meals for their kids, because they didn’t like the elaborate meals being served.
These experiences I had at Hillsong were often shocking to me. I never got used to the hierarchy. They called it an “Honor System”. I would bring up the hurt I felt concerning the Hillsong culture to friends from the church and I was often ridiculed for even feeling slightly hurt. I was encouraged to look at what was wrong with myself before considering criticizing the way Hillsong did anything.
I did have an opportunity to interact with Bobbie Houston at one point at church and she was very kind to me. I had the chance to chat with other members of Hillsong United and they were very kind to me as well.
At Hillsong Colour Conferences, (for women), the female students were given the same elaborate gifts that attendees were given — it was so kind!
I suppose my conclusion concerning Hillsong is that there is a genuine desire to teach the love of God. I truly believe it started out this way. However I believe the celebrity status has blinded many of them concerning the way they treat others.
This scripture verse written from Paul to the Philippians really speaks the truth of what is happening here:
“The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice.” Philippians 1:17-18 NIV
They’ve lost sight of showing value to those at the bottom of the hierarchy. Their “Honor System” has crippled them. But I do believe Jesus has still used them to bless the lives of many.