As a twentysomething college student and worship leader, I am in constant conversation about worship: what is it, how we present it, why we practice it, and when certain styles are appropriate. I was naturally curious, then, to attend an early screening of Hillsong: Let Hope Rise, a forthcoming documentary about the phenomenally popular and influential worship band Hillsong United.
What started as a humble, Australian, junior-high rock band has escalated into a professional praise group and a worldwide witness for Christ. Their story is incredibly inspiring, yet I also wonder if it has become too easy of a model. As I walked out of the theater I said to myself, “Pastors who think all millennials want lights-and-fog worship need to see this movie.” There is something to be learned from Let Hope Rise, and it might not be what you expect.
In the mid-1990s, Hillsong Church's music became widely used in other churches. Eventually the worship band rebranded as Hillsong United and popularized the concept of a rock group as worship leaders. Yet even as the trend of rock ‘n’ roll worship was taking off, there was another style being explored by Christian singer-songwriter Matt Redman. In 1999, Redman wrote a song called “The Heart of Worship,” not long after a service in which his pastor removed the band, stage, lights, and guitars. All that was left were the voices of the congregation, the prayers of their hearts, and the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit. The heart of worship is what they found—and they found that it was all about Jesus.
Fast-forward to 2016, where these two trends in worship seem to be in competition with one another. The performance-led worship is upheld by the popularity of groups like Hillsong and Elevation Worship. However, today’s young worship leaders were only little kids in the late ’90s, and some of us feel a tension between our generation and the one before us. In my experience, many middle-aged congregants and pastors feel the need for lights-and-fog worship, while many millennials are less enthused about it.
There is something to be learned from Let Hope Rise, and it might not be what you expect.
The music of Hillsong, after all, is only one style of worship—something Hillsong: Let Hope Rise even acknowledges. In the documentary, the band members recognize how unique their experience has been, and that they sometimes struggle with the pressure of writing “new hymns for the new generation.” They are only one group belonging to a diverse heritage of Christian music that spans centuries. We should not be expected to replicate them every Sunday morning. Brian Houston, senior pastor at Hillsong Church, even says at the end of the movie: “There are millions of churches, on every street corner in the world. Find one and invest yourself in it. Be part of their worship, and watch how your life is changed.”
The more I talk to my peers, the bigger my scope of worship becomes. Many in my generation are seeking diversity and authenticity. So sometimes, worship might look like a rock band. But sometimes, it means a guitar and circle of believers who have not rehearsed at all. Sometimes it means chanting the Psalms. Sometimes it means a call-and-response prayer. Sometimes it means learning the languages of our brothers and sisters around the world and singing in communion with others. It is all pleasing to God if we are humbling ourselves in order for him to receive the glory.
My hope is that pastors and congregations allow the rising generation to have a voice in worship in a variety of ways. It is our deepest desire that the name of Christ be magnified in every act of worship, because our very living and breathing is an act of worship. We want to look back so we can learn how to move forward. We want to make sure we are emptying ourselves to Christ instead of chasing an emotional encounter. We want to get back to the heart of worship once again.