Inside the Hammerstein Ballroom's great double doors, beyond the metal gates and metal detectors, the three-story music venue's lights are turned down, the stage empty. A few people mill about, and to their left is a merchandise table branded as a “welcome lounge” selling T-shirts and CDs and soft-covered books. The sound booth has four technicians and two big cameras for the ground floor alone. Ten hours earlier, the stage was occupied by holographic Japanese pop star Hatsune Miku, the three balconies and large pit filled with her fans. But it's morning now, the floor's no longer sticky, and the event taking place isn’t a concert — it’s church.
Hillsong is one of the largest evangelical Christian churches in the world. What began as a small pentecostal church in a suburb of Sydney now holds services on all six habitable continents, with 30 locations and more than 80 affiliated campuses. More than 100,000 people are estimated to attend Hillsong church services every week, including Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Nick Jonas, and the Jenner sisters. According to the church, for every person attending in person three more watch online.
The worship band at the Hammerstein — Hillsong’s Manhattan campus — isn’t huge. A man plays a guitar and a woman sings lead, along with a bassist, a drummer, four backing vocalists, and a choir of about 15 people at the back of the stage. They play four songs before a local pastor appears with long curly hair, a sleeve of tattoos, and a Hawaiian shirt. “This is not Christian karaoke,” he jokes. “I know the words are on the screen, but that’s not what we’re doing here.” This is a time of worship, a church service — not, I repeat, a concert.
I grew up in a Texas megachurch that played songs written by Hillsong members every Sunday. I didn’t know they were written in Australia. I don’t think I even realized they had been written in my lifetime. Hillsong songs like “Shout to the Lord” and “Everyday” were my hymns, as fundamental to my understanding of music as “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” These are not just Christian rock songs — they are worship, and for millions of people around the globe, they are an inseparable piece of Christian life.
But I don’t know any of the songs we sing at Hammerstein. More than half the time I spent in Hillsong’s Sunday service in July was spent singing, but each song was no more than two years old, the product of a constantly producing musical focus — no hymnal or gentle playing of “Come Thou Fount.” Every Hillsong service plays songs produced in-house by one of the church’s three different musical entities: Hillsong Worship, for church services; the touring act Hillsong United; and the youth-focused Young & Free. All three are nestled under the church’s Hillsong Music label.
Hillsong’s three bands in their various formations have produced almost 100 albums. Their songs are sung by an estimated 50 million people across denominations and countries each week, and in January 2018, they won their first Grammy. According to data given to The FADER by Nielsen, songs written by the three Hillsong bands have been streamed on-demand more than 760 million times since December 29, 2017. For comparison, over the same time period, that’s only 10 million fewer than Justin Bieber.
“Hillsong is just this massive, massive presence in Christian music,” says ethnomusicologist Tom Wagner, who wrote the book The Hillsong Movement Examined. “There’s nobody with as much influence as they have, and even as someone who doesn’t believe what they believe, it is absolutely incredible the work that they are doing. They’ve just kind of taken over.”
Hillsong are the biggest band you’ve never listened to, but the people making these songs sung by millions of people each week aren't living a rock-and-roll lifestyle by any means.
The Hillsong church actually takes its name from the music it produces. “The church was called Hills Christian Life Centre, and Hillsong was originally the name of our music," senior pastor Brian Houston explained in a 2007 episode of public-access docuseries Australian Story. "But people used to talk about ‘that Hillsong Church,’ and the name Hillsong actually became famous around the world.”
“I didn't realize Hillsong was an actual church until I came to New York City,” Kayla Rose, a 23-year-old freelance publicist who now volunteers on the Hillsong social media team, told me. “Music is an important part of church life for me [...] it’s really easy for me to hear and connect with a message conveyed in a song.”
The Pentecostal denomination Hillsong belongs to was the first to introduce an accelerated tempo to Christian music in the 1950s, so it makes sense that Hillsong became a leader of the genre's sound. Founded in 1983, Hillsong initially convened in a high school; music pastor Geoff Bullock wrote most of the church’s early worship music, songs with big ’80s pop production but religiously focused lyrics. In 1986, the church hosted its first worship music conference, titled Hillsong; their first album, Spirit and Truth, was released in 1988.
That same year, Bullock was joined by vocalist, Darlene Zschech, a former Australian television star; in the early ’90s, David Moyse of soft-rockers Air Supply began playing guitar on Hillsong albums. The band's albums were delivered on Sundays, and they needed lighting directors and floor managers, a tech manager, and section leaders — in other words, personnel to run a full-blown concert.
“Hillsong has done for Christian music what the Dixie Chicks did for country and western: made it blond, sexy, and mainstream,” Tanya Levin wrote in her the book People in Glass Houses: An Insider’s Story of Life In and Out of Hillsong.
In 1995, Hillsong faced its first crisis: Bullock’s marriage broke down, he got remarried, and resigned. By then, the church had a congregation of about 3,000 people; youth pastor Donna Crouch stepped into Bullock’s former role, while Darlene Zschech became Worship pastor. Instead of faltering, however, they thrived. That November, Hillsong Worship released the live album Shout to the Lord, which peaked at #13 on the Billboard Top Contemporary Christian Artist Chart. The album’s reach was partially due to their partnership with publisher Integrity Music, which began distributing Hillsong products in the United States; Shout to the Lord's title track is still sung in an estimated 30 million churches each week.
Darlene Zschech was a high-profile and talented musician who spurred endless copycats; women stood at the forefront of church stages raising their hands and gripping them back into fists on the beat just like she did. The songs were piano-driven, with Zschech’s vocals at the forefront — similar to popular female pop singer-songwriters of the era like Sarah McLachlan. “When church historians reflect on the worship revolution that happened around the turn of the 21st century, Darlene Zschech will be credited for playing a major role,” said Bill Hybels, the American pastor of Willow Creek church, in a blurb on the back of a 2001 album.
“Hillsong is different than anything church music had experienced before.” Dr. Michael Hawn, a professor of church music at Southern Methodist University, told me. “Usually you had a style of music that would last for two generations. With Hillsong, we’ve had three major shifts in musical style in 15 years. That’s just unheard of in the history of church music.”
In 1998, Reuben Morgan was appointed as youth director and helped create Hillsong United; the next year, a deal with Warner Music Australia distributed Hillsong albums in big-box stores around the world, beyond Christian stores and conferences. The ’90s were the decade of Christian artists like Jars of Clay and Caedmon’s Call, when dcTalk songs charted on the Billboard Charts. While Hillsong United’s songs weren’t as gritty or rock-focused as some of that music, they were still a part of the moment when songs about Jesus could crossover into the Top 40 easily. In 2001, the church changed its name officially to Hillsong.
“Hillsong has done for Christian music what the Dixie Chicks did for country and western: made it blond, sexy, and mainstream.” —Tanya Levin
“We call this in worship study ‘liturgical enculturation,’ drawing from the music of the culture,” Dr. Hawn told me. “I can always tell when I’m on a Christian Music station on the radio, but Hillsong comes closest to really meshing the two.” Hillsong band members were young men with long hair, T-shirts, and a rock-&-roll-for-Jesus vibe; when the London campus opened in 2003, pop star Natasha Bedingfield served on the worship team and wrote songs.
In 2004, Joel Houston became the current lead of Hillsong United. Zschech left to form her own church four years later and Morgan was promoted to worship pastor, overseeing the Hillsong Worship team. During this time, Hillsong produced a mammoth amount of music geared toward worship — songs focused on the holy and the emotional. “Tonally and tunefully, it’s a Jonas Brothers song. Lyrically, it’s a hymn, and yet the singing is hot-breathed and sexy-close into microphones,” Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote for GQ in 2015.
Plenty of Christian bands have achieved massive success, but none have maintained the consistent popularity and output Hillsong has. As the music industry began to struggle with the disruption of the digital age throughout the 2000s, the Christian music industry shied away from songs that tried too hard to fit into the secular music market. The songs that were promoted were songs that could be sung in a worship service, as Christian music began to focus on sure bets like Chris Tomlin (a solo singer-songwriter), worship-focused bands, and songs not meant for a secular audience — even if they sounded like it. Lucky for Hillsong, that was already the Hillsong way.
“A lot of bands are doing the same thing. No one is better than anyone else in God’s eyes,” Miriam Webster, who wrote dozens of songs for Hillsong and performed on the worship team, told me. “It was something of a calling for Hillsong church. People were just drawn. It’s the grace of God, really.” But, she says, God doesn’t just hand you a song fully formed with a chorus and a backing beat and a production timeline. There’s work on the human end too.
Hillsong: Let Hope Rise follows Hillsong United member JD to his house where he lives with his in-laws, his wife, and two kids. “You know, I work for a church. And it’s awesome, but you don’t work for a church to earn money,” he says. “I think about that when I’m on stage in front of all those people that they would expect me to have my own big McMansion, my own crib. But at the same time, we’re on a mission.”
Some — but not all — Hillsong band members receive a salary from the church for their service; many work as volunteers. Every recorded song has two copyrights: a “mechanical” royalty for the music and lyrics (think: sheet music), and one for the actual performance of the piece (what you hear being played). For every Hillsong creation, the songwriter receives a royalty because they legally must, but the performance royalty goes to the church. That means that when you play Hillsong songs on Spotify, the songwriter gets paid (just as he would if it was a YouTube cover), but only the church gets paid for the actual playing of the song.
This is an uncommon practice. The music license for the song “Yellow” by Coldplay (for comparison), has 19 performers listed to receive undisclosed percentages of the performance royalty. That, of course, includes lead singer Chris Martin. Take a random song from Hillsong’s 2016 album Wonder, “Splinters and Stones.” The song is led by Taya Smith and Joel Houston, but only one performer is listed: “Hillsong United.” Hillsong refused to comment on distribution of royalties for this piece.
Hillsong’s biggest hit is 2013's “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail),” a nearly nine-minute ballad with sweeping minor keys and swelling guitar that spent a record 61 (non-consecutive) weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Christian Songs chart; the only song that dethroned it after its first 45 consecutive weeks was Carrie Underwood's “Something in the Water." It was certified double platinum, and for the last four years has ranked in the chart’s Top 10 songs for the year. (Interestingly, Christian music is the only genre of the Billboard charts in which its basis for inclusion is defined by lyrical quality and stated purpose.)
The lead singer of “Oceans,” Taya Smith, will never see a dime of the songs royalties (though she may be paid by the church separately), but the men who wrote the song — Joel Houston, Matt Crocker, and Salomon Ligthelm — will. If Smith ever were to leave the church, she would no longer get paid for her work even though it was generating revenue.
People all over the world volunteer their talents in service of their faith. Webster says she gets a check for the songs she wrote, but that her performance was always volunteer work, and she liked that; she waitressed and worked temp jobs to pay the bills. According to the church’s 2017 annual report, more than 4,000 people volunteer in the creative arts at Hillsong churches every Sunday around the world. Still, there's so much money at stake. In 2003, journalist Greg Bearup wrote a Sydney Morning Herald piece titled “Praise the Lord and Pass the Checkbook,” alleging that despite Hillsong's consistent promises of prosperity and good feelings, the “good-guy demeanor disappears” when asked anything about money.
Hillsong Church did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the financial state of the music sector in time for publication; according to the church’s self-released 2017 annual report, which was independently audited, the total revenue for 2017 was a little more than $109 million AUD (about $78 million USD). About $14 million of that came directly from music, all of which is tax-free.
This is a fairly unique situation, even within Christian music; most American worship music is created by individuals or bands, not by tax-exempt churches. As of writing, Hillsong has five out the fifty songs on the Billboard Hot Christian Songs. There's only one other church with a band on the list: Elevation Worship, which was founded in 2007 and whose music sounds similar to Hillsong's.
Part of the reason that Hillsong’s music has been so popular is that it's meant to be. “You can come up with a pop song, it doesn’t matter what it’s about. If it sounds good and feels good, that’s great. For us, you’re putting words into the mouths of people. These songs are written for people to sing, not just to listen to,” Houston says in Hillsong: Let Hope Rise, a documentary made in partnership with Hillsong Church. Hillsong aren't just writing songs for one congregation in Sydney; like any major pop star, they're writing songs that are meant to sit at the top of a chart and be heard across the world.
“It’s not so much the music that’s important but the purpose behind the music,” Melodie Wagner-Mäkinen, a singer-songwriter in Hillsong Young & Free, told me. The purpose behind the music is the gospel that Hillsong music team members believe will save the souls of their listeners and, hopefully, the world: that Jesus Christ is the son of God, and he died to save humanity from eternal damnation.
Many Christians believe that a section in Matthew 28 (dubbed "the Great Commission) commands them to proclaim their beliefs to every corner of the world — the central belief of all evangelical movements. If Hillsong can “create music that points people to a greater hope and future,” as Wagner-Mäkinen says, they’ll have achieved their mission. According to the church’s 2017 annual report, 33,000 people converted to Christianity at Hillsong events last year.
“They’re trying to write a song that Coldplay would envy, except they really believe that what they’re doing is saving people’s souls.” —Michael John Warren
Hillsong songwriters submit hundreds of songs annually. “When I went to Hillsong, I changed my style to be a little bit more focused on the chorus,” Webster told me. “Being in that atmosphere made me more focused on making sure my music was congregational [...] I remember thinking ‘I need to make this so that people can sing this.’” Hillsong did not provide information to the FADER on how many writers submit songs every year, but far fewer people are credited as writers than those who work for Hillsong’s numerous worship teams.
The diversity created by this endless hive of minds isn’t in sound per se — all Hillsong music falls in the same anthemic, emotional, soft-rock genre — but in the plethora of creative ideas. “Some Christian artists have the same tone and layout in each of their songs, but I love the variety that Hillsong offers because they have so many talented musicians with different styles,” Megan Meketa, a 36-year-old artist and designer, told me.
Hillsong songs are written in a team and revised endlessly; lyrics are mulled over for months, “deliberating if we’ve said what we’ve wanted to say and that the song says enough,” says Young & Free's Alexander Pappas. “Sometimes people hear those songs, and sometimes those songs end up being an act of worship for us.” Hillsong members believe their lyrics to be the product of divine inspiration through the Holy Spirit. “We see it as our mantle to not only lead people to Jesus but also to be teachers of God’s word," says Young & Free member Aodhan King, "as more often than not, lyrics and songs can begin to become part of the framework for people’s faith and beliefs.”
Songs are put through two more gauntlets before they make it onto an album. Joel Houston told Christianity Today in 2005, “Ultimately, the song is decided on by the crowd. If people sing it, it’s good. If it doesn’t go over well with them, then it’s not. It’s the congregation who decides.” If a song passes the field test, it then must pass muster with the church’s pastoral team to line up with the beliefs being taught from the pulpit. Once a song's approved, it's recorded, produced, engineered in-house, and published.
The church gives any church or place of worship permission to play or perform Hillsong’s music as an act of worship without paying a performance copyright, which means anywhere around the world, a Hillsong song can be played for free with the lyrics projected on a screen. That’s great for Hillsong’s mission and for business. “The ubiquity of its music in evangelical (and increasingly non-evangelical) churches is largely due to annual music released marketed as specialised Christian resources,” wrote Tanya Riches and Tom Wagner in their academic paper “The evolution of Hillsong music.”
People who listen to Hillsong — as well as those affiliated with the Hillsong music team — mentioned only one secular band when being interviewed for this piece: Coldplay. “[Hillsong are] obviously making modern rock. They are in the studio talking about contemporary stuff,” Michael John Warren, who directed Hillsong: Let Hope Rise, told me. “They’re trying to write a song that Coldplay would envy, except they really believe that what they’re doing is saving people’s souls.”
Hillsong are happy to talk about how they make their songs, how they distribute them, and how their belief affects their lives. They are less happy to discuss money, but the people creating these songs, for the most part, are not living a rock & roll lifestyle.
Not all Christians want to be like Hillsong, however. Within the American Christian community, the dominant criticism of Hillsong’s music according to a survey conducted by worship songwriter/Stamford professor of worship Wen Reagan has been directed towards the church itself. In 2015, American blogger and former pastor Bruce Herwig published a post titled “Why I Stopped Singing Hillsong” after hearing Brian Houston preach what he considered a prosperity gospel — the ongoing theological belief that, if a person follows the Christian God, he or she will be rewarded financially and emotionally. Herwig argued that to sing Hillsong’s music was to endorse that prosperity gospel, and dozens of other Christians have since published similar stances against singing their songs.
Psychologist Annett Schirmer recently reported that rhythmic sound “not only coordinated the behavior of a people in a group, it also coordinates their thinking — the mental processes of individuals in the group become synchronized.” This explains how drums unite tribes in ceremonies, why armies use bugles, and why the songs Hillsong makes can be found inside the doors of most evangelical churches in America. “It’s almost like a form of meditation. Close your eyes and repeat, repeat, repeat. They do design it to get you in this zone,” Michael John Warren, the director of the Hillsong documentary, says.
All of Hillsong’s methods rest in repetition, just like pop music. The repetition of an excellent chorus, the repetition of the same chords, and the repetition of constant production: every year, another album. Unlike an individual artist — or even most Christian acts — Hillsong will never run out of performers, allowing the church to continue their efficient production cycle of at least three albums per year for the indefinite future. Hillsong Live and Hillsong Young & Free have both already released albums in 2018, and Hillsong United’s Wonder is barely a year old. That kind of rigorous production cycle makes it so that Hillsong will never drop out of popular rotation — even if that rotation is only within Christian culture.
“The community itself has to decide which songs have staying powers,” says Dr. Hawn. “That’s not a thing marketers can do. Why does ‘Amazing Grace’ have staying power? We can guess, but we don’t know. It just stuck.” Already, the community of Christians around the world have crowned Hillsong a staying power. Whether it is mammoth marketing, meditative songwriting, killer hooks, a movement of the Lord, or just business savvy, there’s definitely something sticky about Hillsong. As the church grows its wealth and its reach, though, it is unclear whether the artists that have made Hillsong famous will be rewarded here on Earth for their work. The church believes that there are eternal blessings for service to the Lord. But there are earthly rewards to this kind of popularity, and those rewards are being funneled back into the church.