“The Australian Book of Etiquette is a very slim volume” – Paul Theroux
I’ve got to be frank about what I’m going to say here, because I’m aware that there are others who have felt like us in some way. So if you’re not in this category you are either a) a very lovely godly uncynical person, or b) a member of Hillsong Church, or probably both. What I’m on about here is this: I knew I would be visiting a mega-church, I knew Hillsong Sydney was very large indeed, I knew that this church produced very high quality, slickly produced worship music albums acclaimed globally, I knew there was a high investment in excellently produced and presented worship services, I knew the church regularly hosted international conferences and invited international guest speakers who were often leaders of mega-churches and mega-ministries in their own right, I knew they would likely have big facilities, big premises, big people, big grounds, big car-parks… and so I expected, at least subconsciously, to feel like I was attending an event, certainly an excellently run event, but an event never-the-less, some spectator-sport, an impersonal experience, feeling like an individual in a crowd of individuals. This is what we both expected.
How wrong we were!
Also, it is clear that when Paul Theroux wrote his witty aphorism, above, he was not referring to Hillsong Church Sydney. For what we found there was quite the opposite of what we expected, and certainly no caricatured rudeness, neither of course were there any stuck-up anglicanish airs-and-graces either, rather we found ourselves amongst a large, yea, verily, very enormous family of Christ-centred lovers of God, of one another and of people, that I think we have ever come across!
Hillsong was bigger than we imagined and smaller than we expected!
Everywhere we went, everything we went to, everyone we met, almost without exception gave us the same impression, the same feeling: this was a church that was successfully managing to keep a big heart as it grew. This was a growing, evangelizing, discipling community that retained its value on relationships; it felt like you weren’t just a spectator, you were a valued participator in this Gospel revolution that is Hillsong. Add this to the cultural lack of cynicism in the church I mentioned previously and maybe you can see why we were regularly humbled by this.
I attended a large church whilst I was studying at La Sorbonne, Paris, in the mid-80s. Le Point du Jour was a thriving church, 800 or so attended regularly – very large for then, very large for France even now! Whilst I made some good friends and really enjoyed my time there (and Paris!) it was an eye-opener for me in terms of big-church experience. The church met at the time in a semi-converted cinema in the west of the city. (I say semi-converted because the church had kept the fixed plush cinema seats, which like separate arm-chairs you could literally sink into! These were really totally inappropriate for keeping people awake during sermons – the exact antithesis of the Methodist pews I knew as a teenager!) Each week I attended for most of the first semester I was asked by someone if it was my première fois! It was amusing to begin with, then I found myself getting a little upset being thought of as a first-time visitor each week, especially when I was desperately trying to feel part of the church. The fact it that it was pretty easy to turn up each week for a good worship service and just remain anonymous in the large crowd. Of course some newcomers at church like to feel anonymous, at least to begin with, but when you want to belong it doesn’t help. It was when you began to feel like no-one noticed you, so no-one would notice or care if you were not there, that it started to become lonely and sad.
I found out that there was a regular young people’s meeting, but this was held on the exact opposite side of the city to where I lived and it started and therefore finished late so the couple of times I attended I had to leave before the end in order to get back to my digs. So I didn’t really get to know anyone there either as I always missed the coffee & fellowship time at the end. Part of their problem in this church which looked successful from so many angles was the rapidity of growth – at least that’s how I see it now; they had grown so fast there had been little planning for what increased numbers would entail. They did have a type of welcome/host team set up on a Sunday but the layout of the building was such that you could be so easily missed going in and out. Those days were without the benefits of the internet, electronic communication, mobile phones, SMS texting or even computers in churches really. So the concepts of printed response forms and flyers were not really strategically developed as far as I can remember, certainly not in the French churches. As a result I felt like an anonymous head in the crowd for a long time; and I was already a believer, and wanting, indeed trying to feel part of things. How would a timid seeker have felt?
Three things redeemed this situation for me; one of the elders, a lovely man by the name of Gordon Neal, invited me to a mid-week group which met in his home in the eastern suburbs of Paris. For one, this was nearer where I was living at the time and so the journeys were not so long. Gordon, a francophone Briton who was something big in Nestlé, was warm and friendly but evidently a very busy man in the secular world as well as in the church. (Today, released from secular employment, Gordon is now one of the co-pastors of our Newfrontiers church in Paris!) Sadly this home-group only ran for a few weeks before he had to end it due to pressure of work. However Gordon was very helpful to me at the time in that, hearing I was musical and had a sense of calling to leadership, he introduced me to two people, one who was a leader of the church’s worship ministry, and the other who helped run an evangelistic outreach, in conjunction with Youth With A Mission (YWAM), in the open square just outside the Centre Georges Pompidou every Friday night. For the rest of my time in Paris engagement with some brilliant jazz musicians from the worship band, and regular forays with creative street evangelists on a Friday night kept me actively involved with this large church. The Friday nights were particularly exciting – it was here I first came across really effective Christian street drama, Christian folk-artists, fire-eaters, etc. We prayed on the streets for people every week and I got regular opportunities to preach and share testimony in an exciting and sometimes hostile environment! It had to be said however that the Sunday church services remained slightly detached for me as a result!
It is certainly through fostering and maintaining strong, healthy relationships that a sense of family and belonging can be kept in a large, expanding church. When a church is small, perhaps 20-50 people it is possible to do this almost without trying, but as it grows past 100, and especially 150 there are dynamics which come into play whereby unless something deliberate is done that sense of belonging easily dissipates and it becomes difficult for newcomers to be added into the community. Cultural issues also come into play making it difficult to integrate. Hillsong Church has definitely been deliberate about seeking to keep that sense of belonging as they have grown, but as I found out, they had to learn this and engage with the culture around them. You can see some of this learning curve at work in the very first Christian community in Acts 6.
Back to Sydney, Hillsong Church and 2009!
The first day at the Hills Campus I went to visit the Hillsong Conferences Office where Chris Parkes works a part-time post in administration which helps pay his bills. His boss, Autumn, is a lovely lady responsible for a small staff who run not just the conferences Hillsong host in Australia but often elsewhere also. The office also does some event management and mailing work for a couple of other charities and so it is never dull. With media such as TV and internet as well as books DVDs and CDs these days there are often times when the staff are working around the clock as well as recruiting a whole load of extra volunteers to come in and help when a big church conference in about to roll or in the follow-up just afterwards. As with everything and everyone we saw that week the level of volunteer support and servant-heartedness is really second to none. It was very inspiring.
A little later I met Sam DiMauro who kindly showed me around the whole of the huge 21 acre campus, with all its various buildings and facilities. Sam is a Powerhouse (18-25 age group) Pastor and responsible for the early morning 8.45 service each Sunday. On a Sunday morning most rooms and public spaces in this multi-facility site are utilised. Sam showed me the original building – a large block nondescript edifice which houses the main church offices for pastors and staff, a 1000+ seat auditorium, Hillsong International Leadership College Headquarters, a main reception area and foyer, training facilities,
children’s and youth halls, counselling rooms, seminar spaces, creative arts facilities, design workshops, dance studios, music practice rooms etc. Then we walked across to the fairly new Convention Centre where the largest weekly gatherings are held. This is a large round building, with effectively two main entrances and miles of circulation space. It was been exceedingly well designed to incorporate lounge areas, books & resources shops, flexible spaces for coffee and refreshment, hosting smaller functions, hospitality, etc., as well as the massive auditorium which can accommodate over 3500. Even this has been cleverly designed to appear smaller than it actually is, with the ability to walk down from galleries all the way to the ground level. Sections of the gallery can also be divided up so as to provide lecture-theatre style spaces for use by the College during the week. As a result it is certainly not one of those church buildings which is only used at weekends.
Outside across the extensive car-park stands a smaller building known as the Chapel. This edifice is of modern ecclesiastic architecture, and has been deliberately designed for events such as weddings and funerals where a smaller congregation is expected and also where presumably a ‘conference hall’ atmosphere is not so appropriate! It seats around 150 I would guess in “comfortable pews” and is also used on Sundays and other days for events like Chinese translation extension services, creative arts and worship team gatherings, etc.
Sam showed me some nearby land and buildings which are being purchased by Hillsong for future use. At the moment the church has to rent some facilities (e.g. where Chris works in the Conferences Office) and it would be better stewardship in the long-term if this could be reduced. We then walked down to the nearby shopping mall for a coffee and chat – the first of many occasions that week where I would find myself with one of the many people I met enjoying an espresso or a latte in Gloria Jean’s Coffee Shop – the Starbucks of Sydney! Sam shared his testimony with me – and what an amazing story of grace – one of many I would hear during our time there.
This is indeed an amazing community of servant-hearted joy-filled disciples, steadily determined and pressing forward with the good news of Jesus, seeing lives transformed, healed, restored and integrated into a true family of faith. Moreover, like Sam, many find themselves being arrested by the Holy Spirit’s call, equipped and trained, and fast-tracked into leadership where their creative gifts and skills coupled with an integrity and humility which was evident all around, are put to immediate use for the glory of God and the extension of His Kingdom.
We loved being amongst such saints!