The bamboo scaffolding we’d observed being used to construct massive sky-scrapers in Hong Kong was very visible, very strong and very flexible. Although very strange to western eyes, this was totally appropriate for use in building massive high-rise blocks in a place where typhoons and strong winds can provide adverse conditions at any moment.
The massive edifice that is Hillsong also has scaffolding being used in its construction; it is equally strong, flexible and appropriate, however much of it is invisible.
I wrote about the campus strategy in the last post; now I want to outline the second equally revelationary growth strategy that I discovered. Again, this was not unique to Hillsong Church or to Australia. A similar phenomenon would be pointed out to me several weeks later at Mars Hill Church Seattle. The strategy was most clearly defined to me in Sydney by one of the senior leaders who had been with the church for many years and so had been part of the outworking. It is this: The leadership of Hillsong Church unashamedly concentrates on a few areas in which the Holy Spirit has gifted the church, and in so doing seeks to trust God for the outworking of other areas where it is weak. In other words they do not seek to work hard on making up for their weaknesses at the expense of their strengths. No, rather they invest more in their strengths and talents; they strengthen their strengths, working through them to accomplish all the things they are believing God for.
In this respect I met with a remarkable degree of humility and honesty from pastors and leaders; they would often openly confess “That is not one of our strengths” and I pondered a lot on the significance of this frankness. One leader asked me if I’d noticed anything unusual about the number of visiting speakers they hosted at Hillsong. I confessed that I had not really thought about this, however as we talked it was clear that for a church of this magnitude it was indeed slightly unusual that they invited so many guest speakers on a regular basis. Brian Houston certainly seems to undertake a lion’s share of the preaching, but nearly every other week there does seem to be a visiting speaker from elsewhere speaking at one of the meetings or at a special event. The reason given was that preaching and teaching is not one of their main strengths, and, although no-one would exactly call it a weakness either, Robert Fergusson clearly is an anointed expository preacher, however they have not majored on trying to build the church in this way as others might.
Instead they have and continue to identify their unique God-given strengths and put effort into developing these. We discussed what these were and I discerned from my conversations what was emerging as the top three ‘main strengths’. Although the Hillsong leadership would probably use other terminology, I feel the best way to categorize them for this purpose would be under the general headings of:
Worship and Music Ministry (exemplified most easily through Hillsongs near global influence in song-writing and worship style. Need I say more?)
Reaching & Gathering Young People (the 15-45 age group has been the most unreached and under-represented age demographic in Western Church – Hillsong are strong reaching and keeping in this age group)
Engaging & Integrating People Effectively & Culturally into Community (the many culturally engaging ways in which they connect with, and equip so many people into becoming a serving community)
In a way this strategy went against the grain for me. I have tended to feel there are things we just have to do as a church or leadership in which we are weak or do not have particular anointing in; the need is there so we just have to fulfill it. But at the same time I realised I had also become critical of churches who recruited to make up for their weaknesses from the outside. So this was somewhat inconsistent on my part! Nevertheless I regularly justified my view by quoting Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to “do the job of an evangelist” [2 Tim 4:5] where, by implication, it would seem Timothy is instructed to do something he is not especially gifted or called to do, but falls under the heading of “duties” which you undertake just because you are a minister of the Gospel.
During my time away as I meditated on these things I felt God persuade me that I had been wrong about this. I concluded that this was not the norm. I saw in Jesus how he testified “I only do what I see the Father doing” [John 5:19] – indeed this comes on the back of the incident earlier in the chapter when Jesus had just healed one man at the Bethesda Pool when clearly there were many more in need of healing all around. This was not of course a sign of weakness in Jesus. On the contrary it was a sign of his being focused on God the Father, setting his face like flint towards the goal of his mission, a sign of absolute trust in God to deal with everything else if we simply do what he requires us to do. This seems to be truly seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness in the sure hope that everything else will be added unto us.
Similarly I saw how Paul encouraged Timothy on more than one occasion to “stir up the gift of God” in him – clearly the things he was gifted in, and in fact in 1 Tim 4:14-15 Paul writes “Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you. Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress.” This seems to be an encouragement or even perhaps a warning to Timothy not to forget investing in his main gifting and become a generalist in ministry, or perhaps get caught up in so many areas where he was not gifted that he neglected his God-given, prophetically identified and anointed gift, at the expense of trying to meet all the needs around him.
Doing a few things well may not sound very sexy as a job description but it is certainly how a Kingdom extending church like Hillsong has managed to remain strong and focused on bearing fruit that remains.
There is one final aspect relating to this strategy that needs to be highlighted. It falls under the third category relating to the way in which Hillsong Church connect with and equip many people into becoming a serving community.
It was clearly identified for me during my thoroughly enjoyable conversations with a very cool-headed and genial man called Duncan Corby who is effectively the person we would call Vice-Principal of Hillsong’s International Leadership College; a fully university-validated tertiary theological school for undergraduates and post-graduates which was established twenty years ago and has now built up into a training base for thousands of students today. This is the College at which Chris Parkes has been studying for past few years. Duncan is a clear thinking, enthusiastic, hands-on trainer – not an ivory tower academic. He is not only intelligent, he is a very likeable fellow with a real zeal for God and for His church. It is evident that he loves what he does and he spoke passionately with me about how the College had grown, their curriculum development – for which he is largely responsible – and the importance of the College in the whole ethos of what Hillsong stands for as a church with a particular vision. He also talked with me about his aspirations for Chris, with whom he is undoubtedly impressed!
I too was certainly impressed with the standards of training at Hillsong College; in fact it is fair to say that I was very pleasantly surprised at the depth and breadth of the theological and doctrinal study being done. This was not what I had anticipated experiencing at a Pentecostal Seminary and I had to repent of my poor attitude. I’m not sure where my low expectations came from – I searched my memory in vain – so perhaps it was just plain, simple and ugly prejudice on my part! Whatever the case I certainly had to repent for what I saw at Hillsong College was very healthy in terms of well-rounded Christian doctrine and understanding.
Let me illustrate this: One afternoon that week I accompanied Chris to a 3 hour lecture on Augustine’s epic and significant apologetic defending Trinitarian Theology De Trinitate. It was hosted by the Hillsong College lecturer responsible for the doctrinal unit being taught, but the teaching on this day was delivered by Dr Neil Ormerod, a Roman Catholic visiting lecturer who was also an expert in Augustinian theology. Dr Ormerod is a Professor of Theology, and indeed Director of the Institute of Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at the Australian Catholic University. He is not someone I would have expected to hear teaching at Hillsong! He was warmly welcomed, and well received by the students. Greatly inspired by the works of Bernard Lonergan a Jesuit theologian, Neil gave us first a comprehensive overview of Augustine’s life and thought as it related to De Trinitate, followed by a contextualisation of the issues being tackled in the work, then he gave a well structured basic survey of the arguments of each book in the treatise.
I was transfixed – the three hours passed in no time at all and I could have continued for another three without blinking an eye! I found myself taking copious notes on my iPhone’s Notes application – not the easiest of tasks as those of you who have tried two finger typing historical, theological and philosophical information as fast as you can using a screen the size of a… well, a phone, in fact… will understand. [For those of you who like this kind of thing – theology I mean – I will endeavour to upload my notes onto this blog as is, i.e. like they currently appear saved on my iPhone, to see whether you can make head or tale of my jargon and abbreviations! For those of you who don’t enjoy this kind of thing, take this as a warning to skip the next post.]
So the Church and thus the College take seriously the task to identify, raise up and equip existing and potential leaders in Word, Spirit and Deed. All the College students are engaged ipso facto in various aspects of Church life and leadership. Serving for them is part of their training and as such it means the church has at its disposal an army of volunteers with the time, desire and inclination to put into practice what they learn. This means on a Sunday students can be found all over, in set-up teams, children’s ministry, youth work, bands, singers, Audio-Visual teams, host-teams, serving drinks, setting out chairs, flyers, hand-outs, leading groups of other volunteers, praying in ministry teams… you name it. During the week they are leading small groups, preparing curriculum, rehearsing music, drama, dance, evangelising, creating promotional material, following up visitors and new Christians. In turn this creates a culture within the whole church of volunteerism, for there are several thousand students among the 20,000+ attenders, nearly 10% of the church. As someone pointed out to me without a hint of cynicism “… and they pay us for the privilege!”
Students originate from within the local church as well as many from other churches in Australia, New Zealand, the Asia-Pacific area, and indeed the world over. There have been five Guernsey students studying there in recent years! Many come from different ethnic backgrounds which helps add to the church’s international flavour. They come to study and specialise in Worship Music, Pastoral Leadership, Media, Dance as well as to undertake the more Theologically based Degree Programme. Some are on courses which last just a year, others three or four years, but the student ethos is a huge part of church life because of the numbers involved. A large proportion of students stay on to become leaders in the church, serve overseas on mission, or to find work nearby and remain active, well-trained members. All the students we met were motivated, happy, thoroughly engaged in church life, buzzing I would say!
Duncan pointed all this out to me. He clearly believes they would not be where they are today as a Church in terms of ethos and size without the College and the students and I believe he could be right. The teaching and learning environment, energy, creativity and sheer momentum provided by such a large body of young people ready and willing to serve the Lord Jesus surely adds something special to this special church.