Sing. Play. Edify.

Hillsong and the issue of association

Aug 25, 2015

Brian Houston, senior pastor of Hillsong Church

Brian Houston, senior pastor of Hillsong Church

Sifting, sorting, choosing

If you’re a church music minister, there’s a lot out there to choose from. It’s overwhelming, in fact. Strike out the songs with weak theology or inaccessible music, and it’s still overwhelming. Since the Reformation, the church has seen such a wealth of songs as to be nearly uncountable (Charles Wesley himself wrote more than 6,000). Even if your church is guilty of chronological snobbery and sings only songs written in the past few decades, you could still make weekly song selection into a full-time job. Part of the reason for such a recent glut of music is that what once was the purview of pastors and trained theologians (that is, writing song texts) has been taken up by musicians, often with little thought for the magnitude of the responsibility they’re assuming. Right or wrong, the songs we sing shape our understanding of who God is and what He does. And there’s plenty of material, both old and new, that’s weak or even heretical. But happily there’s much that is excellent and rich, especially in the past fifteen years.

It ought to go without saying that every leader should first examine lyrical content with a critical and a pastoral eye. He also needs to evaluate the music: is it beautiful? Is it easily sung by a congregation of diverse ages? Does it accurately reflect the text? A song may pass the first test but fail the second, or vice versa. If your church is like ours, you have a limited amount of time each week to sing together. And most importantly, you’re leading and teaching a congregation of people whose time on earth is limited. Our life is a vapor, and part of the purpose of corporate worship is to prepare us to stand around the throne and sing in adoration. With that mindset, we shouldn’t have time for weak lyrics and kitschy music. But content isn’t the only factor to consider.

Association and the corporate dynamic

“All things are lawful for me,” said Paul, “but not everything is wise” (1 Corinthians 10:23). He goes on to explain what he means: “Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.”

That’s the central issue in corporate worship. When we come together, we set aside our rights and opinions. Instead of clinging to what we prefer, we prefer others. We don’t flaunt our liberties, or scorn the weak consciences of our brothers and sisters. When we live in community with other believers (and we always should), our criteria for what we accept and reject are intensified. Another way to say it is that we move from making merely knowledge-based  decisions to making love-based ones. This is true for any number of personal and cultural decisions, including the songs we sing as a church. So while a song’s association shouldn’t be the first thing we consider, it’s unwise and unloving to ignore association altogether. There may be songs with good content that are unwise to use corporately because they are linked to people or doctrinal positions that run contrary to sound teaching.

When considering a song that may have disqualifying associations, there are a number of helpful questions to ask. Here are three that shape our decisions in our church’s music ministry:

1. How close is the association?

That is, how current and how commonly known is the association? We live in the Age of Google, where every connection and every detail of every song can be found online. But associations fade with time, and some connections are less significant than others. If a song has an obscure connection with a person or movement that we’d have a problem with, we have to evaluate to what degree the connection would be recognized, and therefore potentially confusing to the body of Christ. It’s not a matter of deception, either; if we use the song, we’re not hiding the association. If a member of our church body asks about the connection, we can be open about our careful consideration of the issue. But neither is it edifying to announce it publicly: “Before we sing this next song, there’s something you ought to know…”

Sometimes closeness is just a function of time. The music to “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” was originally a courtly song of unrequited love (circa 1601). But the association has faded. Contemporary associations are usually more problematic.

2. How egregious is the association?

The author is not the text, just as the composer is not the music. That’s why we can sing any number of texts and tunes created by individuals with whom we’d have doctrinal disagreement – sometimes profoundly so.

But an individual or movement with which a song is connected may be openly sinful or heterodox. In such a case, even an obscure or distant connection is potentially justification for avoiding the song entirely.

3. What is the potential danger to the congregation?

This question is really a consequence of the first two, but it’s helpful in making the discussion pastoral rather than merely philosophical. After all, what is potentially at stake is the spiritual well-being of our church family. As leaders, the last thing we want to do is expose our people to movements or doctrinal positions that could lead to spiritual harm. Of course, a spiritually healthy congregation with sound leadership doesn’t need to fear a song. But we must keep a close watch on ourselves and on our doctrine (1 Timothy 4:16). And not all the members of the church will be equally discerning or spiritually strong. So we have to ask, “Is it loving and helpful to the church to use this song in our corporate worship, and thereby imply some level of approval of the people and movements it represents?”

Houston, we have a problem

For several years now, our church has enjoyed singing “Cornerstone” by Hillsong Music, which is a ministry of Hillsong Church. The text of the verses is the traditional hymn “The Solid Rock,” but the chorus and the overall musical setting is distinctively Hillsong. We’ve used the song despite significant philosophical and doctrinal differences with Hillsong, which has been producing music for several decades (anyone remember “Shout to the Lord”?). Although most of our church family probably didn’t know about the association, we were aware that it could eventually become problematic enough that we would need to stop singing music by Hillsong altogether. In reference to the third point above, while we were never concerned that using this song would lead our people into prosperity theology or wild charismaticism, the recent pragmatism and theological compromise of Hillsong Church itself put “Cornerstone” on the fence.

Several weeks ago, an obscure blogging site posted a story claiming that Hillsong NYC, let by Carl Lentz, had two homosexuals leading the church choir. This led to a statement by Brian Houston, the senior pastor of Hillsong Church. His attempt to “clarify” the situation was at best a disastrous appeal to cultural relevance. You can read subsequent articles here and here, as well as an ambiguous statement from Carl Lentz on homosexuality in church life. A cursory investigation into the issue led me to this article from October 2014, in which Houston clearly articulates the pragmatism and desire for cultural respectability that drive his ministry. Houston has said that nothing has changed regarding Hillsong’s position on homosexuality, and that “the writings of Paul are clear on the subject.” But his ministry has chosen a path of cultural capitulation in an attempt to preserve their broad cultural appeal – a path which was certainly a long time in the making. Houston and Lentz have made it clear that, for Hillsong churches, the answer to the question “Is homosexuality a sin?” can never be a straightforward and Pauline “yes.”

Private choices and public testimony

In a culture which increasingly celebrates sexual perversion, the church must draw a clear and unmistakable line regarding its belief in the authority of Scripture. Society’s strident demands for the normalization of immorality are a clear mandate for biblical separation, even though it means aligning ourselves with Christ “outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (Hebrews 13:13). To this end, our ministry has decided to no longer use any music written by Hillsong.

Our decision to stop using Hillsong in corporate worship doesn’t extend to the choices of individuals and families in our ministry. That’s a matter of personal discernment and liberty. As I said before, the composer is not the music. But as a ministry, our decision to use a particular song in corporate worship is a bigger issue than the content of the song itself. Biblical wisdom and faithfulness to the gospel means that we watch out for those who cause confusion regarding sound doctrine, and turn away from them (Romans 16:17).

May God give us wisdom to walk in manner worthy of our calling, as a church and as individuals.