If you’re not familiar with the many scandals that have plagued Hillsong as of yet, I can only say, “Google it.” Just compiling a sequential set to tell the unfolding story would be a blog unto itself. Suffice it to say, one of the world’s largest and most influential network of churches has found itself drowning in sexual and financial misconduct, not to mention a culture within the church that both facilitated it and, when confronted, attempted to cover it up.
This leaves churches that both love and use Hillsong music in a dilemma: Should they keep using the music? At Meck, we’ve made our decision. But for many, it won’t be easy.
The music of Hillsong has filled our churches for decades, from “Shout to the Lord” in 1994 to the more recent “Oceans.” Currently, four of the 10 most popular worship songs come out of Hillsong: “The Goodness of God,” “What a Beautiful Name,” “Who You Say I Am,” and “King of Kings.”
There will be many who say that the sin of the leadership should have nothing to do with the power and efficacy of a song. There is truth to that, and historical precedent in the history of the Church.
Under the Roman emperor Diocletian, there was enormous persecution of the early Christian Church. It began in 303 and didn’t end until the conversion of Constantine. During that time, Christian books were burned and churches demolished. Those Christian leaders who turned their books over to be burned were labeled traditores, which is the basis for our word “traitor,” which literally means “those who handed over.”
Then came the dilemma: Once Christianity stopped being persecuted, did the traditores still have the right to function as ministers? Of particular interest were the sacraments. Did whatever grace and meaning involved in overseeing a sacrament depend on the person who did it or on the sacrament itself?
Two groups, with very different ideas, emerged. The first were the Donatists, named after their leader, Donatus. They felt that lapsed bishops were deprived of all ability to administer the sacraments or act as a minister of the Christian Church. They had left the church and could no longer administer the sacraments properly. To their thinking, anyone who was a traditor under persecution needed to be replaced by someone who had stayed faithful, regardless of whether repentance was evidenced.
The other view was taken by a group that came to be known as the Catholics (not to be confused with the formalized Catholic Church but rather “catholic” meaning “the church universal”). They felt like the person could, by their repentance, be restored to grace and continue in their role.
The two sides were at a stalemate until the towering figure of Augustine stepped in. He maintained that every Christian is a sinner, and that whatever holiness there is in the Church is not found in its members, but rather in Christ. He argued that the Donatists placed far too much emphasis on the human agent, instead of on Christ as the One who works through such things as the sacraments.
In the annals of Church history, Donatism was labeled a heresy, and it was maintained that the validity of the sacraments is independent of the merits of those who administer them. This did not mean that just anyone could administer the sacraments – they must stay within the confines and authority of the Church and in the hands of those ministers the Church authorizes – but the efficacy of the sacrament itself does not lie in those authorized hands.
But with the music of Hillsong, there is a very important difference: Every time a church uses one of their songs, financial remuneration goes to Hillsong. Not just the individual(s) who wrote the song, but also to the church itself. And when a person singing a Hillsong song at church goes out and downloads it, this again helps Hillsong financially.
When all matters of Hillsong debauchery began to break across many Hillsong churches, I had a “wait and see” mentality. Meaning, let’s see how the church leadership responds to it all, particularly the latest incident with the central leader, Brian Houston. Unfortunately, that response was to ask all Hillsong leaders to simply sign NDAs (non-disclosure agreements).
It was then that I knew that in good conscience we could no longer use Hillsong music in any way that financially supports the continued culture of financial and sexual misconduct at Hillsong Church.
This grieves me. At Meck, we had approximately 10 or so songs from Hillsong in rotation when we made the decision. Songs that meant something to me and to many others in our church. But there are some things that mean more, specifically worshipping God in both spirit and truth. Worshiping in a way that supports what is happening at Hillsong does neither.
It is not simply Hillsong. I hope all churches will evaluate the source of their worship music and ask if they are wanting to financially support that source in terms of its approach to ministry and theology. An individual song might be fine, but the royalties might go to support a church teaching a prosperity theology, a distortion of the Trinity, or even just very expensive sneakers worn by preachers. But make no mistake—when you use a song from a church, you are not only giving that church money, but also their “brand” legitimation.
As musician Dan Coogan put it, “If I wouldn’t quote their pastor or allow him to preach in our pulpit, then I won’t use the songs their bands write.” This isn’t “cancel culture.” This is about biblical and theological integrity.
There will be fresh music coming for the Church. The Holy Spirit has no limits for creativity. It will, hopefully, encourage many churches to support the artists in their midst to turn their giftings toward the writing of new songs.
And if or when Hillsong church shows true, institutional repentance,
… I’ll sing “Shout to the Lord” louder than anyone.
James Emery White
Kelsey Kramer McGinnis, “Should We Keep Singing Hillsong?” Christianity Today, May 2, 2022, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.