Stop Singing Hillsong, Bethel, Jesus Culture, and Elevation

Scott Aniol

group of people watching concert

Update: followup post on how music embodies theology here and one on two kinds of worship music here.

There’s no question about it—Hillsong, Bethel, Jesus Culture, and Elevation have become a global phenomenon. And you should stop singing their music.

I could give many reasons you should stop singing or listening to music from these groups. I could point out the prosperity gospel advocated by leaders within these movements, such as Bethel Church pastor Bill Johnson, who argues that Jesus did not perform miracles as God: “If he performed miracles because he was God, then they would be unattainable for us. But if he did them as a man, I am responsible to pursue his lifestyle.”1Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth Expanded Edition: A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, 2013), 34. Hillsong’s Brian Houston just comes right out and says it: “You Need More Money.

I could cite theological concerns with leaders such as Steven Furtick (Elevation Church), who appears to believe in the heresy of modalism, which teaches that God is not three persons but one being who manifests himself in different “modes.”2See Amanda Casanova, “Is Megachurch Pastor Steven Furtick Denying the Traditional View of the Trinity?,ChristianHeadlines.Com, March 5, 2020. Or Bethel’s Bill Johnson, who taught that Jesus had to go to hell and be tortured for three days before being born again.

I could reference the charges of sexual abuse that have plagued leaders from Hillsong.3Leonardo Blair, “Ex-Nanny of Former Hillsong NYC Pastor Carl Lentz Accuses Him of Sexual Abuse,” The Christian Post, June 1, 2021; Michael Gryboski, “Hillsong’s Brian Houston Says Sex Abuse … Continue reading

I could address Hillsong pastor Brian Houston’s questionable views on gay marriage.4Nicola Menzie, “Hillsong’s Brian Houston on Gay Marriage: ‘I Believe the Writings of Paul Are Clear on This Subject,’” The Christian Post, October 18, 2014.

I could give examples of theologically vague lyrics (“Only Wanna Sing,” “Wake,” “Who You Say I Am”) or theologically questionable lyrics (“What a Beautiful Name,” “Reckless Love,” “This Is Amazing Grace,” “So Will I”).

I could highlight the charismatic-pentecostal theology of these groups,5See Tanya Riches, “The Evolving Theological Emphasis of Hillsong Worship (1996–2007),” Australasian Pentecostal Studies 13 (2010): 87–133; Bethel, “Glory Clouds and Gold Dust, Signs and … Continue reading often manifested in their lyrics (“Oceans,” “Spirit Breaks Out”).

I could point out that when you buy their albums or sing their music, you are financially supporting questionable theology at best, and heretical theology at worst.

I could caution that when you sing their music in church, weaker Christians might listen to other songs from these groups and be influenced by their poor theology.

All of these are legitimate reasons to stop singing music from these groups. But they are not the most important reason you should stop. The biggest reason you should stop singing songs from Hillsong, Bethel, Jesus Culture, and Elevation is that their music embodies a false theology of worship.

The biggest reason you should stop singing songs from Hillsong, Bethel, Jesus Culture, and Elevation is that their music embodies a false theology of worship.

The Pentecostalization of Evangelical Worship

All of the groups under consideration here teach and practice a Pentecostal theology of worship. Pentecostalism emerged in the early twentieth century, combining the Methodist holiness movement and revivalism with a conviction that the miraculous signs of the apostolic era continue today.

This continuationist theology and expectations concerning how the Holy Spirit works led to a redefinition of worship from that of Reformed traditions to what they considered more consistent with New Testament teaching. Charismatic theologians argue that the Holy Spirit’s primary work in worship is that of making God’s presence known in observable, tangible ways such that worshipers can truly encounter God. This theology places a high emphasis and expectation in worship upon physical expressiveness and intensity, resulting in what is sometimes called a “Praise and Worship” theology of worship. The goal, in this theology, is to experience the presence of God in worship, but praise is considered the means through which Christians do so.

Praise & Worship

Praise and worship theology seeks to provide a “blueprint for a worship service” that ensures worshipers will truly “enter the presence of God.”6Terry Law, How to Enter the Presence of God (Tulsa: Victory House, 1994), 69. Fundamental to this theology is the idea that in Scripture, praise is inherently connected to God’s presence—in fact, praise is the very means of entering the presence of God. A central text underlying this idea is Psalm 22:3: “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.”7For a fantastic treatment of this text, see Matthew Sikes, “Does God Inhabit the Praises of His People? An Examination of Psalm 22:3,” Artistic Theologian 9 (2020): 5–22. Early Pentecostal authors, such as Reg Layzell and Bob Sorge,8Reg Layzell, Unto Perfection: The Truth about the Present Restoration Revival (Mount-lake Terrace: The King’s Temple, 1979), 120–121; Bob Sorge, Exploring Worship: A Practical Guide to Praise … Continue reading taught that this text and others reveal that, in the words of Judson Cornwall, “the path into the presence of God [is] praise.”9Judson Cornwall, Let Us Praise (Plainfield, N.J: Logos Associates, 1973), 26. This leads to the understanding that praise and worship are distinct; as Cornwall suggests, “Praise is the vehicle of expression that brings us into God’s presence. But worship is what we do once we gain an entrance to that presence.”10Judson Cornwall, Let Us Worship (Plainfield, NJ: Bridge Pub., 1983), 49. Thurlow Spurr explains more thoroughly the distinction between the two:

Praise and worship are not the same. Praise is thanking God for the blessings, the benefits, the good things. It is an expression of love, gratitude, and appreciation. Worship involves a more intense level of personal communication with God, centering on his person. In concentrated worship, there is a sort of detachment from everything external as one enters God’s presence.11Thurlow Spurr, “Praise: More Than a ‘Festival.’ It’s a Way of Life,” Charisma 11, no. 6 (August 1977): 13.

Former Hillsong worship pastor Darlene Zschech represents well Praise & Worship theology:

The word says that God inhabits the praises of His people (Psalm 22:3). It’s amazing to think that God, in all His fullness, inhabits and dwells in our praises of Him. … Our praise is irresistible to God. As soon as He hears us call His name, He is ready to answer us. That is the God we serve. Every time the praise and worship team with our musicians, singers, production teams, dancers, and actors begin to praise God, His presence comes in like a flood. Even though we live in His presence, His love is lavished on us in a miraculous way when we praise Him.12Darlene Zschech, Extravagant Worship: Holy, Holy, Holy Is the Lord God Almighty Who Was and Is, and Is to Come (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002), 54–55 Emphasis original.

This change in theology of worship led to a new understanding of worship music perhaps best described by Ruth Ann Ashton’s 1993 God’s Presence through Music,13Runn Ann Ashton, God’s Presence through Music (South Bend, IN: Lesea Publishing Co., 1993). raising the matter of musical style to a level of significance that Lim and Ruth describe as “musical sacramentality,” where music is now considered a primary means through which “God’s presence could be encountered in worship.”14Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth, Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017), 18.

Flow

This theology affected liturgical practice. Breaking from a confessional liturgical structure, Praise and Worship instead aims to bring the worshiper through a series of emotional stages from rousing “praise” to intimate “worship.” Judson Cornwall explains the process:

Praise begins by applauding God’s power, but it often brings us close enough to God that worship can respond to God’s presence. While the energy of praise is toward what God does, the energy of worship is toward who God is. The first is concerning with God’s performance, while the second is occupied with God’s personage. The thrust of worship, therefore, is higher than the thrust of praise.15Cornwall, Let Us Worship, 146.

Praise and Worship liturgy is centered around the emotional “flow” of the music; worship leaders are encouraged to begin with enthusiastic songs of thanksgiving, leading the worshipers to an emotional “soulish worship,” and then bringing the mood to an intimate expression where “a gentle sustained chord on the organ and a song of the Spirit on the lips of the leaders should be more than sufficient to carry a worship response of the entire congregation for a protracted period of time.”16Cornwall, Let Us Worship, 158. Zac Hicks suggests, “Part of leading a worship service’s flow … involves keeping the awareness of God’s real, abiding presence before his worshipers. As all of the elements of worship pass by, the one constant—the True Flow—is the presence of the Holy Spirit himself.” This kind of flow, according to Hicks, “lies in understanding and guiding your worship service’s emotional journey.”17Zac M. Hicks, The Worship Pastor: A Call to Ministry for Worship Leaders and Teams (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 184. “Grouping songs in such a way that they flow together,” worship leader Carl Tuttle explains, “is essential to a good worship experience.”18Carl Tuttle, “Song Selection & New Song Introduction,” in In Worship Leaders Training Manual (Anaheim, CA: Worship Resource Center/Vineyard Ministries International, 1987), 141.

Lim and Ruth describe the earliest guides written to help worship leaders achieve flow, David Blomgren’s 1978 The Song of the Lord: The flow should move continuously with no interruptions; the flow should move naturally (using connections from the songs’ content, keys, and tempos); and the flow should move toward a goal of a climactic experience of true worship of God. Blomgren spelled out technical aspects for achieving proper flow: the content of the songs in sequence makes sense, having scriptural and thematic relatedness; the key signatures are conductive to easy, unjarring, and smooth transitions between songs; the tempos of the songs (usually faster to slower overall with songs having similar tempos grouped) contributing to a growing sense of closer encounter with God.19Lim and Ruth, Lovin’ on Jesus, 33.

Worship Reformed According to Scripture

This theology of worship is a distinct break from the theology and expectation of Reformed Christians in the wake of the Reformation until the rise of American revivalism in the nineteenth century and Pentecostalism in the twentieth century. Worship theology that was reformed according to Scripture taught that emotion and singing come as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life, not as a cause of the Holy Spirit’s work. Calvin Stapert helpfully makes this point with reference to Ephesians 5:18–19 and Colossians 3:16:

“Spirit filling” does not come as the result of singing. Rather, “Spirit filling” comes first; singing is the response. . . . Clear as these passages are in declaring that Christian singing is a response to the Word of Christ and to being filled with the Spirit, it is hard to keep from turning the cause and effect around. Music, with its stimulating power, can too easily be seen as the cause and the “Spirit filling” as the effect.20Calvin R. Stapert, A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), 19–20.

“Such a reading of the passages,” Stapert argues, “gives song an undue epicletic function and turns it into a means of beguiling the Holy Spirit.” He argues that such a “magical epicletic function” characterized pagan worship music, not Christian.21Stapert, New Song, 20. The Holy Spirit works in a believer’s heart through the sufficient Word that he inspired and the ordinary means of grace he prescribed therein.

Further, while the NT does describe certain “emotions” that rise out of a heart of a Spirit-sanctified believer, such as the “fruit of the Spirit,” these will be characterized, not by extraordinary euphoria, but by what Jonathan Edwards calls “the lamb-like, dove-like spirit or temper of Jesus Christ.” Truly Spirit-formed “religious affections,” according to Edwards, “naturally beget and promote such a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness, and mercy, as appeared in Christ.”22Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, New Ed. (Banner of Truth, 1978), 272.

This theology of worship lead to a philosophy of corporate worship that considered it to be a biblically-regulated service of covenant renewal, wherein God forms his people through his Word, and his people respond with adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and dedication. The songs and other elements of worship are not chosen for their emotional mood or any expectation that God’s presence is made manifest through music; rather, they are chosen based on how their content fits in the covenant-renewal shape of the service.23For an explanation of this theology of covenant-renewal worship, see Scott Aniol, Biblical Foundations of Corporate Worship (Conway, AR: Free Grace Press, 2022) and Jonathan Landry Cruse, What … Continue reading

The Camel’s Nose

Pentecostalism shifted the emphasis for corporate worship from covenant renewal to authentic emotional experience. And this theology did not stay only in Pentecostal churches. Worship that embodies Pentecostal theology began to introduce embodied Pentecostalism into broader evangelicalism, primarily through its music.

In their insightful Concise History of Contemporary Worship, Lovin’ on Jesus, Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth convincingly demonstrate that Pentecostalism, with its “revisioning of a New Testament emphasis upon the active presence and ministry of the Holy Spirit,” is one of five key sources of contemporary worship.24Lim and Ruth, Lovin’ on Jesus, 17–18. The other four are youth ministry, baby boomers, Jesus People, and church growth missiology. They suggest that “Pentecostalism’s shaping of contemporary worship has been both through its own internal development and through an influencing of other Protestants in worship piety and practice,” including the following ways its theology has shaped contemporary worship:

  1. mainstreaming the desire to be physical and expressive in worship
  2. highlighting intensity as a liturgical virtue
  3. a certain expectation of experience to the forms of contemporary worship, and
  4. a musical sacramentality [that] raises the importance of the worship set as well as the musicians leading this set.25Lim and Ruth, Lovin’ on Jesus, 18.

They explain, “Pentecostalism contributed contemporary worship’s sacramentality, that is, both the expectation that God’s presence could be encountered in worship and the normal means by which this encounter would happen,” creating an “expectation for encountering God, active and present through the Holy Spirit.”26Lim and Ruth, Lovin’ on Jesus, 18. Daniel Albrecht agrees: “The presence of the Holy Spirit then is fundamental to a Pentecostal perspective of worship. The conviction that the Spirit is present in worship is one of the deepest beliefs in a Pentecostal liturgical vision. The expectancy of the Spirit’s presence is often palpable in the liturgy. . . . Their liturgical rites and sensibilities encourage becoming consciously present to God—even as God’s presence is expected to become very real in worship.”27Daniel E. Albrecht, “Worshiping and the Spirit: Transmuting Liturgy Pentecostally,” in The Spirit in Worship—Worship in the Spirit, ed. Teresa Berger and Bryan D. Spinks (Collegeville, MN: … Continue reading

Thus, worship in which the Holy Spirit is directly active is often necessarily connected with spontaneity and “freedom” of form. Worship that is structured and regulated is the opposite of “Spirit-led” worship in this view. As Lim and Ruth note, most contemporary worship, impacted as it is by this understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work in worship, considers “extemporaneity as a mark of worship that is true and of the Holy Spirit, that is, worship in Spirit and truth (John 4:24). This view of extemporaneity” they note, “has been held widely within Free Church ways of worship.”28Lim and Ruth, Lovin’ on Jesus, 38. What Albrecht observes of Pentecostal worship has become the standard expectation for most of evangelicalism:

In the midst of radical receptivity, an encounter with the Holy Spirit may occur. Pentecostals envision such encounters as integral to the worship experience. While an overwhelming or overpowering experience of/in the Spirit is neither rare nor routine for a particular Pentecostal worshiper, the experiential dimension of worship is fundamental. The liturgical vision sees God as present in the service; consequently, Pentecostals reason that a direct experience of God is a normal expectation.29Albrecht, “Worshiping and the Spirit: Transmuting Liturgy Pentecostally,” 240.

This theology is what music from charismatic groups like Hillsong, Bethel, Jesus Culture, and Elevation embodies. As sociologist Gerardo Marti notes, “Hillsong represents a compelling musical pathway to an emotional one-on-one connection to God.”30Gerardo Marti, “The Global Phenomenon of Hillsong Church: An Initial Assessment,” Sociology of Religion 78 (December 12, 2017): 378. He continues, “Hillsong worship involves the hopeful anticipation of the Pentecostal ego motivated to participate in an event-dependent effort (the gathering of worshippers) to surrender oneself with a characteristic openness to God (which involves setting aside distractions and ‘letting go,’ that is meant to lead the earnest believer to the deployment of spiritual power.”31Marti, “Hillsong,” 382.

And we would expect nothing less. It makes perfect sense that groups with charismatic theology would worship like charismatics. We could disagree with their theology, but we would understand that their worship would flow from that theology.

The problem is when evangelicals who do not affirm or teach charismatic theology worship like charismatics, and this has come largely through the music produced by groups like these. Marti calls this the “Hillsongization” of Christianity.32Marti, “Hillsong,” 384. This point is critically important to recognize: when you sing music from Hillsong, Bethel, Jesus Culture, and Elevation, you are bringing embodied Pentecostalism into your church.

When you sing music from Hillsong, Bethel, Jesus Culture, and Elevation, you are bringing embodied Pentecostalism into your church.

Music Embodies Theology

“But the lyrics of the songs we’re using from these groups don’t teach Pentecostal theology,” you might reply. Well, maybe, although many of them do in both overt and subtle ways.

But again, I’m not talking about the lyrics here—I’m talking about the music. The music itself has been carefully designed to create a visceral experience of the feelings that then become evidence of God’s manifest presence. This fits the sacramental theology of charismatics perfectly, but it does not fit the theology of non-charismatic evangelicals, especially those who consider themselves Reformed. And so, I repeat, most of evangelicalism worships like charismatics even if their church’s doctrinal statement does not affirm that theology.

And here’s the thing: what is more potently formative for the people in the pew—a doctrinal statement on the church’s web site, or how they worship week in and week out?

If you do not want to teach Pentecostal theology to your people, then don’t sing Hillsong, Bethel, Jesus Culture, or Elevation. Because when you do, you are shaping your people through embodied theology.

“Wait—” you might reply; “doesn’t the music from many other popular contemporary worship artists embody the same sort of charismatic theology?”

Why yes—yes it does.

Let the reader understand.

Update: followup post on how music embodies theology here and one on two kinds of worship music here.

References

References
1 Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth Expanded Edition: A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, 2013), 34.
2 See Amanda Casanova, “Is Megachurch Pastor Steven Furtick Denying the Traditional View of the Trinity?,ChristianHeadlines.Com, March 5, 2020.
3 Leonardo Blair, “Ex-Nanny of Former Hillsong NYC Pastor Carl Lentz Accuses Him of Sexual Abuse,” The Christian Post, June 1, 2021; Michael Gryboski, “Hillsong’s Brian Houston Says Sex Abuse Concealment Charges Are ‘a Shock to Me,’” The Christian Post, August 6, 2021.
4 Nicola Menzie, “Hillsong’s Brian Houston on Gay Marriage: ‘I Believe the Writings of Paul Are Clear on This Subject,’” The Christian Post, October 18, 2014.
5 See Tanya Riches, “The Evolving Theological Emphasis of Hillsong Worship (1996–2007),” Australasian Pentecostal Studies 13 (2010): 87–133; Bethel, “Glory Clouds and Gold Dust, Signs and Wonders,” Rediscover Bethel, 2021; Jeannie Ortega Law, “Bill Johnson Explains Why Bethel Is Praying for 2-Year-Old’s Resurrection,” The Christian Post, December 19, 2019.
6 Terry Law, How to Enter the Presence of God (Tulsa: Victory House, 1994), 69.
7 For a fantastic treatment of this text, see Matthew Sikes, “Does God Inhabit the Praises of His People? An Examination of Psalm 22:3,” Artistic Theologian 9 (2020): 5–22.
8 Reg Layzell, Unto Perfection: The Truth about the Present Restoration Revival (Mount-lake Terrace: The King’s Temple, 1979), 120–121; Bob Sorge, Exploring Worship: A Practical Guide to Praise & Worship (Canandaigua, NY: Oasis House, 1987).
9 Judson Cornwall, Let Us Praise (Plainfield, N.J: Logos Associates, 1973), 26.
10 Judson Cornwall, Let Us Worship (Plainfield, NJ: Bridge Pub., 1983), 49.
11 Thurlow Spurr, “Praise: More Than a ‘Festival.’ It’s a Way of Life,” Charisma 11, no. 6 (August 1977): 13.
12 Darlene Zschech, Extravagant Worship: Holy, Holy, Holy Is the Lord God Almighty Who Was and Is, and Is to Come (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002), 54–55 Emphasis original.
13 Runn Ann Ashton, God’s Presence through Music (South Bend, IN: Lesea Publishing Co., 1993).
14 Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth, Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017), 18.
15 Cornwall, Let Us Worship, 146.
16 Cornwall, Let Us Worship, 158.
17 Zac M. Hicks, The Worship Pastor: A Call to Ministry for Worship Leaders and Teams (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 184.
18 Carl Tuttle, “Song Selection & New Song Introduction,” in In Worship Leaders Training Manual (Anaheim, CA: Worship Resource Center/Vineyard Ministries International, 1987), 141.
19 Lim and Ruth, Lovin’ on Jesus, 33.
20 Calvin R. Stapert, A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), 19–20.
21 Stapert, New Song, 20.
22 Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, New Ed. (Banner of Truth, 1978), 272.
23 For an explanation of this theology of covenant-renewal worship, see Scott Aniol, Biblical Foundations of Corporate Worship (Conway, AR: Free Grace Press, 2022) and Jonathan Landry Cruse, What Happens When We Worship (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2020).
24 Lim and Ruth, Lovin’ on Jesus, 17–18. The other four are youth ministry, baby boomers, Jesus People, and church growth missiology.
25, 26 Lim and Ruth, Lovin’ on Jesus, 18.
27 Daniel E. Albrecht, “Worshiping and the Spirit: Transmuting Liturgy Pentecostally,” in The Spirit in Worship—Worship in the Spirit, ed. Teresa Berger and Bryan D. Spinks (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009), 239.
28 Lim and Ruth, Lovin’ on Jesus, 38.
29 Albrecht, “Worshiping and the Spirit: Transmuting Liturgy Pentecostally,” 240.
30 Gerardo Marti, “The Global Phenomenon of Hillsong Church: An Initial Assessment,” Sociology of Religion 78 (December 12, 2017): 378.
31 Marti, “Hillsong,” 382.
32 Marti, “Hillsong,” 384.
Author group of people watching concert

Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at www.scottaniol.com. Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.

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