Australian megachurch franchise Hillsong Church is best known to Americans for its most famous American members: Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez. Hillsong has been compared to Scientology for its heavily produced visual aesthetic, and for using Bieber as a Tom Cruise–style lure to attract followers and attention to the church. Founded in the '80s as Hills Christian Life Center, Hillsong is a Pentecostal megachurch with campuses all over Australia and international offshoots throughout the world. Hillsong is also the owner of a music label called Hillsong Music that puts out Christian music in a variety of genres, with albums that have gone gold and platinum in Australia.
In Los Angeles, the modern-day Hillsong is known for its hipster Christian aesthetics that are essentially the same as Coachella's, although maybe slightly more modest — big floppy hats, sunglasses, and long sundresses — equally suited to a music festival or a tour of the holy land. Hillsong United is tailored to this crowd's tastes — with a nu-folk aesthetic that matches the Silverlake Christianity of Hillsong's image. We're not a regular megachurch, Hillsong's merchandising says, we're a cool megachurch. Like Scientology, Hillsong serves a double function of providing its members with an instant social life and networking opportunities, particularly in show business — as promised by its flagship successful celebrity members.
But Hillsong does not endorse gay marriage or abortion, and its founder covered up a child molestation scandal involving his own father, so don't get crazy thinking they're open-minded or progressive just because the dress code is hippie themed. Ex-member Tanya Levin, who wrote the tell-all People in Glass Houses: An Insider's Story of a Life In and Out of Hillsong, describes Hillsong as a money-making mega-corporation disguised as an empathetic ear. She derides the church's founder, Brian Houston, who places an emphasis on financial successes as “prosperity theology” and constantly bleeds the congregation for money with the promise that the devout will be rewarded in heaven. Levin, who was raised in the church, believes that Hillsong financially exploits faith and devotion in a thoroughly un-Christlike way.
Inspired by the “Jesus People” of Haight-Ashbury, Hillsong portrayed itself as a spiritual “back to the land” movement — a folk-rock religion. And it has cultivated this image, with bands of followers who look like Father John Misty but sound like Coldplay. Hillsong's prosperity theology is wrapped up with its record label — the records sell because God wants you to buy them. Hillsong United's new album Of Dirt and Grace: Live from the Land is a “visual album” filmed on location in “various places in Israel.” It includes new arrangements of songs from previous Hillsong United albums like Zion and Empires. The album versions of the songs feature some chillwavey electronic instrumentation, but Of Dirt and Grace is strictly acoustic and sounds mostly like Mumford & the Son of God.
The songs are all similarly downtempo inspirational folk. Were it not for the mentions of Jesus, it would be very easy to mistake some Hillsong United songs for Bon Iver or post-Britpop. Every song starts quietly, builds to a louder climax, then goes back to being quiet. The songs sound like Kinfolk magazine looks — an artfully arranged series of Instagrams of avocado toast, rustic furniture, beautifully staged picnics, and nature as the accessories of spiritual revelation. The Instagram-filtered aesthetics extend to the music videos filmed in Israel in picturesque locations like “an empty tomb just beyond the city walls,” “the lowest place on earth and the cliffs of Arbel,” and “by fire in the hills of Galilee.” It's an understated, vaguely transcendentalist approach.
Like Hillsong's chill-but-not-really-that-chill-after-all image — it's more insidious than it initially seems — being put at ease can be dangerous. There's a lulling, calming feeling to all the songs that made me feel, well, lulled and calm. As an agnostic skeptic I am always looking for experiences that will make me see the other side, and music is reliably one of the things that can move me away from myself. I understand the power of losing oneself in a crowd, and to blend one's voice into a chorus is one of the most pleasurable feelings on earth. But I also fear the seductiveness of groups. When people advertise themselves as laid-back, it can be a sign they are anything but. Just because they like to loll around in nature and wear hats, don't mistake Hillsong for transcendentalists — too much individual thought will get you summarily booted out the door. You better sing in key.