The Greatest Compliment

“The Greatest Compliment”
Taya Smith of Hillsong United
A Review of Hillsong: Let Hope Rise by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, NR
Reel Rating, Five Reels           

            When Augustine wrote that “singing is praying twice” it’s doubtful he had ripped jean twentysomething rock musicians in mind, yet the latest documentary from Christian powerhouse Pure Flix shows that the genre is not only a force for good in the world but can bring people to authentic faith. Hillsong: Let Hope Rise is an act of pure joy, the story of how a small church band from Sydney became one of the most successful Christian movements of the 21st century. If you listen to any Christian radio station or attend any youth event, their hits will be instantly recognizable. As the Catholic world wrestles with a proper understanding of the Liturgy, it’s easy to become dismissive of these Protestant upstarts who don’t have the benefit of centuries of musical knowledge. Yet if one looks to the fruit of Hillsong’s labor, the Spirit is truly present. There’s a lot they can teach us, and much we can teach them.
            As the film begins, Hillsong United prepares for a worship concert at the LA forum. At first, things look fairly normal. The band rehearses. Microphones are checked. Lights are adjusted. Yet as the line outside begins to grow, director Michael John Warren takes the audience on a backstage look at the history of Hillsong Church and the lives of each band member. It started as a one room building with a miniscule stage by Pastor Brian Housten and his wife Bobbie in 1983. Now much older and with shorter hair, his passion for the gospel has not waned. “I always thought God created music for the sole purpose of worshipping him,” he muses. To this end, his son Joel starts a worship band with his friends. They begin as wild teenagers, more interested in dumb pranks and 90s grunge than praising God. As they travel the world and experience the consequences of original sin, however, they begin to mature and turn their faith into masterpieces of Christian art. They not only sing in foreign countries but, not completely unlike the early apostles, start churches of their own that work with the local people to address needs like food, water, medical care, and housing.
            This is what separates Hillsong from so many other Christian groups: an intentional focus on the suffering of humanity and how the saving grace of Jesus can bring anyone hope. Albert Schweitzer said he wanted “his life to be his argument,” and they live that adage. “Most people assume we live rock stars,” one prominent musician sighs. His wife and two daughters still live with her parents and dream of the day they can afford a down payment on a house. On the road many months at a time, he treasures the time he has with his family. Another musician wakes up from nightmares every night after his six-week old baby has open heart surgery. They are honest about their shortcomings, even admitting that many of their songs are not up to par, and have no interest in the prosperity of the world.
Yet by being close to the margins, they frequently produce wonders. Several times, the plot slows down to show full performances from the concert that mirror thematically the course of the narrative. I had never heard their most popular song “Oceans” until the screening. It is as good as anything by Bach, Handel, or the great anonymous monastics of the Middle Ages. Perhaps even better. Hours before the concert, Joel is still editing the lyrics of one song, trying to get it as perfect as possible. The first time the audience hears it will be the first time he does too.
            There is precious little formal theology in any of Hillsong’s work, and the context is fully Protestant. Yet at the same time, there is nothing that would offend any Christian who professes the Creed. Their themes of trust, grace, salvation, and glory are great points of ecumenical unity. Before greenlighting any song, they double check with their pastor to make sure it is Biblical based. Consider this comparison between “Mighty to Save” and the Paschal Troparion of St. John Chrysostom:

Saviour he can move the mountains
My God is mighty to save
He is mighty to save
Forever author of salvation
He rose and conquered the grave
Jesus conquered the grave

Christ is risen from the dead!
By death he trampled Death
and to those in the tombs
he granted life.

They could have been written by the same person. One concert member joyfully admits that he used heroin for twelve years “until last Monday.” As Christ told his disciples, “he who is not against us is for us.” The skepticism about Christian rock is overblown, a matter of prudence rather than heresy. Christian rock can be great music but is largely inappropriate for liturgical practice. Liturgical music should direct the faithful to what is occurring at that specific moment in the Mass. Christian rock is not liturgical but experiential, better for concert halls than cathedrals. It is, however, genuine devotion and can be used with great success on retreats or as standalone events.
            The first frame of Hillsong contained a disclaimer: This is a theatrical worship experience. Participation is encouraged. I thought that statement was a bit odd, but twenty minutes later I was singing. And laughing. And weeping. And I felt the veil of darkness rip, allowing me to experience a moment of deep consolation after many months of being plagued by spiritual doubt. I left the theater with renewed courage to face my trails, safe in the knowledge that Christ’s saving action could conquer anything. I can’t think of a better compliment to any movie than that.


  1. Having loved and followed Hillsong since my first visit to Australia in 2001, and seen the film when it opened in Virginia USA, this extraordinary commentary by Nick Olszyk mirrored my very own reaction that any trial is matched by one's faith in Jesus Christ.


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