“COME ON PEOPLE, WHAT’S HIS NAME???!!!,” asks the beefy bearded singer from the stage of Madison Square Garden. “IF EVER THERE WAS A TIME AND A PLACE TO GET ROWDY IT’S RIGHT NOW!!!” His words remind me of the time I saw Slayer at the same venue and people ripped up the seat cushions and set them on fire. This time around, though, the artist in question is from the worship group Hillsong UNITED, and the name that bandleader and pastor Joel Houston wants the crowd to scream out loud is that of Jesus Christ.
Houston’s invocation comes at the climax of The People Tour: Live From Madison Square Garden, the new concert film which premiered today on Amazon Prime. It is accompanied by a new live album and documents Hillsong UNITED’s July 2, 2019, performance at the storied indoor arena. At just over two hours it presents nearly their entire concert, mixing messages of spiritual devotion with stadium-size spectacle and surging rock-adjacent pop.
Hillsong UNITED are an outgrowth of Hillsong Church, the Australian megachurch which grew from humble beginnings in the Sydney suburbs to over 150,000 members worldwide, according to its website. Founded in 1983, Hillsong has wed Evangelical Christianity with modern marketing and courted celebrity congregants, including Justin Bieber and assorted Kardashians. Hillsong UNITED grew out of the group’s youth ministry and is led by Joel Houston, son of church founders Brian and Bobbie Houston (but no relation to Whitney).
Before hitting the stage, Joel Houston talks about his love of New York City. “It’s like a melting pot in every single way and that’s what everybody loves about it,” he says from an SUV parked outside MSG. Houston founded the Hillsong NYC church in 2010 with “hipster pastor” Carl Lentz, who famously baptized the Bieb and NBA star Kevin Durant. This sense of inclusivity informs People, the 2019 live album the band was supporting when they played the Garden, and the church’s teachings as well. To a point. While Hillsong has spoken out in support of Black Lives Matter, it still wrestles with LGBTQ issues, claiming it “loves ALL people” while at the same time opposing same sex marriage.
Secular music has long borrowed from the sacred. Generations of artists lifted black gospel’s musical motifs and concert audiences echo the communal ecstasy found in Pentacostal services. Somewhere along the way, faith-based artists began wrapping religious messages in modern musical forms, from heavy metal to hip hop. Hillsong UNITED take the unstoppable forward surge of traditional gospel and adorn it with the heavily processed guitars of U2 and simple pop melodies plucked from Coldplay. Live, they are a mass of musicians and singers, reminding one of Arcade Fire or The Polyphonic Spree. Like Jesus, who in Houston’s words “connects the heavens to the lowest points on Earth,” their performance goes ever higher, from peak to peak. Though ultimately tiring, the crowd sure loves it.
Respect where it’s due, there’s no pussy footing in Hillsong UNITED. While other acts dilute their religiosity for mainstream acceptance, every Hillsong UNITED song is explicitly about the worship of Christ. Mid-song, singer Taya Smith-Gaukrodger asks the crowd to raise their hands in a “sign of surrender” and say, “Lord Jesus we pray that what you hear tonight will be pleasing to your ear, your name will be the one that will be glorified over every other name.”
Hillsong UNITED propagate the idea of Jesus AS superstar, a blinding ray of light, the same one that knocked Saul of Tarsus off his horse, whose non-judgmental love is an omnipotent protein shake for the soul. Many of the lyrics, which are televised on a giant screen behind the band, wallow in admissions of personal imperfection, but hey, that’s OK, because Christ forgives you. “There’s nothing you can do to make him love you any less, think about that!,” Houston says in one aside.
Pop songs about the greatness of God played in sporting arenas is probably more appealing than the sober church services I grew up with, where a soft spoken vicar read prayers and sermons in-between a chorus of retirees singing 100-year-old hymns. There’s something inspiring about Hillsong UNITED’s unwavering exuberance though their music strips away the pain and struggle found in the best sanctified music, which makes the joy of salvation that much more palpable and powerful. However, fans of the group will certainly be delighted by the flawlessly executed live show exhibited in The People Tour: Live From Madison Square Garden.
Divine redemption must be on the minds of many in the Hillsong community these days. In Nov. 2020, Carl Lentz was fired after “moral failures” came to light and Brian Houston subsequently announced on Twitter that the church was “launching an independent investigation into the inner workings of Hillsong NYC/ East Coast.” Numerous pastors have left the church in the scandal’s aftermath and allegations abound about the misuse of funds. Perhaps saddest of all, as Peter denied Christ before him, Justin Bieber announced he had left the church earlier this month on social media.
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York based writer, producer and musician. Follow him on Twitter: @BHSmithNYC.