Australia’s prime minister was on hand for the opening of Hillsong Church’s 3,500-seat convention facility
Sydney’s Olympic Superdome, built for the 2000 Games, will resound with acclamation for Jesus this month as the 2003 Hillsong Conference gets under way.
Some 15,000 Christians are expected to attend the five-day event, hosted by Hillsong Church and now in its 17th year. Its teachings on leadership, worship, evangelism and other areas of ministry are widely regarded as a benchmark for the contemporary church. In recent years it has drawn increasing numbers of participants from the United States and other countries.
From humble beginnings in 1983, Hillsong Church has grown into Australia’s largest church, with 14,000 members in several congregations across Sydney. There are also Hillsong churches in London and Kiev, capital of the former Soviet republic Ukraine.
In October Australian Prime Minister John Howard participated in the grand opening of Hillsong Church’s new convention center. The facility, located in a modern business park in Sydney’s northwestern suburbs, contains a 3,500-seat auditorium, a large youth meeting hall, college lecture theatres, Sunday school rooms and a day-care center. The complex is fitted with state-of-the-art sound, lighting and media systems, and is considered one of Australia’s most technologically advanced buildings.
Surveying the crowd packed in for the opening, Howard said: “It’s a great gathering, and what touches me is the exuberance and the openness of your commitment. I admire the commitment, the evident reach, and the capacity of a Christian church to grow as you have grown in an age which is increasingly secular.
“Most importantly I pay tribute to the fact that you are serving not only the canons of your religious belief, but you are also serving the interest of the community and the interest of our nation.”
Hillsong’s senior pastor, Assemblies of God National President Brian Houston, says relevance to individuals’ needs has been the key to the church’s growth. “That is why we see over 100 people make commitments to Christ every week,” Houston said. “Our church is an enigma in every way because Australians have a perception that the church is old, irrelevant, empty and boring. But Hillsong Church is relatively young, contemporary and full.
“Perhaps outside our walls Hillsong Church is best known for its music, but I think that the music is a reflection of what is happening inside our church. What keeps people coming is what is added to their lives and families by the various ministries of our church.”
Hillsong’s worship album Blessed caused a media flurry when the week after its July 2002 release it landed at No. 4 on the Australian Record Industry Association chart, just behind rapper Eminem. In March the church recorded 19 live worship songs for their upcoming album Hope, which will be released at the Hillsong conference.
Worship pastor Darlene Zschech says their music’s cross-cultural appeal is a reflection of their desire to stay sensitive to the Holy Spirit. She says talent ranks way down on the list of qualities she looks for in worship-team members.
“I’m always saying, ‘Remember the first time you got saved, and this song of worship in you was like a fire, and it had to get out. Is it still there?'” she said. “We’re always teaching and challenging each other and ourselves on these things.”
In addition to the success, there have been some tests along the way. In the last three years allegations of sexual misconduct were brought against Houston’s father, Frank, and Pat Mesiti, a close friend. Both were high-profile Assemblies of God ministers. Houston permanently withdrew his father’s ministry credentials and barred Mesiti from ministry pending a lengthy restoration process. He believes his handling of the situations has had a positive outcome.
“Obviously, as a leader I have had to make some strong decisions, and I believe that our church has respected me and our eldership for this, and that is why our church has seen some of its best growth in its history in this time.”
The new facility and Prime Minister Howard’s visit are clearly milestones, but Houston expects Hillsong to continue doing what he says it has always done–“to champion the cause of the local church and set a model that inspires others.”
Adrian Brookes in Sydney, Australia