The religion beat: Hillsong rocks the evangelical world, and the NYTimes' front page

A photo of a crowd at what appears to be a rock concert dominates the front page of today's New York Times.

No, the image has nothing to do Apple's U2 album giveaway, although the Irish rock band makes a cameo appearance at the end of the Times'  Page 1 feature on a "megachurch with a beat."

I'll make a few constructive criticisms (that's why they pay me the big bucks, after all), but it's a solid story overall with a terrific, colorful lede:

LOS ANGELES — A toned and sunburned 32-year-old Australian with the letters F-A-I-T-H tattooed onto his biceps strode onto the stage of a former burlesque theater here and shouted across a sea of upstretched hands and uplifted smartphones: “Let’s win this city together!”
The crowd did not need much urging. Young, diverse and devoted to Jesus, the listeners had come to the Belasco Theater from around the city, and from across the country, eager to help an Australian Pentecostal megachurch that is spreading worldwide establish its first outpost on America’s West Coast.
The church, Hillsong, has become a phenomenon, capitalizing on, and in some cases shaping, trends not only in evangelicalism but also in Christian youth culture. Its success would be rare enough at a time when religion is struggling in a secularizing Europe and North America. But Hillsong is even more remarkable because its target is young Christians in big cities, where faith seems out of fashion but where its services are packing them in.
Powered by a thriving, and lucrative, recording label that dominates Christian contemporary music, it has a vast reach — by some estimates, 100,000 people in the pews each weekend, 10 million followers on social media, 16 million albums sold, with its songs popping up in churches from Uzbekistan to Papua New Guinea.

From there, the Times provides background and outside expert analysis of Hillsong's international appeal and its place in the modern American religious scene. And the newspaper gives a voice to naysayers:

But its critics, and there are many, deride Hillsong as hipster Christianity, suggesting that its theology is thin, its enthusiasm for celebrities (Justin Bieber is among its fans) unbecoming, its politics (opposition to abortion and a murky position on homosexuality) opaque.
“It’s a prosperity movement for the millennials, in which the polyester and middle-class associations of Oral Roberts have given way to ripped jeans and sophisticated rock music,” said R. Albert Mohler Jr., the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “What has made Hillsong distinctive is a minimization of the actual content of the Gospel, and a far more diffuse presentation of spirituality.”

I'm not certain "politics" is the right word in that summary of critics' concerns. While abortion and homosexuality may be political issues to the Times, I'm pretty certain the critics would label them "doctrinal" concerns.

As for the criticism itself, the Times never really gives Hillsong leaders an opportunity to respond to the claim that the "theology is thin." Nor does the story provide any indication whether the services include sermons or Bible studies.

Also, the piece quotes two prominent Southern Baptists: Mohler and Lifeway Research's Ed Stetzer. Both are wonderful sources for insight on U.S. evangelicalism.

But since Hillsong — at least in Australia — has ties to the Assemblies of God, it seems strange that the Times quotes no one among America's growing Pentecostal movement. I'd be curious if they share the concerns of the critics referenced by the Times.

Alas, I am nitpicking, and I realize space is finite, even in the Times.

Discussing Hillsong's music, the story ends with that U2 reference I mentioned earlier.

The sound has evolved over the decades, but is now sometimes compared to U2’s. Tom Wagner, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Edinburgh, said Hillsong’s music was characterized by rich orchestration, but simple harmonies, and was often regarded by listeners as “spiritually anointed.”
“They’re very good at writing songs that are catchy,” Mr. Wagner said. “They know what works.”


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