In case you’ve been living under a rock, Hillsong is in trouble. While the superstar pastor Carl Lentz fell from grace back in 2020, now several other scandals have arisen, including the “global pastor” Brian Houston resigning due to breaking the church’s code of conduct. Members, pastors, and entire congregations are leaving. The Hillsong leadership is clamoring for NDA’s and non-compete clauses. It’s a mess.
But it’s a mess that implicates the entire evangelical world, especially as found in the West (but exported to the global Church). After all, one of the reasons Hillsong is so prosperous is because people keep sending them music royalties. For some reason (still lost to me), people love Hillsong’s product, and they like featuring that product in their church worship services. If you’re the sort of person that reads this fine publication regularly, you probably have strong opinions on why that’s a problem and where much of the problem stems from.
Critics (including yours truly) mock Hillsong and its copy-cats for working hard at making Christianity cool, even though the world will never accept orthodox Christianity. Our culture is enamored with sexual license and its associated maladies, and no amount of cool factor is going to garner much goodwill, loyalty, or respect. The attacks against Hillsong by anti-Christian pundits have been just as vicious as those against the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the Southern Baptist Convention.
It’s sad, really. All the effort, thought, talent, time, money, and other resources spent on appealing to the world result in no love from the world. Meanwhile, the sheep of the flock (or worldly people who are into “spiritual” things) get malnourished and malformed. There shouldn’t be a thin line between the Spirit’s moving and an emotional high artificially manufactured by certain chord progressions, nor between a pastor and a high-flying CEO. For the first, churches need to stop attempts at engineering conversion or, perhaps these days, a great feeling of “spirituality” through concert-like worship services. This erroneous assumption goes at least as far back as Charles Finney and was roundly criticized by John Williamson Nevin’s The Anxious Bench. For the second, biblically-qualified men can buckle under the pressure of performance anxiety and temptation while narcissists find attraction in fame and spiritual power. Hillsong is just the latest organization to have incorporated industrial entrepreneurship with individualistic religion, creating an unmistakably “cool” brand.
After all, Hillsong’s coolness is established by generating emotions through a specific form of music, preaching, teaching, and overall “church experience” that is utterly devoted to correct feelings. As some have quipped, evangelicals these days aren’t so much governed by orthodoxy (right doctrine) but rather orthopathy (right feeling). If those feelings aren’t present, the worship isn’t “Spirit-filled” and one’s spiritual life must be lacking. Moreover, spiritual health is to be found in those things which emotionally delight us.
Hillsong has mastered the creation, distribution, and even sale of this therapeutic lifestyle brand to the current generation. That’s what makes them so special or unique. Boomers and Gen-Xers loved “Shout to the Lord” while Millennials and Gen Z have embraced “Oceans.” But just because Hillsong was on the cutting edge of these trends—awash in money, members, “cool factor,” and adulation—does not mean the rest of Christianity escapes criticism. All religious groups are struggling with what Philip Rieff termed the “triumph of the therapeutic.”
That includes our own tribe, in all honesty. One would think that Anglicans—particularly conservative evangelical Anglicans who love the English Reformation—would be all about Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. After all, this was the man who was martyred for his convictions. His liturgy is by far the most dominant in Anglophone Protestantism. And, as we like to talk up all things liturgical in the Anglican world (especially when giving an elevator pitch), you would expect Cranmer’s words presented at least every Sunday in evangelical Anglican parishes across the United States. You would be wrong. Usage of Cranmerian Prayer Books like the 1662 and the 1928 are hard to find. As one evangelical Anglican told a colleague, he preferred newer prayer books “because they’re happier.”
Let that sink in. An evangelical chooses the fruit of liturgical revisionists over and against the fruit of the Reformation he so loves to praise. And the doctrines which traditional evangelical churchmen have long embraced and advocated are found with greater clarity in the Cranmerian liturgies. But they aren’t “happy” enough. From the mid-20th century on forward, the immense gravity of Cranmer’s Prayer Book, Coverdale’s Psalter, and the Authorized Version of the Bible have given way to cheerier texts that are more “approachable,” downplay our wretched sinfulness, and de-emphasize Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice on the cross. Why would a Reformational evangelical ™ choose the thinner gruel of post-Dixian monkeyshines over such a goodly heritage? Because they value something that isn’t found in the classical prayer books—the right feeling, which often involves a sunnier language with regard to sin, God’s judgment, and the dreadful sacrifice necessary to save sinners from said judgment.
This liturgical preference is part of a wider aesthetical one. It manifests in horizontal architecture, a stage-like chancel dominated by contemporary musical instruments, and the all-present projector screen. Even when parishes have more than adequate resources to purchase good hymnals and prayer books, they opt for the “mene mene tekel upharsin” on the wall. Even when congregations or their ministers could afford traditional vestments, they opt for tailor-made suits, colorful clerical shirts, and maybe a stole. Throw in some lightweight preaching, and we are off to the races. So we have Anglicans who don’t like the clothes that Anglicans traditionally wear and don’t like the songs Anglicans traditionally sang (or at least hold them in the same esteem as Hillsong industrial pablum). Even in a synodal context, when we aren’t trying to put on an “attractional” show to the de-churched and “seekers,” we can shy away from the full Anglican patrimony.
Why? What are we allergic to? What are we avoiding in these small renunciations of tradition? Taken individually, these are unimportant peccadilloes. Taken as a whole, there’s something bigger and nefarious going on here. A revolt against a certain aesthetic is afoot, even as that revolt may be inherited from the wider Big Box evangelical culture rather than from within Anglicanism itself. The bastardized result of mixing the Anglican heritage with consumerist revivalistic evangelicalism is an example of what one priest termed “Cheez Whiz Anglicanism,” and the label fits. “It looks something like cheese (old school Anglicanism),” he pointed out, “but it really isn’t.” But why? Why opt for Cheez Whiz over the real thing?
For the most part, it’s because we’re hooked on something, like an addict to a drug. We are addicted to the therapeutic. And it’s a manifestation of a more fundamental spiritual problem: a widespread rebellion against hierarchy. “Dour” vestments and clericals, militant or contemplative hymns that don’t give a U2 or Coldplay “vibe,” majestic courtly language in Scripture and liturgy, traditional church architecture (from the small country chapel all the way to Wren and the neo-Gothics), and straightforward preaching of unpopular truth are for therapeutic evangelicals what the “patriarchal, metaphysical god of the Old Testament” is to liberal academic theologians. We suppress anything that could imply that we have “betters” even in this mortal life that are to be honored and obeyed. We are all interchangeable blobs, and the only earthly things (if any) that have legitimate authority in our eyes are bureaucracies. As for the Lord, we redefine and reimagine Him. We squirm at the thought of a truly transcendent, awesome, impassible, simple God Who’s not our empathetic psychotherapist but instead the One Who can deliver us, according to His wisdom, power, and goodness (a point that E. L. Mascall makes with great potency in his Christ, the Christian, and the Church).
Contemporary man does not want authority from “on high,” even if that is the great Author of all Himself. The traditions of our fathers must be trashed. Catechesis—the “sounding down” of the faith once delivered—cramps our style. It’s all slow growth, and it all requires us to honor our betters. That’s profoundly unappealing. Perhaps most important of all, gravity must be repudiated with all our might and main, especially in the assembled service of worship. We must always be drifting on a cloud of good feelings, perhaps with near-nonstop atmospheric background music. This is not just a megachurch problem. Many conservative Anglican churches simply cannot resist a “floaty” worship service.
We can get very sensitive when our therapeutic, egalitarian values are questioned or criticized. We have reduced the faith to what we think or feel inside with little thought to external realities breaking in or being participated in. After all, what often is the sacramental theology of the emotionalist? As one seminarian asked in a church history class, “Why were Luther and Calvin talking about baptism and the Lord’s Supper all the time? Did they just not have good teaching?” While that young man got a good dressing down from his professor, other parts of the Christian world wholeheartedly embrace such an interior-emotions-abstract orientation when it comes to the faith. It appeals to the dominant outlooks of our day. And Anglicans that, for whatever reason, find themselves enamored with the Hillsongification/Saddleback-ification/Willow Creek-ification of the Church need to take a step back. How far are we going with this attractional approach to liturgical expression? Why are we indulging it at all? Where does it end up? Shouldn’t we renounce this as spiritually unhealthy and un-Anglican?
Of course, when we start talking that way, we find ourselves booted from the cool kids table, as one writer has put it. We are cranks; we are defeatists; we are narrow-minded; we can’t plant and grow thriving churches. However, as D. G. Hart has convincingly argued, the liberalization of America’s Protestant churches was not the result of crazed heretical radicals. Those were on the fringe. The rot resulted primarily from broad evangelicals who did not care about confessional commitments, liturgical heritage, and church discipline within their own denominations. These narrowing characteristics rocked the boat too much and excluded certain people. They threatened the pan-evangelical American social project. Perhaps worst of all, they could involve renunciation of things that feel good and are popular.
And it’s just that kind of ascetical resolve we need if we’re going to weather our current cultural storm. We, our children, and our grandchildren need to be preaching and living the faith once delivered to the saints decades and even centuries from now. For generational continuity and for Anglican orthodoxy to exist once we are out on the other side of the season of insanity, we need a strong commitment to the catholic deposit of faith, especially as expressed in our unique patrimony. If those things are suppressed, ignored, or avoided, we should not be surprised with a repeat of Mainline infidelity with regard to doctrine and moral teaching. So let us make perfect our will.