One unseasonably warm spring day in Southern California when I was 18 years old, I crammed into a car with 4 or 5 of my closest friends from choir at our Assemblies of God university and drove an hour inland for a concert. We parked in a vast asphalt parking lot surrounded by empty land, probably owned by the church we were at and just waiting for new buildings to be built. The one building already standing was a concrete and glass monstrosity with huge concrete columns around the outside creating covered walkways. This is where we stood in line with hundreds of other people for an undetermined amount of time, I honestly can’t remember how long. All I know is I remember the hot afternoon sun glaring at us from a clear blue sky when we arrived, and it being almost dark when we finally got inside.
We made our way through the tiled church foyer past bulletin boards with announcements and pictures of missionary families sponsored by the church. Volunteers directed us through a set of double doors into a short tunnel and when we emerged we were on the ground floor of, at that time, probably the biggest sanctuary I’d ever been in—and we had already sang at the Crystal Cathedral once. Looking behind us were stairs that led to a mezzanine with more seating. I distinctly remember one of our friends pointing to the velvet rope in front of the bottom step with a sign in front of it that read “The mezzanine is full. Please worship on a lower level.”
I don’t remember how or why but one of the friends we were with who was older, a senior that year, had some kind of connection to the worship team at the host church and for that reason we were seated toward the front in some rows reserved for certain guests. And then finally, after a long day of anticipation, the house lights were dimmed as the band members quietly took their places checking their mics and a last-minute tuning of guitars. The stage lights came up as the drummer counted them in. And walking in from stage right, mic in hand as she clapped overhead to the beat, was the legend herself, Darlene Zschech.
We traded our sorrows and shouted to the lord for the next two hours solid complete with alter call and prayer warriors at the front ready to lend an ear. When it was all over and the band had walked off stage and the house lights came up, a woman walked over to our friend (the older one with some kind of connection) and said “Do you want to meet her?” and our friend was swept away behind the black stage curtain. The rest of us made our way out to the lobby and weaved our way around merch tables with weepy fans buying CD’s and t-shirts until we found a spot to wait. Our friend found us not 15 minutes later, star-struck and teary eyed as she described Zschech as the most gracious and down-to-earth woman and how she’d never forget that night. This friend of ours was so beloved and respected that I don’t remember feeling jealous—just lucky. Lucky to get invited on that trip, lucky to have those friends and experience that night. What a strange animal indoctrination is, huh?
When I sat down to watch the Hillsong documentary I thought I knew what to expect. I knew they’d talk about Carl Lentz and I hoped they would interview survivors of their systemic abuse of staff and volunteers (and they did!). I even anticipated they’d cover Frank Houston and his crimes. What I didn’t expect; was for my entire life inside white evangelicalism to flash before my eyes in a whirlwind of highly specific language and music and personality—while I sat helplessly trying to reconcile my very personal experiences that matched a carefully replicated global movement which was now available for viewing by anyone with a Discovery+ subscription and three extra hours to kill.
Even in all my time within these deconstruction spaces online, and all the reminiscing we do and discussions we have and sharing our similar but unique lived experiences—I’ve still always felt my tiny corner of evangelicalism was a little too niche. The majority of the theobros & co. that we argue with online now are usually more Baptist or Calvinist or Reformed than anything else –unlike those of us who experienced the “other” side of evangelicalism. The side with the dancing in the aisles and the anointing oil and speaking in tongues and with every eye closed and every head bowed can anyone who needs saving make their way to the alter on Sunday nights—you know, that side? Our denominations have been on the decline for quite some time now, and finding another survivor in the wild is rare.
This is going somewhere further than all my run-on sentences, I promise. See in the first episode of the documentary, they talk about Brian Houston’s origins. His father, Frank (yeah, the pedophile) was the superintendent of the Assemblies of God denomination in Australia before he planted the church that eventually became Hillsong. So there was a brief montage of the neo-charismatic movement or “third wave” that brought on the (now-waning) popularity of denominations like the Assemblies of God and Foursquare. These denominations were the foundation of my immediate family—in fact you could say they formed my immediate family.
I’ve known this history and seen its influence my whole life, but there’s something different about seeing it discussed by journalists and cult experts on my tv screen with such specificality. Something altogether unnerving. I didn’t want to turn off the tv, but I did want to… tell other people to watch it? Whom, I don’t know—perhaps people who wouldn’t otherwise understand what survivors of that very niche subculture have to contend with? Too often when we describe our life inside that system people say we’re exaggerating for effect. And here it was, for the whole world to see. We’re not, nor have we ever been making this shit up. I have not been making shit up. Even though it is true our memories are not always reliable, here in front of me was some kind of third party verification system for my long-term memory which I have come to question and doubt the older I get.
I only wrote one quick thread about the documentary on Twitter—mostly because it was just too much to process any other way at the time. At the end of the last episode, one of the interviewees laments about how “most” Christians and Christian churches aren’t like Hillsong and he’s afraid people won’t realize that because of this documentary. Something inside me broke at that moment. Even in this series exposing what life inside that system is like, here is someone still trying to say “it’s not really that bad.” Of course he is. Because that’s what every still-Christian is taught to say about any bad behavior of pastors or churches at any given time. To protect the reputation of the “good” pastors and ultimately, the gospel (because apparently an all-powerful deity needs protecting, go figure).
This person essentially claimed that Hillsong is the exception, not the rule when it comes to evangelical Christianity. Which is laughable to anyone who has lived inside this system. Hillsong is the O.G. of modern white evangelicalism. They wrote the playbook—and literally the songbook—for every charismatic evangelical church in the United States since the mid-90’s. Beyond that the music they produce has been disseminated seamlessly into mainstream evangelical subculture, being used by worship teams across denominations and continents over the course of several decades. If you’ve sat in a worship service in an evangelical church anytime between 1995 and now, you’ve heard and/or sang music produced and sold by Hillsong.
For any aspiring evangelical church musician in the 90’s, that evening I spent seeing Hillsong Worship live was the pinnacle of experiences. Personally it wasn’t topped until seeing Delirious in concert in 2002. You see, music was how I experienced “God.” Perhaps the only tangible way I can remember. From a very young age I loved to sing. I’d sing anything I could, and growing up fairly conservative evangelical that meant a lot of Amy Grant with a sprinkling of country music (the only truly “acceptable” secular music). Luckily my parents couldn’t afford private Christian school and both parents had to work so that meant public school for us kids. From 7th grade on my life revolved around choir and church musical rehearsals and performances, well into my early 20’s. This was partly in thanks to being in and around the more charismatic denominations of evangelicalism.
That high you get from the just the right chord progressions, it’s no joke. When you’ve been taught your whole life that “feeling” those emotions is the Holy Spirit speaking to you and/or through you, you will chase that high from every camp to every concert to every conference for forever. When you’ve been led to believe that those goosebumps on your arms are the presence of God in that place at that moment, you live for that shit.
Until you realize that no matter how many mountain top experiences you have, you’re never quite good enough. That for every worship high, there must be a moment low enough to precede it, so low—like Saul on the road to Damascus low. So low you don’t even know you need redemption until you hear redemption’s song calling you back into the arms of a loving savior. And in order for that cycle to continue, you must keep reading Paul’s words over and over again reminding you of your every flaw. Every dent in your character that needs to be hammered out until you’re just this shiny hollow version of yourself, reflecting white Jesus back at people in order to be the Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.
And you know what that made me? Tired. So very, very tired. Learning to hate yourself over and over every day for 35 years so you can accept the love of Jesus is exhausting. We don’t talk enough about how it wears you down slowly. We talk about the traumatic events, the bad theology and the red flags we didn’t see from the inside. But we don’t talk enough about how growing up inside of white evangelical systems is like a slow, painful death. Dying a little more each day as we take another piece of ourselves that doesn’t fit and putting it in that box on the shelf so as to not make anyone uncomfortable.
When you’ve been told your entire existence has one single purpose, and that purpose requires killing your own desires for the sake of a jealous god—every single day until you die—that shit takes a toll. I don’t really know what to do with that. Other than say it out loud in case others have felt this way too and fear they might be the only one.
The culmination of a system like Hillsong is many thousands of lives that have been negatively impacted in a way that requires *dealing with it* one way or another. Those who make it out are left to pick up the pieces of their tired, broken hearts—wondering how they will trust people ever again. Questioning their every choice, their intuition, their gut. It leaves you shaken to your core- probably because your Core Self has been shamed into silence for so long that you don’t even know who they are or what they want. And that’s a lot for a person to figure out on their own.
There are those who would say I should be able to look back on that part of my life and be grateful for all the parts that shaped who I am now. And maybe someday I’ll do that. But for now, I’m just grateful for validation. I’m grateful to know I’m not the only one.
I still love to sing, by the way. Which is partly why I stole that line from How Great Thou Art for the title of this post. Not because I still buy into the theology (I do not), but because to me that line represents what cannot be taken away from me. My soul will keep singing, in spite of everything that evangelical Christianity stole from me.