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Last Updated: Friday, 3 February 2006, 12:29 GMT
Theatre of God
By Steve Tomkins

Every Sunday the London theatre which hosts the Queen musical We Will Rock You opens its doors to a different crowd - the youthful worshippers of a vibrant Australian church called Hillsong, where rock is as important as prayer.

Across the country abandoned churches have been renovated, converted and reopened for a purpose entirely different to that for which they were originally built. Wine bars, restaurants, apartments... I've even visited a pet shop in Cheshire that was once a church.

This is one kind of conversion that seems a clear symptom of the decline of British church. Until, perhaps, you realise that the opposite is happening too.

There are churches meeting not in traditional consecrated buildings but in schools, cinemas, business premises, and even a (covered) swimming pool. I've been to one in a pub, though never yet in a pet shop.

So the crowds milling outside the Dominion Theatre in London's Tottenham Court Road this Sunday will not be there for a matinee of We Will Rock You, the Ben Elton-penned homage to Freddie Mercury and Queen.

Hillsong's international leaders are Brian and Bobbie Houston
It is non-denominational
It's London congregation has large Australian expat contingent
Britain's biggest single church, the Kingsway International Christian Centre, draws 10,000 worshippers a week
They'll be there for church. Hillsong is an Australian church which was founded in Sydney in 1983 and started spreading franchise-like, with branches now in London, Leatherhead, Paris and Kiev.

Its emphasis is on modern, vibrant worship, high production values and personal commitment.

The pavement outside the Dominion is busy with shoppers as ever, but a stream of young people are turning aside from the worship of mammon and stepping through the legs of a giant Freddie Mercury hoarding, into the venue.

There is no clue from the street of what this is about, except the intensely friendly door staff in corporate puffa jackets; and they hardly look like church wardens.

In the foyer, attractive, smiling young people carry trays of sweets and Hillsong brochures. Rock music fills the air. Stalls sell Hillsong CDs and DVDs.

Once in the auditorium/sanctuary, the Dominion no longer seems such an incongruous place for a religious service because this is not church as you might know it. Rather than pre-matins hush, a pop video full of challenging messages plays on a huge screen, while the stage is set out for a concert. No pulpit, no altar, just lots of guitars.

Two drum kits, four guitars, two keyboards and 10 singers
An urgent beat begins. The congregation is on its feet clapping. The band leaps on stage and segues seamlessly from the video into the first song.

There follows a full hour of music, so solid I can't tell where one song starts and another ends - especially as they only do their own songs. It's like Abbey Road. It's the first time I've seen a church music group with two drum kits.

The Anglican Book of Common Prayer says, "Lead me to the Rock". There are no prayer books here, but the sentiment couldn't be put better. And the congregation need no convincing - their hands clapping and waving and faces beaming.

The scene is a far cry from when Hillsong started in Britain in 1992, brought over by a small team of members who emigrated to London.

Believing the capital was in urgent need of Christian mission, the first meetings were in members' homes. It graduated to a school, then a series of colleges and theatres, before arriving at the Dominion, slap bang in the heart of London's West End.

Back at the service, the only interruption to the music is for the offering. It is introduced with a 10-minute pep-talk from the casually dressed vicar on the importance of giving generously.

Mixed, but young crowd

God greatly rewards those who do, he says, and not just in the spiritual sense, but the financial one too. He expects 10% of their income to go in the bucket.

There's such a buzz here - the worship's really amazing, and the talks are inspiring. You go back feeling really ready for the week ahead
Debbie, aged 22
Hillsong claims a weekly attendance of 6,000 worshippers across its three Sunday services in London. The crowd appears to be largely aged 18 to 30, middle-class and multi-ethnic.

"We go to church in Bromley, where we live, and come to Hillsong once a month or so," says one congregation member, Debbie, 22.

"It's too far to come every week, but it's worth it, 'cause there's such a buzz here. The worship's really amazing, and the talks are inspiring. You go back feeling really ready for the week ahead."

Others, like Debbie, are visiting from their local church, says Paul Nevison, Hillsong's leader in London. Some are weekly members who also go to the mid-week teaching and social events in local homes, cafes and pubs. Some just drift in thinking it's We Will Rock You.

It seems like an expensive way to worship, and couldn't the money be better spent? Mr Nevison points to the mission's many projects, from a homeless charity in London to orphanages in Uganda.

He plays down the cost of the services, saying they use equipment that is already there, although the financial giving page of Hillsong's brochure makes a big thing of the costs of the sound system and media equipment.

After the congregation has dispensed with its financial duties, the band quit the stage for the Rev Gary's sermon which is about commitment in one's spiritual life.

It's quite unlike any church I know, but Mr Nevison believes Hillsong's unique style is crucial in reconnecting young folk with God.

"Hillsong," he says, "is fundamentally about creating a new impression of Christianity for a generation who have turned away from God."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

It's good to see the 'other side' of the decline in traditional church attendance getting some attention. There are hundreds of meetings like this across the country every week, and although most are on a much smaller scale, the passion, intensity and vibrancy of this style of worship is the same wherever you go. Our church meets in an old army barracks and sees upwards of 1,000 people over three services every week, and guess what, it's growing.
Tom, Liverpool

Why does the media always go on about churches and money. Are churches banned from making money that can be reinvested into Christian work?
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

How can you practise Christianity without any form of bible reading? Sounds like a fun time for Christians to get together but not a religious service. If it's not a sound-bite people just don't seem to be prepared to listen.
Sally, Leics

I think this must be the first time since Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire that people have had to pass under a golden statue of Mercury to attend a religious service. Seriously though, if services like this are getting 6,000 young people interested in Jesus, then I think they're a good thing, whether the music is to your taste or not.
Chris Lewis, Milan, Italy

We here so much negative press these days about religious fundamentalisam ..its just good to see some enjoyment and value from religion in whatever form.
Elaine, Burnley

Good music is a great way to inspire joyful worship. It's also a great form of evangelism because it is one way to express the joy of being a Christian. But it's also important to have a good mixture of bible study, fellowship, community service and outreach. It's wonderful to see that so many people are attending church again, in whatever venue that brings them closer to Jesus.
Ms. Dallas McGlinn, New Orleans, LA

Hillsong is amazing! This is Christianity in its truest and simplest form!!! Where a bunch of people, old and young worship God through their music. Why do people always make "Giving" to the church such a big issue? If you understand Kingdom principles and understand that the money you make, you didn't make on your own. Of course we get blessed daily and shouldn't it be fitting to just give back to the One who gave you so much more!?!?! Read the bible man! GO to church, check it out!
Mary, Los Angeles, CA USA

I think we're the church that is mentioned regarding the covered swimming pool, we bought it and filled it in! Hillsong is fantastic, glad to see some good publicity for churches.......it's needed! www.lifechurchburnley.com
Mark Walton, Burnley

Hillsong Churches are encouraging people to think about spiritual issues in a secular world, they should be praised for bringing God's word into a needy city. Teaching from the Bible and worshipping God in a 21st Century manner happens at Hillsong, this is Christianity, it is just different.
Helen Dell, High Wycombe, Bucks

I like that It's good to read that people are willing to put in efforts as a church - irrespective of how the service is conducted. If the young are attracted , then it is worth it. Personally, I would find something like this noisy and 'just fun' and not a 'real church service' - but then that is me.
mary, Sacramento, USA

I think we all need to stand back and ask ourselves where the difference between enthusiastic communal worship and trying to find a new marketing gimmik to get people in a room. I think that the attraction to these events might be more for the waves of emotional 'power' that ripple through crowds at such hyper events (rock concerts, polictical rallies etc); rather than the core belief that these meeting are meant to be about.
Mathew White, Bristol

Its good to bring church to the center of town, Tottenham Court Road is well known for shopping and entertainment, it is important not just to meet our leisure needs but also our spiritual needs. I am glad that so many young people are involved and interested in God. I hope this kind of worship spreads through out the west end.
Fatima Aboagye, London

Over the years England claims to be a country of great change. It's sad though that this hasn't been the case with most of the Churches in England. The dwindling number of Church goers speaks volumes about the fact that sticking to age old traditions is not helping. This is precisely where a Church like Hillsong comes-in as a major factor of change. The message being the same with a more attractive package.
Rohan Karat, London, UK, London

In response to Sally from Leicestershire, the service _does_ include reading from the Bible and definitely endorses Bible reading as part of practicing Christianity. There may be no prayer books but song lyrics and bible passages are projected on screens.
Peter Owen, London

Praise God. When will we stop being negative and realise that the church in the UK is not declining, only taking a different form. More people attend Christian worship during a week than participate in football. More people are spiritually aware than they have been for many years. People are lost, lonely, and feel alienated from society. They are seeking answers. Science is great, it provides answers by breaking things down into smaller parts, but faith provides answers by connecting people and things - and that is what humans need - to feel connected.
Tim S, Ware, UK

This "Chistian Rock" thing has been gaining momentum for quite some time here in the States.There are faith based performers that sell vast numbers of albums. Face it,when any clergyperson stands in front of a congregation,they in essence, are performing. Any traditional rabbi,vicar,etc., would be happy to attract the number of followers that attend these musical services.Rock on with your God!
Brian Killion, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

I enjoyed the experience at London Hillsong - rather like visiting a Temple or Cathedral of its type, in comparison with my local church. Having said that, I'll stick where I get intimacy and community. Hillsong does feature the Bible - and often a longish preach from a well-known speaker!
Simon, London

I go to the Abundant Life Church in Bradford. Very much in the Hillsongs mode, we believe we are presenting the gospel message in a contemporary, relevant and inspiring way. The Bible says that Jesus came to give us life and life in all its fulness. I've been to London Hillsong many times and it is so full of life! Everyone there is so friendly and welcoming and infectiously enthusiastic about God, his love for us and the wonderful life he has given us. The speakers always inspire you too!
Martin Stevenson, Bradford

Tithing (i.e. giving 10%) is as old as the Church! Why is anyone surprised by it. No one attending a Hillsong's church is required to give 10% - its just the traditional guideline on giving to keep your church afloat. It's really encouraging that so many churches like this with young and vibrant congregations are thriving in central London. Some of them are even Anglican!!!!
Rob, London, London

Why does media make this seem a new thing? All over the country lively services are held. Spring Harvest takes over Butlin resorts every Easter and is very similar on its basis. In Bristol the youth service is up beat rock, with dramatic reading and preaching. God is under estimated in the modern society and the modern worship allows the youth to express their worship in the music they associate with. Univeristy CU's are often livily with many students attending. The media should do better in showing people that the pew, hymn church has modernised, people might venture in them if they did.
Kat, Southampton/Trowbridge

I am not religious - purely as I have never been brought up that way but if this is what it takes to teach our younger generations about respect and loving each other then this could be the way to go!
Jess, Cornwall

Just to point out that although there may have been no mention of a bible reading by the author, doesn't necessarily mean that there wasn't. I don't attend a Hillsongs church but I know many who do and believe me, you won't find a much more bible based church than there.
Graham C Caskie, Helensburgh, UK

This form of 'church' is relevant to a post modern society. The worship is only part of the programme. The real heart of what is going on is to be found in the mid-week Bible studies and fellowship groups in people's homes. Christ centered and Bible centered just as all authentic Christian churches have been throughout the ages.
Maxwell Graham, Norwich

Being an ex-Londoner (having recently moved to "The Sticks") I was interested/disappointed to read of this "Australian Church". Until then, the only Antipodean one I was aware of (and use to frequent) was the one in King's Cross (which has now moved to the old "Town and County" club in Kentish Town) which served a healthy dose of Sunday lunchtime beer, comedy and strippers! I know where I'd rather be!
Richard, Sandy, Beds

Thanks for the snap shot article. My wife and I are in our mid 50s and travel almost 50 miles each way every Sunday to Hillsong, and 35 miles for mid-week group. Though there is an age differential, we have been thoroughly embraced. Our Christian lives have been revitalised at Hillsong. Hillsong does not need to be defended, however, Sally, just because the article made no mention of Bible reading, don't assume there is none. Every week at services and in Connect groups the Bible is read and explained, and we seek to apply the teaching to our day to day lives. Hillsong is not sound-bite Christianity. I have been a Christian for over 30 years and have never been more challenged. Hardly ever have I seen young people so committed to following God.
Ian, Milton Keynes

Good on Hillsongs although its not just in London that churches are growing i know many christians who meet in different types of buildings all over the UK. and to adress Sallys point as long as the sermon is based on the bible whats the problem. you do not need to read a bible story at every service. I cant remember that when Jesus preached he quoted scripture every time he preached and surely he is the best example to follow
Jonathan, Lincoln

Whatever it takes to keep young people from lives of drugs, alcohol and crime. I think its fantastic there are now places like this that attract young people. Its better they give their money to the Church for good use than to give it to drug dealers.
Clare, Roswell, Georgia

I hear a lot of people say churches are dying but I started off in a church of 20 people 4 years ago in Reading. We now have about 150 members and are still growing. We meet in a school and it is great to see so many young people coming. The UK is crying out for the truth about God and the purpose of our lives. Good music helps attract the younger people but a good preach teaches them what God is realy about.
Matthew, High Wycombe, UK

Mmm, sweet indoctrination.
H, Reading

So we continue with the brain washing of the young using rock music and any other tools available. Christianity, Islam etc are all derivatives of the same delusion. Religion is the greatist evil the world faces today. God, the Tooth fairy, Father Christmas etc are all the same thing in the final analasys. End religion and you end the excuse for most conflict in the world today. Grow up.
Mark Neve, london

Why on earth do they need two drum kits?
Anthony Oliver, London, UK

I think that Hillsong are a definate plus as a young Christian the passion that comes across is important and it means that the church isn't stuck in the past and not being religious. They live their lives for God. This is what being a true believer means, giving it your all not just in worship but in the way you live your life and Hillsong are embodying Jesus and thats what attracts people not just the music and you wonder why old churches are closing?
christina, Preston

There is a great atmosphere at Hillsong and the many similar Churches across the country. It's not all music though, lots of Bible based teaching goes on too....
Matt, London

Yes thats quite correct, what the world really needs right at the moment is the mass indoctrination of impressionable young people into a creed divised several hundred years before the invention of the pen. Id also like to ban Rock Musicals because it would annoy Ben Elton.
Sexton Ming, London, sadly

Those who worship in such a way, which is not to my taste although I've grown up with it, do so with sincere hearts and a desire to worship the Lord. It's wonderful to hear of fellow Christians meeting freely and gladly around the world for such a purpose. Regarding cost, was not Solomon's temple rather an expensive affair? While service to the community is a very important part of the life of the Church, God is surely worthy of the very best that can be given. Whether it's in the form of fine art, incence, or the very best music that can be produced, none of it's essential to life but it's all willingly given as an expression of worship.
Dawn, St Andrews

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