There is nothing quite like a music concert. After the months following the rush of purchasing tickets, you are finally ushered into a dimly-lit room by venue staff sporting crackly radio earpieces, packed shoulder to shoulder with strangers (at least in pre-Covid times) with a common musical passion. As the lights rise, and the beat builds, a collective roar ripples through the crowd before the band appears on stage to an ecstasy of energy. Finally, the collective anticipation breaks with a crowd-pleaser anthem that demands participatory singing and dancing. The audience, now up on their feet, are waving their hands up in the air and documenting the performance with smartphones or throwing a classic rock on gesture. As the song builds to the chorus, it might feel natural for you to close your eyes, let the music and collective energy flow through you before breathing in and proclaiming — with all of the energy in your body — Praise the Lord of all creation, let His name be lifted high.
In 2020, Pentecostal megachurch Hillsong purchased the iconic Melbourne music venue, Festival Hall, under their charity name, Community Venues. Intending to continue operating separately from the church for the wider city community, the venue also now operates as a place of worship for Hillsong one day per week. Festival Hall was previously home to God-status musical acts by the likes of The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Oasis, and 30 Seconds to Mars — the latter being my first musical concert experience at the age of sixteen. And now, much to the dismay of musical industry personnel and fans around Australia, the purchasing of the venue by a religious organisation is what many consider to be the end of an era that was shared across generations and genres. I attended the first worshipping service held at the venue since Hillsong’s purchase. It was a moment of pure celebration for regular churchgoers who had previously been renting the Athenaeum Theatre on Collins Street for several years. Welcome Home was the theme of the service with the words adorning posters, teeshirts, signs and lighting up screens inside the space. As a music lover myself, I was sceptical and saddened by this new phase of the building. What use would a church have for a musical space?
Views of a lapsed Catholic
In the spirit of positionality and transparency, my approach and curiosity towards Pentecostal churches has developed from my upbringing in the Catholic Church. In many respects, Catholicism is the complete antithesis to a church like Hillsong, especially when it comes to the space in which faith is celebrated in. There were no crosses present outside or inside the building (except tattooed on the skin of the faithful, of which there were many). Where the Catholic Church almost demands reverence and piety from the space in which church services are held — often in structured domineering stone buildings purposefully built high on hills — Hillsong’s Festival Hall space instead enveloped the church-goer into their community, with open spaces, a coffee shop in the foyer, smiley staff adorned in brand names instead of robes, and even a church after party in the laneway next door. It almost felt odd to attend the service alone and my othering was only magnified by my lack of interpersonal relationships within the space.
There was a distinct lack of hierarchy between preacher and church-goer compared to Catholicism. My memories from Catholic Church are dominated by male-figures hiding behind high lectures and altars, muttering words out of earshot during the transfiguration of the Eucharist. At Festival Hall, speakers were only elevated slightly, speaking directly to the crowd with followers often calling out with passion during particularly poignant moments of sermons. The Catholic in me couldn’t help but feel disrupted by the foreignness of this two-way conversation between preacher and congregation. For Hillsong, it was abundantly clear that reverence and faith flowed through the lyrics of the music, collective swaying and at times a raucous jumping to the beat. For Catholics, reverence is found within quiet, conservative reflection and contemplation.
Searching for faith at a rock concert
Mimicking a rock concert, I had to pre-book my space for the Hillsong service online before attending. Once on-site, I was scanned in by ushers with radios and shown to the seat listed on my ticket. Doors opened to the venue 30 minutes prior to the beginning of service, there was a sound desk, a series of serious-looking cameras and a small team of staff dressed in black managing the audio and visual aids for the accessible service. I was seated in the middle of what was previously the mosh pit. Chipped wooden floors vibrated beneath my boots as the congregation cheered and stamped their feet welcoming the leading band onto the stage to a well-produced modern video of young people running through the streets of London in search of their faith to a timed light show. If the sing-a-long style lyrics and catchy musical riffs weren’t about Jesus, I would have mistaken my being at a rock concert rather than a church service. Of course, these two events aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but rather, Catholicism had influenced me to draw rigid lines between the spiritual intent of pop-rock dance anthems as opposed to Gregorian chants.
The feeling of being at a rock concert continued even after the service, the exit featured a stall of Hillsong merchandise: teeshirts, bibles and assorted household goods in Futura Font available for purchase just as bands would sell their own products. Upon further reflection, I realised the church my parents attend also features a gift shop in the basilica foyer — but I would never consider the products they sell as being ‘merchandise’. Clearly, my comparison of Hillsong and what I consider to be ‘religious’ or ‘spiritually appropriate’ or not, has been directly influenced by what I had become accustomed to in the Catholic Church. While the Catholic Church might not have a universal ‘logo’ printed on teeshirts and books, there is still an element of branding and business that goes into the products they sell on site. Sure, the ‘Catholic brand’ might feel tired to my millennial brain, but that doesn’t negate the essence of what gift-shop products are for: spiritual reflection, gifts, and direct profit going back to the church.
Rituals of rock
Overall, rather than entering the physical House of the Lord in order to worship, there was an emphasis on feeling the spirit of Christ within us individually that allowed worship to take place anywhere. It was clear, through the past precarious nature of renting out worship spaces for Hillsong followers, that it was not necessarily the space that made church-going a holy or spiritual experience, but rather, the shared rituals of song, dance, and prayer with the collective intent to worship Jesus. The facilities of Festival Hall complemented this striving, allowing the excitement and collective buzz previously reserved for rock concerts to reverberate into a spiritual practice and in turn, changing my own perception of perhaps what religiosity can be experienced as.