'We want to think, as well as worship, at Hillsong'

One day, Hillsong might be as famous for theologians as worship leaders

Tanya Riches is a new kind of theologian, one who is lifting the intellectual vigour of Hillsong Church, which she says has been mostly a worshipping community for the past 20 years rather than a thinking one.


Squeezing me into her busy schedule to talk over lunch, the freshly minted PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary in Los Angeles and the leader of the new Masters programme at Hillsong College in Sydney says she is trying to forge new paths in scholarship.

When she started her MPhil on music at Hillsong, there was practically no body of research on her church to draw on, only newspaper articles … mostly very critical.

“Journalists mainly come from the inner west of Sydney, educated areas, whereas my church was very uneducated, so it was very confronting culturally,” observes Tanya, who is not speaking on behalf of Hillsong but offering her personal opinion.

While Tanya loves the spirituality and “artisan soul” of Hillsong culture, she loves the emphasis on biblical content in the Anglican Church.

“You look for what’s missing – what can I contribute? What can I bring and give?” – Tanya Riches

Speaking personally rather than on behalf of Hillsong, she says there was a time in the church’s history when there was almost a stigma for someone to have a PhD. But the second generation of leaders at Hillsong Church are pushing for more education and scholarly content so that they can move beyond the worship mandate they inherited from the previous generation.

“And I think the generation above us are supporting that transition of leadership,” she says.

“So Lee Burns, who’s the Head of our college, is doing PhD in biblical studies at the moment and I think there are a lot of people who are in the Hillsong congregation for whom that’s a natural progression. You look for what’s missing – what can I contribute? What can I bring and give? And we’re realising that’s what’s needed. So it seems like an open field to contribute.”

When Tanya joined Hillsong College a year ago, she didn’t even have an office but had to use a cleaned-out storeroom. “Now there are six people in that office because of the need to deepen our theology and we really are taking that seriously and putting energy into that,” she says.

“Now there are six people in that office because of the need to deepen our theology.” – Tanya Riches

The first thing she is focused on is writing down the theology of what has been up to now an oral Pentecostal community. The first fruits of that came in a book launch last week of The Hillsong Movement Examined: You Call Me Out Upon the Water (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), a collaboration between 15 scholars, some from inside the church and some outside.

Asked what the challenges are facing Hillsong, she says the main one that came up at this week’s book launch was the gap between the media perception of the church and how it feels from the inside.

“The media perception is so strong. Who we are as described by them doesn’t fit me and it doesn’t fit my friends. But I still have to continually grapple with stereotypes. I think that’s really challenging. I hope we do it graciously, I hope that we can potentially show other examples of what being Pentecostal is like, but I also feel quite frustrated at times that we’re flattened so much,” she says.

“I thought ‘Oh, my goodness I need to hang out with them because they need more content!'” – Tanya Riches

Tanya says the only reason she joined the staff of Hillsong College’s city campus was the challenge of meeting the content needs of an “incredible international group of students” who were doing a third-year Bible class on global ministry and culture.

“I thought ‘Oh, my goodness I need to hang out with them because they need more content!’ I felt like we need to grow, we need to be developing leadership in them,” she says.

She has spent a lot of time working with the college students on praxis (the process of applying or realising ideas), because the church is moving from its known strength in serving into thought leadership.

“Another challenge the leadership really are grappling with is working out how to steward and direct  leaders who literally come off the plane every year from Hillsong churches all around the globe, and how are we going to create structures that disciple them effectively. Those are ways that I think we need to grow.”

“We’re sort of reinventing how scholarship could work.” – Tanya Riches

As well as her role at Hillsong College, Tanya has also lectured in ethnomusicology at Excelsia College Sydney. She has honorary status at the Cadbury Centre at the University of Birmingham and at AlphaCrucis College, Sydney. But another way Tanya is forging a new path is in combining her theological career with work at the Centre for Disability Studies, an affiliate of the University of Sydney because she didn’t want to be isolated in an ivory tower.

“[Pentecostals are] definitely not as intellectual, it’s a very poetic kind of scholarship and faith.” – Tanya Riches

“For me personally, that means I am flat chat! You know, I manage research projects in the disability space and I run the masters’ program, but I feel this need to do that because I didn’t want to model leadership that doesn’t take social science seriously as a theologian.”

“But the Masters programme Hillsong College is too small – I can’t go ‘I’m only interested in this’. So I think that’s a huge challenge for us going forward. We’re sort of reinventing how scholarship could work.

“Our masters students say ‘I really want to be a biblical scholar and a theologian;’ they don’t know how unique that is.”

Speaking before attending the Society for Pentecostal Studies meeting in Ohio next week, Tanya says there is a strong cohort of Pentecostal scholars who have a history stretching back to the 1950s.

“But Pentecostalism has been a very marginal movement in terms of theology. They’re definitely not as intellectual, it’s a very poetic kind of scholarship and faith so I think that’s the tradition that I draw from,” she says.

“What the world really needs, I think, is images of how we can create a great society and how we could have a spirited life and existence; and there’s a fundamental need of humanity to connect with God and I think what we need are theologies that can speak to that need, rather than theologies that simply order doctrine.

“I mean, exploring Aboriginal Christian voices in Australia is seen as a peripheral thing but it’s actually so central, and I think land and identity is so crucial for us in understanding who Australia is and where it’s going.”

Tanya Riches is one of the speakers at the Fixing Her Eyes conference in Crows Nest, Sydney, today. Her talk is entitled What Women Want.