Can Hollywood tell the plain truth about Hillsong Church?

The Hillsong movie, ‘Let Hope Rise’ is about to hit Aussie cinemas

Handing over creative control to a Hollywood film crew to tell the story of a Christian ministry sounds like a big risk. But it is a risk that Hillsong UNITED, the worship band at the centre of Hillsong church’s global ministry were prepared to take. Now after a long delay caused by distribution hassles, and a production company going bankrupt, Let Hope Rise is about to hit Australia’s mainstream cinemas.

“Why would anyone watch a movie about us?”

Does it tell the story fairly? Does it cover a Christian ministry in Hollywood hype? These were two questions this viewer had at the preview held during Hillsong’s big Sydney conference earlier this year.

Hillsong UNITED perform. "Can a movie be a worship experience?"

Hillsong UNITED perform. “Can a movie be a worship experience?” Hillsong

Hillsong UNITED Singer JD told Eternity’s Kaley Payne that the band shared these anxieties.

“Initially we were really worried that some of these Hollywood people were coming to us with smiles on their faces, telling us that they wanted to tell the good story, but that they’d go away and twist it into something we are not about,” JD said. But once filming began, said JD, the makers of the film “really wanted to spread the message of hope that we have found in Jesus”.

“Humility” and “Hollywood” hardly belong in the same sentence. Hillsong’s lead pastor, Brian Houston, asked the producers, “Why would anyone watch a movie about us?” when the producers first approached Hillsong over two years ago.

He meant it.

The question of “How has a team of ordinary kids from the ordinary western suburbs of Sydney grown into a worldwide ministry?” runs through this movie.

“Their mission – without exaggeration – is to make music to save souls.”

They live in ordinary houses. They have ordinary families, some with the sort of tragedies and troubles that affect all of us.

They ask God the same hard questions.

Houston put it this way: “But you know what? The thing about Hillsong UNITED and Hillsong church is that God took some pretty ordinary kids and some pretty ordinary people and over 30 years has actually done something quite significant. It is something none of us could have done on our own.”

At the Hillsong preview of this movie, producer John Bock asked singer JD what it is like to have his head so big on the screen. “It is embarrassing,” JD responded, sounding like an awkward recruit to a footy team before the media managers have got to them.

“Some people use the words ‘Christian Rockstars’,” he adds. “That is so far from what we are.”

Or as female lead singer Taya Smith puts it in the movie: “I am just a girl from the country”. They are not putting it on.

Director John Warren gets what the Hillsong UNITED team wants to do (even though he personally doesn’t get Jesus).

“Their mission – without exaggeration – is to make music to save souls,” says Warren. “They are trying to get people to discover Jesus. That’s probably the most righteous reason to make music. Whether you’re religious or not, it’s hard to look at that and not feel good about it.”

The best bit of Let Hope Rise is that it shows that many many people want to sing about Jesus.

But this is not a hard-sell gospel movie. As the Hillsongers explain, the music and worship draws people in towards God. “The music is the spearhead,” says pastor Louis Giglio, an American pastor of a large church, who admires Hillsong’s ability to use modern culture.

There is a struggle behind the music that is depicted throughout Let Hope Rise. We follow the “agony and ecstasy” of songwriter Joel Houston as he works and reworks a lyric. In one shot, he has an open Bible and a copy of Henri Nouwen’s The Selfless Way of Christ. It comes as a faint surprise (and perhaps it should not) that Houston is reading a work by a Benedictine monk – an “evangelical Catholic” who has helped so many deal with brokenness. Nouwen famously wrote about the Christian life as voluntary “downward social mobility” in that book.

We then get to hear the lyric:

This is love
Bending skies to heal the broken

It is clear (to this reviewer at least) that Houston has read the book. In the movie he comments, “We are at our most effective when we are broken.”

The most moving part of Let Hope Rise for this viewer was not when the Hillsong UNITED team sang their songs – and most of the movie is songs – but when their music is taken up by anonymous others. A Hillsong classic, Mighty to Save, is sung by small groups from a bewildering array of countries. The Hillsong version of Amazing Grace is overwhelmed by the audience at the big Los Angeles concert that is the movie’s centrepiece.

Christianity’s strongest movements have always been accompanied by song.

The best bit of Let Hope Rise is that it shows that many many people want to sing about Jesus. That gladdened my heart.

Let Hope Rise hits Aussie cinemas on October 6.