Hillsong get sledged by Channel Nine

Recycling easy-hits sledges on Australia’s Hillsong megachurch seems to be bread and butter for Channel Nine

Hillsong appears to have joined the list of topics regularly recycled by Channel Nine’s A Current Affair (ACA). As the ABC’s Mediawatch has pointed out, recycling provides cheap TV which offers the prospect of reusing material from last time. This week’s ACA sledge of Hillsong had a simple formula: a producer of a documentary about Hillsong (built up to look like a Hollywood blockbuster by Nine), footage from Nine’s American affiliate ABC (America), and one constantly recycled critic, Tania Levin.

There was no interview of a Hillsong person, and the church says Nine did not contact them.

“Dear Channel Nine, it is not a long way from your studios at Willoughby to the Hillsong HQ – in fact the state Government has provided a convenient motorway,” is how this writer might begin a letter to ACA. The main thesis of the ACA segment was to present Hillsong as a money making machine.

The movie Let Hope Rise which is a music documentary on one of Hillsong’s music groups is being produced by a film company – not Hillsong. Nine made it look like part of a huge entertainment empire. It is not.

The reach of Hillsong – 30 million Christians sing their songs worldwide, 140 million views of Hillsong Music on youtube, Hillsong.com’s 8m web visitors, number 1 songs on ARIA – is impressive. But it is not monetised to the extent of something like, ahem, Nine Entertainment co.

“There was no factual basis whatsoever to the story on A Current Affair about Hillsong Church.” — Hillsong spokesperson

ACA breathlessly announced they had obtained Hillsong figures from the Government. A few minutes Googling was all it took for Eternity to find Hillsong’s audited account in their 2013 annual report. (Hillsong deserves credit for that, not all church accounts are easy to find.) They are also linked from the Hillsong website and there were more recent ones.

The tone of the ACA report was that Hillsong church is a money making machine that takes exorbitant amounts of money from followers.

In the 2013 calendar year Hillsong Church Australia reported total revenue of $85 million.

It has an average weekly attendance of 31,400. Taking out the Bible College and conference revenue leaves revenue of $16,348,313. That averages out at an annual giving of $2216 per attender.

Just like every Church, Hillsong does not really attract a tithe. Rather than being a money making machine, Hillsong is almost as poor at gaining offerings as the rest of Christianity.

The main Hillsong campus is close to middle and low income areas. Arguably Hillsong is doing better than some other churches in giving in percentage terms, but it is nowhere near a tithe. While individual followers may give heroically, Hillsong’s accounts do not paint a picture of a church ripping off its followers.

One can understand why Hillsong responded to ACA by saying, “There was no factual basis whatsoever to the story on A Current Affair about Hillsong Church.”

The Hillsong Church story is much more complex and interesting than ACA made out. A recycled story does not do this Aussie export justice.

For example Hillsong makes clear its support of social justice or mercy ministries in its annual report.

The spread of churches to wealthy cities is well known, but this church is spreading to very challenged parts of the world as well.

There is room for a really good journalistic exploration of Hillsong. But the ritualised recycled ACA sledge won’t get anywhere close.