It’s a bright Sunday morning in Baulkham Hills and already the traffic is backed up on the Solent Circuit. Smiling teens in high-visibility orange vests and back-to-front baseball caps embroidered with Y & F – Young and Free – have been directing cars for hours.
They are all heading the same way; to the Hills Campus to take part in uproarious worship at one of the four capacity services at the Hillsong convention centre and chapel.
Every Sunday, more than 10,000 parishioners descend on this hallowed quadrant in the Business Park in Sydney’s north-west, some by car, some in the church’s private buses, and significantly more will be tuning in via Hillsong TV from all over the country and the world.
Seventy-five per cent of the church’s followers are under 35 and 91 per cent under 50. They come perhaps for the razzamatazz that has made Hillsong Australia’s fastest-growing church. Whatever they come for, it’s working.
At 11am, the crowds move inside in waves, eager to nab the best seats. It’s a vast arena with stacked rows of seating around an apron stage. Immediately in front of the podium, overexcited teens fresh from summer youth camps swap complex handshakes and whoop and holler.
And then the lights dim and the music starts. The stage comes alive with a flashing light show. Images of the heavens, of water, of palm trees flash across the central screen, which is surrounded by stars and circles of beaming neon tubing. Meanwhile, the 14-strong band pumps out classics from Hillsong’s repertoire. “Holy, Holy, Holy is your name,” they sing as the crowd wave their arms and sway to the beat.
With parishioners drunk on the music, the service kicks off. First are the prayer lists, specific messages from people eager to get a special hotline to God and then a call for tithes and offerings as buckets are passed along each row. On the screen, there are details outlining the ways you can give – via the envelope on your chair, online, via the Hillsong app, BPAY.
A Youth Leader bounces onto the stage and introduces young student Jasmine, who retells her revelation of speaking in tongues at last week’s youth camp, to loud applause. Next is an advertisement for the Bible college next door, where would-be pastors learn their craft.
And finally the leader of Hillsong, impresario Brian Houston, dressed down in jeans and a loose white shirt, moves to the front. His rasping voice echoes around the centre. He talks about the sanctity of marriage, about spiritual solutions to human problems. His parishioners are rapt. They are rapt for more than an hour.
It’s easy to take aim at this happy, shiny group of Christians gorging on their Sunday fix of clappy worship, but one thing is clear, they all love this place and they’re all having fun.
“There’s excitement, you’re involved,” says one parishioner. “There’s praise and for a young person on a Friday or Saturday night, it’s better than going clubbing. And on a Sunday, it’s a great way to start the day.”
Read more of this story in the March issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly.