‘Silent Night’, Hillsong style

In recent years, Hillsong London has marked the coming of Christmas in ways reminiscent of what lots of churches do – an evening of carol singing marketed as ‘a night that is focused on celebrating what Christmas is really about – JESUS!’

Last year’s event included this unique performance of ‘Silent Night’:

Some of us found the performance to be quite confusing, on so very many levels. This is not a bad thing. (Of course, a quick Google search reveals that there are no shortage of people who confess no such confusion at all.) When those whose experience across a wide range of ecclesiastical supermarkets together find that their hermeneutical skills are up against it, this is a time to embrace the questions.

So this post. I have my own developing thoughts, which I may post at some stage. But consider the comments box below my invitation to you, dear reader, to help me interpret what the Willy Wonka that was all about. [NB. I want this to be constructive, so vitriolic comments are likely to find my delete button.]

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Update: For those who may be interested, I’ve posted a few follow-up scribbles here.

36 thoughts on “‘Silent Night’, Hillsong style

  1. If the medium is the message; the message is that there is nothing transformative about the Christmas story, nor anything worth my committing myself to. It appears that no one asked “Why are we doing this?”. Or maybe they did, and the answer was something like, “To undermine the subversive nature of the Gospel”, or “we have all this tech gear and talented people, so lets use them.” Reminds me of a Good Friday service I attended in Auckland a few years ago. Lots of multi-media, big sound, high tech, opening song…”Up from the Grave He Arose”!

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  2. It is a bummer that Hillsong would make such a song to be about the spectacle of performance rather than the One who silented the night… Unfortunately many will not be surprised for such is becoming the truth of the church today… More about glitz and glamour as opposed to the gospel.

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  3. So, 1920s Prohibition scene, with short skirts, and sinuous movements. Okay…
    When did the meaning of the word ‘silent’ change, or ‘all is calm’ become a phrase requiring a pulsating beat, plenty of cymbal crashes, and blasting trumpets? Oh, Wait, I get it: it’s the angels shouting at the shepherds…thought I must have missed the point.
    Glory in the highest.
    Maybe.

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  4. You know what, I can’t believe what I just watched. I have no idea how they came up with that and worse, how it was approved. Who thought that sexualising ‘Silent Night’ was a good idea? Sadly it’s a reflection of our modern ‘raunch culture’. I looked for some deeper meaning but NOPE, there’s none. Just wrong I’m sorry.

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  5. But then, I’m an old codger, of course. No actually, that’s not true. I love big dance sequences, with a big jazz orchestra, and people who can sing (the two in the video aren’t bad, though repeating Silent Night over and over is a bit uninspiring for them).I’m just not sure that this is an appropriate approach to this particular song, or idea.

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  6. Really! I half expected during the ‘male review’ part that the guys would rip their velcro attached trousers off and do the full monty.
    Performance mentality gone mad.

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  7. “Celebrating what Christmas is all about”? Well, it certainly represents a saturnalian recolonising of Christmas in its pagan origins as a festival of the Sol Invictus. On the other hand, it rendered me totally speechless, i.e. silent. I didn’t know Hellsong went in for irony.

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  8. Ok so some Christians will like it and a lot won’t! The thing is a lot of churches have made carols a performance gig with the emphasis on performance and characterisations of all sorts that have nothing necessarily to do with Jesus being the reason for the season, ( apart from a possible Nativity scene ) but maybe more to do with cultural expectations. If you believe carols are worship songs/hymns that the faithful join in with at this time of the year you will not relate to the performance gig style of carols, and you will seek a celebration where the community sings carols together and the performance is not the main aim. Probably that’s why there are so many choices for carols being offered by so many individual groups in the community at this time – so you can make your own choice! It is true that many Christians want to join in and be part of the celebration so this style is not for everyone, however if it makes one non-believer curious, maybe the ‘watch a professional performance’ idea is indeed worth it. Maybe that is what Hillsong is aiming at, the non-Christian looking for a ‘Christmas concert’ apart from the actual performers of course as I am sure that as Christians involved they like it.

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  9. Yeah, it’s completely strange. But how about that drummer! He can play! And the bass player and pianist. I reckon they’re all just waiting for the gig to finish so they can go and play some hard bop down in Soho. And I would definitely go to that.

    Kim’s point is great. But I suspect that the logic might owe less to paganism than to Christian faith itself: it’s the sort of thing might get if you couple an over-realised eschatology that makes everything safe, with the modern cult of self-expression that Christianity made possible. You know: we can sex it up, because, hey, God’s into sex, and we need to express ourselves. Self-expression, using our creative gifts, is the best way we know how to celebrate this extraordinary event. Like David before the Lord… etc, etc. No pagan would think in these terms – only people who have been deeply influenced by Christian faith. If they do court a kind of paganism (and I think this is the case here), it’s a kind of Christianised paganism. I suppose you could argue that part of the older Christian objection to paganism was that it was a strategy for managing risk, whereas Christian faith offered not a form of management, but a way of entering into the riskiness of the world without fear. “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.” There’s a style of modern Christianity that misunderstands this, and instead contends (on theological grounds) that there is no risk at all: that everything is now made safe. I reckon Hillsong fits within a larger evangelical turn against the Augustinian roots of evangelicalism, which (if Mark Noll is right) might well go back to the Great Awakening. God knows the desires of your heart: he has put them there, and true worship is expressing those desires. This against the old Augustinian wisdom that whatever you do, you must never trust your own heart; that you are always failing at love.

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  10. Christine, this sounds to me like Church of the Inordinate Consumption: the church as a franchise that collapses evangelism into a marketing strategy which, through the commodification of worship, entices punters to join their tribe and endorse their product in a way that, deep down, simply confirms rather than transforms their identities.

    “So, whereas in the early Church, non-Christians were converted to, not by, the liturgy, now the experience of the worship itself is supposed to bear the weight of encouraging customer loyalty. Thus, the spectacle has also become a more apparent feature of liturgical practice as a combination of music, technology and programmes are all employed to provide a memorable and moving experience for the congregation: the ‘feel-good factor’ to which [Grace] Davie points” (Mark Clavier, in Rescuing the Church from Consumerism (2013).

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  11. I have many responses to this. Initially shock and awe. It is so spectactularly out of step with the original song. Brilliant update or epic desecration? Its strikes me that in different hands this could be a brilliant satire but it is not a satire. (imagine the wise men doing a flapper style dance upon finding infant jesus…while psychopathic herod is marshalling troops to go murder jewish infants). This seems like the jar jar binks of xmas hymn remakes–initially you are amused but soon it turns to rage.

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  12. @ Andre
    A “Christianised paganism”. Yes, absolutely. Presented with the choice, with Nietzsche I’d go for the real thing. Hillsong is rather like non-alcoholic beer.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Me too, Kim! I’ve never understood non-alcoholic beer, or people who drink “in moderation”, as they say. I was taught to drink the first pint quickly and the second slowly, which are words to live by, I reckon. But maybe even Nietzsche’s paganism isn’t quite the real thing (I’m thinking here a little of Eagleton’s Culture and the Death of God). I do appreciate the attempt, though!

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  14. Are you thinking, Andre, of what Eagleton refers to as Nietzsche’s aversion to conviction? (Btw, I saw him — Terry, not Fred — lecture here in Swansea in February, speaking, as he writes, with hilarious intelligence.)

    On your point about “moderation”, I’ve always been a fan of Blake’s observation (in “Proverbs of Hell”) that “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” I am getting to the age, however, when “more than enough” is a tough ask!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Isn’t it good that Advent is the season when we prepare ourselves for the return of Jesus as Judge and King – when he will put right everything that’s WRONG!

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  16. This is either spectacularly conceived irony (though this would be frankly bizarre as it would be directed back on itself and therefore mocking the whole Hillsong phenomenon) or else Hillsong have just expressed possibly the greatest case of institutional Aspergers that I have ever seen within the Church. The lack of self awareness is mind blowing.

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  17. My impression of this rather cliched and shallow performance is that it was a celebration of mammon and human ego. Consider the waste of resources and impact on the environment in a world where there is so much suffering and need. Where is the humility of the baby Jesus suggested within Luther’s song, which was written as a meditation on the incarnation? As for the blinding obvious, where was the silence??

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  18. About the mega church in NY: it is not all that different than several mega churches in the area I live in. The author had a unique experience in that she walked in and was welcomed by the dude at the top. I dare say, if she had walked in anonymously her time there would have probably been pretty different. The pastor had good reason to make sure her experience was what it was- she was writing for GQ. I don’t question his authenticity or kindness, but her experience is unique among the other 8000 at that church. It is a powerful thing to be reached out to in such a personal way.
    The “cool” mega churches here have the same emphasis: come as you are. They lean heavily on youth culture, “cultural relevance” and the leadership are decidedly hip. People float in and out for “good music” and sometimes a “good message.” These are also places where you might see a celebrity or an athlete, which people love. (But you won’t catch them in Laurent, this is a surf town so people pay a lot of money and spend a lot of time trying to look like they just rolled out of bed).
    On a sociological level the appeal makes a lot of sense. People are painfully busy here. Just like NY, this is a hub for the entertainment industry and being cool is how people get work, make friends and ‘get ahead’. Life is fast paced and the community changes a lot, very quickly. Besides coworkers and smaller social circles, there are not a lot of gathering places that offer a larger sense of community- the cool mega church seems to fill the need for a place in a larger community very nicely.
    I suppose the sad thing to me is that most of the energy and resources of these churches are spent on production, attracting people and keeping them coming back. But the dark side to a “cool” town steeped in the entertainment and tourist industries is that the “uncool” and “ugly” are kept unseen. This is a border town. Human trafficking is off the charts. Human rights violations are commonplace. The homeless population only continues to grow. Most people I have talked to don’t even know that it exists here because a lot of money is spent keeping anything that isn’t pretty swept under the rug. It is not good for tourism and it is certainly not cool. People don’t have the time.
    It isn’t all that difficult to gather the cool and the beautiful, as genuine, kind and even spiritual as they may be. I just can’t imagine if equal effort and resources were turned toward the abused, oppressed and over looked right on our doorstep- what a different community this would be.

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  19. That Hillsong article was certainly fascinating! A long read but worth it. I was moved by the Justin Beiber anecdote. I also thought it very interesting how conflicted the author was about the church. Still a few stumbling blocks for her.

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  20. I agree with almost everything said (Kim always has a point or two). I HATE HATE HATE contemporary worship and all trappings, but…you have to dig that crazy drummer and the horns, which is also to say, it doesn’t pay to be too thin skinned about it all, after all it’s Christmas and is about good news. PAX

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  21. “Isn’t it good that Advent is the season when we prepare ourselves for the return of Jesus as Judge and King.” Such bad theology. ‘I come not to judge.’ ‘Nor to rule.’

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  22. This dance sequence would have been better with a celebratory song like Joy To The World. I am all for Christians redeeming dance to glorify Christ. They just missed the mark a bit. Living in the Caribbean most worship music is more celebratory in style. If they could connect it to an appropriately spiritual song it would be great. Many of the contemporary Christian worship songs in the USA seem rather geriatric compared to the worship songs we experience in Caribbean Latin America. Here salsa dance moves are incorporated in many of the Christian celebrations. Now that I am accustomed to this style I prefer out over the style of our former church in the USA.

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  23. I’d like to see what comes next. I presume, having been a member of Hillsong Church London between 2003 and 2009, that this is one song in a longer show. Is this the Mammon number to compare with a mild and cold Bleak Midwinter scene to come later in the show?

    It could go either way.

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  24. I’ve seen a post elsewhere claiming to be from someone who witnessed the performance which gave some extra context for this performance. According to them, this video (not released by Hillsong) was not taken at a “carols night” but at a Christmas musical/dramatic performance based around the nativity narrative. This number was early on and was (in dramatic context), the response to King Herod snapping his fingers and calling for “music!”. Later in the narrative, “Silent Night” is reprised in a more reverent context. That is, this is meant to be jarring and crass, representing Herod’s preference for power and pizzaz over piety and patience.

    If true, that seems like crucial information/context for this piece, which, taken out of that context, can seem truly awful.

    Perhaps some of the commenters above may wish to ponder our own willingness to apply hermeneutical skills without patient attention to context.

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  25. Thanks for this crucial piece of missing context., Byron. It would certainly make me want to revisit and qualify some of my comments above, but I see that Jason has already added his own reflection on the clip which has said what I might want to say much better than I could ever say it.

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  26. Here is the quote from Johnny Rays, who is on staff at Hillsong.

    “This number is from a Christmas spectacular show that was designed as a theatrical production. It tells the story of the Magi on quest for the King’s Star. This piece is early on in the show and follows egomaniacal King Herod snapping his fingers and calling for “music!” It is supposed to make you cringe. It is supposed to have all the worldly excess of a Gatsby-style party which exposes that Herod is seeking Jesus for all the wrong reasons. Later in the show, there is a beautiful, meaningful (and traditional) version of Silent Night which contrasts with the aforementioned piece and makes the exact point that you are all making. The show ends with the attention firmly on Jesus Christ.

    This video was not released by Hillsong, nor would this number ever be an item on its own. It has a narrative context where it makes sense, although of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

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  27. I’m fine with it, giving them credit that they likely had plenty of other songs. Hillsong is good to not leave out the Gospel.

    But, bring back Darlene!

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  28. Call a spade a spade: this is what Paul called “loving the world and the things in it” The promoters of this wickedness will give an accounting for what they have allowed to enter into the Lord’s church. I pray that the church in general awakens before the Lord comes to call His servants to give an account of what they have done with the gospel that He gave to them.

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  29. Sadly, I don’t posses the high level of literacy and erudition of other commentators on this website, but as someone who clicked on this video link with a completely open mind, I was a little surprised to find that most responses here were so very conservative. Christianity has been commercialised for centuries and we are in danger of allowing it to die out completely if we are not prepared to accept that there is a need to reach out to consumers of popular culture and not cater only for an elite membership if we are to avoid alienating ourselves completely on account of our insistence on expressing our faith in the traditional manner that we find so comfortable. It was only after beginning to write this comment that I saw the post by Byron Smith explaining the context in which this version of Silent Night had been performed, and I had to smile at the fact that most commentators here had been overly quick to make sweeping judgements and extravagant apocalyptic pronouncements without access to the full facts of the case. In my humble opinion, there are too many people in our cosy ‘developed’ society who play at being followers of Christ and too few who actually emulate His example.

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  30. Blasphemy, is not a good thing. A good tree 🌲 can not bring forth bad fruit. And a bad tree🌲can not bring forth good fruit. Totally embarrassed and ashamed to this darkness in such a beautiful traditional song. Definitely not from God. Glory.

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