An Open Letter to Brisbane after my visit to Hillsong

I’m not sure who to address this open letter to. Open letters, as a medium, allow opinions to be voiced from an individual for the people addressed, but the point of the genre is that it provides some sort of benefit for the “public” – the reader, as well as the addressee.

I thought about making this an open letter to Hillsong. But who am I to tell another church how to do their business. I’m barely out of nappies as far as this ministry caper is concerned. So I decided I’d try addressing the people we have in common – the people who live around us.

There will be people who say I should’ve sent this straight to Hillsong, without making it open. And I would’ve, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how to contact the relevant people at Hillsong. They’re not exactly transparent on that front. I will tweet them. It is also hard to provide criticism on the basis of “thought” when the well on that front has been poisoned in the sermon. More than once. Apparently trusting God’s word means not really grappling with it all that hard, unless you’re one of the few who can “rightly divide” it (2 Tim 2:15). So much for the priesthood of all believers. I’m also pretty sure that the people who watched our little group at Hillsong assumed we weren’t being moved by the Spirit, because we weren’t moving with the crowd. We weren’t responding to the talk the way we were called to. So I felt uncomfortable talking about the talk with anybody there tonight.

But I want to assure you, if you’re from Hillsong, that I, with meagre powers, love Jesus. He has captured my heart, and my head. And I offer this humbly as a suggestion that something was missing from Hillsong tonight. Something pretty big. Essential even.

Dear Brisbane,

I’m not an expert on Hillsong, or what goes on there. I’ve been once. Once was enough.

I’m not the emotional type. I’m, I hope, a relatively typical Aussie bloke. But I do go to church. Lots. I work for a church as a student, I’m training to be a minister. A few weeks back, when I was going through a pre-delivery critique of one of my sermons, someone suggested it lacked a little passion. I wondered a bit about whether or not I’m passionate enough about the gospel. I wondered whether I really do get excited about the cross. I wondered if I should be more like my brothers and sisters at Hillsong. None of this really matters. Except that I’m a typical person and I want to make where I’m coming from pretty clear. I’m no more or less special than the average church goer, but I am in a position to have some idea what should happen in church.

I try to give people a fair hearing. I try not to judge others. I’m not very good at this. We’re all a package of our prejudice,  our personalities, and our inherent self importance. So I fail. But I do try to be not just objective in how I assess things, but charitable. Using a standard that I hope is objective, and a standard that I’d want applied to me in return.

Let me declare my “bias” – I’m not a pentecostal, in part because I’m not an emotional type, in part because I’ve been raised in a non-pentecostal setting so I have a natural inclination towards non-pentecostal expressions of Christianity, and in part because I’m a more rational type and I have problems with some pentecostal accounts of theology and the human experience. I love my pentecostal brothers and sisters in Christ – and I think we have much to learn from them about loving people, serving people, seeking justice, and many many lessons in terms of connecting with society and not avoiding “cool” as though the gospel is purer if we’re not working hard to connect it to people. In fact, we were there tonight to learn from Hillsong. We wanted to learn about how to look after new people (hint – it’s not taking pot shots at people who aren’t physically expressive, who sit with their arms crossed, or are “intellectual” about their faith – three of the points from tonight’s sermon). Their production values are excellent. Their music is excellent. Their people are passionate, and warm, and care about changing the world – and they do something about it. Starting local, but thinking interstate and global too.

My problem is not with Pentecostal theology. My problem is not with the music, or the production values, or the social justice, or the passion of the people. My problem with tonight’s service is not with pentecostal theology – it’s with what I think is a failure to do what church is meant to be on about. Something that in no way undermines any of the great stuff that happened at Hillsong tonight.

So here’s what I think the church gathering should be about, because I think the church gathering should reflect what unites the church who are gathered, and the church that has gathered and will gather since Jesus, and until he returns.


Jesus, the God who created the world made flesh. Made human. So that we can know God.

Jesus, the son of man, the son of God, who went to the cross and was executed like the scummiest of criminals. Because when it comes to God’s standards we – humans who aren’t Jesus – are the scummiest of criminals. He died our death so we could live his life.

Jesus. God’s “word” to humanity. God’s communication to us. The one life that sums up what the whole Bible is about.

Church is about Jesus. Church is a gathering of people brought together by Jesus, for Jesus. Broken and imperfect people. Like me.

Any time someone gets up in a church and doesn’t talk about Jesus it’s a wasted opportunity. It’s worse, in my opinion, than getting up in the political sphere as a Christian and not talking about Jesus. If you’ve read my criticisms of the ACL  you’ll understand something of my feelings on this front.

The reason I’m writing this is that I went to one of Brisbane’s biggest churches tonight. A church that is part of one of the biggest networks of churches in the world. A mover and shaker in the church business. And apart from a few cursory references, and a couple of verses in a couple of songs, Jesus wasn’t spoken about. Jesus was there in name. And he was there as guarantor of our happiness and victory (effect), but he was absent as cause. He wasn’t there in the sermon underpinning the promises the Bible makes about humanity. And he should have been. And I’m sorry. Brisbane. Because people need to hear about Jesus.

Hillsong promises all sorts of good stuff for people who get on board with God. And God is powerful, like they say. But God demonstrates his power at the cross of Jesus. Power in humility. Strength in suffering. Honour in shame. Victory in sacrifice. The cross isn’t a message of triumph like we might understand it in human terms. It’s a message of triumph in subversion. It turns the world upside down. Victory, for the Christian, is cross shaped. It’s not shaped like the life we want to have. It’s shaped like the life Jesus had. Sacrifice for others. Discomfort for others. Voluntarily.

Tonight I went to Hillsong. The talk was about Psalm 149. Verse 6 of Psalm 149 that is. A verse that in the words of preacher Steve Dixon, is where the Psalm pivots from being about praise, to being about God’s word.

God’s word is important. We can’t know God without it. I’m not sure you can jump straight from one use of the word “sword” into every mention of the word “sword” in the Bible.

“May the praise of God be in their mouths
and a double-edged sword in their hands,”

But we went from here to Hebrews 4. Via a long description of the functions of swords through the ages. Why the function of swords in the Middle Ages and Scotland and in knighting people today was worth a significant chunk of time was a bit beyond me.

12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

A great verse. A powerful verse. God’s word is alive and active. It is powerful. It can upend lives because it upended the world. It created the world. It holds the world together. That’s what Hebrews 1 says anyway. And it equates God’s word with Jesus.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

The talk didn’t go there.

At one point, in a bit of ironic demonstration of why some actual Bible study is a good thing, Steve Dixon talked about the difference between the two Greek words for word. λογος (logos) and ῥῆμα (rhema). Logos, he said, rightly, is the notion of the whole counsel on an issue, the final word, the comprehensive word, the wisdom on a subject… But apparently that’s too much for our little human brains to comprehend. We can only deal with rhemas. Small parts of the logos given to us by the Spirit in particular moments. That sounds great. But it’s not really true. Because we have access to the full wisdom of God in Jesus. Here’s how John puts it. In chapter 1, verses 1 and 14.

In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

We can know the Logos. It’s mind blowing. But it’s true. We need to know God’s logos. The words or utterances spoken by God aren’t enough. The whole counsel is. We may not ever grasp it fully. We are finite, God is infinite. We may only grasp it from utterances (rhema). But God’s word is Jesus.

The worst part of the rhema v logos logic is that Hebrews 4, when it talks about the word of God it says “the logos of God.” Probably worse still, in terms of setting up some magical interpretive distinction between the two is that the Hebrews 1 passage above uses rhema. For something much bigger and grander than a small word applied to an individual. The logic just doesn’t stand up.

And if you’re going to talk about the power of God’s word to transform lives – any transformation of lives begins with Jesus. And it begins at the cross. The word (logos) of God that is living and active is Jesus, who speaks words that are powerful (rhema). There is no word of God without Jesus. There is no point talking about the word of God’s impact in our life without talking about Jesus – and that’s where tonight failed. It was all about the power of God’s word spoken into the lives of people, but it wasn’t about Jesus.

The transformation God works in human lives is through Jesus… not just through the words of moral wisdom found in the Bible. Which is, as much as I could tell, and I was listening pretty hard, the message of tonight’s talk. If we live by the words we find in the Bible it’ll change our life for the better. We’ll suddenly become passionate worshippers of God and the world will change through our actions.

It sounds nice. And the Bible is full of wisdom. Living the words of the Bible will make you a healthier, wealthier, and wiser, person. Probably. Until something goes wrong in your life – like your selfishness or the selfishness of someone else gets in the way. Or until you get the gospel and realise you’re called to sacrifice for others and to be prepared to suffer as you take up your cross and follow Jesus. As you give up your life. As you suffer well. As you die well.

It felt a lot like the talk had 1 Corinthians in the background – especially in the anti-intellectual bits.

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

That’s a powerful account of the usefulness of intellectual endeavour without God. But the next bit is more important.

21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

There wasn’t any of that preaching tonight. If there was it was so implied that I didn’t get it. I was listening out for it. I was waiting for it. I could feel every fibre in my body tensing as it became clearer and clearer that a long sermon was going to go by without God’s word being linked to Jesus. I was collapsing in on myself hoping against hope that we’d get to John 1, or Hebrews 1, or any presentation of the gospel.

Here’s a challenge I have for Steve and for any other Hillsong people who find this post via their google alerts, or Twitter… listen back to tonight’s sermon. Listen for anything that might point someone to the gospel. To the foot of the cross. To Jesus, the word made flesh, not simply to Scripture as a handbook for life. Scripture is Scripture because Jesus said it testified about him, and he showed he was God by coming back from the dead. Without him it’s just some old text. It is living and powerful because it centres on the cross. The pivot point in human history.

Steve used the example of two hypothetical people in the congregation who might respond to his talk in different ways – by fully physically engaging in worship, as he suggested the Psalm called us to, getting out of their comfort zone and giving themselves over to God, or by sitting back, arms folded, unchallenged and unmoved.

Jesus doesn’t care about how high you lift your arms, or how uncomfortable the self-aware bit of your psyche is when you are praising him. He cares about the condition of your heart – and sure, responding to Jesus with your whole being is part of responding to your changed heart. And the passion and social justice stuff Hillsong and churches of its ilk get into is fruit of a changed heart. I have no doubt about that.

I’m not a hypothetical listener. I’m not a sermon illustration. I was there. In the flesh. In the second row. I could’ve walked out at the end of that sermon insulted (I was sitting with my arms crossed apparently a sign that God’s word wasn’t engaging me), and that would’ve been sad, I could’ve walked out of that talk no clearer on who Jesus is, and that’s a tragedy. But I walked out angry. So at least Hillsong promoted a passionate response from me. I’m thankful for that. But mostly for Jesus.

So dear Brisbane, if you go to Hillsong and it isn’t clear what they’re on about in the sermon, or why they’re singing with such passion. Please ask someone. I’m sure they’ll be able to tell you. Then ask them, given how amazing the gospel is, why it isn’t front and centre every week in everything they do. It might be other weeks, it wasn’t this week.




Peter Graham says:

So many churches these days trying so hard to be relevant that you barely ever even here the name Jesus in a sermon anymore. The hard issues are almost never addressed and most sermons sound more like self help sessions or feel good stories. So many churches are headed down this dangerous road of watering down the gospel. Then theres the other side of the coin .. the churches that are so overly focused on grace and signs and wonders that they often forget to preach altogether.

Ephesians 5:27 is verse you will rarely heard preached from these churches .. but it speaks the real truth and the church needs to wake up.

Chris Sandford says:

To be a witness to Jesus we must have meaningful contact with Him. Otherwise we are a fake if we talk about Him and don’t really know him. Now that is pretty straight forward.
If we are not witnessing to Him then that most likely means we are not spending time with Him. That is we are not hanging out with Him “walking with Him” and talking to Him about the many things which make up our lives. If this is the case, ie not witnessing to Him, it is most likely that sin is an issue. That is, we are two timing – trying to live the Christian life as well as hang onto stuff Jesus is clear we should die to. If this is the case, and it is a daily struggle for me, then we need to “fess up” ie confess and repent – that is say “sorry God I am confused” and “help me get Your focus for life”. The wonderful message we have is God wants us in relationship with Him and there is only one way that can happen – through Jesus – it really is all about Jesus. Now, that is pretty clear and not complicated. But, us Christians make it hard and figure we know what is right and hang onto stuff we figure is good but in reality is bad.
So, I personally need to start the day thankful for God’s grace in the gospel and ask God to help me keep that focus. Daily I drift. Daily I need to say that to God. Daily I need to refocus on Jesus.
I reckon people need help with this and that is one of our prime roles in relating to other Christians. We are here for them for that purpose, that they look to Jesus as “it really is all about Him”.
Not only do I need to be increasingly captivated by our awesome and loving God and His provision of Jesus but others too need to be on that trajectory (thank you Don Carson for that thought).
The world needs Jesus and we can only present Him if He has captivated us. … If He has captivated us we get intentional about figuring out the things on His heart He wants us to focus on. Uppermost in this is that we talk about Jesus, lots, I mean heaps, and He has more going for us in our lives than most of us realise. We can not stand up and avoid talking about Jesus. He is our essence and so this must come out – and come out centrally.

Josh B says:

It is amazing how fervent worshippers at Hillsong Church can be. How much more passionate should we be in our worship when we hear the glorious message of Salvation through Christ each and every week?

Russell Charlton says:

I went to Tabor College Sydney.Barry Chant the founder of Tabor during one of our lectures (hermenutics I think) said this one thing that stuck with always. “do not waste an oportunity to preach grace.” The other and more important influence for me is Paul’s statement ‘my gospel is Christ and Him crucified.’ Without it there is no gospel. Unfortunately my experience is that this model doesn’t match Hillsong’s mldus opernadi as it were, it even extends to Youth Alive events. Its is sad that there are so many wasted oportunities for people to come to the mercy seat as Billy Graham implored people to do.

Russell Charlton says:

Sorry for the typos posting from my phone :/

Ross Johnston says:

Russell from Wagga ~1994 ? Sorry for the o/t.

HS ought to be defended against ignorant or malicious attack, but this is neither. Not much has changed since my first mid-90’s experience, or visits subsequently. This latest continues what I consider ‘business as usual’, and to say the least is not heartening. I understand some people’s “don’t argue in front of the kids” response – but importantly – these topics are not new or a one-off rant, and they’re worthy of well thought out discussion like this amongst people who have a joint interest and understanding.

Perhaps the very attention that this mega-institution garners is evidence of something askew. And how bizarre that you can’t just walk up to the preacher afterwards, or call him by getting his number off the back of the newsletter ;)

AndrewF says:

“how bizarre that you can’t just walk up to the preacher afterwards, or call him by getting his number off the back of the newsletter” < this. I'd understand people being uncomfortable with public criticism if Nathan could have spoken after the service with the preacher, but it appears that was not the case, and that’s a problem IMO. Even in big central London church which would see a couple of thousand people each sunday, I could always shake the the preacher’s hand. Always.

Martin Du Preez says:

Hi Nathan

Just some background of me. Im 17 years old and still in highschool. Hillsong is like my home. I go there every week for both church and for youth. I believe that my calling has been music, as it moves me through the spirit and God. I went to Sunday’s morning service which had the exact same message, so I can relate.

About the worship. The way steve put it was that without “moving” we arent really connecting to God. Although I love my “movements”, just because I am comfortable with it and it really does make me connect with God, I did not completely agree with that. It is an act of surrender and it can bring us closer to God, but not everybody is cpmfortable with open worshipping, and I felt like he put people on the spot for that. There are people who arent comfortable with open worship and it’s totally understandable. I used to go to achurches in South Africa, and the only worship we did was maybe every once in a while we’d lift up a hand. I see the open whorship as a priveledge and opportunity to connect with God just because of my background and where I come from, but I understand that it is not everyone’s cup of tee.

Abouf the message. I can honsetly say that all messages Ive heard from Hillsong has been relevant to me in how to strengthen my relationship with God, but I totally understand your point of view. I never thought about that until I read this. After reading it, I was a bit annoyed with just “another critical guy who wants to make Hillsong look bad”, but thinking about it, it is true what you said. We do not talk about Jesus that much and how he sacrificed himself. We do mention it, and there obviously has been messages about Jesus, but yhey are rare. It would be good to hear more messages about Jesus, rather than connecting ourselves with God.

My reccomendation. Try to contact steve about this. Maybe Facebook? I wouldn’t be sure to where aboutd you could contact him, but I reckon it would be good for him to hear.

Kind regards

Nathan Campbell says:

Hi Martin,

Thanks heaps for your gracious comment – and the gracious way you’ve received this criticism. I have tweeted Steve and the Hillsong Brisbane Twitter accounts.

It would be great for all our churches – yours, mine, and every church to hear more messages about Jesus.

Martin Du Preez says:

Thanks Nathan.
It would be great to hear about Jesus more than every once in a while ;)

I hope Steve and the crew will get your message and take it as positive criticism.

Josh B says:


What a great comment. It was great to see this response, very encouraging.

Martin Du Preez says:

Thanks Josh.
I really appreciate it.

Anon says:

Just a thought…why go to the trouble of openly attacking another church and person, but not offering any encouragement, or promoting unity?

While I agree with the analysis of the sermon and the sort…I couldn’t help but have my heart drop as yet another evangalical took the opportunity to bash another church. I simply don’t see the love, wisdom or usefulness of that.

Unbelievers would see posts such as this, and say…why on earth would I want to go to any of these churches when all they do is attack each other. But if this were written with less anger, and more gentle correction…this could have been something far more uplifting.

Nathan Campbell says:

Hi Anon,

I’m assuming you’re anonymous because you’re aware of the self dedeating irony of this comment. If public criticism of other Christians is so wrong why are you doing it? And worse, why aren’t you putting your name to it for the sake of accountability.

Paul’s pretty big on unity in Christ. But it doesn’t stop him naming names in Scripture when the “in Christ” bit is at stake… Criticism doesn’t imply that I think they are wrong in every area, just this crucial one. We need to grow up and stop being so precious about fictitious unity in things other than Jesus, it’s only our pride that makes us shy away from public and robust conversations about our faith. If people were more passionate about getting Jesus right that’d bear fruit for us and these apparently offended bystanders. I’d rather stand for unity in Jesus than unity in unity.

David Donohue says:

At the risk of leading this off topic, one of the most concerning (for me at least) aspects of contemporary church (regardless of the flavour) is the loss of the “community” part of the “community of Christ” – whether people are sitting with arms folded taking things in intellectually, or swaying to the music, I fear we are looking and acting more like an audience than a community.

The better, slicker and more impressive the “production values” of a service, the more I believe we risk divorcing Jesus from worship. I’m old enough and Catholic enough to remember Latin High Mass where congregations sat through a tightly choreographed 60 minute production in another language (a bit like a German opera in terms of impenetrability) and people just waited for it to be finished and move on to morning tea.

Jesus did not hang with the cool kids.


Nathan Campbell says:

Yeah, I agree. And credit where it’s due – I reckon Hillsong has a vibrant community outside of the Sunday gathering. It’s just a bad time to be so far off message. I do feel like the shift to a consumer/audience approach to Sunday gathering is a massive problem and has resulted in people being less interested in serving the community they belong to.

But I don’t think slick production values are wrong – I’d say they’re more a neutral and can be used for good or for ill. Like Augustine and the rules of oratory from the great orators… It’s possible to want to do worship well so that people will see Jesus in the attitude and content presented. I’d say it’s mostly to do with love and sacrifice though, not smoke machines and musical proficiency. But if the people who don’t know Jesus in our culture can be better connected to Jesus via that medium then I think we should be prepared to be flexible.

Jesus was, in his being, both an incredibly slick never to be repeated communicative act, and a lowly Jewish guy born to unmarried parents in a stable who was executed by the state… so I can completely see your point.

Matthew Schiemann says:

Great point Nathan, very well said. I am a seminary student in the Lutheran church in America, and I kept hearing the call to be as Martin Luther notes, theologians of the cross and not theologians of glory. We are called to acknowledge the cross, to realise that Christ’s way was the “via dolorosa,” the way of suffering, and that is what we preach Christ crucified, Christ here in the flesh sharing our burdens. But not just the “buddy” Christ who dwelt among us, but also the God almighty whose wisdom is greater than ours, and who’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours.

Andrew Y says:

Hi Nathan,
I’ve been a member of Pentecostal churches for over sixteen years, and have been a member of Hillsong for the last seven and a half (since I moved to Sydney). I am what you might call an “intellectual” type, and would say I know my way around a theology text book and commentary. Thank you for taking the time to visit Hillsong and to write out some of your thoughts. I also want to thank you for noting the positives in your assessment before addressing your concerns. It is always good to have someone without a fixed agenda making comments. I also want to note that your root concern is justified, if Jesus is not the centre of what we do then we have a problem. I think all churches everywhere need to have this on their minds at all times.
With that said, I would like to help you to understand Hillsong a little more. I make these comments tentatively because I have not heard the sermon (as I am in Sydney), and don’t know whether or not it represents a typical Hillsong sermon or not – it may be that you happened to walk in on a particularly weak sermon theologically. That can happen, as it can in many churches, people can have bad days. With that said, I am sure that if Steve Dixon read your blog he would be mortified that he came across like this, I don’t believe it would be intentional.
Firstly the music
You will find that Hillsong’s songs are centered around Jesus and the work of God in our lives. That is, salvation brought about through what God has done in and through Jesus the divine son of God. Having been in church for some time, I can note that much of our orthodoxy is sung. If nothing else, it is rare that the particular combination of songs would not at all mention Jesus and the saving grace brought through his atoning work.
The Sermons
In regards to sermons, the underlying theology is focused on Jesus and what his work means for us. With that said, you will not always hear a sermon on a particular atonement theory and the symbol of the cross. It should be mentioned if nothing else then at the alter call invitation, but you will hear many sermons about faith, hope, love, generosity, serving, flourishing in life, purpose etc. These are all, intuitively if not explicitly, about Jesus and his work. Indeed, to focus on the particular atonement mechanism and the symbol (the cross), without adequate attention on what that means in its fullness, or its eschatological vision, is actually to truncate the mission and message of Jesus and the redemptive work of God accomplished through Him. In this respect, those churches that don’t preach about transformed lives in the present, in addition to forgiveness of sins, are actually not preaching the full message of the cross, they are preaching the symbol, or the atonement mechanism, without preaching the whole message of salvation. This though needs to be tempered by not having an overly realized eschatology, something that perhaps we could note more sometimes. All I want to say is that the heart of Hillsong as I see, and have known it, is that we are passionate about preaching about Jesus and what he has done, and being a part of the continuing work of God continuing through the Spirit.
The dilemma is that you cannot preach your whole theology in every thirty minute sermon, and you cannot get the whole picture every time. This as you say could be a “lost opportunity”. Perhaps it is sloppy on our part that we aren’t more deliberate and strict with our sermon quality, but on the other hand, perhaps evangelism and conversion is far more of a process than we give it credit for. Real conversion is lasting, and real evangelism should be relational in incorporating believers into the community of Faith. If this is being done, then I can assure you that the message of Jesus will not be missed by someone encountering our community. I always encourage people visiting our church that if you want to get to know who we are, come for at least six weeks (preferably six months but you can’t be too demanding on new people), not just on Sundays, but connect groups and social activities as well. In this regard, I would encourage you to not take your opinion of Steve, or our church, from one visit.

With all this said, I as a member of Hillsong will take your blog in what I believe the spirit of it is, and that is a reminder and healthy constructive critique for the future (as per the above comments). I can see that this is a passion of yours, and should be a passion of us all, and your heart concern is a good one. We should support one another in keeping us all on track, and you have given us a healthy reminder.

Andrew Youd

Nathan Campbell says:

Hi Andrew,

Thanks for your gracious comment. I want to be careful to distinguish Hillsong the brand, from Hillsong songs, from Hillsong the church, from Hillsong Brisbane, from the people of Hillsong Brisbane, from Steve Dixon, from the sermon on Sunday night. I agree that the first six are interested in seeing Jesus proclaimed. My problem is only with the sermon. And it’s only with the sermon taken on its own terms… If the sermon was about what God says about cheese then it wouldn’t be right to assess it against the question “was the sermon about Jesus” – this was a sermon about the power of the word of God for the people of God. God’s powerful word is Jesus. Jesus is the basis for any powerful word. Steve spoke about how some people will come out of a sermon wanting to forgive others, because something about forgiveness “rhema”d them. But the reason we want to forgive when God works in us by his Spirit is because when our Lord was on the cross making forgiveness possible he called out “Father forgive them” the reason we forgive is because Jesus calls us to forgive in God’s word… the sermon presented forgiveness abstracted from Jesus.

My question then is what implications not proclaiming Jesus in the sermon has back up that chain? I would assume that the sermon is one of the earliest impressions/things that people judge a church on if they are walking in off the street (obviously the music comes before the sermon) – of the songs we sang only one was specifically about Jesus, Cornerstone, the others were about us praising God with our lives because he is praiseworthy – that’s fine. We should express that.

Funny. Yesterday I read someone who spoke against churches that talked too much about Jesus. Today it is someone who spoke against churches not talking enough about Jesus. Nathan, do you think it is possible to be too “Jesus-centric” or talk about Jesus too much?

Nathan Campbell says:


I think Karl Barth and some Sydney Anglicans (and others) go to far in their Christo-centric thinking. Although perhaps it is better to say too much about Jesus than too little… be careful :)

Nathan says:

I’m sticking with Calvin and Luther on this one… well. And Paul.

“When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Seems he thinks the testimony about God is adequately summed up in Jesus and him Crucified. He is quite free in drawing ethics from that point throughout Corinthians, but none of his ethical stuff comes without being built on an explicit presentation of the gospel…

If we’re serious about teaching the Bible we’ve got to take seriously the statements in the Bible, by Jesus, about his relationship to the rest of the Bible. I’m not sure where you wouldn’t want to preach Jesus in a sermon?

I suspect that James’ letter isn’t quite as explicit about Jesus as you would want. But then, I guess Luther had struggles with that too. Have you read lots of Calvin’s sermons? Is he always as Christ-centred as you are saying people should be? Many Pressie churches aim for 20-25 minute sermons (admittedly, Hillsong sermons may be longer), there is only so much you can meaningfully say in a short amount of time. I don’t think you have to preach “the gospel” every time (although it is good to at least hint at it, and also best to get there often enough in a series, and certainly must be clear in the whole church context). People need more than a superficial understanding of the gospel, and that takes the whole counsel of God, and the preaching will be more and less “Christ-centred” at different times. In Acts 17 I would say Paul’s Areopaus sermon is more “God-centred” than “Jesus-centred”. Is it possible (and ok) to talk about God the Father, or God the Spirit, or God the Trinity, without having to make it as Jesus’ centred as you seem to say?

BTW with 1 Cor 2:2, Paul’s comment about Christ crucified is more about the contrast against those who want to “look good”, rather than the fact it is always the focus. As Calvin says, “In adding the word crucified, he does not mean that he preached nothing respecting Christ except the cross; but that, with all the abasement of the cross, he nevertheless preached Christ… This little clause is added by way of enlargement… with the view of galling so much the more those arrogant masters, by whom Christ was next to despised, as they were eager to gain applause by being renowned for a higher kind of wisdom. Here we have a beautiful passage, from which we learn what it is that faithful ministers ought to teach, what it is that we must, during our whole life, be learning, and in comparison with which everything else must be ‘counted as dung.’ (Philippians 3:8.)”

Nathan says:

Hi Craig,

I’m currently writing a thesis on Paul’s oratory of the cross in 1-2 Corinthians. I don’t think Calvin is quite right on what Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians 2, but that’s the subject of a later post…

I think it’s hard to maintain your suggestion about the Areopagus given that Paul is invited to address the council because he appears to be speaking of new Gods – Jesus and the Resurrection. These supply, I suggest, the “topic” of the speech he is invited to give to a council that is historically responsible for the introduction of new gods to the Parthenon.

I’m not sure where you think I’m suggesting Hillsong should have included “the whole council of God” in one sermon? Or even one service. I also suspect we’re operating on a different definition of what “Gospel” is – I’m not reducing the gospel to penal substitutionary atonement, I’m keeping it at the level of proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus – surely any preaching, moral or otherwise, presupposes this Lordship, and surely, if you assume there will be non-Christians in the congregation you need to make your presuppositions clear before talking about any of the outcomes of being the people of the Lord Jesus. That would have been fine in this sermon. It would have been fine if the word of God had been linked to the word of God in Christ. But it wasn’t. It was just a how to manual for better, wiser, “breakthrough” victorious living…

Nathan says:

Re James – I reckon it might serve an apologetic function to Jews to show them that being a follower of Jesus is a higher calling than the law, much like I think the Wisdom Literature functioned as an apologetic to ancient near eastern people who were wanting to live wise lives, I think James is deliberately “Jewish” and is making a pitch to Jews who want to live righteous lives.

In any case, my point isn’t that all Christian teaching needs to be about Jesus. I would call a lecture on blessings and curses in the Old Testament “Christian Teaching”… But I would say all Christian preaching – the sermon in the gathering – needs to be about Jesus, and I wouldn’t want a lecture like that passing as a sermon.

My point about “the whole counsel of God” was not that it should be done in one sermon, but precisely that it does take a lot more than that. And in one sermon, you may only focus on one aspect of that, which may make that sermon not as “Christ-centred” as you seem to be talking about. But sounds like we also may not see exactly eye-to-eye about the point of the preaching in the Christian assembly :) If I may say so, I have met lots of “Jesus-only” full-time ministry workers whose theology is quite weak, and not thought through enough (but there are also those whose is not, and, conversely, also those who are strong on theology but too weak on Jesus..). So I’m just saying, “be careful” (if you grant me the liberty to do that). I’m not so much defending Hillsong, as suggesting that you be careful not to overstate your case. So regarding your thesis, and your “Word of God = the Christ” emphasis, make sure you read widely, about doctrine of Scripture, and doctrine of preaching, and perhaps also look for critiques on Barth etc. Thanks for the conversation!

Nathan says:

Hi Craig,

Other than the thinking that the incarnation is really important, my framework doesn’t have much in common with Barth – for example, off the top of my head, I like natural revelation, and think that both creation and the incarnation open up analogies of being… I’m not particularly interested in Barth, but I am particularly interested in a Christ Centred Biblical Theology.

The word of God = Christ thing is, I think, relevant to my critique of this sermon because it used Hebrews 4 as a proof text, and I would argue that Hebrews 4 can only make sense in the light of Hebrews 1. The sermon also discussed the inaccessible nature of God’s “logos” versus his “rhema” and I would argue that John 1:1-18 makes it pretty clear that not only is Jesus God’s Logos, but that the function of Jesus’ incarnation is to make God accessible to human knowledge. It is an act of accommodation – as any revelation of God must be because of the creature/creator distinction. We can only know anything of God because he reveals himself to us by accommodating himself to us, and while he does it in Scripture, the only reason Scripture is relevant and true is that Jesus said it was about him. Said he was God. And was raised from the dead – Barth thought this too, but at this point that’s pretty orthodox. Scripture is authenticated by the resurrection. Without the resurrection it’s just another collection of religious twaddle from the Ancient Near East and early Roman empire…

Can you give me an example of when you might preach a Biblical or “Christian” sermon that doesn’t mention Jesus?

I can imagine one might preach a theistic sermon that doesn’t mention Jesus, or a moral sermon that doesn’t mention Jesus… but I can’t figure out why any Christian would want to advocate theism or morality rather than Christianity…

Nathan says:

Also – I’ve pretty comprehensively outlined my thoughts on what preaching is here.

Hi Nathan.

You have probably studied Barth more recently than I have. But the whole “Word of God = Christ” thing sounds Barthian, as well as the overt Christ-centredness. Of course these things are not exclusive to him, but some excesses are apparent in him, so I mention him to see the boundary to avoid crossing.

I think someone could conceivably properly preach on all sorts of things (eg fear of God, nature of sin, eternality of God, etc) without *necessarily* bringing in Christ to the sermon. In fact, I think even one could preach on the authority of the Scriptures without necessarily bringing in Christ (the Scriptures already had authority prior to resurrection, and I would suggest that in some places references to the Scriptures pointing to Christ presuppose an authority somewhat independent of Christ’s death and resurrection). Again, I’m only talking about one sermon, not the whole box and dice of what a church presents. For the latter, there must be a clear Christ-relevance, but I don’t think that means it is impossible for a particular sermon to not overtly mention Christ.

So don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that a whole diet can be Christ-less. I agree that more rather than less (and perhaps the vast majority) should be explicitly Christ-conscious sermons. And perhaps it is even better if all sermons do mention Christ. But just because a particular sermon doesn’t mention Christ, I don’t think it necessarily makes it non-Christian etc. That just sounds legalistic or artificial to me.

Nathan says:

“the Scriptures already had authority prior to resurrection, and I would suggest that in some places references to the Scriptures pointing to Christ presuppose an authority somewhat independent of Christ’s death and resurrection”

Really? For us gentiles?

I can see where you’re going – 1 Cor 15 makes it clear that the authority of Scripture and the resurrection are pretty clearly linked:

“3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

But to me the emphatic bit of this chapter seems to be the futility of religion, including the Scriptures, if they aren’t authenticated by the resurrection…

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith…

32 … If the dead are not raised,

“Let us eat and drink,
for tomorrow we die.”

Paul doesn’t seem to give the authority of the Old Testament much value without the resurrection. He doesn’t say if the dead are not raised I’m packing it in and going back to Judaism…

This stuff only sounds Barthian because at some points, as a guy trying to read the Bible and explain it, Barth said things that were found in the Bible. In places like John 1. And Hebrews 1. And Colossians 1…

“I think someone could conceivably properly preach on all sorts of things (eg fear of God, nature of sin, eternality of God, etc) without *necessarily* bringing in Christ to the sermon.”

This is conceivable. But not desirable. And there’s nothing in those sort of sermons that wouldn’t be out of place in a synagogue or mosque.

Where would one be preaching from in order to make these points? And more importantly, why would we not want to preach these passages (presumably the Old Testament), like Jesus did? Luke 24:

7 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

John 5:

39 You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me

This also seems relevant… Luke 16:16

“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it.”

And this, from Acts 10…

“42 And he commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is he which was ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead. 43 To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whoever believes in him shall receive remission of sins.”

Why would we want to preach anything else?

I agree that more rather than less (and perhaps the vast majority) should be explicitly Christ-conscious sermons. And perhaps it is even better if all sermons do mention Christ. But just because a particular sermon doesn’t mention Christ, I don’t think it necessarily makes it non-Christian etc.

But it does make it not distinctly Christian. Why is a not distinctly Christian sermon desirable in the context of a church, where we get to set the agenda? Maybe if you’re at a school chapel service, or a funeral, or something, I could appreciate doing some natural law/general revelation stuff to lay a foundation for the gospel later…

That just sounds legalistic or artificial to me.

Ironic. Because it’s that’s how I’d describe sermons that aren’t about Jesus…

Yes, really :)

I’m not going to engage point for point, because I think we’ve both already said enough to make our points clear.

I’ll simply add this… What makes a sermon distinctly Christian, even if Christ is not overtly mentioned, is that it is done in a Christian context. Hopefully the preacher is following and worshipping Christ, gifted by Christ, empowered by the Spirit of Christ, and the words spoken have impact on listeners as a ministry of the ruling, resurrected Christ through His Spirit etc etc. Actually, might go further and say that it is distinctly Trinitarian, and not just distinctly Christian. Anyway, I don’t think the special content alone or only makes a sermon Christian. Hmm, maybe I’m sounding a bit Barthian now too :)

Nathan says:

Hi Craig,

I agree but I can’t see how you worship Christ without speaking of Christ. And I think the primary role the Spirit plays is directing us too Christ and the father, and equipping us to direct others to Christ and the father. I can’t figure out how you express or point to the rule of Christ without talking about Christ. And I can’t figure out how we speak of the Trinity at all without speaking of Christ as part of that Trinity, and the sending of the incarnation as a product of the Trinity and the means by which we relate to the Triune God.

The application of your definition to a church service that doesn’t present what I would consider to be “gospel” seems impossible to me.

Yes, I can see you are struggling with making sense of these ideas. Perhaps if we leave it to mull over, things will become clearer over time :)

Nathan says:

I just get worried when people say “your picture of the importance of Jesus is too big”…