My coming to Jesus happened almost entirely by surprise.
It was a small lifetime ago, in the year 2000, when I was just 16 years old. I remember it well: my jeans were flared, I had a strange affinity for cargo pants an addiction to wearing ribbons in my hair, and I confess to an embarrassing crush on Nick from the Backstreet Boys.
It was also the year I became a Christian at Hillsong conference, back in the days when it was held at the old Hillsong centre in Baulkham Hills. These days, of course, Hillsong conference is much larger, and fills the Qudos Bank Arena at Sydney Olympic Park, which seats 21,000, and draws attendees from across the country and around the world.
I had, in the weeks leading up to that day in 2000, read a total of one book on Christianity, and had a few conversations with friends about Jesus. Before that book and those conversations I had only once entered a church, never been to school Scripture, and didn’t really know anything about Jesus.
And then it happened: one night a friend from school invited me to go to a Hillsong conference rally. “Sure,” I said.
All the details of that night are hazy, except for one moment of startling clarity: a preacher who made it clear that Jesus died in my place; dying the death that I deserved. That is, at a time in my life when I wondered how many people in my world really did love me, the preacher helped me see that Jesus loved me so much that he died for me. Then there was a conviction that this gospel was true, and a decision that I owed my very life to God. I didn’t understand what that meant, and it would take several more years until I grasped the fact that every day of mine belonged to God, not just the Sundays. But everything was secondary to the fact that this guy – Jesus – had died for me: I was convinced.
I went down the front, was prayed for, and then whisked away to a room where a woman I’d never met before, and would never see again, prayed with and for me, gave me her own Bible, and then sent me back to my friend in the crowd. These days, the counsellors who pray with new converts don’t need to part with their dog-eared Bibles; they are instead stocked with thousands of new Bibles to hand out to the new brothers and sisters in Christ.
I returned to Hillsong conference last year after a 15-year hiatus.
I’ve heard all the criticisms of Hillsong: that they don’t preach the gospel, that they don’t preach exegetically or even from the Bible, that the music is too loud, the song lyrics too superficial, the prayer too wishy-washy.
No doubt those things are sometimes true of Hillsong (and every other Christian denomination) but 16 years ago I didn’t believe in God because the preacher promised me a hardship-free life. I believed because Jesus laid down his life for me, without me asking him to do it. That is a remarkable truth.
This year I had the privilege of meeting Brian and Bobbie Houston (the benefits of having a media pass!) and my boss dobbed me in as someone who became a Christian at Hillsong conference. As I shrunk into my shoes, I chastised myself because God uses all kinds of methods to bring people to know Jesus, including Hillsong conference.