Fact Check: What Gruen got right and wrong about Hillsong

Hillsong church as a marketing phenomenon got the Gruen treatment on the ABC this week. The advertising show’s host Wil Anderson described Hillsong as “a great Australian success story; the founders came from New Zealand and we claimed them when they became famous.” True.

Eternity did a Fact Check on other key claims made by Gruen about the prominent Christian church.

The ‘ten per cent’ figure: WRONG

Let’s start with the money and the recycled comment about tithing: “I heard that they want ten per cent of your salary,” announced Anderson.

Gruen can’t be faulted for getting the tithing principle from the Bible and it is certainly mentioned at Hillsong. But the day-to-day experience of attenders is not one of complying with a rigid requirement.

Hillsong members gave an average of 2.4 per cent of their income.

The Hillsong annual reports are available online. In 2016, weekend attendance in Australia was 37,384 and Hillsong Church Australia revenue was $130,978,056. The official accounts state that 56 per cent of this was from donations. This means about $73,347,767 came from local donations, which equates to an average of $1962 per attender. Using the ABS’s 2016 figures, the average income of those attending Hillsong would be $81,947. This means Hillsong members gave an average of 2.4 per cent of their income, placing them on par with other Christian groups such as the Sydney Anglicans.

‘Tinder for Christians’ and marketing to the young: RIGHT

The only “zinger comment” this observer noted was “It’s Tinder for Christians.”

Gruen host Will Andersen landed a punch with this one. It first occurred to this observer, when he had lots of mates in the old communist party of Australia, that romances blossom when people share a common cause. Most churches want young people to have a good chance to find a soul mate in their church or one like it.

Everything the Gruen team said about lifetime marketing and churches is true. “A peer group for every age group” was the mantra of my decidedly non-Hillsong church.

Sadly, Wil Anderson’s idea of setting up a dating app for young Christians – which he planned to call “Willsong” – has been taken.

Gruen put it this way, that Hillsong has “five sub-brands aimed at children, starting at age one.” A lot of churches have special names for their kids and youth programs, and Hillsong simply does what most churches do. If that is extra special marketing, there is a lot of it about. Sadly, Wil Anderson’s idea of setting up a dating app for young Christians – which he planned to call “Willsong’ – has been taken. That was the original plan for eHarmony, since forced by US Court cases to expand its audience beyond Christians. And there are other such dating apps and sites.

100,000 in church every week: RIGHT (globally) 

Not in Australia, according to Hillsong figures (37,384 weekend attenders, with children (5,462) and youth (2,506) added in. The global figure is 100,000 weekly attenders – (UPDATE a reader has pointed us to this official statement https://hillsong.com/media)

A $100m business: RIGHT 

Gruen reported Hillsong Church Australia as a “$100 million business” but underestimated its total revenue, which was $130,978,056 in 2016. This includes conferences, music and the Bible College.

“Close to 30,000 people made a decision to place their faith in Jesus Christ through the programs and services of Hillsong Church this year.” –  Hillsong 2016 Annual Report

Two locations in Sydney: WRONG

Gruen got this badly wrong. In Sydney, Hillsong has campuses in the Hills District (iconic Baulkham Hills), City (including the historic Waterloo service), South West and Greater West. In total, Hillsong meets for services in 11 Sydney locations including  Alexandria, Northern Beaches and Bondi. In 2016, the latest report Gruen would have had access to, Hillsong had 27 Australian locations. But the other point Gruen was making, that Hillsong has a strategy of larger church gatherings rather than lots of little ones, is true – and Gruen saw it as part of Hillsong’s success. There are now Hillsong Churches in 19 countries, with multiple service locations in each.

Gruen missed what most Christians (and it should be all Christians) will regard as the most important stat of all. The 2016 Hillsong reports says: “Close to 30,000 people made a decision to place their faith in Jesus Christ through the programs and services of Hillsong Church this year.”

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