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Hillsong UNITED was bringing the church before it was cool.EXPAND
Hillsong UNITED was bringing the church before it was cool.
Isabel Arcellana

Hillsong UNITED Rocked the Church Long Before Kanye

Toyota Music Factory filled up two nights in a row this week to see one of the biggest names in Christian music. Religious or not, you might know them from their biggest hit, “Oceans,” which spent 13 weeks at Billboard’s Top 100 in 2014, going certified double platinum.

With Kardashians being past attendees of the Hillsong Church and people like Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez jamming out to Hillsong’s worship music, the church has received a lot of media attention. The Australia-based organization has been at the center of many controversies — including its non-committed stance on the LGBTQ movement. But one thing’s for sure, Christians love their worship bands.

Hillsong UNITED delivered a powerful performance with the visuals you’d expect from Christian music’s hippest act, banging out church classics and keeping the audience hooked and energized the whole way. Songs like “The Stand” and “What a Beautiful Name” hardly needed to be sung by the vocalists since the crowd was doing it for them. It really was like being at church.

Because one does wonder, how church-y is a worship concert exactly? The answer is: very. Praise hands were a constant throughout the night, scripture was read, mini sermons were casually delivered, and there were many “Thank you Jesus!” shouts that echoed through the pavilion every second there was a pause in the music. People were crying and swaying, there were options to give to charity, and there was even an actual “come to Jesus” prayer moment.

This was an amazing experience for those who wanted a church-service-rock-concert hybrid. It was perfect for those who were already seasoned in timing their “amens" and practiced at their hand-raising. But it's not for those whose spirit is easily overwhelmed.

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Monday and Tuesday night were a stark contrast to the Sunday Service that’s been hitting headlines, courtesy of the one and only Kanye West. For those not caught up with the rapper’s latest, West has been holding “Sunday Services” to invitation-only crowds in various locations on Sunday mornings, but opening it up to the public when he performed on Easter Sunday at Coachella.

West played to an audience of thousands, not to mention viewers of the livestream. He blended mainstream music with gospel and religious tones, surrounded by a choir. It was such a morph between church and a Kanye concert that no one is really sure what exactly happened. But no doubt so many different types of people were there, religious and otherwise, that it didn’t really matter. Maybe it was a viewer's first time at “Sunday Service” ever or in a while, but it’s Kanye at Coachella so duh.

Christian music has a growing gray area. Bands like NEEDTOBREATHE and NF, who were originally put in a box labeled “Christian artists,” beg for the release of being tied to that label. At the same time, full-blown Christian artists are having their songs played on mainstream radio stations, like Lauren Daigle with her song “You Say.” And Christian radio stations like KLTY have played more and more songs from mainstream artists like The Fray, Ben Rector, Owl City and more.

“Christian music has become more acceptable by a mainstream audience because of the positive message it conveys,” Mike Prendergast, the Music Director at KLTY, has said. “Likewise there are some mainstream artists that may have songs that project a positive and uplifting message that can be consumed on Christian media as well.”

Likewise, Jay Shannon, the KDMX/KDGE Program Director at 106.1 KISS.FM with iHeart Radio, a big pop station in Dallas, doesn’t see the label “Christian” as something that should hold back an artist from succeeding in pop media. “We don’t have barriers that prohibit us from playing any style of music," he told us. "Hits are hits.”

Maybe there’s just a lot of hopping around going on in the Christian music genre, or maybe there is this gray area that is expanding. The gray being a space in which people from different backgrounds can ease in and out of the religious category.

Maybe you would like to live — or briefly stroll around — in that gray area, among the music that is morphing and defying genres. Maybe you would listen to “Christian” music if the Bible wasn’t so in your face. But maybe you, like the folks at Hillsong UNITED, want to dance unashamedly to some rad “hallelujahs.” Maybe hearing “Oceans” live was a religious experience in every sense of the term. All the power to you. It sure was a rockin’ church service.

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