“God, you come back with the head of my enemy”: Hillsong, Bethel and Emotional Manipulation in Worship Music

Their songs are better than everyone else’s and they can kind of infiltrate into other churches by having good music. What Hillsong did was kindof marry the music that they wanted to sing in church – the themes – with contemporary music. So early Hillsong music from 2000 sounds like 2000’s pop. Today’s Hillsong music sounds like Coldplay. The goal of Hillsong is to stay current. It’s to make music that you know people will like. And instead of refurbishing your grandma’s old hymns, it’s something new and shiny. These swells of emotion and huge momentous chord progressions – it’s made to make you feel something. They want you to feel the presence of God within you, but it’s easy to mistake emotional manipulation for a movement of God, right? Are you crying because the Lord is staging some kind of intervention in your life or are you crying because the chord structure is built to make you cry?

So if you go to Hillsong any week, there are songs that even if you went every week, you would have never heard. Because they’re new. They’re being tested live on the audience every Sunday. Which is kind of funny, right? Because you say – you’re going to worship, you’re going to experience your faith, your once a week practice, and unbeknownst to you the people on stage who are leading you in this emotional worship are testing their new products on you, right?

Kelsey McKinney, Journalist and Author of God Spare the Girls, speaking on the documentary Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed

One of the simplest summaries I’ve come across of what manipulative music does is this:

It limits your responses and directs them in certain ways.

So writes music psychologist John Sloboda in his chapter, Music and Worship: A Psychologists Perspective. Some of the most egregious examples of this includes the strategic use of music in Germany during the Third Reich to overwhelm Nazi faithfuls and fill them with awe of Hitler. And more recently, we’ve seen similar exploitation of music’s potential in white supremacist Christian nationalism in the United States, especially in the stylings of former Bethel worship leader Sean Feucht. Feucht’s platform is based on the notion that “praise and worship” performed in resistance to a “spirit of fear” will release God’s national blessings in a kind of end-times fulfillment.

These are glaring examples, yet all mass-marketed music is in some sense manipulative, since one of the most effective ways to sell an album, a product or an idea is to stir up a certain set of strong thoughts and feelings within a potential audience about who we are and what our place is in this world. Music helps create brand loyalty. In the same way, in the context of organised religion or any political or socio-cultural movement, music can be used strategically to foster a sense of identity and shared mission, of belonging. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing depends on many factors, including what the audience is being guided to think, feel and do.

What are the precise mechanics of this manipulation? Talking about global megachurch movement Hillsong, Kelsey McKinney identifies some of these in the quote at the start of this post: the copying of contemporary music style which wields the power of familiarity and relevance, coupled with a fast-fashion approach to music production, which gives consumer-worshippers a fresh fix each week. Then there is of course the use of momentous chord progression to evoke powerful feelings. Scholar and Anglican Priest Anne Morris has written about her experience of this at a funeral, where a sudden deviation in tempo appeared to cause a wave of emotion across the congregation, pressing them towards joy, ready or not. Music psychologist John Sloboda breaks down this particularly popular technique, pointing to a specific musical device called an appoggiatura which creates tension and stirs emotions. The Grammy-winning UK singer Adele is particularly skilled at using this device (You can read about this and listen to it here).

But, as we know, in manipulative religious music, alongside musical instrumention and vocal styling, there is also language at work. Linguistic features like heavy use of personal pronouns (you, I, me) can help to create a sense of God’s immediate presence and a focus on and care for the individual. In Hillsong’s case, such language facilitates a highly subjective, personal and emotional outpouring between God (often addressed directly as ‘you’) and me in the context of a vast crowd. This is what scholars refer to as simulated intimacy, the facade of intense personalisation in a mass setting. Even the enemy is sometimes personal (and conveniently and disturbingly ambiguous) in this Discourse, as can be seen in the second image below, from the Bethel song ‘Defender.’

Oceans by Hillsong
Similar strategies at work in this Bethel song ‘Defender’ by Jesus Culture

Jonathan James writes that this “spirit of closeness, warmth and approachability … is meant to communicate difference from the traditional stereotype of religion that denotes doctrines, authority and rules.” The Hillsong brand is in this way deliberately centred on the illusion of consumer authority conjoined with the divine, in resistance to traditional religious authority, seen as cold, distant and rigid. This strategy was revealed to be even more manipulative and hypocritical by the fact that celebrity leaders like Carl Lentz were, at best, rarely available to the average person in the crowd, and, at worst, were even at times abusive to those in their spiritual care.

Music can liberate and be a force for good, but it is also a tool of harm, of deceit and control. It’s vital we exercise caution when it comes to music, particularly in times of crisis and key life transition, contexts involving high stakes and anywhere people are more vulnerable to manipulation.


For Further Reading:

Brown, S., & Volgsten, U. (Eds.). (2005). Music and manipulation: On the social uses and social control of music. Berghahn Books.

Ingold, R. (2014). God, the Devil and you: A systemic functional linguistic analysis of the language of Hillsong. Literature & Aesthetics24(1). (Link)

Strick, M., de Bruin, H. L., de Ruiter, L. C., & Jonkers, W. (2015). Striking the right chord: Moving music increases psychological transportation and behavioral intentions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied21(1), 57. (Link)

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