Rejoicing with the Truth: Does Using Music by Bethel and Hillsong Generate Genuine Joy in our Churches?

Writing this article is more difficult than I anticipated. Yesterday, I watched the recently-released 7News documentary on Hillsong. The abuse and arrogance exposed here (and in many other sources) made me physically ill, not to mention spiritually grieved. An exposé like this gives concrete urgency to the question “to sing or not to sing?”

Now, having seen the faces of the victims of the Houstons, I admit that continuing to sing this music cheerfully is difficult for me. However, I will still attempt to offer a fair, fruitful consideration of whether or not to sing music by Bethel and Hillsong.

So here we are, on our second fruit of the Spirit: joy. This is perhaps the most popular fruit when it comes to worship music. If you ask any given congregation member what makes an impactful worship set, he or she will likely reply, “It made me happy” or “It was upbeat.” And why not? Christian radio stations like KLove have all but made “positive and encouraging” the required characteristics of Christian music.

If “positive and encouraging” is our sole definition of joy, then Bethel and Hillsong seem to pass. They are very hopeful, constantly pronouncing victory. They are also incredibly well-known, meaning that most church-goers can sing their songs with familiarity and confidence, both of which contribute to feelings of comfort and enjoyment. Their songs also allow for production elements that contribute to emotionally-driven performances.

But joy is not only a fleeting feeling. “Christ be Magnified,” a song published by Bethel, even proclaims as much in the line, “I won’t be formed by feelings; I’ll hold fast to what is true.”

So what does it mean for worship to be joyful? And does using music by theologically and morally dubious organizations have the potential to generate true joy?

Let’s back up. The term for “joy” in Galatians 5:22 is chara, which is absolutely connected to emotions such as delight and cheerfulness. When we evaluate worship music based on its conveyance of positive emotions, we are not totally wrong. Although the affective power of music was hugely debated (and feared) throughout Church history, we seem to have reached a basic agreement within evangelicalism that music’s power over our emotions is not only a given but a gift.

This view is prefigured by Martin Luther, though he does not only emphasize the “positive, encouraging” power of music. Instead, he recognizes that music can also convict and challenge people. It was not merely about feeling nice but about feeling the effects of grace.

“We can mention only one point (which experience confirms), namely, that next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise.  She is mistress and governess of those human emotions….For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate….what more effective means than music could you find?”

Luther’s Works, vol. 53, p. 323 (found via

This brings me to the definition of chara joy that is too often neglected in our contemporary culture but was central to the early Church. Although they were beaten, robbed, and martyred, the first Christians continued to “rejoice with a joy…inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8, ESV).


Because, for believers, joy cannot be reduced to pleasant feelings alone. Instead, joy is the enduring awareness of God’s grace. Chara is intimately connected with and even derived from charis—grace.

Joy includes delight and good cheer, but is not only delight and good cheer. Instead, it is delight derived from a deep awareness of God’s grace. For our worship to be truly joyful—not just upbeat or stimulating—it must communicate and celebrate the grace of God. More specifically, it must center on the gospel; it must “rejoice with the truth” of scripture.

This requires us to ask a few questions of any song we plan to sing in worship:

  1. Does this song find its basis in scripture? If you cannot identify a clear scripture citation for the song, that should be a red flag.
  2. Does this song proclaim the grace of God? If so, it might be worth using regardless of its publisher. (His grace, after all, is sufficient.)
  3. Is this song instilling an awareness of God’s grace that will endure beyond the service? I.e., is the song communicating essential truths that will stick in singers’ minds even when the production calms down, the music fades, and the “high-impact” service ends?

Even if you can answer “yes” to each of the above questions, it is worth seriously considering the emotional well-being of your particular congregation. For instance, because I know people who have endured abuse similar to that unearthed at Hillsong, I would be more reluctant to program Hillsong’s music. As these “unfruitful works of darkness” are brought to light, their exposure may cause others to relive traumatic experiences. If singing music by an abusive organization in any way hinders the joyful singing of wounded people…well, nothing is worth that.

Essentially, to decide whether singing music by Bethel and Hillsong is generating genuine chara joy, we need to examine whether their emotional impact is consistent with their theological professions. This may end up being a song-by-song decision. For instance, “Son of Suffering,” published by Bethel Music, openly engages the grace of God, praising Christ for suffering for our joy! I genuinely appreciate what this song seeks to accomplish, though my decision to sing this song does not require me to sing Bethel’s output indiscriminately. To do so would not be to “rejoice with the truth,” for although I agree with this particular song, I obviously do not uphold everything Bethel proclaims to be the truth.

To decide whether singing music by Bethel and Hillsong is generating genuine chara joy, we need to examine whether their emotional impact is consistent with their theological professions.

Once more, this discernment process requires nuance and a willingness to consider all angles—and all opportunities for fruitfulness. Don’t let this debate steal your joy, Dear Reader and Singer. Instead, I pray that thinking deeply about using music by Bethel and Hillsong will remind you that your joy must ultimately rely upon the truth and grace of our Lord.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: