Hillsong Church: Do Not Colonize San Francisco
Ben Houston, pastor of the famed Hillsong Church, recently posted this video announcing the planting of Hillsong’s new San Francisco campus:
I’m sure there are tons of people who are excited for Hillsong to come to the Bay Area. Hillsong’s music, of course, has changed our lives, from Oceans to Mighty to Save to the OG Hillsong Darlene Zchshechsehcz songs of the early 2000s. (The Potter’s Hand, anyone?). Not to mention we all know that Kevin Durant goes to Hillsong NYC and if he joins the Warriors next year he’ll need a place to worship. Would Steph go to Hillsong SF too?
Unfortunately, as much as I’d love to sing Oceans next to the Curries, Hillsong SF is not something I am looking forward to. In fact, their video offends me. And it makes me extremely sad for this city and what it is becoming. And I am convinced, beyond any doubt, that Hillsong SF has absolutely nothing to do with God’s Kingdom here in San Francisco.
San Francisco is a city under siege. There is a war going on here that can’t be seen or understood through the eyes of a naïve, idealistic pastor. So when Ben Houston shows up in his overly-produced video saying, “San Francisco is a city where we see great potential,” it’s painfully clear that he has no idea of the context onto which his words fall. Guess who else saw “great potential” in this city? The real estate agents, developers, and city officials who have destroyed neighborhoods, broken up families, and displaced poor people of color for their own idealized, dystopian visions for San Francisco. What kind of “great potential” does Hillsong fulfill with its presence? And why would this random Australian dude ever think he’s qualified to evaluate this city’s potential? San Francisco is not a hopeful candidate auditioning for his religious services. We have bigger things to worry about.
I’m so tired of this. I’m tired of pastors coming to San Francisco, posting pictures of bridges and crooked streets and declaring how much they love this city without actually understanding any of it, without being hurt by it, without any scars to show or dirt on their shoes or callouses on their hands. I’m tired of people acting like this is an AMAZING city because we have a waterfront and burritos, but—be careful—it’s also a demonic city because oh, we have gay people. What a perfect mix of yuppie fun and evangelistic intrigue; of course this city needs saving, doesn’t it? And of course salvation doesn’t look like you praying from where you are, it doesn’t look like supporting our local pastors financially, it doesn’t look like investing in community based organizations who are actually on the ground—no, that’s no fun!—it always looks like coming here, planting a church in Mission or Potrero or SOMA, kicking out a few poor families while you take pictures with your cute little kids and declare that God is going to do amazing things here in San Francisco! Amazing for who?
Any kind of language that implies that God’s work or God’s plan starts when we arrive (e.g., “God has a great plan for this city!” “San Francisco is a city where we see great potential!” “In San Francisco, the best is yet to come!” – Ben Houston) is indicative not only of terrible theology, but of white Christian exceptionalism, the oppressive belief that the correct kind salvation and healing can only be facilitated through us, on our terms with our methods—and us always happens to be white missionaries, white pastors, and white churches. Especially when juxtaposed with the Chinese, Black, and Hispanic churches that have been here for decades, this is the purest kind of exceptionalism, the kind that completely ignores the fact that there was anyone here before them, the kind that “discovers” San Francisco, the kind that “brings the Gospel” to heathens, the kind that ignorantly destroys and undoes the faithful Gospel work that has been going on here since the freaking 1800s. God has a great plan for this city?? Wake up, Ben Houston—the plan started without you a long time ago, so guess what? You aren’t special. This city doesn’t need you. This city is fine without you. God has always been here and if you really listened, if you really understood where you were going, if you really did your research on the multitude of churches that have been here for over 100 years, you would know. You would know that God, the one we all profess to follow, the one who told you to come here and the one who told me to keep you out, yes that God, has always been here. This God understands this city, this God has been hurt by this city, this God has scars and dirt and callouses and this God, last I heard, is here for the long haul. Are you?
But perhaps I’m being too strong. After all, Ben Houston had a “stirring in his spirit and his heart for this.” God has spoken to the man. And what did God tell Ben Houston? Apparently these are the two scriptures that Ben Houston heard from God:
Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and to the left; your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities.
1 Chronicles 4:9-10
Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, “I gave birth to him in pain.” Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request.
This literally makes me sick to my stomach.
Where do I even begin? Your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities? Enlarge my territory? Territory?? Keep me from harm so I’ll be free from pain??
Ben Houston, do you really think dispossess is a great word for a city whose main concern right now is outsiders coming into the city and LITERALLY DISPOSSESSING people of their homes? Do you think San Francisco is territory for you to claim? Do you really want people to take you seriously when you ask to be free from pain in an age where the rich hop on luxury buses while poor folks are stuck on public transit? Do you really think this process will be painless? Do you think love comes without a cost? Do you think Jesus is down with your painless march towards the dispossessing of communities? But all this is ok since God told you, right?
Does anyone think that this is anything new?
Ben Houston has pulled the age-old theological sleight of hand that has enabled all colonial destruction that has occurred in the name of Jesus: He has positioned himself in the place of Biblical Israel within the Biblical narrative, effectively positioning Hillsong Church as God’s chosen people to bring their exquisite salvation to the rest of the world, by any means necessary. It also means, to be clear, that the strategic cities of the world, of which San Francisco is one, are the Promised Land, filled with milk, honey, and slow drip coffee, destined to fall into the hands of God’s chosen people. And San Francisco’s residents, of course, are the Canaanites, to be driven out, destroyed, raped, murdered, and pillaged for our resources.
This deeply flawed theological vision is called supersessionism, and it is the reason Christianity itself lies at the very heart of world oppression. Like it or not, Christianity is the reason nations have been exploited, people have been enslaved, and communities have been robbed of their culture and personhood. It was in the name of Jesus that Europe colonized, fueled by evangelistic zeal, emboldened by the same scriptures quoted by Mr. Houston. In that sense, European Christians were utterly faithful: they certainly dispossessed nations, they certainly made cities desolate before resettling them, they certainly claimed territory, and they certainly believed, with all their hearts, that they were blessed by God to be a blessing to the nations.
My problem is not that these passages in the Bible exist. I believe that God’s Word is authoritative and true. I believe that God was certainly concerned with land and people and territory. My goal is not to simply close my eyes and pretend that these verses don’t exist. But when scripture is misused, especially when it is misappropriated towards oppressive ends, we end up with a group of people who believe that gutting communities of their identities is synonymous with evangelism. This is nothing new. This supersessionist theology drove European Christians in the 1400s to colonize, white American Christians in the 1800s to absolutely steamroll Native peoples on their way to Manifest Destiny, and it empowers missionaries today, including our beloved Hillsong Church, to “dispossess nations” in order to “resettle” them as colonies of God’s Kingdom. Hillsong has fallen victim to a supersessionist vision of the world, dismissing Biblical Israel and positioning themselves as God’s chosen people, ignoring the social conditions that make God’s promises to oppressed Israel vastly different than what Ben Houston expects God to do for filthy rich Hillsong in filthy rich San Francisco. What Ben Houston fails to recognize is that in this schema, Hillsong is more akin to Babylon than it is to Israel, and its occupation of the land is a violation of God’s plan, not a fulfillment of it.
If Hillsong thinks their movement to the West Coast is some kind of Manifest Destiny, they are greatly mistaken. This is not the Promised Land. But if Ben Houston is some kind of busted Australian Joshua who wants to spy out the land, then come on. We’re here. We’ve been here for decades. But you will not dispossess us. You will not be free from pain. You will not occupy this territory. Instead, you will honor it. You will come and sit at the feet of Black, Latino, and Asian American elders. You will not say a word. You will do this for years, until those elders say you’re ready. This is not your Promised Land. We are not your Canaanites. In fact, we are your brothers and sisters. So treat us like it. Don’t insult us with your cheaply made videos and empty, idealistic prayers. Don’t offend us by believing that you of all people will usher in anything new of God. God is doing more than you know and he doesn’t need a damn thing from you. If you really wish to come here, then you will do so in humility, you will do so like Jesus, stripping yourself of all power and becoming a servant. You will join us in genuine communion. You will repent. And when we are ready, we will walk with you.
The Jesus I know chose the foolish of this world to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong, the poor to shame the rich. Hillsong Church is on the wrong side of redemption. I’m not mad at them, because I am too. The Kingdom does not belong to us. When will we realize this? It is in the hands of those silenced, those poor, those hopeless folks who we are so quick to dispose of, the ones who might lose their homes or see their families disband when rich folks like us move into the neighborhood. We all need to repent. Hillsong Church in its current state takes us nowhere near this vision. Have mercy on us sinners, Lord, us colonizers, us greedy broken people, and may your Kingdom come, ushered in not by me, not by Hillsong or any other church, but by the poor Galilean who had no place to lay his head, who occupied no territory but a cross. Come Lord Jesus.
Edit: I realize the video uses a different translation of Isaiah 54, something I did not see until after publishing the post. Ben Houston’s version says “your descendants will occupy other nations and resettle the ruined cities.” This does not change my argument.