The first time I heard about Hillsong was when my friend told me she'd visited a church that "wasn't really like a church". By that, she meant that Sunday mass usually involves a bunch of hot tattooed dudes playing Christian rock tunes, before everyone congregates outside for some free barbecue. From her description, it sounded suspiciously like the last night of an Evangelist summer camp, and not all that different from the kind of events those American mega-churches put on to celebrate the day that Jesus moved a rock from the entrance of a cave.
But I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, so I went along to check out the church for myself.
When I arrived at Nalen, one of Stockholm's larger concert venues, I wasn't sure that I had the right address. Could the same club that regularly hosts lesbian nights and death metal shows really be home to a Sunday mass? Two hours later – walking out, covered in sweat and gripping a Bible, with a vague memory of accepting Jesus into my life – I understood completely; I had a better time in there than I've had at all the normal, non-Christian gigs I've ever been to.
Hillsong was founded by Brian and Bobbi Houston in the early 1980s in a suburban school hall on the outskirts of Sydney. Its teachings are based on the Bible and the church operates in 12 different countries, attracting thousands of visitors to their Sunday masses. It's currently one of the fastest growing churches in Sweden, with new members joining every week.
The church – sometimes known as the "church of pop" – also has its own record label, Hillsong Music, which has been releasing and distributing albums since the early 90s. Zion, an album the church released in February of 2013, sold 34,100 copies in its first week, hit number 5 on the US Billboard chart and reached number 1 in Australia.
Of course, being a global religious corporation, there are also aspects of its operations that might irritate some people. ￼The Australian news show A Current Affair claims that, because it's listed as a religious organisation, Hillsong hasn't had to pay any tax on the millions of dollars it has generated worldwide.
According to their report, the church brings in up to $25 million (£15 million) a year through its record label, conferences, courses and donations from members, and many of the church's congregation are also on an automatic payment service, handing the church 10 percent of their monthly salary.
Inside Hillsong church, Sydney (Photo via)
Compared to other big churches like it, Hillsong members are noticeably very young, mostly ranging from teenagers up to people in their early thirties. In fact, when you look at the congregation and remember that the church has its own mobile app, hip-hop inspired fashion range and a weekly podcast, it almost veers into parody territory.
Then, when you see a Hillsong pastor mention Swedish House Mafia as inspiration for a ceremony (the same ceremony where church songs are chopped and screwed and accompanied by a huge laser show), it confidently stomps two feet into satire. Only, it's not a joke at all – the people here really do find a direct path to God through blasting euro-house and watching seizure-inducing light shows, to the point where a lot of people at the service I attended were openly crying and lifting their hands up in the air.
I spotted one girl in tears, whose boyfriend was singing along with his eyes closed and his arms swaying above his head. In a break between songs, I rushed over and asked if they'd like to go for a coffee and a chat the following day. They happily accepted, which is how I got to know Samuel, 25, and Josefin, 25, volunteers and long-time members of the church.
Josefin (left) and Samuel
VICE: First things first. Why is everyone in your church so hot?
Samuel: Are we? I think it's just probably that we're not what secularised Sweden is expecting us to look like. This is what we look like, this new generation of churchgoers. The reason we all look glammed up and stylish probably has something to do with the fact that we're in Stockholm and that it's a trendy city.
Josefin: We're well dressed because going to church is important, and you want to look good when you're doing something meaningful.
One thing that struck me, besides your perfect skin and teeth, was that the congregation in your church seemed to be quite trendy? I recognised quite a few faces from Stockholm's cultural crowd.
Samuel: Yeah, we tend to attract a lot of young, creative people.
Josefin: Some people might critique us for being flashy and trendy, and using those means to attract young people. But we see it as a natural gateway to something deeper.
Is it because you guys are great at marketing?
Samuel: We don't do any marketing, but we still attract loads more people each time we have a mass. Or, to put it more accurately, God attracts more people through us, the Hillsong family.
Josefin: Yes, we like to view the church as a big family, not an organisation with members.
Samuel: When you become a part of Hillsong, you become a part of a family, not just a church.
Why do you guys think some people view Hillsong as a money-making corporation?
The Hillsong message tends to be distorted by the media, since we're this showy church and we're seen as a bit flamboyant. But what the media don't understand is that we're on an everlasting hype.
The "Holy Bible" iPhone app
Oh, a perpetual hype – that sounds nice. There's been a lot of talk about how Hillsong earns its money. Are you guys monthly givers?
Josefin: I don't have a set salary because of my job situation, so I give as much as I can, when I can.
Samuel: I'm a monthly giver; each month I give 10 percent of my salary to the church, and more if I can.
Wow, that's a lot of money.
The more I give, the more blessed I feel in life. And I've also noticed how more positive things occur around me when I donate to the church.
I noticed a lot of people playing with their iPhones yesterday during the sermon. Isn't that kind of disrespectful to God?
A lot of us have the Holy Bible as an app on our phones, and that's how we follow the relevant Bible chapters of the sermon. We also take notes from the sermon in that way.
Okay. You guys were crying yesterday during the songs. Why?
Josefin: It was God touching our hearts.
Alright and amen. Thanks guys!
Follow Camila Catalina on Twitter @camilacatalina