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Worship Music at the Movies

12 months ago written by
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Even if the name Hillsong isn’t familiar to you, you’ve probably spent part of a Sunday morning worship service singing “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail),” “Shout to the Lord,” “From the Inside Out,” “Cornerstone,” “Mighty to Save,” “Hosanna,” “Lead Me to the Cross” or another song that originated with the Australian megachurch’s musicians.

What do we actually know about these musicians and the church to which they belong? Moviegoers will have a chance to learn more about them when “Hillsong: Let Hope Rise” debuts in theaters Sept. 16.

“You’re really talking about the people who are writing the soundtrack to hundreds of millions’ Christian faith,” said Jonathan Bock, the movie’s producer in a telephone interview with Light + Life. “Do you know that five out of the 10 biggest worship songs of all time were written by Hillsong?”

Hillsong Church is affiliated with the Australian Christian Churches, the Australian branch of the Assemblies of God, but the Hillsong movie wouldn’t have been possible without the work of people from other denominations. Bock is a Presbyterian elder, and his Grace Hill Media team includes Suzanne Niles, an author, publicist and former Hollywood actress who worships at Timberview Church — a Free Methodist congregation founded by Bishop Matthew Thomas in Mead, Washington.

While at Hillsong in Australia to promote another movie, Bock asked Hillsong Senior Pastor Brian Houston about the possibility of making a film about the church and its music. Bock said that Houston humbly responded, “Who would want to see a movie about us?”

Bock offered to pitch the potential movie to studios to see if they had any interest. When he returned to Los Angeles, Bock quickly received offers from four studios and raised the money to make a Hillsong motion picture.

The film provides a close look at the church’s Hillsong United band as the members write their next album. Their story is told by experienced director Michael John Warren, whose diverse work includes popular rapper Jay Z’s “Fade to Black” movie and a documentary about a beer company. In a statement on the Hillsong movie’s website, Warren said, “I’m not a religious person, but I learned things from working with and becoming friends with the members of Hillsong United.”

Bock and his colleagues interviewed both Christian and nonbelieving directors before ultimately selecting Warren based on his experiences shooting concerts with multiple cameras and his skills interviewing musicians. As an outsider to Christianity, Warren asked more probing questions than a Christian director might have asked.

“He wouldn’t just let them get away with the typical Christians answers,” Bock said. “He ultimately pressed them and forced them to explain their beliefs and their theology and the reasons they are motivated to do what they do. … Out of that, we got a film that is really deeply theological.”

The movie was delayed a year when its original distributor declared bankruptcy, but unlike most of the distributor’s films that remained in limbo, “Hillsong: Let Hope Rise” was eventually released from the bankruptcy proceedings.

Initial screenings have resulted in even more audience enthusiasm than filmmakers anticipated.

“When we started to test it with audiences, people were singing along in the theater. People were putting their hands up. In some cases, we even had people standing up,” Bock said. “We realized that we had actually created an entire new genre of movie, which we’re calling the theatrical worship experience.”

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