“Why don’t we lift our eyes to the screen?” / City on a Hill, Melbourne 


Stephen Burns


Three times each Sunday (9 & 10.30am, and 6pm) City on a Hill meets in Hoyts cinema, next to the bowling alley, under the gym, in the maze of malls that stretch through Melbourne’s CBD. At the end of the gathering, the malls were bustling with people, but on my arrival, the shops had just opened and the place was quiet, with the only notable stream of people heading away from the cinema—presumably worshippers at the earlier service. When I arrived at the entrance to the cinema just after 10.20, a small sandwich board said “City on a Hill,” with the three times (and notably, no information that identified this as church). But it wasn’t obvious at all where to go, and as the place was deserted, there was no one to ask. Eventually, after badgering four other strangers, a couple of young Asian men could answer my question about how to find City on a Hill, and I was pointed up a flight of steps where greeters were then evident, standing just in front of the make-shift but highly organised “City Kids” play pens for crawling babies. My first impressions were, to use some biblical allusions (Matthew 5.14-15), that the city on a hill might have put its light under a bushel—it wasn’t easy to find. 

Evidently, though, others did manage to find the place of worship, and for about the first half hour of the service, composed of prayer and songs, people arrived until the cinema was full. People of many ages were in the mix, though with a very strong preponderance of those in their twenties. The assembly was notable also for being one of the most multicultural congregations I have seen in Melbourne, with people of African, Asian, and European heritage in evidence, and “white” people, if in a majority, maybe only just so. The dress code was casual, with many people appearing to be kitted out at somewhere like City Beach, an Australian surf shop, while some folks were a bit more dressed up, and others dressed down to singlet and gym shorts, presumably on their way to a workout after church. 

City on the Hill staff praying before a service. Image posted by Solomon Xie on  Google Maps

City on the Hill staff praying before a service. Image posted by Solomon Xie on Google Maps

Before the advertised time of beginning, the vast cinema screen displayed advertisements about upcoming Easter services. The room was darkened, but with some lights above the banks of seating staying on throughout, creating a constant half-light. A band stood in the shadows under a gigantic screen.
     At 10.30 a young woman who introduced herself as Stephanie, the “women’s ministry director,” took the microphone, greeted people and asked them to put down their phones. She was gifted in extempore prayer, which she led next—as she did at the close—before introducing the scripture series, “In the Lion’s Den,” on the book of Daniel, of which today’s sermon would be number five. Saying “Why don’t we lift our eyes to the screen?” she then handed over to the band, who led the first two of the five or six songs through the next hour and a half long service. The songs were for the most part narratives or theological interpretations of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, with less emphasis than in some churches that share their guitar-driven genre on the feelings of the singers. At least three of the songs were very strongly focused on the cross of Jesus—though, given that “Lent” was not mentioned, such a focus seemed not to be due to the season—and two of those songs made clear a substitutionary understanding of atonement (“he died in my place”).  On this occasion, all of the songs were marked by a strong bass grumble and were often quite dirge-like, though at other times as speakers spoke or pray-ers prayed keyboardists or guitarists playing quietly “under” spoken words seemed wonderfully sensitive to mood. Around the assembly, now and again during the songs, a few people lifted their hands (though notably at one point, more did so: when one of the songs spoke of Jesus’ resurrection). One of the songs (“Crowned”) was a Hillsong song, and my overall sense of the music at City on a Hill was that it a bit like Hillsong, but a bit as if Hillsong had the flu—somewhat subdued and restrained.
   Aside from the songs, the gathering time included announcement of a “newcomers night” as well as “gospel communities”—small groups that meet weekly in people’s homes for “life, love, and mission.” People were invited to fill in a “connect card” which would lead to some follow-up, including an invite to newcomers night and what the gospel communities do. One final part of the gathering involved a brief interview with and prayer for the “City Kids coordinator” who was “transitioning out of her role.” She was interviewed briefly by the “pastor” (a word he used several times), Guy. Among the good things the City Kids coordinator said was that “City Kids is not a baby sitting service,” but the kids are “part of the mission to make Jesus known.”

This interview was Guy the pastor’s only involvement in up-front leadership, as the sermon was offered by another of his colleagues, introduced by the women’s ministry director as “brother Dave,” a member of the staff team who (he explained for himself at the beginning of his talk) enabled the leaders of the gospel communities and sent out weekly bible study materials to subscribers. People were asked to take out their bibles (and while hearing ruffling in bags at this point, it was notable that many screens could be seen reappearing here) and the bible reading from Daniel 4 on which his talk was based appeared on the cinema screen towards which the assembly faced. Interestingly, the text was read not live but by prerecorded voices accompanying the projected text. 
     The talk itself lasted just over 40 minutes, going back to the beginning of Daniel chapter 4 to depict progressive “scenes” in the life of Babylon’s sovereign, Nebuchadnezzar. Along the way the talk discussed the like of Gate of Babylon in a Berlin museum (the Pergamon: see https://www.berlin.de/en/museums/3108456-3104050-pergamonmuseum.en.html), and mental health disorders (clinical lycanthropy), and referred to depictions of Babylon and its monarch by both William Blake and Minecraft. The talk looped backwards to Genesis’ creation narratives, and—eventually, after about 35 minutes—forward to a gospel portion. Looking backwards, Nebuchadnezzar was depicted as one who had, like Adam and Eve, sinfully reconfigured his sense of humanity and humility, failing to recognise that while he may as a member of the human race be a “ruler” over creation he had forgotten that as himself a creature he was a “ruler under God”—that is, he lost humility before God in a “delusion of [his own] divinity.” The forward link to the gospels was made by suggesting that Nebuchadnezzar had a twisted sense of greatness, whereas Jesus had taught that “greatness is about service, in living life for the sake of others.” As the preacher made this connection, Mark 10.43-45 was projected onto the screen. Jesus was extolled as one who “washed his disciples’ feet, cared for the poor and vulnerable, and gave his life on the cross.” In following him, there is no room for pride, the preacher exhorted.
     The talk then came towards a conclusion with two questions apropos to his theme. First, “what are your ambitions?”—a question that should lead to reflection on whether one desired a life of service or to be served. As he elaborated, “What do your ambitions say about where you think true greatness lies?” Secondly, “how are you going with pride?” This question was especially referred to the gospel communities for wrestling with in small groups. 
     Finally, the preacher ended with an altar call, connecting Nebuchadnezzar’s bowing before God (Daniel 4.34) and hearers’ need also to “bow the knee before the one who really rules,” giving two reasons why persons should “give [their] life to Jesus.” First, “this is his world, he made you, and everything…” and so to bow to anyone or anything else would to be “out of step with reality”; second, because in Jesus, forgiveness for pride could be found. A cluster of ideas concentrated here, but was not explored further, except to say that it all related to pride—“we stand guilty,” “we owe debt,” “there is a penalty,” which, however, Jesus paid as he gave his life “as a ransom”: “he gave his life for you, he is good, he is worth following, and he loves you.” People were then invited during the closing songs to make their way forward to the front, under the screen, where others would pray with them as they “gave their lives to Jesus” or “confessed sin.”

Praying together - from City on a Hill  website

Praying together - from City on a Hill website

More songs then followed before the women’s ministry director closed the gathering with another very fine extempore prayer, before finally announcing a blessing: “the love of the Lord Jesus draw you to himself, the power of the Lord Jesus strengthen you to serve him, the joy of the Lord Jesus fill your hearts, and the blessing of God almighty...” This blessing is ascribed (though the women’s ministry director did not ascribe it) to William Temple, a mid-twentieth century archbishop of Canterbury, and it appears in the Church of England’s liturgical resources. The blessing was in fact the first liturgical text from an Anglican or any other tradition to appear in the service, and interestingly it was proclaimed in the form that the Anglican tradition reserves to ordained presbyters. What was initially striking to me was not that the women’s ministry director seemed not to be such a minister (and somewhat concerning to me, all of the pastors at City on a Hill appear to be men: https://cityonahill.com.au/leadership, and so do the preachers: http://new.cityonahill.com.au/sermons, and the Facebook page suggests that the ministers of baptism are too) but that this was not only the first trinitarian idiom, but first mention of the Holy Spirit in an hour and a half. A greater or lesser emphasis on the Spirit is perhaps one way in which space opens between City on a Hill and Hillsong and other churches in more Pentecostal vein which may on the surface and at first present as quite similar?

As the above description suggests, the worship at City on a Hill had made no reference to any service book, and had none of the “trappings” that often mark worship in Anglican churches—reading several portions of scripture in lectionary patterns; furniture organised around a pulpit, font and table; liturgical or clerical vesture for leaders, and such like (perhaps only the first of these can be said to be tradition-defining, but the others are what often present). Nor was it identified on signage or by a speaker as being related to Anglicanism (it was not identified with any tradition, so would most obviously present as non-denominational), although the website of the church does identify its “partners” as first the Acts 29 church-planting network and then the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, of which it seems it is an “authorised congregation” (https://cityonahill.com.au/partnerships). The website further suggests that the Anglican Church of Australia’s “Fundamental Declarations” “outline [the] central commitments and identity” of City on a Hill.
    In that light, this City on a Hill event bears some interesting comparisons. It did not look at all like Anglican worship in many Anglican churches around Melbourne—and this was not only because it’s liturgy was different, but that it had attracted generations who are very often missing. Writing in his (then) role as chair of the national church’s liturgy committee, bishop Godfrey Fryer noted of Anglican churches across the country, “Many of our parishes are missing at least two generations, if not three” (Godfrey Fryer, New “Freedom in Worship,” Stephen Hale and Andrew Curnow, eds, Facing the Future: Bishops Imagine a Different Church (Melbourne: Acorn, 2009),  242), and this reality is evident in Melbourne in numerous churches that have Anglican trappings but few or no younger people to whom they can be handed on. City on a Hill also begs questions of its relation to wider contemporary Anglican reflection on patterns for worship—which sometimes do attract young people—that suggests that Anglican worship will be marked by: 

•    A clear structure for worship
•    An emphasis on reading the word of God and on using psalms
•    Liturgical words repeated by the congregation, some of which, like the creed, would be known by heart
•    Using a collect, the Lord’s Prayer, and some responsive forms in prayer
•    A recognition of the centrality of the Eucharist
•    A concern for form, dignity, and economy of words (New Patterns for Worship, see “common prayer,” paragraph 2 at https://cms.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/common-material/new-patterns-worshp/planning-worship/common-prayer-law).

Though this list comes from a context outside Australia, it reflects widely shared ideas about Anglican “family resemblance.” Most of these marks were completely missing from this cinema on this Sunday, though some may be present on other occasions (the church website has a clear emphasis on baptism—but I could not find a focus on communion) and they may also or alternatively feature in smaller gatherings in gospel communities. That notwithstanding, City on a Hill, with its many tens and tens of young people listening to long talks from their cinema seats  suggests some interesting questions about Anglican identity, Anglican futures, and Anglican liturgical forms. Personally, I have various questions about what I encountered: about the music and song, the style and length of preaching, the theological range, the gendered leadership, the lack of prayer for the wider world, to start with. But whatever City on a Hill may seem to miss, or perhaps reject, about Anglican liturgical history and contemporary diversity, I appreciate that it also has things to teach and challenges to present to fellow Anglicans. As the women’s ministry director said in her words of welcome, “City on a Hill is a church that is all about knowing Jesus... and that does whatever it can to help people know the joy of the gospel.” For the young people in front of their big screen, and others, may it be so.


(Images: Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake, referred to in the sermon: see Wikimedia.org. Church promotional images from the City on a Hill website and Facebook page. Additional images from visitors & contributors at Foursquare and Google Maps.)