Hillsong Conference Kicks Off with Over 24,000

Internationally-known Hillsong Church kicked off its annual conference Monday, drawing over 24,000 Christians from all around the world to Sydney, Australia.

While the charismatic megachurch is most well known for its music ministry, its annual conferences focus on providing practical tools to churches and leaders to more effectively make a positive difference in their local community and the world.

And that is true for this year's conference "more than ever before," according to Hillsong Senior Pastor Brian Houston.

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"There is great strength in the Church coming together, and it makes a powerful statement to our city and nation that the Church of Jesus Christ is alive and strong!" Houston exclaimed prior to the July 7-11 gathering, according to U.K.-based Christian Today.

This year's conference is Hillsong's 22nd and has drawn Christians from 21 denominations around Australia and 70 other countries.

And like last year's conference, Hillsong is again highlighting the biblical call for social justice.

In welcoming the conference delegates, Tim Costello, chief executive of World Vision Australia, praised U2 frontman and anti-poverty campaigner Bono as a prophet of the movement to eliminate global poverty.

"Bono understands we cannot make poverty history unless the church rises up," he said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. In addition his music, the Irish rock star is known for often using his star power to get people aware of HIV and poverty in the world, especially in Africa.

Hillsong's Houston said the word justice and the responsibility it implied was a key message of the conference.

In the opening session Monday night, Pastor Robert Barriger called Christians to action. "What matters is we are just the church and the church is the salt of the earth and we can make the world better. Just because we are the church."

Barriger leads a church called Camino de Vida in Lima, Peru, where he has been a missionary for 25 years. His rapidly-growing church is involved in a range of social justice projects across the nation, including child health initiatives and the distribution of more than 40,000 wheelchairs to the physically challenged.

In addition to the call to justice, several other themes overarch the conference including uniting "the generations" and building strong local churches that are helping to bring answers, hope and a sense of community for people.

"This conference is not for the weak or fainthearted, yet it will encourage and raise those who are to 'be strong and of exceptional courage," the Hillsong team expressed in a statement to potential attendees. "For over 20 years the testimony of this gathering, has been churches, teams and individuals whose 'rising' has radically changed the world they influence."

It's a gathering of "[m]en, women and youth, whose passion is to make known and famous the God of their Salvation, and effectively communicate His Gospel to a searching, lost and dying humanity," they added.

The event is also serving as a warm-up act to World Youth Day, which is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of Catholic youth from Australia and around the world next week. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Catholic Church is borrowing Hillsong's headline act for World Youth Day in its own attempt at mass youth evangelism. Hillsong's worship pastor, Darlene Zschech, and her band will perform at a concert held after the Stations of the Cross on Friday, July 18.

Catholic World Youth Day events will take place July 15-20, ending with a papal mass that is expected to draw up to half a million people.

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