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How Christian rock's Hillsong United balances faith and flash

How much space does a utility allow for aesthetics?

That’s the question at the core of Hillsong United, the popular Christian rock group that performed for a full house Tuesday night at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario.

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An outgrowth of the Australian megachurch that’s sprouted chapters around the world (including in Los Angeles, where Hillsong holds services at the Belasco Theater), this 10-member worship band is deliberate in presenting itself as a mere facilitator to the real work at hand.

“God’s not impressed with this stage,” said Joel Houston, one of Hillsong United’s five lead singers and a son of the church’s founders, Brian and Bobbie Houston. “He’s not impressed with these lights.” All God cares about, the frontman went on, is encountering “a heart that needs him.”

Yet that stage, with its movable walls of video screens, and those carefully synchronized lights played an undeniable role in Tuesday’s nearly three-hour concert, among the most polished I’ve seen by any act, faith-based or otherwise.

Opening with “Here Now (Madness)” -- which also leads off the band’s latest album, “Empires” -- Houston sat behind a keyboard, shrouded in darkness, and picked out a delicate melody as the rest of the group slowly built to a thundering climax that recalled Coldplay or Arcade Fire. For “Even When It Hurts (Praise Song),” Houston and another of the group’s singers, Taya Smith, moved to a smaller secondary stage on the arena’s floor, the better to let Smith’s powerful voice fill the air around her.

Huge letters spelling out words like “holy” flashed across the screens in stark black and white during “Heart Like Heaven.” And when the band played its biggest hit, “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” -- which spent 45 consecutive weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Christian chart -- silver confetti sprinkled down from above, as though God (or Bono) were granting his approval.

As a result of that flair for spectacle, Hillsong has attracted young celebrities including Justin Bieber, whose experiences with the church helped lead him to make “Purpose,” his own Christian-themed album from last year.

And that pop-star exposure seems in turn to have shaped Hillsong United’s approach. Despite Houston's insistence that he was only shepherding his audience to Jesus, he didn’t pass up opportunities to insert himself into the show, as in a long spoken bit about his 2 ½-year-old son’s disinclination to go to bed (even when Mom and Dad are in the mood, as Houston said, to “Netflix and chill”).

In church, of course, long spoken bits are more commonly known as sermons, and often enough Houston was using his mystical-hipster charisma on Tuesday in the same way that all effective preachers do: to soften the ground in preparation for the lesson to come.

Looking around during another of Houston’s sermons -- this one with some iffy reasoning regarding God’s track record for quelling fear -- I was struck by how few people in the crowd had their smartphones aimed at him. Here was a performer capable of pulling a modern audience into a moment, something even the Biebers and Beyoncés of the world can struggle to do.

At other points, though, the personal razzmatazz -- and Hillsong’s overall attachment to earthly beauty -- seemed to distract from the show’s stated purpose. Form was clearly overriding function when slow-motion video of a galloping horse flickered behind the band during “Prince of Peace.” Houston’s offer of Communion to one fan emphasized the giving more than the receiving.

And only the most devoted in the audience could resist glazing over as the group savored the repeating patterns of the blandly handsome “Closer Than You Know” for what felt like an eternity.

Then again, by the end of the song you were ready to submit to whatever came along next. Maybe beauty had done its job.

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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