The ongoing woes of Hillsong
A number of Hillsong campuses in America have split from the mother ship.
Recently, we talked about yet another Hillsong scandal. This one involved Brian Houston, who admitted to creeping on two women. That new scandal appears to have been a bridge too far for American campuses of the megachurch, though, because many of them are quickly pulling away from Hillsong. So far, Hillsong has lost 9 of its 16 American campuses. It’s a swift comeuppance for a church that seemed too big to fall. But Hillsong has shown, through these constant scandals, that their dazzling and trendy image is distinctly at odds with their lived reality.
(BTW: In this post, I refer to Hillsong as a “broken system.” A broken system is not necessarily an unsuccessful or short-lived one. Some broken systems last for centuries and make tons of money. Rather, a broken system is simply one that can’t fulfill its own stated purposes. Instead, it exists as a way for largely-unscrupulous leaders to harvest money and obedience from unwitting followers.)
Hillsong: a mashup of evangelical trends
From the beginning, the founders and masters of Hillsong, married couple Brian and Bobbie Houston, knew one thing above all: they had to make their new church accessible. And by accessible, I mean emotionally palatable.
The Houstons were Pentecostal, which is usually a very rowdy, off-putting crowd to normies. Often, Pentecostals speak in tongues, run and dance around their pews, wave their hands, shout during sermons, and sometimes actually roll around on the floor or hop around in joy. Though the Houstons were officially Assemblies of God (AoG), who tend to be a bit more restrained than my old crowd at the United Pentecostal Church, International (UPCI), they still recognized that their flavor of Christianity didn’t tend to draw in huge crowds.
So, Hillsong stripped out a lot of those customs. They chose to produce a particularly shiny, happy, dazzling performance-oriented church experience. And they aimed this experience right at Millennials.
Probably nothing could illustrate their strategy more clearly than their Manhattan campus’ Christmas concert in 2017. As described in a New York Times article, it sounds like a psychedelic mashup of Beatles songs, Christmas hymns, and original Hillsong worship music. One of the photos the Times took at the event is an obvious Instagram photo op for attendees: an end table draped with tasteful beige candles and greenery, with a plain sign behind it reading: I HAVE DECIDED TO FOLLOW JESUS.
(Interestingly, Carl Lentz–the superstar main pastor at this branch at the time–doesn’t get a single mention in that piece. Also, it kind of sounds like the teaching pastor profiled in their article, Nathan Finochio, might just have some skeletons in his own closet.)
An American focus
Eventually, in 2018, Hillsong became a denomination unto itself. That makes sense. Its way of doing church likely looks unrecognizable to most other Pentecostals.
In a letter he wrote at the time, Brian Houston noted that Hillsong had moved its “global office” to the United States. This move, he felt, reflected Hillsong’s more global character. He also mentions in the letter that a full 2/3 of Hillsong’s vast congregation attended campus churches outside of Australia.
By 2022, Hillsong had 16 American campuses in its portfolio. Though their grand total in 2018 was 123 campuses, I’m betting a whole lot of those 2/3 attended American churches.
Certainly, Hillsong’s flashy style seems to mesh very well with American evangelicals. I don’t buy into the idea that any flavor of Christianity is more or less valid than any other flavor (though there are differing levels of harm caused), nor that any one package of beliefs is superior or inferior to any other. That said, Hillsong seems to focus on a particularly uplifting, affirming, downright-consumer-friendly version of Christianity. Brian Houston himself told his sub-pastors to preach sermons that left “people feeling better about themselves than when they came in.” He wanted Hillsong congregations to feel attuned to their god–and happy to be at church.
And American evangelicals loved these experiences. The American campuses grew and attracted media and sports stars aplenty.
The Hillsong façade finally cracks
Alas for Brian Houston, all that happy shiny performance stuff concealed a heart of rot at Hillsong. The organization had been designed by a man who didn’t want any real accountability laid upon him. And that man did everything he could to avoid it. In my opinion, he handed plum roles to people who were entirely too untested for them, like Carl Lentz, just because they were good family friends. His entire operating procedure for his megachurch allowed him to do whatever he wanted, and encouraged his subordinates to do whatever it took to make their numbers look good.
It’s very telling that in 2021, Houston gave an interview about Lentz. By then, Lentz had lost his Manhattan position amid a flurry of sex scandals. And Houston claimed he’d “had concerns” about Lentz, namely that he’d noticed Lentz lying and acting in narcissistic ways. Whatever those concerns were, though, Houston didn’t rein in his bad boy pastor. He was clearly making good numbers, after all.
But the signs of rot had been there for years before Lentz’ behavior reached public awareness. In 2007, Tanya Levin wrote a book, People in Glass Houses, about her many negative experiences at Hillsong. Around that same time, another article reveals that Levin began to sour on Hillsong in 2001, when a very popular pastor was “expelled” from the megachurch.
And I can believe her account. I’ve seen a great many accounts of Hillsong abuses. Many of these center on leaders mistreating, sexually harassing, and overworking volunteers. But there’s also a lot of authoritarian lockstep and groupthink going on. Defying the collective leadership–or even just disagreeing with them–seems to be the ultimate unforgivable sin at Hillsong.
There’s an entire watchdog blog out there that catalogs Hillsong abuses. They’ve captured some truly insidious stuff about this church. And I suspect there’s a lot more yet to be uncovered.
The cracks become a rumbling crevasse
Around 2001, Tanya Levin also learned about the sex abuse accusations against Brian’s father, Frank Houston. Years later, in 2021, Australian authorities accused Brian of knowing about his father’s sex abuse as far back as 1999. They say he refused to report it to the police.
In fact, Brian’s still fighting those charges. It’s why he officially stepped away from leadership in January. However, when he made that announcement, some church elders felt that it had left out a couple of vital details. Namely, Brian Houston had violated the church’s code of conduct twice by creeping on women (in 2013 and 2019).
Those elders wanted the full truth to be set out. Not including those two episodes felt like a cover-up. Considering the whole sex-abuse cover-up accusation, maybe transparency was the better route to pursue here.
Once the full truth came out, Brian Houston ended up resigning entirely.
And then, a streaming service, Discovery+, released a miniseries exposing Hillsong leaders’ behavior behind the scenes. According to a recent New York Times article:
The documentary depicts the megachurch as a toxic institution obsessed with image, control and growth at all costs.NYT
Though Hillsong’s leadership denied that characterization, it’s becoming more clear by the day that Hillsong’s exterior façade does not reflect its internal workings at all.
Various Hillsong churches are now pulling chocks
My dad was in the Coast Guard. (GO COASTIES!) He worked on airplanes, and so he used to have a saying when it was time to leave: “Pull chocks!”
Chocks are heavy blocks of cement (or newfangled triangular wedges) that are set up against a plane’s wheels. They’re like ship anchors; they prevent the plane from moving by accident. In order for the plane to take off, someone has to go pull the chocks away from the wheels. Once that’s done, the plane can zip right out.
Well, a bunch of American churches are pulling chocks to get out from under Hillsong.
In just the past two weeks, Hillsong has lost–I kid you not–9 of its 16 American campuses. NINE. One megapastor, Terry Crist, personally brought 6 of those churches to the Hillsong fold–and recently took all six out again!
For now at least, Hillsong still has seven churches left in America. Three are in California, while four are in the Northeast. (One’s in Arizona and the last is in Las Vegas.)
Nobody can fix Hillsong
Most of the departing campuses seem to be relaunching as independent evangelical churches. That’s good. They made the right decision there. Anyone staying with the Hillsong brand now tacitly approves of how the megachurch operates–and what it allows.
From the ground up, the Hillsong system was designed as a conduit of power. Like every other broken system, Hillsong can’t actually fulfill its own stated purposes. Instead, it exists to allow leaders to gain vast amounts of power over large numbers of people, then to flex that power however and whenever they wish. Congregations send money, obedience, and attention up the pyramid to their leaders–who then use these gains to fund lavish lifestyles and revel in their newfound wealth and power.
Also like other broken systems, Hillsong lacks reliable accountability measures that actually work to address and prevent excesses and abuses. As a recent Christian Post article reveals, when a pair of then-Hillsong pastors tried to warn Hillsong’s General Manager about Carl Lentz’s behavior in 2010, they say they were “shut down” and ignored.
Without a huge overhaul in processes and a laser focus on real accountability, Hillsong can’t be fixed. But the only people there with the power to set that overhaul in motion got their power through the system that’s in place now. It’s hard to imagine any of them even wanting anything major to change.
The only good way to deal with a broken system, then, is to walk away from it. And now, a bunch of Hillsong churches have done exactly that. I hope many more follow their lead.