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Hillsong is an Australian Pentecostal megachurch that began its life as Hills Christian Life Centre, located in the suburb of Baulkham Hills, part of the Hills district of Greater Western Sydney, New South Wales. The Hillsong name evolved as a result of the enormous volume of insipid yet popular Christian Rock albums being pumped out by this money-hungry church on a regular basis.
The Church was started in 1983 by husband and wife hucksters Brian (1954–) and Bobbie Houston (1957–), and has rapidly expanded into a global enterprise with large operations in 23 countries and a Hillsong TV Channel which takes their shameless message of financial prosperity in the name of Jesus to even more people around the globe.
Scott Morrison, the current Prime Minister is friends with Brian Houston and has described him as a mentor and friend.
Child sexual abuse
Frank Houston (1922–2004) (father of Brian) confessed, at age 77, to sexually abusing hundreds of little boys throughout his entire career as a church pastor in Australia and New Zealand. The actual number of victims is still unknown. Brian Houston and other Hillsong church leaders were made aware of this in 1999, and instead of obeying the law and reporting the abuse, they kept quiet about Frank Houston's depravity. Brian Houston even told one victim that it was his own fault: he was abused, because he "tempted" his pedophile father. After his eventual confessions, Frank quit preaching, but he never saw the inside of a prison cell. He died in 2004 at the age of 82. Several conservative politicians attended his funeral.
It all came out during the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sex Abuse requested by the Australian government in 2013. Following these revelations, the New South Wales Police confirmed that they were launching a criminal investigation into Brian Houston for failing to report a serious crime. After a long delay from the conclusion of this investigation in 2015, in August 2021, Houston was formally charged with illegally concealing alleged child abuse by Frank; Brian denied the allegations. Nonetheless, Brian stepped down from his role on Hillsong's boards that oversaw their governance (while maintaining his role as Global Senior Pastor). He was in the United States when he was charged. In January 2022, Brian Houston resigned from all ministry positions to defend himself against charges that he concealed child sexual abuse by his late father. In March 2022, Houston resigned from Hillsong after an internal investigation.
In November 2020, the lead pastor of Hillsong's New York City branch, Carl Lentz, was fired after admitting to an extra-marital affair. A source who spoke with Page 6 (the gossip section of the New York Post) claimed that the infidelity was not a surprise, as Lentz's lifestyle more closely resembled the pop star lifestyle of celebrities like former Hillsong NYC member Justin Bieber ("popping bottles on private planes") versus what one would expect of a humble man of the cloth.[note 1] Later, on May 31, Lentz's nanny, Leona Kimes, accused him of years of sexual and emotional abuse during her employment, including inappropriate remarks and contact.
On January 3 2021, the lead pastors of the Dallas branch of the Hillsong church, Reed and Jess Bogard, abruptly resigned via a prerecorded message that aired during the service that day. It was later revealed that the Bogards were under investigation for allegedly using church funds and tithes to fund their lavish lifestyle while part of the New York City division. This eventually led to Hillsong shutting down the Dallas operation in April.
In 2021, the BBC released a documentary in their Storyville series entitled Hillsong Church: God Goes Viral. The documentary expanded on some of the problems within the church, including questionable luxury lifestyle expenses and some of the above abuse allegations. Hillsong was not amused.
“”"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
Like all prosperity gospel churches, the leaders of Hillsong live incredibly lavish lifestyles and see this as a sign of God's blessing. The core lie of their ministry is this idea that if you give your money to the church, then God will reward this act of faith, by giving a bigger amount right back to you. If this doesn't happen and no money is magically returned to you, then it's your fault for not having enough faith. Fleecing vulnerable people like this has made the Hillsong corporation extremely wealthy, to the tune of around $80 million in Australia and around $100 million internationally in 2015. Of course, once these desperate parishioners have nothing financial left to give, they are labelled the spawn of Satan and kicked out of the church.
Hillsong has long been accused of being more interested in wealth, materialism, and celebrity than traditional Christian theology normally allows for. Congregants at Lentz's congregation, for instance, described there being a distinct caste system at that church that directly corresponded to appearance, wealth, and fame. Lentz's congregation even had a special seating section up front for V.I.P.s, reserved for high-profile entertainers or sports stars.
Although Brian Houston denies being a prosperity theology preacher, it's kind of hard to to take his denial seriously when he has penned a book titled You Need More Money: Discovering God’s Amazing Financial Plan for Your Life.
In several reports, former Hillsong volunteers described a grueling volunteer culture, where working 12 or more hours a day was commonplace. Reportedly church leaders treated volunteers more like low-status workers who were there less to serve the community and more to serve the preachers' lavish lifestyles (the funding of which was being obtained by church member tithes, of course). When Lentz was fired from Hillsong NYC, some of the accusations that emerged went even further, with claims that Hillsong's practices were bad enough to warrant a charge of "industrial slave labor" as defined by the Parliament of Australia. One person even called Hillsong a "cult". Some allegations also emerged that Hillsong NYC staff engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior.
One of the biggest aspects of Hillsong (in the megachurch world, at least) is Hillsong's music division. By recruiting experienced personnel from the rock and roll industry, hiring excellent up-and-coming talent, setting up lavish stadium-oriented pop-style concert settings, and keeping up with the latest pop trends, Hillsong Music bucked the general lousy reputation of Christian rock and made slick (if very formulaic) worship pop. The result has been a massive success. As of February 2020, Hillsong had sold over 55 million albums since 1992 (including 15 Billboard #1 Christian Albums) and had 1.1 billion on demand streams in a year according to Nielsen.
Naturally, given Hillsong's prosperity gospel roots, Hillsong's management makes sure to shaft everyone involved who is not at the top. Hillsong's massive revenues from their music are, of course, are, not taxed due to their church status. More controversially, Hillsong has also often listed the church as the performers of the work, not the actual performers themselves, thereby siphoning any performance royalties to the church's coffers. This is a unique arrangement even in the world of Christian music.
Some preachers are concerned that endorsing Hillsong's music will also implicitly endorse Hillsong's prosperity-gospel beliefs, prosperity gospel being an ideology that is very controversial even among evangelicals.
Perhaps underscoring the problematic connection of Hillsong to money and celebrity, in October 2021, Hillsong announced that their upcoming February 2022 "Hillsong United and Chris Tomlin tour" would have "VIP experiences" with celebrity meet-and-greets and an on-stage catwalk photo shoot. After a public outcry over this blatant commercialism and glitz that seemed jarringly out of place for a Christian event, Hillsong quickly eliminated the VIP option a few days later.
Bigotry and pseudoscience
Hillsong is, at its core, anti-abortion and generally homophobic. Organizations and individuals connected with Hillsong in the past have supported the discredited practice of gay conversion therapy and performing exorcisms on gay and lesbian people (though the church has distanced itself from some of this recently).
Regarding creationism, in a 2005 interview, Brian Houston professed a "belief in creation". However he left enough wiggle room on the fine details in his statement to cause Ken Ham to declare in a 2010 Answers in Genesis blog post that "church leaders" like Houston, with his not-quite-100%-literal viewpoint, "are succumbing to the pagan religion of the age!". Hillsong songwriter Joel Houston in 2018 also caused some controversy (for evangelicals, that is) by seemingly endorsing theistic evolution in one of his songs and some of his tweets.
Unlike some megachurches, Hillsong tends to downplay the culture war elements in its historical Pentecostal roots (often tending to be coy on speaking about political issues such as abortion and homosexuality). Instead, glitz and celebrity is emphasized above all. And to Lentz's credit, he strongly endorsed Black Lives Matter in a late September 2016 Facebook post.
- In the mid-2010s, Bieber, who was seeking to repair his image after a rough spot in his life, befriended Lentz, who helped straighten Bieber up. The two lived in the same house for a couple of months. Bieber was even baptized by Lentz, reportedly (true to form for Hillsong's celebrity chasing culture) in NBA player Tyson Chandler's bathtub. In part due to the Lentz scandal, Bieber left Hillsong and later, in a GQ interview, denounced the sort of institutional faith that overemphasizes celebrity lifestyle, like Hillsong does.
- Deborah Snow. Inside the Hillsong Church's money-making machine. Sydney Morning Herald, November 13, 2015.
- Frank Houston (Paedophile Offender). Kelso Lawyers.
- Donald Elley. Brian Houston Hillsong head pastor will be heading to jail at some time in the future for pedophile protection crimes. WordPress, 13 November 2019.
- Helen Davidson. Hillsong founder 'told man his father sexually abused it was victim's fault'. The Guardian, 6 October 2014.
- David Marr. Hillsong - the church with no answers. Sydney Morning Herald, August 4 2007.
- Hillsong farewells a lost sheep pioneer. Sydney Morning Herald, 13 November 2004.
- "Report of Case Study No. 18", the response of the Australian Christian Churches and affiliated Pentecostal churches to the allegations of child sexual abuse, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse
- Hillsong Founder to Plead Not Guilty to Abuse Coverup. Associated Press in Sydney, reprinted in Christianity Today, 6 October 2021.
- Maria Pasquini. Hillsong Church Founder Brian Houston, Charged with Concealing Dad's Sex Offenses, Steps Down from Board. People, 18 September 2021.
- Fergus Hunter, Laura Chung and Alexandra Smith. Hillsong pastor Brian Houston charged for allegedly concealing child sexual abuse by his father. Sydney Morning Herald, 5 August 2021.
- Hillsong Church leader steps down to defend charge of concealing child sex abuse. CNN, 31 January 2022.
- Australian church says head quits over inappropriate behaviour with women. Reuters, 23 March 2022.
- Roxanne Stone. Fired Hillsong NYC Pastor Carl Lentz Apologizes for Infidelity. Christianity Today, 5 November 2020.
- Disgraced celebrity Hillsong pastor told mistress sex was best 'in his life'. News.com.au, 17 November 2020
- Tara Isabella Burton. Hillsong: the evangelical megachurch that helped save Justin Bieber’s soul — and image. Vox, 1 October 2018.
- Tarpley Hitt. Inside Justin Bieber’s Pastor’s Wild Cheating Scandal. Daily Beast, 7 November 2020.
- Claire Lampen. Unpacking a Giant Megachurch Adultery Scandal. The Cut, 11 November 2020.
- Zach Baron. The Redemption of Justin Bieber. GQ, 13 April 2021.
- Joelle Goldstein. Hillsong Staffer Accuses Ex-Pastor Carl Lentz of Sexual Abuse as He 'Vehemently' Denies Claims. People, 1 June 2021.
- The Pastors of Hillsong Dallas Have Resigned. Relevant, 5 January 2021.
- Beth Stoneburner. Dallas Megachurch Shuts Down After Claims of Financial and Leadership Failures. Friendly Atheist, 14 April 2021.
- Hillsong Church: God Goes Viral. BBC 4.
- Josh Shepherd. BBC’s Hillsong Doc Reveals Global Church’s Celebrity Culture & Scandals. Roys Report, 28 July 2021
- Ruth Graham. The Rise and Fall of Carl Lentz, the Celebrity Pastor of Hillsong Church. New York Times, 5 December 2020.
- Timothy Yap. Hillsong's Brian Houston Rejects Being a Prosperity Gospel Preacher. Jubileecast, 30 April 2018.
- Anthony Sharwood. Hillsong Church is a haven of a thing called prosperity theology. But does God really want you to be rich?. News.com.au, 10 October 2014.
- Leonardo Blair. Hillsong pastors splurged tithes on luxury lifestyles, former members say. Christian Post, 27 January 2021.
- Hannah Frishberg. ‘It’s a cult’: Ex-Hillsong members claim church demanded ‘slave labor’. New York Post, 23 December 2020.
- Dan Adler. Hillsong Church Faces New Allegations of Abusive Behavior. Vanity Fair, 23 December 2020.
- Jessy Edwards. Inside Hillsong Church's Hit-Making Music Machine. Rolling Stone Australia, 6 February 2020.
- Kelsey McKinney. How Hillsong Church conquered the music industry in God’s name. Fader, 11 October 2018.
- Billy Graham. Does God want everyone to be rich?. BillyGraham.org, 21 September 2016.
- Tom Read. Hillsong’s VIP experience shows worship music has a celebrity problem. Premier Christianity, 19 October 2021.
- Nicole Alcindor. ‘Tomlin United Tour’ removes VIP option amid backlash over ‘celebrity-style commercialized worship’. Christian Post, 25 October 2021
- Michael Paulson. Megachurch With a Beat Lures a Young Flock. New York Times, 9 September 2014.
- Ruth Pollard. They sought help, but got exorcism and the Bible. Sydney Morning Herald, 17 March 2008.
- Ken Ham. A Sad Day for the Assemblies of God Denomination. Answers in Genesis, 8 September 2010.
- Jeannie Law. Hillsong's Joel Houston clarifies views on evolution after 'So Will I' lyrics spark debate. Christian Today, 29 June 2018.
- Ben Kesslen.  Hillsong: Is this celeb-filled, Instagram-friendly church the new face of evangelicalism?]. NBC News, 14 February 2019.
- Lindsey Bever. Why this white pastor is not saying 'all lives matter'. Washington Post, 6 October 2016.