If I were to write you a story about the Australian Pentecostal mega-church Hillsong, then I would usually begin with a visit. I would line up with some of the 8,000 other lost souls on any given Sunday and tell you about the fashion vibe and about the rocking—but not too rocking—musical score that’s central to the worship. I’d write about millennials and celebrities coming together in the heathenish den that is New York City to literally raise their hands up to praise Jesus and perhaps take a selfie.
But really, there have been enough of these types of stories since Hillsong hit American shores in 2010. They’ve been written down or recorded on video by giddy reporters eager to document this seeming paradox of a church—a house of worship with a conservative theology that is led by and filled with millennials and hipsters. Everyone from The The New York Times to VICE has covered the scene inside Hillsong’s newest U.S. outposts in New York and Los Angeles—led by pastors Carl Lentz and Joel Houston, and Ben Houston respectively. It’s the church of Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin, Kendall Jenner and Kevin Durant. Where Sunday services surge with pop music and concert lighting and “Silent Night” is sung by midriff-baring flapper girls. Where a tattooed, mohawked preacher (who naturally lives in Williamsburg) wears a leather jacket in the pulpit and delivers sermons named after Bell Biv DeVoe songs. That would be Hillsong NYC’s leader, Carl Lentz—who is “not your typical pastor,” according to reporters at ABC News and the Associated Press and CNN, who have all written this exact sentence. Headlines have dubbed Lentz a “Rock Star Pastor.”
But the story I’m going to write is a different story, one with a more complex narrative beyond the celebrity baptisms and Broadway-style Christmas pageants. It’s a story that has even been well-documented. It’s a story of a church that has struggled with a shattering pedophile scandal. Of a church that has a long history of rejecting and even self-admittedly damaging its gay and lesbian members. A church with an ultraconservative record on gay marriage and abortion. A church whose coffers brim with millions in tax-free donations, with little accountability over where the money goes. This is the story that’s left out of breathless media reports about Hillsong’s preachers in YSL motorcycle jackets and all the glitzy good times at the glittering “Church of the Stars.”
The forerunner to Hillsong was founded in 1977 by Australian pastor Frank Houston, who created the Sydney Christian Life Centre. Frank’s son—current Hillsong lead pastor Brian Houston—and Brian’s wife, Bobbie (also a pastor), worked there under Frank until 1983, when the couple left to start their own church. They called it Hills Christian Life Centre, named for the suburbs of Sydney in New South Wales where it was located. They started with just 45 congregants; today, Hillsong churches operate in 14 countries and claim to welcome some 100,000 worshippers every week. They believe that Jesus Saves and the Bible should be read literally—and that worship should be an experience: singing and clapping, speaking in tongues, faith healing.
In 1999, when Frank retired—or was fired, depending on your semantic druthers—Brian merged his father’s church with his own, and rebranded under the name Hillsong, after his in-house music ministry that was quickly winning fans worldwide. Hillsong’s biggest draw has always been the music: Some 40 albums and hundreds of songs have been produced under the church’s umbrella since 1992, raking in millions.
Around the same time that Brian Houston was consolidating his family’s ministries in Australia, Americans were falling in love with the idea of the megachurch. In 1970, the U.S. was home to 50 churches that could boast an attendance of more than 1,500, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. By 2005, there were at least 1,200 megachurches stateside, comprising up to 12 million members. In the last five years, U.S. megachurch attendance has grown by 26 percent overall.
In a 1995 profile on the megachurch phenomenon, Peter Jennings visited these new behemoths—replete with stand-up comics, rock music, miracle healers, and self-help support groups—all the while asking if entrepreneurial pastors, suffering from declining membership, were attracting sellout crowds by selling out.
Twenty years later, the American press is still marveling at this box-store brand of religion. Hillsong’s home country has been less kind, with Australian media often focusing on the spiritual movement’s financial success.
Hillsong preaches less fire and brimstone, and more Prosperity Gospel—though they’d never call it that. In a nutshell, that’s the idea that God wants you to be really rich. “If you believe in Jesus,” Brian Houston told a reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald in 2005, “He will reward you here [on Earth] as well [as in Heaven].”
Four years earlier, Houston had published the book You Need More Money: God’s Amazing Financial Plan for Your Life. The book turned into a bit of an embarrassment; it’s no longer sold and Brian Houston has called it the “silliest thing” he ever did.
As at many churches, services at Hillsong include a moment when an offering plate comes round and parishioners are urged to heed to the Old Testament’s call that they tithe, or turn over 10 percent of their income to the church. And the flock is listening.
Hillsong made nearly $100 million in total revenue in 2014, according to their annual report—up 10 percent from the previous year—more than half of which came from donations. And all of this money—from albums and Bible college tuition and books and DVDs for preschoolers and T-shirts and conferences—it’s all tax-free, of course. Exactly where this money goes, including how much is given to pastors’ salaries, as well as how much the Houstons make in “love offerings” for speaking engagements at other venues, is somewhat opaque, which makes it another point of contention for Hillsong critics who argue that a Hillsong is essentially a family business that doesn’t have to tithe to Uncle Sam (or Uncle Canberra).
“What good is a vow of poverty?” Brian Houston answered one naysayer in 2005. “A person who has more is able to help more. That’s what we are all about, giving people a handout.”
Three-quarters of Hillsong’s revenue is spent on church services and buildings–both keeping the lights on for existing services and constantly expanding its reach. Five percent goes to “Global and Local Benevolent” activities, according to their most recent annual report, including initiatives for emergency relief, toy drives, prison support services, and outreach to the elderly and the homeless.
Hillsong’s New York and Los Angeles satellites will soon put out financial reports, too, according to church spokesman Mark DeMoss. “We think it would be a good thing to do, to put that info out publicly even though the IRS doesn’t require it and no other church in America does it,” he said.
“If you go down that road you simply cannot be poor enough for some people,” Hillsong NYC Pastor Carl Lentz told CNN. “Well, you can drive that car but not that car. But we’re never going to cater to that mindset of people trying to tell us how to live.”
Pastor Carl used to drive a black Cadillac Escalade when he lived in Virginia Beach in 2009, but it’s unclear what he drives now, if anything. A recent GQ article on Hillsong—titled “What Would Cool Jesus Do?”—mentions that Pastor Carl has a “driver-slash-right-hand,” Joe Termini, who is a friend of Justin Bieber’s.
In November, Pastor Carl Lentz appeared with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and comic Tom Papa on “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” to discuss religion. At one point, Wilmore asks why young people might be turning away from religion, and Papa offers that the new youth of America are an informed bunch and recoil from scandals like the sexual abuse of boys in the Catholic church.
“You’re not wrong,” Lentz says.
It was an awkward moment for anyone who had been following the news out of Australia concerning Hillsong’s own record of dealing with the decades-long molestation of boys by Brian Houston’s father, Frank.
For 10 days in October 2014, a royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse in Australia examined the church’s response to allegations that Frank Houston had sexually abused as many as nine children in the 1960s and ’70s.
Brian Houston later said of the abuse: “We probably will never know the exact, you know, how far this went, or how many [boys] may have been involved.”
The commission heard from one victim, “AHA,” who testified (PDF) that in 1969 and 1970, when he was a 7-year-old boy, Frank stayed with his family in Australia. AHA said that after church meetings, Frank would “hug and kiss me in front of other people,” and would “sometimes go into an office alone where he would feel between my legs.” AHA said Frank would “creep into my room late at night nearly every night of the week,” and molest him. “I would be petrified and would just lay very still,” AHA wrote in his statement. “I could not speak while this was happening and felt like I could not breathe. I’m not sure how long he would stay in the room with me but it felt like forever.”
This abuse continued, AHA said, “for a period of years,” until he reached puberty, at which time Frank no longer had any interest in him.
In his testimony, AHA said he told his mother about the abuse in 1978, but she warned him not to challenge the Houstons, who were, according to his testimony, “almost like royalty.” It seems she had a change of heart two decade later, though, and told pastors at her local church. They told higher-ups, and by 1999, AHA’s allegations had made their way to Brian’s desk. Brian—then the national president of the Assemblies of God—confronted his father and forced him to resign after hearing his confession.
In 2000, Frank asked AHA—by then a grown man—to meet him at a McDonald’s where, according to AHA’s testimony and confirmed during the investigation by several others with knowledge of the meeting, the former pastor offered him $10,000. “I want your forgiveness for this,” Frank said, and passed AHA a dirty napkin to sign as a kind of receipt. “Just do it and say you forgive me, and that’ll be it,” Frank said, and promised that a check would follow shortly. If there was any problem, Frank told AHA to contact his son Brian.
When no money came, AHA testified that he phoned Brian, who allegedly said, “You know it’s your fault all of this happened—you tempted my father.”
A check arrived in AHA’s mailbox soon after. No note was attached.
Brian Houston confirmed that the meeting at the McDonald’s and the payment took place, but has denied AHA’s claim that he blamed the victim for his father’s abuse. “I would never say this and I do not believe this,” Brian Houston said in a statement after AHA’s testimony.
Following its investigation, the royal commission released a report in November, which found the following: Neither AHA’s allegations, nor those from eight other suspected victims, were ever referred to police in Australia; as Frank Houston’s son, Brian Houston had a serious conflict of interest in assuming responsibility for dealing with the allegations; and The Assemblies of God in Australia departed from their policies and procedures set out in the Administration Manual when it came to disciplining Frank Houston.
“Despite having knowledge that Mr Frank Houston admitted to sexually abusing AHA, the National Executive allowed Mr Frank Houston to publicly resign, without damage to his reputation or the reputation of Hillsong Church,” the report states.
Frank Houston drew a pension from Hillsong until his death from stroke in 2004.
AHA told the commission: “The church community made me feel like it was my problem. I have received absolutely no support, no counselling, apology or acknowledgement of the abuse. I believe that Brian Houston and other elders of the Hillsong Church kept the abuse as quiet as they could, and have not been held accountable.”
Brian Houston has responded in multiple arenas to the commission’s report. When asked for comment for this article, Hillsong’s PR arm initially said there wasn’t time to respond because of the time difference in Australia. The spokesperson did refer me to a statement from Hillsong’s Board:
“We are confident that the actions of Pastor Brian, from the moment he discovered the news about his father, were done with the best intentions towards the victim,” the statement read.
“It should be emphasised that Pastor Brian is not a perpetrator of abuse, has never been accused of abuse, and took immediate action to expose and stop a child abuser.”
Brian Houston has defended his actions to reporters and spoken openly in sermons and in his new book, Live Love Lead: Your Best Is Yet to Come! about the emotional toll of finding out about Frank’s abuse. But one of the most concerning remarks came when Brian seemed to conflate homosexuality with pedophilia.
“I think my father was homosexual, a closet homosexual,” Houston told Good Weekend’s Deborah Snow in November. “I’m no psychiatrist… but I think whatever frustrations he had, he took out on children.”
Which brings us to what Brian Houston calls “the elephant in the room,” or “the gay situation.”
When Alex Pittaway’s youth pastor stood before a group of 800 evangelical Christian boys and men in Sydney and shouted, “Shirts off!” everybody listened. Boys as young as 13 and their leaders, some as old as 30, all ripped off shirts in a sign of godly macho solidarity. Someone jumped on stage and was shouted down, with jeers of “Go to the gym, mate!”
It wasn’t just pastor Scott “Sanga” Samways (the nickname is slang in Australia for a sausage sandwich) who utilized partial nudity as a church-approved bonding technique, Pittaway said. At youth group and Bible camp, or any time when men and women were separated, Alex remembers “a hell of a lot of homoerotic behaviour."
For Alex—a closeted gay teen and member of Hillsong—the command was terrifying. Did the brothers in Christ slapping his back or complimenting his abs know he was gay? If someone knew, would he think Alex was “looking”?
Alex quit the church in 2008, after a traumatic coming out where he says he was referred by his youth pastor to counseling that proposed to make him straight—the kind of conversion therapy we now know is based on pseudoscience, as ineffectual as it is damaging.
For years, in fact, coming out to a Hillsong pastor landed a church member in just such an ‘ex-gay’ program. According to former members, Hillsong first helped congregants struggling with their sexuality pray their gay away in Exit Ministries, started by Frank Houston, or Mercy Ministries for lesbians; the church then outsourced the conversion work to Living Waters (self-shuttered in 2014) or Exodus (closed in 2013), or maybe an online course like Setting Captives Free (banned in the Apple Store in 2013). Self-proclaimed reformed gay, and former executive director of Exodus, Sy Rogers—who now identifies as transgender and is married to a woman—wrote books and tapes and would preach at Hillsong conferences about overcoming his gay demons. He’d tell the struggling faithful: “You gotta learn to bow down and obey and deal with it.” Rogers’s current ministry has moved away from the ex-gay message and though Rogers hasn’t said so publicly, Brian Houston told a blogger that Rogers probably regrets his involvement with Exodus.
But Hillsong doesn’t try to “fix” gay congregants anymore. Sometime around 2011, Houston distanced his church from conversion programs, and he now talks often about the “weight” the church bears when it comes to its treatment of gays and lesbians. “They feel like ‘maybe I’m gay’ and they go to a youth leader and they are rejected,” Brian said in a 2013 sermon. “At that moment a great hatred comes in. At that moment some of them have gone so far with the rejection and gone to parents who didn’t understand and ended up committing suicide. That’s the weight we live with.”
It should be said here that Alex, now an openly gay seminary student in Indiana, still thinks of Hillsong fondly, speaks of it warmly, and often catches himself humming the church tunes. He says that while he didn’t feel safe or comfortable trying to find God in a building where most of the people in it thought he was going to hell, for those who don’t define themselves by their sexuality, who can compartmentalize, it’s a fine place to “worship anonymously.”
Ben Fenlon, a three-year member of Hillsong’s London satellite, explained his reasons for quitting the church in a piece for the Huffington Post. He wrote, “I can’t worship at a church knowing that I am not fully accepted and considered equal to all those around me. Surrounded by people that might love me as a person but do not accept me as being gay; instead tolerate me. People who might tell me that being gay is okay, but on the inside are praying for me to let Jesus move in my life and change me. People who don’t recognise that any relationship that I have with a man is part of God’s plan and that it would be full of love, equal to any other.”
Alex told me about a gay friend who had been booted from his position in Hillsong’s children’s ministry after he came out and another who, after coming out to Hillsong leadership, was relieved of his duties as an usher. “He wasn’t even allowed to serve cups of coffee or help direct traffic in the parking lot,” he said. (Hillsong did not return requests for comment on these alleged incidents.)
“Gay people need to know that when they go to Hillsong, they have to go to the back of the bus.” Alex said. “Hillsong is hip and attractive and contemporary, but there’s certainly nothing contemporary about what LGBT people will face if they want to be a leader in the church or offer themselves up for service. That’s something [Hillsong] will have to be upfront with, and they haven’t been so far.”
To be fair, Hillsong’s task isn’t an easy one. How does an extremely conservative pentecostal church fight irrelevancy and attract those coveted millennials—a group that’s been running from churches and overwhelmingly supports gay marriage and equal rights for LGBT people—and maintain its tithing, if intolerant, base at the same time?
Hillsong has taken certain halting steps that place the church to the left of its conservative counterparts, some of which have labeled the Aussie megachurch as unbiblical, and say its leaders have sold out God’s word for a younger, more tolerant crowd. For example: Hillsong Leadership College recently removed homosexuality from the list of “sexual sins” in the student code of conduct. And some members have taken Pastor Carl Lentz’s stance—basically that homosexuality is a sin, OK, but no worse than any other, and he gets why everyone is always asking, but he’d rather not address it, because Jesus pretty much didn’t, and Hillsong loves everyone anyway—as a move in the right direction.
It’s not just conservative churches that are criticizing Hillsong’s stance. Anna Flowers, pastor at Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn—a “progressive, young and vibrant church” where she shares the pulpit with two lesbian pastors and one transgender male pastor—has tweeted about what she calls Hillsong’s false permissiveness. “not as hip as Hillsong Hipsters, but we actually love and accept everyone,” she said in one tweet. In another: “drives us NUTS when Hipster evang. churches fool ppl into thinking they are progressive.” Flowers tells me, “there are far more truly progressive churches than people realize. And sometimes churches look more progressive than they really are.”
I read as many of Lentz’s statements on the LGBT issue as I could find and he gave what I consider the most straightforward answer to Jonathan Merritt at Religion News Service in August of 2015 (emphasis mine):
“Our beliefs on biblical marriage and sexual morality have never changed at Hillsong church. Yet we stay open and desperate in our pursuit of the whosoevers.”
What that means in practical terms is that Hillsong wants anyone and everyone in the seats, but neither supports same-sex marriage nor allows LGBT people to serve in positions of leadership. As Brian Houston clarified last year, following the sacking of a choir director who announced his same-sex engagement to another member of the choir, acceptance of gays and lesbians extends only as far the the pew.
And for some, including Josh Canfield and Reed Kelly, the couple at the center of the choir controversy, that’s enough. For now at least.
Ben Gresham also still attends Hillsong in Sydney, despite a complicated past with the church, because he believes gay and lesbian members are key to helping the church move forward. “I try and speak to church pastors and leaders when I can and have had some encouraging discussions,” he said.
Gresham has told the story of coming out at Hillsong on his blog. After three years of ex-gay therapy, constant praying, even undergoing an exorcism, he realized he would never be straight. The thought of never being able to enter the kingdom of heaven, to marry a woman, to be the person Hillsong told him that God wanted him to be, led him to cut himself with a razor blade, and one night, to drive his speeding car nearly off the side of a highway. He considers the last-minute change of heart a miracle.
“For me, Hillsong still feels like home. It has been a source of harm for me in the past but continues to bring me much joy and help me grow in my faith, which is invaluable,” he said. “As a gay man and a Christian I would love to see Hillsong fully affirm and include its queer members. I hope it happens sooner rather than later but given my experience I remain doubtful.
“Hillsong is a big church and so it takes time to move it forward. I just wish they would move a bit faster.”
“Welcome to church!” is the first thing you hear when you enter Hillsong.
A leggy blonde in leather pants warbles it to me on a rainy Sunday morning as I run, five minutes late, through the rope line into Hillsong midtown’s afternoon service. A second woman, also in leather, says it again when I get to the escalator.
“Welcome to church!” a man in his 30s says, smiling at me. Strangely, he is not wearing leather. “Welcome to church, little baby!,” he squeals to the 4-month-old strapped to my chest. Three more friendly church volunteers will tell me the same before I find a seat.
I am able to sit in the section for people with children, which is small compared to the sections around it, ostensibly for the millennials—the hundreds of leathered, plaid-loving, behatted young folk—seated and standing in the aisles and overflow space to hear the word of God. Volunteers dressed all in black pass out goldfish crackers and water in paper cups.
The band starts to play, “Aftermath,” a moody anthem from Hillsong United’s 2011 album of the same name and a thousand hands rise into the air. I feel the urge to join them, because it feels strange to be in a room with that many people doing one thing while you do another, but I resist. By the time we get to the bridge, the room is singing along with the frontman (who reminds me a little of a young David Crosby) and everyone has closed their eyes so they can’t see the lyrics on the screen but they know every word by heart anyway. They’re all singing like no one’s watching: “And IIIIII knooooow that you’re with meeeeee,” over and over and over again and the backup singers on stage are looking and gesticulating toward heaven and I’m not sure whether it’s God or the swelling music or the earnestness of so many nice people in beanies singing with their eyes shut so tight, but there’s something palpable in this room and it’s easy to see what so many people love about this place.
Then Pastor Joel Houston takes the stage. Wearing a rumpled black sweatshirt and a gray beanie, cocked so one ear remains out, Houston moves into a 10-minute sermon about giving God his due. Visitors should feel no pressure to give, he says, and black buckets are passed ceremoniously through the aisles. The one that passes me is half-filled with dollar bills.
It seems I’ve picked the wrong location, because Pastor Carl Lentz is preaching in person at the New Jersey location and a huge screen descends, which is how we’ll be watching the sermon. Lentz isn’t wearing his leather jacket today as I had expected, or his deep crew neck. He’s not even wearing his gold chain. Just a black button down dress shirt with ripped jeans.
The title of his message today is “Going Back to the Start,” and the phrase appears in neon blue lights behind him.
Lentz preaches about Christians rekindling their love for Jesus and he uses a passage from Revelations to make his point. He cries when he brings up his wife and children. He cracks jokes about the singles in the crowd—“Please make good decisions!”—and the coiffed congregants laugh and clap and read their Bibles on their iPhones and “Amen” with him on the big screen. If there is such a thing as a modern Pentecostal church, Pastor Lentz is surely leading it.
Lentz pauses when he gets to the part where God mentions a sect called the Nicolaitans:
“But you have this in your favor,” he reads, smiling. “You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”
“By the way,” Pastor Lentz says, “if you’re wondering what those people were doing that God hated? They were basically doing what you’d consider Christian Universalists. These are people who were desperately trying to accommodate the culture rather than change it. So he just tosses that in there.
“‘I can’t stand those people.’ And then he moves on.”