Hillsong Church is in crisis. Australia’s greatest cultural export – with 131 churches in 30 countries, 150,000 weekly congregants, 50 million churchgoers singing their songs each week, and over three billion YouTube views – has been enveloped in a series of scandals that sound like a biblical parable: the thing that has made it so powerful is what has brought it to its knees.
I’ve spent the last few years researching Hillsong and the wider neo-charismatic Pentecostal movement, and a lot of people have been asking me what’s next. Not being in the market of prophecy, I can’t say for certain. However, Hillsong’s popularity stems from showing believers that they can live Christian lives in a secular world – and now the church’s survival depends on whether it can straddle both worlds too.
To recap the major scandals enveloping Hillsong over the last 15 months (and this is an abbreviated list) explains the cultural tightrope the church has long been walking.
Last June, London preacher Gary Clarke was criticized for dismissive comments about the murder of George Floyd, and has since transitioned into a less prominent European leadership role.
In November, celebrity preacher at the church’s New York church Carl Lentz had a spectacular fall from grace, fired for “moral failings” after his infidelities were publicly revealed. Since then, he has been accused of “manipulation, control, bullying, abuse of power and sexual abuse” by a former nanny, now co-pastor of Hillsong Boston. Once his most famous member, pop star Justin Bieber now attends another church.
Financial impropriety scandals include Hillsong closing its Dallas branch after complaints about misuse of worshipers’ tithes by pastors who appeared to be living a life of luxury. There have also been complaints of abusing volunteer labour.
Finally, last month, church founder Brian Houston was charged over allegedly concealing information about child sex offenses, which will see him appear in a Sydney court in October. (Houston “vehemently” professes his innocence of him and will defend himself against the charges.)
While these issues are for courts, and indeed parishioners, to pass judgment on, they also reveal the problems inherent in Hillsong’s business model. Its pastors have exceptional personal charisma, and draw much of their authority from it. Hillsong’s hallmark – good, well-produced music and stadium spectaculars – lends them credibility.
The church, like many of its peers, has left umbrella groups such as Assemblies of God and Australian Christian Churches. Hillsong is simply Hillsong: a brand of faith that is accountable only to itself. A figure such as Lentz, frequently photographed with celebrities such as Bieber and Kevin Durant, doesn’t work on a tight leash. Charisma can’t simply be performed: it has to be real and experienced.
Following the Lentz scandal, Brian Houston announced an investigation and said there would be “far better systems in place and better accountability”.
It sounds highly appropriate in the circumstances, but likely will bring the church a new set of problems. Reining in its pastors, including Houston himself, and putting in place people more likely to toe the line, means that it will be moving away from what brought it success. That is, a church driven by spontaneity and personality.
In reckoning with its many demons, Hillsong may no longer be able to employ the most magnetic graduates of its college. Instead of creating another Lentz, it might have to become a bit McDonald’s: you go in there on Sunday morning because you know the brand and what you’re going to get, but it’s not the most satisfying or nourishing option out there in the religious marketplace.
A more bureaucratic Hillsong makes it ripe for disruption from competitors – after all, it plants churches in large cosmopolitan cities and is competing against a host of other churches, both in person and online.
Alternatively, Hillsong may turn away from reform and oversight. Houston’s church is all about the good vibes, but at the same time it lives in an evangelical media ecosystem which feeds on conspiracy and feels increasingly under attack by secular forces around it. Brian Houston has been good at projecting a Hillsong-against-the-world image whenever controversy arises.
But in doing so, it risks turning away congregants: the average Hillsong megachurch goer is likely to be an upwardly mobile woman, millennial or younger, with an interest in social justice and feeling good about her faith.
Regardless of the outcome of the Lentz investigation and the Houston trial, it remains to be seen whether believers can tolerate accusations of such deadly failings in leaders they feel are divinely blessed.
Ultimately, Hillsong’s ability to survive its crises will be an earthly affair: defined by how it controls the inevitable “born-again” narrative, and whether worshipers will have faith in it.