Faith’s dark side: Inside Hillsong’s biggest scandals

 

It's the faith megachurch with franchises across the world, boasting A-list followers including Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Drake.

But despite it's glossy image, in it's short history Hillsong has never been far from a scandal.

From failure to report child sexual abuse to the recent infidelity of its New York pastor, the church founded in Baulkham Hills in 1983 has weathered many a controversy while remaining wildly lucrative.

Brian Houston is the founder and senior global pastor at Hillsong Church, based in Sydney with locations around the world.
Brian Houston is the founder and senior global pastor at Hillsong Church, based in Sydney with locations around the world.

Hillsong's vast empire is a money-making machine: Tithing, merchandise, stadium tours and music saw it rake in $103.4 million in revenue in 2018- $79.6 million from donations alone.

But it's critics say there are questions to be asked about Hillsong, from finances, to its approach on homosexuality, and the power it wields over millions of followers on its 24/7 Hillsong Channel, YouTube newtork and social media channels.

These are some of Hillsong's biggest controversies explained.

 

 

Carl Lentz pictured with Justin Bieber and Lil Wayne. Picture: Instagram.
Carl Lentz pictured with Justin Bieber and Lil Wayne. Picture: Instagram.

 

CARL LENTZ

Last week, Hillsong New York pastor Carl Lentz' was sacked for "moral failure" - via a mass email by global church boss Brian Houston - which blew up social media.

Known for baptising Justin Bieber, Lentz was a Hillsong poster boy known for hid designer clothes, high energy sermons and wholesome preaching fidelity and family values.

Lentz later took to Instagram to explain his now public misdeeds: He had cheated on the mother of his three children, his Australian wife of 17 years and fellow Minister, Laura Lentz.

At the same time, his mistress Ranin, a New York designer, began spilling spicy details of their romance and the hypocrisy of a man she said didn't practice what he preached.

 

Celebrity pastor Carl Lentz’s life came crashing down after his affair with Ranin was outed. Picture Instagram
Celebrity pastor Carl Lentz’s life came crashing down after his affair with Ranin was outed. Picture Instagram

But it was the sacking of his wife Laura that sparked further backlash over gender roles in the church, with followers calling out Hillsong: "Was Laura also 'terminated' along with Carl? If so, that only highlights the (antiquated) belief that the women who are part of your organisation's leadership, aren't thought of as equals in their pastoral roles/titles/service, to the men."

The animosity was so intense, Brian Houston was forced to launch an investigation into the culture of the NYC church which will be led by a Hillsong board director, sparking complaints the probe will be biased.

 

Frank Houston sexually abused several boys in Australia and New Zealand.
Frank Houston sexually abused several boys in Australia and New Zealand.

 

FRANK HOUSTON

In 2014, Hillsong was accused of covering up child sexual abuse after Brian Houston told a royal commission he didn't report his father's abuse of a seven-year-old boy to police in 1999.

Brian's father, Frank Houston, was a charismatic preacher who abused as many as nine boys between 1965 and 1977.

A pastor in New Zealand and Australia, Frank founded Sydney Christian Life Centre, which Brian would eventually take over before it merged into Hillsong Church.

In 1999, when the mother of one of Frank's victims alerted the church to his abuse, Brian allowed his father Frank to quietly resign with a pension.

 

Brain Houston after attending a Royal Commission into Child Abuse in 2014.
Brain Houston after attending a Royal Commission into Child Abuse in 2014.

At the time, Brian was national president of the Australian Christian Churches, the umbrella group for the country's Pentecostal churches.

By 2000, internal church investigations had discovered several more child abuse cases.

Brian Houston and the Assemblies executive council were legally obligated to report the crimes but they did not. Frank Houston made a payment of about $10,000 to his victim.

In August 2007, further allegations emerged that Houston had sexually abused a trainee pastor during counselling sessions in the early 1980s.

In 2014, at a hearing at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Brian Houston admitted his father was guilty of other cases of sexual abuse against children.

He expressed regret at not having reported his father to the police in 1999, but noted that other senior members of the church had also known and also did nothing.

 

Author and ex-Hillsong member Tanya Levin wrote an expose on life inside the church.
Author and ex-Hillsong member Tanya Levin wrote an expose on life inside the church.

TANYA LEVIN

After attempts to silence it, Tanya Levin's Hillsong expose, People in Glass Houses, finally found a publisher in 2007.

Levin, who grew up in the church, has slammed its patriarchal culture ("our goal as young women was to be pure and marriageable"), but said its "biggest lie" was that God will repay everything you give.

Members are expected to tithe 10 per cent of their income to the church, and in an interview on ABC's 'Enough Rope' with Andrew Denton, she suggested Hillsong was set up for recruitment and fundraising and little else.

She criticised the way the church dealt with Frank Houston's child abuse, telling Denton: "There was no stance taken on child sexual assault," adding at one service Brian asked members to pray for his family with no mention of victims.

Mark Driscoll was forced to resign in 2014 from now-defunct Seattle megachurch Mars Hill after accusations of bullying, plagiarism and misuse of church funds.
Mark Driscoll was forced to resign in 2014 from now-defunct Seattle megachurch Mars Hill after accusations of bullying, plagiarism and misuse of church funds.

In 2015, Levin was arrested for trespass while being interviewed outside the 2015 Hillsong annual conference at Sydney Olympic Park. Charges were later dropped, and her supporters claimed she was being targeted by the church.

The conference was already mired in controversy over the involvement of Mark Driscoll, an American pastor whose misogynist views included likening women to "penis homes".

 

Ellen Page and Chris Pratt feuded over his church's LGBTQ views.
Ellen Page and Chris Pratt feuded over his church's LGBTQ views.

HOMOPHOBIA

Hillsong uses an inclusive message - "we love all people" - but LGBTQ members say behind the scenes. the wrong sexuality gets you frozen out.

After an openly gay couple were outed in its NY choir in 2015, Brian Houston issued a statement and clarified they were not in leadership positions. And yes he did love gay people, but doesn't support a "gay lifestyle" or gay marriage:

"Put clearly, we do not affirm a gay lifestyle and because of this we do not knowingly have actively gay people in positions of leadership, either paid or unpaid," he said in his statement.

Hillsong is accused of supporting gay conversion therapy in the past and most recently, actor Chris Pratt was attacked by activist Ellen Page for his support of Hillsong which she characterised as anti-LGBTQ.

 

Hillsong began as a small Pentecostal church in suburban Sydney in the 1980s is now an international brand with 37 churches in Australia and another 91 spread across 28 countries.
Hillsong began as a small Pentecostal church in suburban Sydney in the 1980s is now an international brand with 37 churches in Australia and another 91 spread across 28 countries.

FINANCIAL QUESTIONS

In a special report this year, News Corp revealed the extent of Hillsong's activities which promise blessings for donations to bolster its $103.4 million, tax-free revenue.

Internal Hillsong documents revealed how followers were urged to donate above the standard 10 per cent tithing of their income with the promise of getting the Lord's blessing.

Leaders of Hillsong's Connect Groups - small church groups that meet outside of services - are told to set a financial 'Faith Goal' and "build faith around giving generously and expecting to see God move miraculously".

Pastors and leader Brian Houston at the opening of Melbourne's Hillsong church. Picture: Instagram
Pastors and leader Brian Houston at the opening of Melbourne's Hillsong church. Picture: Instagram

Money from these groups and the Hillsong Foundation is funnelled into church expansion, global missions and a number of Hillsong brands including its 24/7 Hillsong TV channel.

While a heavy focus on outreach work funded by donations, Hillsong's 2017 annual report showed most of the money went back to the church.

Of the $18.4 million raised by the foundation in 2017, just $2.95 million went to benevolent activities. The majority went to Hillsong's Australian building facilities ($8.8 million), its media and arts arm ($4.2 million) and missions and church planting ($1.65 million).

The foundation raised $17.5 million in 2018, but that year's report does not include a breakdown of where the money was spent.

 

An image from Hillsong's Follow-up Team guidelines, which encourages volunteers to repeatedly call potential new members.
An image from Hillsong's Follow-up Team guidelines, which encourages volunteers to repeatedly call potential new members.

MUSIC ROYALTIES

Hillsong is known for its worship music, with its three bands - Hillsong Worship, Hillsong United and Hillsong Young & Free producing almost 100 albums. In 2018, The FADER, reported songs written by the three Hillsong bands had streamed on-demand more than 760 million times since December 29, 2017. Hillsong's vast music arm turns over about $14 million a year as a not-for-profit while competing with companies that must pay tax. Songwriters are paid, but many performers are not. They're considered volunteers.

 

Instagram image from the account of
Instagram image from the account of "rock star" Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz featuring Justin Bieber, who has since distanced himself from the pastor. Picture: Instagram

 

LAVISH LIFESTYLES

Hillsong pastors do not take a "vow of poverty" - they earn a salary with many drawing additional income their own portfolios of property and investments.

On social media, it's a good-looking life: Carl Lentz frequently flashing his designer clothes and A-list lifestyles to his 600,000 Instagram fans, other leaders enjoy luxury pads worth millions, all as the church receives tax breaks as a religious charity.

Ex-members Lea Ceasrine wrote a lengthy piece on her experience inside the church for The Outline, claiming "aspirational wealth and classism" runs rampant inside the church.

In 2010, The Sunday Telegraph reported that the Houston family was enjoying a lavish lifestyle, almost entirely tax-free, including vehicles and expense accounts.

Darlene and Mark Zschech sold their luxury Terrigal cliffside home earlier this year. Picture: LJ Hooker Terrigal.
Darlene and Mark Zschech sold their luxury Terrigal cliffside home earlier this year. Picture: LJ Hooker Terrigal.

According to Hillsong's 2018 annual report, it spent more than $15.7 million on pastors, leaders and support staff. It does not publish its pastor's salaries, but its website states the salaries of its leader Brian Houston and other pastors are "determined independently" by the church's board.

One of Hillsong's greatest exports, Darlene Zschech who left the church in 2011 with her husband Mark to join Church Unlimited as senior pastors, recently sold their iconic Terrigal property in just seven days. The price was not disclosed but had a guide of $4-$4.4 million.

 

Worshippers inside a Hillsong conference in Sydney. Hillsong attracts young people with its rock-music sermons, and postmodern approach to worship where jeans and T-shirts are Sunday best.
Worshippers inside a Hillsong conference in Sydney. Hillsong attracts young people with its rock-music sermons, and postmodern approach to worship where jeans and T-shirts are Sunday best.

RECRUITMENT DRIVES

In 2019, parents of students in public schools began a change.org petition to stop Hillsong's evangelical movement from proselytising in public high school.

Youth ministries linked to the church had given out pamphlets to 34,000 students carrying "life-giving messages about our Lord", sparking outrage among parents who labelled it a shameless recruitment drive. An information pack about the tour on Hillsong's website was quickly pulled after the petition was launched.

Youth ministries with links to the Hillsong Church is attempting to recruit members in public schools through free.
Youth ministries with links to the Hillsong Church is attempting to recruit members in public schools through free.

 

IDOL VOTE STACKING

In 2007, a Channel 7 story aired claiming five finalists on Australian idol were Hillsong members with the church encouraging its thousands of followers to skew votes in favour of the churchgoing singers. The church denied the claims and threatened legal action.

 

MERCY MINISTRIES

Hillsong Church was forced to distance itself from Mercy Ministries in 209, which it had supported - both financially and with staff since it opened in 2001. It followed an investigation by consumer watchdog ACCC, after reports young women seeking psychological and medical support were prevented from accessing professional care and instead directed to focus on prayer, Christian counselling and even exorcisms to ''expel demons''. Some of the women, according to media reports, had serious psychiatric conditions and many were required to sign over their Centrelink benefits, cut off from the outside world, except for a weekly trip to worship at a Hillsong church.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Originally published as Faith's dark side: Inside Hillsong's biggest scandals

Sacked Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz with wife Laura. Picture: Instagram
Sacked Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz with wife Laura. Picture: Instagram


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