Jan 17, 2016

Sex Abuse & Gay Conversion Therapy: The Dark Past Of Justin Bieber’s Megachurch Hillsong

January 17, 2016

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 toVICE 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 atABC News and the Associated Pressand 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 grownby 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 onenaysayer 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 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


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