Apr 18, 2022

Hillsong faces loss of status, affiliates in wake of scandals'

Volume 37 No. 5
Religion Watch

The future of Hillsong, a popular megachurch denomination, as well as its model of “celebrity pastors,” are being called into question after a series of ethical scandals that have led to some congregations pulling out of the network. Much of the crisis surrounding the Australian-based denomination involves the resignation of its global leader, Brian Houston, after he was accused of inappropriate sexual behavior, but Hillsong has faced several leadership scandals in the past decade. The New York Times (March 29) reports that the scandals, not to mention a new streaming three-part expose of Hillsong, have demoralized pastors who fear that the denomination’s “brand”—which extends to its prominent recording and music ministry—has been damaged. This had led in late March to the exodus of 9 of its 16 American churches; its remaining U.S. congregations are in the Northeast and California, with the denomination losing its presence between the coasts. The issues under contention also involve financing and leadership style, with local leadership boards being disbanded given that congregations were under the direct authority of the Australia-based global board. Critics and former pastors of Hillsong also object to how they were asked to sign noncompete and nondisparagement agreements in the wake of scandals affecting the East Coast branches (such as charges of sexual immorality against the New York pastor).

Several of the departing congregations will remain independent of any denominational affiliation, reports Ruth Graham. Hillsong’s website says 150,000 people attend services weekly in 30 countries, although that estimate was made before the pandemic. But the denomination has also served as a model for scores of other megachurches and smaller churches around the world that have followed its charismatic style, which emphasized miracles and personal encounters with the Holy Spirit, with services tailored for a hip, upscale audience that included celebrities like Justin Bieber. Meanwhile, Relevant (March 28), a magazine for younger evangelicals, sees the scandals coming out of Hillsong as presaging the end of the era of “celebrity pastors.” Tyler Huckabee writes that megachurches’ corporate model of pastoral leadership quickly evolved into a form that took its cues mainly from the entertainment industry, with churches operating like a brand. While entertainment-style pastors have been a fixture for much of evangelical and charismatic history, the trend of the celebrity pastor with a team behind him to “streamline[] his content for maximum impact and [run] interference on potential scandals” is more recent. Huckabee adds other megachurch pastors to the roster of scandal-ridden celebrity-based ministries, from the premier megachurch Willow Creek to abuse cases among prominent Southern Baptist pastors. He lays the blame for the recent scandals on the practice of branding churches, since “Brands survive because they deflect damage, control the narrative, protect talent and promote new successes over recent failures. Accountability is bad for brands. For them to listen and respond to people they’ve hurt is a liability.”



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