Apr 4, 2022

Hillsong, Once a Leader of Christian Cool, Loses Footing in America

Amid a series of crises, including the resignation of its leader, the evangelical powerhouse has shed more than half its American churches in just a few weeks

Ruth Graham
New York Times
March 29, 2022

Terry Crist, a fifth-generation pastor in Phoenix, joined the global megachurch Hillsong in part because of what he describes as its distinctly joyful approach to church life: Hillsong was an institution where leaders seemed "light and free," offering a church experience that attracted tens of thousands of people around the world.

Starting in Phoenix, Mr. Crist eventually brought six churches in two states into the Hillsong fold. Last week, he took them out.

"We cannot continue in our global family, as much as we love it," Mr. Crist told his congregation in an emotional sermon on Sunday, citing, among other reasons, the recent resignation of Hillsong's global leader under a haze of scandal. "I am heartbroken."

In the last two weeks, Hillsong has lost nine of its 16 American church campuses, a swift and stunning decline for one of the world's largest and most influential evangelical churches.

Just a few years ago, Hillsong was the leading edge of cool Christianity, a quickly expanding network that appealed to young people and city dwellers with energetic, stylish preachers and an upbeat atmosphere. Hillsong translated the charismatic church experience, which emphasizes miracles and personal encounters with the Holy Spirit, for a hip, upscale audience.

Justin Bieber and the N.B.A. star Kevin Durant attended services; one of the church's worship bands won a Grammy Award and the church produced soaring anthems that became staples in smaller churches that imitated its sounds, style, and Instagram-friendly aesthetic.

Now, Hillsong's U.S. presence is in collapse. Its remaining U.S. locations are in the Northeast and in California, meaning Hillsong no longer has a major presence between the coasts.

The megachurch, known for the celebrities and N.B.A. stars among its followers, has been enveloped in a series of image-tarnishing crises.

·        When It Was Cool: Hillsong was founded in Australia and became a global phenomenon capitalizing on trends in Christian youth culture.

·        A Pastor's Downfall: Carl Lentz, Hillsong's leader in New York City, helped raise the church's profile — until worldly temptations got in the way.

·        The Leader's Resignation: Brian Houston, who founded the charismatic church, stepped down ​​after he was accused of breaching the church's code of conduct.

·        Losing Footing: Upheaval at Hillsong has caused it to lose many of its American church campuses — a stunning decline for the once influential institution.

The departures are partly the fallout from a series of crises — most recently the sudden resignation of its charismatic founder — that have left the church with a tarnished reputation and instability that pastors say they found increasingly difficult to endure.

"I can't think of a church in the English-speaking Western world with as broad a global reach as Hillsong," said Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center in Illinois. The current upheaval at the church "is a very big deal and will have ramifications not just for Hillsong, but for contemporary evangelism around the world," he said.


The church was already grappling with in-house tensions and a damaged brand when its Australian founder and global leader, Brian Houston, resigned on March 23 after an internal investigation found that he behaved inappropriately toward two women. Mr. Houston had stepped away from all ministry duties in January, explaining that he needed to concentrate on fighting a criminal charge of concealing child sexual abuse committed by his late father, who was also a pastor.

The church's investigation found that Mr. Houston sent "inappropriate text messages" to one staff member, and that several years later he spent time alone in a hotel room with a woman who attended the church's annual conference in Sydney. In a statement to The New York Times, the press office for the church said there have been no other complaints about Mr. Houston's behavior.

The church has blamed medication and alcohol for Mr. Houston's actions. Mr. Houston has not publicly commented on his resignation. He could not be immediately reached for comment.

Phil Dooley, the church's interim global leader, responded to some questions in an email through the church press office. In the email, Mr. Dooley said Mr. Houston's resignation came as "a tremendous surprise to many members of our community." The church press office did not respond to questions about whether Mr. Houston would receive a severance package or any future financial compensation from the church. The press office also declined to say whether Mr. Houston's wife, Bobbie, whose title was also Global Senior Pastor, remained employed by the church.

On Thursday, a day after Mr. Houston's resignation, the streaming service Discovery+ released a three-part documentary, "Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed." The documentary depicts the megachurch as a toxic institution obsessed with image, control and growth at all costs. It features interviews with critics, former employees and members, and a woman who has said she had a monthslong affair with Carl Lentz, at the time the celebrity lead pastor of Hillsong's East Coast branches. The press office for the church said in an emailed statement that the documentary's portrait of Hillsong is "almost unrecognizable" to the church community.

Mr. Dooley, the interim leader, said in an email to The Times through the church press office that he has been "talking with members of our team around the world in what seems like a nonstop conversation" since the revelations of Mr. Houston's behavior. He described the crisis as a challenging and emotional time for both members and leaders. "This difficult season has sparked conversations that we should have been having as a church for a very long time," he said. He said the church is reviewing its policies and procedures to "provide both health and accountability for leaders."

Hillsong exercises some control over the financial operations of each member church, though congregations set their own budgets. Churches also pass on 5 percent of the contributions they receive to the global church. In return, they receive organizational and teaching resources, and what was at one time a straightforwardly valuable association with one of the most recognizable evangelical churches in the world.

For some leaders of local Hillsong branches, the baggage has become too burdensome to be worth the benefits of affiliation.

Last week, the lead pastor of Hillsong Atlanta, Sam Collier, emailed his church to inform them that he was withdrawing his church from Hillsong in the wake of "consistent media attacks, slander, and accusations" against Hillsong — some of which, he acknowledged, were true.

"All the challenges and the speculation and the scandal and the articles and all of the above, it got to a point where the people in our church just did not want to deal with it anymore," Mr. Collier said in an interview. His hiring as Hillsong's first Black lead pastor was announced about a week before the news of Mr. Lentz's misconduct became public in 2020, meaning his entire tenure at the church has been clouded by scandal emanating from Hillsong entities far from Atlanta.

Sunday's service was the last for Hillsong Atlanta. "We believe the Lord is calling us to move into the next season," Mr. Collier told his congregation. Mr. Collier is launching a new church on Easter Sunday, and expects much of his Hillsong congregation to migrate there. The press office for Hillsong said there were no plans to reestablish Hillsong Atlanta.

Another branch, Hillsong Kansas City, which launched in 2019, quietly separated from Hillsong about two weeks ago and relaunched as Kingdom City Church. The press office for the global church said the two parties "made a mutual decision to separate" before Mr. Houston's departure. A person who answered the phone at Kingdom City last week said the church had no comment.


Hillsong's website says 150,000 people attend services weekly in 30 countries, but that estimate was taken before the pandemic. The press office said an accurate attendance count is not possible because of pandemic restrictions in some countries, and emphasized the church's longtime focus, heightened during the pandemic, on online participation.

Mr. Houston and his wife, Bobbie, are towering figures in Australia. The church grew for decades as part of the Australian branch of the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination. The church offered original music with high production values — sometimes performed in actual concert venues. Mr. Houston once instructed pastors in Australia that a Hillsong sermon "leaves people feeling better about themselves than when they came in."

Pentecostalism, a charismatic movement, often features practices like speaking in tongues and faith healing. Hillsong took a more accessible approach. Always attuned to mass appeal, the church accentuated personal encounters with God, often through music. Hillsong became its own denomination in 2018.

In 2020, the church's relationship with money, sex, and celebrity came under renewed scrutiny when Mr. Houston fired Mr. Lentz for "leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures." Mr. Lentz, a one-time mentor of Mr. Bieber and a celebrity in his own right, confessed that he had been unfaithful to his wife and withdrew from public life.

For Mr. Crist, leaving Hillsong was the culmination of several years of doubts about the institution. He objected a few years ago, he said, when a global church restructuring disbanded his board of local leaders and put him directly under the authority of the Australia-based global board. And he bristled when he and other lead pastors were asked to sign noncompete and non-disparagement agreements in the wake of the scandal in the East Coast branches. He never signed.

The church press office described the agreements as standard elements of their general contracts with church leaders.

"This decision wasn't arrived at lightly, and it was made calculating the significant cost," Mr. Crist said in an interview, mentioning the possibility for disillusionment and pain. But "anyone who has been victimized in our church needs to be seen and heard."

Mr. Crist expects to begin holding services June 1 under a new name to be determined.

In his sermon on Sunday, Mr. Crist called for an internal investigation into Hillsong's global board, to make the findings of that investigation public, and to purge any board members "who have protected the institution and not the people."

Ruth Graham is a Dallas-based national correspondent covering religion, faith and values. She previously reported on religion for Slate. @publicroad


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