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The truth behind the Hillsong church scandal

Wondering what really happened to Hillsong? We explore the rise and fall of Hillsong Church hot on the heels of multiple documentary releases.
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Private jets. Designer clothes. Louis Vuitton handbags and Cartier wristwatches. Holidays at five-star resorts and stays at luxury hotels. International travel and global domination. And behind all the glitz and glamour and popping paparazzi bulbs, were the rumours of abuse, infidelity and exploitation.

It sounds like the lifestyle of a Hollywood A-lister in a scandal-sheet nightmare. And it is – except, the “celebrities” are Hillsong Church leaders, living high on the hog from the heartfelt donations of thousands of humble parishioners who have worshipped at the 131 church locations worldwide.

In March this year, when Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie stood up in Federal Parliament and under parliamentary privilege accused the Australian-born church of “spending that would embarrass a Kardashian” and “breaking numerous laws in Australia and around the world relating to fraud, money laundering and tax evasion,” there was shock but not surprise. And these joined a growing list of more sordid allegations in the burgeoning Hillsong church scandal.

Meanwhile, multiple television documentaries including The Kingdom on SBS on Demand, fronted by Australian journalist Marc Fennel – himself a former member of the megachurch – and debut episode credits on the Betoota Advocate‘s new satirical series on Paramount Plus, have brought the Hillsong church scandal to a head.

Even from within Hillsong came the admissions that these new allegations had substance. In response to Wilkie’s bombshell, Hillsong pastor Australian Phil Dooley, announced an independent review into Hillsong’s financial structure and systems and told his flock: “There are thousands of documents that contain information I had no knowledge personally about, but I’ll take full responsibility for how we do things going forward.”

Dooley had accepted a poisoned chalice in March 2022 by taking the reins from Hillsong founder Brian Houston as he prepared to defend charges in a Sydney court. “What a wild ride it’s been,” Dooley grimaced. “Sometimes I’ve called it the ‘Haunted House Ride’. I literally just don’t know what’s around the next corner.”

Hillsong attracted a vibrant, young community.

At time of writing, we do know a little of what’s around the corner. First, a magistrate will deliver judgement on August 17 regarding charges Houston concealed the serious indictable offence of another person by not reporting to police his father’s confession to sexual assault and rape.

Also, the messy aftermath of a Vanity Fair documentary series, The Secrets of Hillsong, about the firing of Hillsong’s prodigal son, New York pastor Carl Lentz, for his 2020 affair with jewellery designer Ranin Karim, among other “moral failures”.

And finally, the resignation of Houston himself over allegedly “inappropriate behaviour” with female staff. Also looming is intensifying scrutiny over a long list of public allegations against Hillsong for multiple misconducts: Congregants vilified and exiled on racial and LGBTQIA+ grounds; church volunteers claiming (on the Seven Network’s Spotlight program) that they were sexually assaulted on Hillsong facilities; and Vanity Fair‘s claims of flagrant mismanagement of more than $100 million in annual revenue.

As of March 2023, 10 of Hillsong’s 16 US locations had closed and its American epicentre, Carl Lentz’s New York parish, had gone from 8000-10,000 weekly attendees to as few as 500. Gone, too, are the Church’s celebrity zealots: Music superstar Justin Bieber, actress Selena Gomez, basketballer Kevin Durant, actor Chris Pratt, socialites Kendall and Kylie Jenner and former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who once claimed Houston as a “spiritual mentor”.

Hillsong’s castle is collapsing from within. In early 2023, 153 Hillsong Australia staff accepted voluntary redundancies. The world is asking: How did a tiny Pentecostal community from Sydney’s Hills district become one of the biggest, most powerful – and if not corrupt, certainly flawed – churches on the planet? And can it survive this staggering fall from grace?

Brian and Geoff in the ’70s.

The genesis of the Hillsong scandal

Hillsong will have you believe that their story begins with God, but the truth is it begins with a man. Frank Houston was a fire and brimstone preacher from a small town in New Zealand. He was also a confessed child abuser, and survivors of his abuse continue to come forward.

Many former parishioners say they kept their children close. “The man made my skin crawl,” says ex-Hillsong member Tahlia Cross. “Frank walked around church with such swagger but we’d all heard the stories about him fleeing New Zealand.”

Cross was there when Hillsong was born – a meeting of scarcely 40 Christian souls who had broken from the Christian Life Centre (CLC), which Frank Houston established in 1977 in inner Sydney. But there was also a forerunner to CLC, a Christian community based in Mullumbimby in northern NSW, which Neridah*, a former member, describes as “more a cult than a church”.

“Mum was a single parent with an alternative mindset,” Neridah tells The Weekly. “She started going to a Pentecostal church called True Vine after escaping a violent relationship. It was a community of 300, most struggling financially and emotionally, all lost souls and vulnerable. We lived under the rule of house leaders whose job was to keep us on track. Above them were church leaders and elders, all men. And at the very top was Frank Houston.”

Neridah was 11 when she and her mother arrived, and at first True Vine seemed a sanctuary. “We ate together, played with the other kids, swam in the lake,” she recalls, “but soon they had us speaking in tongues, praying for the saving of our souls and washing away our sins. There were physical beatings dealt out by men to women and abuse of the children too.”

Brian is facing charges.

“True Vine was a happy-clappy Christian village,” Neridah adds. “Hillsong built on that model – taking in people who needed to mend and heal by preaching God’s love – but once they got their claws in, it became a stranglehold.”

Neridah was not surprised when Brian Houston established his own Hills Christian Life Centre in 1983. “Frank had always been grooming his son as the next leader,” she remembers.

The musical undertones of Hillsong worship

Geoff Bullock gazes across the muddy water and lets the tears fall. We’re at Church Point, on the drowned valley of Sydney’s Pittwater. Geoff, 68, the man who first coined the name ‘Hillsong’ and built the Church’s foundations of music and faith alongside his one-time best mate, Brian Houston, is mourning what was lost: his marriage, musical legacy and even, for a time, his sanity.

“There’s a Bible verse that is the foundation of what a church should be,” Geoff tells The Weekly. “‘You will know the truth and the truth shall set you free.’ These days, it seems to me that Hillsong is mostly in the business of hiding the truth. Disguise the truth and you lie to yourself and lie to God … and if you do that, you’ll never be free, you’ll be in captivity.”

Geoff knows this better than most. He went, literally, from conductor of the band to its captive. Long before Hillsong became famous for heaven-shaking concert extravaganzas filled with rocking bands, soaring choirs and famous acolytes, they were sound-tracked by the songs of Geoff Bullock, a gentle kid from the suburbs who put music to Brian Houston’s dreams.

Justin Bieber and “spiritual advisor” Carl Lentz.

“I started going to Christian Life Centre in Sydney in November 1977,” he remembers. “It was based on the Pentecostal movement of holiness. Basically, if you do good stuff, God blesses you. If you don’t do good stuff, He won’t bless you and He may even punish you.”

Geoff discovered CLC when he was supporting a friend battling drug issues, and he says, “I made an emotional commitment.” That commitment deepened in 1983 when he left a job at ABC-TV to join Brian Houston’s Hills Christian Life Centre full-time.

“Brian did the preaching, and I ran the music and ‘the show’,” he recalls. It started with 40 people in Baulkham Hills Public School Hall. But as smaller local churches folded into theirs, the blue-collar congregation (many of them musicians like him) expanded rapidly. “Suddenly we had a young, vibrant community of 20-somethings getting down to spiritual rock music. It was a very different church.”

Music was so key to the new church’s appeal, Geoff’s ‘Hills Song’ band became its brand. The name change to Hillsong opened the floodgates to wider fame, platinum records and millions of dollars. They moved into warehouse facilities and, in 1986, Geoff began staging conferences to crowds of 5000.

Yet Hillsong’s contradictions haunted him. “We had become too aggressive, too muscular. We were … expecting the sheep to look after the shepherds.” By then, Hillsong had an immense flock, many paying generously to be ‘fleeced’ by the shepherds. Anyone who visits Hillsong is offered a fast-track to God’s graces.

Christians call it a tithe – a pledge of 10 per cent of all the congregant’s earnings. If you don’t pay a tithe, you steal from God, or so the belief goes. But if you volunteer your tithe, they say, God rewards you a hundredfold. An additional $5000 to Hillsong makes you a “kingdom builder” liable for “eternal reward”.

Brian and wife Bobbie.

Despite the church’s riches, Geoff paid tithe from a $40,000 wage supplemented by his wife’s second job as a nurse. “I said to Brian, ‘You can’t keep exploiting our volunteers this way,’ and he got very pissed off, stabbing his finger into my chest over and again until it hurt,” Geoff recalls. “He said: ‘You tell ’em, if they don’t like it, there are plenty of other churches to go to.’

“Now, that’s not gospel. That’s a shepherd saying, ‘Forget the lost sheep. We’ll find more sheep.’ In Brian’s world, everybody was replaceable – me included.”

In 1989, Houston flew to the US to meet with televangelists preaching the ‘prosperity gospel’, a doctrine that says Jesus wants health and wealth for his most loyal followers. Geoff describes it as a spiritual “pyramid scheme”. And he didn’t buy it.

“True faith is about God, a relationship with Jesus and the Church as a living representation of that,” he says. “If it’s not, then it’s a place with a nice show, a spiritual leaning and some self-help doggerel.”

To save his faith, Geoff fled Hillsong in 1995. “Brian, my dearest friend, disowned me and the Church board tried to destroy me,” he says. “Hillsong today isn’t a church, it’s a club,” he tells The Weekly. “Flashy, powerful, egocentric, manipulative … that’s the antithesis of Christianity.”

Geoff fled Hillsong in 1995 to preserve his faith in God.

Hillsong Australia goes global

In the US, where celebrity worship and the blessings of capitalism are worn proudly, Hillsong found its most fertile pastures and Brian Houston found his prodigal son. By 2010, Hillsong had planted churches in the UK, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, Israel and Canada en route to colonising the 30 countries still in its flock today. All of them are rooted in the Church’s distinctly Australian and uniquely contemporary take on corporate Christianity.

“Hillsong didn’t invent the megachurch but they certainly perfected it,” says journalist Marc Fennell, whose documentary The Kingdom, on SBS On Demand, studies modern Pentecostalism. “The American evangelists were always going to have the edge for showmanship but what Brian and [his wife] Bobbie Houston brought that was very Australian was authenticity. Beyond all the lights and music and heavily curated elements was often a raw emotional experience.”

And there’s no doubt that Hillsong’s exuberant, youthful take on worship moved hearts and minds, and potentially saved lives if not souls. Justin Bieber was not the only congregant inspired by Hillsong to “detox” from his rock and roll lifestyle and “refocus on faith”.

The Hillsong website is littered with testimonies by people like ‘Kieran’ who, after years on drugs and in prison, found Hillsong and “chose to take a good, hard look at myself and make a change”. With his gravy-voice and stagecraft, Brian’s sermons moved the faithful. And the flock became a family when his wife of 45 years was at his side.

Bobbie Houston was key to selling Hillsong’s soul-healing, self-help spiritual message to women. With her coiffed hair and her books and videos (like the bestselling She Loves And Values Her Sexuality), Bobbie preached the virtues of boob jobs and facelifts, and the importance of pleasing your man in the bedroom.

Carl Lentz was the most charismatic church leader in the world.

Australia fell under the Houstons’ spell, but no Hillsong made the impact of Hillsong New York, with its rock star pastor, Carl Lentz, who prowled stages like a punk singer with his ripped jeans and tattoos and gift for oratory. Lentz had attended Hillsong College in Australia, where he’d become best friends with Brian Houston’s son, Joel, and by virtue of an internship washing his car and collecting his laundry, with Brian himself.

Lentz had married an Australian, Laura, daughter of a Houston family friend, and by 2009, developed a reputation as the fresh, chiselled face of the new Pentecostalism. “Hillsong’s formula was to equate the blessings of God with the blessings of capitalism, self-help, corporate leadership and marketing, and that’s why Carl Lentz was, for a time, the most charismatic church leader in the world,” one former Australian pastor tells The Weekly.

“Lentz was the golden boy for that whole prosperity doctrine where leaders are beautiful and brilliant, wealthy and famous, and represent everything their followers should aspire to be.”

Soon after Houston tapped Lentz to start Hillsong NYC, people began queueing to get in. Lentz made hay, sometimes delivering six sermons a day to thousands of people at a time. Although Hillsong was already a cultural powerhouse, with 16 locations throughout the US, it now became a kingdom of cool.

Never more so than when Grammy-winning pop idol Justin Bieber began attending Hillsong sermons and touting Lentz as his “spiritual advisor”. In 2019, the same year Hillsong planted in Indonesia, Brussels, Edinburgh, Milan and Mexico, while raking in $100 million in revenue, then Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke at Hillsong’s Sydney conference. Months later, Morrison tried to take “spiritual mentor” Brian Houston to a White House state dinner, a request denied by Melania Trump. (Houston snuck into the Oval Office three months later anyway via a delegation of US preachers who prayed for Donald Trump’s soul.)

The award-winning Hillsong band United perform in the US.

By then, with the rumour mill running hot and authorities closing in, Hillsong had begun to crumble. In 2020, Lentz’s infidelity hit the headlines via a social media confession and even Houston denounced his golden boy. “There were leadership issues that I believe included lying [and] what I’d call narcissistic behaviour,” he told the US TODAY show.

Two years later, Houston himself was accused of inappropriate behaviour by two female staffers and resigned. In January, he and wife Bobbie pleaded poor at a garage sale of their designer clothes from their $4.5 million, 3647-metre gated estate.

You will know the truth and the truth shall set you free. Now that the truth is out about Hillsong and the Houstons, will it set their thousands of disillusioned congregants free? “If only someone had exposed Frank’s deviancy years before and helped his victims, it might have set Hillsong on a path to restoration,” Geoff says.

“Instead, the truth was covered up and ego, power and manipulation became its doctrine. From that moment on, Hillsong was no longer a true reflection of Jesus.”

** Neridah’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.*

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