‘Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed’ reveals something more sinister than hypocrisy

Washington Post

March 27, 2022

By Ashley Fetters Maloy

For the first two decades of my life, there was very little I did that wasn’t touched somehow by evangelical churches. I can still sing a random smattering of Bible verses, thanks to catchy little melodies we played on cassette tapes in the car. If I squeeze my eyes shut hard enough, I can reach down into the primordial dregs of my memory and find some of the pledge to the Christian Flag, bringing up with it the Play-Doh smell of my preschool classroom at a church-adjacent academy in Scottsdale, Ariz. I still remember thefirst time I ever felt so overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit that I wept during a church service — I was 11,and it was during a rendition of “Shout to the Lord,” a beloved praise anthem from none other than Hillsong, the Australia-based global charismatic church network known best at the time for its stirring, internationally popular worship songs.

I’m still working out why exactly I quit going to church in my early 20s, about a decade ago; for a long time, all I could really muster was that I could no longer ignore the gnawing suspicion that I’d be happier if I did. (I was.) As an adult, though, I’ve started to piece together that perhaps it had less to do with God or the Bible or Christianity itself than with the fallible, corruptible, misguidable human beings I answered to every Sunday.

So when I watched Discovery Plus’s new three-part documentary “Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed,” some of what it uncovered felt wholly, sadly familiar. Other revelations, though, were uniquely horrifying.

“A Megachurch Exposed” aims to spotlight the many alleged wrongdoings of Hillsong, which now has locations in 30 countries. It airs allegations that Hillsong’s leadership got rich off donations while heavily exploiting volunteer labor. And it argues that pastors have engaged in extramarital affairs and mishandled accusations of sexual misconduct by church staff, despite teaching the evils of impurity and lying.

Arguably Hillsong’s most famous scandal stateside involved the downfall of Carl Lentz, the young, attractive pastor (dubbed a “hypepriest” by GQ) often spotted wearing luxury streetwear and hanging out with the celebrities among his congregation — including Justin and Hailey Bieber, Kourtney Kardashian and Kevin Durant. In 2020, Lentz admitted to having a months-long extramarital affair and was fired from his position as head of Hillsong’s only American church, located in New York City. “A Megachurch Exposed” delves into that saga, while also featuring testimonies from former staffers, volunteers and congregation members — plus students at the church-adjacent Hillsong College — who allege that they’ve been worked to exhaustion for no pay or that at least one report of inappropriate behavior toward a young woman by a male staffer was under-investigated. (On the latter, the church has claimed it reported it to Australian authorities shortly after leadership found out. Hillsong has not responded to The Post’s request for comment on the documentary’s various allegations.)

This specific brand of leadership hypocrisy in church settings is, unfortunately, not specific to Hillsong. It’s practically a trope by now, the hyper-successful church leader who quite literally fails to practice what he preaches. Famed televangelist Jim Bakker went to prison in 1989 for fraud related to church fundraising. Jimmy Swaggart, whose televised sermons and Bible studies were broadcast all over the nation in the early 1980s, was suspended by the Assemblies of God Fellowship and eventually defrocked after he was caught hiring sex workers. Pastors at more than one church I attended with my family have resigned or been removed from ministry after being exposed as adulterers and even abusers; one had even stood in front of my friends and me, at youth-group gatherings and in church-camp firepits, imparting to us what seemed like a heartfelt message on the importance of maintaining sexual purity.

Even works of fiction have lately been dealing with hypocrisy in megachurch settings. HBO’s “The Righteous Gemstones” follows the high jinks of a blithely hypocritical family at the head of a Southern church empire. Kelsey McKinney’s popular 2021 novel “God Spare the Girls” tells the story of two sisters raised in a purity-minded faith tradition struggling to forgive their father for his infidelity even as the Texas church he leads every Sunday lets him off easy. The first two-thirds of “A Megachurch Exposed,” in other words, reveal the misdeeds of more than just its one titular megachurch.

The series’ final episode, however, is where “A Megachurch Exposed” takes a turn for the truly shocking, depicting an institution so profoundly compromised that its leaders won’t even fully confront the rot. It digs into a scandal that those who know Hillsong solely through its Bieber association may never have heard of: the child sex-abuse saga involving Frank Houston, founder of the church out of which Hillsong eventually grew, and the alleged coverup by his son Brian, who officially founded Hillsong in 1983.

According to the documentary, Frank repeatedly sexually abused at least one young boy in the late 1960s and paid him 10,000 Australian dollars as “compensation” in the late 1990 — when the abuse had been reported to the church but not yet to the authorities. The documentary then cites the minutes from a 1999 meeting of church elders that details their plans to keep the abuse quiet and reinstate Frank as head pastor after a temporary suspension. According to the documentary, at least seven other men have since come forward to allege sexual abuse by Frank Houston between 1965 and 1977.

In 2014, Brian Houston was summoned by the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse for questioning. The documentary includes footage of his official testimony, in which he acknowledges his father’s sexual abuse of a minor but denies having tried to cover up the payment. A year later, the Commission found he had failed to report knowledge of child sex abuse to the authorities. (The documentary includes the following excerpt from Hillsong’s 2015 response to the Commission’s findings: “The victim was a 36-year-old adult when this abuse became known and could have taken the matter to the police himself at any time.”)

Earlier this year, Brian Houston stepped down as head pastor of Hillsong “for the rest of the year” to focus on fighting the formal charge of concealing sex abuse. This week, after an internal investigation into two complaints that Brian had acted inappropriately toward women, he resigned.

The documentary presents an impressive array of former employees, volunteers and members who readily condemn both Hillsong’s common megachurch problems and its devastating specific ones. But a quietly striking aspect is that few if any seem to have soured on Christianity. Some discuss the more favorable qualities of the other congregations they’ve joined since leaving.

A less thoughtful documentary on the subject might miss such a nuance, but “A Megachurch Exposed” doesn’t. Memorably, one former volunteer says, “If Jesus were to walk into a Hillsong church today, I don’t know if He would be welcomed.” And with a slow smile, she adds, “He would probably flip the tables there, too.”