Hillsong Church is in crisis. Australia’s greatest cultural export – with 131 churches in 30 countries, 150,000 weekly congregants, 50 million churchgoers singing their songs each week, and over three billion YouTube views – has been enveloped in a series of scandals that sound like a biblical parable: the thing that has made it so powerful is what has brought it to its knees.
I’ve spent the last few years researching Hillsong and the wider neo-charismatic Pentecostal movement, and a lot of people have been asking me what’s next. Not being in the market of prophecy, I can’t say for certain. However, Hillsong’s popularity stems from showing believers that they can live Christian lives in a secular world – and now the church’s survival depends on whether it can straddle both worlds too.
To recap the major scandals enveloping Hillsong over the last 15 months (and this is an abbreviated list) explains the cultural tightrope the church has long been walking.
In November, celebrity preacher at the church’s New York church Carl Lentz had a spectacular fall from grace, fired for “moral failings” after his infidelities were publicly revealed. Since then, he has been accused of “manipulation, control, bullying, abuse of power and sexual abuse” by a former nanny, now co-pastor of Hillsong Boston. Once its most famous member, pop star Justin Bieber now attends another church.
Financial impropriety scandals include Hillsong closing its Dallas branch after complaints about misuse of worshippers’ tithes by pastors who appeared to be living a life of luxury. There have also been complaints of abusing volunteer labour.
Finally, last month, church founder Brian Houston was charged over allegedly concealing information about child sex offences, which will see him appear in a Sydney court in October. (Houston “vehemently” professes his innocence and will defend himself against the charges.)
While these issues are for courts, and indeed parishioners, to pass judgment on, they also reveal the problems inherent in Hillsong’s business model. Its pastors have exceptional personal charisma, and draw much of their authority from it. Hillsong’s hallmark – good, well-produced music and stadium spectaculars – lends them credibility.
The church, like many of its peers, has left umbrella groups such as Assemblies of God and Australian Christian Churches. Hillsong is simply Hillsong: a brand of faith that is accountable only to itself. A figure such as Lentz, frequently photographed with celebrities such as Bieber and Kevin Durant, doesn’t work on a tight leash. Charisma can’t simply be performed: it has to be real and experienced.
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Source: the Guardian, Elle Hardy