It's an institution that’s been called a leader in making Christianity cool for the modern age. No rigid pastors in three-piece suits with a Bible under their arm at this charismatic mega-church – over here leaders rock beanies, tattoos, Ray-Ban sunglasses and ripped jeans.
Hillsong Church – which has churches in 30 countries – has attracted many followers and high-profile parishioners including the likes of singer Justin Bieber, actress Vanessa Hudgens and model Kendall Jenner with its come-as-you-are approach.
But the church now has a heavy cross to bear as it faces bombshell allegations that officials have been misusing funds, laundering money and evading tax.
Andrew Wilkie, an independent member of the Australian parliament, claims senior pastors were selling their souls and splashing cash on everything from business-class flights to private jets, designer gifts, custom skateboards and entertainment. Some of the luxury expenses listed in a leaked financial report include R81 250 on a Cartier watch and R31 250 on Louis Vuitton luggage.
“Hillsong followers believe that the money they put in the poor box goes to the poor, but that money is actually used to do the kind of shopping that would embarrass a Kardashian,” Wilkie says.
Hillsong’s global senior pastor, Phil Dooley, has also come under fire for buying a watch and paying for business-class flights for himself and his family. But the Australian pastor, who helped start Hillsong Church South Africa, says he made it clear to the board when he took on the position that he’d travel with his family to ensure their health and the strength of his marriage.
“If I travel internationally, I travel business class simply because I’m going somewhere to work and I have limited time,” he told the Hillsong congregation shortly after the church’s financial irregularities were made public. Dooley says he’s disappointed that Wilkie had used parliamentary privilege to make allegations against him and that it was “un-Australian” not to have contacted the church for an explanation for the spending.
“It kind of feels like being hit from behind. But Jesus loves you, Mr Wilkie, you’re still welcome to attend any of our services,” he said.
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Hillsong chairman Steven Crouch says the church will commission an independent financial review to further investigate the issue.
“As a church, we’ll make changes as we work through with regulators on areas that need adjustment,” he said about the report. “We’ll reshape the way we do things, financially, going forward.”
It’s not the first time Hillsong has had to face its demons.
GETTING THE BOOT
Hillsong was founded in 1983 by married pastors Brian (69) and Bobbie Houston (66) in New South Wales, Australia.
“I always thought church should be enjoyed, not endured, with plenty of life and spontaneity in it,” Brian says in God Goes Viral, a documentary about the rise of the church.
Brian was inspired by his charismatic pastor father, Frank, who moved from New Zealand to Australia in the ’70s. Rumours of him visiting gay bathhouses and molesting young boys soon began to swirl.
Brian was devoted to his dad and in 2021, he was charged with concealing his father’s sex crimes. Australian police say Frank, who died in 2004 aged 82, indecently assaulted a young man in 1970. Court documents allege that even though Brian knew of his father’s abuse as early as 1999, he failed to disclose the information to police.
He resigned as global senior pastor, and Phil and Lucinda Dooley, the lead pastors of Hillsong Church Cape Town, were appointed to replace him. In a 15-minute video posted to social media late last year, Brian says he felt he’d been squeezed out of his position and vowed to defend himself come hell or high water. His case has been postponed to June for a verdict.
The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission launched an investigation into Hillsong following Brian’s resignation in 2022. “This investigation is still under way,” they say.
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Hillsong experienced a surge in popularity in 2008 when its New York branch employed Carl Lentz (44), who became a hit with younger followers because of what they called his Coldplay-for-Christ-style: he rocked designer clothing, flashed his six-pack on social media and was pals with Juston Bieber, talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and actor Hugh Jackman.
But his popularity began to wane when people began to question the celebrity-focused nature of his services – which included a VIP section that ordinary worshippers were forbidden to enter.
In 2020, he left the church when it emerged he’d been unfaithful to his wife, Laura, with whom he has three kids, with a woman named Ranin Karim. The ink had barely dried on his resignation when he made headlines again. Nanny Leona Kimes alleged Carl had sexually abused her when she worked for the family.
“While he never had intercourse with me and never kissed me, I was physically violated by his unwanted and repeated sexual touching of my intimate areas,” she said. Leona didn’t press charges because she was afraid no one would believe her.
Following his dismissal, Carl checked into a facility where he was treated for anxiety and depression among other things.
After pastor Carl Lentz left the church in disgrace in 2020, more members began speaking out about how Hillsong is allegedly run more like a corporation or a sweatshop than a place of worship.
In the 2022 documentary series Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed, former members shared stories of feeling betrayed, manipulated or abused by church leaders. The show reveals that the church not only mishandled accusations of sexual misconduct, but exploited young ministry interns for cheap labour.
“I was starting to worry I was in a cult,” a former member says in the documentary. In an interview with Variety magazine last year, doccie producer Dan Johnstone said he’d set out to tell the story of how Hillsong had crossed over from religious culture into pop culture.
“I was most surprised at the depths of people’s feelings,” he says. “I was unprepared for just how deep some of those feelings go.” Johnstone believes the truth might never have come to light had it not been for Carl and his cult-like control that came crashing down.
“Carl is the catalyst that crossed them over.”
SOURCES: CHRISTIANPOST.COM, SMH.COM.AU, ABC.NET.AU, CHRISTIANITYTODAY.COM, PEOPLE.COM, THEGUARDIAN.COM, MEDIUM.COM, VARIETY.COM, BRISBANETIMES.COM