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I finished watching the new Hillsong docuseries over the weekend–despite my best efforts, I can’t seem to stay away from any media that explores scandals in evangelicalism. Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed details a series of crises and scandals, missteps and crimes by church leadership, and their fallout that have rocked Hillsong and its global network of churches. The fallout of the crises detailed in the docuseries are already being felt here in the US, with former Hillsong churches now distancing themselves from the megachurch.
In many ways, it’s a familiar story. For instance, the themes of the docuseries echo some of the same themes that were explored in the podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, released by Christianity Today last summer and fall. That podcast detailed the scandals surrounding pastor Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church in Seattle. The stories of Mars Hill and Hillsong share many similarities. Celebrity pastors, all men of course, wielding large amounts of influence and power, falling from grace in dramatic ways. Church leadership trying to cover up scandals, no matter the cost. And churches prizing growth and expansion even if it meant ignoring the abuses happening in their congregations. To me, these commonalities aren’t isolated incidents and point to broader issues for evangelicalism writ large.
The most glaring issue is the role of celebrity and brand power in building and growing these churches. The docuseries, in particular, highlights the role of the Hillsong brand–its music, flashy services, and attractive and charismatic pastors–in building the church and allowing it to spread from Australia across the globe. Mark Driscoll had his own brand too and built Mars Hill in part on his reputation and celebrity pastor status. But in both cases, elevating and emphasizing the church brand in this way obscured the real abuses that were going on in these churches. And they elevated and empowered male pastors in unhealthy ways, compounding the issues already caused by patriarchy and complementarianism in evangelicalism.
Indeed, the glorification of these celebrity pastors points to the central role patriarchy plays in evangelicalism. The Hillsong docuseries makes it clear that there is a double standard for men and women in the church and highlights the damage caused by purity culture. In particular, the docuseries demonstrates that there is a decided lack of accountability for the male leaders of these churches.
The docuseries’ initial focus is on Carl Lentz, the former pastor of Hillsong New York and perhaps most famous for his association with Justin Bieber. Lentz stepped down as pastor after it was exposed that he’d been having an affair among other questionable behavior. The docuseries also exposes the allegations of child sexual abuse against Frank Houston, one of Hillsong’s founding pastors, and the steps Hillsong took to cover up those allegations and silence the victim. In both cases, the issues with Lentz and Houston were known but were overlooked or covered up by the church for years. Lentz and Houston were only held accountable once the news was public and the church forced to take action.
Finally, there is a tendency in evangelical churches to equate any attempts at being held accountable with spiritual attacks on the church itself. In the docuseries, Brian Houston, Hillsong’s pastor and Frank Houston’s son, talks about how their church is under spiritual attack when referencing allegations about his father’s abuse of a child and his own involvement in covering up the crime. Legitimate concerns about abuse are reframed as an attack on the church and on God. This sort of rhetoric shuts down attempts to hold those in power accountable and effectively means that no one can question what the church is doing. Here, as in many other areas of evangelicalism, it seems that the ends always justify the means. Hillsong prioritized expansion, church growth, and spreading the gospel at all costs, even if it meant covering up its founder’s crimes.
These patterns aren’t unique to Hillsong, and all point to broader issues in evangelicalism. I think of the role of patriarchy in upholding these structures of power and allowing male church leaders to get away with all sorts of abhorrent behavior in the name of spreading the gospel. Most troubling, perhaps, is the willingness to overlook these abuses and the victims left in their wake if it means there might be a chance to convert more people and grow the church. But at what cost? Doesn’t it tarnish the gospel if spreading the good news means destroying lives in the process?