Some Reflections on Hillsong, Mars Hill, and Church Culture

Some Reflections on Hillsong, Mars Hill, and Church Culture April 1, 2022

My wife and I just finished watching the documentary Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed on Discovery Plus. While disgusted by much of what I watched, I was surprised by none of it. From the coverups to the abuses of power to the assaults and corporate greed, it all seems par for the course for a megachurch like Hillsong.

As I’ve reflected on this 3-part docuseries, I have thought about my own interactions with Hillsong. No, I’ve never stepped foot in one of their businesses (otherwise known as churches) and no, I’ve never met any of their leadership team. But because part of their money-making plan was to step into the churches of others – with their music – I’ve had my fair share of experiences with their brand.

As someone who played worship throughout my later teenage years and well into my twenties, I was surrounded by Hillsong. It didn’t matter if I was playing drums for the college group, guitar for the young adult group, or bass for the main church, I was playing Hillsong. And to be perfectly honest, their songs, while still below my standard for what makes good art, weren’t terrible. They were better than much of the other Christian music we were playing, so I actually didn’t hate their music.

Now that I think about it though, I can’t help but feel a bit nauseas by the whole thing. I mean, we couldn’t have known this, but as we were singing our stupid little songs to Jesus, the people who wrote the pieces were complicit in horrible abuses of power. Frank Houston, the founder of what would eventually become Hillsong, was a known pedophile. Brian Houston, his son, has since been charged for covering it up, and in fact, has now resigned amidst controversies surrounding his own sexual behavior. Hillsong Dallas pastor Reed Bogard has since been accused of rape by a staffer he had an affair with. Both he and his wife have also been fired for using church donations to fund their “lavish lifestyle.” And none of this is to even mention Carl Lentz, pastor to the stars.

And on and on and on and on this goes.

The most shocking thing, though, is that these aren’t scandals. They aren’t even controversies. They are church culture.

This whole thing goes well beyond Hillsong. I’m not trying to diminish their atrocities – Hillsong is one of the biggest perpetrators of churches behaving badly – I’m just saying that these types of actions transcend Hillsong. The same type of behavior has been present in many churches across America and the world. From Mars Hill to Jim Bakker to Ted Haggard to Kenneth Copeland to Bill Gothard to Dave Reynolds to the over 700 sexual abuse cases in Southern Baptist churches, this is too normal to be extraordinary.

No longer can proponents of Evangelicalism say how these scandals are fringe events. They are front and center. They are as customary in the church as coffee in the foyer, cheesy music on the stage, and passing the donation plate for the umpteenth time.

This is something that kind of took me by surprise, both after watching the Hillsong documentary and listening to the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast: many, if not most, of the people interviewed for both still lived within the same Evangelical cultural framework. I guess they haven’t yet realized that a culture that constantly demeans women and gender and sexual minorities, while propping up men as the only ones fit to speak on behalf of God, is what leads to Hillsong and Mars Hill. Maybe someday they’ll make that connection, but as of yet, it seems that many haven’t.

That is not to say that all churches are bad. It’s not even to say all Evangelical churches are bad. I was just surprised by how many still seemed to embrace the type of worldview that cultivates abuses of power. Because let’s just be frank, while Reformed folks like John MacArthur and John Piper aren’t Mark Driscoll, and charismatic folks like Bill Johnson and Kris Vallotton aren’t Brian Houston, the Reformed and Charismatic worldviews both lead to Driscolls and Houstons. It may not be a direct causation, but it’s certainly correlated.

What is my solution?

Honestly, I don’t have one. I left the church for reasons like this. My church, a Christian & Missionary Alliance Church, had their own issues but on a smaller scale. They were abusive in their own right – cult-like adherence to their doctrine, male-dominated leadership, putting their own finances above the finances of their congregants during the middle of the banking and housing crisis of ’07 and ’08, and so on. And my solution was to get the hell out of there.

Others may take a different approach and try to change things from within. And I applaud them. It’s just not for me. To my mind, church is hanging out with a close group of friends, where there is complete equality and equity, where empathy and compassion drive the relationship, and where hierarchy has no foothold at all. And until churches can take the same stance, they can go to hell alongside Mars Hill, Hillsong, and all the others.

So, I suppose that’s my solution. To quote my friend Desimber Rose, the church can go to hell.

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About Matthew J. Distefano
Matthew J. Distefano is an author, blogger, podcaster, and social worker. He lives in Northern California with his wife and daughter You can read more about the author here.
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