Hi and welcome back! We had to stop the presses today. My goodness, that Hillsong megachurch is just struggling hard these days, isn’t it? Yesterday, we learned about a third American church of theirs that’s been hit by scandal. Today, let’s review Hillsong’s recent past and newest scandal. And then, let’s wonder why they’re having so much trouble lately just living up to their very own god’s objective morality rules.
Hillsong Church, Basically.
Hillsong Church is an Australia-based worldwide megachurch. Officially, they’re Pentecostal. Their culture looks nothing like my old denomination, the United Pentecostals. But they do a lot of the same things, according to an ex-member:
Speaking in tongues, waving one’s arms in the air and falling over backwards are expressions of the Holy Spirit’s baptism of fire, which is the definer of the doctrine.
In 1983, Brian Houston started Hillsong with his wife Bobbie. It took off fairly quickly. Now, it operates a whole bunch of churches across dozens of countries. About 150,000 members attend each weekend’s services.
Around the early 1990s, Hillsong Music CDs began popping up in Christian music stores. I even had one! It wasn’t music that really said anything new. Rather, it was soaring and uplifting yet bland and meaningless tripe. Hillsong offered squeaky-clean evangelical Christians manipulative, easily-learned, sweeping worship songs that made them feel oh-so-very-uplifted by it all. So naturally, many evangelical churches adopted their songs and sang them in services.
Hillsong also runs a university sorta thing, Hillsong College. (Officially, its name seems to be Hillsong International Leadership College.) The school mostly aims to prepare students for careers in Hillsong (or Hillsong-like) church leadership. For what it’s worth, it doesn’t look super-expensive.
So as megachurches go, Hillsong is one of the big names to know.
Scandals, Hillsong Has Scandals.
Alas for Hillsong’s leaders, scandals have dogged their steps for a while now. Through the years, they’ve been accused of the usual stuff: authoritarian overreach, cheating at American Idol, financial shenanigans. But some specific bumpy spots stand out in their history:
In 1999, authorities learned that Brian’s dad Frank, a pastor himself, was sexually abusing children — and even worse, they determined that Brian not only knew about it but had shielded him for years from the consequences of his choices. When Frank Houston resigned from his pastor gig, his son absorbed his now pastor-less church into Hillsong.
In 2008, Michael Guglielmucci, who contributed the extremely popular song “Healer” to a Hillsong album, admitted he’d totally lied about the cancer testimony that went along with the song. (We talked about it here.)
For years, Hillsong was tightly entangled with some awful anti-gay group called Mercy Ministries. It shut down in 2009. They’ve tried hard to make everyone forget they were part of that group. In 2014, Brian Houston wrote a drilldown on bigotry on Hillsong’s official church site. That essay is gone now –SHOCKED, yes SHOCKED I am! But here’s an archive, printed beneath a hilariously ironic banner pic of a church sign reading “Jesus: Hope for Humanity.” Ouch.
In 2015, Hillsong invited the newly-disgraced Mark Driscoll to one of their conferences. After Hillsong people freaked out, Houston withdrew the invitation and just played a video interview with Driscoll instead. Oh, that’s much better! (/s)
In 2019, Marty Sampson — a Hillsong musician since 1998 — publicly announced that he was losing his Christian faith. That’s not like a scandal per se, but it was embarrassing at any rate for Hillsong.
B-b-b-b-Baby, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.
In 2010, Carl Lentz, a well-connected graduate of Hillsong College, set up a new branch of the megachurch in New York City (NYC). Very quickly, he attracted a very upscale crowd. He knew exactly how to talk to Millennials. Pop stars like Justin Bieber and sports legends congregated around him, and he rocked the trendiest of designer clothes.
Then, this past fall, the world learned that his private life was anything but sanctified — and his church was anything but a loving presence in the lives of its many volunteers. His disgrace turned into an absolute media circus. He quit his job, though new details seemed to emerge daily about all his financial and sexual hypocrisy. According to La Wiki, Brian Houston’s son Joel at least briefly took over the pastor position. (That had to sting a bit for Lentz, considering he and Joel were besties at Hillsong College together. Hillsong hired someone else eventually.)
In March, Brian Houston released a memo on his site called “Changes.” In it, he admitted to a number of problems in the Hillsong network of churches. Then, he announced some changes he’d decided to make that he hoped would lessen his leaders’ hypocrisy. The letter officially addressed the NYC church, but I wonder if he already knew about another big scandal coming down the pike?
In January, the pastor of Hillsong’s Dallas church abruptly resigned. By March, we learned why: various church members had complained to the mother ship that Reed Bogard was misusing their donations to fund a very lavish lifestyle for himself and his family. Brian Houston shut down the entire church over it all.
And Now: The Latest Hillsong Scandal.
Yesterday, the creative director of Hillsong’s New Jersey church, Pastor Darnell Barrett, has quit his job amid a new Hillsong sex scandal.
It’s a minor scandal by Hillsong standards. It sounds like the 32-year-old sent shirtless workout pics of himself and his crotch bulge to a former Hillsong volunteer who is most definitely not his wife — and he did it two days in a row. He also shared the same pics to his Instagram stories (sort of like a Facebook wall). Then, he told the recipient of the personal messages that he’d sent them by mistake somehow:
“Hey! I think I might’ve added you to my close friends list by accident. I’m so sorry. Trying to figure out how the hell to edit it. It’s some real raw s— I send to my friends man. Lol,” Barrett messaged her. . .
The woman replied, “Lol rude! I’m NOT a close friend is what you’re saying. Haha that’s alright.”
“Seriously, sorry about that. I guess,” the pastor followed up with, before the volunteer blocked him.
She was not fooled at all, at all at all. She told him:
“For you to go out of your way to make it seem like you ‘accidentally’ added me to your close friends… and then, went out of your way to message me about it KNOWING that would make me go look is bulls—,” messages obtained by Daily Mail show. “Obviously, what you wanted me to see were the shirtless photos and the outline of your d—, let’s not play and act like that wasn’t the point. Your messages to bait me into seeing your ‘raw s—’ are obvious.'”
Very well done! Then she talked to the gossip site Daily Mail and spilled all the tea she had.
Barrett swears up and down that he totally wasn’t trying “to lure” anyone into looking at his dick pics. He also claims that he totally told his wife immediately what he’d done.
Still, Darnell Barrett thought it was just best if he quit his lucrative position at Hillsong NJ.
probably right there, at least.
Why None of This is Surprising.
Remember that “Changes” thing I mentioned above? How much of that do we suppose Brian Houston has actually done so far?
The main and major change was to be something he called the “Hillsong Global Charter,” a universal set of rules that would be imposed on all the churches in Hillsong. It would force church leaders to adhere to a set of standards in a number of areas — and demand strict obedience of the church’s rules.
Strangely, weirdly, I can’t even find the contents of this charter, let alone any news of its implementation. All I see is the rah-rah around the announcing of the charter. It’s like Brian Houston announced it, breathed a big sigh of relief that the announcement had gotten people off his back, and then he went right back to what he really wanted to do. What I don’t see is any indication that Hillsong’s made any progress on that project — any whatsoever.
There’s a reason for that.
Once a social system breaks — meaning once it stops serving its stated purpose and gets infested with bad-faith actors who take leadership positions for their own unstated purposes — it can’t be unbroken.
Why Broken Systems Don’t Change — and Can’t.
All the prayers and Jesus Power in the world can’t and won’t fix a broken system.
Evangelicalism as a whole has been broken for many decades now — and maybe has been broken for longer. Its leaders pursue naked ambition and unalloyed power for themselves. Worse, they work hard to strip power away from anybody in their groups who could possibly rein them in, so they don’t have to worry about being accountable to anybody in their groups for what they’re doing.
So yeah, it makes evangelicals’ sneering at us about not wanting accountability extra rich in irony. The absolute last thing we will ever see out of evangelical leaders is a new dedication to accountability in their ranks.
Instead, they take vicious advantage of evangelicals’ very short memories. They make pious mouth-noises and sob crocodile tears about how very, very sad they are over all this abusin’ that has gone on in their churches for years now, and they swear up and down that they will fix this problem immediately.
That performance soothes their flocks, who begin to lose concentration on the scandal. As soon as they can, these leaders then head back to business as usual.
In the Wild.
Not too long ago, I saw some tweets from Christa Brown. She’s one of the original abuse survivors to share her story about what she suffered in Baptist churches. In fact, she started the website Stop Baptist Predators. Here are the tweets:
In them, she laments that absolutely nothing has changed in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 11 years. The SBC’s leaders are still treating abuse survivors in the same maddening ways.
Oh sure, back when “Abuse of Faith” came out, they totally cried and sobbed and declared how much they love love love abuse survivors, and how they were totes gonna fix everything. A year after that huge scandal broke, nothing had changed in their culture or their churches, prompting me to advise, “Don’t Ever Believe They Care.” It’s just part of their cycle — and they’ve been at it way longer than 11 years, as I’m sure Christa Brown would agree.
Hillsong is no different. They’re an authoritarian, right-wing evangelical church. Their scandals all speak to misuses of power, just like those in the SBC and just like those in other so-called, scare-quotes “ministries.” Their leaders have all been doing the same careful work of stripping voices from their victims — and power away from anyone who could hold them truly accountable for their hypocrisy.
(Christa Brown is a dear Twitter mutual — she gave me permission to mention these tweets here.)
What to Do With Broken Systems.
Hillsong offers us a powerful lesson about broken systems.
Brian Houston created Hillsong. He crafted its culture. He chose its leaders. And he did none of it by accident. It reflects his desires and personality. Changing that culture would be extremely difficult, even if he wanted it to change, which I assure you he does not. Authoritarians do not share or give up power unless forced to do so. The masters of these systems can certainly set big changes in motion if they like. But real reform would spark a revolt in their subordinates’ ranks and certainly set limits on their own power.
And so it won’t happen.
The masters of broken systems may piously beg followers to stick around and try to fix the system “from within.” It’s a popular game that they clearly enjoy playing at their followers’ expense. But they know perfectly well that they’re just sending goodhearted people on fools’ errands. They might as well send their followers out to find headlight fluid! The real power rests with them, and they choose not to use it to reform their broken system.
What do you do with a broken system? What can you do?
It can only be dismantled. It cannot be fixed.
So you walk away from it. You call it out in whatever ways you can.
But don’t bash your brains out trying to fix it.
Don’t play the power-games of these systems’ masters. Any real change must come from them, and they have made their feelings on this topic crystal clear: they just don’t want to make those changes.
And no gods seem willing or able to change their minds. Really, it’s the weirdest thing.
NEXT UP: How Christians accidentally destroy their very own religious claims. See you then!
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