It's not a "real" church, it's a cool church — at least according to the famous A-listers who attend Hillsong every Sunday for service, but what is it? Ever since celebs like Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, and Kendall Jenner started attending the famous worship service, everyone wants to know what it is and what it's all about. The international church, which started in Australia and is now based in dozens of countries, fashions itself as young and progressive, and its members are attractive hipster-types who all like to wear the same damn hat.
But, unsurprisingly, there are plenty of demons hiding in the church's 34-year-old closet and many former members have spoken out against the church. "Hillsong is looking a lot more like Scientology these days than ever before," former member and critic of the church Tanya Levin told A Current Affair. "It’s not really about a religion, it’s about you. Then there’s the attraction of all these celebrities that are really boosting the brand. And then, of course, all this money and no tolerance for any criticism at all." Uh oh, should Justin and Selena be worried? Below, eight things about Hillsong that might make you feel differently about the church.
They tried to bury a sex scandal.
Back in 2014, it was revealed that Frank Houston, the father of Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston, was accused of allegedly sexually molesting as many as nine children throughout the '70s and '80s. Frank had already passed away back in 2004, and yeah, the statue of limitations had probably passed by that point, but what was most upsetting about the allegations was how the church responded. According to a victim who said he was abused by Frank when he was seven years old, he told Brian about the abuse in 1999, but not much was done. In the victim's testimony, he alleged that Brian offered him $10,000 to stay quiet and even later blamed him for "tempting" his father.
“The church community made me feel like it was my problem," the victim said in his testimony. "I have received absolutely no support, no counseling, apology or acknowledgement of the abuse. I believe that Brian Houston and other elders of the Hillsong Church kept the abuse as quiet as they could, and have not been held accountable.”
They forced two gay choir members to step down after going public with their relationship.
Broadway stars and former Survivor contestants Josh Canfield and Reed Kelly shocked Hillsong members when they announced their engagement on Instagram. Shortly after, they were asked to step down from their positions. Both Josh and Reed remained on good terms with the church and continued attending services, but the controversy tarnished Hillsong's "progressive" image. Although most Hillsong pastors have spoken about loving all people and even attending gay weddings, they're still not accepting of the lifestyles and, according to a blog post from Brian himself, their "position on homosexuality and gay marriage has not changed and is consistent with scripture."
“Gay people need to know that when they go to Hillsong, they have to go to the back of the bus," former member Alex Pittaway told The Daily Beast. “Hillsong is hip and attractive and contemporary, but there’s certainly nothing contemporary about what LGBT people will face if they want to be a leader in the church or offer themselves up for service. That’s something [Hillsong] will have to be upfront with, and they haven’t been so far.”
Former members say the services are heavily scripted.
According to a pastor who simply called himself "David," when his church was taken over by Hillsong, he was not happy with the experience. According to his account, Hillsong members instructed him to "choreograph our worship with raised arms, closed eyes, occasional jumping and occasional shouts.” He even received a text message from a Hillsong member when they thought he was being too quiet, instructing him to "raise your arms and make some noise" to liven up the members in the audience.
"That really saddened my heart when I noticed how things are fabricated and simulated in order to create a hype during the service and portray an apparent image of 'revival, worship, and spirituality,'" he wrote. "I really feel for those who still work there as I believe they must be lost in what’s true worship and what’s just done to impress the crowd and please others. Young people are surely the most vulnerable and easy victims of brainwash."
Critics think the flashing lights and theatrics of the church are hypnotizing its members.
Hillsong is better known for its music and "rock show"-type performances than its sermons, and one critic in a popular anti-Hillsong Facebook group thinks the church is trying to hypnotize its members. "You have to look into the sound and light show they use to hypnotize people who attend," a user wrote. "It might be worthwhile consulting recognized hypnotherapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists about vulnerable young people attending these events." It sounds like a bit of a stretch, but current members, including an unreligious GQ reporter, admitted to feeling "a strange and unexpected bodily need to put my hands in the air" during service. Weird.
Critics are suspicious with how they spend their $100 million annual un-taxed income.
Many former members have criticized the church for being overzealous with asking for donations and tithes. Although literally every church asks for offerings or donations to keep the lights on and the food pantry filled, many think Hillsong is using its money to mostly make their pastors rich. According to a scathing report by A Current Affair, back in 2013, Hillsong Australia made $55 million in profits and only gave $5 million to charity.
Since then, Hillsong now keeps an annual financial report on their website, but that hasn't impressed the critics. "They have four ways to pay them," an anonymous member wrote. "1. They give you an envelope where you can put in cash. 2. They send a bucket around for more cash. 3. Snapscan. 4. EFT details. 5. Your credit card details with CVV number! Who would do that?!?!"
As for the pastors, they live a life of "luxury."
Everyone knows who Pastor Carl Lentz is thanks to Justin Bieber, and his life seems about as flashy as the A-listers he preaches to. “It’s a luxurious lifestyle," Tanya said. "It's an international, cosmopolitan celebrity lifestyle.”
As for Carl, he's brushed criticisms about his wealth. “If you go down that road you simply cannot be poor enough for some people,” he told CNN. “Well, you can drive that car but not that car. But we’re never going to cater to that mindset of people trying to tell us how to live.”