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Hillsong Church’s growth and success has faltered in recent years. Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton, on how the leadership of the megachurch has entered a phase of panic and recriminations.

The fall of two of Hillsong’s most powerful men

Read Transcript

Hillsong Church’s growth and success has faltered in recent years.

Founded by Brian Houston in New South Wales, the global megachurch has outposts in 30 countries, including the United States. But mounting scandals at home have led Brian Houston to step aside and now, sensational allegations of misconduct in its US operations have been made public. Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton, on how the leadership of the megachurch has entered a phase of panic and recriminations.


Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton

Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

Australia’s Hillsong Church has mostly been known for growth and success.

Founded by Brian Houston in New South Wales, the global megachurch now has outposts in 30 countries, including the U-S.

But its success is under threat - mounting scandals at home have led Brian Housten to step aside.

And now - sensational allegations of misconduct in its US operations have been made public. 

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton, on how the celebrity megachurch is meeting its day of reckoning.

It's Wednesday, April 20.  

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:
Rick - you’ve spent the last week or so looking into what has been happening at Hillsong Church. Why is that, why now?

RICK:
So I think most people are familiar with the Hillsong brand now. It's huge. It was started in Australia in 1983 by Brian Houston and his now wife, Bobbie Houston. 

And it has kind of slowly grown to be a huge presence in Australia and around the world. 

Archival Tape -- Brian Houston:
“Welcome to church everybody!”

They've got churches in 30 countries, 150,000 regular attending people at church every week around the world. 

They have a whole coterie of celebrity influencers, famous people who are out there promoting Hillsong, publicly saying they are Hillsong devotees and political influence. I mean, Scott Morrison and Brian Houston have a connexion going way back many years, actually. And Hillsong has kind of used this expansionist mindset to just keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger, pulling whatever levers it can. 

But now, it looks like it might all come crashing down because the leaders are under a cloud of controversy. And if we're not witnessing the end of Hillsong certainly starting to see a decline.

RUBY:
Hmm. Okay. So the future is uncertain for Hillsong, but its beginnings are actually here in Australia before it became this phenomenon in the US. So can you tell me about how that growth was achieved, that pivot to the United States? 

RICK:
Yeah I mean the Houston's had this expansionist mindset, they wanted it to be bigger and better. And that's when an American by the name of Carl Lentz met the son of Brian Houston and Carl Lentz and Brian Fun had the idea to take Hillsong to New York City. They realised that, you know, to crack the American market, they needed influential celebrities, you know, you can't do one without the other. 

So instead of focussing on what Hillsong had traditionally focussed on, which is suburban areas, Lentz and Co. focussed their energy on recruiting young American celebrities who could influence their young fans. It's like a shortcut to lightning growth.

RUBY:
Hmm. OK. And so what would a celebrity see in someone like Pastor Carl Lentz? What would someone like him have to offer them Rick? 

RICK:
It's kind of like, I mean, even though he's kind of getting a bit older himself, you know, Carl Lentz was kind of cool. 

Archival Tape -- TV anchor:
“We are here now with Pastor Carl Lentz. He's known as the rock star preacher. His sermons have celebrities like Justin Bieber, Jay-Z, Oprah and NBA stars flocking to his church.” 

RICK:
And he chased celebrity. He positioned himself as a celebrity figure, and he became one. 

Archival Tape -- The View:
“You get some flack for cosying up to celebrities. Is that true, do you feel that?”   

Archival Tape -- Carl Lentz:
“No, I think that's what people say when they don't understand something. So we don't cosy up to anybody we love. We love everybody.” 

Archival Tape -- The View:
“Celebrities need just as much help as everybody else.” 

Archival Tape -- Carl Lentz:
“What am I supposed to be famous for me to say hi to?”  

RICK:
So what have Lentz’s most famous successes is actually converting the pop star Justin Bieber, who was kind of at a low ebb around 2014 in his own career in his life, and Lentz actually had Justin Bieber move into the Lentz family home, and it was Carl Lentz that personally baptised Justin Bieber. 

Archival Tape -- TV News:
“Karl says Justin had a moment where he realised quote, I want to know Jesus and asked to be baptised.” 

RICK:
So we've gone from this pop star kind of spiralling out of control to then turning around publicly crediting Carl Lentz with saving him. 

Archival Tape -- Carl Lentz:
“Justin's former spiritual adviser who baptised the pop star in a bathtub, has been fired over quote moral failures.” 

RICK:
But his reputation as his kind of cool, celebrity friendly church leader started to evaporate when news of an extramarital affair came out. 

RUBY:
Mm and that's obviously not something that a church like Hillsong condones. So what happened when they discovered that he'd been doing something like that? 

RICK:
They fired him. 

It was a moral failing at the big one for Hillsong. They use it frequently, and Lentz was out the door. His whole career at Hillsong was over. 

And of course, in Hillsong, it wasn't enough just to fire Carl Lentz they had to commission a report from a New York law firm into Lenfest behaviour, and it brought a cultural issue that had allowed it to flourish. That report has been shrouded in secrecy for the last few years.

And then last week, details of the report were leaked that were made public. 

RUBY:
Right? OK, so what does the report say, Rick? 

RICK:
It's scathing. It's not kind at all. I mean, essentially what they say is that Carl Lentz had grown into this figure who was beyond reproach, who acted ironically like a god within the East Coast Division. He denies this specific allegation. 

And there was bullying, there was harassment, multiple multiple staff members within Hillsong in the East Coast Division said that they actually developed panic disorders, anxiety disorders. They had to take time off work because of Carl Lentz's behaviour. 

And Moreover, on top of that, you know, Carl Lentz admitted to these multiple affairs, including one with a woman he met on the street and being caught in very suggestive circumstances with the nanny. And so he admitted to those moral failings and he was actually quite upfront with the investigators when it came to those, he actually said to them that he was a very good liar. 

And what was very telling for Australians kind of watching the cases in this report, it said that the Australian and this is a direct quote from the report about Hillsong global management, said the Australian mothership appears also to bear some responsibility here since it never established effective oversight and accountability for the New York lead pastor. And that's Carl Lentz. 

RUBY:
Right? OK, so what do we know then about the relationship between Carl Lentz and the Australian leadership of the church now, because he's the person that they trusted with this U.S. expansion? But it sounds like things got pretty out of hand. 

RICK:
I mean, he was essentially styled as Brian Houston's protege. You know,  Brian Houston wanted him to be a little mini me, but that Frankenstein’s Monster got out of control. And that relationship between, you know, the church and Lentz became strained.

We do know a bit about how Brian Houston, the leader of the church, until recently felt about length. He was once recorded telling staff and this was leaked to the New York Times, telling staff that his prodigy, Carl Lentz, displayed, quote unquote general narcissistic behaviour and was manipulating, mistreating people and constantly lying. 

But what no one could have predicted when lunch was terminated in 2020 was that Brian Houston, the most powerful man in the church, was about to follow him out the door. 

RUBY:
We'll be back after this. 

[Advertisement]

RUBY:
Rick, Brian Houston was until recently the most powerful man in the Hillsong Church. He's left the building now. Can you tell me a bit about who he actually is, though? 

RICK:
Yeah, I mean, Brian's been the head of Hillsong since his father died, and he merged two churches, one that his father, Frank Houston founded and the other Hillsong that Brian Houston founded. And Frank has been confirmed as a child sexual abuser. 

Archival Tape -- TV anchor:
“He, too, was a high profile church leader but used his position and influence to abuse children.” 

RICK:
And Brian Houston himself has confirmed that at the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse. And a lot of those details came out at that royal commission and they plunged Hillsong into crisis. 

Now, enquiries were opened up into the allegations that Brian Houston had concealed that sexual abuse committed by his father, Frank Houston, in both New Zealand and Australia. 

Archival Tape -- News Reporter:
“Do you cover up for your father? Did you cover up your father's sex abuse now?” 

RICK:
Now for a while, the police matter kind of went nowhere until it was reopened again in late 2019. 

Archival Tape -- Brian Houston:
“Hi, Church. Bobby and I are filled with faith for our church and everything God has in store for, well, you.”  

RICK:
Houston was formally charged with one count of concealing a serious indictable offence of another person in October last year and is due to face court in the next six months.

Archival Tape -- Brian Houston:
“As you know, I also received unexpected news of charges against me that allege the concealing of information that may have been material to prosecute Frank Houston.”

RICK:
He says he's fighting the charge and denies the allegations. 

Archival Tape -- Brian Houston:
“These allegations came as a complete shock to me, and it's my intention to vigorously defend them.” 

RICK:
So in January, Brian Houston announced he was stepping aside from our church leadership positions, having already vacated his Hillsong board directorship. 

Archival Tape -- Brian Houston:
“So I've agreed to step aside from all ministry responsibilities until the end of the year.” 

RICK:
Now, behind the scenes, more trouble was brewing because allegations about Bryan Houston's own conduct were about to emerge. 

RUBY:
Right ok, so tell me about the allegations against Brian Houston himself. Then what is he accused of doing? 

RICK:
So, on March 18, the ABC reported these explosive revelations that Brian Houston was himself the subject of two complaints relating to his conduct in 2013 and 2019. 

Archival Tape -- ABC News:
“Hillsong last week revealed that investigation into two incidents found Mr Houston had breached the church's moral code of Conduct for pastors.” 

RICK:
One allegation concerned inappropriate text messages from Houston to a Hillsong staff member and the second related to an alleged incident after a Hillsong conference at which Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave an address and it involved a cocktail of anti-anxiety medication mixed with alcohol in the words of Brian Houston and the church, he became disoriented and allegedly knocked on the door of a hotel room that was not his. 

Archival Tape -- ABC News:
“And entered another woman's hotel room while under the influence of alcohol and sleeping tablets.” 

RICK:
And spent time in there with the female occupant. 

Now, Hillsong Global Board was forced to concede that they had been working through a number of these issues privately with Pastor Bryan, but were only commenting publicly because the matters had been exposed in the media now. The board then having dealt with these publicly and you know, Brian's completely resigned from the church. He's no longer involved at all because of these quote unquote moral failings, because of that the board then moved against Brian Houston's wife, Bobbi, removing her from her position as co-global senior pastor. And their explicit reason for that was that Brian had resigned and no longer working for the church, so Bobby had to go too. 

RUBY:
Right OK, so you've got the most senior member of the church, Brian Houston, resigning after these allegations against him. Then his wife is also forced out of Hillsong, and that comes after this was the next most powerful figure, which was that Pastor Carl Lentz also was was forced to leave in disgrace. So where does this leave Hillsong, Rick? 

RICK:
I mean, the atmosphere has now turned into one of kind of factionalism, recriminations and panic. People are taking sides. People previously loyal to Brian Houston are turning on him. It's a complete shambles at the moment. 

I spoke to one Hillsong member in the kind of Sydney organisation, and they said there is a sense now that this is Brian's church and only his church. And if he can't have it, no one can. And they went on to say that I've got no doubt that things are going to get even worse to get even dirtier before they get better if they get better.  

The Houstons were Hillsong - and they're now gone. 

RUBY:
And what does all of this mean in terms of Hillsong's sphere of influence, Rick? Because there are these associations with celebrities, musicians, politicians. So to what extent do you think that people might start to distance themselves from Hillsong in the wake of all of this? 

RICK:
Yeah I mean They've had TV deals for content axed in recent weeks. All of their content is now gone or will shortly be gone. I should say at the end of April will be gone from Foxtel in Australia completely. Channel 10 dropped Hillsong content at the start of the year. They've had some festivals cancelled, with musicians in the states and publicly. Some of these celebrities that were converted by Collins have distanced themselves from him and Hillsong, the brand since all of these scandals came to light. So we've got a problem. 

Hillsong has a problem. 

Now Scott Morrison in his maiden speech he did - he credited Brian Houston with the pastoral work that helped guide his faith at an early age. And more recently, after these allegations came out, he distanced himself from Hillsong. You know, the prime minister said he hadn't been to that church for the last 15 years.

So there is a political influence that is on the wane. Who knows how long that is going to last for, but certainly whether they can turn around the fortunes, whether financial or faith based fortunes of Hillsong is anyone's guess at this point. 

RUBY:
Rick, thank you so much for your time. 

RICK:
Thanks, Ruby. Always a pleasure. 

[Advertisement]

RUBY:
Also in the news today, 

 

According to Ukrainian authorities, Russia has begun a large-scale military action to seize the east of Ukraine.

 

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said a significant portion of the entire Russian army was now concentrated in the region.

 

Ukrainian officials said they were unable to secure agreement with Russia on any humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians trapped in eastern cities and towns.

 

**

 

And aged care workers from some of the country’s largest providers have voted overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action over staff shortages and low pay. 

 

The United Workers Union aged care director Carolyn Smith said action is highly likely before the election. 

 

She said workers were “sick of being told that Australia cannot afford to pay them properly.”

 

I’m Ruby Jones, This is 7am, see you tomorrow.

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest

Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.

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