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Leaked emails show how the Houston family responded to the scandal that may have ended their reign at the top of the Hillsong megachurch.

The Hillsong family emails

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The Hillsong Church was started in Sydney by Brian and Bobbie Houston. It went on to become one of the world’s greatest Pentecostal forces. That was until a series of scandals forced Brian and Bobbie out. Now leaked emails show exactly how the family responded.

 

Guest: Author of Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity Is Taking Over the World Elle Hardy.

 

Read Transcript

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

 

The Hillsong Church was started in Sydney by Brian and Bobbie Houston. It went on to be one of the world’s greatest Pentecostal forces. 

 

That was until a series of scandals forced Brian and Bobbie out. Now, leaked emails show exactly how the family responded.

 

Today, Elle Hardy, author of Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity Is Taking Over The World, on Australia’s leading faith family.

 

It’s Thursday, May 26.

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

RUBY:
Elle, let's talk a bit about the origins of Hillsong. It's this church that started in the Hills District of Sydney. It was founded by the Houston family. So can you tell me what it is about the type of Christianity that they created that made Hillsong so successful? What they were doing that that other pastor's, other Pentecostal pastors weren’t. 

 

ELLE:
So so they tapped into the Pentecostal movement at the time when it really started growing globally in the ‘80s. 

 

Archival Tape -- Speaker 2:
“Pentecostalism is a religious movement filled with charisma that has drawn in more than 500 million followers worldwide.”

 

ELLE:
About 6% of the world's Christians in 1980 were Pentecostal. Now that's around 25, I'd say probably more like 30%. 

 

Archival Tape -- Speaker 3: 
“In some places in Latin America, the percentage of Pentecostals is edging up from 25 to 30 to 35 to 40%.” 

 

ELLE:
Catholic churches are playing Hillsong music to stop people walking out the door. And, really, to put that in perspective, for that all to have happened in 40 years is a really huge upheaval. And so Pentecostals are really famous for health and wealth.

 

Archival Tape -- Speaker 4:
“And now you that are sick and afflicted, get ready to be healed. Stretch out your hand to meet mine. HEAL. HEAL.” 

 

ELLE:
You know, health care by way of miracle. I was at Hillsong a couple of nights ago and they were talking about a man in their congregation las t week who had had terrible back pain and they all prayed for him. And this week he was walking and the physiotherapists are saying it's a miracle. So. So Pentecostals are really focussed on what's going on in their life in the here and now. 

 

Archival Tape -- Speaker 1:
“When Bobbi Houston and her husband Bryan started the Hills Christian Life Centre, 70 people were in their first service. Well since then, the church has changed its name to Hillsong.”

 

ELLE:
And so when young Brian and Bobby came over from New Zealand in the late seventies, early eighties, they were already Pentecostal and Brian had studied at his father's Bible school, but they were part of this growing movement. They're very modern. They're very inspirational. 

 

Archival Tape -- Brian Houston:
“Beware the power of distraction. Look at me. Look at me. Distraction is one of the enemy's biggest strategies when it comes to your course, the road you’re going.” 

 

ELLE:
Brian sermons often sound very much like self-help. 

 

Archival Tape -- Brian Houston:
“I know how easy it is for other things to consume you. All of a sudden, what God birthed in your spirit was a fire in your belly. That dream, that vision, whatever that God, whatever it is, was burning down here. And the fire starts going out. Why? Because we start looking to the left or we start looking to the right? Put your left foot and put your foot out. Put your right foot and turn it all about…”

 

ELLE:
It's not like Reverend Lovejoy in The Simpsons, who's kind of boring everyone into submission.

 

Archival Tape -- Brian Houston:
“You could go to an ordinary church. It won't be as much fun. Put your left foot in..” 

 

ELLE:
It's very uplifting. Pentecostals, they say, preach for Monday, not for Sunday. And right from the beginning, as well as Brian's really intense ambition to grow and grow and grow the church, they just tapped into the modern zeitgeist. And it turns out that that's what a lot of young, modern people want in their faith. 

 

RUBY:
Mmm. And so can you tell me a bit more about Bryan and Bobby's role in the church as it began to grow? I mean, just how influential Abe. As the church gets bigger and bigger and then I suppose their children as well, when they kind of enter the scene. 

 

ELLE:
Well, Brian and Bobby founded the church and they've always seen it very much in their own image and and they've had huge ambitions. And so the Houstons very much see it as a family firm.

Archival Tape -- Brian Houston:
“Well that’s a good place to start. What sort of childhood did you have and how was your relationship with your father?”

 

ELLE:
Their children are all involved in the church.

 

Archival Tape -- Joel Houston:
“My childhood was um, how honest do you want me to be, Dad? Haha i don't know.” 

ELLE:
So Joel, the eldest son, is in his early forties. He lives in the United States and he's one of the the lead members of Hillsong United, which is is one of the big Hillsong bands.
 

Archival Tape -- Joel Houston:
“I’m kidding. I had a great, wonderful childhood. I think you did a pretty good job, I’d say five out of seven.”  

 

ELLE:
And then there's the second son is is Benjamin. He is the lead global online pastor. He is very much involved in the church and very close to the family.

Archival Tape -- Ben Houston:
“I was one when my parents started this church, four when we had our first Hillsong conference. You know as a kid I remember growing up and going through all the motions - you know, pray before bed, I’d read my bible…”

ELLE:
And then there's the youngest daughter, Laura. She's 35. She's very close to both of her parents.

Archival Tape -- Laura Toggs (Houston):
“And it wouldn't be it wouldn't be right if I didn't stand up here and of course, just give honour to my parents, my mum and my dad. And of course, I am 1,000% biased as their daughter. So that's unapologetic. Shameless. I love them. I adore them.” 

ELLE:
She's a youth pastor. And along with her husband, Peter, they're both youth pastors and he is on the the Hillsong Australia Board and they are very close to their parents. They live near them in the Hills District and they have been by their side throughout this. 

 

RUBY:
Hmm Okay so, when did things start to change for the, for the Houston family? 

 

ELLE:
So Brian Houston appeared before the Royal Commission into Institutional Sexual Abuse of Children. 

 

Archival Tape -- Royal Commission counsel:
“Pastor Houston do you want to take the oath or affirmation?” 

 

Archival Tape -- Brian Houston:
“The oath please.”

 

ELLE:
Pertaining to some historical allegations about his father, Frank. 

 

Archival Tape -- Royal Commission counsel:
“Could you raise the Bible in your right hand, please, and repeat after me? I swear by Almighty God.”

 

Archival Tape -- Brian Houston:
“I swear by Almighty God.” 

 

Archival Tape -- Royal Commission counsel:
“That the evidence I shall give.”

 

Archival Tape -- Brian Houston:
“That the evidence I shall give.” 

 

Archival Tape -- Royal Commission counsel:
“In this Royal Commission.”

 

Archival Tape -- Brian Houston:
“And this Royal Commission.” 

 

Archival Tape -- Royal Commission counsel:
“Shall be the truth.” 

 

Archival Tape -- Brian Houston:
“Shall be the.”  

 

Archival Tape -- Royal Commission counsel:
“Truth, the whole truth, the whole truth and nothing but truth” 

 

Archival Tape -- Brian Houston:
“Truth and nothing but the truth.”  

 

ELLE:
And whether Brian Houston played a role in covering up those allegations.

Archival Tape -- Brian Houston:
“My father did tend to spend time with young people and his ministry tend to be tend to tend to draw young people, you know, but I didn't see anything untoward in any of that whatsoever. Just like normal, healthy interest in, you know.” 

 

ELLE:
Public Prosecutor's Office in New South Wales decided to bring charges late last year and Brian will appear before court in December this year. He's says that he's innocent and that he'll vigorously contest the charges and his legal counsel advised him that he should step down from his roles at the church while he's defending these charges. He did so but, but maintained his his official capacity. 

 

And in March this year, it was revealed that there were some allegations about Brian Houston pertaining to some inappropriate conduct with two women, one dating back ten years and one more recent. And he was being investigated by the church for these transgressions. Five days later, he resigned from all of his positions because it had been found internally that he had breached the the code of conduct of the church. 

 

And I was recently leaked some emails that came from the Houston’s two youngest children, Ben and Laura, during this five day period. 

 

The family very much wants to maintain a grip on power of the Hillsong empire. They felt that that the Houston family built this. They thought that Brian stepping down would be a temporary measure so that he could fight the charges. And and if he were to be cleared, that he could resume his leadership of the church. But that's obviously now become a lot more difficult. 

 

RUBY:
We’ll be back in a moment. 

 

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RUBY:
Elle, you've seen some emails sent by Brian Houston's children, Laura and Ben. They've been leaked to you from inside the Hillsong Church. Can you just walk me through exactly what those emails said? 

 

ELLE:
So the emails came after there was an all staff meeting by the interim led by the interim global pastor, Phil Dooley. And there were some issues discussed and the the Houston family, were very upset about this. They felt ambushed. 

 

And it was after this meeting that Laura, their daughter and who's very close to her parents, sent a very emotionally charged email to the board about her, her personal anguish, saying that the public humiliation that the family was facing is the worst feeling in the entire world. And that her father is being defamed. 

 

She also made it very clear, and this is quite interesting, that, as someone who studies Hillsong as I do, just how much that Hillsong is, appears to be seen, by the Houston family as as the family business, in a way, the family firm. At one point she said, I made it very clear this week that I wanted to be kept in the loop and know what to expect. And Laura is a youth pastor at the church. She has no senior capacity, but it seems very much that, you know, the Houston family felt that they always have a direct line to to the board and that they can, you know, sort of sort of demand things and demand information that that other youth pastors of the church certainly wouldn't be able to get information to. 

 

Ben's emails. Similarly, we're pretty emotionally charged and sometimes goes into all caps and underlines and things like that. Ben was particularly upset with the treatment of his mother, Bobbie, who was subsequently fired by text message by Hillsong. Although the church officially denies this, he felt that that she was sort of railroaded into to being in this meeting. She was kept on mute. She wasn't able to speak up and say her part, that it was obviously quite personally distressing for her. Again, they they felt that there's a lack of decency, that they weren't advised of exactly what was happening. And, you know, that they've controlled this church from the beginning, and they certainly like to have a lot of oversight, we can say. So this is this is quite unusual for them.

 

And so I think, yeah, there's a real sense of humiliation and anger from the family that this happened to them. 

 

RUBY:
Yeah, you can certainly hear that in in those emails that sense that that, as you say, this is the family firm, but it is slipping out of their grasp. And I mean, that is what's happening, right? It sounds like there is this real desire from within Hillsong to push the Houston's out. 

 

ELLE:
Within some factions within Hillsong there is a desire to push the Houstons out. It's very factionalised at the moment. 

 

So there's the eldership, which is sort of like a mentor advisory group of the church of respected senior figures. And then there's the board, which is far more corporate. And even within these two groups, there are different factions. 

 

So, so there's so very much the people lined up behind the Houstons and there are others and some of whom have, you know, been a part of the Hillsong family and, you know, close personal friends of the Houston's for for 30, 40 years. It's going to take a long time to repair. And I think that there's a long way to play out with this saga yet. 

 

I mean, I think the brand is obviously pretty toxic now. Numbers, attendances are certainly very much down. They've been dumped by it by TV stations. The Hillsong channel is being put out to pasture by it, by a number of TV stations, a lot of churches, especially in the United States stopping singing Hillsong Music say they're going to lose royalty money and just the cultural cachet that comes with that. Nine of the 16 Hillsong branches in the US have left. Their revenues and things like that will certainly be taking a hit. 

 

I think long term they're, they're probably going to struggle. I don't think that they'll ever be as much of a brand as they once were. 

 

But I mean, look, you never know. Miracles do happen. And one thing about evangelical Pentecostal faith is that they believe in being born again and repenting their sins. So there certainly is an opportunity for whether it's Brian and Bobby or the children to to sort of be reborn, to revive the Houston name and to revive the Hillsong name. I certainly expect that's what they'll try to do.  

 

RUBY:
Well, it'll be interesting to see how it plays out. Thank you so much, Elle, for talking me through all of this. 

 

ELLE:
Thank you for having me.

 

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RUBY:
Also in the news today:

 

US President Joe Biden has vowed to reform the country's gun laws after 19 children and two adults were killed in a mass shooting at a Texas elementary school. 

 

During a press conference on Wednesday, Biden said the country had to act, and suggested reinstating the assault weapons ban and other “common sense gun laws”.

 

And The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation has expanded the recommendations on the use of the fourth dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.

 

About an extra 1.5 million Australians with complex health conditions between the ages of 16 to 64 will now be eligible to receive a winter Covid booster.

 

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

 

Host

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

Guest

Elle Hardy is a US-based freelance writer.