Please be advised this article deals with issues of sexual assault and abuse. USA helplines for victims of assault are located at the bottom of this essay.
Like any other twenty-first-century kid raised in an evangelical Christian household — or any other Christian home I grew up absorbing Hillsong Worship music.
Whether it was at church, through the speakers of the car radio on the way to soccer games or at youth summer camps, Hillsong songs like Oceans, What A Beautiful Name and King of Kings gave me renewed hope and peace.
I loved Hillsong music so much I dreamed of visiting one of their locations — envisioning myself among the thousands of parishioners worshiping from below the rock band stages. Even now, the playlists on my phone bound with worship songs produced by the star-studded mega-church.
For a while, Hillsong seemed like a breath of fresh air.
In an era where church attendance has plummeted across the United States, Hillsong could captivate young people with top tier worship music and services that resembled concerts more than religious services.
Celebrities including Chris Pratt, Justin Bieber, Hailey Baldwin, Selena Gomez, Kylie Jenner and Kevin Durant have all attended Hillsong. For the first time in a long time, because of Hillsong’s cultural capital, it was actually considered coolto attend church.
Though my faith has remained intact, my enthusiasm for everything Hillsong has since waned.
A plethora of allegations against the global Pentecostal church — including charges of pedophilia, sexual assaults and large-scale coverups — has marred its once shining reputation.
As of September 2021, Brian Houston, the lead global pastor of the church, is facing criminal charges comprising claims he failed to report his late father’s sexual abuse of a young boy.
His father, Frank Houston, a convicted pedophile who targeted young boys during the 60s and 70s, was also a powerful pastor. Houston has vehemently denied the allegations and claimed complete transparency throughout the entire ordeal, in which the male victim was offered $12,000 over McDonald’s — a measly amount compared to the doubtless staggering net worth of the church.
In the wake of Hillsong’s deteriorating image, many former congregants are leaving. Several former staff members have also cut ties with the church. According to sources provided by the New York Post, the festering abuse of the church has a long legacy that is only just being uncovered.
Abuse within Hillsong
Hillsong Church was a Pentecostal congregation founded by charismatic Brian Houston and his wife Bobbie in 1983 in Sydney, Australia.
Brian Houston’s father, Frank Houston, was also a high-profile pastor. He was leader of the Assemblies of God in New Zealand, a branch of the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination.
During the 1960s and 70s, Houston was a powerful figure who frequently traveled to different congregations — seizing the opportunity to sexually abuse the young sons of the families he stayed with.
In an emotional 2018 interview to 60 Minutes Australia, Brett, a man who was molested by Frank Houston when he was staying at his family home, spoke about how frustrated he was with Hillsong’s response to the abuse.
After Brett came forward, Frank Houston confessed but did not apologize. Although Brett was given $12,000, he was not offered any counseling for the intense emotional and mental trauma the abuse caused him.
Brett’s experience with Hillsong shows the church’s treatment of abuse victims. Any abuse within the church is concealed as staff seek to maintain Hillsong’s mostly positive reputation.
This troubling pattern has been made apparent by the stories of two women whose experiences of abuse were ignored by the church.
Anna Crenshaw was attending Hillsong College in when she was sexually assaulted by Jason Mays at a church meeting in a mutual friend’s home. Mays, a married Hillsong staffer, touched her inappropriately in the presence of their friends. Crenshaw fled, but not without being followed out by Mays.
After struggling with the trauma she endured, Crenshaw reported the incident to Hillsong’s head of pastoral care, but was made to feel as though the assault had been her fault.
Her case was largely ignored by the church staff until her father, a pastor from the United States, demanded justice.
After Mays pleaded guilty to indecent assault and Crenshaw’s story was corroborated by those present when she was abused, the perpetrator remained employed by Hillsong. He was even promoted and allowed to take part in the worship team.
Crenshaw’s father expressed anger at Mays’ continued role in Hillsong. In a statement to the Christian Post, he said:
I think that there has to be genuine repentance and appropriate restitution if you look at things biblically for somebody to be restored. And as far as we can tell, there has not been such repentance.
Hillsong has justified its internal decision to promote Mays, explaining, in part:
The Magistrate spoke to the significant punishment already received through his employer (Hillsong) with suspension relating to paid work and volunteering activities. Jason works in an administrative role and is not, and never has been, in a leadership position. One of the cornerstones of our biblical beliefs as Christians is forgiveness and redemption. It is important Jason is allowed this as well.
Another woman who went by the alias Katherine spoke to 60 Minutes Australia about being raped after a Bible study in a church events office. She had been cleaning up after the gathering and was then assaulted by another Bible study attendee.
When Katherine reported the rape to a youth pastor, she was instructed it wasn’t something she should bring up. Rather, she was told to discuss the incident with her rapist and work on “repairing relationships.”
Only after Katherine, who remains a devout Christian, posted to social media about her assault, did Hillsong acknowledge her experience.
However, the church alleges she has been unwilling to cooperate in their investigation of the abuse.
What would Jesus do?
When dealing with abuse within the church, as with Hillsong, Christians are told not to judge. Perpetrators of assault and church leaders who take advantage of their authority are offered forgiveness without signs of repentance.
However, this common approach is not biblical. While Jesus encompassed ideals of compassion and forgiveness, He also emphasized repentance.
In John 8, when Jesus famously saved an adulterous woman from being stoned to death by a pack of Pharisees, He rebuked the Pharisees then told her to “go now and leave your life of sin.”
Although this might upset our modern sensibilities, it is important to understand Jesus extends us forgiveness and unconditional love, while also calling us out of our sin — which is inherently destructive through hurting both ourselves and those around us.
When Paul first wrote to the Christian community at Corinth, he employs the ancient Hebrew metaphor where yeast represents sin. Like sin, yeast spreads easily to infect everything around it.
In the same letter, where Paul scolds the church at Corinth for their failure to address sexual immorality — specifically a man within the community who was sleeping with his father’s wife — he enforces strict guidelines for associating with Christians who promote sinful behavior:
9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.
12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”
Importantly, Paul explains Christians have no business judging those outside the church. However, Christians should condemn sinful behavior when it happens within the community amongst those who call themselves followers of Christ.
From a biblical standpoint, the victims of abuse within Hillsong Church — and those who experience abuse within any other church — should have been listened to with compassion, just as Jesus listened to those who were often ignored and alienated by society.
Since the perpetrators claimed to be Christian — two in positions of spiritual authority — their behaviour should have been immediately investigated and condemned.
But when the sins of sexual abuse and assault may spread like yeast because church authorities want to protect the reputation of their brand rather than care for the broken, the consequences are grave.
As a young woman, I am disheartened by Hillsong’s failure to address abuse within the church. As a Christian, I do not rejoice as the revealed abuse highlights Hillsong’s failure to care for its congregants as Jesus would have done.
I hope the Hillsong scandals allow other churches to reflect on how to handle abuse and harassment in a transparent and compassionate manner.