Joel Houston of Hillsong UNITED performs before more than 15,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl in June 2013. Photo by Andy Barron/courtesy Merge PR

Joel Houston of Hillsong United performs before more than 15,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl in June 2013. Photo by Andy Barron/courtesy of Merge PR


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

SYDNEY (RNS) The ubiquitous praise song “Shout to the Lord” can be found in many U.S.  churches on any given Sunday. What fewer people probably realize is that it comes from a megachurch on the outskirts of Sydney, which over the past 30 years has emerged as one of the most influential evangelical bodies on the world stage.

Combining Christian rock, charismatic energy and Australian accents, Hillsong Church has found a winning combination that is shaping Christian life in major cities across the globe.

Perhaps most remarkable is that the church could flourish at all in Australia, where in 2011 nearly a third of Australians said their religious affiliation was either ‘no religion’ or not stated.

“In a country where 55,000 people indicated ‘Jedi’ as their religion (from the 2006 census), and most denominations are in decline, Hillsong’s continual growth is stunning,” said Ed Stetzer, president of Nashville-based LifeWay Research and a close observer of evangelicals.

Thriving amid abuse scandal

On a recent Sunday at Hillsong’s main campus, children and adults swarmed a petting zoo and coffee stations as volunteers handed out balloons as part of the church’s 30th anniversary celebration. A racially diverse crowd streamed into services in jeans and sunglasses or backward ball caps on their heads, raising their hands while singing along with the iconic band.

In any given week, Hillsong estimates that more than 30,000 people will attend one of its six Australian campuses.

But an even greater number, estimated at more than 50,000, attend Hillsong off-shoots in London, Cape Town, Paris, Kiev, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Copenhagen and New York. A new campus is slated to open soon in Los Angeles.

The Hillsong empire is overseen by founders Brian and Bobbie Houston. Their son Ben will oversee the Los Angeles branch, while their other son Joel leads the New York congregation, which has become one of the city’s fastest-growing churches, attracting celebrities like singer Justin Bieber and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant. “I’m a Jew, raised by a family full of nonbelievers, but I have to admit, I was tempted,” wrote Max Chafkin, a New York Times reporter who recently visited Hillsong in Manhattan.

Senior Pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston in prayer at Hillsong Church. Photo courtesy Hillsong Church

Senior Pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston in prayer at Hillsong Church. Photo courtesy Hillsong Church


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The church and its New Zealand-born founders have faced bumps on its road to success after starting with about 70 people in a school.

In 2000, Brian Houston’s father Frank Houston, also a minister, confessed to sexually abusing an underage male at his New Zealand congregation 30 years before. In response, Brian Houston, who was then president of the Assemblies of God in Australia, fired his father, took control of the church and merged it with Hillsong.

“I think I’m quite a tolerant person, but one thing I’ve really never had any tolerance for is sexual abuse, and especially child abuse,” Brian Houston said in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “So, I don’t think you could have kicked me in the guts with a bigger blow, in some ways.”

His father died four years later.

Added challenges and controversy

While widely admired, Hillsong is no stranger to criticism. Some question the church’s support of women pastors. Creationism proponent Ken Ham has decried Brian Houston for not adhering to a belief in six-day creationism. (Houston does teach creation generally occurred but is less specific about the timing of it.) Others scrutinize the church’s traditional teachings on homosexuality and gay marriage. American evangelical John MacArthur has criticized the church’s Pentecostal teaching that the Holy Spirit enables spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues.

On Sunday (Oct. 27) at Hillsong Church main campus just outside of Sydney, members celebrated the 30th anniversary of one of the most globally influential churches. RNS photo by Sarah Pullium Bailey

On Sunday (Oct. 27) at Hillsong Church main campus just outside of Sydney, members celebrated the 30th anniversary of one of the most globally influential churches. RNS photo by Sarah Pulliam Bailey


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The church has a tricky relationship with the Australian media, with each treating the other with great suspicion. “If anybody is an expert in media opposition, it’s me,” Brian Houston said in his sermon, later referring a reporter to a church spokesperson to answer questions.

Theologically, some say Hillsong treads near the “health and wealth gospel” found in other Pentecostal churches. Brian Houston, for example, wrote a book titled “You Need More Money.” But observers say he has dialed back on prosperity gospel-sounding theology, focusing more on stewardship than success.

“It is dominated by a more contemporary style than many older ‘traditional’ Pentecostal groups,” said Scott Thumma, a megachurch expert at Hartford Seminary. “I know there has been some concern about Hillsong’s preaching of prosperity but that has been tempered.”

A musical performance during the Hillsong Church 30-year anniversary celebration on Sunday (Oct. 27) at their main campus just outside of Sydney. RNS photo by Sarah Pullium Bailey

A musical performance during the Hillsong Church 30-year anniversary celebration on Sunday (Oct. 27) at their main campus just outside of Sydney. RNS photo by Sarah Pulliam Bailey


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Hillsong’s driving dollars

One of the biggest criticism Hillsong faces is its finances, which under Australian law are not required to be publicly disclosed. Proposals to tax a congregation like Hillsong remain controversial. (Hillsong says a report on its finances is available to the public by asking at the front desk at a campus or by emailing our reception area.)

Hillsong’s Sydney location reported $64 million in revenue in 2010 (the last year available), but its report does not reveal income from its worldwide music sales.

The church spent almost $10 million on “welfare, missions and overseas aid,” $6.2 million on a Bible college and $6.7 million on conferences.

In 2010, Houston disclosed a salary of $300,000 ($285,000 U.S.) from Hillsong and its related global outreach ministry, and he said his wife’s salary is “significantly less than mine.” A church spokeswoman did not respond to a request to view financial details of the larger Hillsong organization.

One of Hillsong’s largest exports is its conference business. Its most recent U.S. conferences featuring the band Hillsong United sold out the iconic Radio City Music Hall, Hollywood Bowl and Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

Cassandra Langton, the director of Hillsong’s creative ministry, said this summer that every week more than 45 million people sing songs written by Hillsong in U.S. churches, an estimate most likely based on the number of churches paying licensing fees. A non-commercial church reproduction license for worship usage includes $10 per song for 12 months.

Charismatically influential

The church remains politically and socially influential in Australia, attracting a parade of politicians. It also seems to be shaped by leading American evangelicals; the church’s bookrack features many U.S. megachurch pastors, including Joel Osteen, Max Lucado, T.D. Jakes and Ed Young.

“We believe a basic charismatic/Pentecostal theology, but we don’t build strong on theology,” Brian Houston said. “We make it about Jesus, about the grace of God, and we try to have a net so it’s broad, not narrow.”

Because he believes in targeting Hillsong’s growth in less religious large cities, Houston said it’s unlikely he’d ever try to plant a church in the Bible Belt. “I really have a passion for big centers of influence,” he said. “I think the message is timeless, but the methods have to change if we want to keep reaching society and not become an insular little island.”

Hillsong Conference U.S. at Radio City Music Hall  on October 4-5, 2013. Photo by Andy Barron/courtesy Merge PR

Hillsong Conference U.S. at Radio City Music Hall on October 4-5, 2013. Photo by Andy Barron/courtesy of Merge PR


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

A musical might

Despite some of the controversy surrounding theology or finances, there’s little doubt that Hillsong’s greatest influence is its music label. The church was originally known as Hills Christian Life Centre but the music became so famous that the church appropriated the Hillsong name.

To date, the Hillsong United label has sold more than 14 million albums. Its recent album “Zion” debuted at No. 1 on iTunes’ overall albums chart in the U.S. and in seven other countries, and was listed at  No. 5 on the Billboard 200.

Hillsong music’s Twitter account has more than 680,000 followers, and more than 4 million Facebook fans. Its popular songs include “Mighty to Save,” “God is Able” and “God is in the House.”

“I always wanted to have the kind of church which influenced the way people do church,” Brian Houston said. “People may be divided on doctrine and theology and other things, but worship tends to transcend all of that.”

At 59 and 56, Brian and Bobbie Houston are fashionable grandparents. At New York’s Radio City Music Hall show, he wore skinny green pants and a denim shirt. Finishing her mascara backstage, his wife wore wedge sneakers and all black ensemble that would fit in at any rock concert.

While his church is known for its music, Brian Houston is not a musician.

“I was the church drummer until — this is a true story — in New Zealand, as a kid, the organist one time got very frustrated, jumped up off the organ, walked over, grabbed both of my drumsticks, and sat on them on the organ stool,” he said. “That was the end of my drumming career.”

Members celebrated the 30th anniversary of one of the most globally influential churches on Sunday (Oct. 27) at Hillsong Church main campus just outside of Sydney. RNS photo by Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Members celebrated the 30th anniversary of one of the most globally influential churches on Sunday (Oct. 27) at Hillsong Church main campus just outside of Sydney. RNS photo by Sarah Pulliam Bailey


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Local and global social impact

Hillsong is also active in local and international aid projects, with ministries in Cape Town, South Africa, and Mumbai, India. The church gave $500,000 toward the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami relief efforts and frequently partners with other evangelical organizations including Compassion International and the Salvation Army. The leader of Hillsong’s A21 campaign that fights sex trafficking, Christine Caine, is a featured speaker at many U.S. and global conferences.

“I think sometimes people miss the social care, which is the undergirding foundation of our church, but really that’s the fuel,” Bobbie Houston said.

John Cleary, a religion journalist for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, noted that Brian Houston’s father was initially an officer in the Salvation Army, where his son became a Christian. Hillsong is part of the Australian Christian Churches, formerly known as Assemblies of God in Australia.

“They’ve got the Salvation Army’s musical sensibility. They’ve stripped it of the uniform and strict disciplines and what emerges is a charismatic praise concert,” Cleary said. “It’s only in recent years Hillsong has recovered the Salvation Army’s emphasis on social work.”

Because Australians take a dim view of self-promotion, the Houstons tread the marketing line carefully. While some U.S. megachurches revolve around celebrity clergy, Hillsong’s influence extends well beyond the husband-and-wife team at the top.

“I’d guess that globally, they’d be in the top 10 influential evangelicals in the English-speaking world,” Stetzer said.

KRE/AMB END BAILEY

Editor’s note: this story has been updated with clarifications in parentheses.

22 Comments

  1. There are other controversies and scandals associated with Hillsong that are not mentioned in this article. Here are a few examples:

    “They sought help, but got exorcism and the Bible”
    http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/they-sought-help-but-got-exorcism-and-the-bible/2008/03/16/1205602195048.html

    “Hillsong: Exorcism in the suburbs”
    http://www.livenews.com.au/Articles/2008/11/26/Hillsong_Exorcism_
    in_the_suburbs

    “Hillsong accused of closet zealotry”
    http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/news/national/hillsong-accused-of-closet-zealotry/2008/07/28/1217097182682.html

    “Westlife ‘Cancer cure’ course”
    http://www.qt.com.au/news/cancer-cure-course-supernatural-springfield/855593/

    “Mercy Ministries claim exorcisms cure mental illness and drug addiction”
    http://religiouschildabuse.blogspot.ca/2008/07/mercy-ministries-claim-exorcisms-cure.html

    • five year old reports – kind of says something about the relevance of these reports. There are always some issues that seem good and turn out not so good, there are always some people who for one reason or another do not have a good experience with a church. I have 150 people in my church and I can tell you that not all experience the best but not through lack of trying on my part.

      Old news Hillsong has moved on so should you.

      Second point – what is your record in presenting Jesus to the world? If you got a good record then maybe you have the right to criticise. The bible tells us to go and make disciples not to be a watchdog and critic of our fellow brothers adn sisters and their churches

      • “what is your record in presenting Jesus to the world? If you got a good record then maybe you have the right to criticise. The bible tells us to go and make disciples not to be a watchdog and critic of our fellow brothers adn [sic] sisters and their churches”

        Jesus spent most his time loving the people not following him, and absolutely skewering those who claimed to be doing the right thing, but were deluded. It must all be taken together. If you take the great commission and consider it to overrule or preempt the rest of scripture, you have the beginnings of a cult.

      • So according to you James, the victims abused and harmed in Hillsong churches or ministries should just move on because the abuse happened a few years ago. I’m sure Hillsong has moved on – by ignoring their victims.
        But that is what perpetrators of abuse always say, forget the past and move on, so they don’t have to be held to account. That is what the Catholic hierarchy has been trying for years now, to ignore past abuses. Church leaders even actively lobby politically to prevent historical victims of crimes coming forward by challenging changes to statute of limitations laws, revictimizing survivors who often take many years, even decades, to seek justice for their abuse.

        You are wrong about the Bible. It says a lot of things and there is general and widespread disagreement as to how to interpret all those things. And it does say to be a watchdog and critic of believers. See Matthew 18:15-17

        Also, check out Paul’s writings and his various criticisms of fellow believers and certain churches.

        You might also want to take a look at Ezekiel 22 and 34. Ezekiel is highly critical of his fellow believers and the ‘church’.

        By the way, James, I am an atheist. Not everyone who comments on this website is a believer.

        • I skimmed the article and did not see any place where Hillsong ignored the victims. Maybe I didn’t read close enough. Brian spoke out against child abuse though and even fired his father. That was part of a different church that finally merged with HS. I agree that victims need us to recognize what happened, pursue justice, and promote healing and empowerment in their lives.

          • Brian may have spoke about child abuse, but he didn’t sack his father, he arranged to try to suspend him from preaching for a year, and didn’t follow the policies of the church he led. He should have had these and other allegations independently investigated and appropriate termination action would have followed, as well as transparency for proceedings which should have involved having his father charged and eventually incarcerated, and the church compensate all of Franks victims. Frank ruined a lot of lives and Brian acted above the law, and the policies of his own church by not recognising the conflict of interest when personally dealing with the allegations and a confession from his father. Is this Ethical?

  2. The Australian media is plain brutal compared to the US. Hillsong has numerous stacks of vocal critics simply because they are big. They are a big target. Much of this article content has been repeated many times over especially the negatives.

    What is positive and important is the church planting and growth. This will continue to grow as more people vacate liberal non believing non biblical shrinking church for Hillsong .

  3. I think God has blessed Hillsong and that is why it is thriving! I believe there are people who abuse their power, but when I hear these songs I feel the presence of God and who could write these songs for so many years without the anointing of God?!

  4. Hillsong does a great deal to reach people with the Gospel of Grace. And its the Grace of God at work in that church, that has given it so much success and wealth.

    Considering Pastor Houston’s reach and how much the Lord is doing through that ministry, I’d say he’s a bit underpaid at $300,000. Preachers who are reaching millions, should be paid very well. I think somewhere along the way, many Christians turned their brain off, and forgot just expensive it is to preach the Gospel all over the world. All the technology you see today, that allows the Gospel of Grace to be broadcast worldwide, was DESIGNED for the preaching of the Gospel in the last days. And it takes a great deal of money to pay for these technological mediums. Its not free.

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