DLGP

Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Hillsong

Written by: on November 29, 2023

Hillsong NYC

During the height of COVID-19 in 2020, a mega-star Church pastor fell from grace and rocked the world. He was an instrumental mentor to Justin Bieber. This pastor sat with Bishop T.D. Jakes exchanged powerful insights into racism and how to guard against it and, more importantly, at the time, how to process the images of George Floyd being murdered on TV. My son and his wife attended several of his church services in NYC. For them, it was their initial journey to finding a church home as a couple. Carl Lentz, the Senior Pastor of Hillsong NYC, and many key staff members, it turns out, exemplify what happens when leadership succumbs to the Powers as described in J.R. Woodward’s The Scandal of Leadership. Carl Lentz became a leader who had become controlling, and it continued to the point of domination as a way of life.[1] It did lead to his being fired, but the global Hillsong Church’s fall from grace did not stop there. I’ll continue with more of the Hillsong story after my introduction.

Introduction

Reading The Scandal of Leadership reminded me of the Hillsong debacle for several reasons. First, I was sold on their music. The music that was created was contemporary, worshipful, and meditative. The music appealed worldwide and drew hundreds of thousands of worshipers to their church services. During the pandemic, their weekend services drew an estimated 444,000 online participants.[2] Secondly, because of the global reach and the young contemporary congregants, many have probably fallen away from the Church. They might even be in the category of the “nones, dones, or gones.” And so, I wanted to explore the implications of leadership succumbing to domination, misuse of power, and imitating powers rather than Christ because they have far-reaching and genuine consequences.

Woodward describes what happens when pastors or public figures are put on a pedestal. They become objects to worship versus regular beautiful and broken people simultaneously.[3] Again, Lentz embodied the celebrity persona but was quite good at masking the broken side. How would Dr. Lieberman or Carl Jung describe this shadow side of Lentz? As I mentioned earlier, shock waves were sent across the globe once Lentz was fired. I remember my daughter-in-law calling and texting when she initially heard the news. She had recently attended one of Hillsong’s women’s conferences at the NYC venue and was stunned. Fortunately for her, she was surrounded by people of faith who could help her process what had happened. But how many others did not have someone to help them through the experience? Young people. Impressionable. The future of the Church.

Hillsong Background

A quick background on Hillsong. It was initially established in Australia by Brian Houston as part of the Assemblies of God church in 1983. It was part of a church network his father started six years earlier. It grew in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s because of its contemporary worship. In 2001, Brian merged the two churches and rebranded to Hillsong.[4] Before the pandemic, there were over 150,000 weekly attendance in over 30 countries (twelve churches in the U.S.)[5] Shortly after Lentz is fired by his mentor Houston, Brian himself is fired for misconduct and accused of covering up his father’s indiscretions. This is a case study of imitating a person or Power, i.e., Lentz imitating Brian and Brian imitating his father, resulting in fallen leadership and a global scandal.[6] Today, the number of Hillsong churches in the US is now at three, and the worldwide weekly online and in-person attendance is down to an estimated 21,000. Two years later, Brian Houston was replaced by the Board of Directors. And sadly, I don’t think the Church has released any new music since 2022.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Hillsong was a tragedy, and the impact has not been thoroughly evaluated in terms of how it affected its members. So, how does the Church respond to these types of abuses of power? Woodward delves into the remedies in the last three chapters. He continues to utilize the imitation framework to examine how we can learn from how Jesus developed his identity.[7] One of the key points is that our theology, Jesus is Lord, must be an integrative approach that defines every aspect of our life.[8] We must be in love with our first love and seek to imitate Him. Lastly, one of Woodward’s earlier works, Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World, provided keen insights into how a church can organize to minimize falling into any person becoming an object or pedestal. It is a polycentric approach to leadership and a way of distributing power rather than a hierarchical, centralized organization. Woodward argues that the hierarchical structure lends itself to people being skeptical of those in power. A corollary requirement is that leaders lead by relinquishing the need to control. He proposes shared leadership spread among those in the five-fold ministry gifts. And this polycentric approach helps create a missional culture. “If we are to cultivate mature communities of faith, we need missional equippers who live as cultural architects, with a heightened sense of contextual awareness and the ability to shape and cultivate culture within the congregation.”[9]

 

[1] JR Woodward, The Scandal of Leadership:  Unmasking the Powers of Domination in the Church (Cody: 100 Movements Publishing, 2023), xxvii.

[2] Leonardo Blair, “Hillsong Church Australia suffers marked drop in giving, attendance amid COVID-10, scandals: report,” Christian Post, (Wednesday, August 24, 2022): 3, https://www.christianpost.com/news/hillsong-australia-suffers-drop-in-giving-attendance-annual-report.html.

[3] JR Woodward, The Scandal of Leadership:  Unmasking the Powers of Domination in the Church (Cody: 100 Movements Publishing, 2023), xxxii.

[4] Jessica Sager, “Hillsong: The Celebrity Megachurch’s Bombshell Scandals and controversies Through the years,” People (May 16, 2023): XX, https://people.com/human-interest/all-about-hillsong-megachurch-scandals-controversies/.

[5] Ruth Graham, “Hillsong, Once a Leader of Christian Cool, Loses Footing in America.” New York Times (Originally published March 29, 2022, Updated June 22, 2023): https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/29/us/hillsong-church-scandals.html

[6] JR Woodward, The Scandal of Leadership:  Unmasking the Powers of Domination in the Church (Cody: 100 Movements Publishing, 2023), xxxv.

[7] Ibid., 213.

[8] Ibid., 215.

[9] J.R. Woodward, Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World (Westmont: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 60.

About the Author

Audrey Robinson

19 responses to “Hillsong”

  1. Michael O'Neill says:

    Great post, Dr. Robinson. I was reading a few posts before I typed my blog this evening and was curious – who was going to write about Hillsong? Well done! It is a tragedy what happened to that institution. I watched a documentary about it over the summer and I feel like when big organizations fall like this, it puts a huge dent in a lot of people’s faith. I hate to see this in the Church but I am also not surprised by it. The Powers will always seek to bring down the opposition and when there is huge Christ momentum like Hillsong had, it is only a matter of time before some of the leadership succumbs to the pressure and temptations. It’s sad.

    That being said, has it changed the way you listen to their music? Also, has your family attended any online or live services since the firing of Lentz?

    Thanks, again!

    • Audrey Robinson says:

      Dr. O’Neill, thank you for reading my post.

      I must admit I have a difficult time listening to Hillsong’s music. It helps that an informal group, TRIBL, started during the pandemic and helped to fill the void for me with the worship music.

      After the Hillsong, my son and his wife started attending online services with a different church that came to the forefront during COVID-19. But it was challenging at first for my daughter-in-law to move on in the things of God.

      Interesting, two ministries were supernaturally raised up after Hillsong…

  2. Audrey – Thank you for this look into Hillsong and how their leadership derailment has negatively impacted the lives of so many. I’m definitely going to pick up Woodward’s earlier book you mentioned about organizational structure. I agree that structure and the people who fill the leadership roles are so important. Is there an organzation you’ve been part of that you thought did a good job with structure and accountability? If so, what was effective about the way they were organized to avoid leadership scandals?

    • mm David Beavis says:

      I also have the same question as Laura: Where have you seen an organization do poly-centric leadership well? What did it look like?

    • Audrey Robinson says:

      Laura,
      I think the best church organizational structure was under a pastor in the early 1990s to the early 2000s. It was hierarchical, however, the small group leaders served as ministers for their group of 15 – 25. And the other departments had delegated authority and responsibility for their respective areas of ministry. It was a husband and wife team as co-pastors and their philosophy was to raise up every member to be ministers in their own right. There were some issues but overall it worked. On average 1,500 attended weekend service.

  3. mm David Beavis says:

    Brilliant analysis of the book and of Hillsong Church Audrey! As read Woodward’s book I thought of Hillsong a few times. My wife and I recently watch the docu-series on Hillsong which was fascinating, dark, and troubling to say the least. If I’m being optimistic, which I am not always, from that series it looks like Lentz has done a lot fo soul-searching and good work in therapy. And his story too is marked by trauma and abuse.

    I love what you wrote about in the poly-centric leadership model. It is something I have been thinking about a lot, but do not know how to organize or how it is supposed to work. But a plurality of leadership would mitigate from an imitation of the powers (if all those in leadership are truly imitating the way of Jesus).

    • Audrey Robinson says:

      David,
      I absolutely think that the polycentric approach is the way to go because it is what Paul outlines in Ephesians 4:7-16.

      Secondly, here is the link to one of the churches Woodward mentions in his first book.
      https://www.lifeonthevine.org/

      If anyone can do it – you certainly can. If not in this season, perhaps in your next season of ministry.

  4. mm Daron George says:

    Audrey, loved reading your post.

    Considering the rapid expansion and influence of Hillsong and similar churches, how might congregations better equip themselves to discern and guard against the allure of charismatic leadership that could potentially lead to abuse of power and eventual downfall?

    • Audrey Robinson says:

      Daron,
      One thing I would recommend is shared leadership that rotated titles and positions each year. And if possible move toward the polycentric approach with the five-fold ministry gifts spread across the leadership team – even if some are volunteers.

      Secondly, the Church may need to start surveying the people sitting in the pews and taking stock of their spiritual growth versus just counting heads and dollars.

      Lastly, there is entirely too much responsibility, stress, and authority put on the pastors. They are either burning out or turning to dominating tendencies to get ‘things’ under control.

      This is really the last thing. Why are we so quick to put untested leaders into critical positions?

  5. Dr. Robinson,

    Great post. I have been conflicted with Hillsong situation. I have come to some personal conclusions. As when I worshiped to their music, I was not worship Hillsong, but Jesus Christ. Therefore I started listening to Hillsong worship for the first time in a couple years.

    I have gotten to spend a little personal time with Brian Houston, he even ministered to me from time to time, called me on stage even. Success and growth can be hard in ministry.

    I have come to this conclusion, people in power or in authority I actually fear less. I actually keep my eye more on younger leaders who crave and desire that position where they have not been humbled or broken before the Lord. I have found these individuals seem to cause the most damage and turnover.

    Such a sad thing for Hillsong. Brian and his wife are actually incredible people. Hillsong New York scares me a little as this the model most younger pastors idolize as success. We need to return to pastoral ministry.

    Great post on a difficult subject.

    God Bless,

    PG

    • Audrey Robinson says:

      Dr. Greg,
      It saddens me to think that someone you knew up close and personal had such a public ‘downfall’ – I can’t imagine how that must have rocked you on a number of different levels.

      What is so powerful is that you have been able to continue imitating Christ and even when mankind is on shaky footing – the Lord can still use us. (I’m thinking of Brian Houston and his wife.)

  6. mm Becca Hald says:

    Audrey, great post. Thank you for sharing. I am reminded of my History of the Early Church class. We discussed the Donatist controversy and how it affected the Church’s understanding of sacraments and ministry.

    The following is an excerpt from a paper for that class:
    “The Donatist controversy arose from the question of the lapsed. In the fourth century, Caecilian was elected Bishop of Carthage. The Donatists did not agree with his election. They said that one of the bishops who consecrated Caecilian was a traditor, someone who gave up Scriptures to the Roman government to avoid persecution. The argument was that because an unworthy bishop consecrated Caecilian, his consecration was invalid. They claimed that the validity of the sacraments was dependent upon the worthiness of the one offering them.
    Caecilian’s followers argued that all Christians are unworthy and none can know the heart of another. To follow this line of thinking, Christians would constantly question the validity of their own baptism or communion. The Church, therefore, argued that the validity of the sacraments and baptism was not dependent upon the one delivering them. I believe that this view is the most biblically based. It is not the one who does the baptizing or delivers the sacraments that makes them valid; it is the One from whom they come.”

    We are all broken people and we all fall short. I wonder how many Biblical figures would have faired in our modern context. Can you see the headlines?

    Pharaoh’s son accused of murder!
    King David caught with Bathsheba, Uriah ordered to the Front Lines, story at 11.
    One of Jesus’ guys cut my ear off!

    My headlines are more humorous and tongue in cheek, but it does make me think. There are many sad and far reaching consequences of what happened with Hillsong, but how much of it was amplified by social media? If it happened a hundred years ago, what might it look like?

    • Audrey Robinson says:

      Becca,
      I concur. It is the One that bestows the office, sacraments, and baptisms.

      I’m reminded of what Paul writes in 1Cor. that some plant, others water, but it is God who causes the increase.

      And yes, today with social media our Biblical examples would have been condemned – mainly by the Church.

  7. mm Chad McSwain says:

    Thanks for your sharing your personal connection to Hillsong. It is tragic and seemingly inevitable about a high-profile pastor falling. The most difficult part is the lives that are broken as a result. It is human nature to put our trust and affection to those who lead us into relationship with God (even Paul writes about this in 1 Corinthians).
    Do you think it is possible for a pastor to have fallen to be restored to ministry in a significant way?
    Dr. Clark raised this question in Oxford and I’ve thought some about it. Mark Driscoll has a mega-church in Phoenix. I noticed another pastor who fell into alcoholism and burnout, now has a new church. It’s obvious they have talents that propel them to large platforms, and I want to hope for restoration, yet I struggle with the possibility that the large leadership positions lend themselves to excessive temptations that are difficult for anyone to carry.

    • Audrey Robinson says:

      Chad,
      I too grapple with pastors being restored. I do believe it is possible in Christ. Look at Peter and Barnabas.

      However, unless there is real professional counseling along with a strong accountability team I would question if the restoration is too quick.

      Lastly, when a person operates in power based on their authority or position, coupled with strong spiritual gifts, it is deliriously addictive. And without a strong foundation in Christ, the flesh cannot withstand the temptations. (My opinion.)

  8. Kristy Newport says:

    Audrey,
    I enjoyed reading your post and the cohorts comments.
    This stood out to me:
    “leaders lead by relinquishing the need to control”
    Considering what this means for me personally and praying this for my church.
    I hope polycentric approach to church ministry comes up again!

  9. Audrey Robinson says:

    Kristy,
    Thank you for your comments. I think relinquishing control may have been what Bonhoeffer was thinking as well when he wrote about community.

  10. Alana Hayes says:

    I am so glad that you wrote about Hillsong! What a journey you took us on!

    I’m curious were you shocked when this came out? What could we do to prevent this in the future?

    I wonder if we asked members in the church and other leaders within the church if there were signs that started to caution them prior to the wall crashing down around him.

    • Audrey Robinson says:

      Alana,
      I was very shocked. I do think some people (members and leadership) knew and unfortunately some may have turned away from Jesus as a result.

      I do think that overall the Church leadership structure has to drastically change. If some churches are too small for a shared leadership structure there still could be accountability partners or teams. And not necessarily the Board of Directors, if there is one.

      Scripture is clear how a leader should conduct themselves. How did other members of the leadership team not know?
      Thanks for the questions.

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