1954: Brian Houston was born in Auckland, New Zealand.
1974: Houston graduated from Bible College in Auckland.
1977: Houston’s father, Frank, founded the Christian Life Centre in Sydney, Australia. Brian married Bobbie Houston in New Zealand.
1978: Brian and Bobbie Houston moved to Sydney.
1983: Brian and Bobbie Houston planted a separate church, the Hills Christian Life Centre, from Frank Houston’s original church.
1986: The first Christian Life Centre Conference was held.
1992: Christian Life Centre’s first international plants were established in London and Kiev.
1997: The First Colour (women’s) Conference was held. Brian became the new National President of the Assemblies of God (AOG) in Australia.
1999: Frank Houston was removed from the church and stripped of ministerial credentials after confessing to sexually abusing an underage boy thirty years earlier in New Zealand. Brian referred the matter to the National Executive of the AOG and became Senior Pastor in his father’s place. Brian rebranded the family of churches as Hillsong.
2002: Hillsong started holding services in its purpose-built conference venue (Hillsong Convention Centre) in Sydney’s Baulkham Hills.
2013: Zion, an album of Hillsong United (the band of Hillsong Church), debuted in the U.S. secular billboard at number five.
2014: The “Royal Commission – Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse” asked Hillsong to appear as it examined the way the church handled the complaint of sexual abuse made against Frank Houston.
2015: Hillsong is due to release its first feature-film (Hillsong – Let Hope Rise) in September. The film charts the rapid rise of Hillsong United.
Brian Houston, one of the founders and now Senior Pastor of the Hillsong family of churches, was born in Auckland, New Zealand in 1954. Frank and Hazel, his parents, were Salvation Army officers and Brian Houston explains that his parents left the Salvation Army to join a Pentecostal congregation “with nothing, really, at that time. We grew up in what would be a Housing Commission house” (Houston 2005). Houston’s father, Frank, “got filled with the Holy Spirit” and went on to become a Pentecostal minister in New Zealand. Houston himself went to Bible College in Auckland, graduating in 1974.
Houston met his future wife, Bobbie, on a beach during a summer Christian Conference, and they married in 1977. They moved to Sydney in 1978 to join Frank Houston, who had founded the Christian Life Centre there the year before. Brian, together with Bobbie, planted the Hills Christian Life Centre in 1983 from Frank’s original church. The church started out of the Houston’s Sunday night outreach program and was not an immediate success. Houston explained: “the very first Sunday we had 70 people turn up. The second week, there were 60, the third week, 53, and by the fourth week, 45. I’ve often joked that we worked it out at the time- we had only four and a half weeks left until there were no more people. It was about that time that we had our first ever commitment to Christ. We outgrew the school hall after twelve months. The crowds were so big that we were using road-case as the platform, and what should have been the stage as a balcony so that we could fit more people in” (Houston 2014).
The first Christian Life Centre conference was held in 1986, and, by 1989, the popularity of the church had grown to the point that it was relocated to a warehouse in Baulkham Hills. The church again relocated in 1990, this time to the Hills Centre, an entertainment complex, the design and space of which was to set the tone for future church buildings. The church held its first women’s conference, the Colour Conference, in 1997, led by Bobbie Houston.
In 1999, Frank Houston was stripped of his ministerial credentials after he confessed to sexually abusing a child thirty years earlier in New Zealand (Morton and Box 2014). Brian oversaw his father’s removal from the church, and he and Bobbie took over leadership of the original Sydney Christian Life Centre. The Houstons rebranded this family of churches simply as “Hillsong,” in recognition both of the Hills district where the church had experienced such tremendous growth, and the music that played such an important part in worship and services. Having continued to grow in number, Hillsong built a large conference venue, the Hillsong Convention Centre, in Baulkham Hills. Then Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, opened the centre in 2002.
Where the Christian Life Centre held its first meetings in the homes of its forty-five members, Hillsong now has a congregation of around 20,000 in Sydney alone. An additional 10,000 people attend their services in other Australian cities (O’Malley 2013). In 1992, international churches were planted in London and Kiev, and there are now Hillsong churches in South Africa, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, the United States (U.S.), Germany, France, Russia, and the Netherlands. Hillsong has today been described as “Australia’s most powerful brand” (Hicks 2012).
Hillsong is a Pentecostal church that believes the Bible is God’s Word and is “accurate, authoritative and applicable to our everyday lives” (“Hillsong: What We Believe” 2015). The Church believes in the use of spiritual gifts and baptism, including divine healing. To receive forgiveness and “new birth” individuals must repent, and submit to the will of Jesus.
Brian Houston argues that there are four levels of Christianity. The first is enjoyment, the exciting moment of discovery and perhaps the first experience of Spirit. The second is “servanthood,” and “Christians who rise to this tier are those who have added to their enjoyment by committing to serve in God’s House.” The third level of Christianity, according to Houston, is “giving.” Not giving time as above, but money. The fourth level is “sharing the load,” doing “whatever it takes” to promote the vision and work of the church. In this, Houston argues, the clergy is not separate from the laity, and the “work of the ministry” becomes the responsibility of every believer (Houston 2013:102-5).
Brian Houston is well known for his “How to Maximise Your Life” series of books, which includes How to Live a Blessed Life; How to Build Great Relationships; How to Flourish in Life; How to Make Wise Choices; and How to Live in Health and Wholeness (Houston 2013) . These five books were published together as How to Maximise Your Life after the earlier publication of the work, You Need More Money: Discover God’s Amazing Financial Plan (1999) was lambasted by the press for its title. In the book, Houston argued that “God actually gets pleasure when we prosper” financially, because “money answers everything” (Houston 1999:2, 20). To Houston, faith can lead to prosperity and an individual’s faith is tangible and reflected in their health and wealth. He describes this attitude to wealth, which is often labelled as embodying the “prosperity gospel,”as “prosperity for a purpose” or “prosperity on purpose” (Houston 2008: 123). This has become one of the central tenets of Houston’s preaching and Hillsong’s message (Houston quoted in Marriner 2009).
Houston and other Hillsong Church leaders also embrace the concepts of individualism and aspiration. There is a focus on the power of positive thinking and the ability of the church to help individuals transform their lives. Houston explains: “ I’m sure not so blind that I can’t see that people suffer and struggle. I just believe that we should have and can have answers that do something about it. I am an absolute believer in the potential of people” (Houston 2005). Bobbie Houston in her 2008 book, I’ll Have What She’s Having, builds on this idea by arguing that people need to “ rise up ! Time to get over the negatives” and achieve all they can. She believes that “ ultimate compliment” is for someone to see your lifestyle, attitude, and sense of purpose, and then want those same things (Bobbie Houston 2008:26). This belief in the potential of people, along with the emphasis placed on prosperity and the repeated use of aspiration language, indicates the way Hillsong emerged out of the neo-liberal ideas that came to define Australia’s economy and society around the time that Hillsong Church was established.
Worship music has been particularly critical in the success of Hillsong Church internationally and is seen as a chance to praise theLord and build a close, personal relationship with him (Houston 2013). Ben Fielding, one of Hillsong’s music/creative leaders says that “music reflects the creativity and beauty of God; its ultimate purpose is to bring enjoyment and cause us to draw near to our Creator” (Fielding 2012). Hillsong released its first tape of worship music, Spirit and Truth, in 1988, though the church had had a music pastor (Geoff Bullock) since 1985. Darlene Zschech replaced Bullock in 1994, and remained the church’s worship pastor until 2007. Zschech is probably the best-known Hillsong worship leader and was instrumental in increasing the popularity of Hillsong’s music, with 35,000,000 Christians around the world sing one of her most popular songs, Shout to the Lord, at church each week (Houston 2005).
Today Hillsong’s music is most strongly associated with the band “Hillsong United,” which started as the church’s youth band and began recording original music in 1998. The band is currently led by Joel Houston, the son of Brian and Bobbie. Hillsong also releases albums recorded at its London and Sydney services (Riches and Wagner 2012:24).
Hillsong is a member of the Australian Christian Churches (formerly the AOG in Australia), a movement of 1,100 churches with over 250,000 adherents around the country. Hillsong, like the AOG/Australian Christian Churches, embraces apostolic leadership, or “leadership by God appointed apostolic ministries” (Cartledge 2000). Brian Houston argues that Hillsong represents a “network that connects hundreds and thousands of pastors…committed to the apostolic anointing of leaders” (Houston, “The Church I Now See,” 2014).
While Brian and Bobbie Houston are both described as the “Senior Pastors” of Hillsong, who oversee the rest of the “Eldership,” there is a strong belief that men and women play different roles in life and in the running of churches. Men tend to be the ultimate decision makers and leaders, yet Bobbie Houston describes herself as being an “equal partner” in her marriage and argues that she and Brian pastor and lead the church together (Bobbie Houston 2008). Similarly, Brian Houston argues that: “Bobbie works alongside me. We’re very much a team …I certainly don’t adhere to the mentality that a woman must submit or that she should be pushed down,” but also acknowledges that “I’ve got a conservative, biblical idea that a man should take a role of leadership in his life” (Houston 2005). This conflict in understandings of gender roles and power dynamics is part of what sociologist Bernice Martin described as “the Pentecostal gender paradox” (Martin 2001).
Hillsong International Leadership College forms a significant part of the church’s vision and income stream. According to Hillsong Church Australia’s 2013 Annual Report, the total revenue generated by the College is $8,155,639 (Hillsong 2013 Annual Report:18). Students can study Pastoral Leadership, Worship Music, TV & Media, Dance, Production, or can undertake a Bachelor of Theology, offered in conjunction with Alphacrucis College. Attendees spend part of their time at College doing “Fieldwork,” where students “get the opportunity to serve in church life” (“What Makes Hillsong College Different?” 2014). Hillsong College also runs shorter evening courses on a variety of topics including money, relationships, and parenting (“Evening College Life Courses” 2015).
Hillsong has been the subject of much negative publicity. One former member wrote a book People in Glass Houses exploring her experiences in the church and detailing what she felt were the major flaws of the organisation (Levin 2007). Before this and since, there have also been repeated criticisms of the church, usually centred on the church’s finances, its size, and its theology. Brian Houston says that “if anybody is an expert in media opposition, it’s me,” joking that he essentially has a PhD in public relations (Pulliam Bailey 2013).
Brian Houston and Hillsong Church regularly receive negative media attention discussing the finances of the church. Houston openly acknowledges that his book, You Need More Money, was poorly received. He said: “ If you said to me ‘what are the three silliest things you’ve done’, that would probably be No. 1. The heart of the book was never just being greedy and selfish …I put a bullseye on my head” (Marriner 2009). In a 2005 interview explaining this public attitude towards Hillsong, Houston said, “Hillsong church today has facilities valued somewhere near $100 million. In our last accounting period, the total income was fifty million dollars. I think that the idea of a church being big and successful and effective threatens some people” (Houston 2005). Tanya Riches, who grew up attending Hillsong and is now postgraduate student studying the church, believes that the Australian media “doesn’t get Hillsong” and sees it as “money hungry, a sham, flamboyant, corrupt” (Riches 2014). One journalist described Hillsong’s marriage of faith and finance as “Praise the Lord and pass the chequebook” (Beaurup 2005).
Hillsong, like other Pentecostal churches in Australia, faces particular challenges when it comes to retaining members over the long term. Pentecostal churches in Australia have experienced growth rates that outpace other Christian denominations, and the number of Australians identifying as Pentecostal has steadily increased relative to the size of the Australian population over the last thirty years. However, these figures do not show the high number of “visitors” to Pentecostal churches, who do not remain in the church over the long term. From 1991-2001, AOG churches retained less than sixty percent of members while retention rates for other Protestant denominations in the same period were over eighty percent (NCLS 2015).
Hillsong is one of only twenty-one megachurches in Australia (Hughes 2013:7). Being a megachurch is perhaps one of the reasons retention rates at Hillsong are so low. That is, people are looking for a more personal connection with a pastor and the congregation than is possible when you are one of thousands worshiping at a service. More than this, as a megachurch, Hillsong has become a large institution that caters for more than religious needs. It embraces modernity and makes faith convenient through the live online streaming of church services, the provision of food and drink outlets in church foyers, the ability to make donations using EFTPOS facilities, and the increasing use of social media platforms to release information and content. Hillsong has since been criticised by various social commentators for producing a form of religion that is “light” on theology and very broad. Some argue that the church is more focused on giving attendants an enjoyable worship experience, than on Bible teaching (Pulliam Bailey 2013; Marr 2007). However, some argue that being a megachurch has helped Hillsong’s popularity because people today are comfortable in large institutions associated with market success (Connell 2005:317).
The most serious challenge that has faced Hillsong emanated from its founding by Frank Houston (Wyatt 2022); he established the Christian Life Centre, which was affiliated with the Assemblies of God (AOG), in Sydney in 1977. Brian Houston and his wife joined Brian’s father in church leadership in 1978. In 1983, Brian Huston and his wife planted their own church, Hills Christian Life Centre.
It was sixteen years later that Frank Houston was removed from church leadership for sexually abusing an underage boy in the late 1960s in New Zealand (Zhou 2018). For his part, Fank Huston’s letter of resignation made no mention of the charges against him. Brian Houston, who at the time was president of the AOG in Australia, reported the incident to AOG leaders, replaced his father as leader, and renamed the church Hillsong. However, Brian Houston did not report the allegations against his father, which would have led to a criminal investigation, to law enforcement. Subsequent investigation led to six additional child sexual abuse allegations that were deemed “credible.” In 2021, Brian Houston faced charges of failing to report the abuses committed by his father (Hunter, Smith, and Chung 2021). His problems mounted as internal investigations led to allegations that he had other inappropriate relationships with female church members. In early 2022, Houston resigned his chairmanship of the Hillsong board to address his legal problems. The Houstons were replaced by the pastors of the church in South Africa and are acting as “global senior pastors” through the end of 2022 (Cohen, McDonald, Hunjan, and Christodoulou 2022).
The church faced other sexual abuse issues as well (Wyatt 2022). Carl Lentz, pastor of Hillsong New York City. Brian Houston fired Lentz in 2020 after it was revealed the he had an affair with a female member of the congregation. Further, Reed Bogard, pastor of the Hillsong Dallas church, resigned in 2021 amid allegations that he had raped a young female church colleague while serving at Hillsong New York City. Hillsong then “paused” the Dallas church.
In the wake of this series of scandals, Hillsong churches began withdrawing from the Hillsong network. In March 2022 the head pastor of Hillsong Atlanta withdrew from Hillsong to establish his own church and that same month the head pastor of Hillsong Phoenix withdrew and cited lack of confidence in church leadership. By the middle of the next month nine Hillsong churches in the U.S. had separated from the network.
Leadership, organization structure, and legal proceedings remained to be determined in 2022. It is clear the Hillsong network has lost some of its major components, particularly in the U.S. The impact of the series of scandals on individual participants has yet to be determined. Two significant factors weigh in favor of reforms that will lead to a return of stability: the attractiveness of the church message and organization to young adults and the vibrant music productions that capture the imagination of participants.
Bearup, Greg. 2005. “Praise the Lord and Pass the Chequebook.” Sydney Morning Herald, February 18. Accessed from: http://www.smh.com.au/news/National/Praise-the-Lord-and-pass-the-chequebook/2005/02/18/1108609391134.html on 23 May 2013.
Cartledge, David. 2000. The Apostolic Revolution: The Restoration of Apostles and Prophets in the Assemblies of God in Australia. Sydney: Paraclete Institute.
Cohen, Hagar; McDonald, Alex; Hunjan, Raveen, and Christodoulou, Mario. 2022. “Former Hillsong pastors say they were threatened by Brian Houston to hand over their church and assets.” ABC News, April 6. Accessed from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-04-06/hillsong-property-empire-financial-control-over-churches/100969258 on 9 July 2022.
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Zhou, Naaman. 2018. “Sexual abuse victim pursues Hillsong’s Brian Houston over crimes of his father.” Guardian Australia, November 19. Accessed from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/19/sex-abuse-victim-pursues-hillsongs-brian-houston-over-crimes-of-his-father
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