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What Churches Can Learn from Hillsong's Rise and Fall


Once a global ministry phenomenon, Australian-based Hillsong Church has taken multiple hits this year, plagued with scandal and losing American church campuses.

In January, Hillsong founder and leader, Pastor Brian Houston stepped down from all ministry responsibilities to focus on legal charges that he concealed his father's child sex offenses.

In March, the Hillsong global board announced that Houston resigned as global senior pastor after the board found that he had breached the Hillsong Pastor's Code of Conduct by engaging in inappropriate behavior with two women.

Eternity News obtained an email from Houston to church members, in which Houston admitted to having an alcohol problem.

The Brian Houston scandal follows the 2020 firing of Hillsong's New York City pastor Carl Lentz, who later confessed to marital infidelity.

In response, American-based Hillsong pastors have started pulling out. That includes Hillsong Phoenix lead pastor Terry Crist who announced in March that he's withdrawing his Arizona church from the oversight of the global board, taking with him campuses in Tucson and Las Vegas.

Hillsong Kansas City has also left, as has Hillsong Atlanta. These church campuses are rebranding and reorganizing, many in time for Easter services.

Pastor Sam Collier told KXIA-TV in Atlanta, "People don't come to church for a scandal. They come to church for a safe space."

Author Katelyn Beaty chronicles some of Hillsong's missteps in her upcoming book, "Celebrities for Jesus."

In an interview with CBN News she underscored that for years, churches around the world have mimicked Hillsong's style.

"They understand that a lot of us, especially young people, respond to great music, to beautiful light design, to a sense that you can go into a church and it feels more like a nightclub where you can have this powerful emotional experience among other people," she said. "I think Hillsong has been really great about taking the tools of technology and adapting them and using them in a pragmatic way to reach as many people as possible."

Dr. Corne Bekker, dean of the School of Divinity at Regent University, says Hillsong has combined cultural savvy, extraordinary worship music, and powerful Gospel presentation to make an impact.

"The clarity of the gospel that they have proclaimed - easy for people to understand and follow," he said.

The question now for many is what can be learned from Hillsong's rise and fall.

Beaty says Hillsong, Willowcreek, and other large ministries have made themselves vulnerable by building success around an individual.

"I think it's a lesson for any Christian ministry to be wary of building ministries or a church's success around the charisma of one particular person," she said. "This is a lesson for all churches when they think about what kind of community they want to be. Are we hiring for the right reasons? Are we putting people in positions for the right reasons and do we have the necessary accountability structures in place so that the people at the top cannot misuse their power?"

Bekker says he's concerned about the public sphere in which the Hillsong scandals are playing out, and that not only should abuse victims be prioritized but a message of grace as well.

"We should have a very high standard of leadership and when folks fail, certainly they cannot continue on in leadership," he said. "But there must always be a bent towards redemption. There must always be a bent towards grace."

Bekker says he understands that for many fans of Hillsong's music, watching the decline of the worldwide ministry is disheartening and confusing.

"For those watching the public failures of Christian leaders I want to say to them 'we are sorry'," said Bekker. "I want to say to them that when we fail in ways like this, we want to let you know that this is not Christ. That He is better. That He is greater."

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