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Hillsong Church's scandals imperil the future of the megachurch

The scandalous stories out of Hillsong keep piling up.
Image: Pastor Carl Lentz
Pastor Carl Lentz leads a Hillsong NYC Church service at Irving Plaza, New York on Jul. 14, 2013.Tina Fineberg / AP file

The hits keep coming at Hillsong Church, but they aren’t worship songs. The latest scandal regarding the global megachurch involves a 2021 internal investigative report leaked to The Christian Post that, according to the publication, details extensive stories of sexual abuse and misconduct under the former pastorate of Carl Lentz at Hillsong NYC.

In that report, which was conducted by a New York law firm at the church’s behest, Lenz is accused of more than one extramarital affair. He is also accused of causing mental illness among staffers and volunteers and running a church where, according to The Christian Post, there were “multiple incidents of consensual or nonconsensual sexual interaction between church leaders and congregants, staff, volunteers, or nonchurchgoers.”

Hillsong makes "Righteous Gemstones," HBO's spoof of televangelism look tame in comparison.

A Hillsong spokesperson confirmed the authenticity of the leaked report, The Christian Post reported, and added: “In 2020, following the termination of Carl Lentz as the Lead Pastor of Hillsong NYC, Hillsong Church commissioned an independent investigation into the culture and practices of Hillsong East Coast. The investigators requested interviews with former staff members, staff members, former volunteers and volunteers as part of this independent inquiry. Many of those individuals explicitly requested confidentiality, and their request was taken with the utmost seriousness. In January 2021, the final report summarized areas of necessary change, and steps were taken to address those areas specifically at Hillsong East Coast and also globally.”

Just this week, Leona Kimes, who said she was "subjected to manipulation, control, bullying, abuse of power, and sexual abuse" when she worked as a nanny for the lead pastors at Hillsong NYC resigned from Hillsong Church Boston where she served as a co-pastor with her husband, Josh, who also resigned. The couple explained that they're "ready for a fresh start.” Their departure is part of a string of resignations of Hillsong leadership across America as the church’s scandal sheet appears to grow longer by the day.

On Tuesday, The Christian Post reported that in a deposition conducted by the law firm leading the investigative report, Josh Kimes admitted to having once sent a racist text to church colleagues, for which he later apologized. In 2020, when Business Insider reported that multiple people had accused Kimes of racism, he responded, "Our Hillsong Boston team has taken some intentional steps to improve racial diversity and equity at Hillsong Boston since we launched and we’re committed to make further strides as we continue to listen and learn.” The Christian Post said the internal report shows that Kimes admitted to sending a racist text when asked about allegations against him of racism.

Given the daily stream of new accusations regarding moral lapses and deceit, including mismanagement and sexual abuses, Hillsong makes "Righteous Gemstones," HBO's spoof of televangelism, look tame in comparison. How did the church that once attracted stars such as Justin Bieber and Kyrie Irving (who's since converted to Islam) fail to keep its hip, holy image?

Hillsong’s problems with reports of abuse — sexual and otherwise — are not unique. After all, there have been countless tales of sexual abuse, pedophilia and other abuses in Protestant and Roman Catholic churches and in religious groups across the world. What is different about Hillsong, however, is the foundation of the church. As chronicled in “Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed,” a series on Discovery Plus, Brian Houston, who founded Hillsong in Australia, was charged there with not telling officials that his late father, Frank Houston, also a pastor, had sexually abused a boy in the 1970s. Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse says in a 2015 report that when the allegations of Frank Houston's past abuse was made known to Brian Houston, then the national president of the Assemblies of God in Australia, Brian Houston "confronted his father, who confessed to the abuse."

However, the commission found, "Pastor Brian Houston and the National Executive of the Assemblies of God did not refer the allegations against Mr. Frank Houston to police."

Brian Houston resigned as global senior pastor of Hillsong last month, after the church's board said he'd sent inappropriate text messages to a staff member and spent time in a woman’s hotel room.

Focusing on the sexual abuses and other infidelities is important, but what is also important is that Hillsong isn’t just a church. It’s a corporation. A corporation with a lucrative music production arm and brand ambassadors such as Lentz who were recruited to sell a certain type of Christian lifestyle to potential young adult members. The 51-page report that The Christian Post says the law firm, Zukerman Gore Brandeis and Crossman LLP, produced after its internal investigation may be motivated by more than simply chronicling the alleged misdeeds of the church. It may be meant to signal that the church did its due diligence and investigated claims of misconduct if lawsuits seeking money claims are made against it.

The daily deluge of disturbing information about Hillsong Church, from Brian Houston’s resignation to the parade of pastors leaving Hillsong churches in America, means that the church’s brand is sustaining serious damage. With the myriad of changes and upheaval, what might be next for Hillsong?

Hillsong’s biggest draw was the charismatic leadership that was attached to the entertainment world, as well as the political world.

Now, with the departure of Brian Houston the church desperately needs to regroup. Hillsong’s biggest draw was the charismatic leadership that was attached to the entertainment world, as well as the political world. Brian Houston was invited to the White House by President Donald Trump and was close to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, until Morrison distanced himself. Hillsong’s proximity to leaders like Trump and Morrison were carefully crafted relationships on its part to show its popularity as a global church. It also served to align its conservative religious beliefs with major political figures. In a rapidly shifting political and social space, Hillsong’s problems may turn it from the hipster church into the pariah church.

Perhaps the biggest question Hillsong faces is what is its purpose in a post-pandemic, post-celebrity pastor world? It’s hard to have a purpose when your brand is about celebrity, youth and fun in a world full of suffering and pain. Without the celebrities or the flashy leadership, Hillsong has turned into a dirge for days gone by.