Did anyone else watch The Secrets of Hillsong documentary series recently? I did, and I have a few thoughts. I’d love to hear yours too if you watched it—whether they’re similar to mine or quite different!
I don’t know if “enjoyed” is quite the right word, but I certainly found the documentary morbidly fascinating. Worth watching, I would say, if you have any connection at all with the evangelical world (you know, the kind that got at least half their music from the Hillsong worship team over the last twenty years?)—or are curious about what some of the issues with evangelical churches (especially but not necessarily limited to megachurches) tend to be.
Some thoughts (including lots of spoilers):
1. The docu-series was called The Secrets of Hillsong, but I wonder how secret some of these things were. Some more than others, I imagine.
Personally, as someone who has been aware of Hillsong Church (from a distance) for a long time, I was not at all surprised to hear that Hillsong NYC pastor Carl Lentz really screwed up as a leader, and that he screwed up a lot of people with him. (Not to mention the women he, well, screwed.)
Some other things I saw in the documentary that didn’t surprise me: Narcissistic leaders, flagrant hypocrisy, an unhealthy volunteer culture (although the extent of this was especially brutal), lack of financial transparency. Women (esp. women of color) being overlooked for leadership. Leaders surrounding themselves with yes-people to avoid meaningful accountability. An unclear but ultimately hostile environment for queer people. A lack of interest in centering anyone’s voices other than a few good ole (mostly white) boys. All of this sucks, but most of it didn’t strike me as particularly shocking.
I also remember reading in mainstream U.S. media when Carl Lentz got fired. But I didn’t know about Brian Houston’s “legal issues” (and resignation), or about his father Frank Houston’s child sexual abuse (and Brian’s role in covering it up).
I’m sure part of this is that I pay more attention to the church scene in the U.S. than Australia. But Hillsong was/is so crazy influential here too. So I feel like we probably should be paying attention. (Including paying attention to Brian’s legal process, which is ongoing.)
I’m curious what did or didn’t strike others as surprising. What did or didn’t you know already? How did that impact your reactions to the documentary?
2. I was thinking about The Secrets of Hillsong in conjunction with another conservative Christian exposé-type documentary that I’ve been hearing about recently but haven’t watched yet—Shiny Happy People (about the Duggar family from 19 Kids and Counting, and Bill Gothard’s “Institute in Basic Life Principles” [IBLP]).
I was drawn to The Secrets of Hillsong first because Hillsong seems so much more mainstream-evangelicalism than the Duggars and their crew. (You know, because all the churches sing all their songs).
I was reminded recently, though, that Gothard and IBLP aren’t exactly not mainstream evangelicalism. They were actually hugely influential in the Southern Baptist Convention—which, in turn, was/is where a lot of broader evangelical culture takes its cues. (Terrifying but true.)
So, lest I think I was only impacted (however tangentially) by Hillsong’s awfulness, and not also by IBLP, I have to remember that I used to go to church with people who bought into IBLP’s teachings. For example, I knew people who believed in the whole thing about family life being properly structured in a hierarchy where Christ rules over the husband, who rules over the wife, who rules over the children. (I believe there were some umbrellas involved.)
I was never into any of this. But I knew people who were.
I don’t need to go into all the issues with explicitly authoritarian patriarchal teachings like these. But if you, like me, had heard of that umbrella thing as something Christians should aspire to—then you, like me, were not unaffected by Gothard’s “ministry.” It wasn’t as fringe as it might seem, or as one might reasonably hope.
3. Can we talk about Carl Lentz? I felt like his “two years later” interviews had a whole vibe of “look at me, I’m a changed man and I’m ready to start a new megachurch.” Yikes. I mean, he didn’t actually say that he wants to start another church. But I sure wouldn’t be surprised if he did.
I didn’t feel like he took nearly enough responsibility for the harm he caused. It doesn’t seem like he’s made nearly enough amends with all the people whose lives he messed up. (So many people. So much mess.)
He talked a lot about his own life—how humbling this all has been, and how difficult. But he kind of painted himself as a victim.
There was a lot of self-pity. And I found that hard to watch. I get that his boss (Brian) was totally awful, and that was hard. But that doesn’t excuse anything Carl did. I think a lot of people feel for Carl after watching the documentary—but I’m not sure that’s quite the right takeaway. (Or at least it’s not my takeaway.)
I believe in second chances, sure. But the level of narcissism Carl showed during his many years leading Hillsong New York doesn’t just magically go away in two years.
I wish him the best as a human. But I feel like he’s lost the right to be followed as any sort of spiritual leader.
4. As various people in the documentary talked about their experiences, I found myself wanting to hear some clearer distinctions between Hillsong problems, evangelical problems, and Christian problems.
(I know there are plenty of all three. That is, I don’t deny that broader Christianity has problems—even as I still consider myself a part of it.)
Sometimes I felt like people were talking about Hillsong problems as if they were only Hillsong problems, whereas actually tons and tons of churches are like that. (More on this over at my Patheos blog.) I think we miss something if we talk about how bad Hillsong was while failing to acknowledge that our own churches—or churches around us, churches our friends and family may attend—have the same issues. These other churches’ problems may not be as public, dramatic, or flashy as Hillsong’s—but they may have some very similar issues nonetheless.
We don’t just need a reckoning with a few bad pastors or a few bad churches. We need a reckoning with evangelicalism as a whole.
On the flip side, I also felt like sometimes people talked about Christianity as if it were all one monolithic thing. As in, for example, Hillsong follows the Christian view that gay relationships are sin.
I hear that and think, well, sort of… As in, yes, Hillsong was in line with the dominant evangelical view. But no, that’s not exactly the Christian view. Lots of Christian churches and denominations would not say that gay relationships are sin. I think it’s helpful to acknowledge this.
There is really very little that all Christians in all times and places have all thought the same way about. So we’re most accurate when we don’t say too much about what “Christianity” believes.
5. Relatedly, almost all of the people interviewed for the documentary ended up ditching Christianity completely, and that was hard to hear. Not because it isn’t a totally valid choice. For anyone who decides they want nothing to do with church—especially after an awful experience like these people had at Hillsong—I totally respect that.
I want people to take whatever path proves healing and liberating. And if that isn’t church, that’s okay.
At the same time, though, it’s a huge bummer if people want nothing to do with church because they don’t know of Christian options outside evangelicalism.
Evangelicals often pretend they’re the only legitimate Christians. But that just isn’t true. There is a lot of life in non-evangelical expressions of Christianity. And I want people to know that these expressions exist.
6. After watching the docu-series, I feel like I was left with a large question: How complicit were the main Hillsong musicians and songwriters in all of this? How much did they know? What secrets, if any, did they help hide? Or were things kept secret from them, too?
I don’t know if these questions are easy to answer. I’m sure it’s different for every musician involved (and in different times and places, too). But I did wonder.
Joel Houston (Brian’s son), for example—how complicit was he in his father’s evils?
As I think about Hillsong music now, I feel like getting a better sense of the musicians’ level of complicity would help me see where to go from here. Because we still sing Hillsong songs in our church, and I’m sure we’re not the only ones. So, if anyone knows anything about this, I’m all ears.
Thanks for being here for these thoughts—and, again, I’d love to hear yours.
Peace to you this week,