As a 21-year-old member of the Assemblies of God (AOG), the precursor to the Hillsong church, Troy* can remember the pastors’ strategy: “Get them when they’re young, before the devil and the world corrupts their minds and souls.”
“Teens are an easier target and the church puts a lot of work into evangelising teens,” Troy, who at age 13 was drawn in by Revival Centres International, told VICE. Now known as the Revival Centres Church, the global Pentecostal movement is headquartered in Melbourne.
Later, married to a pastor’s daughter and with four years of studies from the AOG’s Harvest Bible College under his belt, Troy was on the path to becoming a minister before “years of questions, inconsistencies and manipulation” overwhelmed him. He suffered an emotional breakdown and abandoned his faith.
Today, he identifies as an “exvangelical”, and hosts I was a Teenage Fundamentalist (IWATF) with another former church member, Brian.
The first Australian-produced podcast of its kind, it focuses on the pair’s religious experiences along with their guests. Launched in 2021, the self-help show is “causing a stir” among church leaders in Australia, Troy tells VICE, growing an audience here and beyond. It’s just one of the ways that those who have escaped authoritarian religions are using new media to “democratise their voices”. It comes after the popularity of podcasts like Exvangelical, named after the term used to describe the movement of activists who have “deconstructed” their faith. The US podcast, hosted by US writer Blake Chastain, receives about 13,000 monthly downloads.
Although it originally began as a way to share stories, Troy told VICE that his podcast is part therapy, part healing. “We’re not going to be silent anymore”, the 50-something-year-old, who learned to speak in tongues at a 1984 Revival Centres camp, said.
“We’re not subscribing to this unwritten church demand that we never tell our stories of church abuse and manipulation anymore. We'll say what the fuck we want.”
While the podcast’s title is a nod towards the 1950s film “I Was a Teenage Werewolf”, and to when the host’s faith began, it delves beyond their teenage years and fundamentalism.
With guests like early Australian mega church preachers Geoff Bullock and Anthony Venn-Brown, 42 episodes to date, and the podcast recently peaked at number eight on the Australian religion category of Apple podcasts.
Despite the subjects it explores including “narcissists and psychopaths in the church”, IWATF also reached number six of the Australian Christianity category.
“I know that people in Pentecostal churches are listening,” said Troy, who says the hosts were recently contacted by a former member of Horizon. The church, based in Sydney’s south, counts Prime Minister Scott Morrison among its devout followers.
“They (the listener) were struggling with Horizon’s beliefs and practices and found the podcast helpful,” said Troy. “Some people will be pissed off (with us). But some people will be listening to it going ‘yeah, we need to change’.”
Both Brian and Troy found recording the podcast “re-traumatising”, Troy admitted. At one stage, he had to take a month-long break from it. But Brian says that the reception it’s received around the world is “incredibly humbling”.
“As well as the really shitty things, there are many positives you can tap into from your time in a high-control group,” Brian told VICE.
In one early episode of the show, Brian described becoming involved with the Christian City Churches denomination, today known as C3 Church Global, before being recruited as “fresh blood” by the Assemblies of God. He described his time as exhibiting “cultish type behaviour”, and has since then experimented with other Pentecostal churches.
“The language that I would hear quite often was ‘oh we got eight saved tonight’,” Brian told listeners in one episode. “Some nights you’d have a rally. You’d get a bunch of newbies and it was like ‘we have 38 saved tonight, what a cracking night’. It was a numbers game.”
The interview with Hillsong founder Geoff Bullock, who was behind some of the church’s ARIA-award winning hits and is a former friend of the church’s founder, the embattled Brian Houston, has provided the most popular episode to date. Bullock speaks for the first time on air of his “hellish experience” in Hillsong, which he claims had an “aggressive” and “domineering, almost bullying” leadership style.
“Previously I held back much of the truth as I didn’t want to poke the hornet’s nest,” Bullock, who left the church in 1995 and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), told VICE.
“I found it very hard reliving those events. I found it even harder listening to the podcast a few days later, (but) I hope it has been of some help to my fellow Christian refugees.”
Both Houston and Hillsong have blocked the Twitter account of IWATF, which the podcast’s hosts told VICE is “great”, despite stressing on the podcast that they didn’t set out to upset people.
For Venn-Brown, who appears on the show in an early episode, the podcast is a more contemporary and broader version of the Yahoo support group he founded in 2000, focusing on helping hundreds of gay people grappling with the conflict between faith and sexuality before social media took off. At its peak in 2005, the network was responsible for nearly 400 monthly posts.
“Back then we really had no understanding of PTSD - we thought that was a veteran thing - or religious trauma,” said Venn-Brown. “I’m glad to say though that we created a safe, respectful, non-judgemental place for these people to share and connect with others like themselves for the first time.”
By 2008, the Yahoo group was dwindling, and Venn-Brown encouraged members to join a secret Facebook group he had become a part of.
Decades earlier, in 1972, Venn-Brown was one of the first in the world to undergo gay conversion therapy. Until he abandoned his faith in 1991, he was one of Australia’s leading evangelists until he abandoned his faith in 1991.
“As long as Christian leaders andchurches hold on to outdated beliefs about sexuality and gender identity there will be pressure to conform and harm done,” Venn-Brown, who penned the bestselling memoir A Life of Unlearning, told VICE.
However, podcasts like IWATF are carving out space for people to find “healing and resolution”, he said.
As the number of Australians identifying as having ‘no religion’ increases, others, such as former Jehovah’s Witness Sherrie D’Souza, have chosen to come out as non-believers on platforms like YouTube.
After four decades of devoting her life to the faith, D’Souza was booted out of the organisation for reviewing Shepherd the Flock of God – a secret book of congregation rules that only its elders can view – in a November 2019 recording. The book details how to handle child sexual abuse claims among other things. Two days later, her local Kingdom Hall in Sydney’s south announced that she was no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“A woman doing a video on the secret men's book - that shit gets you disfellowshipped,” said D’Souza, who in 2020 founded the first Australian branch of the global non-profit Recovering from Religion support group.
“So many Jehovah's Witnesses cannot speak out for fear of retribution in the shape of shunning, losing your entire social network and family in one fell swoop,” she told VICE.
“I speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, for those who have been silenced, for those who've been labelled an "apostate", for those who feel alone, for those who suffer religious trauma.”
Dr Josie McSkimming, a clinical social worker based in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, is another “exvangelical” and author who appeared on one IWATF episode. She said that many people who have left - or who are contemplating leaving their faith - are living a “double life”.
“The church teaches you not to doubt, not to talk to outsiders, to stay pretty compliant and enclosed within the organisation and to not trust your feelings because (they) are unreliable, whereas the Bible is reliable,” McSkimming told VICE.
“I think these podcasts are fantastic, because a lot of people realise there's a whole lot of people who think like them.”
Season 3 of IWATF will begin on 25 February, but Troy said that there’s enough stories out there of religious trauma for it to continue “for years”.
“We’ve already had a couple of people reach out to us saying they want to do their own podcast, asking if we help them. And for sure (we will),” he said.
“The more voices the better. (This) will sound an alarm for people thinking of joining these groups, but hopefully also force these churches to reform and change their practices.”
* Name has been changed