Australia Today

Hillsong Perfected the Megachurch. What’ll Happen When It Implodes?

"I found a photo of me with notorious paedophile Frank Houston. And I looked at it and went, oh, shit."
Arielle Richards
Melbourne, AU
Daniel Knighton / Stringer​ via getty images

Daniel Knighton
 / Stringer via getty images

Hillsong church is just one of those things: Omnipresent cultural phenomena, seemingly always in the news. Cult? Scam? Place of worship? The sheer fact of Scott Morrison’s involvement with Pentecostal Christianity was enough to imbibe, in me, suspicion and distrust. Because I don’t like him.

And any “church” that attracts slimeballs like fallen pastor Carl Lentz, and the Brian Houstons of the world warrants dark distrust. Their list of scandals is longer than their website’s “Jesus” page.


But then there’s the other thing: faith. For Hillsong followers, and followers of any arm of Pentecostal Christianity, the church offers community, support, and emotion. The famous rock-concerts-slash-sermons seen at Hillsong are designed to envelop the parishioner in God’s grace. Times are awful enough. Faith is important, and as humans we ought to be able to follow it where we find it. People need faith to survive.

Pentecostal Christianity isn’t a choice for everyone. Kids are brought into the religion by families, and thousands of people across Australia can recount going to Hillsong masses as a child. It isn’t that anyone is forcing you to stay, it’s that all too often, by leaving, you will leave your only support network behind. 

Some people gradually phase it out, others leave in a blaze of glory. Then there are those who run.

Marc Fennell is one of those people. The Australian journalist’s upcoming documentary, The Kingdom, looks at the current state of Hillsong Church. Facing declining numbers, a roll-on-effect from years of scandals (alleged money laundering, alleged abuse), other churches are moving in to fill the vacuum left in Hillsong’s wake. In the documentary, Mark reconciles his own childhood in Pentecostal Christianity, along with the misdemeanours of the church, to question how this uniquely Australian story came to be. What is it about Hillsong that kept people coming back? And what would happen in its potential future absence?


VICE: Why did you choose Hillsong? What compelled you to investigate it at this time, specifically?

Marc Fennell: It happened kind of by accident. We started looking into what was the future of the Pentecostal movement because we knew that Hillsong was having an enormous amount of scandals. We also knew there were other churches that had, sort of, lived in Hillsong’s shadow that were clearly moving into place, for lack of a better term. 

The other component of that was – the people I work with have worked with me for 10 years, and they know me quite well, but they had no idea I had this strange childhood in Pentecostal Christianity. I was going through some old family photos and I found a photo of me with notorious paedophile Frank Houston. And I looked at it and went, oh, shit.

I spent a long time thinking about it. I've mentioned it once or twice over the years for different things, but realistically, I don't generally talk about my childhood in this world, because you don't know how it's going to be perceived. I'm not a believer. I'm not. But I'm not a hater, either. 

What occurred to me is that, when it comes to Pentecostal Christianity, you get two kinds of stories: You get stories that are very much told from the outside in, and often they're focusing on the money, the sexual impropriety and financial impropriety. Those are important. I would never suggest they shouldn't be done, but, sitting underneath those stories, there's always this little thin veneer of look at those freaks, right?


I grew up in that world and I know what it feels like to have news reports poke at you from the outside and make you feel like you’re freaks. The inverse of that is, within the world of Christianity, I think there's a problem with toxic positivity, where anytime anybody tries to raise issues about money or exploitation of volunteerism, it gets framed as an attack by the enemy. 

And I don't think either of those things are particularly helpful.

I'm in a unique position here. I know the world well enough to know what it's like for people inside, but I'm outside and I have been outside long enough to see that there are clearly issues here that need to be discussed.

You “ran away” from Pentecostal Christianity 17 years ago. What has returning to that world been like?

It was fucking weird. Think of something you did all the time when you were 15 years old. Imagine you haven't done that in a very long time. And then you step in. I genuinely hadn't been in these places for about 17 years.

I went in, sat in the back row, and watched the whole thing unfold. I had this really interesting fight or flight response where, as soon as I walked in, I wanted to see where the exits were. It was weird. And then when it unfolded, the thing that first struck me was oh, shit, this hasn't changed. Structurally, three fast songs, three sad songs, announce all the prayers are answered this week, ask for money, speakers talk, and then at the last five minutes the music swells. Alter call…. That structure hasn't changed in 20, 30 years.


I don’t think the film is as scathing as people expect it to be. Because we're also trying to show why people are in it in the first place. Some of the things that have gone wrong, particularly in Hillsong, are serious and really do need to be addressed. But what happens is a lot of people within the Pentecostal Church will see those stories about your Brian Houstons and whatnot, and they’ll go, but that doesn't look anything like the church I rock up to on the weekend. So they just dismiss it. The thing they're seeing isn't recognisable to them. 

It's actually important to me to make something that they look at and go, oh, that is the world I recognise, those are issues that need to be explored. Because if they just look at and go, well, that's clearly an attack, not a news report, nothing will change.

How do the members reconcile the alleged crimes associated with the church?

It varies. One of the people in there fully left off the strength of some of those reports. One woman we spoke to, in America, I brought up all the things Brian Houston has been accused of over the years, and she's like, well, I think that could just happen to anyone, anybody could make bad decisions on prescription drugs.

There is a desire to rationalise. The thing to keep in mind, for hundreds of followers, you’re talking about leaders who’ve said things that were inspiring and cut straight to their soul and help them make sense of the world. You're talking about leaders for whom many people believe that God works through them, not that they're a conduit for God, God works through them. So to then have that person be fallible and do allegedly wrong things, it's actually attacking a part of who you are because that person was a tool through which God spoke to you. It’s complicated. There is a desire to rationalise, minimise, or explain it away to some degree. Some people are like, well, clearly that person's done the wrong thing, but I can still believe.


What’s happening with Hillsong at the moment? Is attendance really dipping?

Attendance and revenue at Hillsong has dipped. But I think what's more telling is the sheer number of new Pentecostal churches that are going up, essentially, in Hillsong’s backyard. I think that tells you there is an appetite for inheriting people. There’s C3, there’s Planetshakers, and then there’s Kingdom City, which has 30 different locations around the world. But only since the implosion of Hillsong did they decide to set up shop in Sydney.

In what way is the story of Hillsong a uniquely Australian story?

They started on a farm, up in the Hills district, and before you knew it they had churches all over the world. This is ours. Like them or not, this is an Australian creation. What they invented, we have now sent all around the world, everywhere. I think we have to accept responsibility for the good and bad of this one. I think there’s something unique about Australia’s approach to that kind of church that has cut through, and cut through around the world. We talk about Australia’s big exports, coal, education. I’m like, it should go: coal, education, Hemsworth brothers, Hillsong music.

Did you come across any big reveals, shocks or surprising information as you were making The Kingdom?

When people talk about Pentecostal Christianity, they always talk about the money. The money that goes to churches, the money that is absorbed by people… There's something very unsurprising about that to me, because I've always kind of known it to be the case. 


What's more interesting to me is the amount of time and the structures around how people volunteer their time. There is a real issue within this world of people volunteering and sort of losing themselves in these churches. We spoke to one guy, in particular, who had a very bad experience, where he sort of was volunteered into oblivion. And it's interesting with him because no one's forcing him to do it. There’s a line that comes up in this world: “isn't it great that we don't have to do this, we get to do this”. This is what I mean, when I say that there's a toxic positivity that sits at the core of some of these churches. 

I actually think the way in which these churches can only exist, on the backs of volunteers, is something that's really worth talking about, and there is inherently a very high potential for exploitation.

On that… Hillsong has been described by some as at worst a cult, at best a giant scam where vulnerable people are preyed upon. What’s your take?

I think a community as big as it is probably defies a single word descriptive. But I think it has aspects of all of the above. I think you have to start with why people go in the first place – Pentecostalism is a faith built on feeling. It's about the emotions, and of getting swept up in the emotions. Hillsong didn't invent the mega church, but they kind of perfected it, right?

Why people get in that world, on the one hand, is emotion, and the sense of being swept up and put in an emotional rollercoaster. I also think it's community. Terms like cult or scam… I think there are certainly aspects of the church that those terms are applicable for. I don't think that's inaccurate. But I also don't think it's the only term that you offer. What it looks like from the outside, and what it feels like on the inside, are two very different things. If it didn't offer you something on the inside, people wouldn't go. No one’s holding a gun to your head.

Hillsong really pioneered this very positive, aspirational image of being Christian. It's not just about the wealth and relationships. It's about a sense of belonging, as well. None of these things cancel each other out. And none of them balance each other out. They simply coexist.

The Kingdom is available to stream free on SBS On Demand from Thursday June 8 and will air on SBS on Sunday June 11th at 7.30pm.

Follow Arielle on Instagram and Twitter.

Read more from VICE Australia.