The Untold Truth Of Hillsong Church

Some people believe that there's a house of faith for every type of Christian believer. Whether you are seeking out a place of worship that's small and traditional or one that utilizes more contemporary services, people have a wide variety of choices. While church attendance is down across many denominations, per Gallup, most megachurch brands are experiencing a surprising amount of growth, with 74% of them seeing a rise in attendance, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. One such congregation that has had a swell of numbers is the Australian-based Hillsong Church, whose appeal to the millennial generation has changed the perspective that other church leaders have about how to draw in youth. 

Hillsong stays ahead of the curve when it comes to using modern technology to reach current and prospective members. Their use of original music, unique and strategic branding, and capitalizing on notable celebrities have helped the church move forward with an astounding worldwide membership. However, its success has also come with controversy. Over the last several years, Hillsong has had its foundation shook with scandals ranging from sexual assault allegations to financial inappropriateness.  

Like all megachurches, Hillsong didn't open its doors on day one to a group of thousands of worship-hungry followers. Their story begins like many other churches, with the dream of a pastoral team of a husband and wife who take their chances on their dream of planting a small church. Here is the untold truth of Hillsong Church.

Hillsong grew from humble roots

According to Hillsong, the church was founded in 1983 by Brian and Bobbie Houston in Sydney, Australia. Originally called Hills Christian Life Center (Hills CLC), Christian Today tells of how the Houstons started the church in a public school hall. Brian Houston was no stranger to pastoral life. His father, the late William "Frank" Houston, was the founder of the Sydney Christian Life Center in 1977, as per the Daily Telegraph

After branching out on their own six years later, Brian and Bobbie began a church that, like Frank's, was affiliated with Australian Christian Churches (ACC). The ACC itself is part of a larger group of Pentecostal churches that are affiliated with the World Assemblies of God, which Religion News Service states are the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world.

As AllMusic details, with 45 initial members, the husband-and-wife ministry team was just getting started. Within four years the membership grew to 900. Brian Houston launched the first annual Hillsong Conference in 1986 as a way to grow his music ministry and attract other like-minded Christian musicians to an environment that would teach as much as it would nurture.

With a steady stream of followers at church every Sunday and a musical conference that showed growth potential, the Houstons were getting ready to take the praise and worship world by storm. 

The church experienced rapid growth in the 1980s and 1990s

The Hillsong Annual Report issued in 2016 gives a timeline of different projects and programs that the church has created since its inception. As if a growing church and an annual music conference weren't enough to keep the founders busy, the CityCare program was established in 1987. According to Hillsong, CityCare is a neighborhood-based outreach program that partners with local communities and charitable organizations to create programs that are tailored to help foster healthy families and "create safe and inclusive communities." 

The church, originally known as Hills CLC, branched out into the world of television in 1996, launching Hillsong TV. The ability to air their services gave them more reach and more followers. With membership continuing to grow to support the programs, the church's popularity was soon to explode. According to The Guardian, Frank Houston was forced to retire from his post at Sydney Christian Life Center in 1999, with his son Brian Houston assuming pastoral duties there. In 2001, Hills CLC and the Christian Life Center formally merged into one entity, renamed and rebranded as Hillsong (per the statement made by Brian Houston to the Royal Commission in 2014).

With so many moving parts, you'd think it would be difficult to pick one that would be the dominating force that continued to propel the church forward with growth and global reach. But with Hillsong, it's fairly easy to point out that the leaders knew a great way to foster growth is with music.

The church's music has Grammy accolades

Since the first Hillsong Conference in 1986, the church has learned to capitalize on music to increase church membership, as well as market a product that draws substantial revenue. The Hillsong Annual Report tells us that Hillsong recorded and released their first album in 1988. Hillsong details that they have since branched out in several directions with their music, all with different aims. Young & Free is the youth music ministry that has produced six albums, two of which were nominated for Grammys. Hillsong UNITED is the church house band, of sorts. Led by the Houstons' son, Joel Houston, they have released 12 albums, including one that achieved double-platinum status in the United States. Hillsong Worship is the church's brand of praise and worship music. Under this name, nearly 40 albums have been released, with the song "What a Beautiful Name" receiving a Grammy in 2018.

Reporter Amanda Luz Henning Santiago writes for Business Insider that attending a Hillsong church service is similar to going to a concert. Long lines of mostly younger millennials wait to get inside mega venues in urban areas that also host touring international bands. Once inside, the music is the most dominant part of the service — the casual attire, stage show, and live band giving the entire service a vibe that Santiago writes is "concertlike."

Its music is globally successful

While topping Billboard charts in various categories in the U. S. and Australia, the various incarnations of Hillsong's message have been heard in their songs that are played all over the world. While Hillsong Worship has limited tours in select cities, Hillsong United goes on full-fledged world tours. Songkick lists past touring schedules for the band that includes tour dates all over North and South America, as well as Europe. Along with filling megachurches with fans along with their tours, Hillsong United can pack a larger concert arena in a major city the way touring secular bands would do. 

With worldwide success comes a lot more streams, as well. Fader reports that songs released by all three Hillsong bands have had on-demand streams that have exceeded 760 million since December 29, 2017. The outlet puts it into a unique perspective, claiming that this number of streams is only about 10 million less than global hitmaker Justin Bieber had over the same timeframe.

Helping with the global success of Hillsong United is how Hillsong has a continued growth trajectory across six continents. 

The church is a global franchise

Hillsong has grown by an impressive magnitude since 1983. They have a global reach within the World Assemblies of God, an organization that claims to have 160 national church bodies that stretch more than 370,000 churches with a combined church membership of 70 million worldwide (via World Assemblies of God Fellowship).

Hillsong, according to The Conversation, has grown to become a global franchise. The annual conference that began in 1986 has grown to include multi-day conferences in major world cities that include London and New York City. Global marketing campaigns that include massive billboard advertisements in the months leading up to these conventions help to keep the brand in front of countless numbers of people. 

Hillsong states that they now have churches in 30 countries on six continents. These include 38 churches in Australia, 10 in England, and dozens more in mainland Europe. In the U.S., Hillsong has planted worship centers from coast to coast in cities that include New York, Kansas City, Dallas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. 

The television show that began in 1996 has grown from an Australian audience to one that is seen in 150 countries. Christian Today reports that Hillsong launched a live 24/7 network in 2016 that gives viewers a chance to see services and programs from Hillsong churches all over the world.

Hillsong has had a number of scandals exposed

Hillsong is no stranger to scandal, and they seem to be mounting lately. The church has been plagued with sexual misconduct accusations against Brian Houston, with multiple women reporting that he engaged in inappropriate behavior toward them. The accusations have led Hillsong Church to claim that their founder breached their code of conduct, according to CBN NewsAustralian Broadcasting Company reports that during a video conference of an estimated 800 global staff members, interim Global Senior Pastor Phil Dooley discussed the indiscretions of his predecessor. The Hillsong Global Board released a statement that read, "We apologize unreservedly to the people affected by Pastor Brian's actions and commit to being available for any further assistance we can provide."

But Brian's alleged behaviors with these women aren't the first time he has been mired in controversy. The Guardian reports that he was charged in August 2021 for allegedly concealing child sexual abuse from the police. Authorities in Australia purport that this stems from Brian knowing that his father, Frank Houston, had victimized as many as nine young boys going back to the 1970s.

The controversies aren't the Houstons alone, however. The New York Post reports that the church closed its Dallas branch in 2021 after complaints of financially inappropriate behaviors by pastors. 

These are among multiple scandals that have emerged about the megachurch. 

Hillsong has taken strong anti-science positions

Apart from the scandals it has been likened to, Hillsong has also been engaged in controversies involving their stance on academic issues. In a statement released by the church in 2006, they declared their belief that God created the world, and that the universe itself was the result of intelligent design. They further stated that they held a belief that since science is part of the search for truth that it is critical that science be taught in school in a way that would "include all valid viewpoints of the origins of life and the universe, including intelligent design."

Interestingly enough, Joel Houston, after being questioned about lyrics in one of Hillsong United's songs that seem to support evolution, went on the record stating that he thought that the widely accepted scientific theory is "undeniable," as per Christian Today. This sparked some outrage among fellow evangelicals who weren't supportive of his statement. As the debate played out over Twitter, Joel seemed to backtrack, stating that he doesn't "believe in evolution as a theory of source" but rather "merely a pattern of nature — created by God."

The church is now autonomous

After the merging of Hills CLC and Sydney Christian Life Center in 2001, the resulting Hillsong brand retained its membership in the ACC. But after more than a decade of solid growth all over the world, Hillsong began to experience some pretty severe growing pains. That explains part of why Hillsong decided to part ways from the ACC in mid-2018.

In a letter to the ACC written by Brian Houston that year, Eternity News reports that the split from the ACC was not from dissatisfaction with the group but rooted in the reality that Hillsong was more global than Australian. With the massive growth all over the world over recent years, Houston and fellow church leaders felt that Hillsong was no longer an "Australian Church with a global footprint, but rather a global church with an Australian base." He went on to state that the global headquarters weren't even in Australia and had been moved to the U.S. 

The split was amicable for both sides. Wayne Alcorn, president of the ACC, likened the departure of Hillsong from the group he leads to a child becoming an adult. He stated that Australia served as a jumping-off point for Hillsong, and that the church further establishing a global identity was dependent on their autonomy. But he insisted that the "relationship between Hillsong Church and the ACC is strong."

Hillsong kept a strong reach virtually throughout the Covid-19 pandemic

With the year 2020 came the global pandemic and the drastic decrease of in-person church attendance. The New York Post reports that church attendance hit an all-time low during the pandemic, though it states that there could be other factors at play here other than just Covid-19. But Hillsong didn't seem to falter much during the first year of the pandemic. Using virtual services and their 24/7 global television network throughout 2020, Hillsong's 2020 annual report showed growth and a lot of promise for the church.

Though in-person church services were suspended in the early days of the pandemic, there were reports of the church violating Covid-19 protocols across the globe, including one in Australia in March 2020 (via Daily Mail). 

But the church began tracking virtual sermon attendance throughout the remainder of 2020. They claimed nearly 450,000 virtual members every weekend for that year, as per the 2020 annual report.

As of February 2022, Hillsong's most current global attendance report claims 150,000 average weekly in-person attendees (via Hillsong).

Hillsong is governed by a board of global members

The global church that Hillsong has become has resulted in the church needing a board of governors that come from all reaches of the planet. The members of this board range from Australian members George Aghajanian (who is the general manager and director of Hillsong Australia) and Benjamin Houston (who led the Hillsong Extension services) to London-based Russell Dacre (via Hillsong).

Elsewhere around the world, there are global board members in the U.S., South Africa, and India.

The Hillsong Global Board governs the church in tandem with the Hillsong Eldership, which is based in Australia. Aside from his pastoral duties, Brian Houston was also Hillsong's Global Senior Pastor and the organization's chairman. The New York Post reports that Brian Houston stepped away from his board duties in September of 2021 so that he could deal with the legal charges against him. The outlet states that he left his position as chairman entirely in January 2022.

Hillsong has used celebrities to grow its brand around the world

Hillsong has attracted more than its fair share of celebrities. But with a church that has been engineered to appear hip and relevant to the millennial generation, the concert-like atmosphere and hit albums make appearances from the rich and famous at their services seem par for the course.

Justin Bieber, reports People, is one of the earliest celebrities to be a regular attendee at Hillsong. He started attending in 2017 and became a friend to former Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz. Lentz was reported to be a mentor to the young performer. Though critical of the Hillsong church lately, per Variety, Bieber helped get the church noticed by his ever-growing fanbase. He was known to bring those he was in relationships with to Hillsong, including Selena Gomez.

Yahoo reports that other famous attendees of Hillsong include Kendall and Kylie Jenner, Nick Jonas, Austin Butler, and NBA players Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.