Hillsong Church’s Fall Offers Cautionary Tale
My first exposure to Hillsong Church’s worship music came 25 years ago while attending a series of Friday night meetings at a church in the Louisville, Kentucky area.
While the Shout to the Lord album had been released in the U.S. the year before, I had never heard of it or its popular title track until those meetings.
They were loosely structured and joyous occasions where people danced, jumped and shouted. Sometimes they would play the entire album, which checks in at just under 55 minutes.
Several years later, a friend at a national magazine wrote a story about lyricist Darlene Zschech. I sent my friend an email, kidding that soon people would ask if she was the writer who profiled the Australian church’s worship leader.
Soon after those Friday night meetings, it became common to hear Hillsong’s worship music online, on the radio, and in various church-related gatherings.
When Shout to the Lord 2000 released a few years later, we picked up a copy of the CD and still play it occasionally in the car.
So, when scandal started to engulf the megachurch two years ago after the pastor of its New York affiliate was forced to resign, I felt more sadness than anything.
That sadness continued when the founding pastor stepped down recently for personal indiscretions. The tale has unfolded to a wider audience recently with the Discovery Plus network’s three-part miniseries about Hillsong’s alleged abuses.
While not everything said about Hillsong will be true, there is no mistaking the fact that this affair has inflicted a black eye on the church.
Not just on the Australian and New York outlets, either. By default, all others have been blemished at a time when traditional Christian beliefs are under attack.
What We Can Learn
Since my ties to Hillsong are tangential at best, I can’t speak directly to its woes. Yet I feel its demise, which included half its U.S. affiliates quickly leaving the fold, offer a few cautionary points:
- The need churches have for denominational ties or other, similar oversight
Before becoming a “brand,” Hillsong was part of the Assemblies of God (AG). Given this fact, I couldn’t help thinking of a friend in Louisville who started a church after an unpleasant experience at a non-denominational one.
He chose to affiliate the church with the AG. He told me he had seen too many abuses when pastors didn’t have to answer to the “higher power” of an official who provided oversight and accountability.
- The susceptibility we all have to the lure of riches
One story I read about the Discovery channel’s mini-series mentioned that at one point, Hillsong’s music royalties reached $100 million a year.
While discussing the fallout of the scandal recently at an elders’ meeting at our church, I asked, “What would happen if we had that kind of money rolling through here? We’d probably go off the rails too.”
- Despite this trouble, the body of Christ will continue
In conversation, I’ve discovered that many people (inside and outside church) had never heard of Hillsong’s music or the scandal that engulfed it.
Soon after I read about the Discovery channel’s mini-series, I saw this story about how small, rural churches in Australia were being sold to support growing ones.
The clerk of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria says that while “for sale” signs outside churches may seem to confirm the idea that Christianity is dying, overall attendance is growing and churches are arguably stronger.
In other words, don’t form all your impressions from headlines.