Written by Guest Author: Liam Toolan
“It’s a cult, a business and didn’t the pastor’s father sexually assault someone?” Comments we have all heard too often.
After witnessing the unjustified hate around Hillsong I seek to address the misconceptions a politically biased media has constructed upon a church of Pentecostalism. No, I am not “indoctrinated” and that is not what Hillsong seeks to do. Yes, I agree the church is not perfect. However, like majority of society I originally had my scepticism but after over a year of research and observation I finally understand the purposeful intentions of the church and encourage you to as well.
Primarily people criticise the church for being a business. Truth is Hillsong is a business (and they’re damn good at it), all churches are, however what is important is what is done with that money. Each year the Church releases a legally binding financial report to reveal where the people’s investments are allocated.
Ok, this is great, but let’s speak math. In 2016, average weekend attendance in Australia was 37,384, and Hillsong revenue was $130, 978,056. The report states that 56% of this was from donations meaning that 73,347,767 came from local donations, which equates to an average of $1962 per attendee. This means in accordance with the average income Hillsong members gave an average of 2.4% of their income, placing them in par with other Christian groups such as the Sydney Anglicans (2017 eternity News). Therefore, despite the common belief that the church forces you to “tithe” it does not but rather encourages members to give if they can to the same extent as other churches, as Mathew 2:16 “for where your treasure is your heart will be also”. This money is not given to the media portrayed “God’s millionaires” (Word Press 2018). With an average salary at $65,345 for a pastor and primarily volunteer-based workforce, the church is not “robbing people” (Paysa 2020). Yes, the Pastor is wealthy, but he is also one of history’s most successful Pastors through founding Hillsong and serving as the National President of Australia Christian Churches from 1997-2009 (Information cradle 2020).
However, his earnings are not entirely raised from the church. Brian receives his income from Hillsong Church (determined by the Hillsong board) and Leadership Ministries; however, majority of his wealth is accumulated in assets such as property, Hillsong Music Australia, Brian Houston TV and 14 authored and published books. “Majority of his earnings are pumped back into the church helping it to grow further” (Information cradle 2020). Evidence of this is despite his estimated net worth of 10 million dollars the pastor’s primary liabilities are his house in Glenhaven worth 1.6 million (Sydney standard), unit in Bondi (1 million), and cars worth a total of $120 thousand which are all used for church events. He does not flaunt his money, is unfairly portrayed by the media despite working as hard as most hedge fund managers in Australia and commonly campaigns against fridge benefits for pastors.
It’s also important to note that his personal earnings are taxed. His family are on staff payments from the church and legally do not have access to Church finances despite popular opinion (Hillsong Media 2010). Thus, the media have over exemplified and unfairly depicted the use of Hillsong’s funds and taxing the church would simply reduce the efforts of all Australian churches in aiding the poor, disenfranchised, hurting and most importantly spreading the love of God.
Moreover, the ideology that the church is a religious cult is entirely unjustified. A cult is “a religious group that denies one or more of the fundamentals of biblical truth” and specifically tries to prevent a saving relationship with Jesus Christ (Compelling truth 2018). However, I understand why individuals may initially interpret Hillsong to have “cult-like qualities”. Honestly, upon first entering the church, it is quite confronting to absorb all the music, lights, arms raising, the singing and the joy. People misinterpret this, as the process of indoctrinating or possessing churchgoers and brainwashing them to ensure they come back. Although through delving further into the matter, one would understand that this is the way the people praise and celebrate the salvation brought by Jesus.
This physical representation of people’s thankfulness is one of the reasons why Pentecostalism is so successful within the Christian domain. Through the singing and lights, the church seeks to remove mundane experiences of conservative churches and encourages young people to experience the salvation of God. However, the most significant evidence against Hillsong being a “cult” is the testimonies and sermons that both are biblically relevant/accurate and encourage people to think and apply God’s word to everyday life. If the church was a cult, it would remove one’s individual capacity to think, ensuring a collective ignorance that encourages indoctrination and would not preach directly from the bible.
Finally, I would like to address how the media capitalised on unfortunate circumstances to scrutinise Brian Houston for his fathers (Frank Houston) sexual abuse. The pastor was criticised for the lack of response when finding out about his fathers’ offence and was claimed to be left in a situation of “conflict of interest” (The Guardian 2018). The offender revealed the abuse to Pastor Brian in 1999, and he immediately fired his father and removed him from the board. However, the media claims that Brian and the Assemblies of God in Australia did not refer the allegations of child abuse to the police.
This was true but until further investigation into the 2015 Royal Commission report reveals that he was not the only one who knew, and most importantly the victim did not want the abuse to be reported. Pastor Brian then tried to protect the victim by not reporting the abuse to the police (this was the decisions of many others who also knew). It was then later found that Pastor Brian acted “appropriately and legally” as he took immediate action against his father by the Royal Commission; however, this was not reported by the media.
The media loves to belittle the church and Christianity in general at any opportunity they get, simply because articles sell, as people love hearing shocking news that exposes the “so called truth”. Yes, the church is not perfect, but anything that involves humanity is not. Since going to the church, I realised that besides the beautiful people, biblically correct preaching and the music all the church seeks to do is portray the love God has for every one of us and spread that message to the broader community.
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