For This Megachurch, a 'Swift and Stunning Decline'

In just a few weeks, more than half of Hillsong's US churches shutter
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 30, 2022 1:17 PM CDT
Hillsong Fallout Continues After Leader Steps Down
In this Oct. 7, 2014, photo, Brian Houston, founder of the Australia-based Hillsong Church, is seen in Sydney.   (Mick Tsikas/AAP Image via AP)

Just two weeks ago, Hillsong Church—the popular Sydney-based megachurch that has counted Justin Bieber, Bono, actor Chris Pratt, and the NBA's Kevin Durant among its devotees—had 16 campuses spread across the US from coast to coast. Now, in a plotline that seems lifted from The Righteous Gemstones, the institution that the New York Times says was once "the leading edge of cool Christianity" has suffered "a swift and stunning decline," marked by the resignation of its leader (and others) and the shuttering of more than half of those 16 campuses.

First came the downfall of Brian Houston, the church's 68-year-old founder. The Times notes he first stepped away from his ministry duties in January while getting ready to fight a criminal charge related to sexual abuse allegations against his late father, who'd also been a pastor. Houston was accused of covering up that sexual abuse. Last week, things got worse for Houston after an internal probe found he'd behaved in an "inappropriate" way with two women, thereby breaching Hillsong's code of conduct. He officially resigned in full. Discovery+ followed up that news Thursday with the release of a scathing three-part documentary that delves into the "alleged exploitation, abuse, and cover-ups" at Hillsong.

A series of other resignations have also taken place over the past week. Per 11Alive, Sam Collier, the pastor of the church's Atlanta branch, announced he'd be leaving due to the ongoing scandals. Meanwhile, the New York Post reports that Terry and Judith Crist, co-pastors of Hillsong's member church in Phoenix, made a similar decision after "much prayer and pastoral counsel." Other member campuses have also since quietly bowed out of the picture, leaving just nine out of the 16 up and running.

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The megachurch's troubles reach back to Houston's 2020 firing of Carl Lentz, the pastor for the New York City branch who was close to Bieber and a mini-celebrity all his own—until he admitted to multiple extramarital affairs and Houston accused him of "general narcissistic behavior, manipulating, [and] mistreating people," as well as "breaches of trust." It's not clear what's next for the megachurch, but Houston is already on his apology tour, sending his regrets—especially to his wife, Bobbie—via email on Wednesday to Eternity News. "I have let you down so badly and sorry will never be enough to express my sorrow," he tells his former congregants, insinuating that alcohol played a part in his failings. "This is not the way I imagined it to end." (More megachurches stories.)

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