A new documentary by the BBC on Hillsong Church reveals new insight into the global evangelical church network’s celebrity culture, sex scandals, and questionable financial dealings.
The 94-minute film, titled “Hillsong Church: God Goes Viral,” features footage captured during two years London-based producer Nick Aldridge spent with Hillsong leaders. First aired July 21 as part of BBC Four’s Storyville documentary series, it includes clips from about a dozen of Hillsong’s 37 churches worldwide, notably in the US, UK, and Australia.
The film opens with a bang, as Hillsong’s dance production at a 2016 conference features routines akin to Cirque du Soleil and fireworks on stage. This presentation of Hillsong as more glitz than substance continues throughout the film.
In one eye-opening sequence, Hillsong London youth minister Daniel Blythe takes his core team of college-age leaders to a tattoo parlor. They all get matching “70×7” indelible marks, calling it a tribute to the gospel message of forgiveness. Upon the tattoo artist completing her work, one of the guys jokingly remarks: “It is finished!”
Recruited away this past spring by another UK megachurch, Blythe provides particularly candid remarks in the film.
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“I’m in the full Hillsong starter pack,” he says in an interview alongside his wife Charlie. “I’ve got the fedora. I’ve got the leather. I’ve got the boots and the skinny (jeans).” Charlie pipes up: “And a beautiful wife on his arm!”
The 20-something hipster couture couple seem to embody the Hillsong ethos of confident spirituality, with their stated goal “to engage young people,” eclipsing focus on doctrine or discernment. “We’re the ones that God has empowered,” says Blythe. “We’re the ones God is using. If you do want to experience Jesus, we know how you can.”
Through interviews, clips of public ministry, and these kinds of behind-the-scenes moments, “God Goes Viral” presents a wide-angle lens focus on Hillsong, which reportedly has over 150,000 people in weekly attendance and $150 million annual revenue.
“Churches are usually old, boring, irrelevant, and empty,” says Hillsong founder and global senior pastor, Brian Houston, in the film. “I always thought church should be enjoyed, not endured, with plenty of life and spontaneity in it. It’s an exciting place to be, and it’s full.”
Houston, who is based in Sydney, Australia, granted the filmmaker a sit-down interview along with his wife, Bobbie. Houston now is denouncing the film as “grossly exaggerated” and “intentionally skewed,” and says he regrets granting the BBC an interview and so much access to Hillsong staff.
The film comes following a year of turmoil for Hillsong, with allegations of sexual and financial misconduct, leading to several pastoral resignations. In April, Hillsong even shut down its Dallas campus after reports that the pastors had used church donations to fund their lavish lifestyle.
The most detailed documentation of alleged financial misdeeds comes in interviews with former Hillsong East Coast staffer Megan Phalon. Echoing previous reporting about the church formerly led by Carl Lentz, she noted that Lentz and all pastors were given prepaid credit cards for church-related expenses.
“When I had to match what the receipts were for and why they were spent, I realized the pastors were using the cards to expense their lifestyles,” she said.
Along with designer clothes and other questionable expenses, Phalon noted that “$600 meals in high-end restaurants” were charged to the church. She recounts raising questions to an associate pastor to whom she reported, who she said quickly tabled the matter.
Similar to Phalon, who left the NYC church in 2015, several young adult volunteers from various Hillsong campuses, who are also disaffected, tell their stories in the film. Following their years of service to the church accruing value only to top leaders, they see the model as exploitative.
However, in crafting its narrative, the film arguably exploits some interview subjects.
Hillsong San Francisco pastor Brenden Brown granted the filmmaker close access to his family, including his two young children. Both of them suffer from a chronic skin condition and are shown wincing in pain.
Those moments are intercut with scenes of Brown praying for healing at a worship service, raising questions of whether such beliefs are hypocritical due to his family members’ maladies.
“Grossly out of context”
Having seen the film that resulted after a year of editing, Houston and his team say they regret aiding the documentary effort.
Filmmaker Aldridge was given extensive access over two years, even tailing church leaders on a tourism trip to Jerusalem. (In Israel, Hillsong staff are shown making culturally insensitive comments and drinking water at the Western Wall intended for hand-washing.)
“(It) fails to meet a basic level of journalistic integrity,” stated Hillsong. “Much of the footage has been taken grossly out of context and sewn together to create storylines that simply do not reflect reality. We now question if this project was ever intended to be fair or balanced.”
Similarly, Hillsong UK member Bob Barker criticized Aldridge in his online review. “(He) weed(ed) his way into the church, only to look for the sensational and not build an accurate, helpful picture,” wrote the lay leader.
Further disputing specific scenes, Hillsong released a separate 400-word statement about their systems of financial accountability.
One bullet point states: “No Hillsong staff member has unrestricted access to church funds. Period.” Another notes: “Personal expenditures are not permitted to be charged to church credit cards.”
The Roys Report reached out to Hillsong for further comment, but their PR firm did not reply.
Sex abuse by Houston’s father
The film spends a quarter of its runtime reviewing sordid details related to Frank Houston, Brian’s father and himself a charismatic minister. Prior to his death in 2004, Frank Houston sexually assaulted at least one, and likely several children over years.
Starting in 2012, Australian officials convened The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The film uses clips of Brian Houston appearing before that panel in 2014. “It was indefensible what he did,” said Houston.
Last week, Hillsong released its most comprehensive statement on the late Frank Houston’s crimes of sexual assault. “To our knowledge, Hillsong Church is not and has never been under investigation (related to these incidents),” reads an excerpt from their 600-word statement.
‘Uncomfortable but important’ viewing
Writing in UK outlet Premier Christianity, local church lay leader Tim Bechervaise calls the doc “uncomfortable but important viewing.”
He writes: “Secular documentaries on Christianity often have a sceptical bent, but they can be invaluable for exposing deficiencies and sounding warnings. Watching (this film) can be an instructive exercise for all of us.”
In recent months, Houston has apologized “unreservedly” for church leaders’ failings. He and Hillsong leaders say they are reassessing policies surrounding pastoral accountability.
With two upcoming docuseries on Hillsong currently in production, purportedly based on religion reporters’ years-long investigations, church leaders will likely have further opportunities to answer questions surrounding the global network.
Originally aired on July 21, “Hillsong Church: God Goes Viral” is currently available to watch in the UK on BBC Four.
Freelance journalist Josh Shepherd writes on faith, culture, and public policy for several media outlets. He and his wife live in the Washington, D.C. area with their two children.