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Reporting the Truth.
Restoring the Church.

Opinion: Hillsong Was Extraordinary. That’s The Problem.

By Amy Julia Becker
hillsong church london extraordinary worship
Hillsong Church London holds four services, attended by 8,000 people, every Sunday at the Dominion Theatre. (Photo courtesy of Hillsong Church London)

The first two episodes of the recent FX documentary, “The Secrets of Hillsong,” detail the downfall of the church in New York City and around the globe.

First, we watch Hillsong NYC and its pastor, Carl Lentz, rise to power and influence. Over the course of a decade, tens of thousands of people, including young people from diverse backgrounds who had abandoned or never attended church before, arrived en masse to hear Lentz preach. Justin Bieber got baptized. Selena Gomez showed up.

Hillsong NYC was a cultural phenomenon. It looked like a rock concert, with a buff, tattooed and yet emotional pastor pacing the stage amidst crescendoing worship songs and powerful words of prayer. All the cool kids lined up outside in their ripped jeans and leather jackets, waiting to attend one of the seven regular weekend services.

But soon we learn what was happening behind the scenes: abuse of power, abuse of finances, sexual misconduct, disregard for women and racial/ethnic/sexual minorities. According to the documentary, this is an Icarus-like fall. Carl Lentz flew too close to the sun of Brian Houston, his mentor and founder of Hillsong who couldn’t stomach the degree of adulation and attention surrounding his protégé. Instead of arranging a cover-up, as Houston did in the case of other potential scandals, he seems to want to oversee Lentz’s disgrace.

But the problem of Hillsong NYC goes deeper than the scandals surrounding a few celebrity pastors. The problem of Hillsong arises with the desire to be an extraordinary church led by extraordinary communicators and extraordinary musicians creating an extraordinary experience. When it comes to church, we don’t need to be entertained. We don’t need to be wowed. We need ordinary churches with ordinary people doing ordinary work in communion with an extraordinarily loving God. 

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Carl Lentz
Disgraced former Hillsong NYC Pastor Carl Lentz. (Instagram Sept. 22, 2018)

For 11 years now, my family has attended a very ordinary church. The building is nondescript, with clean, old red carpet, furniture donated when members were upgrading their living rooms and various works of mediocre spiritual art. The service is standard, with a call to worship and a prayer of confession and some hymns that soar and others that stumble. The people are your everyday sorts, with teachers and plumbers and electricians and secretaries sitting in the pews.

I write that it is all ordinary, but of course, as C.S. Lewis once put it, “There are no ordinary people.” The only people we encounter are those created in the image of God, those formed and shaped with the purpose of participating in God’s work of redemptive love in and among us. And so, when those very ordinary people gather for an ordinary service in an ordinary building on an ordinary Sunday morning, it can become something quite extraordinary.

Our pastor was out of town a few weeks ago, so she asked me to lead the service. I stood up front and looked to the pews as Joan, age 89, passed Communion to our daughter Marilee, age 12. Nearly eight decades apart, they looked each other in the eye before they shared the broken body and blood of Christ. When I stood in the pulpit to receive people’s prayer requests, I noticed a visiting family with a daughter with Down syndrome. Our daughter Penny is 17, and she also has Down syndrome. In the past few years, our congregation has welcomed a toddler with autism and other teenagers with intellectual disabilities. And here a new family sat, another unexpected indication that after years of this church welcoming Penny without any fanfare or special programs, other families with kids with disabilities might find this a safe and welcoming place, too. 

I gazed out upon the congregation and I saw the single moms. I saw the older man who was told as a child that he wasn’t smart, the one who is now reading through the Bible on his own and soaking in the story of God’s big, wide, long love for humanity. I saw the stories of loss and the stories of hope. 

We are the antithesis of Hillsong, in part because we are situated in rural Connecticut with an aging population. But ordinary churches can thrive in cities, too. The recent death of pastor and author Tim Keller, founder of Redeemer Church, also in New York City, underscores this truth. Yes, Keller’s preaching was extraordinary. And yet Redeemer worked hard not to become an extraordinary church. Keller himself was shaped and formed as a pastor in Hopewell, Virginia, with a small congregation of blue-collar workers. The spirit of that community carried to Redeemer, where Keller preached from behind a music stand wearing nondescript clothing flanked by traditional prayers and hymns. Keller established multiple churches throughout the city rather than one central megachurch dependent upon his presence.

Tim Keller (Courtesy Photo)

Ordinary churches can be liberal and conservative in their theology. They can be found in cities and suburbs and on rural country roads. But they are all places where people find simple ways to connect to a transcendent, loving, guiding power outside of themselves. They are places where an unexpected community of diverse ages, abilities and backgrounds gathers to provide support and friendship and care. They are places going through the ordinary motions of reading the Bible, serving Communion, praying, eating together, caring for one another and caring for their community and expecting the Spirit of God to show up in their midst.

There are plenty of places to be impressed and entertained. Church does not need to be one of them. And let’s be clear: ordinary, non-impressive churches have plenty of flaws, but they are less likely to develop narcissistic leaders and toxic cultures. They are more likely to be dependent upon the work of the ordinary people. The power of the Christian gospel is not made manifest through celebrity sightings in the pews or auditoriums flooded with hipsters. The power of the gospel is made manifest when broken people gather together in ordinary spaces to participate in God’s ongoing, extraordinary work of love in this world.

This editorial, which was first published by Religion News Service, does not necessarily reflect the views of The Roys Report.

Amy Julia Becker is the author of four books including her most recent, “To Be Made Well: An Invitation to Wholeness, Healing, and Hope.” She hosts the “Love Is Stronger than Fear” podcast.

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9 Responses

  1. Thank you for this. It’s a great read.
    “When it comes to church, we don’t need to be entertained. We don’t need to be wowed. We need ordinary churches with ordinary people doing ordinary work in communion with an extraordinarily loving God.” THIS. Just an observation: There seems to be much effort put forth, on the part of little “c” churches, to build their own kingdoms rather than following the Lord in seeking His. When we hold some but not all (“leadership”) to the standard of following Scripture and are more focused on what the front page of the newspaper says about us (as was the case in the last little “c” church I attended) than who Jesus is and how He loves, calls, and transforms lives, something is just not right. To borrow a line from “Field of Dreams” (and edit it), “If you teach it (The Bible), they will come.” We just made a switch a few months ago from a church with mega-aspirations that included a mandatory signed membership “covenant” document in order to participate in basic fellowship and community, to our neighborhood church and already have made more solid connection there than we did in the past 7 years at the former. Not that it can’t be done, but I’m just seeing the wisdom in the neighborhood/community/house church model. Either place, may it be that the Word of God is taught and followed for all.

    1. Andrea, I was going to leave a comment on this interesting article, and then I noticed that everything that I wished to say was included, and communicated better already, in your words here. – so i say… ‘amen’.

  2. I’m a retired pastor who has seen a lot in my 88 years. came out of a cult at 39, fully alive in Christ. At about 42, left my secular job and been serving God ever since. First, reaching out to those lost in spiritual darkness Became a pastor in the late 90s and preached my last sermon last February. So many churches have gone apostate and pastors who have become their own superheroes that I feel like they have fallen into a cult condition, Racing back and forth across stages set up with smoke machines and strobe lights flashing across to congregation, they have become stars of their own Hollywood productions. We are now in the post-Christian era and every one of us needs to stand strong. Ephesians 5 strong. Keep up the battle for these lost people.

  3. I would argue that Hillsong has many ordinary, broken people who use their gifts to create an environment for God to be glorified, to move and for the Holy Spirit “to show up in their midst.” I’m sure the leaders in all of the sites can look out across the congregation and see how God is moving in their midst in relationships or ordinary people.
    Amy, have you been to a Hillsong service?
    Why do we have to settle for an “ordinary” building, sanctuary or service? Why can’t we do things with excellence that draw unbelievers into the space, so they can experience the movement of the Holy Spirit?
    I understand what you are saying, and our churches should not be “personality” focused churches. Clearly things can get out of control, but it seems you are throwing the baby out with the bath water. Obviously, every church has its faults, every church has ordinary people doing the Father’s work. Hillsong has been a target for some time, I get it. But much good has come out of there for the whole world and I am sure on a local basis. Their campus in Sydney has produced some extraordinary Worship music, by ordinary people and again, I would guarantee that the surrounding community has been touched by the Father’s love through the ordinary people.

    1. Well said. I know Hillsong Paris is a very healthy congregation. Hillsong Australia may not have the best leadership but you can’t blame the worship leaders. Same can be said about vertical and harvest bible church.

  4. I thought the article was excellent. I just finished the series recently. I am sickened and saddened that the church is ever attached to this type of horrible irreprehensible behavior. Not just with Hillsong but with James MacDonald and Ravi and so many, many more, I just can’t get over the abuse. The abuse of power, the greed, sexual predator church leaders???? The church should be and should WANT to be completely transparent. All that secret stuff…I just don’t feel there is anything, anything at all, that good can come from that. I can’t see any scenario where NDAs should be a part of any church. Bring that crap out into the LIGHT. Don’t hide your transgressions. Where is that at any time, taught from the Bible. I’m sick of hearing about pastors sexually abusing children, trafficking children for sex, the Frank Houstons. What is happening?! How can this be happening? I don’t get it. And misusing offerings and gambling addictions, your wife having a boy sex toy for a boyfriend while you watch as in the case of Jerry Falwell Jr. Each time I hear this stuff, I think it can’t possibly get any worse, but it does. I long for simple, ordinary. Where they post the attendance and the weekly offerings at the front of the church for all to see. God have mercy! I don’t think Jesus would even go to many of the churches we have these days. Maybe even be unwilling to sing the “expensive” HIllsong, Bethel, etc worship music!

  5. I’ve been a part of a number of churches and other organizations of varying sizes, and power struggles seem to be common to almost all of them. Of course some problems in mega churches are unique to them. For instance, by definition, most attendees cannot have a close relationship with their senior pastor. That means most of them cannot know him well enough to hold him accountable, and he cannot know them well enough to provide knowledgeable, targeted pastoral care to them.

  6. “Our pastor was out of town a few weeks ago, so she (??????) asked me to lead the service.”
    I guess Saddleback has a mandate to challenge the SBC.

  7. However, with so many of the books, broadcasts, devotionals, studies, etc. coming out of the big organizations, how do you keep them from impacting the small congregations? You may be a small congregation without the trappings of a megachurch, but you are still influenced by these behemoth organizations. Do you use their books/studies for your Sunday morning Bible class? Julie just did a podcast series on how a handful of megachurches produce the majority of praise music. Do you sing those songs on Sunday morning at your small, local church? What about during the week – does your membership listen to the radio sermons produced by the megachurches? I think staying away from the influence of these megachurches is more difficult than it appears.

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