Insider Reveals Toxic Culture at Hillsong

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The Roys Report
Insider Reveals Toxic Culture at Hillsong
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With churches in 28 countries, attracting hundreds of thousands of regular attenders, Hillsong Global has become one of the most influential evangelical movements in the world. But lately, the church has been rocked by scandal. And in this episode of The Roys Report, you’ll begin to understand why.

Joining Julie is Janis Lagata—a writer, spoken word artist, and podcaster. But what’s most relevant to our conversation is that Janis was part of the team that launched Hillsong New York City. She was part of the elite, inner circle that Janice claims is a hallmark of the privileged, secretive, and toxic culture that pervades Hillsong.

In this podcast, Lagata talks about the “frat-boy” leadership style of former Hillsong celebrity pastor, Carl Lentz. And she explains how she was pre-conditioned to overlook, and even expect, the kind of outrageous behavior she witnessed.

Show Transcript

SPEAKERS

JULIE ROYS, JANICE LAGATA

JULIE ROYS  00:04

With churches in 28 countries, attracting hundreds of thousands of regular attenders, Hillsong Global has become one of the most influential evangelical movements in the world. But lately the church has been rocked by scandal and my guest today helps explain why. Welcome to The Roys Report, a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And joining me today is Janice Lagata. Janice is a writer, a spoken word artist and a podcaster. But what’s most relevant to our conversation today is that Janice was part of the team that launched Hillsong, New York City. And a couple of months ago, she wrote this extremely revealing blog about her time at Hillsong, revealing this toxic underbelly of the church. If you’ve followed the unfolding scandal at Hillsong, you know that it started in New York with the pastor there, Carl Lentz. In November Hillsong, founding Pastor Brian Houston, fired Lentz for breaches of trust and moral failures. Lentz then publicly admitted to an affair. And now sources have come forward saying they reported sexual misconduct by staff members at Hillsong, New York City years ago, but nothing was done. Hillsong has launched a supposed independent investigation into what happened at Hillsong, New York City. But as you’ll hear, that investigation isn’t so independent. And as if this all isn’t bad enough, now we have an exodus of pastors from Hillsong. Two of them, Blaze and Deseret Robertson, resigned without any announcement from Hillsong, Connecticut. Now it appears they’ve been hired by another church in Greenwich, Connecticut. And the Robertson’s have scrubbed their entire social media accounts of any mentions of their years at Hillsong. Similarly, Reed and Jess Bogard, the lead pastors of Hillsong, Dallas, resigned earlier this month. In their brief announcement to the church, the Bogard’s said that 10 years of church planting had taken a toll on them and their family. And they added that they needed to transition off staff to get healthy. Friends, churches are supposed to be places where sick people go to get healthy, not places they flee, to get healthy. So what’s going on at Hillsong? Is the culture there so toxic that people need to leave the movement? Can it be redeemed or does this particular mega church movement need to die? Well, I’m very much looking forward to my conversation with Janice today as I’m sure you are as well. But first let me just take a minute to thank my sponsors, Judson University and Marquardt of Barrington. Judson is a top ranked Christian university providing a caring community and an excellent college experience. Plus the school offers more than 60 majors, great leadership opportunities and strong financial aid. Judson is located on a beautiful 90 acre campus just 36 miles northwest of Chicago. For more information, or to schedule a visit, just go to Judsonu.edu/visit. Also, if you’re in the market for a car, I highly recommend my friends at Marquardt of Barrington. Marquardt is a Buick GMC dealership where you can expect honesty, integrity and transparency. To check them out, just go to buyacar123. com. Well again, joining me is Janice Lagata, a member of the original team that launched Hillsong, New York City. She’s also a prolific writer, exploring things of race, gender, and evangelical Christianity. And she’s the host of a new ex-evangelical podcast known as God Has Not Given. So Janice, welcome, and thanks so much for joining me. 

JANICE LAGATA  03:35

Yeah, happy to be here. Thank you so much for having me. 

JULIE ROYS  03:38

Well, let me just start by asking, because I’ve heard this word before, ex-evangelicalism, it seems like it means different things to different people. So let me just ask you, what does ex-evangelical mean to you? 

JANICE LAGATA  03:49

So for me, it means yeah, I’m no longer evangelical. In my particular brand, I’m not in church, not looking to be. I’m not an atheist. I still do believe in God. I still very much like the Jesus story. And I like what I feel like Christianity was meant to be. But yeah, I am. I consider myself outside of it now. So I don’t I don’t label myself Christian. I don’t label myself non-Christian. A big part of my podcast is kind of, you know, we play a game where we decide week to week whether or not I’m Christian. And either way goes; I’m fine. So that’s, that’s what it is for me. 

JULIE ROYS  04:32

And your spiritual journey, I’m guessing, had a lot to do with your experience at Hillsong. Am I right?

JANICE LAGATA  04:38

It did. Yes. 

JULIE ROYS  04:39

We’re gonna dive into that. And I appreciate you being willing to talk about what happened at Hillsong. I know some of it’s probably kind of painful. Although I also know that sometimes when you have these kind of experiences, talking about it can be cathartic too. Your post, by the way, back in November on Hillsong – I just want to thank you for that. I thought it was extraordinarily well written, but it was also just really enlightening for folks like me. I mean, I knew of Hillsong, but really before everything broke with Carl Lentz, I just thought of it about the music and Darling Czech. So, so yeah, I mean, your post really talked about, I think, below the waterline, okay? Here’s the news of what happened, but below the waterline, here’s, here’s the culture. And that I think, is probably even more important in some ways than the specifics. So I’m just really looking forward to diving into that with you. Before coming to Hillsong, New York City, though, and being part of this whole original launch team, you were in Sydney attending.

JANICE LAGATA  05:49

I was, yeah. 

JULIE ROYS  05:50

And you said that you were like, totally sold on the mission back then. So explain what what did you see at that point as the mission of Hillsong? 

JANICE LAGATA  06:02

Well, the mission really was making God relevant. Because I grew up in church. But for me growing up, it was a very legalistic and very hard to kind of bring it into your, your weekly life felt weird, like Christianity was like embarrassing to me when I was growing up, because it was so different from, you know, the secular world. And so Hillsong did a really good job of blending the two. So it felt like, Oh, this is something I can carry throughout the week. So for me, it was just a very, very relatable Christianity, very relevant, and so something that you could more easily share. And it was, you know, very attractive. So it was just easier to bring people to and to get people into. 

JULIE ROYS  06:48

So how did you end up at Hillsong College in Sydney? 

JANICE LAGATA  06:52

So we knew about Hillsong through the music, you know, the old days, the original Darlene Czech, all that. So using the music in church, and then I, I was I was a musician, and I love music. And so Hillson was like, a good out because it was, oh, I can combine music and church. And this will be something that’s okay. You know, that was something my church approved of, that my mom could support. So, went there was supposed to be there for a year. Ended up staying almost four and a half. 

JULIE ROYS  07:29

Mm hmm. And that was a great experience at the time. 

JANICE LAGATA  07:32

Yeah, it was, yeah, You’re in Sydney and meeting people from all over the world. And, you know, having your faith kind of revolutionized. So it was great. 

JULIE ROYS  07:45

And so then you come to New York City, a part of this, this church plant, and at the beginning, my understanding is Carl and Laura Lentz weren’t a part of it. The leaders were actually Reed and Jess Bogard. 

JANICE LAGATA  07:58

Yes. 

JULIE ROYS  07:59

And of course, Reed and Jess have just been in the news, because they just stepped down as lead pastors at Hillsong, Dallas. And I’d like to ask you about what those early days were like with Reed and Jess. 

JANICE LAGATA  08:11

So I knew I knew her. I knew who they were. So when I moved to New York, and they heard I was in New York, Reed called me, and they, you know, talk to me about, Oh, we’re going to be planting this church, and would you want to be part of it? So I said, Okay. So yeah, so I joined their Connect group. And at first like it was, it was great. They were, you know, trying to get people on board. So they were just really, really nice. And Hillsong has their vision Sunday, at the beginning of every February. And so when that February came up, and we watched the vision Sunday presentation, and they announced that part of their vision for that year would be to have the first, you know, American church, and they were planting it in New York. And I knew, I was like, Oh, this is probably going to become a part of that. And it was a few weeks before, like, they announced it, and it was official, but it did become that. And then with Reed and Jess, it was just funny, because it was like a switch just got flipped. It was like they no longer they no longer had to be friendly, because they knew people wanted to be part of Hillsong. And, you know, that was that was the draw now. And so it became very, very clear, you know, that there was going to be a leadership structure, and that they were on top of it. And we were here to here to serve. So yeah, our relationship dynamics just changed like and it really was just that quick. It was just like an on and off switch. 

JULIE ROYS  09:50

You wrote, We were all servant leaders, emphasis on leader for them, and servant for the rest of us. How did that play out? Like, just practically?

JANICE LAGATA  10:03

We would have the Connect group meetings at their house. And they would have us come early to help clean up their place and rearrange the furniture, and you know, set up the snacks and do all of that. And we also, you know, had to bring the snacks. And, you know, You guys, we have to make sure we’re doing everything with excellence. So, you know, no store brand Oreos, can we get the real ones? And so you know, so you’re coming early to help set up, your buying things to have the snacks and drinks and stuff there. And then you’re staying later to clean up again, and to put stuff back, you know, and make sure you’re tweeting about it, make sure you’re reaching out to your friends. And, you know, so it was just a list of things to do. 

JULIE ROYS  10:51

But did it feel I mean, I’m guessing you’re doing this for God. And, and we are expected to serve and to serve sacrificially. But it sounds like from, from what I got from your blog post, and what you’re saying now, is you guys serve sacrificially. But the leadership seemed to have more of an idea that you guys did the grunt work. And they were above that. Is that accurate? 

JANICE LAGATA  11:15

Definitely. Yeah. Yeah. And I had it pretty easy in some regards. Because like, I never, I never agreed to like babysit their kid. But other people did get roped into that. And they would put hours into that, you know, for free. Just just watching just Judah at that time. 

JULIE ROYS  11:39

I had a conversation with somebody who wanted to remain anonymous, but told me a lot about the early days. She said is that eventually there were people on the payroll, who were basically just nannies for Carl and Laura. So that happened for real?

JANICE LAGATA  11:55

It did. But I’m surprised to hear they were on the payroll. 

JULIE ROYS  11:59

So let’s talk about the transition when Carl and Laura came in. I mean, what explain that. 

JANICE LAGATA  12:06

So with Reed and Jess, like it was never, it was never really assumed that they were going to be the lead pastors. We knew they would be on the leadership team. But we didn’t know who was going to lead the church. I knew of Carl like I had seen Carl, while I was at, in Sydney. He’d come like as a guest speaker. So I remember Oh, like this, this the skinny guy with this long hair that just talked, talked and moved really fast. So I remember thinking, like that guy? Huh. And then it was also weird to me because he was coming from Wave Church. 

JULIE ROYS  12:39

What’s Wave Church? 

JANICE LAGATA  12:41

A mega church, like affiliated with Hillsong-friendly in Virginia. So I was like, Well, he’s been out of like, the Hillsong system for a few years. So it’s strange that they would just give him this straight out of the gate. Right? You know, just felt like, Oh, I would think they would send him back for a little bit of programming first, but I guess. Okay, but you know, he’s doing it with Joel, I guess. So it’s fine.

JULIE ROYS  13:08

At that point did Reed and Jess kind of step out of the picture? 

JANICE LAGATA  13:11

Oh, no. Like, they were still very much like on the ground during the day, doing the day to day kind of stuff. Because even when Carl and Laura came. And I don’t know that Carl and Laura particularly wanted it to be set up this way. But Reed and Jess just kind of immediately started putting barriers between them and the rest of us. And it was pretty clear that they wanted everything to go through them. Like if you wanted to talk to them, or have any contact with them, or tell them anything like Oh, no, like we’re not we don’t want to bother them. So just talk to us tell us. And even like when I first met Carl, it was outside of the TBN studios. When Brian and Bobby had come and they were going on. I don’t even remember whatever the TBN show was, to announce, you know, we’ve got our church starting in New York soon. And Carl and Laura were there. And because I had gone to the college, I knew Laura’s mom. She had been one of my teachers. And so after, after the show, I was trying to go say ‘Hi’ to Laura’s mom, and Jess like stopped stop me like step between us and stop me. No, no, like they’re all really tired and we’re not bothering them. 

JULIE ROYS  14:26

Hmm. Wow. 

JANICE LAGATA  14:29

And so Laura’s mom saw me and called out to me Oh, hey, come meet my daughter and come meet my son in law. So like I got to bypass Jess in that moment. 

JULIE ROYS  14:39

But she was like a handler. 

JANICE LAGATA  14:41

Yeah, yeah. Huh. Yeah. 

JULIE ROYS  14:43

Wow. So and, and when Carl came. I was told this by my my source that I talked to, that, like mostly volunteers, I understand that you guys were pretty much dirt poor. 

JANICE LAGATA  14:56

Yeah. 

JULIE ROYS  14:57

And Carl comes and rents an apartment for him and his family in an area of the city called Williamsburg, which was extremely pricey. 

JANICE LAGATA  15:08

Yes. 

JULIE ROYS  15:09

And he puts the church office, which really wasn’t a public office, kind of a private, like only few people knew about it, put that in the building where his apartment was, even though that wasn’t convenient for anybody, because nobody else lived in this pricey neighborhood. Is that right? 

JANICE LAGATA  15:25

Right. Yeah. 

JULIE ROYS  15:26

So there was not only disparity in roles, but there was a huge disparity in income, in lifestyle. 

JANICE LAGATA  15:38

Yeah, immediately. Like, I don’t remember ever thinking, Oh, this is an expensive place. I actually might have thought, Oh, it might be kind of cheap, because it is so far out of the way. Like, it’s, you know, it was like a 10 minute walk from the train. And, you know, just look really industrial, you know, had several friends who were, you know, part of the nanny team. 

JULIE ROYS  16:03

Wow! Okay.

JANICE LAGATA  16:04

You know, knowing how much time they were spending there, and how, how they weren’t getting paid. You know, like I said, it’s a 10 minute walk from the train. And, you know, these girls would be leaving late at night. And you know, just little things like, Oh, like, why they’re not driving them to the train, like they’re having to walk again through this industrial kind of area late at night. So I’d think things like that were like some of the first signs of like, wait, they don’t, they’re not really caring for people. 

JULIE ROYS  16:33

So your job, at this time, I’m assuming it evolved over the years. But initially, you were on a stage managing team. Is that right? 

JANICE LAGATA  16:43

Yes. Yeah. 

JULIE ROYS  16:44

And you got to be a background vocal, but with a mic. But your mic wasn’t turned on?

JANICE LAGATA  16:52

Yeah. Yeah. But that wasn’t that was probably a year and a half, two years in before I ascended to that.

JULIE ROYS  17:00

Wow! Well, well, at least you were good looking enough to be on stage. But not with a good enough voice. Is that it? Wow! So that, so people got put on stage for what they look like, is that right? 

JANICE LAGATA  17:15

I think so. There is very much a look at well, for guys, it’s different. My guys didn’t have to be particularly good looking. It was just, you know, this grungy kind of hipster, cool, kind of look. When we first started, I did want to be on the worship team. You know, and I felt like I had a pretty good chance, but I was not that many of us here. And I’ve been here from the beginning. And I was not, you know, was not chosen for that. Like they they put me put me backstage. No, you can you can do the stage managing. So I don’t remember thinking at the time, Oh, they’re just like picking the good looking people. And I guess that’s good, because that would have hurt my feelings. But as time went on, and people, people would say that, and then I think I think I would kind of discount it. Because I’ll be like, no, like, I made it on the team. And I’m not. I’m not a model. You know. Some people with only models can be on worship team. That’s not true, because I’m here. So. 

JULIE ROYS  18:12

And I know you talk about this, there was some diversity, but not in the top leadership. Seemed to be very white male. 

JANICE LAGATA  18:20

Yeah.

JULIE ROYS  18:20

You’re African American. I mean, did you ever feel like you’re being put up there because this was, you know, some sort of token kind of thing? Or did you feel like no, there wasn’t that kind of tokenism going on there? 

JANICE LAGATA  18:35

Yes and no. In the beginning, not as much. I just wasn’t really thinking about it. It’s funny now, because it’s 10 years ago. And I feel like the past five years I think have become people have become very woke and very, very aware of these things. But honestly, the racial dynamics did not even really occur to me, probably until you’re three. 

JULIE ROYS  19:01

And you moved into ghost writing emails, ghostwriting portions of sermons. You talk about this a little bit in your blog post, but you are good enough to do that. But then when they go to hire somebody for these positions, you’d be overlooked. 

JANICE LAGATA  19:18

Yeah. 

JULIE ROYS  19:19

That must have been hurtful. 

JANICE LAGATA  19:20

It was, but also, you know, the programming is fantastic. Because you’re also trained to be checking yourself all the time. And so for me, if I wanted this and I wasn’t getting it, well, it’s probably because I’m being prideful. 

JULIE ROYS  19:43

So you were kind of taught to constantly question yourself. Yet, it doesn’t seem like the leaders that were above you were really questioning a lot of, you know, and again, we don’t know what’s going on inside their heart, but like from what you’re seeing the fruit of it, you’re not seeing them doing that same kind of internal questioning of their motives, of what they’re doing and their behavior. 

JANICE LAGATA  20:04

Right? Yeah. Not Not at all. 

JULIE ROYS  20:08

And you even say, and this line is, you know, actually, I hadn’t heard this before. But Gaslight someone and they’ll serve for a day. Teach them to Gaslight themselves, and they’ll serve forever.

JANICE LAGATA  20:21

Yeah. 

JULIE ROYS  20:22

Powerful.

JANICE LAGATA  20:24

Thanks. Yeah.

JULIE ROYS  20:26

And And at this point, you know, you did talk about your relationship with Carl and it, and like, you guys kind of got along. 

JANICE LAGATA  20:32

We did. Yeah. 

JULIE ROYS  20:34

And so I mean, how would you describe Carl’s personality? What he’s like?

JANICE LAGATA  20:38

Very charismatic, very charming. You know, because I was a stage manager. So I would see him all the time, especially in the early days, because I would be there literally all day. For whatever reason, he liked me, we just clicked. And, you know, for the first few years, it didn’t really mean mean anything. Like I wasn’t asking anything of him. But then once I started kind of looking at the dynamics of things like I would start questioning him, you know, about, why aren’t more women speaking? Where are the people of color?, and those kind of things. And so that was when our relationship kind of took a turn. And I just, we just became a little more antagonistic. Um, but I think he liked that like. And as time went on, I think he was getting less and less of that. And so especially towards, I guess, the end, he would like we would just fight about things a lot. And it would be annoying for me. But then at the same time, I just felt kind of bad for him, because I think I think he likes me because I am one of the only people that kind of push back on him. Because he really was just surrounded by Yes men. 

JULIE ROYS  21:52

And as nice as that must be, it must also feel incredibly fake. Like kind of when you ask your husband whether you’ve gained weight, and he goes, Oh, no. Like you you wouldn’t tell me the truth no matter what. So I mean, yeah, it’s like, I’m sure there was something that he appreciated about somebody who would tell him the truth. And would push back. The person I spoke to this morning, she said to me, that there was some catchphrases at Hillsong. And I think there’s one that that we’ve kind of touched on, but one was, Don’t be offended. What did that mean? Don’t be offended?

JANICE LAGATA  22:28

Like if something happens to you, or someone’s not treating you right? Or they have offended you? Don’t be offended. Like, it’s, that’s what that’s on you. Like you need to do check your heart. That was another phrase. And basically, just get over it and keep keep it moving. 

JULIE ROYS  22:48

Hmm. I mean, there’s there can be a good thing to that. I mean, Proverbs says that A wise man overlooks small offenses. Yet at the same time, there’s also something to be said to keeping short accounts. And if something bothers you, you need to talk about it. If something doesn’t look right, in the leadership, or if you see maybe potential wrongdoing or wrong attitudes, sinful attitudes, you need to confront it. And it doesn’t seem like an environment where that was invited. 

JANICE LAGATA  23:19

No, not at all. 

JULIE ROYS  23:20

Yeah, the source I talked to this morning talked about something called the Velvet Rope culture. Can you tell me what that is? 

JANICE LAGATA  23:27

Yeah, so it’s very much like, you know, Hillson is like an exclusive club. And there are some areas that everybody can go to. And then there are restricted areas, and only the chosen could go there. And you know, there were different levels. So I mean, everyone is welcome out in the main main auditorium. And then the first checkpoint against the first kind of rope would have been, you know, getting into the backstage area. Or even out out in the auditorium. There were also, you know, the reserved seating section. So that that was a velvet rope – at least the first three rows. And you know, depending on what was happening and who’s coming, that could be extended out to ridiculous length would be, you know, this exclusive. Not just anyone could sit there. Like you had to have a reserved seat and be invited. 

JULIE ROYS  24:25

Like, at one point, there’s like nine services at Hillsong. 

JANICE LAGATA  24:30

Yeah.

JULIE ROYS  24:30

It was to the point where people were waiting in lines for hours, is this right, to get into the service? 

JANICE LAGATA  24:37

Yeah. 

JULIE ROYS  24:37

And yet, if you were part of this Velvet Rope Club, you could come in even partway through the service and just walk right in and take a seat, you know, and there’s people out there waiting for hours, but you just you just waltz right in and sit down. Is that right? 

JANICE LAGATA  24:50

Yep, absolutely. 

JULIE ROYS  24:51

Wow! I mean, it’s stunning to me because Jesus talked so much about not showing partiality, and Jesus washed his disciples feet. And he said that whoever wants to be the greatest must be the least. I mean, while you’re seeing this, I mean, you’re reading the Gospels and seeing one type of ethic taught by Jesus. And then you’re seeing people who are talking a lot about Jesus yet don’t seem to be living according to this ethic that He taught. At what point did you just start going, this isn’t adding up? The frog in the kettle. 

JANICE LAGATA  25:23

The reserved seating thing was an issue, honestly, from the beginning. That was something that was just so. So blatant. But that was one of the things that got on the list of, okay, we’re just we’re just, we’re just figuring things out. And, you know, this church just grew way faster than we expected it to. And so we’re just playing catch up. And once we, you know, get a handle on this, things will get better. And we can we can deal with like those small things, then. By the time we get to year two, we get to year three, like these things are already embedded in the culture. And so we see it, but we really don’t even see it anymore.  Yeah, yeah. And again, like I said, there were never not problems. There’s always something else to deal with. And, you know, this is already in place, and people are used to it now. And I mean, celebrities are people too, right? And they do need their space, and they do need their privacy and they don’t want to be bothered. And is it really that bad? So for me, a lot of it kind of like came down to a math problem. It was like, okay, Hillsong is doing so much good. So these little things that I don’t like or that don’t seem right, in the scheme of things, Hillsong is doing enough good to outweigh that. 

JULIE ROYS  26:45

Yeah. every church or religious organization, Christian organization, I’ve reported on where there’s been wrongdoing, that is always the justification. It’s like, well, there’s so much good. And and so that outweighs the bad. And so we’ll just go on with it. Like, I don’t know, biblically, I don’t see it in Scripture, it seems like sin is sin, and you always call it out and you deal with it. But that has become sort of, I would say, the great evangelical rationalization. Where it’s like, Oh, it’s so much good. You know, and even when I report on things, I get so much pushback, because people are like, You’re destroying the the church. And I’m like, No, I’m not. I’m recording what’s happening. The leaders are destroying the church. Their actions are destroying the church. I’m just the messenger. But we shoot the messengers. And when you spoke up, you, you got, you know, a good bit of that. Actually, the source I talked to, is she told me that people will get hired, a lot of the times you’d have extraordinarily qualified volunteers who were running the thing. But the people that would get hired would often be the ones that were the good friends of the leaders. She compared it to kind of like a bunch of frat boys running an organization. Did you feel that way? Do you think that’s a fair characterization? 

JANICE LAGATA  28:02

Absolutely. Yeah. 

JULIE ROYS  28:04

And a catchphrase that was used a lot that she told me about is ‘favor isn’t fair’. interpret that for us ‘favor isn’t fair’.

JANICE LAGATA  28:15

Favor isn’t fair. God chooses who God’s gonna choose. And it’s just not fair. And because, again, at the end of the day, it’s all grace. Right? It’s not about work. You can’t work for this. And so, you know, along with that, the other catchphrase I have grown to hate. You know, ‘God doesn’t call the qualified. He qualifies the called’. 

JULIE ROYS  28:39

So you overlook a qualified person for a position. Put somebody else in there and justifying with God will qualify you for it. 

JANICE LAGATA  28:47

Yeah. Because favor ain’t fair. 

JULIE ROYS  28:49

So it was very much. I mean, everybody recognized this was happening. 

JANICE LAGATA  28:53

Yeah. It’s all couched under this, this is God’s will. Like God is making these decisions. God is telling us who to pick. 

JULIE ROYS  29:00

You can’t really fight with that. I mean, God, yeah. Yeah. I mean, I remember when I was in ministry, that was like the one argument that when people would say, Well, God told me I just feel like no, no, I can’t even discuss that. 

JANICE LAGATA  29:11

Yeah, like it. It just ends conversation. 

JULIE ROYS  29:15

Because what can you say? Yeah. How about this one, ‘You belong, because you choose to belong.’ What does that mean? 

JANICE LAGATA  29:23

We have because it was such an exclusive culture. And so you would feel for many reasons, you know, you would feel like an outcast or you could add, I don’t belong here. And so, you know, they would put that way you’re not supposed to get your validation from anyone else. And if you feel like you don’t belong, that’s on you. Because you belong if you want to belong, yeah. 

JULIE ROYS  29:48

This is spiritual abuse. 

JANICE LAGATA  29:50

Oh, yeah. Now, it’s clear, but at the time, it’s just spiritual.

JULIE ROYS  29:57

And you don’t see when you’re in it, this is being used to manipulate you. People are taking the Word of God and twisting it to manipulate you to get what they want. 

JANICE LAGATA  30:07

Right. 

JULIE ROYS  30:08

Well, what about corruption? Or about just now we know there were multiple adulterous affairs, or at least sexual misconduct on Carl Lentz’s part? You never saw anything like that?

JANICE LAGATA  30:20

No, not personally. No. I remember I did hear a friend of a friend used to kind of hang out with him. And it kind of mentioned, oh, like Carl, Carl is different on the road. And like, now look at them like, well, this I’m not more bothered by it. Why was I just kind of ‘eh’, but also at the same time, like knowing Carl was getting called out for his dumber, dumber stuff. Like, you know, people have seen him smoking. Or, you know, drinking or, like throwing tantrums at, you know, someone’s wedding. But then a lot of that, you know, it was like, Oh, he’s, he’s not perfect. Like, you’re supposed to have grace for your leaders. And you’re supposed to cover your leaders. 

JULIE ROYS  31:10

What about expecting spiritual maturity out of your leaders and them to be like, Scripture says, above reproach? I mean, it just sounds like the standards were so low.

JANICE LAGATA  31:21

 Well, yeah. And, you know, Hillsong is known for a lot of things, but it’s not particularly theological. It’s not, it’s not deep. So a lot of their shortfalls, like they would turn that back on you, and that’s on you to make this to make this work. But at the end of the day, there’s not a lot of spiritual, you know, or a theological depth. No, I do wish Hillsong was more honest about itself and a lot of ways. But like, it is a very seeker friendly place. And it is great probably for maybe the first year or two. But I wish they would be more honest about the fact that no, you actually should outgrow this place. Because it’s not, you’re not gonna find more depth than this. 

JULIE ROYS  32:12

So you ended up leaving, what about three years ago? 

JANICE LAGATA  32:16

Yeah. 2017. 

JULIE ROYS  32:18

Okay. Was that kind of the point in your journey, you were becoming, you know, ex-evangelical like, you just spiritually weren’t sure where you were at? 

JANICE LAGATA  32:28

Looking back now I’m like, Oh, yeah, that was definitely the beginning of it. But at the time, I didn’t know. At that point, it really had to do with, with the racial disparities. It has started bothering me, bother me a lot probably in like, 2015. And because there are so many people of color in Hillsong, doing so much of the work, and just forever being relegated to the background. And so seeing, you know, married white male after married white male and their wives, you know, ascending in leadership. And, you know, forever being told, well, This is this is the choice God has made. God has chosen this. God has chosen this. So then I had to kind of take a step back for myself and be like, Okay, this really bothers me. It doesn’t seem to bother them. So I got, I need to figure out if this bothers you. Because I need to, like, I just need to settle this for myself. Because I can’t. This, this has become an issue between me and God. Because if you really created this vast and wild and wonderful world with all these different types of people, and yet every time you’re putting someone in leadership, you you just always put your hand on this one very particular type of person, I have an issue with that. Because that just doesn’t seem right to me. And so then I started reading more books and looking into more things. And at the end of the day, the conclusion I came to, oh, no, I do think God does care about this. And this place is never, it’s not going to change. And so for me, it’s just not healthy. Like this place is actually damaging, damaging kind of my self esteem and the way that I see myself. So I need to go somewhere where I can see myself. And at that time, because when you’re in Hillsong, Hillsong becomes your world. And this is pretty much all you know of church. And you know, Hillsong is the best. They’re telling you that all the time, and you believe it to a certain extent. So I didn’t even know if what I was looking for was out there. But I knew I just couldn’t be there anymore. So I just I just had to take a risk and say, Okay, I think I don’t know if it exists, but I have to try to find it at least.

JULIE ROYS  34:55

And I’m guessing like your whole group of friends and everything was was connected with Hillsong. So it was kind of like starting over.

JANICE LAGATA  35:02

Yeah. I could have left just as easily probably in 2016. And so the last year, the last year I was there probably had more to do with my, my ego. Man! do I want to give up being at the top of this ladder? Like, I’m not at the top! Like, I still have places I can’t go and things that I can’t do. But I’m not at the bottom. You know, do I want to lose my place in line? Because, you know, man, what if? What if breakthrough was just around the corner? 

JULIE ROYS  35:37

Yeah. Well, and there is an extent to which we have to be, you know, we’re not going to find a perfect church. But at the same time, we need to recognize abuse and corruption. When this came out that Carl Lentz had these multiple affairs, how did that play out? 

JANICE LAGATA  35:54

So it was shocking, like, Oh!, especially because you know, everyone found out about it first from Brian’s email And, and that was really surprising, because I had never seen someone be dealt with so harshly just out of the gate like that. So then, that was like, Ooh, that’s weird that he’s being handled, handled this way. But then when it all came out, like what it was, and oh, he’s having an affair. I didn’t know that was happening. But again, I wasn’t at no point was like, No! Not Carl! 

JULIE ROYS  36:27

There have been a number of other people who have resigned. We mentioned that before – Reed and Jess Bogard. They left New York City, went to LA for a while but ended up in in Dallas. Was that shocking to you? Or surprising when they just resigned?

JANICE LAGATA  36:45

 Yes, I will put resigned in air quotes like I am very dubious that they willingly walked away. Because they are were such loyal soldiers. So the conspiracy theory side of me, says, No, this investigation has turned up some stuff that has made them unpalatable. And so they have been asked to step down, is my thought. 

JULIE ROYS  37:12

But you don’t have any inside knowledge on any of that at this point?

JANICE LAGATA  37:16

No, not not beyond just knowing what kind of people they were. And, and apparently still are, because like I talked about them in the blog post, but I didn’t name them outright. Because, you know, when I wrote it, at that point, like I hadn’t seen them in six, seven years. And so, you know, I was trying to give the benefit of the doubt. And when I you know what, they may have changed. Like we were all, we were all immature. And you know, we’re all different people now. So I’m not going to call them out, because they may be different, I don’t know. But then, you know, I got so many messages, and so many people who knew exactly who they were, and had stories of their own, throughout the years.

JULIE ROYS  38:05

More recent. 

JANICE LAGATA  38:05

Yeah, from the time that they left until present day. So yeah, apparently they have not changed. And so from that side of things, I’m like, Well, I can understand how many stories Hillsong has probably heard about them. 

JULIE ROYS  38:21

Well, we’ll see. I will say I talked to a source who said once Reed and Jess got out of New York City that they reverted back to their their former selves. I don’t know if that’s true. Was New York, as some have said, that New York was kind of the Hillsong culture on steroids. That other parts of Hillsong global didn’t have this much of a some of the bad boy stuff that the Carl did, some of the great disparity between the haves and have nots. Did you feel that way? Having been in Sydney and then coming, you know, your experience in New York that New York was worse than other Hillsongs or just indicative of the whole thing? 

JANICE LAGATA  38:57

I think it’s indicative of the whole thing I think, not just New York, like it’s in Sydney, like these disparities between the haves and the have nots. I don’t know any, any Hillsong lead pastor that is living at the same level of like the average person they’re preaching to weekly. They’re all above.

JULIE ROYS  39:17

Man! And I just I just can’t understand how you can read the Gospels and see the way Jesus lived and the way that he taught and live like that. I don’t but it’s it is completely rife throughout evangelicalism with celebrity pastors and mega churches. It it’s and it’s not just Hillsong. It’s, it’s a lot of other churches and ones that would that would be very surprising to people, I think, because we have anti prosperity preachers who are living a level of prosperity that would just, you know, absolutely shock people. So Wow. Recently, there also was I mean, it does seem like these Hillsong pastors are falling like flies. Blaze and Deseret Robertson resigned from Hillsong, Connecticut. They turned up now at another church in Connecticut and their their social media. It’s like they’ve scrubbed the thing like they didn’t exist at Hillsong. 

JANICE LAGATA  39:38

Yeah. 

JULIE ROYS  40:15

What do you make of that? 

JANICE LAGATA  40:18

Well, that. I mean, that actually happened pretty quickly, like their, their position at this church. Like, that’s new. I think that’s happened in the last week or two. But once Carl went down, and then, you know, the press was doing it a little bit, you know, he was unfollowed by Justin Bieber. And so the press was looking at it from that kind of aspect. But a lot of us who went to Hillsong, and were from Hillsong, like, we were looking at it, you know, closer like, Ooh, you are Blaze and Des still following him? So like, their profiles got wiped, like within that first week. So I didn’t know, you know, where they had gone or what they were doing. I still don’t know whether they resigned or whether they were fired. Like, I don’t know. You know, are they still friends with Carl? Are they not? You know, I don’t know. But I know that their profiles were gone within two weeks at the most. 

JULIE ROYS  41:14

So Janice, now there’s a third party supposedly investigation that’s looking into wrongdoing and misconduct at Hillsong. Do you think that this investigation will yield any results? 

JANICE LAGATA  41:28

No. Like, this is not an independent investigation. They said it was but you know, as far as like Jess and Reed, I’m sure stuff came out of the investigation for that. But I think they did not mean for it to really affect anything. You know, the email they gave people to contact for the independent investigator is you know, [email protected]

JULIE ROYS  41:55

Whoa.

JANICE LAGATA  41:56

And then from there, he will pass it on to the law firm. 

JULIE ROYS  42:00

You’re kidding me! It’s the wait – helped me understand this. So, for you to get to the investigator, not only are you not anonymous, but you’re going through a filter who’s a Hillsong person? 

JANICE LAGATA  42:13

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. 

JULIE ROYS  42:15

That is unbelievable! 

JANICE LAGATA  42:17

If it’s going through your guy, it’s not independent. And so I know, you know, a few people who, who were contacted by Darren Kiddo, you know, to see if basically asking, oh, can we pass this on to on to the lawyers? And basically, for me, it felt kind of manipulative. And basically, like making people afraid, because the person was asking the question, oh, like, Can I be in trouble for being part of this? Because they were someone who was like, part of the count team. So whatever they wanted to say, had something to do, you know, with the money of the church. And so they were afraid, you know, what, if I continue with this, can I possibly be in trouble? And so, you know, I think that’s probably happening a lot. That Hillsong is reaching out first, to kind of be like, Oh, are you can we can we say this to lawyers? Are you sure you want to, you know, take this forward? Um, so I think they’re being very selective. And what’s getting to the investigators.

JULIE ROYS  43:29

Unreal. And again, it’s being done by law firm, as I understand. Law firms have fiduciary responsibility to their client. And my guess is the report will not be made public. It will be given to Hillsong. And then they can decide what they want to make public. 

JANICE LAGATA  43:46

Yeah, I’m not holding my breath on that. 

JULIE ROYS  43:49

I guess the question that a lot of people in evangelicalism are asking right now I know the question I’m asking right now, as I’m looking at this, you know, what looks like just this huge dumpster fire of Hillsong, is, Is this salvageable? Is this something and you know, even talking to my source today, now, is this salvageable? Can you know, now that it’s been exposed? Can this be disinfected? Can this be cleaned out? What’s your opinion on that? Is Hillsong worth saving? Or is this something that needs to just come down? And let’s just start new churches. Let’s just start clean. I mean, and I know you’re coming from a standpoint spiritually that is, is probably looking at this very differently than then I would be looking at it or, but at the same time, I think the question of the corruption in the culture and all that, can it be changed? I mean, obviously, God can do anything, but I mean, what do you think? Can it be salvaged? And if it can, like what needs to happen? 

JANICE LAGATA  44:54

I mean, I think it could in the sense that like I said, with God, all things are possible. But I don’t will it be saved? I don’t think so. And I don’t think it can in the sense that Brian and Bobbie, I don’t believe want to do want to do what it would take to fix it. Like it would basically have to just overhaul the culture. I don’t think they they’re interested doing that at all, like the culture works for them. And so, you know, I listened to a few, a few of your episodes, you know, with like Wade Mullin. And then I can’t remember her name. But you know, she was talking about your basic apologies. 

JULIE ROYS  45:36

Julia Dahl maybe? 

JANICE LAGATA  45:37

Yeah. So breaking down those apologies. And so looking at it from that perspective, like, if you look at the things like Brian Houston has said throughout this ordeal, like he’s taking no responsibility, no accountability for any of this, you know, and the leaked audio of that meeting. And towards the end, you know, and Bobbie is talking about, you know, Hillsong culture and, you know, people are saying things, but, you know, if it’s not if it’s not Christlike, it’s not our culture. You know, basically, you know, things things are fine. That’s not us. That was New York. And, you know, and I’ve got various inboxes full of people from across the world and Hillsongs across the world saying, No, this is the culture. And so the fact that they are not willing to admit at all, you know, that this is church wide culture issue. The fact that Brian takes no accountability for anything that has happened in New York, like it’s all Carl Lentz. Carl did this. He built this culture. He was the problem. Yeah, to me, like it just says they don’t, they don’t want to fix it. Like they want it to go on as it is. So from that perspective, No, it can’t be fixed.

JULIE ROYS  46:56

It needs repentance at the top. You need to see Bobbie and Brian repenting and admitting how they created this culture. 

JANICE LAGATA  47:05

Yeah. 

JULIE ROYS  47:06

And I’m guessing, from what you’ve told me of how all the pastor’s are living. They’re living at a pretty high standard too.

JANICE LAGATA  47:14

 Oh! Oh the highest! Yeah. Yeah. So for them, you know it, it really would take a strip down of the entire culture, and it would just require a level of sacrifice from them that they don’t want to make. 

JULIE ROYS  47:28

Well, Janice, I just want to thank you for being a part of this podcast and for taking the time and, again, for your honesty. So thank you so much. 

JANICE LAGATA  47:37

No, thank you for having me. 

JULIE ROYS  47:39

Well, and thanks so much for listening to The Roys Report, a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And if you’d like to find me online, just go to JulieRoys.com. Also, make sure you subscribe to The Roys Report on Apple podcasts or Google podcasts. That way, you’ll never miss an episode. And while you’re at it, I’d really appreciate it if you help us spread the word about the podcast by leaving a review. And then, if you could share the podcast on social media, we’d appreciate that as well. Again, thanks so much for joining me. Hope you have a great day and God bless.

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9 thoughts on “Insider Reveals Toxic Culture at Hillsong”

  1. I listened with interest to the podcast today. As usual it was good stuff.

    I don’t think I am exaggerating when I call Bryan and Bobbie Houston the Co-Popes of the Hillsong movement. It seems that they have what is called an Episcopal form of Church Government.The Catholic Church is the extreme of this type of government. Unlike a Presbyterian form (elder rule) or a Congregational like most Independent Baptists, it seems one person made the decision to fire Carl Lentz. Where was the congregation in this? I must have missed that part of how Church Government was set up in the Bible. This is merely a franchise of the Evangelical Industrial Complex. (Wonder where that came from?? :) )

    The question was asked in the podcast whether or not Hillsong will survive. Perhaps, perhaps not. The good news is that God always has a remnant that no man nor movement will destroy. The gates of Hell will not prevail against His church. We are seeing that Judgment is beginning in the House of God. (I Peter 4:17). It will only get worse. (II Timothy 3). May that day of purification come soon. “Even so, come Lord Jesus” is the prayer of every believer. And in the process God will get the glory, for he does not share with any man, movement or even institution.

  2. Interesting observation regarding Hillsong that after a couple of years, if a person wants to grow in Christ he/she needs to find another church

  3. PS – also find it sad that Janice seems to be struggling with Christianity because of her association with a “church” – at least that is how I read her comments

  4. Thanks for this podcast. I’ve attended Hillsong for almost 15 years in Sydney. I agree the cultural issues in New York are definitely here in Australia. There are parts of the Hillsong organisation structure that appear to give the impression of exclusively such as the seating arrangements, green room’s and kingdom builders. Although these arrangements may have been put in place for good intentions originally. There also appears to be corporate governance issues where the Hillsong Board has clear conflicts of interest.where the son of the head Pastor and large financial donors have been appointed.

  5. Thanks for the insightful, thoughtful, intelligent interview. Even though many more should likely give up on Hillsong, I hope Janice and others will not in any way give up on God, who is faithful and true, and will rather go deeper into His eternal Word that is not altered by the folly of people, while also not giving up on His saints, i.e. His true followers, and fellowship together in Him.

  6. Thank you Janice for sharing your experience. The “Celebrity Christian Culture” is at odds with biblical Christianity. In a broad sweep, I would have to say the American Evangelical Church is compromised. Fortunately, there still are places that take the words of Jesus seriously and are not compromised with good looks and skinny jeans.

  7. This makes my heart sick yet I feel I experienced some of this same culture at 2 mega churches that I’ve been heavily involved in. It’s not just Hillsong, it’s likely in 80 to 100%:of mega churches. They just get so big relying on a charismatic leader, with those at the top making huge, ridiculously high salaries and all the worker bees expected to give up tons of their free time and family time (worship teams sometimes worked/expected to be there 15 hours with 1- 4hr practice and then 4-5 weekend services) for FREE of course. And if you dared to say ANYTHING about not being able to get to practice or needing a weekend off, the onslaught of rejection and concern over “if God is truly 1st priority in your life”. It’s messed up and it’s messed up so many people yet so many are still drinking the koolaid. I just wish the cost was not people’s faith. Many have and will fall away from the faith because of the actions of these so called “leaders” who value money and power over people and put themselves in power and far above the “lowly.” Beware of a lot of the terms Janice mentioned like seeker sensitive, etc. That culture to be entertained by pretty, skinny people on stage…there is nothing Christ-like about that.

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