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The latest controversies surrounding the collapse of global megachurch Hillsong

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Hillsong Church was once the face of what's called Charismatic Christianity or, less kindly, it was also known as a hipster megachurch. Hillsong was seemingly out to make evangelical Christianity cool. It had a Grammy-winning worship band, Justin Bieber went, among other celebrities. But recent sexual misconduct scandals and a new Discovery+ documentary series have led its founder and global leader to resign and over half its U.S. campuses to disaffiliate, all within weeks. Roxanne Stone is managing editor of Religion News Service, and she is here to explain. Welcome.

ROXANNE STONE: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.

CHANG: Well, thank you for being here. So just to start, like, what exactly caused this enormous collapse of Hillsong?

STONE: Well, I suppose it depends on who you asked and how far back you went. Certainly, some would say that this has been baked in from the very beginning, particularly the idea of cover-ups. Brian Houston, who began the church in Australia, he's accused now by Australia of covering up his father's sexual abuse of a minor. And, you know, his father helped him start that church. So some might point all the way back to that. Certainly, it seems like the most recent scandals and the U.S.-based sort of implosion really started a little over 18 months ago when the celebrity pastor of Hillsong New York City, Carl Lentz, was fired for an extramarital affair. And that really seems like the sort of first domino in the U.S.

CHANG: Yeah. And then all these U.S. branches, as we said, started leaving Hillsong. How has the leadership there reacted to all these branches disaffiliating?

STONE: Well, a lot of it has happened so quickly, in the last few weeks even, that I think they're reeling. And I - certainly, over the last two years, there was initially a lot of distancing themselves from Carl Lentz, really saying, in a lot of ways, this was a Carl Lentz problem, and Carl Lentz is gone now; the problem is also gone. But then there were just more scandals, and the board kept sort of responding in the moment to each incident. But it began to feel like, wow, this is a lot of justification for incident after incident. What's going on at a deeper level here?

CHANG: Yeah. Well, as we noted, Hillsong was known as sort of, like, this cool church. I'm just wondering, how big was it really? Like, do we know its reach?

STONE: Well, before the pandemic, they talked about having 30 campuses globally, over 150,000 people attending. Again, that's just what the church claimed. It's very hard to have a real number of that because, again, it's a very loose church. There are churches in places like Ukraine, which it's harder to determine that kind of attendance. And there was also often, like, online offerings. But it's a huge church with campuses all over the world, with friends in very powerful places and certainly in the U.S. And the New York campus, that was known for these lines around the block. They would meet in a concert venue, and they would...

CHANG: Wow.

STONE: ...Keep the doors shut until the very opening. So you had this, like, sense of, like, hype.

CHANG: Well, do you think that Hillsong's fall from grace will have ripple effects through the larger evangelical community?

STONE: Absolutely (laughter). In part, I think, you know, we've already had some of these conversations about other celebrity pastors who sort of were their church in a lot of ways. But I think Hillsong had taken that to this extreme of building an aesthetic first in a lot of ways. And I think we're going to have a lot of conversations within Christianity about, like, what is a local church, because Hillsong became a model for a lot of churches, and a lot of churches were attempting to emulate what they were doing in order to grow the way that they were growing.

CHANG: That is the managing editor of Religion News Service, Roxanne Stone. Thank you very much for joining us today.

STONE: Thank you. It's great to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.