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Burn It Down

Hillsong Dallas is now Hillsong Dunzo. *laughs in won’t-He-do-it*
It’s a start.

Janice Lagata

The empire is burning. And if you still have doubt as to why that is… how? What’s not clicking? Brian Houston is not a good leader. And consequently, Hillsong is not a good organization. It might not have started out that way and it’s probably not what Brian originally intended, but none of that matters now. It is what it is, and what it is, in the kindest, least-controversial description I can muster, is unhealthy. I don’t think many would dispute that. Even among people who still attend Hillsong, a general theme seems to be “being the change” – people are hanging on and hanging in there, in hopes of making Hillsong into what we keep being told it is: a good church. But it’s not.

I made a friend of mine a little sad the other day. I posted a new episode in a series of “skits” poking fun at the colonizing spirit of Hillsong. And although my friend could appreciate the validity of my position, they were a little torn about my intentions which, let me be clear, are to flame Hillsong. Mockery is one of my love languages. I love to make people laugh. And even with Hillsong, I do what I do out of love. Not for Hillsong (eff Hillsong), I mock it out of my love for people. People in general, but specifically those who have been hurt by Hillsong, those who are still being hurt by it, those who have left it and those who still need to. And although it’s been said, many times, many ways, some people are still surprised to hear me say: Burn it down. And if that worries or offends you, take a breath, take a beat (be anxious for nothing) and ask yourself why. When I say burn it down what are you hearing? Because if you’re hearing anything other than I-look-forward-to-dancing-on-the-ashes-of-an-unhealthy-organization, you’re not hearing me. I’m not against the Christian God or the church, I am completely for people having healthy relationships with them and realizing that neither of them require Hillsong. Brian Houston is not a god and Hillsong is not the church. It can end.

In fact, it just did. In Dallas. There was a Hillsong campus and now there’s not. Because of issues quite a few of my friends have been blocked on Twitter and Instagram for mentioning. Issues that “independent investigations” had determined only existed in one troubled branch of the Hillsong family tree. Issues we were assured were impossible due to the high standards and strict protocols that were in place, totally effective high standards and strict protocols that have now been made higher and more strict, for… reasons. When the results for the Hillsong New York investigation were released, I didn’t write anything because I didn’t feel like thinking about it. Hillsong is exhausting. There’s always something going on. It’s true when you’re in Hillsong and volunteering, and it’s true when you’re out and deprogramming. But sometimes, Brian Houston will say or do something that very helpfully encapsulates what’s going wrong with Hillsong. And in an email to the members of the now dunzo Dallas campus, Brian very helpfully said it all in one paragraph.

“It was very disappointing to learn that, while some of you experienced the Bogards as dedicated pastors, many others have experienced leadership that failed to meet the commitments and standards of Hillsong Church. I want to be the first to apologize to those who felt disappointed or hurt, and I pray that God does a swift work in bringing peace and healing.”

Brian Houston, Letter to Hillsong Dallas members

“It was very disappointing to learn…” TO LEARN?! You’re telling me that Brian Houston learned in 2021 what I and many others have known (and been saying!) since at least 2010? Reed and Jess were bad leaders. Self-important with fragile egos, they lorded their leadership positions over others and bullied people into “honoring” them. And we’re supposed to believe that, as a good leader, for at least eleven years Brian Houston somehow genuinely didn’t know that? As they moved from campus to campus, racking up a spiritual body count at every stop, he didn’t know. Reed was one of his protégés, a proudly promoted product of Hillsong International Leadership College, but Brian just learned that he was bad fruit. So Brian is either a tragically unaware leader who keeps getting tricked into training, hiring and promoting bad leaders or a tactically unconcerned leader who doesn’t care how people are being crushed in the building of his empire. Either way, I don’t know how such a person could ever be described as a good leader. Please advise.

“…while some of you experienced the Bogards as dedicated pastors, many others have experienced leadership that failed…” Peep that “some” versus “many” and then remember how often Brian Houston has reprimanded people for being gossips and naysayers, how his standard reaction is to deny deny deny and yet, when all is said and done, here we are, with a whole campus being shuttered because the overall experience was as nay as people have been saying. And, to be clear, while some people may have (somehow?!) had a good experience with the Bogards, everybody at Hillsong Dunzo experienced leadership that failed. If a hundred of us go to the movies and a few of us get great seats, but the projector breaks and the movie never plays, guess what? We all had a bad movie experience. But that’s part of the #ilovemyhillsongchurch propaganda scam: pretend “it ain’t all bad” is the same as “it’s all good.”

“to meet the commitments and standards of Hillsong church.” Which are? Does anyone really know? Brian loves to poo-poo the possibility of corruption because of Hillsong’s incredibly high values and standards, and then when the corruption is too blatant to deny, he straight-faced commits to raising and actually enforcing (for real this time, guys!) those incredibly high values and standards. Which are…?? Does anyone really know? At no point does he ever clearly say what has actually happened or offer any measurable metrics of change. If I tell you, I’d like to apologize for this instance of the movie projector not working, but assure you that I have put new standards in place to assure that it will work more often in the future, that sounds great. Until you realize you have no idea what “more often” is. What if the projector only ever worked two times out of ten to begin with? Would you be happy to keep buying non-refundable tickets knowing that it’ll now work up to thirty percent of the time? Brian wants everyone to know that #thereismore, but won’t offer anyone a way to measure it.

“I want to be the first to apologize…” And I want to be the first to win an Emmy for writing a TV show about the end of an evangelical empire. So wait for it. But don’t hold your breath. Because it’s gonna be awhile. For my show. And for Brian’s apology. Because saying you want to do something is not the same as doing it. So now, I’d like to be the first to tell you that Brian hasn’t actually apologized. Read it again. Brian hasn’t actually apologized.

“… to those who felt disappointed or hurt…” But if he does apologize, someday, the way he wants, it will apparently only be to people who felt disappointed or hurt. Because a pillar of Hillsong propaganda is the idea that your reaction matters more than what happens to you. You came to the movies and paid your money, expecting to see a movie. But no movie played. Hillsong would like you to know that who’s responsible for that doesn’t matter as much as how you react. There may be some people who had time and money to waste, who are able to laugh it off and keep it moving. No apologies needed. But you? This was a splurge and you were really looking forward to it, so now you’re disappointed? Okay fine. We want to apologize. For how you feel. Brian Houston only wants to deal with people’s reactions if he has to, because he never wants to take responsibility. That some people don’t need an apology, doesn’t change change the fact that they’re owed one. Everybody at Hillsong Dallas experienced bad leadership. Not everybody’s reaction to that will be the same, but Brian’s reaction to taking responsibility is consistently sketchy. And that matters.

“…and I pray that God does a swift work in bringing peace and healing.” Oh. So now it’s God’s job to bring peace and healing. How convenient. And also how weird, because peace and healing are things Christian usually strongly encourage others to find in church. As somebody who no longer attends church, I find a lot of Christians express a worried skepticism of any peace and healing I might find away from it. And I get it. If I can truly find those things in God alone and/or on my own… then why church? And so a lot of the people burned by Hillsong Dallas will now find themselves on the receiving end of a lot of gentle admonitions about not letting “church hurt” keep them from finding a new church home, they will be tasked with the responsibility of “fixing” their reaction, of not becoming bitter. Of moving on knowing that Brian Houston wanted to be the first to apologize. Even though he never did. Apologies are a dime a dozen because we’re actually really bad at them. How can saying “I’m sorry.” adequately cover both me bumping into someone on the street and a global church mishandling the people entrusted to it? It can’t. Saying “I’m sorry” is the least we can do, but sometimes it means nothing if it’s all that we do. And Brian Houston knows that, so he’ll say he wants to apologize, but he never will, not really, because a true apology would require repentance and reparation. It would require taking responsibility and taking action to actually do that swift work in bringing peace and healing. Religious trauma is a real thing and there are people who would move more quickly toward peace and healing with the help of therapy. There are people who would be helped by getting their money back. By being heard. By whatever it is that they would ask for if Brian Houston actually cared about their peace and healing. But talk is cheap. And you can tell Brian knows that because it’s all he thinks people hurt by Hillsong deserve.

In encouraging people to give tithes and offerings, Hillsong pastors would sometimes reference a verse in 2 Samuel 24:24 where David refuses to give a sacrifice that costs him nothing. He insists on paying. It’s funny how Hillsong loves for everyone else to insist on paying, but when it comes to what they owe… it’s all in God’s hands. Imagine if everyone started filling the offering baskets with notes praying for God to do a swift financial work for Hillsong. Do you think they’d be happy to let end-of-year giving statements reflect how much people wanted to give instead of what they actually gave? Call me a naysayer, but I doubt it. The bad leadership of Hillsong has done real damage that has real lasting effects and a good leader would grapple with the responsibility of restoration and reparation, because a good person would genuinely want to see people healthy and at peace. But Brian Houston? He wants to apologize. And wants you to go with God now. Quietly. Because he doesn’t want anyone else to find out what he’s still “learning” – that the empire is burning. As it should.

janithecat

janithecat

Janice Lagata was born in California, but born for New York. A writer, fighter, igniter and matron saint of cats; smirking is her favorite. She's just a girl feeding herself to the world and asking it to love her - that's a lyric from a song she wrote, you can probably find it and lots of other things she's working on by asking the internets for @jani_the_cat.

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