After years of faithful sacrifice, serving as a volunteer (and unknowing Judas-goat) as part of Hillsong East Coast, (letting my presence be used as quiet reassurance to people that looked like me that Hillsong was a place worth staying in, serving in and trying to save,) when I left, I should have been louder about why I was leaving.
So I’m being loud now, in an attempt to keep the people of Georgia from learning the hard way. To keep them from investing their time, energy, talents and money into a place that is only invested in taking all of the above away from them. To keep them away from Hillsong Atlanta. I watched the Launch Team Vision Recap video. The whole thing. It was the first Hillsong media I’d consumed since leaving Hillsong, and it was painful. To recognize the old language, the familiar catchphrases, the well-worn claims and to know it’s the same old setup, leading people to the same malnourishing theology, driven by personality and prosperity, more concerned with getting people to practice conforming to the broken Hillsong system, than to practically confront anything in our broken world.
Pastor Sam Collier began by referencing the story of Moses and as he spoke of Moses being “planted” in Egypt, raised and “put over his own people,” I found it both ironic and profoundly sad how apt the example was. And how faulty his ultimate interpretation. He briefly jumps ahead to the Great Commission to tie Jesus into the metaphor and then jumps back to say that the Lord has heard the cries of the people of Atlanta: for social justice, for reconciliation, for true family, for unity, the cries of people “that need to be free”. With the implied conclusion being that God has sent Hillsong Atlanta, like Moses, to answer those cries, but that conclusion is theologically problematic. Both Moses and Jesus were marginalized men born at the bottom of oppressive structures, who ultimately dedicated their lives to opposing the “empires” of their time on behalf of the disempowered. What “empire” is Hillsong Atlanta rising to combat? And who is Moses in this misguided metaphor? It can’t be Sam and/or Toni, because this isn’t their church. Hillsong Atlanta is not something rising organically from the people of Atlanta, it’s something that’s invading. Planting itself. Colonizing. Moses didn’t go into the wilderness and come back to face Egypt with financial backers from some third party. So is it Brian Houston? Is he Moses? He can’t be, he doesn’t even go here. There are real problems in America, real powers and principalities, empires that need to be brought down, and Brian Houston doesn’t give a damn about them. And why should he? This isn’t his country. The people of Atlanta are not his people.
No matter how many lines Hillsong Global feeds its followers about Hillsong being a global family, a house with many rooms – it’s not. It’s an international organization. A business. A franchise. A collection of colonies. But let’s pretend for a second that it is a global family. Look around. The East Coast “room” has been on fire. The Dallas room caught on fire and then fell off. And what does the head of the “family” have to say about it? How is he explaining the origin of the inferno? He’s blaming it all on Carl Lentz. Everything was fine until Carl set the place on fire, catching Brian completely by surprise… after years of dishonesty, defensiveness, poor decisions and narcissism. Wait… What? Make it make sense. The East Coast had been troubled for all of its years, and Carl’s behavior was allowed to continue unchecked, replicate itself and spread, either because Brian didn’t notice, or Brian didn’t care. Either way, it was no way to LIVE LOVE LEAD. And so far, Brian has shifted all blame and accepted no responsibility (like a boss), while Bobbie has opted to drown out the rising tide of voices from other “rooms” confirming Hillsong’s hierarchical culture of abuse, with the new catch-all catchphrase of “If it’s not Christlike, it’s not our culture.” Making it clear that they have heard the cries and have no interest in and no intention of changing anything.
In the days after Carl’s termination, conspiracy theories began to arise. Because nobody gets given the boot like that after one offense, one moral failing. There had to be more. And whatever it was, the deeper issue was that Carl had clearly done something to fall out of Brian’s favor. And some of us couldn’t help but wonder how much Black lives mattered in that equation. Looking back, Carl’s social justice persona was almost as real as his loving husband persona. He liked Black culture, but he wasn’t for Black people. He liked the attention. He liked being the “cool” pastor who wasn’t afraid to say the “controversial” statement. And he used that, used us, to boost his social capital, while doing next to nothing to change the status quo. He marched in the streets as the demographics of his staff remained unchanged. He bragged about the diversity of the new intern program, neglecting to mention the exorbitant fees they were charged. He big-upped Black men on Instagram, while gaslighting women of color via text. He spoke with TD Jakes about the changes America needed to make, without ever admitting to or acknowledging the racial bias rampant in his own sphere. Carl was great with words, lousy with action. But from a distance, in comparison to the unhelpful silence and/or clumsy spiritual bypassing of most white pastors (Brian Houston included), Carl seemed to be at the forefront, a leader. Because to the starving, even the bitter seems sweet. And as the rise of Trumpism widened the gap between those speaking up for justice versus those nostalgic for silence; the members of Hillsong East Coast had a Lead Pastor posting protest footage while their Senior Pastor was posing for White House photo-ops. Hashtag awkward.
So toward the end of the launch video when Sam says Hillsong Atlanta will be a place for “those that are tired of the civil unrest,” it’s a perfect Hillsong declaration. Because it’s perfectly empty. Civil unrest is a symptom of a sick system; so who exactly is Hillsong Atlanta for: the marginalized people tired of the system or the people in power who are tired of the symptom? Hillsong’s answer: Yes. They’ll take the time and money of whoever they can, while taking no definitive stand for as long as they can. Cherrypicking MLK quotes. Pretending that Hillsong is answering a call that no one else is, when the truth is, if Atlanta wasn’t gentrifying, Hillsong wouldn’t be moving in.
So while the story of Moses is all wrong, what Hillsong is doing in Atlanta, is not completely unbiblical. It’s very much like the beginning of the book of Daniel, where one empire takes in some of the best and brightest leaders of another culture, to indoctrinate them with their language and their customs, to use them to help propagate their propaganda. It’s a tale as old as time. And I have been there and done that.
The name and words of Martin Luther King Jr. were invoked more than once over the course of the video. Specifically his quote about 11AM on Sunday morning being one of the most segregated hours in Christian America. And by all appearances, Hillsong Atlanta is going to combat that. Literally: by all appearances. Nothing more. And people are going to get hurt, disillusioned, damaged. It’s the Hillsong way. (If it’s not being silent in the face of abuse, it’s not Hillsong culture.) I don’t know Sam and Toni Collier. I’ve never met them. And beyond brief scans of their Instagram accounts I haven’t done any research on them. I assume they are decent people. And I assume their intentions are good, bless their hearts, but I know it doesn’t matter, the impact of Hillsong Atlanta is going to be harmful. It just is. Hillsong is a toxic structure, it is a poisoned and poisonous tree. It thrives on inequity and superficiality, reducing people to numbers, because quantity is the only quality that matters.
So, I’m going to encourage the people of Atlanta to remember and take to the heart some of the final words of that launch team video: Without you, Hillsong Atlanta doesn’t exist. It’s just
a dream. A nightmare that does not have to come true. Atlanta does not need Hillsong. God does not need Hillsong to move in Atlanta. When you look at the issues facing our nation, when you look at how integral Georgia has become to the strength of our democracy, why, why, WHY in the world would we want to squander any of that influence by giving time, money and resources to an organization that is milquetoast at best in it’s knowledge of our history, it’s acknowledgement of our present trauma and it’s concern for our future. This isn’t the 1700s. Why are we still welcoming colonizers and signing up to be colonized?
The story of Moses is the story of someone raised up within a system that was thriving on the abuse of others. Favored by the powers-that-be, Moses, eventually has an encounter that wakes him up to the reality of the injustice surrounding him and he runs. He starts a new life far from it all. Thankful to have escaped, but I’d imagine, extremely sorrowful for all the time wasted, for not realizing sooner, for not doing more. So when startled by an unexpected fire in an unexpected place, presented with the opportunity to go back, he does. Not to claim a role as a mouthpiece for the empire, “to change it from the inside”, but to speak from the margins on behalf of the oppressed. People can choose to be part of Hillsong Atlanta for many reasons, including wanting to be part of a move of God – Pharaoh style. Because there is no way to cast Hillsong as anything other than an empire and no way for Hillsong Atlanta to be anything other than another branch of a bad tree, another log on the fire that is already burning. Because no empire lasts forever and Hillsong’s plagues are already underway.