I’m angry about Sam Collier. I have been since he first landed on my radar, less than a year ago. When he and his wife were announced as the new lead pastors of Hillsong’s upcoming Atlanta colony, I felt betrayed. I didn’t know a thing about him personally, but I was pretty sure I knew exactly what kind of Black man he was.
And, yes – This is all about race, so much so, that it’s ultimately not about race at all. Because Hillsong is strategically chaotic. Trying to deal with any one of its problematic issues is to play an eternal game of whack-a-mole; and to get so caught up chasing the feeling of landing a blow, you forget that we shouldn’t even be playing. The problem is not the moles, it’s the game. And in this particular version, where the moles are things like colonization, gentrification, performative allyship, tokenization and weak theology, Sam Collier is just a mallet being used. A mallet handed to us by Brian Houston.
In a Religious News Service article dated October 28th, 2020, Sam recalls meeting Brian Houston in the summer of 2020. ‘Bout a year ago. Brian Houston meets a Black man who is not part of any of his already existing Hillsong colonies and decides that he should lead the next one. Riddle me this… Why? Why Sam? What is it about him that made him a more palatable option for Brian Houston than any of the hundreds of Black people already built into a Hillsong? It could be that Brian is a stickler about using people from the neighborhoods he’s invading, except he was simultaneously handing leadership of Hillsong New York to an Australian who has never lived here, so… no. There was something special about Sam. And I think that something special, is that Sam wants to be special. We all do. But some of us have taken the time to do the excavating work of determining who we want to be special to and why.
Initially, I didn’t want to know much about Sam Collier. He’s not special to me. If Hillsong hadn’t tapped him, I would have remained blissfully unaware of him forever. My beef is about the Lead Pastor of Hillsong Atlanta, and that just happens to be Sam Collier (at this time). I purposely didn’t get to know much about him, because I didn’t want it to be personal. But then he made an ill-advised video* and too few days later, posted a picture of his Hillsong ordination certificate. And it started to become personal. In his video, in addition to using the Brian-approved buzzwords of “attack” and “assault” to equate dissenters with the principalities and powers of darkness (it me!); Sam arrogantly claims to know Hillsong completely, having seen “every ounce of it”. One year in, Sam Collier has seen every ounce of a global behemoth. What a humble estimation. And then came the ordination certificate. A visual representation of Hillsong’s approval. And a timely reminder that no one knows for sure how to get it. What requirements and/or expectations must one meet to be ordained by Hillsong? Does anyone know?
I posted an instagram story weeping for the piece of paper wasted on that certificate and then another one highlighting the opacity of the Hillsong ordination process. Sam blocked me months ago, but lifted the ban just long enough to let me know that Hillsong was not his first; he’s been ordained before through multiple churches and has been pastoring for years. A wordy way of giving me no new information. Somehow education became a sticking point in my DMs. People giving the shoulder-shrug emoji to “defend” Hillsong and Sam by reminding me that education is not necessarily an ordination requirement. Hillsong people saying “not necessarily” because they don’t know. And I get it, when something is supposed to be about spirituality, we get uncomfortable at the thought of regulating it. We accept that God should be able to use whoever He wants, without wondering why the Hillsong god wants to use so many dumdums. So many straight, white, married, male dumdums… (the Hillsong god is a dick with a type.) “But Sam’s not white!” I know. Because it’s useful for him not to be. And all skinfolk** ain’t kinfolk. Decolonization doesn’t just happen, it’s extra work that has to be undertaken and Hillsong pastors are more of a “bare minimum” people. I’ve been mad the whole time about the damage Sam is being tokenized to do to other non-white people; but this past week I became very sad about the damage being done to him.
I went looking for Sam Collier’s educational credits and couldn’t find them. He never responded to me, but he did offer a little more clarity to someone else (after asking whether they were a friend or foe of Hillsong which… what?!), he mentioned Liberty University and Dallas Theological Seminary as places that have been part of his education. But in what context, we may never know. When asked for further clarity, he ghosted. And I think I know why. Many colleges have been part of my education, but I don’t have a degree. I could tell you how I have enough credits numerically, but they’re not the right ones. But it doesn’t matter. I’m not being paid a conscience-stifling amount to pastor you. There are some jobs that honestly ask for too much – being an Administrative Assistant shouldn’t require a degree – but for such a high calling, it’s baffling what low standards are in place for pastors. (Hashtag: not all pastors. Other denominations do have actual standards.) What I did find was evidence of Sam searching for himself via the attention of others in music, in entertainment, in the schilling of his personal testimony. All fine things, but none particularly pastoral or Biblically educational. One of the most disturbing thing was his recounting of time spent under the leadership of Eddie Long, his willingness to overlook abuse and inability to hold power to account is chilling. And eerily prescient. He is man easily over-impressed by men in positions of power. So I can understand why he is enthusiastically doing the Hillsong devil’s work.
Imagine being an attention seeker in your early thirties. You have some charisma and a lot of ambition. The God thing was not your top career choice, you wanted to be a different kind of superstar, but this is what worked out. Preaching is performance and people enjoy your show. It’s a good gig. Lord knows, it pays way better than most jobs you’d get with only a high school diploma and a few college courses. And now that you’ve got some momentum, Brian Houston is headhunting you. There’s going to be a new Hillsong settlement, it’s going to be special (“Hillsong’s first…”) and he wants you to lead it. Imagine you having that much attention. That much power. Yeah, you’ve got some issues and you’ve been under some questionable leadership and your theology is basic AF, but God doesn’t call the qualified, right? He qualifies the called and Brian Houston is calling…
Who could say no to that? Carl Lentz certainly couldn’t. That was his story. Then fast forward eleven years and it’s Sam’s. He’s just a character in a reboot. We’ve already seen this.
Brian Houston preys on miseducated young men who seek self-awareness through self-aggrandizement. He’s a devil offering them a world they don’t want to have to wait or work for. Sam Collier is not special, but he deeply wants to be and that makes him perfect for Hillsong leadership. He’ll live between the lines created by the conflicts of knowing you’re not qualified, but thinking knowing that is what qualifies you; of wanting to believe that Brian Houston hears from God, but not wanting to consider what that says about God; and of liking the life you’re being afforded at the expense of so many others – past, present and future. If I could tell Sam Collier anything, it would be to run – to therapy, to an accredited seminary, to decolonization work, to transparency and accountability, to healthy leadership – to anything to get to the truth about the ounces of him that have made him susceptible to this kind of harm and primed to perpetuate it.
At one point in his video, Sam says he is speaking “in all humility”, but it’s not humility to know you’re not qualified to do something and to do it anyway, when it’s completely unnecessary. Hillsong Atlanta is completely unnecessary (God doesn’t need a Hillsong in Atlanta.) Also completely unnecessary: Platforming unqualified people who are undereducated and have unhealthy leadership patterns. But Brian Houston keeps doing it. Sam Collier is nothing new. And there will be nothing new about the problems that arise in Hillsong Atlanta. What will be, will be. Over and over again. It’s inevitable. Because once is a mistake, twice is a choice and every time is Hillsong culture.