The High Cost of Faith
Published by News Limited, 29 April 2006, by Jennifer Sexton.
As crowds - and their cash - flood into Hillsong Church, former members tell Jennifer Sexton about the heavy price they paid for leaving the flock.
"Whoa! I wanna know you, I wanna know you today.” With that catchy lyric, the lead singer rips into a punky-pop riff on his electric guitar as the band and side-stage choir spring to life. Over a sea of raised arms, five cameras capture the action as the audience, in time with the lanky, tousle-haired lead singer, belts out a thundering chorus: “You’re the best thing that has happened to me.”No, this isn’t MTV live. It’s Hillsong Church, part religious service, part rock concert, part multi-media conglomerate.
Every weekend at Hillsong churches in Sydney 19,000 people sing, clap and jump through a two-hour tribute to a God who rocks. As traditional religious congregations shrink, Hillsong attendance expanded more than 13 per cent in 2004.
There are no images of Jesus being tortured on the cross at Hillsong headquarters in Sydney’s Baulkham Hills, no vaulted ceilings. The audience sits not on wooden pews but on 3500 cushioned theatre seats. Under each one is an envelope and credit card form for believers to donate their pre-tax 10 per cent salary tithe. Ushers flood the aisles and pass black buckets down each row. The buckets have holes in the bottom, presumably to discourage parish-ioners from giving coins. And the rivers of cash keep flowing: donations and salary tithes to Hillsong were $15.3 million in 2004; merchandise, CDs, books and DVDs, returned a further $6.93 million, while total church revenue has now passed the $50 million mark - all tax-free thanks to Hillsong’s charitable status. And then there are the donations - it’s anybody’s guess how much - from the owners of the $40 million Gloria Jean’s coffee empire, Nabi Saleh and Peter Irvine, who are both senior members of Hillsong, the former as treasurer.
The message of Hillsong’s prosperity gospel is: the richer you are, the more you can help others.But along with the expanding congregation and profit margins have come the ugly rumours that won’t go away - of underhanded treatment of disaffected church members, of attempts to silence critics, of profiteering from the faithful. Only last month, the Labor Mayor of Blacktown in Sydney’s west, Leo Kelly, accused Hillsong of attempting to pressure him, via an ALP state official, to dampen his criticism of their use of public funds.
Hillsong’s main benevolent arm, Hillsong Emerge Ltd, has been accused in federal and NSW parliament of misappropriating commonwealth grants worth millions of dollars. And a former member, Robert John Orehek, was charged with fraud after allegedly fleecing believers of up to $20 million, which he sank into failed and fraudulent property investments.
THE KING OF HILLSONG EVANGELISM, Brian Houston, bounds onto the stage, clad in a dapper suit. “The faithful are in church tonight,” he declares, surveying the auditorium. “Awesome!” The background music fades away and the house lights brighten. People reach into their bags for Bibles and notebooks. Houston savours a silent pause. He’s been thinking about the seven deadly sins. “What would be my deadly sins, destructive in the lives of people?” Avarice, gluttony and wrath are apparently old hat. Houston instead says the sins are negativity, regret, complacency. Just a few weeks later, Hillsong’s formidable marketing arm has swung into action, releasing a four-CD set of Houston’s teaching on the sins that undermine potential in people, retailing for $35 in the church shop.Houston has become the most influential pastor in the Pentecostal movement, and is a household name to born-again Australians. He also has political pulling power: Prime Minister John Howard, Treasurer Peter Costello and former NSW premier Bob Carr have all addressed the Hillsong congregation in recent years. In the last federal election, Hillsong member Liberal Louise Markus narrowly snatched from Labor the seat of Greenway, next to Hillsong’s Baulkham Hills church.
After the service - there are 30 every week in the two main Sydney venues, Baulkham Hills and Waterloo - people pour into the Hillsong shop. Half of the back display is devoted to the CDs and books by Houston and his perky wife of 28 years, Bobbie. Their bright white teeth and perfect hair seem to shine down from dozens of book and CD covers. In Bobbie’s CD set She Loves and Values her Sexuality she proclaims, “You might be happy with your weight but is your husband happy with your weight? … How are you going to do anything that might surprise your man when you need a hydraulic crane just to turn over in bed?” Boob jobs and face lifts get the thumbs up, as do good sex and a husband who says sorry with an impromptu spending spree at the jewellers. It’s a feel-good message, and when it doesn’t feel good, money makes it better.
GEOFF BULLOCK KNOWS ALL about Hillsong’s brand power and merchandising. He helped build it, even coming up with the name Hillsong more than 17 years ago. He launched the church on the international Christian music scene when he wrote most of the original songs, such as Power of Your Love, Refresh My Heart and Have Faith in God. For the church’s first decade he was Brian Houston’s best friend. For eight years, until a messy split in 1995, he ran the music department, nerve centre of “the brand”. Although his songs are now rarely played at Hillsong, they are popular on the international Christian music scene and Bullock lives off composition royalties paid through APRA (the Australasian Performing Rights Association).
When I meet Bullock at a sunny, beachside terrace cafe he is edgy and constantly apologises - for knocking the table as he crosses his legs, for being unable to eat much of his salad. A short, tidy man with intense blue eyes, he is approaching his 50th birthday. He hasn’t slept much in anticipation of revealing the backstage story behind the “miles of smiles” at Hillsong. “It was very nice being at the top of the tree but it just … ” He pauses, swallows. “This is going to sound dramatic. They stole my soul.”Bullock’s moment of religious revelation struck in 1978 at Sydney’s Koala Motor Inn, where Houston’s father, Frank, was preaching. Bullock was 23 and had been touring the east coast in a rock’n'roll band, smoking dope and reading Carlos Castaneda’s stories of magic and sorcery. “It was wild,” he recalls of that November night. They sang hymns to a funked-up polka tune played with live piano, drums and bass. In the latest fashion blue safari suit, at the centre of the throng was the bespectacled 56-year-old preacher, Frank Houston, who declared that he used to smoke cigarettes before Jesus saved him. “People were trying to put cigarettes in his mouth,” says Bullock. “He lay down and he spat them out. It was a show of great confidence and charisma.”
Bullock was a needy, naive Sydney North Shore lad, schooled at the Presbyterian Knox Grammar. He believed in a higher being and was willing to try anything to reach Him, including cannabis. “I was absolutely ready for brainwashing. I was absolutely ripe for ‘love bombing’.” So, just two hours after walking into his first evangelical experience, Bullock answered God’s call, and his 21-year-old Anglican girlfriend from Lithgow in country NSW, Janine, followed. Individually, in back rooms, they were counselled. They had been born again and were now committed to Jesus. Satan would fight to get them back, they were warned. “I went in with a confident world view and I came out quite rattled. My whole belief structure had been turned on its head.”He said goodbye to his rock’n'roll band, Arnhem, and to smoking, drinking and playing the occasional gig in topless bars in Sydney. A church leader came to his house and threw out his extensive collection of music - Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd, The Beatles. “I had this wonderful group of friends, a great lifestyle, going listening to bands. All of that was viewed as being ‘of the devil’ … I didn’t lose some friends, I lost all my friends.”
Five years later, when 29-year-old Brian Houston set up his own church, Hills Christian Life Centre, in the newly suburban northern hills of outer Sydney, Bullock was a founding member. Young Houston was inspired by Tony Packard, who established a high–profile Holden car dealership in the area at Baulkham Hills with the catchcry “Let me do it right for you”.
Bullock was among the 70 believers at Pastor Brian Houston’s first service on Sunday, August 14, 1983, at Baulkham Hills Public School. From here a Pentecostal phenomenon called Hillsong was born. Bullock sang, played piano and was music frontman on stage for at least three services every Sunday. He recorded the church’s first six albums, three of which went gold, one platinum. He also ran the Bible college curriculum. For this he earned no more than $45,000 a year from the church and gave back a pre-tax tithe of 10 per cent, even when he couldn’t pay his growing family’s bills. Now he is being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder after being expunged from the church he helped build.
Bullock and Janine married in 1980 and had five children within a decade. At the height of his Christian stardom in the late 1980s to mid-1990s, Bullock toured the United States, Britain, Asia and New Zealand with an expanding repertoire of songs. For Sydney Sunday services they rose at 6am to set up the band and audio equipment and then rehearse ahead of morning, afternoon and evening church services. He was too busy to notice he was failing as a husband and father. “We had to put our parenting on hold,” he says.Bullock began to feel like a real estate agent selling a manufactured ideal of God rather than one he really believed in. “I think Hillsong’s still got it, this feeling that God smiles a bit more when we’re singing our songs, and we’ve got good hairdressers, dentists, cosmetic surgeons. I came to think that the patron saint of Hillsong was Gianni Versace.”
Christmas Eve 1994 was the end for Bullock. He had rehearsed the choir and band to play the standard church repertoire for three Christmas services. Just hours before the first service, Houston discovered Bullock had not rehearsed traditional Christmas carols. “He just tore me to shreds and then left me to do three services,” Bullock says. Houston got his Christmas carols that night, but it finished his partnership with Bullock.
Once Bullock departed, a campaign of whispering about his morality and sexuality filtered throughout the church. When he broke up with Janine a few months later, his subsequent relationship with a married woman (whom he later married) was, he says, twisted to become the reason he had been forced out. At the same time, Houston preached about dark forces intent on undermining the church. “They ran a huge campaign to discredit me,” fumes Bullock.Janine says she changed her phone number to stop friends from the church calling to tell her Bullock’s departure and their marriage break-up was against God’s will. She once hid in the wardrobe when a woman visited her house a second time. “I couldn’t bear her preaching at me again, telling me that this wasn’t of God.”Janine still goes to Hillsong once a month, but says she can’t help but be cynical about the facade of spirituality compared with the lack of compassion and understanding she experienced. But, she adds, “there’s some beautiful Christian people who attend there”.
GEOFF BULLOCK ISN’T THE ONLY FOUNDING member of Hillsong to question its methods and ethics. For a decade until 1991, Stephen Grant was paid $100 a week to preach at Hillsong and was dean of the church’s Bible college. He admits that, as an eccentric, he was a strange fit for a fundamentalist church.Still, Grant came from a wealthy family - he now runs a successful art gallery in Sydney’s Redfern - and had pledged (but never paid) $150,000 to the church’s building fund. He had a beautiful wife and was entertaining at the pulpit. He wore loud, colourful suits and sometimes a red leotard. When he blew on the congregation, the entire room of people would fall over.
But he realised his views diverged from Houston’s when they travelled together to the US in 1988. “In the US, I saw the wholesale commercialisation of born-again Christianity. I went, ‘Nah, truth is becoming a commodity here. It’s not a question of internal search, it’s a question of external commodification.’” But Houston liked what he saw and soon Hillsong’s fundraising became increasingly glitzy.“I started to question what the bloody hell I was doing,” Grant, 46, reflects. “I was preaching all over the world. But I was getting really depressed.” He had lost both his parents and his marriage was under pressure. Grant subsequently discovered that, in the inner sanctum of the church, his wife was being encouraged to recognise that he did not belong.
His clinical depression was seen by the church as a sign of faltering faith. “I knew there was nothing wrong with my faith, and yet I was told: ‘You are not believing in Jesus enough.’” The Hillsong website backs up Grant’s claim. “Depression,” it declares, “is a supernatural spirit straight from the devil.”When Grant broke up with his wife and left the church, like Bullock, he had to start life all over again, outside the Hillsong fortress. “People find a lot of healing in the church. I don’t have a problem with that. But … if you are kicked out, you are f—ed.”The Christian message of the shepherd seeking lambs lost from the flock doesn’t apply at Hillsong, says Grant. “It was forbidden for me to be visited by the members of the church. Damn the lost lambs.” His recovery took five years.The sentiment is echoed by theology student Penny Davis, who took years to rebuild her self-esteem after a shattering experience at Hillsong, which began in 1995 when she was just 20. Women who don’t fit Bobbie Houston’s mould at Hillsong, or those brave enough to challenge the male hierarchy, are swiftly brought into line, she says. With ambitions to become a pastor, Davis quickly realised she needed to change her wardrobe. “To get anywhere, you had to become a clone,” she quips. “I grew my hair, started wearing make-up and doing all the nice girly things.”Life became very full, and it was all about church. She moved into a share house with four other young women from Hillsong, volunteered two days a week at church and did paid work with the Hillsong community youth centre three days a week, earning a weekly income of $600, less the 10 per cent salary tithe. “The pressure at Hills to be glamorous and have everything as well - it’s quite difficult on a low income.”Just months after joining, she slept with a woman from the church - one who later confided about the liaison to a youth leader. Davis was immediately counselled that homosexuality was a sin. “I was just so vulnerable,” Davis says simply. She was assigned a mentor, who claimed she had successfully corrected her own “dysfunctional” sexuality. They spoke at least once a week, when Davis had to confess any lesbian fantasies. The mentor also read Davis’s diaries. After the “problem” persisted, she was put into an 18-week “ex-gay” program called Living Waters, then conducted at Hillsong. Once a week she attended the Living Waters group sessions, where she was told to focus on problems in her past which may have triggered her sexual “dysfunction”. “I was committed to getting these things fixed,” Davis says.
Three years of counselling, sessions with a psychiatrist and group therapies failed, however. Davis resorted to grabbing joyful glances at a video of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras while her flatmates were out, she laughs. “I started to subconsciously realise that this was not going to change … the shame and guilt were eating me up inside.”Davis decided her sexuality and spirituality could never be reconciled at Hillsong and made the momentous decision to leave. In response, her Hillsong friends sent a barrage of text messages quoting the Bible on the “sin” of homosexuality. She was kicked out of her house and then her friends froze her out, ignoring her emails and phone calls. “She’s gone, we have restructured, there’s no need to continue communicating with her” was the message sent to her Hillsong friends by church leaders, claims Davis.
Social worker Tanya Levin, who spent her teenage years at Hillsong, says that those who question church policy are first shouted down and later ostracised if they persist. Levin has been commissioned to write a book about growing up in an evangelical church. For research, Levin attended the annual Hillsong women’s conference Colour Your World last March and took offence when poor children in Africa were being marketed for sponsors in the audience on the basis of being cute. “They are actually for life, not just for Christmas,” Levin shouted before walking out of the auditorium.When she wrote an email the next month to the Houstons asking to meet them on a regular basis in order to gather material for her book, she got this curt response from the general manager, George Aghajanian: “We are aware that during your attendance at our recent Colour Your World Women’s Conference you caused a significant disruption. It is for this reason that we ask you to refrain from attending any future Hillsong church services or events; including accessing Hillsong’s land and premises at any time.” Aghajanian closed by saying the church’s leadership and staff were unable to provide assistance for the book.
When Levin subsequently attended a Sunday evening service, a pastor asked to speak to her outside. When she attempted to get back in to retrieve her bag, two security guards blocked her path, picked her up by the elbows and escorted her off the premises.
Brian Houston refused numerous opportunities to comment for this story, except to say: “More than 19,000 people come to Hillsong Church every weekend and I know that the overwhelming majority of them would testify to a healthy experience for both themselves and their families. They would also speak of the constant positive impact they see on others who are being helped through Hillsong Church and its many community programs.”There is no doubt that Hillsong - or, closer to the mark, its loyal parishioners - perform many good deeds. The church has a number of charitable arms, including Mercy Ministries, a residence for girls dealing with unplanned pregnancies and eating disorders established five years ago by Hillsong’s Darlene Zschech, the country’s most popular and successful Christian singer. Although recently mired in controversy, the church’s main benevolent arm, Hillsong Emerge, has helped people find jobs and recover from addictions. Hillsong attendees sponsor about 2600 children in Uganda, and generously gave $500,000 to victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.But the criticism seems likely to persist as long as Hillsong makes $50 million in revenue, pays no tax and yet spends just $2.67 million on “welfare services”. It is not clear how much Mercy Ministries gets from Hillsong, but its total donations were just $304,840 in 2004. And Hillsong Emerge’s 2004 accounts show it got only $646,666 from the Hillsong Foundation Trust and about that again in government grants.
And Houston has been less than transparent about his own income. Until last year he had failed to declare that he and Bobbie had sold their own personal property holdings to a Hillsong-related entity of which he is a director, Leadership Ministries Incorporated. Bobbie sold a Bondi beachfront apartment on the same block as Jamie Packer’s pad to the not-for-profit LMI for $650,000 in February 2002. The couple also sold a waterfront property on the Hawkesbury River in October 2004 to LMI for $780,000, making $535,000 on their 1998 purchase price. They continue to use both these properties.
LMI is the tax-free entity Hillsong set up as a vehicle to pay the couple’s income. In breach of Office of Fair Trading reporting rules, no financial statements had been lodged since its inception in October 2001. Only after the property deals were uncovered by The Australian were the accounts filed in August last year. When the numbers came in they revealed the golden couple got a measly net income, after donations, of just $21,658 in the year to December 2002, $12,739 in 2003 and $69,041 in 2004.
If this is all there is, then how do the couple and two of their three children pull off a property buying spree worth $1.738 million over 12 months in exclusive beachside Bondi? On August 26, 2003, son Joel, who is a lead singer in the Hillsong band and earns song-writing royalties, bought a $676,000 apartment a few minutes’ walk from the LMI-owned apartment, paying $276,000 up front. That same day Brian and Bobbie paid $650,000 with a collateral mortgage for the apartment next door to Joel’s. Exactly a year later, son Ben borrowed just $90,000 to buy a $412,000 apartment a few streets from the other family holdings.
And questions persist about why it took 30 years for Brian Houston’s father, Frank, to be exposed over a complaint of sexual abuse of a boy in his homeland of New Zealand. Houston says his father was banned from preaching in 2000, when he confessed. But Frank continued to live on the Hillsong account, in church digs, until his death in November 2004.Houston has hiring and firing rights over the board, and has appointed some influential and rich men to control the church’s empire (there are no women, he says, because one of the board members won’t allow it). The general manager of Hillsong - psychologist George Aghajanian - now oversees a $100 million property portfolio. And Hillsong has its sights on lucrative new markets in Europe - it opened a church in Paris last year and already has churches in London and Kiev.
Geoff Bullock says he can’t help but admire Houston. “He works hard and is gifted. He deserves to be a wealthy man.” But when told how little Houston is claiming as net income Bullock is incredulous - especially knowing the charismatic pastor’s fondness for Valentino suits and first-class plane tickets. And then there are the thousands of dollars in “love offerings” Houston regularly personally pockets for every talk he gives on the international Pentecostal speaking circuit. “Why not just be open about it?” Bullock asks.As Bullock watches the church lurch from one controversy to the next, he has a sense of foreboding. He muses there is a valid expectation that the church should pour more money into helping others and less into promoting itself and amassing wealth. “In the end, it’s just sad,” he says, looking into his coffee cup. “It does look like it’s approaching a train wreck.”
Jennifer Sexton is a senior writer on The Australian.