This is part two of a series on Hillsong. Read part one here.
When it comes to the religion market, the United States is the biggest show on Earth. It’s where Hillsong is now effectively based — way beyond its Australian roots.
It is part of a years-long transition in which it has created an identity quite separate from the Australian Christian Churches movement, which covers Pentecostal churches in Australia.
This week Hillsong’s “global” pastor, Brian Houston, was forced to publicly confront scandal which has erupted in the US after one of its high profile celebrity pastors, Carl Lentz, confessed to cheating on his wife. In a string of scandals, another (married) pastor reportedly resigned after allegedly sexting a church volunteer, its Dallas, Texas church was closed after reports emerged of its pastors’ lavish lifestyle. That came on top of reports that one of Hillsong’s senior Australian administrators had indecently assaulted the daughter of a US pastor.
Speaking on the Today program on the US network NBC, Houston defended his church’s relationship with fame and denied the church had grown too big.
“I’m not sure a church can be too big,” Houston said. “I just think we have to grow into ourselves.”
How big is the US market?
“It’s been estimated that religion contributes up to $1.2 trillion in socioeconomic value to the US economy,” said Alec Spencer, a lawyer and former executive officer in the Assemblies of God (AOG) movement, who is completing a PhD on the public funding of religious organisations. “That would equate to being the world’s 15th-largest national economy and is more than the global annual revenues of the world’s top 10 tech companies, including Apple, Amazon and Google.
“Hillsong is an emerging denomination in that market.”
The study is five years old and the figure is at the top of the estimated impact. Yet it serves to underline the potential dollar value for Hillsong in the US. The church is headquartered in Virginia — which offers favourable tax and regulation conditions — and was granted charity status by the Internal Revenue Service in 2011.
A reward of great blessings
Hillsong’s websites covering Europe, Asia Pacific, North America, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East show how pervasive the call for donations is. The church urges the giving of tithes by drawing on biblical authority.
“In Malachi, the Bible talks about bringing the first 10% (tithe) of our income into the storehouse (church). If you do, ‘I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in!’”
The pitch concludes: “Let’s believe for God to provide for us as a church, as we obey His Word in bringing our tithes.”
In the US it is possible to make a donation to the church via text, online or by downloading the Hillsong app. You can also attend a weekend service which accepts payment by cash, credit card and cheque.
Hillsong offers donation tiers: you can join the “Army of Faithful Believers” for up to $2499 a year, become a “Vision Impactor” for $2500 to $4999 a year, or a “Kingdom Builder” for $5000-plus a year. And it can all be done in three easy steps: ask God what part you can play, decide which monthly contribution is right for you, and activate your giving online.
By the end of 2019 Hillsong’s east coast US churches reported receiving tax-free tithes of just under US$13 million.
A fortune in music rights
The music which provides the trademark glamour of a Hillsong service has amassed a fortune in overseas sales. Albums have dominated US and Australian music awards and the church has sold millions of recordings.
Its media and performing arts charity which produces the music is run almost entirely by volunteers — an estimated 1855 unpaid workers — and profits from music sales going primarily to Hillsong.
“While Hillsong has waxed the regulators have waned,” Spencer told Inq. “They have simply outgrown the government’s capacity to regulate for greater accountability and transparency in exchange for publicly funded grants and tax concessions.
“In terms of digital evangelism, they are the world leaders. Hillsong is an emerging Christian denomination in the world in its own right — though of course the Catholic church is by far the biggest.
“Not bad for [Brian Houston,] a former window cleaner with no prior qualifications.”
The power of the call for donations
Spencer speaks from long experience with Australia’s religious institutions — not all of it good.
Twenty years ago Spencer went public as one of a group of sex abuse victims of the Anglican church, alleging that then-governor-general Peter Hollingworth had failed to deal appropriately with sex abuse allegations within the church when he was archbishop of Brisbane. (Hollingworth denied the claims but later resigned as governor-general.)
As Queensland executive officer in the AOG, Spencer worked with then-Queensland president Wayne Alcorn — the current head of the AOG’s successor organisation, Australian Christian Churches, and a member of the AOG national committee criticised in a royal commission for its part in the handling of sex abuse allegations against pastor Frank Houston. Spencer says he knew nothing of the allegations.
“If I had known I would have been outraged and gone straight to the police without [the executive’s] consent — and they knew it,” he told Inq. Spencer walked away from the church “and eventually the faith altogether”.
“I could not reconcile the Jesus of the Bible and their conduct,” he said. “It was summed up for me when a pastor proudly said: ‘There’s so much money to be made in poverty.'”
As a one-time insider he is aware of the power of the call for donations.
“The appeal for money at a service is weaponised,” he told Inq. “It’s always made when people are high on good feelings, powerful world-class music and the love of the crowd and the preacher. It’s a very powerful strategy and much more to do with the brain chemicals than spirituality. It’s like going to a rave and the music is the ka-ching factor.”
Spencer says money from members made up about 10% of the revenue for established churches, but about 90% for emerging Pentecostal churches.
Exactly how much money flows around the Hillsong movement internationally is impossible to know. It’s also impossible to know how much has ended up in the pockets of the Houstons: Brian, his wife Bobbie, and their two sons.
Estimates have put the personal wealth of leading US preacher and televangelist Kenneth Copeland at more than $1 billion, primarily from donations.
When it comes to Australian regulations Spencer argues for more public information from religious organisations such as Hillsong if they receive public funds or tax breaks.
“They hide behind this ridiculous argument of religious freedom,” he said. “There should be no shield from public transparency in exchange for public funds and concessions.”
Inq approached Hillsong for comment but received no reply. Brian Houston has previously rejected the claims of his critics that he is a “prosperity gospel” preacher. His lawyers have previously issued this statement in relation to his royal commission evidence.
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