May 2020


Hillsong’s strange tides

By Lech Blaine
Image of Brian Houston

Brian Houston (left), 2008. © Brendan Esposito / Fairfax images

Brian Houston’s Pentecostal movement in an age of climate change and coronavirus

It is difficult to convey the apocalyptic optimism of a Hillsong church congregation about to witness Brian Houston preaching in the flesh. In the middle of November 2019, as Australia burns with biblical infernos, a couple of thousand Pentecostal men are assembling in the southern suburbs of Brisbane to reach for salvation from loneliness and sin. The only women within the precinct are directing traffic through a packed car park with blissful grins and hand gestures.

With kindred anticipation, we march towards a gargantuan franchise of Hillsong, formerly known as Garden City Christian Church. In 2009, 79.1 per cent of its registered worshippers voted for their church to be consumed by Brian and Bobbie Houston’s proliferating empire of attractive pastors, flash millennials and aspirational battlers. Hillsong has grown into a diverse entertainment conglomerate: a record label and event management company, a film studio and 24-hour pay-TV channel, a Christian university and a book publisher. In 2016, the Australian arm of the church generated its highest ever tax-free income of $130,978,056.

Apart from the soft-drink bottles substituted for schooners of beer, we could be at a Big Bash cricket match. A quarter of the multicultural party are metrosexuals with stylish sneakers. A quarter are buff jocks and tattooed skegs. Another quarter are down-to-earth old codgers who you might run into playing Keno at the RSL. That leaves about 25 per cent of attendees who look how you might imagine – conservatively dressed middle-aged men, like Lyle Shelton, who is poking around here tonight.

The former Pentecostal youth pastor and ex-boss of the Australian Christian Lobby isn’t a member of Hillsong, and doesn’t know the Houstons personally, but he has been chartering buses from country Queensland to the annual conference in Sydney for more than 20 years.

“I remember listening to Brian decades ago,” Shelton says later via Skype. “One of his biggest beefs with church was that it was boring. And he was right.”

Thanks to the ambition-fuelled visions of Brian Houston, church is boring no more. DJs blast Drake and Kendrick Lamar from the balcony of the arena while a food truck serves “Meat Your Maker” burgers to ardent carnivores. Dapper barbers offer free haircuts. As pre-Brian entertainment, a BMX rider risks serious injury in “The Cage of Courage”, a see-through sphere of daredevilry.

“Who reckons we can put another rider in the cage?” asks the MC. The whistling and clapping witnesses agree this is a ripper of an idea. “What we are about to attempt is highly dangerous. Give it up for our boys, Jefferson and Charles…”

Brian Houston – Hillsong’s most alpha male – has described his annual men’s events as “a festival without the drugs”, but you could have fooled this secular spectator. The only people I’ve ever seen so happy to be alive were aided by MDMA. Yet Pentecostalism peddles industrial-strength bliss without the crushing comedowns.

Just before the start of the main event, one of the yahooing attendees suffers what appears to be life-threatening cardiac arrest. “He’s gonna die!” a bystander screams, pleading for the aid of a doctor. First responders perform CPR, and others clear a path for the imminent arrival of an ambulance.

With onlookers confronted by the blunt reminder of human mortality, I assume tonight’s show might be delayed, or even cancelled. Not a chance. “Come on, guys!” says an usher, segueing from emergency to enthusiasm without skipping a beat. “Time to find a seat.” The crowd streams into the arena towards dreams of self-actualisation. A middle-aged man might be on the cusp of literally meeting his maker, but Brian Houston is in Brisvegas for one night only. The show must go on.

Inside, “Throw Your Arms Around Me” provokes grown men to hug each other with unabashed love. It’s an inclusive affair – all are embraced with equal glee. Hillsong isn’t just faith, fun and money: the church provides a trading place of basic human affection to many who might otherwise suffer social isolation.

One person I spoke to jokes that evangelical churches are rife with “sheep stealing” – recruitment from rival denominations – but Shelton claims that the great genius of Hillsong is their ability to convert non-believers.

“I can validate anecdotally,” he tells me, “that their churches are populated by people who have just come from nowhere. Literally.”

Gen Xers fly like mosquitos towards the bright lights at the front of the yawning auditorium. Hunters & Collectors is replaced by dubstep. The strobe lights blink faster and brighter. Juveniles clap and chant “Olé, Olé, Olé” in the mosh pit. After a theatrical blackout, the main screen is filled with a bright white cross, and the stage is occupied by Christian rockers. The entire audience goes into a frenzy.

“There’s three things I know about when the lads get together,” the lead singer shouts. “First, we know how to have a good time. Second is we know how to eat. AMEN! But most of all, we know how to praise!”

The military-strength strobes flash from aqua to purple. A handsome ensemble rips through “See the Light” from Hillsong Worship’s 2019 album Awake, which debuted at number 3 on the Australian ARIA charts, and number 1 on the Christian music charts in the United States. The reception here in Brisbane’s Mount Gravatt is ecstatic.

“Their music has revolutionised Christian churches globally,” Shelton tells me.

The smash-hit songs Hillsong produces, and for which it receives royalties, are now sung by an estimated 50 million people a week across the world, way beyond its own cathedrals. Armed with proceeds from music and tithing, Brian Houston’s creation has grown rapidly overseas, amassing 150,000 weekly worshippers in 28 countries, including around a dozen churches in the US, the holy grail for charismatic preachers.

Tonight, the atmosphere goes up a notch during “Good Grace”, a smash hit written by Houston’s oldest son, Joel, a spiritual guru to singer Justin Bieber, and co-pastor of Hillsong’s New York City church. The video of Joel performing the song has 12 million views on YouTube.

Clean hands, pure hearts

Good grace, good God

His name is Jesus!

During that infectious chorus, Brian Houston appears onstage with the stealth of a hit man, and looms behind the grinning band ­members. The plain palette of a black polo shirt and tight jeans enhances the glamour of the boss’s bleached white teeth and ripped, tanned arms. In the crowd, fists are raised with testosteroned hallelujahs.

With slicked back grey hair and an emphysemic voice, the Godfather of Hillsong evokes Marlon Brando playing Don Corleone, a dark aura belying his constant optimism. And like a rapper, Houston changes the gist of a phrase by dropping or raising the volume. Strange cadences give a sharper blade to mundane refrains.

“WHO do you think you are?” he asks, delivering a gospel version of “The Real Slim Shady”. “Who do you think you ARE?”

It has been the most tumultuous year in Houston’s public life. The unexpected ascension of his personal protégé Scott Morrison to the prime ministership in late 2018 led to pressing questions about the powerful pastor, such as what he believes theologically, and whether or not he covered up the paedophilia of his father, Frank.

“The rest of Australia,” Houston says with croaky machismo, “if they do know who I am and who Hillsong is, I think they’re still trying to work it out. My critics – you can put your own expletive in there. We know who they think I am. But NONE OF THAT makes any difference to who I actually am.”

Brian Houston doesn’t just thrive on persecution. He monetises it via Hillsong’s convenient iPhone app. Notoriety, and the hatred of copious opponents, has reinforced his influence among believers, because there’s nothing more Christ-like than fighting an epic PR battle against condescending heathens.

“More and more the world is full of thought police,” says Houston in a tense present. “People telling me what I think, or what they think I should think. Or they try to TELL ME what they think I have to think.”

There is a ripple of agreement from Houston’s battlers, who take attacks on him personally. After all, if people patronise Houston, a millionaire with a beautiful wife and influential friends, what would they say about the average Pentecostal?

“So, whether it’s about climate change, or droughts, or fires. Or what climate change has to do with a fire. Or whether it’s to do with sexuality. Or whether it’s to do with gender … There’s thought police trying to tell me how I have to think. I’m going to keep living my life according to who God says I should be!”

The congregation gives a vigorous ovation. Here, true believers are saved from the secular censorships of modern life by the brave convictions of a charismatic reactionary.

“He made it pretty clear!” Houston shouts. “It’s in Genesis chapter 1, verse 27. It says God created man in his own image – male and female … Then he stopped. Seems simple to me. But look how uncomfortable you’re feeling. Cos you’re worried about the thought police, who tell me how I should think. Yep, that’s off my chest!”

The crowd howls with laughter. They’ve spent the past week seeing Scott Morrison get belittled for offering “thoughts and prayers” to bushfire victims, and now the prime minister’s mentor is sticking up for him, and sticking up for them.

A sermon from Brian Houston is a discursive journey with flows of proselytising and ebbs of frivolity. The man of God is unexpectedly funny. He takes the piss out of himself and his assistants. Unlike the millennial pastors, whose punchlines are a little too smooth, Houston thrives on presenting as a bit of a loose unit, the happy-go-lucky larrikin who makes risqué jokes in important business meetings.

After mangling a quote from a church song, he descends into a babble, jokingly exposing the disposability of the lyrics. “You know the one!” he shouts to howls of laughter. “DA-da-da-da! Da-da-da-DA!”

Houston is Goliath cosplaying as David. Despite vast wealth, he pitches himself as a harvester of tall poppies, the most ordinary bloke of all, a daggy dad and red-blooded husband who talks more about sport and motorbikes than the sinfulness of abortion.

“Parramatta’s my rugby league team,” he announces to genial cheers. “And they’re a very good team.”

Houston, a pastor’s son, talks of being “a terror” in childhood bible studies, and frequently refers to private emotional trials. These imperfections are integral to the empire’s success. He needs to be exceptional enough to inspire worship, but also down-to-earth enough that the audience believes we can be Brian Houston too.

The rhetoric starts soaring again. He casts himself in the revolutionary tradition of Moses. He keeps asking the audience who we are, attributing any addictions, mental illnesses and porn habits we might have to the absence of a stable self.

“I’ve been around a while,” Houston says. “And I see people their whole lives just locked up. Because they don’t know who they are.”

Near me, a mesmerised teenager is wearing a black Hillsong hoodie that says DO YOU HAVE YOUR ID? on the chest and IDENTITY on the sleeve.

“I wrote a book … talking about my father, and me, and my children,” Houston says. “It was released maybe a year before I found out who my father – sadly – was. He was a paedophile.”

You could hear a communion wafer break within the arena. It is an astonishing moment of self-disclosure: Brian Houston is the son of a child molester. To many people, especially the survivors abused by Frank Houston who don’t believe that his powerful son did enough to punish him, Brian will never be anything else.

“I was 45 years of age – 1999 – when I first ever got told anything about my father abusing kids … I often thought what would have happened if I found out when I was much younger. When I wasn’t so sure who I was. I’m not sure I would even be here today.”

Awkward audience members provide the absolution of applause. Houston smoothly segues back to music. He asks us if we want to sing “Who You Say I Am”, which has 100 million YouTube views. Hillsong is a rapture factory. All the general dreads and boredoms of modern existence – plus any specific awareness of the bushfires plaguing Australia, or the crimes committed by Frank Houston – are cancelled out by the loudness of the music and the manic energy of the crowd.

“Who the son sets free,” sings the band and audience, “…is free!” spits Houston, like Kanye West rapping with Coldplay.

In the breakdown, Houston remixes the stories of Moses, Paul and the Prodigal Son with his own interior monologue. The words-per-minute rate rises, at first imperceptibly, but soon he is chanting with breakneck pace. He invites to the front anyone who wants to lose control of their soul. Men rush forward to be touched by the unconditional love of a cocksure optimist.

“The Devil has tried all sorts of things to confuse who they are,” Houston shouts about the saved, “and confuse who they think they are.”

Who are we? We are no one except who Brian Houston tells us to be. His sureness provides a cure for identity crisis. He makes life less confusing, less terrifying, more blessed by a powerful pastor’s prophesies of good health and great wealth.

The band delivers a final, frenzied crescendo. The most average, masculine-looking battlers are speaking in tongues with naked vulnerability. Houston screams at the top of his long-suffering lungs, so indiscriminately that I can only make out “THANK YOU, JESUS” and “THE HOLY GHOST” through the machine-gun saturation of biblical gibberish, a stream that floods us with adrenaline and kinship.

“The bells and whistles alone,” says Shelton, “are not enough. You can get that at a U2 concert. Combine that with the work of God. That supernatural dimension that can’t be explained in human terms. That to me is the X factor. That’s the real secret of their success.”

Only later, away from the gravitational pull of Houston’s undeniable X factor, do I realise that he failed to offer a thought or prayer for the stricken audience member – who might have died – presumably because doing so would kill the vibe. Pentecostals have paradoxical impulses: eternal optimism, and a short-term yearning for the apocalypse.

What is Hillsong? It is a message and a medium. It is the immaculate union of Christianity and capitalism, blending the gospels of Jesus Christ and Milton Friedman, and delivering those mixed messages with single-minded conviction through rock music, social media, reality TV, plus old-fashioned charismatic worship.

Defining Brian Houston as a pastor is like calling Rupert Murdoch a newspaper publisher. Houston and Murdoch are two unprodigal sons from the lucky country who revolutionised their fathers’ vocations, fuelled by visions of a global empire that could shape the beliefs of those who consume their seductive products.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd has watched the rise and rise of Pentecostalism since the early 1980s. He observed John Howard opening the mammoth Hillsong Convention Centre in 2002 and met with Brian Houston while prime minister. The devout Anglican has nothing but respect for the faith of “good-hearted, hardworking individuals and families” who belong to Hillsong.

“What I am deeply concerned about,” Rudd tells me, “is the level of active business, political and theological manipulation by many of those in power, who know precisely what they are doing.”

What are they doing? Rudd is unequivocal: Pentecostal churches, with Hillsong the most prominent, have made a strategic decision to assert influence within the federal Coalition, rather than crusade from the sidelines through minor parties like Family First, or pressure groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby.

Rudd claims the relationship is mutually beneficial. The far-right flanks of the Liberal and National parties have found a constituency of “God’s army” to stack branches for preselection battles versus moderates, and to staff election-day polling booths against Labor and the Greens, at a time when membership numbers of all political parties have hit unprecedented lows.

“What I find most puzzling,” says Rudd, “is the secrecy.”

Scott Morrison’s origin story with Hillsong is slightly imprecise, because he has never publicly explained exactly when he met Brian Houston. Morrison was raised Presbyterian but jumped flocks before entering politics. During the 2007 election, Lyle Shelton chaired a “meet your candidate” forum for the Australian Christian Lobby in the seat of Cook, where Morrison had just won preselection.

“He got up unashamedly,” Shelton says, “and said, ‘Yeah, I’m a member of Hillsong. Brian Houston’s my pastor’ … I understand he was at their campus at Waterloo in inner-city Sydney.”

In the early 1980s, Frank Houston had founded the Sydney Christian Life Centre in Waterloo. Brian founded the Hills Christian Life Centre in Baulkham Hills, amid Sydney’s north-western sprawl. He later became national president of the Assemblies of God, an association of Pentecostal churches that included his father’s. In 1999, the son was forced to sack the father after the revelations of paedophilia. Brian then merged their two churches, rebranding them together as Hillsong, but keeping both venues.

“Heaven opened over that campus,” Houston later said of Waterloo.

It was there he met and evidently enchanted an aspiring politician named Scott Morrison. Scott’s wife, Jenny, had endured 10 unsuccessful rounds of IVF, but twin miracles coincided with the Morrisons’ switch to Hillsong. First, in 2007, Jenny naturally conceived and gave birth at the age of 39. Then, thanks to divine intervention from the state executive of the Liberal Party, Morrison was installed as the candidate for the electorate of Cook, despite initially losing preselection by 82 votes to eight.

Unfortunately, there was no local Hillsong in the Morrisons’ new Sutherland Shire neighbourhood, so the family transferred to Shirelive, later renamed Horizon, a fellow member of Houston’s Assemblies of God. (Hillsong departed from the organisation – renamed Australian Christian Churches – in 2018.)

Houston’s relationship with the Morrisons left such a distinct impression that Scott acknowledged him as a personal mentor in his maiden speech to parliament, and ranked the influence of faith above that of the Liberal Party and John Howard. “Australia is not a secular country,” he said, shortly after name-dropping Houston. “It is a free country. This is a nation where you have the freedom to follow any belief system you choose. Secularism is just one. It has no greater claim than any other on our society.”

The new MP finished with a quote from the Book of Joel: “Your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.” Even this visionary couldn’t have seen himself rising to cabinet within five years, and seizing the Treasury benches two years after that, fuelled by a self-belief reminiscent of Brian Houston in full flight.

A senior colleague who watched Morrison’s unstoppable ascent from close quarters says the party room still has no better idea than most Australians about Morrison’s deepest theological beliefs, although there is an open vibe of “arrogance”.

“Morrison and his acolytes view themselves as Christian soldiers,” the colleague tells me. “God’s on their side. They are working not only to save the country from sin, but also from the stupid bastards they’ve got as colleagues.”

In 2018, the spoils of Malcolm Turnbull’s crucified leadership were fought over by Peter Dutton, Murdoch’s apparent preference for prime minister, and Morrison, Brian Houston’s highest profile disciple.

Morrison’s key number-crunchers were Stuart Robert and Alex Hawke, two men who enjoy relationships with Hillsong. Hawke is MP in the electorate of Mitchell, which boasts the church’s Baulkham Hills headquarters, and he has attended congregations.

“The two greatest forces for good in human history are capitalism and Christianity,” Hawke told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2007, “and when they’re blended it’s a very powerful duo.”

Robert – the husband of a Pentecostal pastor – gave a masterclass called “Pillars of Influence” at Hillsong’s annual conference in 2015, regarding “how to reach and influence the world”. In 2019, Robert, the new minister for human services, led a pilgrimage to Israel called “Treasures of Grace”, during which he was pictured baptising those who paid $5600 to be there.

Before the leadership spill, Morrison and Robert shared a prayer in the former’s office. “We prayed that righteousness would exalt the nation,” Robert later told journalist Niki Savva.

Morrison, the self-proclaimed underdog, entered Coalition folklore in 2019 by winning a federal election deemed a done deal for Labor by the secular mainstream media. He didn’t see it that way. He prayed for a miracle and won majority government. Robert was rewarded with a cabinet ministry and Hawke with an outer ministry. The new PM punctuated his victory speech with an American flourish.

“God bless Australia!” he exclaimed, to cries of “Onya, ScoMo!”

A month after the election, Morrison and Robert attended the Hillsong Conference at Qudos Bank Arena in Western Sydney. As the nation suffered under continuing drought, Brian Houston reminded his Christian soldiers that God – not government – would ultimately decide to break or extend it. “I’m prophesising rain,” the DIY meteorologist said with his eyes closed. “I’m believing it’s beginning to rain. I’m believing, truly, we’re gonna smell the rain.”

Afterwards, Houston and Morrison, two men at the peak of their respective powers, appeared onstage in front of 21,000 adoring fans. “We love Jesus,” the PM said. “Does anyone else feel that way? I thought so. I’ll tell you why: he loved us. I remember coming here many years ago – we’ve been here many, many times.”

An even more tanned than usual Houston wore a blue suit with maroon pocket square. “You do believe in miracles?” he asked.

“Absolutely!” beamed Morrison.

“I was going to ask you about the freedom of religion,” said Houston. “Without you having to give policy … Do you believe it will be secured for churches to feel safe in terms of their beliefs?”

“Yeah, I do,” Morrison said. “I do. This is one of the things I feel passionately about since I first went into parliament 12 years ago … We’ll do what we must do from a legislative point and the law.”

At the conference, Morrison thanked Australia for their prayers and well-wishes, including an email from Margaret Court during the election, and he wished for a country that supported his freedom to believe.

Dr Mark Jennings is a lecturer in religious studies at Murdoch University, who himself grew up within a Pentecostal church. He converted to a more mainstream denomination as an adult, due to his pastor’s opposition to gay marriage.

“Pentecostalism is very pragmatic,” Jennings says. “ ‘ When people have let us take power, we’ll make some changes. But until then, we’ll present a bit of a blank face.’ ”

In September 2019, the prime minister risked the political capital he had amassed from the election victory by inviting Houston to a state dinner at the White House. This was despite his spiritual guru still being under investigation by New South Wales police for not reporting the crimes of his father to higher authorities in 1999. The Trump administration, not renowned for due diligence, drew a line through Houston’s name.

“Mr. Morrison was determined to bring as part of his delegation Hillsong Church Pastor Brian Houston,” wrote The Wall Street Journal on September 20, “but the White House vetoed the idea.”

At the time, pastor and politician sang from a similarly Trumpian hymn sheet, deriding the report in a Murdoch newspaper as fake news.

“I don’t comment on gossip,” Morrison said. “It’s all gossip.”

“This is baseless rumour and totally false news,” Houston said.

The state supper was attended by secular defenders of Australian prosperity gospel: Lachlan Murdoch, Gina Rinehart, Kerry Stokes, Andrew Forrest and Anthony Pratt, along with Trump’s old golfing buddy Greg Norman. Houston’s knockback seemingly awakened a dream to visit the White House. At the beginning of December, while Queensland and NSW were in a state of emergency, he flew to the promised land of America, where he announced an earth-shaking financial investment.

“God has opened the door for @hillsongnyc to move into 3 beautiful floors of office space in the heart of Downtown Manhattan,” he proclaimed to 700,000 Instagram followers. “It’s a major miracle for us to have purchased such a beautiful space in the heart of NYC.”

A few days later, Houston live-streamed his arrival at the White House on Instagram. “Never say never!” he said. Paula White, Trump’s controversial Pentecostalist pastor, organised for him to attend a briefing on religious liberty. The White House later tweeted a picture of Houston within touching distance of Trump in the Oval Office, where roughly 50 evangelical preachers prayed for the president.

“If you want to see the future that the Pentecostal movement seeks for Australia,” says Kevin Rudd, “then look at what happens under Trump’s America today.”

After his belated meeting with Trump, an interview with Houston was tweeted to the White House’s 19.4 million Twitter followers.

“What a great opportunity it is to see some of the initiatives happening to help freedom of religion,” said Houston, “and to see – generally – the great spirit in the White House, where people are optimistic about the future.”

That very day, back in Australia, as a heatwave-stricken Sydney choked on bushfire haze, Morrison staged a press conference to announce a religious discrimination bill. Smoke alarms wailed in the middle distance.

“I gave a commitment that we would ensure that people would not be discriminated against in this country [on the] basis of their religious beliefs,” he said, before facing an avalanche of questions about bushfires, smoky skies and the responsibility of climate change. Overnight, his secularist predecessor Malcolm Turnbull attacked right-wing Christians for approaching global warming “as though it were an issue of religion and belief, and it’s nuts”.

Morrison vehemently defended his government’s frequently equivocal rhetoric on climate change. He then spent half an hour stuck on the 20th floor due to smoke alarms shutting down the lifts, before disappearing into the bloodshot fog. Roughly a week later, he went completely off the grid, only to resurface smiling on a beach in Hawaii.

The PM faced renewed accusations that he wasn’t taking the bushfires seriously enough. Many have questioned whether apathy about climate change could be reinforced by the eschatology of Pentecostalism, which predicts the imminent return of Jesus Christ to save believers, following a period of great tribulation on Earth. In Luke 21:25–28, Christ provided a prototype for his Second Coming, and it eerily resembles a world besieged by rising sea levels, continent-wide bushfires and blustering dust storms:

And here on earth the nations will be in turmoil, perplexed by the roaring seas and strange tides. People will be terrified at what they see coming upon the earth… Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory. So when all these things begin to happen, stand and look up, for your salvation is near!

Dr Mark Jennings studies the experience of ecstasy at Pentecostal services. He says the bigger churches like Hillsong are much “calmer and sort of sexy now”, and that they have toned down the divine healing, speaking in tongues and prophecy, at least publicly. Those activities happen behind closed doors at prayer meetings.

“It’s not just an attempt to say, ‘okay, we need to be more acceptable so people will like us’. The churches tend to take this dial-down-the-crazy approach in order to get people to come through the doors … They really believe that the world is going to end, and as many people need to hear the good news as soon as possible.”

Lyle Shelton claims that many of the “caricatures” about Pentecostals don’t capture the ideological diversity within congregations. He says that his “best mate”, a parishioner in an Australian Christian Churches congregation, is an ardent believer in climate change.

“I think these are quite ignorant, and in some cases, bigoted commentary,” he says, “because that’s not the mindset of Christians: that we want to drive a policy agenda that might be in line with some sort of crazy, apocalyptic eschatology.”

Hillsong’s Vatican City sits within the intertwined bible and mortgage belts of north-western Sydney. The 3300-seat Hillsong Convention Centre baptised by John Howard in 2002 rises through the rose-tinted gloom of ongoing bushfire smoke. The sign above luminous pillars reads “JESUS: HOPE FOR HUMANITY”.

In 2016, then premier Mike Baird officially cut the tape at the Hillsong Epicentre, a $35 million addition to the dreamlike Christian theme park. It includes a community centre housing state-of-the-art recording studios, editing suites, rehearsal rooms and a 600-person theatre, opposite a gleaming new train station.

On the fifth day of a doom-stricken 2020, Houston gleefully preaches to the jam-packed Convention Centre. He sports a five o’clock shadow, plaid grey blazer, trademark black polo shirt and skinny jeans.

“People look down on aspiration as if it’s a bad thing,” he says. “Aspirationals. Heh … I say to every young person here: live your life full of aspiration. Live your life with a dream that’s scary and impossible.”

Houston’s battlers are comforted by this optimism. All summer long, bushfire haze from the Blue Mountains has attacked their suburban homes. Air quality hovers at 14 times a toxic level. Yesterday, the nearby suburb of Penrith was the hottest place on earth, with the highest temperature – 48.9 degrees – ever recorded in Sydney. On the second day of the New Year, Scott Morrison was chased out of the cremated village of Cobargo by angry locals who were furious about the lack of funding for rural firefighting.

“Do you know atheism is becoming more militant in our country?” asks Houston. “The levels of persecution – vile, demonic persecution – coming against believers and the people of God. Maybe you don’t see it, but believe me, I see it.”

The wrath of non-believers seems to be infuriating him even more than usual, and he speaks militantly about the Holy Spirit and Jesus’s Second Coming.

“You may see yourself as a bit of a whiz, a bit of an expert when it comes to eschatology,” he says. “But I’m telling you now: half the time you haven’t got a clue. But we will know! We will know in eternity exactly what it’s all about! And there’s beautiful pictures … [in the] Book of Revelations.”

The first four trumpets described in the apocalyptic Book of Revelations presaged conditions eerily resembling the Anthropocene: a third of the earth caught fire, a third of ocean life died, a third of drinking water was poisonous, and a third of the day became dark. The fifth and sixth trumpets unleashed three plagues that exterminated a third of the earth’s population, but the cursed survivors still didn’t repent for “evil deeds” and “sexual immorality”, at least according to the version of the bible provided freely by Hillsong at the end of church services.

What is the emotional weight of continually anticipating the end of the world? Mark Jennings says that he could barely sleep between the ages of seven and 10, fearing demons sent by the Devil. As a Pentecostal kid, he panicked upon entering empty rooms, wondering whether the Second Coming had happened without him.

“I grew up with this idea there was a thing called the Rapture,” he says, “and that the good people would be taken up into heaven. And everyone else would be left behind in squalor and tribulation.”

Lyle Shelton claims that the impotent apocalypse of the new millennium put a dent in the eschatological fervour of some Pentecostals.

“I don’t think the end is nigh,” he says, describing himself as an outlier on the question of whether or not the world is about to end. “I think God’s given his church a job to do on the earth, and that job’s gonna take quite a while longer.”

Houston appears to be in more of a hurry, judging by his recent sermons. He peppers his new year’s address with a dozen references to the closing quote from Scott Morrison’s maiden speech to parliament: “Your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.” He describes how he recently envisioned a 10-year plan, but was criticised by the Holy Spirit for not being “scary” enough.

“The more dangerous it became,” he says, “the more excited I got!”

Houston demands “dangerous” new year’s resolutions from his followers. He provides a one-size-fits-all approach to receiving confirmation of the worst-case scenario, a timely one as climate change trends towards 4 degrees of warming by 2100.

“If you have a life sentence,” he says, “a doctor has put something terminal on your life … start dreaming. That’s the thing to do. Start dreaming! Amen!”

During February, Hillsong announces that $1.3 million has been raised for bushfire victims. Houston’s consistent weather forecasts of drought-breaking rain come true, extinguishing flames and filling parched dams across a chargrilled country. The prime minister is rescued from media persecution by biblical downpours of water.

On the first Sunday of autumn, Houston proclaims the power of prophecy, citing the forecasts made by God via the prophet John’s detailed hallucinations.

“People build their End Time theology, their End Time doctrine, their eschatology around the Book of Revelations,” he says. “There’s always been that sense of looking ahead … I wonder if you still believe that God is true to His word.”

What was the next big revelation after worldwide fires and ecological decay? Pestilence, the winning horse of the apocalypse, raced through the sky, before the next three thoroughbreds brought war, famine and mass death – in that order – unleashing the Second Coming of Jesus.

Tonight, gen-Y Pentecostals disguised as high-vis tradies flood onto the stage to consecrate the prophecies of Brian Houston.

“I love it!” cries Houston. “There’s so many young people here with prophecy vests and prophecy shirts. They’re meant for safety. But here, they represent recklessness, cos we’re believing for the Holy Spirit to do something devastatingly powerful.”

Meanwhile, the media keeps hounding the Morrison government for awarding $100 million of sports funding to mainly Coalition-held seats. At the height of the sports rort crisis, just as journalists have stopped asking whether Morrison invited Houston to the White House, the PM stages an interview to confirm that he did.

“I’ve known Brian for a long time,” he says, unrepentant.

Morrison continues to send mixed signals. His relationship with Houston is secretive until he needs a distant fig leaf to cover up a pressing political shitstorm. Religion is a deeply personal matter, publicly untouchable, but also provides his guiding principles, and is fair game for a PR stunt to generate support from evangelical voters during a tight election campaign.

Kevin Rudd notes that when he was hounded by paparazzi outside his church, and questioned forensically about his religious beliefs, he reacted by writing a 5000-word essay on Dietrich Bonhoeffer for this publication. Rudd says that such a manifesto is even more necessary from Morrison, given the opaque nature of Pentecostal doctrines.

“If you own this stuff,” says Rudd, “you need to explain it. ‘This is what I believe, why I believe it, and what it means in terms of my approach to public policy.’ We’ve never seen that from Morrison.”

Until Morrison opens up, opponents and colleagues alike will wonder: so, who the bloody hell are you? In lieu of open disclosure, he can hardly blame people for studying Brian Houston’s sermons and scriptures for clues to what his disciple truly believes.

Brian Houston’s industrial complex of optimism has never faced a plague as universally demoralising, or harder to blame on the disdain of atheists, as the coronavirus pandemic. During March, the world progressively goes into lockdown.

Initially, Scott Morrison scrapes against the prevailing panic, announcing his intention to brave the contagion for a Cronulla Sharks game with a Houston-esque obliviousness, until Peter Dutton tests positive for COVID-19. The PM announces a shutdown of events larger than 500 people, leaving a 48-hour window of opportunity for Hillsong to finish their annual Colour Conference.

On Sunday night, six hours before the indefinite ban on public gatherings, worshippers converge on Hillsong Convention Centre in Baulkham Hills to go out with a bang. Pamphlets for the 2021 Colour Conference are pigeonholed through the armrests. Fittingly, next year’s theme is a celebration of saliva.

“Have you ever felt the power of a kiss?” asks the front cover.

Inside the leaflet, Brian’s wife, Bobbie Houston, invests the brushing of lips with a prurience reminiscent of Fifty Shades of Grey.

“A kiss is personal, provoking and compelling,” she writes. “A kiss carries enormous emotion. It’s intimate and disarming. It can be as pure and perfect as new-fallen snow on a mountain peak, or it can be as dangerous and misleading as a dark shadow in a fallen valley.”

The upper tiers of the arena are more sparsely populated than usual, but otherwise the glass doors are a portal to a parallel universe unaffected by COVID-19. As the music builds in a premeditated crescendo, Christian teenagers swim like sardines into the mosh pit, an epidemiologist’s idea of the abyss.

The Houstons’ daughter Laura, heir apparent in Sydney’s west, slides onto the stage in a black hoodie with “IRRESISTIBLE EMPATHY” printed on the back. She is blonde and bright-smiled, shouting beatifically into the mic.

“I feel like just gathering here tonight is putting a stake in the ground. And I feel like God … is saying this: ‘I am building my church upon a rock, and the gates of Hell cannot overcome it!’”

After a series of feel-good reminders to tithe, the arena is hit by a theatrical blackout. The big screen fills with a stream of images from the summer bushfires, narrated by a journalist, before a second stream is added of a report about coronavirus, and another about drone strikes across the Middle East.

Soon, the screens are brimming with images of infernos, pandemics, bombings, refugees, blizzards and volcanoes. With intensifying decibels, the speakers blast samples from all the recent media spectacles threatening human civilisation:

Australia’s still ablaze after three months of relentless bushfires … Fear strikes across the globe as the number of cases of the coronavirus continues to rise … The United States is gripped with fear after rumours of war plagued the entire country…

Finally, mushrooming streams of doom reach a revolutionary conclusion, and the videos pixelate before blacking out again. A shadowy choir sings an a capella ballad from the stage. During the chorus, as they build to a heavenly climax, a single word materialises on the screens behind the gospel singers: “JESUS”.

As Australia prepares to enter a collective cocoon, Hillsong broadcasts a digital simulation of Jesus Christ’s Second Coming.

“Every heart in the world, God, needs you to rescue,” the choir sings. “Storms have come and torn our hearts in two: we need you.”

A larger-than-life Brian Houston flashes up in black and white on the giant LED curtain at the front of the stage, like Jesus Skyping his disciples at the Last Supper.

“Well, Hillsong Church,” he says. “What a week. What a year!”

The self-recorded video is an anti-climax. Why isn’t he here, exposing himself to the threat of COVID-19 like the rest of us lambs to slaughter? Houston looks less like the messiah and more like Hillsong’s designated survivor.

“God is on the throne,” he finishes. “He has it all in hand, and I still believe we need to claim the promises of the Word: ‘no virus, no plague shall come near my dwelling’. You be blessed. We love you. Looking forward to [the online services] next week. It’s gonna be a fun time.”

The next time we see Brian Houston preaching on Australian soil, he is trapped in a 14-day coronavirus quarantine, after an ill-fated trip to Cape Town.

“Guess what?” he says in a video. “I’m in self-isolation! I call it house arrest.”

For a fortnight, while Australians pacify their fear of death by stockpiling toilet paper and hand sanitiser, Houston live-streams motivational speeches from social isolation in a lavish mansion. He interviews Bobbie, sequestered from her husband upstairs, and a conga line of overseas guests in COVID-19 hotspots.

“People are dying like flies,” says a grim-faced Italian pastor.

Surely this will crush Houston’s half-glass-full approach to human mortality?

“I know for sure that the best is yet to come in Italy,” he says to uplifting muzak so persistent that the listener ceases to hear it. “Let’s believe this is the forerunner before an incredible harvest, an incredible move of God in Italia!”

Spoiler alert: the worst is yet to come in Italy, where more than 15,000 people will have died of the disease by the start of April. In the US, Carl Lentz, Justin Bieber’s Hillsong pastor, tests positive to COVID-19, and the number of cases will hit 500,000 by Easter Sunday.

In the beginning, Donald Trump tweets: “We will win this war! When we achieve this victory, we will emerge stronger and more united than ever before!”

The next day, Houston borrows that language of combat for his Sunday morning sermon. He says God saw coronavirus coming, and people need to keep living.

“We have a common enemy,” says Houston. “His name is Satan. The Devil … Don’t start speaking the negative words of the enemy. Don’t become a sewer of defeat.”

The prime minister concedes defeat, kowtowing to the pleas of godless doctors and economists, and announcing a $130 billion wage subsidy that shifts the Liberal Party dramatically leftward. Morrison has learnt from a black summer that Australians want him to be a sombre statesman during catastrophe, not a happy-go-lucky larrikin. He speaks with naked pessimism about the life-threatening nature of the plague, recruited to the dark side by a cabinet of state premiers.

Two days later, around 1am, Houston uploads a morose Instagram story. “Just thinking about you right now,” he mutters in the shadows. The face of a solitudinous couch potato is briefly blued by the grief-stricken TV reports. Less Marlon Brando at the start of The Godfather than Al Pacino at the end of Scarface.

“Everything’s going to be okay,” he says. “Yep – everything’s going to be okay. We’re coming through this, and we’re coming through it strong. I love you.”

The next day, footage leaks of Scott Morrison praying in his office, with an Australian flag hanging in the background. The Zoom group he is participating in was organised by the Canberra Declaration, a virulently anti-abortion lobby group. The prime minister likens himself to Moses parting the Red Sea, and shares screen time with Margaret Court, his old pen pal and fellow Pentecostal.

“Heavenly father,” Morrison prays, “we just commit our nation to you.”

On Sunday morning, Brian Houston resurrects with a vengeance, emerging from the tomb of quarantine to remind followers that their own redemption is contingent on donations. In a baffling analogy, Hillsong’s fundraiser-in-chief compares tithing to dunking a clown in water by hitting a target with a ball at the circus, except that believers receive deliverance from evil.

“We are desperately in need of the people of Hillsong Church to just step up,” he says. “And I know situations change. People lose jobs … So, when it comes to your tithe, when it comes to giving, maybe the dollar amount has changed, but don’t go away from the principle: still commit to giving God first place of your new reality.”

The cash-for-healing appeal is followed by an alluring advertisement routinely played at church and queued on digital Hillsong gatherings throughout COVID-19. A breezy narrator suggests $100 a week as the default starting point.

Giving online is quick, easy and secure!

Enter your card details, and you’re done.

Thank you for investing into the lives of others!

Times are tough for Hillsong’s profit margins, but there’s fat chance of a government bailout, so Houston ratchets up the fire and brimstone with a directness usually only deployed in private prayer groups.

“There is a heaven and there is a hell,” he says. “They’re very real places. And I have no doubt right now that demon forces from the pit of hell have been arraigned against the earth and are behind this coronavirus.”

He name-drops the now departed David Wilkerson, a famous American prophet of the apocalypse, whom Houston claims is “very respected”. According to Houston, Wilkerson correctly prophesied the coronavirus.

“I see a plague coming on the world,” says a letter circulating across the internet purportedly written by Wilkerson in 1986, “and the bars and churches and government will shut down. The plague will hit New York City and shake it like it has never been shaken. The plague is going to force prayerless Believers into radical prayer … And out of it will come a third Great Awakening that will sweep America and the world.”

Brian Houston says that God can provide a vaccine at any moment of His choosing. In the meantime, Houston prescribes laying hands on the sick – figuratively, of course, due to social-distancing guidelines – and synchronising with the Holy Spirit by speaking in tongues. The astute schemer views a once-in-lifetime recruitment opportunity for Hillsong. “People get desperate in times of crisis,” he says. COVID-19 is a challenge, a battle, nay – a war! God can bring the dead back to life, he says, and set the world free.

“Let’s believe there’s a move of the Holy Spirit coming,” he says. “I can’t wait for the day we’re gonna be together again!”

Lech Blaine

Lech Blaine is the author of Car Crash: A Memoir and the Quarterly Essay Top Blokes: The Larrikin Myth, Class and Power.


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