February 2023


Hillsong and the life of Brian

By Elle Hardy
Brian Houston arrives at court, surrounded by TV news cameras

Brian Houston arrives at court in Sydney, December 6, 2022. © Bianca De Marchi / AAP Images

The Hillsong founder lost control, first of his judgement, then of his authority and finally of his church itself – now, on criminal trial, he’s desperate to control his story

Three words always come up when you speak to people who know Brian Houston well: positivity, confidence and booze. These are things that can elevate and eviscerate, drive and destroy, and for the Hillsong church founder finding the right balance has been his greatest, and ongoing, challenge. Yet on trial in a small Sydney courtroom in December, Houston’s extreme positivity and confidence began to look like repacked doubt and insecurity, and a history of excesses was revealed to have undone relationships with people who once served him unquestioningly.

It was hardly the venue in which Houston imagined judgement day would take place, and the 30-seat capacity certainly wasn’t the kind of theatre he had become accustomed to. The 68-year-old, who turned a tiny congregation into the biggest name in global Christianity outside of the Vatican, was standing trial for concealing his father’s sexual abuse of young boys.

For the man whose trademark slogan is “the best is yet to come”, things couldn’t get much worse than this. It was the culmination of an annus horribilis for Houston, a year that began with him humiliated by revelations of personal scandal, deposed after 39 years from leadership of the church he had founded, and abandoned by close friends and colleagues, before he ended here: a criminal trial that could see him facing years in jail. Closing arguments will be presented in June.

Entering a sparsely populated waiting area on the trial’s opening morning, alongside his wife, Bobbie, he opened his arms wide to greet a handful of family and friends. “Well, well,” he said in his booming voice. “What a group of people we have here!” As Bobbie stooped in prayer with a supporter, Houston strode past the small contingent of reporters and social-media personalities, eyeballing us one by one.

Never one to shy away from a fight, this was vintage Brian Houston, ready for the battle that will define his life. “The Big Eagle” and “Mother Dove”, as the first couple like to be known, have never taken challenges to their authority well. The Hillsong empire had once been an envelope for Houston’s ambitions, at its peak boasting 150,000 members worldwide and 50 million worshippers singing its songs on a weekly basis.

But unaccustomed to convincing non-believers, the skills that turned him into a mega-preacher weren’t welcome in court, even by those in his corner. Moderation has never been Houston’s strong suit, and his expensive legal team was frequently exasperated by his tendency on the witness stand to present a narrative rather than answer a question.

In order to tell the story of Brian Houston and Hillsong, we need to start with his father, the man he once described as “hero” and “mentor”, but now pointedly refers to as simply “Frank”.

William Francis Houston was born in 1922 and grew up in a Protestant family in New Zealand whose spirituality largely revolved around hating Catholics. Something of a wild child – and a lifetime away from the austere and domineering pastor he would become – Frank was born again in 1941 after a friend’s tragic death. Joining the Salvation Army, he met his wife, Hazel, and they went on to have five children, of which Brian was the youngest of two boys, and the only one to live up to his father’s expectations.

A born preacher, Frank told engaging and heartfelt personal stories, and fabricated many more. After being kicked out of the Salvos for “serious financial inconsistencies”, he had a severe mental health breakdown when Brian was still in nappies. In the course of his recovery, Frank attended a rally conducted by the Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal umbrella organisation that was to move him to speak in tongues and be “born again in the Holy Spirit” – the step in the Pentecostal faith that sets them apart from other evangelicals. Frank took on the gifts of the Spirit with gusto and developed a strong interest in faith healing.

Frank was reportedly a victim of child sexual abuse. Stories of his own sexual predation date back to his twenties. Like the Catholic priests he was raised to despise, he found that the best way of dealing with allegations was to move from town to town. At the same time, he found a far greater, and more enthusiastic, flock than he ever had with the Salvos. With his customary zeal and charm, he worked his way into the Assemblies leadership in New Zealand, wresting control of the organisation in 1965. It was in this capacity that he began visiting Australia to conduct revivals, put up by pious families, and raping little boys under the cover of darkness and authority.

In 1977, Frank had a vision that he needed to save Australia too. His children were now young adults, with Brian studying in Bible college and preparing to marry young Roberta, known as Bobbie, whom he met on the night she was “saved”. Frank’s children have always denied hearing the sighs of relief that bounced around the Shaky Isles on their father’s sudden departure. Rumours had built about Frank visiting gay bathhouses and molesting young boys – homosexuality and paedophilia were viewed in the church as perversions on par with each other – and several senior figures had confronted him, but Frank managed to assuage them.

With the Houstons’ feet barely on Australian shores, Frank began planting new churches, which he called Christian Life Centres, and worked his way into the local Assemblies of God. Endearing himself to some and bullying many more into submission, he eventually took over leadership of the Assemblies and set about remaking it in his own image. Brian and his new wife Bobbie followed him over, and, now a pastor, Brian began preaching up and down the coast while cleaning windows for a dollar a pop in Bondi, before the young couple started a church of their own in the city’s burgeoning Hills district in 1983.

A young family with great dreams and not much in the bank had found a natural home. The former farming district was being rapidly developed into a place for aspirational families to take their slice of the Australian dream. And while those earliest days of the Hills Christian Life Centre saw a school-hall congregation of 60 whittle down to 45 and then 30, their small number was blessed with several talented entertainers, including former child star Darlene Zschech and musician Geoff Bullock.

What Brian Houston lacked in his father’s charisma, he made up for with a nose for business and a sense of the zeitgeist. The austerity of old-school Pentecostals, quivering at the sense that God could return any time soon, was replaced by the conviction that “the best is yet to come”. Globally, the second wave of the Pentecostal movement in the ’60s and ’70s, the Charismatics, had brought disaffected former hippies and musicians such as Bullock into the tent. Now a third, or Neo-charismatic, wave was afoot: preachers who put on a show and charged a handsome fee, combining all the cultural power of the Charismatics with appreciation for a globalising world in which people equated valuing something with paying for it.

Geoff Bullock remembers those days well, having encountered Brian Houston “as a naive young Christian” when he first arrived at Frank’s inner-city church in the late 1970s. He and Zschech began using their musical knowledge to help lift the Hills Christian Life Centre congregation to a higher plane, matching dramatic key changes with the everyman sounds of Whispering Jack; the look and feel of Castle Hill RSL on a Saturday night overlaid with devotional lyrics.

Houston realised that they were on to something. His church was a place where people could feel optimistic about the world and optimistic about their faith. They could be Christian in a secular age: manifesting their dreams while not having to go without any of the good stuff. Most importantly, they could feel a part of something bigger.

With a burgeoning flock and the church’s growing reputation for its musical output, Houston travelled to the United States in the late 1980s. He left in a double-breasted grey suit and thin pink leather tie, and he returned in denim jeans and a leather jacket, “obsessed” with opening a Bible college as a money-spinner that would set the church on its course towards global domination.

Houston’s explosive temper had always been unavoidable, but his newfound drive for celebrity and glamour was something else entirely. Production crews and musicians were pushed to breaking point to deliver something bigger and better for the congregation each week. Bullock, as worship pastor and convenor of the annual conferences of what became Hillsong, recalls complaining to the boss. “It’s not your job to be a union rep bringing the complaints of the workers to management,” Houston told him. “Your job is to be in management and tell the workers that they have to do this.”

Like his father, Houston had an innate ability to inspire by withholding praise, leaving people striving to please him. A refrain became common to volunteers and congregants alike: if this was too much for you, find another church. The brand, which took on the name Hillsong in 2001, was sacred.

By the time he took over from his father as leader of the Assemblies of God in Australia in 1997, he was already seen in international Christian circles as a revolutionary. In the mirror, he saw a man rewarded with God’s blessing, and it made him feel bulletproof. One of his first acts on becoming Assemblies leader was removing the pastoral ban on drinking. At the same time, he frequently complained that he was a victim of Australia’s tall poppy syndrome, never given a fair hearing by a nation uncomfortable with American-style evangelism and a media who only ever wanted to know about the money.

Not going without proved to be a key selling point to leaders within the organisation too. “Shopping,” one former senior church figure told me, “was a Hillsong ministry.” And it wasn’t just the prepaid expense cards and the endless gifts, such as when one anonymous church figure in the Hills community hosted an open-ended tab for the Houstons at their favourite local cafe.

“Grow and spread” was Houston’s motto, and no one can deny it was successful. By 2020, Hillsong had branches in 30 countries spanning six continents, and highly successful colleges in Sydney and California that, along with music-streaming success on par with some of the world’s biggest secular pop stars, brought in serious money.

In 1994 Houston had realised that Hillsong needed some serious business muscle. George Aghajanian became the brilliant, Cromwellian hand behind Houston’s throne. An unusual creature at a church that made pastors into superstars, the man who remains the church’s general manager has always preferred to operate behind the scenes.

Not only was Aghajanian a shrewd corporate administrator, but, with his wife Margaret overseeing the church’s pastoral care unit, he had equal insight into the business and the people. In time, Hillsong would be known for operating a Stasi-style surveillance system on students, volunteers, staff and pastors. Someone facing marriage or health problems might be summoned and urged to seek church-based solutions. Painkillers and antidepressants were frowned upon, and chaperones to personal appointments were frequently pre-arranged.

Practices stemming from the Australian church were supercharged with American ideas, sealed off with the corporate culture of non-disclosure, non-disparagement and non-compete agreements, which remain a part of Hillsong to this day (and are the reason many sources could only speak to The Monthly on an anonymous basis).

“The Machine”, as Hillsong’s Western Sydney headquarters became known, had an insatiable appetite for the almighty dollar. Much of the church’s income came from its soaring music and concert sales, but renting theatres in the centre of London and New York City was an onerous operating cost that set its business model apart from its competitors. The idea of a “development pastor” was floated, someone who would work directly with high-net-worth church members on “personalised opportunities to support the ministry of the church and partnering charities”.

The extreme corporatisation of the church has been further revealed in a whistleblower case brought by former fundraising and governance coordinator Natalie Moses, who is suing Hillsong in a Fair Work case after she was suspended from her job in 2022. In a damning statement of claim, Moses outlined a culture where “large cash gifts” were paid to Houston and his family, musicians were classified as pastors for tax purposes, and chief financial officer Peter Ridley misled the charity regulator about how funds were moved across jurisdictions and about the church’s complex web of corporate entities (all charges that Hillsong strenuously denies).

Hillsong’s churches each produce a shiny annual brochure detailing their finances and achievements, but gaining an understanding of the books is an omertà that remains unbroken. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation of the glory decade from 2010 to 2020 shows that the church turned over at least a billion dollars. The Fair Work case has some recently departed Hillsongers almost gleefully referring to it as a Capone situation: the grotesque moral failings of the church may not bring it down, but an examination of the books just might.

For the Hillsong leadership, it was outsiders who were the problem. In Australia, the church’s congregation were “happy clappers”, but in America, they were the toast of the town. Purchasing a property in ritzy Newport Beach, California, to add to their sprawling Glenhaven home in Sydney and Bondi Beach apartment retreat, the Houstons started spending more time in the States than here.

Enter Carl Lentz, the charismatic Virginian pastor who co-founded Hillsong NYC in 2010. A graduate of Hillsong International Leadership College in Sydney, he started out collecting Brian Houston’s dry-cleaning and became his “mini-me”. The son of an influential Pentecostal lawyer who laid the foundations of the modern corporate church structure that George Aghajanian so keenly adopted, Lentz didn’t quite make it as a college basketball player and headed to Sydney to train as a pastor with the dynamic upstarts changing global Charismatic faith. He formed a strong bond with the Houstons’ sons, Joel and Ben.

Together, the boys dreamed of impressing the domineering father, or father figure, that Brian could be. Eldest son Joel, a Hillsong musician said to be a sweet, shy guy who would have been happier fronting the next Silverchair, never coped with familial pressures. Ben was more of his mother’s son, ambitious but lacking natural warmth. Lentz, on the other hand, had charisma and ability that even put Frank in the shade, and he became like a son that Brian could foist his expectations on and have them exceeded.

The right man to lead Hillsong’s drive into New York in 2010, 32-year-old Lentz and his Australian wife, Laura, opened the church in a Manhattan music venue, with Hillsong quickly becoming famous for crowds lining up to get in. God wasn’t “narrow” as Lentz put it – their church would be accepting and not judgemental: “If it saves one person, then that church is worthwhile.” The vibes were as important as the Word. Young people escaping to the big smoke from suffocating small towns, where austere evangelical churches were so often the centre of life, could find the stuff they believed in, without all the fire and brimstone. As with many Hillsong branches, in cosmopolitan cities such as Kyiv, São Paulo and Cape Town, the NYC church became a refuge for young people trying to meet others and forge careers, but who didn’t want to do it all at Friday drinks.

An evangelical blue blood, Lentz had connections that provided an even bigger break. Already courting national basketball stars and actors, a pastor friend referred him to young pop star Justin Bieber, who was facing mounting scandals, suffering under the weight of his substantial fame, and feeling alone and lost. Pastor Carl baptised Bieber in the middle of the night in a basketball player’s oversized bath, and took the wayward kid into his family home.

It was a coming together that would be eulogised in the glossy magazines and tabloids alike. The two became inseparable, with Lentz routinely photographed by Bieber’s side, earning the nickname “the shirtless preacher” and becoming a celebrity in his own right. Celebrity A-listers such as various Kardashian-Jenners followed suit, and soon, queues to get into Hillsong NYC on a Sunday morning rivalled those of nightclubs the night before. In a few short years, Lentz became a regular tabloid and television fixture. Appearing on daytime talk show The View, he created controversy in evangelical circles for refusing to condemn abortion.

But while the US media were hyping Hillsong as an Australian cultural export done good, it was always referred to as “Carl Lentz’s church” and the home of “Justin Bieber’s preacher”, with no mention of its founder. Houston began to feel that his protégé was more a cause for concern than celebration. He began to take more of a front-foot role in the US media, but his presence seemed to create more problems than it solved. Without the glamorous angle provided by the celebrities, questions were asked about how this “celebrity church” could reconcile its stances on issues such as gay marriage with its cool, young congregation and Hollywood following.

Yet in the evangelical world, Hillsong remained box office. Hillsong luminaries were fixtures on the lucrative church conference scene. Meanwhile, the ageing house bands at staid Southern Baptist churches were playing Hillsong tunes to keep people coming through the doors. Former members of more mainstream churches remember the changes when their church became “Hillsonged” – that is, began trying to emulate the showbiz feel and spectacular growth of the Australian brand. Churches had always had private rooms where pastors could gather their thoughts before delivering a sermon, and perhaps the house band might practise, but being “Hillsonged” brought with it a “green-room culture”, where these rooms were turned into exclusive party zones with tequila shots, splashed cash and diva demands on church volunteers.

As was always the case with Hillsong, there were the elites and there was everyone else. Abuse of volunteer labour had become an integral part of Hillsong’s business practice. As things were falling apart, the church commissioned a series of damning reports by a white-shoe American law firm that found rampant violations of labour laws, financial misconduct and sexual abuse.

Much of it stemmed from the system of nannying, where young female volunteers were live-in or on-call nannies for pastors’ families. Volunteers, who had moved to cities such New York and Boston hoping to make friends and find a sense of community, were co-opted into the system. Several appointed nannies for pastors’ families have told me that they were paid at most US$200 per week, an unliveable sum in such cities, working at times 14-hour days.

The provision of such hired help developed a great sense of entitlement among pastors and their wives, and conditions for the workers were commensurate with the miserable compensation. The labour system was also a legal liability, with Hillsong’s own lawyers finding that such people were clearly doing work above and beyond volunteer status, and as the payments they received meant they could be considered employees, they were being paid well below the minimum wage with no overtime.

Those at the top of the church were lavishing $5000 dinners on celebrities and claiming expensive clothes as church-related expenses. Lonely, vulnerable young women working demanding hours were treated like shit, in the sort of bastardisation that pastors and their wives – up to and including the Lentzes – had been through before them, relying on an implicit idea that volunteers were serving God by serving their best people, and perhaps one day they might be favoured themselves.

One former pastor put it down to human failure: that “people tend to compromise values when given privilege”. But a two-speed culture of permissiveness and opportunity led to outright predatory behaviour. An internal report exposed a sexual affair between former NYC pastor Reed Bogard, who had been promoted to lead pastor of the now-defunct Hillsong Dallas, and a former junior staffer, which the church leadership had become aware of but chose not to investigate. When the staffer was interviewed by church lawyers for the report, she told them that Bogard had initially raped her.

By the mid 2010s, the Hillsong way of “doing church” was thriving in the United States, but behind the scenes, the relationship between mentor Houston and protégé Lentz was growing increasingly fractious. Houston had always ruled by whim, but with a court-style system where he could be petitioned and persuaded. Trusted administrative lieutenants kept it all together.

Houston was fond of saying that if Lentz just stayed home and preached in New York City, the branch would be the most popular church in America. Frequently butting heads about how the church should be run more broadly, Houston made it clear that this was his church that he had built from scratch, while Lentz insisted that it was he who had brought Hillsong to the promised land and taken it to the next level. Each considered themselves a visionary rather than a preacher, content to leave the day-to-day stuff to others while conducting the good vibes of the church.

Houston was described by one senior figure who remains at the church as “focused on growth, not health” and a “micromanager like nothing else”. Campus pastors had to send him a weekly report and, while he refused most media requests, he was said to insist that anything to do with the press went through him. An Australian board member with an international remit, known internally as the “culture cop”, was meddling in the church operations of preachers in the US, many of whom had brought their already successful churches into the Hillsong fold. The cop was watching Lentz especially closely, although apparently turning a blind eye to reports of rampant cultural problems in NYC, such as pastors sending dick pics to green-room volunteers and making explicit comments to women about their bodies.

Disaffection with Houston and his Australian administrators was shared by other American Hillsong leaders. Running everything though head office was tiresome, and the US was, after all, the home of evangelicalism, and the numbers spoke for themselves. At Hillsong’s peak in 2019, it was obvious to church figures on both sides of the Pacific that a power struggle between Houston and Lentz was taking place. Some say Lentz “having any opinion whatsoever” was rubbing Houston up the wrong way. Headstrong visionaries who saw themselves as figureheads of the organisation, they were too similar to peacefully co-exist.

Houston was spending even more time at his California home, motivated by growing the church internationally but joking to people in Sydney that he was keeping his enemies closest. But while Lentz had achieved fame with a reputation for saving celebrities from themselves, the things that made him successful would, as with Houston, also lead to his downfall. With a fondness for the good life and all that came with it, Lentz had committed many sins, but in Hillsong’s eyes, one was above all others: he had become bigger than the institution itself. Lentz was all too aware of this and was making plans to go out on his own, convinced that the old guard didn’t appreciate what they had.

A dispute over the Black Lives Matter movement, following the death of George Floyd in 2020 at the hands of Minneapolis policemen, eventually brought things to a head. American pastors of the church wanted to take a strong stance on race to better reflect the church’s diverse, youthful congregation. They believed it needed to come from their side of the Pacific, with the “Australianness” of the church’s blindspot on the issue of race something they had long found disquieting. Australian pastors and college leaders had been known to make off-colour racial jokes, and rumours persisted that the n-word was freely thrown around in some quarters. One Australian leader had asked why Black Americans couldn’t “just get over” racial divide.

Lentz wanted to take charge of the church’s response to what he described as “this huge moment in culture”, and to be forward in using the term “Black Lives Matter”, something reflexively anathema to most white-led evangelical churches. But some pastors felt that they were being superseded by a man they knew to be highly ambitious. The growing unhappiness with Houston’s leadership didn’t mean that they were prepared to bend the knee to Lentz.

The church’s official story of what happened next is that someone in Hillsong NYC discovered inappropriate texts on Lentz’s church-issued phone and brought it to the attention of Hillsong East Coast’s chief operating officer, Tolu Badders, who took it to Houston. Houston is said to have confronted Lentz, before, as one person describes it, “that Hillsong machine took over”. Lentz was fired – according to an email from Houston to the global church congregation, for “leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures”.

In a staff meeting promptly leaked to tabloids, Houston said that Lentz had displayed “general narcissistic behaviour, manipulating, mistreating people” and “constantly lying”. The next day, Lentz confessed to some 700,000 Instagram followers that “I was unfaithful in my marriage, the most important relationship in my life”, and left for inpatient therapy in Arizona, receiving a small payout wrapped in a tight legal agreement.

Thus far maintaining a public silence, Lentz is said to be incensed by the damaging reports into the church’s culture, and the steady stream of leaks about his behaviour to the media. Those in the Lentz camp say that the law firm reports were not independent and cherry-picked stories in a concerted effort to pin the church’s cultural rot on Lentz because he was preparing to leave Hillsong and start his own church. “The way Hillsong operates is that if it’s best for their image to build somebody up, they are shielded,” a source said. “And if it’s best for the company to destroy a person, they are destroyed.”

The times were beginning to catch up with Houston. As well as the Lentz scandal, Australia’s 2013 royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse had found he had failed to alert the police about allegations his father Frank had sexually assaulted children, and recommended the NSW Police investigate whether there was a criminal case to answer. Both events severely tarnished the church’s reputation. After criminal charges for the concealment of information on child sex abuse were finally made against him in 2021, it was decided in early 2022 that Houston should stand down from Hillsong’s leadership while he fought them.

Shortly after, old rumours about Houston resurfaced in the church, with several longstanding members of Hillsong’s Board of Elders – the advisory group on spiritual matters, more conservative than the business-focused executive board – discovering two scandals of sexual impropriety involving the church leader. One involved sending inappropriate texts to a staffer in 2013, and the other occurred in 2019, when, drunk after a church conference, Houston spent 40 minutes in a female parishioner’s hotel room.

The Elders were feeling the heat from growing revelations in the church community about the leadership’s moral impropriety, and felt that Hillsong’s business wing wasn’t taking these concerns seriously. They demanded a proper investigation into the allegations against Brian Houston, and word of the investigation was leaked to the press. Five days later, Houston had resigned from his position as global lead pastor – the day before an explosive documentary aired in the United States, which outlined the shocking culture within the church.

Public humiliation was the only way to receive accountability at Hillsong. What transpired next is still not entirely clear. Houston, who had been initially supportive of installing interim pastor Phil Dooley to offer at least the perception of a cultural shift, had been forced to resign by a small coalition of senior executives. The church had to be protected at all costs. But what remained of its brand was little more than institutional memory. A congregation that once queued for multiple services was now a theatre strategically arranged to mask for the cameras that it was only a third full.

Hillsong’s legal problems were mounting, and its financial troubles substantial. The organisation had become as toxic as the Hillsong brand – and the Houstons themselves. Months of damaging leaks and score settling followed. Houston addressed losing control of his church in the manner many had come to know best: vicious messages, in private and on social media. In one subsequently deleted tweet last July, Houston wrote: “That an In-House lawyer, ambitious Acting Pastors, and Chairman of a Board can cause so much chaos for a congregation that used to be 150,000 globally – is tragic. See it for what it is. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The aggressive approach to Hillsong’s spectacular fall from grace hasn’t been limited to its founder. In a sermon to start the new year, long-time Hillsong pastor and noted head-cracker Robert Fergusson issued a bold request for tithes from the pulpit. “If every single person at our church tithed,” he said, “we would have no financial problems.” Hillsong’s own report showed that the organisation’s revenue declined around 20 per cent for the year ending 2021. Given that the following year saw Brian Houston’s scandals publicly aired, a widely visible drop in attendances, the majority of its US churches and the Norwegian branch breaking away entirely, and a movement in some churches to no longer play Hillsong music, it is believed that the next year’s report will be even grimmer.

Internally, morale continues to plunge to new depths. Each campus has been required to reduce its staff to certain levels according to how much it brings in, and battles are raging between campuses on who is paying for what. Senior administrators, including legal counsel Tim Whincop and human resources head John Mays, are leaving, while production staff – the engine of the Hillsong machine – are on their way out the door in droves.

The practice of tethering workers to legal agreements for their silence continues, only adding to the climate of fear and hostility. “It’s imploding, and I get the sense that some people are happy to let it implode,” said one long-term employee waiting for his redundancy payout.

One person believed to have already received their cheque is Brian Houston, though a source claims that “he didn’t receive as much as would be expected, and certainly what he himself had expected” (in sharp contrast to Frank and Hazel Houston, who were supported by the church until the end of their lives). Figures such as George Aghajanian stepped down from the board in an attempt to show that things are different now, though he remains general manager. Critically, he is no longer a friend of the Houstons.

A source close to the board said that “Hillsong is not a Houston family church anymore”, citing changes to the board’s membership that “could have never happened under Brian, who ran it like a fiefdom”. In a further departure from its founder, the source added, the church has taken on board criticisms of “bad theology”, particularly coming from the United States, slating Houston’s teachings as a pastor as “just motivation”.

Over several long days on the witness stand during his criminal trial, Houston’s trademark slogan “the best is yet to come” seemed more and more hollow. Making small talk with the gallery, he hearkened back to memories of the attendance in church of a frequent media critic’s family, and joked with the detective who investigated him that it was better to be sitting on the other side of the witness stand. No slogan, no positivity, could paper over his vulnerability.

Humiliated in the court of public opinion, and with little hope of gaining back control of Hillsong, his early attempts to rehabilitate his reputation before the trial – sparsely attended “Evening with Brian and Bobbie” events – were unsuccessful. Senior figures in the church continue to receive “streams of texts” from Houston that speak to a sense of bitterness and betrayal.

Recently selling their multimillion-dollar Sydney home, the Houstons are reportedly applying for green cards in the United States, sponsored by mentor and friend Casey Treat. Treat is said to be concerned about Houston’s recent behaviour and state of mind, and is looking out for him – the two are also working on a new church venture.

But Houston is keenly aware that any criminal record would quash his application – not to mention that he is “terrified”, as one former colleague put it, of going to jail. Committed evangelicals, both Houston and Lentz are plotting their public rebirth sooner rather than later – that moment when they can confess their sins, and, more importantly, tell their side of events. Having had his day in court, it’s clear Houston is desperate to testify in a more comfortable setting, taking to Twitter a number of times last year with messages about how “the truth will always win”. But in order for it to do so, both Houston and the church he founded must overcome something that has always been a gospel in Hillsong: that modern faith is about telling a good story.

Elle Hardy

Elle Hardy is a journalist and the author of Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity is Taking Over the World.


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Online misogyny touted by the likes of Andrew Tate (awaiting trial for human trafficking and rape) is radicalising Australian schoolboys

Close-up of smiling Kathleen Folbigg after being acquitted at the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal, December 14, 2023

By her own words

How systemic misconceptions around women’s guilt led to a 20-year miscarriage of justice for Kathleen Folbigg

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Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality