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Hillsong and the lies evangelicals tell ourselves

Barton J. Gingerich | Attempts to appear “cool” to the world bring scandal to the gospel


Worshipers pray at Hillsong Church in New York in 2017. Associated Press/Photo by Andres Kudacki

Hillsong and the lies evangelicals tell ourselves
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Hillsong leads the religious news headlines. Originating in Australia, the global charismatic megachurch is well known thanks to its effective corporate branding, influence in the Christian music industry, and celebrity attendees. Sadly, Hillsong is now rocked by scandals. While Hillsong New York pastor Carl Lentz fell from grace about two years ago, global pastor Brian Houston has now resigned for breaching the church’s code of conduct. To top it all off, the Discovery+ channel is now featuring a documentary series ominously titled Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed. Now, everyone has their knives out, so to speak.

Evangelicals continue to confront the crisis of spiritual consumerism, churches-as-lifestyle brands, and ecclesiastical structures and officers organized along the lines of for-profit corporations. While that is an important discussion, it misses something more fundamental. The most embarrassing headlines in the Hillsong saga aren’t that new or unique. The ranks of the clergy have long featured bad actors or promising men corrupted by lust, greed, pride, and a whole range of other sins, resulting in grievous abuse of the flock. The Lord abhors such wicked shepherds (especially when they don’t repent), and yet Hillsong isn’t exceptional for having pastors commit adultery or be motivated by fame or filthy lucre. These problems have existed in the church from the earliest days. Like nearly every ecclesiastical institution in history, Hillsong must confront simple failures of integrity, albeit on an international stage and with lots of members and money on the line.

As a result, the essentials for successful ministry have been revealed, particularly holiness and integrity of character. We can get distracted with techniques, aesthetics, projects, and showmanship, forgetting that even the largest of institutions can grievously suffer and even collapse from basic moral failures. Everyone from the Vatican down to the small-town Wesleyan chapel needs to remember this. We can forget that true success looks like faithfulness, and a lack of faithfulness can cause horrendous damage.

Evangelicals would do well to open their eyes to the dangerous myth that we can gain acceptance from the world and remain faithful to the gospel.

After all, the world zealously attacks the church when she fails to live up to her own moral standards. Hillsong seems to be losing credibility fast, especially with those outside Christian circles. Anti-Christian critics have eagerly lapped up the scandal. The cosmopolitan crowd Hillsong sought so hard to impress are now the church’s greatest critics. It’s hard to find much sympathy for Hillsong’s members and its leadership as they pick up the pieces. It’s a pathetic sight.

Why?

It’s pathetic because Hillsong and many of its imitators put so much effort into appealing to a fundamentally unserious culture that despises traditional Christianity. None of the glitz and glamour of the Hillsong brand has been able to shield its denominations from the angry condemnations of non-Christian pundits. Why should they? Non-Christian skeptics are particularly enraged at anyone who rejects sexual permissiveness, which is why they find so much schadenfreude in the adultery of pastors. While such failings don’t delegitimize God’s unchanging moral law, they do harm the church’s testimony and make her the target of both fair rebuke and unfair scorn. Yet the comforting lie remains: We think we can get people to like us if we just get the “branding” right—if we are hip enough, smart enough, emotionally satisfying enough, practical enough, entertaining enough. The amount of time and resources spent on this quest is dizzying.

One is reminded of the prediction that Carl Trueman made nearly a decade ago: “You really do kid only yourselves if you think you can be an orthodox Christian and be at the same time cool enough and hip enough to cut it in the wider world. Frankly, in a couple of years it will not matter how much urban ink you sport, how much fair trade coffee you drink, how many craft brews you can name, how much urban gibberish you spout, how many art house movies you can find that redeemer figure in, and how much money you divert from gospel preaching to social justice: maintaining biblical sexual ethics will be the equivalent in our culture of being a white supremacist.”

While it may be easy for some within the church to pile on the current condemnations of everything Hillsong, evangelicals would do well to open their eyes to the dangerous myth that we can gain acceptance from the world and remain faithful to the gospel. For many of us, that will include a fundamental reevaluation of what makes for effective evangelism, faithful discipleship, the majestic worship of a holy God, and godly pastoral ministry. But, above all, we can’t kid ourselves. Chasing after the “cool factor” is, at best, a waste of energy. More to the point, it’s a scandal to the gospel.


Barton J. Gingerich

The Rev. Barton J. Gingerich is the rector of St. Jude’s Anglican Church (REC) in Richmond, Va. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in history from Patrick Henry College and a Master of Divinity with a concentration in historical theology from Reformed Episcopal Seminary.

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