Before reading the article by Steve West, it is important to understand who Steve West is.
Steve studied for his Diploma in Christian Ministry at Hillsong International Leadership College in 2001 and 2002.
During that time he served in most ministry areas – kids, youth, carpark, sound, new Christians, offering collection and ushering. He worked closely with many leaders and gave virtually all his available time and money to the church, volunteering at all conferences in that time and spending an average of six to seven days a week at Hillsong Church. He progressed to an effective pastor position at an affiliated church and ran a local young adults ministry effectively for several years.
With this in mind, Steve West wrote the following article.
Hillsong Church (Steve’s Epic Note 1) *updated
I will never be able to write this note correctly. I have far too much experience to expect that people will understand me – or that many will walk away from my words even comprehending what I have said. Psychology has long shown that people cannot deal with too great a confrontation to their worldview.
This post discusses my views on Hillsong Church. They are now largely critical, but they are not wholly so. In fact, I see some seeds within Hillsong of some very great things indeed – lost in the pageantry and parade.
Who I am to Criticise Hillsong Church
Who am I that I dare to bring public a critique of such a church?
In summary, I became a sold out Christian in 1999 at the age of 17. I gave all I was to my understanding of service and devotion to God (more on this in part 2). I rapidly associated these radical changes in my life to the work of the Spirit, which I perceived as being active in Hillsong Church. I attended Hillsong Leadership College in 2001 and 2002, achieving my Diploma, during which time I spent up to six days a week, mornings and nights, at the church, and was deeply involved there. I attended all conferences and was involved in virtually everything the church had to offer. I worked in carpark, ushers, new Christians, sound, lighting, set up, children’s ministry, preacher’s club, attended church meetings at from twice to five times a week, connect group, counselling, satellite services and young adults meetings and programs, camps, exo days, doorknocking evangelism, evangelism seminars, vision builders, as well as camps.
After my time at Hillsong, I ran an AOG ministry in a medium sized Sydney church. This was the young adults program, which worked with about sixty people but would have only had about forty at it’s meetings. Some would argue that it was equivalent to the position of a pastor.
I say all this to demonstrate that I am no ignorant critic.
I know Hillsong church; it’s people, it’s culture.
It is a major part of my life story.
My Criticisms of Hillsong, the AOG and their culture
I am now wishing to speak here more directly of Hillsong than I have I have in the past.
I have laid the case of how I see Hillsong is failing in evangelism elsewhere:
In summary, I feel that Hillsong gains a lot of its confidence from its demographic strength. Yet I argue that the demographic strength is largely an illusion aided by large meeting halls. The oft quoted statistic is that Hillsong loses half of its membership every five years. Compared to any other denomination, this is an atrocious retention rate. This is only viable because Hillsong has a significant inflow of Christians (mostly denomination switchers) and a much smaller rate of converts from wider society.
This is significant because a major aspect of the culture of the AOG and Hillsong is premised on demographic strength. The theory goes that because it is large, God must be blessing it. From and evangelical Christian perspective, this logic must be derided as asinine. Are we to conclude that the Catholic church is more blessed by God, as its numbers are larger? What of the annual Haj of Muslims to Mecca? This is phenomenally larger than Hillsong Conference. If numbers are a sign of God’s blessing, Hillsong is abysmally small cookies. Even were they to say numbers are significant only for evangelical Christians – there are far more evangelical Anglicans than there are Hillsongers, in Sydney alone. The logic is so two dimensional and – frankly – shallow, that it staggers belief.
But Hillsong’s success is borne out of criticism, and it has developed certain unique traits to cope with it. These traits themselves I consider to be the most sinister aspects of the organisation.
Hillsong does not tolerate dissension, reasonable or not. Any Hillsong pastor who has strayed even moderately from the vision is quickly exorcised and ostracised. Among the fallen are Geoff Bullock and Craig Woods, but the list is extensive. Once outside the ranks of those who ‘carry the vision’, these former giants are treated with disdain and suspicion from the simple (clergy or laity).
To the stranger, Hillsong’s intolerance begins as a strange positivity. Everyone is upbeat and speaks well. This is because they are intolerant of those who speak negatively. This sounds healthy enough for creating a positive environment, but it goes deeper.
Those who question methods or practices are quickly seen to. The attitude is simple – get on board or get out. There is no room for flexibility.
Fair enough, if you’re running a business. But it is no business, it is a church. It contains vulnerable people, with alternate views. Those expecting a Biblical experience are soon disappointed.
The teaching of tithing has melted away, by and large, but its lingering legacy remains.
Be clear, dear Christians, that this is not a biblical teaching. Tithing was expected of the old testament Israelites, and even then, not all of them were expected to tithe – only agriculturalists of eleven of the twelve tribes. Pentecostal churches fail to admit this point. The New Testament never teaches tithing…the closest affirmation to it Jesus famously reminding the Pharisees that they should be tithing. And they should have been, they were under the Old Testament law – the curtain was not yet ripped.
I think it sinister that any church would teach tithing when it is so easy to shoot down as an unbiblical teaching.
And here we run into some more issues.
Hillsong has run the mill of criticisms for its teaching on money, and indeed it has toned these down over the years. For a critic like me, I can’t help but see this as a marketing move to reduce the heat being placed on the organisation and to reposition it to expand its market.
Why so cynical about the money?
I have run a church ministry for years and have never found the need to emphasise money as they have. They teaching in my view is both unbiblical and exploitative. Not only has tithing been taught, but also the sowing and reaping principle has been taught ad nauseum. Hillsong Church and its affiliates are the only churches I know to have sermons designed to inspire giving EVERY SINGLE SERVICE. I have run a church ministry. This is totally unnecessary behaviour. And waving the carrot of blessing seems unethical to me.
Furthermore, I am not unconvinced that Brian does not personally benefit from all this.
As will detail below, my personal snapping point with Hillsong came when I discover them being dishonest about their financial dealings. From then on, there was no more grace from me, no more “they are imperfect but they still do some good so praise God for them anyway”.
Dishonesty is deep and systematic. Not only are individuals censored, but there certainly is something funky going on with the money. I propose to you that Hillsong Church is buying properties to host visiting pastors, and this is labelled in the budget as a ministry expense, so that the public auditing never shows this. These properties are given to Leadership Ministries International – Brian’s personal company that he directs. Although held in the company’s name, it is effectively his personal wealth, bought by tithers and ‘sowers’ in the church. Why do I say this? 1. I’ve had access to the ‘open’ financial records of the church, 2. An examination of the claims of Brian to the media. He at first claims that he is a property developer, but then goes back on this in later interviews. He’s just getting more savy on how he needs to present himself…both are true. He is a property developer, just not in his own name. He let’s LMI do it and he benefits from it personally.
So in total, with Christians being used and spat out of that system at an alarming rate, I do not see Hillsong as the flagship for the Christian church, but a symbol of what can go wrong and how well meaning people can easily be duped.
I think I have a right to criticise if I see it as systematically evil, and not just a flawed but essentially decent enterprise.
But, the culture is so clearly tuned against criticism, that most of those Christians will never see through it. Especially those who cluck about grace.
My Story of Losing Faith In Hillsong
My loss of faith in Hillsong took much time. It took me some years to finally concede that tithing was clearly unbiblical.
But I was still so zealous for Hillsong that I was anxious to prove it to its critics.
The critics kept banging on about how Hillsong was all about the money, so I was anxious to prove to them that Hillsong was open and honest about its financial practices. It had assured me that any member of the congregation could agree to meet the manager, George Aghajanian, and see the financial books.
So I made the appointment. After some months, I was finally in the meeting.
After pressing George and his assistant for a long time, I left the meeting without seeing a single figure. They refused to show me anything. I was a supportive congregant for five years. Not a single figure. In fact, they filled my mind with spin and answers so that when I left the meeting, I thought they had answered my questions. Only later I realised they had shown me nothing.
The financial accountability of the church is a grand lie. It is upheld by willing people, and those who are conditioned not to question, because criticism is ungodly.
I took many years attempting to discuss my perceived doctrinal and practice issues with the leadership of Hillsong. Almost universally, they are not interested in such discussions. All their responses could be reduced to simple patronising rhetoric: it’s wrong to be critical, no where is perfect etc etc. How could they fail to see that deep systematic issues actually need to be addressed and not just swept under the rug?
I came to see Hillsong culture, which is highly controlling of the way people think (their attitudes are groomed to come to pre-determined conclusions about many issues) is designed to prevent critical thinking. How people think this is ok is beyond me. History is full of leaders who were to be unquestioned. Human leadership is indeed flawed, and those who brainwash their followers into unquestioning subservience are the same leaders who took the liberty this afforded them to selfish and evil ends. It need not be that way. Our wider society is full of checks and balances that enable people to raise legitimate issues with leadership – the judiciary, the ACCC, the ICAC, the police, various lobby and appeal groups. But if you disagree with Hillsong leadership there is no appeal. They control their position tightly. This is a terrifying and inhuman thought. Even the Anglicans and Catholics have methods for dealing with dispute resolution. At Hillsong, you’re just told to shut up and get your attitude right.
For those whom my view challenges, I beg your indulgence. Please resist the temptation of simply labelling me a ‘bitter cynic’. Oversimplifying my thoughts and feelings, borne through years of heartache, study and soul searching, just so that you don’t feel threatened, is indescribably patronising. I had every reason to thoroughly believe in and support Hillsong and its style of doing church.
But you just need to think clearly on some points to start seeing something awry is going on.
I loved that place. Deeply. It has been devastating to me to realise it was largely a con and I fought against that conclusion with every ounce of my intellect and energy. This realisation caused me a severe depression and I have fought since to get my life back on track.
I wish people to wake up and the AOG to fix its game, as I believe they have something very valuable to contribute to society – if they give up these ridiculous games.
I am only one person, and these things have exacted a terrible toll on my emotions. I believe in being willing to discuss things, so I open the floor to discussion, but I ask for a certain respect for my human frailty. I have not the resources of a megachurch, but I shall try to answer your questions and comments as best as i can.
Source: Steve West, Hillsong Church (Steve’s Epic Note 1) *updated, http://www.facebook.com/notes/steve-west/hillsong-church-steves-epic-note-1-updated/445392536927, 10/07/2010. (Accessed 18/11/2012.)
(Disclaimer: The views of Steve West do not necessarily represent our own personal views. We have decided to publish his articles so people may witness his journey out of Hillsong.)
NOTE: SCREEN GRAB WAS TAKEN ON THE 18/11/2012.