In June 2015, when Justin Bieber was beginning his journey to salvation in the green room of a Hillsong conference in Sydney, the wife of an American pastor was over the other side, hoping that she would be saved too. Not by Jesus — she was already signed up there — but from a lecherous Australian preacher who wanted to go somewhere alone.
“I was getting a coffee and he was trying to hit on me,” said the woman, who wished to remain anonymous. “I told him I don't really come here to talk to anyone. He was, like, ‘let’s get out of here.’ I said ‘I'm good. I'm just gonna stay here and watch everything.’ At those things, there was always someone cheating on their spouse.”
The head preacher of her own church in Tennessee “worshipped” the Australian megachurch and everything it had achieved since being founded by Brian Houston and his wife Bobbie in 1983. Hillsong grew from a congregation of 45 in Sydney to a global brand with churches in 30 countries and on six continents, and changed the sound and style of devotional music with its emphasis on pop. An estimated 50 million worshippers around the world sing their songs each week.
But a recent series of scandals has seen attendance numbers dwindling, celebrity followers distancing themselves from the church, and television stations dumping Hillsong from their lineups. The brand is now considered so toxic that it could present a real threat to its business model, which is heavily reliant on music and merch sales.
At the height of its power, Hillsong turned preachers into rock stars. So much so, that on the night before a visiting preacher was scheduled to speak at a conference her American church was hosting, the pastor in question had church volunteers drive him and his entourage to a strip club. “We wanted to tell the head preachers about it, but they all had handlers under them, and you had run every single thing by this person,” she says. “Like all of this behavior, it became easier to just blow it off.”
Reserved by nature, none of this was her scene. But since her church had come into the orbit of Hillsong, its toxic habits were seeping into it. This was especially typified in “green-room culture” — private rooms reserved for the highest-ranking church members and visiting preachers that tended to become unholy party zones — which she describes, at best, as being “all about kissing each other’s asses” behind the scenes.
There is nothing new in having a dedicated space for a pastor to quietly gather their thoughts before delivering a sermon, but Hillsong’s green rooms were much closer to those of touring musicians. After a church became ‘Hillsonged’ — that is, began trying to emulate the showbiz feel and spectacular growth of the Australian brand — they were an entirely different thing.
“At those things, there was always someone cheating on their spouse.”
According to three sources who spent time in Australian and American Hillsong green rooms, pastors often had riders explicitly outlining what should be provided for them backstage. After a sermon of a conference speech, pastors could be seen backstage congregating with celebrities over tequila. It wasn’t unusual to see envelopes of cash or prepaid expense cards handed about. Volunteers became accustomed to requests such as finding a better car for chauffeuring preachers and guests around town, or last-minute requests to carpet the stage because the pastor’s wife had bought new heels.
For many departing members, it’s the private things they witnessed in the green rooms that symbolized the rot at the core of a church they once believed in. A former Australian Hillsong insider calls this back-room culture a critical part of the “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” ethos that had been festering in the church for years.
Recently, Hillsong has experienced a very public fall from grace. Last week, co-founder Brian Houston accused the church of “losing its soul,” though many would argue that it departed a long time ago. Sources familiar with the church’s internal politics point to a world of chaos, firefighting, legal wrangling going on behind the scenes — and increasingly, on Instagram — as for the first time since its founding, the Houston family’s grip on their global empire is slipping.
It all began in 2020, with the downfall of celebrity preacher Carl Lentz, a huge fan of green rooms and not one of shirts. Fired by his former mentor Houston for “narcissistic behavior” and “moral failings,” there has been some suggestion that Lentz was perceived as being bigger than Hillsong and planning to branch out and start his own church. Given Houston’s own issues with women — one incident dating back almost 10 years — Lentz allies found Houston’s newfound morality questionable, to say the least.
Late last year, Hillsong legal counsel advised Houston to step down from church leadership while he fights charges of allegedly concealing his late father’s sexual abuse of a young boy in the 1970s. Police investigated Brian Houston after he appeared at the 2014 royal commission into child sexual abuse. It is alleged that he confronted his father about the crime in the 1990s, but failed to bring the matter to authorities. The victim told the royal commission that he received a $10,000 check in the mail after complaining to Brian Houston.
By March, old rumors began surfacing in the media about Houston’s inappropriate behavior towards two women involved with the church. The board said in a statement that two incidents were respectively due to sleeping tablets and alcohol. On March 23, Houston resigned for breaching the church's code of conduct. In a leaked farewell email to staff, Houston said that he has “let you down so badly and sorry will never be enough to express my sorrow.” He added that “I believe I am the person and pastor you believed me to be…. I am determined that my mistakes will not define me.”
Many leaders and churchgoers were awaiting the outcome of Houston’s criminal trial related to his father, but his resignation, combined with the airing of an explosive documentary about the church the day after it was announced, proved too much. Two prominent U.S. pastors resigned from Hillsong and took their congregations with them. Nine of the church’s 16 American branches have now left. Terry Crist, who leads ex-Hillsong churches in Phoenix, Tucson, and Las Vegas is now locked in a bitter fight with the global board over property.
If the drama playing out didn’t already sound like it was made for HBO, the church is facing a genuine crisis of succession in the wake of Houston standing down, and his wife Bobbie fired by text shortly after. Even with their three children embedded in church youth ministries and musical wings, the Houstons never had a plan for who would replace them. Sources say that Houston felt he had another decade or more on top, and kept himself in great shape. Never shy of reminding people that he didn’t actually draw a salary from the church, he made his money giving speeches at conferences and flogging books. Moving away from the limelight doesn’t suit the business model.
The Houstons’ only daughter, Laura Toganivalu, has removed references to Hillsong from her social media, but continues to post vociferously in defense of her parents. She and her husband Peter would be the most likely to keep the family’s grip on power at Hillsong, though people in the Sydney church have variously described her to me as a “ditz” and “too immature” to take over the organization. Her brothers Joel and Ben are still involved with the organization but have been avoiding the spotlight for several years.
Interim global lead pastor Phil Dooley and his wife Lucinda were appointed, a source inside the church says, as “the most senior people with the cleanest hands.” And let’s be frank, Hillsong would know. The church keeps extensive files on people in the organization and conducts internal inquiries — about everything from personal medical issues to sexual assaults — in an effort to keep affairs in-house.
But as they continue to leak out into the open, the culture of impunity is withering. The seats are emptying. The YouTube views are down. The celebs have stopped showing up. And without celebrities in the green room, it is unclear if Hillsong can remain a draw.
Elle Hardy is a journalist and author of Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity Is Taking Over the World