The Secrets of Hillsong (2023) Review

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I met a strange lady, she made me nervous

The Secrets of Hillsong (2023); 5 out of 10: is an occasionally unintentionally funny documentary that unravels the dark secrets and scandals surrounding the renowned Hillsong Church. The story follows multiple narratives, exposing the abuse of power, the concealment of crimes, and the exploitation of both volunteers and followers within the influential religious institution.

The narrative starts with the revelation that Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz, who helped lead the church’s first branch in the United States, was fired in 2020. It is discovered that he engaged in multiple extra-marital affairs, exposing a culture within Hillsong that some members felt focused too much on fashion and catering to the desires of pastors and famous patrons. Volunteers allegedly faced long hours, mistreatment, and dismissal when attempting to address their concerns about Lentz to Hillsong leadership.

Then the story swings wildly in both tone, time, and continents delving into the shocking revelations regarding Frank Houston, the father of Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston. Frank, a pastor in New Zealand and Australia, is exposed as a sexual abuser who preyed on young boys throughout his ministry. One victim, who suffered routine sexual abuse during the 1960s and ’70s between the ages of 7 and 12, courageously steps forward, and his mother reports the abuse to the Assemblies of God denomination in 1999.

However, Brian Houston, then the national president of the Assemblies of God in Australia, allegedly fails to fulfill his legal obligation to report the crime. Brian defends his actions by claiming that he deemed it reasonable not to report the abuse when it came to light since the victim was now an adult and purportedly did not want the crime reported (a claim disputed by the victim). The victim later testifies to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, revealing that Frank Houston attempted to compensate him with AU$10,000 in the presence of Nabi Saleh at a McDonald’s.

Amidst internal church investigations, Frank Houston eventually confesses to his crimes, which also include abuse perpetrated against children in New Zealand. Frank resigns from his church in 2000, leading to its merger into Hillsong Church, which lacked a pastor.

The narrative takes a dramatic turn when the NSW Police issue a warrant for Brian Houston’s arrest, accusing him of concealing his father’s child sexual abuse. Brian, who is in the United States, vehemently denies the charges and plans to plead not guilty. Amid the ensuing legal battle, Brian steps down from his position as chairman of the Hillsong board, acknowledging that the court proceedings will probably be protracted. Phil and Lucinda Dooley, pastors of the South African church, assume the role of acting global senior pastors during Brian’s absence.

“The Secrets of Hillsong” also sheds light on the critical voices that have criticized the church’s practices and governance. Former members expose the authoritarian nature of Hillsong, its lack of financial transparency and accountability, resistance to free thought, and strict fundamentalist teachings.

The Secrets of Hillsong also explores allegations made by former church members who accuse Hillsong of exploiting volunteers. They claim overwork, lack of recognition, and invasion of privacy within the organization.Hillsong responded by launching an internal investigation and implementing a global human resources team, an ethical code of conduct, and an email address for reporting complaints.

“The Secrets of Hillsong” presents a harrowing exploration of abuse, cover-ups, and exploitation within the influential religious organization. The story raises important questions about power, accountability inside the church.

Four Parts Eh?

There’s been a trend for a while with streaming documentaries where they take a subject that normally they would have done an hour and a half or maybe a two-hour documentary and stretch it out to a four, five or six-hour documentary split into bingeable hour long episodes.

Netflix has been guilty of this more than once and Hulu as well. In this case, there’s definitely some padding here and more to the point, there are at least three completely separate documentary subjects mashed together under the Hillsong umbrella.

We have the initial documentary that takes up the first episode and visits again throughout the series where the lead minister of the US flagship church in New York (Carl Lentz) was caught sleeping with the nanny. (Among other affairs.)

Then we have generic complaints against Hillsong from former members. These range wildly and are often unfocused. Included in these complaints is an exposure of profligate spending by Hillsong (private jets, watches), abuse of free labor, and complaints about the Church’s college, which again could be its own documentary.

And then in episode three, we go back to the fifties and early sixties to expose a child molestation case with interviews of victims, court proceedings, and the eventual indictment of the head of the church for covering up his late father’s crimes. What a child molested in 1961 has to do with a nanny strumpet’d in 2018 is a question many viewers may understandably have.

In fairness to the Hulu doc, apparently Discovery has a six-parter on the same subjects. Keep in mind the trial of the church leader is still going on, so that story has not even finished yet.

My first of a couple of ill-advised thoughts and analogies.

If you were to do a documentary about Danish Jews in the Holocaust, the first thing you would have to point out is how horrifying the Holocaust was for the Danish Jews. The second thing you would have to point out is how incredibly lucky the Danish Jews were in the Holocaust since the vast majority of them survived. In fact, 95% of them escaped unharmed to Sweden and the 5% that were in a concentration camp were actually put in a concentration camp that was a kind of a Potemkin Village for concentration camps. You know, it was less crowded. Corpses were not hanging everywhere. The Red Cross made regular visits.

Danish Jews did not have what you would call the normal Holocaust experience. Some died. (Fifty out of the five hundred that were captured), It was still extremely frightening. And it was still tragic, but you would be mistaken not to point out that as scary and as tragic as their experience was, it was not representative of the experience that other Holocaust victims had.

So what does this have to do with the Hillsong Church Scandals? As church scandals go… this seems really small stuff. The financial improbities are relatively small, the child molestation issue was literally with one person (In all fairness the founder) and the sex scandal would hardly have been a weekend for say Jerry Falwell Jr.

The Southern Baptists wipe the floor with these guys. Other Pentecostal churches certainly have managed much greater scandals and have been churning them out for the last fifty years. And when it comes to financial improprieties and child molesting, The Catholic Church is playing in a whole different league. That one local Catholic Archdiocese featured in Spotlight had a multitude more scandals than the entire worldwide Hillsong Church.

Not a safe space for witches

Hillsong, despite its music and long-haired hippie preachers, started as a Pentecostal church. That means its foundation includes speaking in tongues, possibly handling snakes, claims that God will heal you and/or make you rich and a love of the Old Testament.

I like Mormons. Every Mormon I have met in real life has been a wonderful person who really walked the walk. But I have never wandered over to my local Church of Latter Day Saints to sign right up. It is the coffee. I don’t drink, I only occasionally vape, but coffee… I need my coffee.

The point is, even though I respect Mormons; they have their rules. I don’t think I would follow those rules and so I do not join them in worship. What I don’t do is join the Mormons and then demand they allow hot drinks.

There are way too many people in this documentary, particularly the people that signed up for a four-year college from Hillsong, who seem to have not grasped this concept. What exactly did they think was going to happen? You’re gay. You are very gay. There are plenty of Christian Churches that embrace homosexuality and have homosexual bishops. Hillsong, unsurprisingly, is not one of those churches.

Hillsong considers homosexual practice sinful, and does not allow gay people to assume leadership roles. Church leader Brian Houston has said that Hillsong would accept gay people who did not follow a “homosexual lifestyle”. Kind of a don’t ask/don’t tell policy except as the college students found out Hillsong asks.

Why would someone who is gay or who simply does not follow the rules of a Pentecostal church go ahead and join the church and even go to its university? Because they want to join the band on stage. They want to be famous. Hillsong singers have fame and adulation. And people will hide who they were to pursue this dream.

I am sure there is a biblical lesson in here somewhere. This being 2023, they are all victims, of course. Hell, being 2023, even the church leaders are victims. Everyone in The Secrets of Hillsong is a victim. Usually a victim of their own lust, greed, pride, but still victims.

Sins of the Father

I felt bad for Brian Houston throughout much of this documentary. His father Frank Houston started the Hills Christian Life Centre, which would become under Brian’s guidance the Hillside Church. Frank also was a pederast.

At some point Brian found out dad was a pederast. This is not something that can be cured, as we all know. According to Brian (And I am not saying I believe him) he sent dad off on an iceberg or whatever they use in Australia and he formally took over the church. Dad was now permanently on vacation. Again, I don’t agree with Brian about his actions. He clearly was trying to, if not cover up, at the very least, engage in damage control. He should have called in some pros. When you try to do these things yourself, that is when you end up giving someone 10k at a McDonald’s with an NDA contract written on a cheeseburger wrapper.

But this was at least initially a disaster thrown in Brian Houston’s lap. The fact he handled it poorly is a different issue entirely. I still feel bad for him on a human level. It has to be tough to realise that the man you grew up emulating was a monster.

The Actual Victims.

There are a lot of “victims” in The Secrets of Hillsong. I will be talking about some of them below under things I found quite funny. Solidly under the things I did not find funny were the two male victims of Frank Houston that are highlighted in the film. This is sad on so many levels. Here are men molested as children still in thier sixties and in at least one case simply unable or unwilling to engage in life because of the trauma.

When I unexpectedly lost my wife to cancer, I watched a bunch of TED Talks on YouTube about grieving. It was very educational. Many of the speakers experienced the same thing I had. At this point in my life, I had buried both my parents and my best friend with whom I had expected to spend the rest of my life with. The TED Talk speakers had a very strong universal message. The one thing you should never say to those who have suffered is that it is time to move on.

I took a very strong lesson from watching those videos in my grief. I had to move on or I would end up like these people. Here they were making their entire life about a tragedy that, in one case, was over forty years ago. A tragedy that despite thier words is all too universal. If you live long enough, you will bury your parents, perhaps even your siblings or spouse or God forbid a child. I needed to get back to living sooner rather than later. I needed to move on.

I hope the gentlemen in the video have found thier peace. Thier tormentor is long dead. There has been a public Crown inquiry exposing his crimes. His son faces likely jail time for his ham-fisted attempts to cover it up. I won’t be so glib as to tell them it is now time to move on. I do wish there was a way to go back fifty years and help them then.

I Hear You Are a Racist Now Father?

The Secrets of Hillsong as a documentary is all over the place. As a result, sometimes there are pieces that seem to come out of left field like the documentary makers were throwing everything against the wall. One of the more bizarre… or to be more accurate confusing pieces is Carl Lentz’ insistence he is not a racist. He goes to great lengths to explain how he is not a racist. There are video clips of him saying Black Lives Matter and hugging an elderly black woman on stage. The source of my confusion is that it was not clear who was calling him a racist to begin with?

The entire piece comes across as you were banging the nanny; you had a public affair with designer Ranin Karim; you are addicted to Adderall and you listen to Justin Bieber music. How do you answer these charges? I am not a racist and people who say that are wrong. Black Lives Mattter.

It is a really weird take.

Occasionally Unintentionally Funny

When he is not talking about how he is not a racist, Carl Lentz is a source of much mirth. My highlight is in the fourth episode: the documentary catches up to Him, his wife and family living decent sized house with a pool in Sarasota Florida. Carl apparently has a job in advertising, so the camera crew follows him to his workplace and well… First, everyone else is dressed professionally. Carl is wearing some sort of tiger pattern shirt. I swear it is a woman’s blouse. His “office” comprises a hastily arranged folding table with a phone that would not be out of place in the first act of The Wolf of Wall Street. If this really is his job, they caught him on his first day before anyone knew he was coming. (After the documentary wrapped, Carl was hired by the Transformation Church in Oklahoma. Perhaps the Sarasota digs were a rental.)

Carl’s wife Laura, however, provides the biggest laugh (or Pikachu face depending on your mood) in the whole four hours. She seems appalled that she was also fired, along with her husband, from the church. I mean, she is the pastor’s wife. Any church position is certainly linked to that status. She then seems to double down with a complete misunderstanding how employment works and that when you are fired, you have no new money coming in till you get another job. She really seemed lost on the entire concept of how work works. (“How could they fire me? There are children involved.”)

There is the poor woman Tiffany Perez who did unpaid labor as a volunteer in the hope of one day becoming a pastor. There are actually a lot of complaints about the church using unpaid labor. From volunteers… who apparently are unclear on the whole volunteer part of the equation. (I am not saying that interns and volunteers cannot be abused by organizations holding out carrots, but at some point early on you need to decide if the gamble is worth it to you.)

In addition to volunteers, we have people who have “left the church” and then proceed to tell us how they would run the church and how no one is listening to them. They got thier own Facebook groups and everything. Anyone who has been on the inside of such an organization that attracts such “fans” and “Ex fans” who, of course, know how everything should be run are sure to get a chuckle out of the proceedings. It will never fail to amaze me the human capacity to care so deeply for something they have no control over and has brought them only misery. I am looking at you Jets fans.

And lastly, we have the inappropriate behaviour of Brian Houston that caused his resignation. Two women. One he texted that he wanted to kiss her and the other he showed up drunk at her hotel room and would not leave for four hours. Should he be asked to resign after such behavior? Yes, he is a church leader. He should be held to a higher standard. Is it the most pathetic sex scandal this side of Aziz Ansari? Double yes.

In Conclusion

In Conclusion: Normally I would have reviewed each episode separately but really there is a lot of filler here. We spend some serious time puttering around in Sarasota with Carl Lentz, talking to college students that got exactly what it said on the tin, and talking to people who used to go to the church and are more than happy to tell you why they do not go anymore.

As a documentary The Secrets of Hillsong is simply unfocused. Hillsong is a big subject. They would have been wise to stick with the Carl Lentz story or the Brian Houston story, but not both. Brian’s is a Shakespearean tragedy while Carl’s is basically an R rated sex farce. They take place in two different times on two different continents. They really do not complement each other.

All that said, I certainly got some enjoyment out of my four hours spent. I certainly wrote enough about it. I guess some things the producers threw against the wall stuck.

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