After the demise of Hillsong, is there a place for the church in modern Australia?

There is always great condemnation when prominent Christian leaders and preachers "go off the rails".  But that is inevitable. The standards Christians  try to live up to are impossibly high, inhumanly high.  Take Christ's teachings as recorded in Matthew 5.  Excerpt:

"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:  But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.  40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.  And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain"

No normal human being could live up to that but insofar as people try we would live in a much kinder and more peaceful world. Let us be thankful for the high standards Christians set for themselves and find no cause for condemnation when their normal human instincts reassert themselves in various ways

Only a few years ago, Hillsong – a Pentecostal church planted in the north-western suburbs of Sydney in the 80s – was one of Australia's biggest and most successful exports.

"It should go iron ore, the Hemsworth Brothers, then Hillsong – it's massive," Marc Fennell told the ABC's The Drum.

His latest documentary for SBS, The Kingdom, charts the rise – and fall – of the megachurch that he was once a member of.

Mr Fennell isn't the only one interested in the subject matter. Earlier this year, American television network FX released a four-part documentary, The Secrets of Hillsong, and the Herald Sun launched its investigative podcast about the church, Faith on Trial.

Yet amid the scandals plaguing Hillsong, the Pentecostal church movement in Australia has survived.

The fall of Hillsong is not a unique story in Christianity

At its height, Hillsong was hosting prime ministers at their church services and conferences, winning multiple Grammys, and counting celebrities like Justin Bieber and Vanessa Hudgens among its members.

In recent years, allegations of trauma, abuse, fraud, cover-ups and exploitation have come to the fore, culminating in the resignation of Hillsong founder Brian Houston earlier this year.

But scandal is not a unique experience for the Christian church – Pentecostal, or otherwise.  Director of the Centre for Public Christianity Simon Smart says churches of all denominations have "good moments" and "regrettable ones" as they've evolved, adapted and reformed alongside social and cultural changes.

"Pentecostalism isn't alone in having its imperfections," he told the ABC's The Drum. "On a grand scale, you have the 16th-century Protestant Reformation that was responding to serious corruption within the church," Mr Smart explains.

"In recent times, churches have responded to deep systemic flaws when it came to responding to and taking preventative measures against sexual abuse within its walls.

"What was a terrible chapter in church history led to serious self-assessment and changes to internal practices such that church communities are now much safer places for children than they once were."

Mr Smart also noted that celebrity culture has had a negative influence on the church.  "I don't think [celebrity] has any place there," he said on The Drum.  "The founder of Christianity, Jesus Christ, was everything other than that – he was all about humility, compassion and love, and not about the grand gestures."

Tania Harris is an ordained Pentecostal minister who works in churches across all denominations in Australia and abroad.

"Wherever you find humanity, you'll find flawed humanity," Rev Harris says, "and where there is great success, those flaws can become apparent."

She believes that the rapid growth and success of Australian Pentecostalism contributed to its downfall.

"I've watched churches grapple with this since the pandemic and since the scandals have been exposed," Rev Harris says.


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