If you’ve been following the news in Evangelicalism, you’re probably aware that its biggest empire is falling apart. In the coming days, you'll be reading/hearing about the sex scandals, r*pe cover-ups, lies, and other ignominies on the part of its pastors. I'm not dismissing or denying any of that. I also want to make clear that the things I experienced at that church pale in comparison to the pain that so many others suffered and continue to suffer due to the abusive and exploitative culture created by the leadership there.
 
Let me provide a little background on my religious life first.
 
I was born into an Evangelical family, but when I was between 5 and 6 years old, my family joined a cult known as the Independent Fundamentalist Baptists, where we actively participated from 1990 to 2008 (which included time spent at Fundamentalism’s premier university, BJU, from 2003 to 2007). After escaping the IFB cult, I landed in a cult-adjacent non-denominational church called Liquid Church from 2008 to 2010 (I’m also pretty close to categorizing this church as a cult as well). After spending some time on staff as an interim children’s ministry director at Liquid, I took a full-time job as the children’s ministry director at another cult called Emergence, where I remained from 2010 to 2014.
 
I’ve spoken a bit about the behavior of Emergence’s leadership, and I may bring it up again, particularly in giving a platform to those who have been harmed by that church, especially since I may have been complicit in that harm as a member of the staff there. But for now, given everything that has been hitting the news as recently as midnight (NYC time) on March 23, I think it’s time I use my voice to speak about where I was during the 3 years after I was asked to resign from Emergence.
 
From 2014 to 2017, I actively participated in the cult known globally as Hillsong Church.
While trying to heal from the toxicity that had pervaded my life at Emergence (which was a kind of miniature clone of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church), I sought a church that I could hide in and recover. My brother was active and quite popular at Hillsong NYC at the time (he has since left, but that’s his own story to tell if he ever wants to, so I’ll only mention him insofar as his story intersects with my own), and since it was such a large church, I thought it might be a good place to lay low for a bit. But it didn’t take long for the messaging to pull me out of the audience and onto a team. Carl Lentz (Hillsong NYC’s former lead pastor and epicenter of the first of the more recent scandals plaguing the church) often said things like, “This house isn’t built on the gifts and talents of a few, but on the sacrifice of many,” and “If you ain’t helpin’, you ain’t helpin’.”
 
I spent a few weeks as an usher/greeter/I-don’t-remember-the-jargony-ass-names-they-gave-their-free-labor, but quickly found myself in a “leadership” role as a service producer (at the time, the role was called “creative producer,” but they changed the title to make room for a paid-staff position they were creating). I’m not sure how I ended up in this position—whether it was because of my proximity to high-level volunteer leadership in my brother or because someone in those teams knew I was previously a children’s minister at another nearby megachurch or maybe just because the producer at the time was being stretched too thin and wanted to focus on another role he had at Hillsong—but it was in this role that I began to witness a bit of the toxicity that would become public later on (though would never be the headline-grabbing scandals that the Carl Lentz, Brian Houston, and now Reed Bogard news would be).
 
Much has already been said by others about the culture of the pastors’ green room at Hillsong, so I won’t go into too much detail about it, but since my Sunday job had me in green room meetings with pastors every week, I want to do a little of my own “peeling back of the curtain,” as it were. (Some of this was described by my friend Lezeth in our podcast episode on Hillsong’s abusive volunteer culture.) Pastors had access to full breakfast spreads, freshly cut fruit (prepped by a volunteer), coffee from a Nespresso machine, hot oatmeal, hard-boiled eggs, a mini-fridge filled with bottled water, orange juice, and a plethora of other comforts. Oh, and a vase filled with freshly cut flowers.
All of which was prepped by a volunteer who never even got so much as a “Thanks” from any of the pastors. Oh, and I was never allowed to touch any of it. Occasionally one of the pastors might offer me a breath mint, but that’s as much as I was permitted.
 
Meanwhile, the volunteers were getting a Box o’ Joe from Dunkin’, and if that ran out, oh well. Guess you should’ve shown up earlier.
 
And then there was the midweek work.
 
Hillsong, like any other cult, was notorious for occupying so much of their parishioners’ time, no one had the opportunity to reflect on what was going on. You couldn’t take a moment to ask yourself, “Is any of this even healthy?” You had services all day on Sunday; leadership meeting on Monday if you were a team lead; Connect Group on Tuesday; on Wednesday, you had the Exchange; Team Night (stylized as “TMNGHT”) on Thursday if you were part of Creative Team; on Friday, you had Youth if you were in high school or a youth leader, or FNL (Friday Night Live) if you were a young adult; and probably some college-related event on Saturday if you were a college student.
 
I worked a 9-5 job all week, but I was one of the few producers available on Wednesday evenings to manage production for the Exchange (it’s basically a pared down service for the middle of the week because church on Sunday isn’t enough to maintain the brainwashing). The Exchange was probably my least favorite thing to do because the pastors kept trying to convince us to make an earlier call time than we 9-5ers were able to. Each week I was asked if I could make it to the venue at 4:30, and each week I had to remind them that I was at work till 5 with very little flexibility in my schedule.
 
I also hated the Exchange because inevitably something would go wrong. Whether it was a cable missing, signal degradation from the production laptop to the screens on platform, audio not working properly… I was used to portable church setups from my time at Liquid, so these hiccups were nothing new to me, but the constant need to keep the production value too high for our own capacity as a constantly-short-staffed team of volunteers in the middle of the week was infuriating.
 
One Wednesday, things went particularly bad. I was running late because there was a deadline at work I couldn’t afford to miss, so I stayed at the office later, making me miss the first half of setup and rehearsal. There were issues I couldn’t troubleshoot in time for doors, but I held as long as I could. The venue control and host team leads kept asking me if they could open doors because the lineup outside was getting really long, and people were getting antsy. So I just went with it, problems and all. Throughout the service, the screen on platform repeatedly glitched, and we couldn’t seem to get a balanced music mix, so we had to improvise on the fly. The pastor who was preaching that night called a debrief with the team leads after the service where he singled me out with, “I’ll be honest. Tonight was shit. Everyone is at fault, but the responsibility for this lies with production,” and then looked right at me and said, “You didn’t set me up for a win.”
 
As if I hadn't done everything in my power to ensure we had a functioning production. And he couldn't be bothered to ask how my day was or what struggles I might've been facing that caused me to show up later than usual that evening.
 
I didn't "set him up for a win."
 
Hillsong paraded around this sign that read “Welcome Home.” When I was a part of the church, I thought it was such a beautiful sentiment. After I left, I saw it as a lie. You’re only home insofar as you can fit their mold. Otherwise, you’re not home.
 
But after taking some time to reflect on the culture at Hillsong, I’m recognizing it as something more insidious. They hang that sign at every service, at every event. They bombard you with that message. They want you to think of Hillsong as home. You shouldn’t be thinking of anyplace else as home. Hillsong is home. And don’t spend too much time away from home. They don’t want you to stray so far that they can’t maintain your programming. Stay home. That’s how they demand free labor. It’s not a job. It’s home. You don’t get paid to clean your own home, so why should you be compensated to mop the floor at your church home?
 
The most obvious abuses of power that were visible to me were at Hillsong Conference. Volunteers were mistreated by the hundreds. There were specific credentials that allowed certain types of volunteers access to some areas of the backstage area but not others. This included food. While most of the backstage volunteers were given peanut-butter-jelly or ham-and-cheese sandwiches, higher-level volunteers got a fully catered buffet, complete with scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and all the trimmings in the morning; steak, grilled chicken, tossed salads, and all kinds of sides for lunch and dinner. But most of those volunteers would never have known about the disparity. And those of us who did know about it were getting the big meals, so it wasn't like we were gonna start complaining.
 
I didn’t even want to think about what volunteering on your feet 16-20 hours a day for 3 days could do to your body if all you’re eating is rationed-out peanut butter or ham and cheese.
 
One day I misplaced my backstage credentials, so I had to get a replacement. When I told my team lead, she ripped into me. You would’ve thought I handed nuclear codes to an international enemy. God forbid someone stumble on my credential, somehow figure out that it provided more access than they had, make their way through the meandering Prudential Center underground halls, and discover that there’s a caste system at Hillsong. I don’t remember what she said to me, but other team leads were asked to step in. I was reassigned to someone else’s team after that incident.
 
That weekend should have marked the beginning of the end at Hillsong for me. But I stuck it out for almost another 2 years after that.
 
I kept telling myself, “I’m not like them. I’m gonna treat my team with love and respect.” And then my narrative turned into, “Maybe by acting differently from those leaders, they’ll see that true compassion and care is the best way to build the church,” and eventually, “I’m just hear to protect the most vulnerable from the abusive, power-hungry leaders.”
 
But after too long, I gave up. I didn’t give any speeches. I didn’t text any of the pastors or try to make others see what I was seeing. I just told the person I reported to that I was out.
 
One Sunday a few weeks after I stopped going, I got a text from the events team lead. “Can we open doors at the normal time today?” I simply said, “I’m not at Hillsong.” No response.
 
As I reflect on my time at Hillsong, I think it serves as a kind of representation of every other time I left a cult. I knew how defensive people could get. I knew how toxic those conversations would end up being. I didn’t want to deal with any of that. I just wanted out. And as I discovered soon enough, I wanted out of Evangelical Christianity altogether. Every belief. Every song. Every canned sermon illustration. Every brand and marketing strategy.
 
I needed out.
 
And even though I’m embarrassed and ashamed for having been swept up in all of it, telling myself that I should've known better, I’m still so grateful that I walked away. And I have hope that as more people do the same, they’ll also come to experience the liberation and joy that I have experienced in the 4½ years since I left that place behind.
 
The house is collapsing. There's no better time to get out than right now. I promise you don't need that place.
Nate Nakao (he/him)
Author
Nate Nakao (he/him)
Host