As I mentioned in my previous post, Evangelicalism’s largest empire—the scandal-ridden Hillsong—is crumbling. I’ve written about my experience at Hillsong Church here, so if you’re interested in learning about the abusive culture inside that church, I recommend reading that post and listening to our podcast episode where we interview a former Hillsong NJ volunteer about her own experience serving at this church.
In response to my sharing my Hillsong story, I've received support from many amazing folks (thank you so much for your comments and messages), but embedded in some of those comments and messages is an arrogance that I find confounding. Some of it comes through as, "Well, Hillsong doesn't preach the true gospel of Jesus, so of course there would be abuse at that church." Others have talked about how "megachurches are a problem, that's why I stick to small churches." And in one of the more baffling message exchanges, someone felt the need to remind me that "sinful people are everywhere, so no church is perfect," while at the same time lauding her own church because they don't worship their pastor the way Hillsong worships theirs. So which is it? No church is perfect, or my church is perfect?
While I'm actually quite glad to see the Hillsong brand lose its power, I don't want us to lose sight of the fact that the problems plaguing Hillsong run far deeper than sex scandals and shady financial practices. These issues are universal, which means they are embedded in every evangelical church—whether Baptist, contemporary non-denominational, Pentecostal, Reformed, or anything else in between.
I find it fascinating that as we watch the very public downfall of Hillsong, we act like our churches are somehow immune to that kind of implosion because they are more "doctrinally sound" or they aren't celebrity-obsessed or they aren't a megachurch.
Those who claim that Hillsong's doctrine (or lack thereof, as some might insist) is what's behind its downfall often come from either more conservative churches or the neo-reformed Calvinist crowd. Yet Grace Community Church is plagued with scandals, the latest of which alleges that their senior pastor publicly shamed a woman for not staying in a marriage with a man who sexually abused children, including their own.
And the darling of the neo-reformed movement of the early 2000's, Mars Hill Church, had its own massive and public demise in 2014, when then-lead pastor Mark Driscoll was faced with evidence that he had verbally and emotionally abused members of his staff and his congregation, as well as fired a pastor with no legitimate justification.
Those who claim that it's megachurches that are plagued with problems likely haven't heard of Trinity Baptist Church in Concord, New Hampshire, or watched the 20/20 piece about what took place there. Further, part of the reason we don't hear much about the scandals that destroy smaller churches is simply because they're smaller churches who would never make national news unless the scandal happened to be large enough.
If you attend a traditional or fundamentalist church, the problem is with contemporary churches and their compromising styles. If you attend a modern church, the problem is with the extremists who legalistically impose archaic dress and music restrictions on their congregants. If you attend a Calvinist church, the problem is that those other churches don't emphasize God's sovereignty and wrath. If you attend an Arminian church, the problem is in those churches that believe humans don't have free agency.
Sure, Hillsong is riddled with issues. But so is your church.
I want to point out a few things that are cause for concern at evangelical churches.
- Belief in hell. Whether emphasized or not, nearly every evangelical church believes in a literal postmortem hell, where people spend eternity if they don't put their faith in Jesus. With the threat of eternal conscious torment, pastors are able to convince their congregations to adhere to any number of beliefs, and they can justify the most heinous behavior by claiming that they are winning souls for Jesus by any means necessary.
- Inerrantist readings of scripture. Another belief that's embedded in evangelicalism is that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. Not only does this not take into account the vast differences in interpretative methods even within evangelicalism, it glosses over the glaring discrepancies in the pages of the Bible itself, completely disregards any historical or scholarly work outside evangelical Christianity, and lacks any amount of self-awareness necessary in honestly reading scripture. This interpretation of the Bible stunts a congregation's ability to think critically, and they often end up parroting whatever a pastor wants them to say/do.
- Allegiance to white supremacy. I recognize that this is one that you might not want to admit, but the evangelicalism that characterizes a full quarter of the American population is a very white, colonizing religion. It is completely uninterested in addressing this, calling any other interpretation of the Bible (such as liberation or process theology) a heresy. The practice of evangelizing (proselytizing) is little more than the religious form of colonizing. An egregious (yet all too common example) is the assumption that Africa is an unreached continent, when in fact, Ethiopia is one of the first countries to form an early version of Christianity. Yet western evangelical churches still send white missionaries there.
- Ignoring Jesus' teachings. For a religion that claims to be all about Jesus, evangelicalism consistently sets aside what Jesus taught in favor of speculating about the minutiae of Jesus' exclusive divinity. And when confronted with statements from Jesus that contradict their comforts, evangelicals go to great lengths to reinterpret his words to fit their narrative. For instance, when Jesus pointed out the poor woman who gave her last penny to the temple (a story that appears in Mark 12 and in Luke 21, evangelicals will use that as a way to convince their congregations to donate sacrificially ("If this woman can give everything she has, surely you can give at least 10% of your own income!"). Teachings like this are predatory and serve to con attendees out of their money. Perhaps an interpretation of this story more consistent with Jesus' other teachings would be that Jesus was pointing out how broken a religious system is that would convince a woman who had next to nothing that she needed to donate whatever she had left.
- Homophobia & transphobia. A hallmark of evangelicalism is its hostility towards queer folks. While some evangelical churches might pay lip-service by claiming they welcome LGBTQIA+ people to their congregation, many of them stop short of full participation. Some draw the line at volunteering; others draw the line at membership; many more draw the line at baptism; virtually all draw the line at marriage; and every evangelical church draws the line at ordination. This played out at Hillsong with Josh Canfield and at Emergence with Christopher Doran and his boyfriend.
The toxicity doesn't end there. Pastors who were fired for abuse, indiscretions, and other scandals have found ways to start new churches. After Perry Noble was fired from NewSpring Church, he founded Second Chance Church. After Ted Haggard was fired from New Life Church, he founded Saint James Church. After Mark Driscoll was fired from Mars Hill Church (which subsequently shut down immediately following his departure), he founded Trinity Church.
And even pastors who haven't been fired yet, like John MacArthur or Matt Chandler, have massive issues with how they handle abuse within their churches.
So no, don't come at me with comments like, "Hillsong was bad. Here's how my church isn't like Hillsong at all." Especially if your church band plays Hillsong music during their worship sets (and let's face it, what non-fundamentalist, evangelical church didn't have at least one Hillsong song in their Sunday rotation?).
And until your church makes reparations for the harm they've caused to queer people who have been forced out or otherwise mistreated, divorced women who they ostracized for leaving their abusive husbands, articulate and charismatic women who they banned from preaching and leading because of a misinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 12, BIPOC for tokenizing them and promoting ideologies that actively harm ethnic minorities in the public square... Until your church does all that as well as flattening out its hierarchy so that the lead pastor can be easily removed by a vote of the congregation and your church's disciplinary policies are either abolished or rewritten so that they hold pastors accountable more stringently than the congregation at large, maybe I'll consider giving your church a pass.
Until then, your church is just as corrupt as Hillsong.