Book of revelations
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
Tanya Levin spent her formative years at Hillsong. Disillusioned, she began to question its gospel of wealth. We present her exclusive account of life inside Australia's most influential evangelical church.
Brian and Bobbie Houston started Hillsong Church in a suburban hall in Sydney's north-west in 1983. Today, with 30 services in two main venues in Sydney, as well as London, Paris and Kiev, 19,000 people a week sing, clap and sway for God. Traditional congregations are declining, but Hillsong attendance soared by 13% in recent years. Original Hillsong recordings are No 1 sellers on global Christian music charts.
Music royalties and CD sales, and other merchandise made $15.5m for the church in 2005. The flock is encouraged to give 10% of their pre-tax salary to the church. Hillsong accepted more than $17m in tithes and donations in 2005, part of a revenue topping $50m, all tax-free. Church services and programs don't come cheap. Hillsong spent $20.9m on them and only $3.6m on missions and overseas aid.
Its $25m centre in Baulkham Hills was opened by John Howard, and the congregation has been addressed by Peter Costello and Bob Carr. Pastor Brian Houston is also national president of the umbrella pentecostal organisation, the Assemblies of God.
Tanya Levin, 35, spent her teenage years at Hillsong. She stopped attending regularly at 19, and once outside began to question its priorities. She occassionally attended special ceremonies and in 1999 Houston conducted the equivalent of a baptism for her baby son. In recent years she began to attend services to gather material for a book.
Levin had decided to write her book after Houston told the congregation that his father Frank, founder of the Hillsong predecessor in Australia, had admitted a "serious moral failure". Last week The Bulletin revealed that publisher Allen & Unwin had, for legal reasons, pulled the plug on publication.
Hillsong members have sponsored 2700 children in Uganda. Levin commends this, but when she questioned why women were asked to help on the basis that the kids were cute, she received this email from general manager George Aghajanian: "We are aware that during your attendance at our recent Colour Your World Women's Conference you caused a significant disruption.
"It is for this reason that we ask you to refrain from attending any future Hillsong church services or events: including accessing Hillsong's land and premises at any time."
Levin wonders whether she has been excommunicated. "No one has been able to answer my questions about the ban. Is it for life? Am I offered no opportunity for atonement or forgiveness?"
Brian's father, Frank Houston, was renowned for his determined kindness and rousing messages. He was also well- known for his deep desire to see miracles and healings and the gifts of the Spirit. He moved in prophetic words of knowledge, and tangible experiences with God. Some even believed Frank could raise men from the dead.
In 1941, a swearing, smoking 18-year-old Frank gave his life to the Lord following a friend's tragic death. He joined the Salvation Army, where he met and married Hazel.
For 12 years, Frank worked in a preaching role, moving town with each army appointment. Deep down, though, Frank longed for the miraculous.
A most unmiraculous event occurred when an audit of Captain Houston's books revealed financial inconsistencies. When this was discovered, Frank suffered what doctors called a bout of hysterical amnesia, from which he was brought home delirious. The couple regretfully resigned. Frank suffered a deep depression, accompanied by vivid hallucinations, including ones that he was preaching in front of a huge congregation, as detailed in Hazel's biography of her husband, Being Frank.
"'Hazel,' he'd say. 'Here are all these people waiting for the meeting to begin and we have no pianist. Will you get one?' I humoured him by saying I would. These were the only bright spots in the day."
When he was well, though, he was on fire. Then one day he received the baptism in the Holy Spirit at an Assemblies of God rally. From that time on, the couple knew that the stories about the Pentecostal experience were true.
Over the following years, Frank's reputation as a preacher in the charismatic movement grew. He became General Superintendent of the AoG in New Zealand. In 1977, when he and his family made their pilgrimage from New Zealand to Australia, his reputation for revival and the gifts of the Spirit was known throughout New Zealand. He had told everyone about the vision telling him to make the move.
It's unlikely that Frank mentioned to anyone in Australia the struggles he had with psychotic illnesses, physical sickness and psychosomatic combinations of the two. And it is completely unlikely that he had mentioned the sexual offence he had committed against a teenage boy. A New Zealand pastor who confronted him had received a clear denial, one that Frank maintained for over 20 years until, cornered by his son, he confessed.
In November 2002, Brian Houston stood on stage at the Baulkham Hills auditorium of Hillsong to describe his father's actions. He told the press later it was the hardest time of his life.
Telling the congregation that only those who felt close to the church should stay after a traditional morning service, Brian made a series of statements referring to allegations about his father, that he called a "serious moral failure".
He said that about two years previously, Hillsong's general manager, George Aghajanian, had informed him that complaints had been made. He said that he confronted his father about them, and that Frank had confessed that they were true. He said his father loved God and, while deeply repentant for the mistakes he had made, he loved God still.
Brian took [wife] Bobbie's hand and asked the church to pray for them and for their family, given the ordeal they had just been through. The entire congregation responded by giving Brian and Bobbie Houston a standing ovation.
For such a huge statement from the pulpit, this seemed tiny to me. There was no demand for righteousness. There was no plea for forgiveness from those wronged, no promise that the congregation would join together to prevent this from ever happening again.
There was simply an appeal for prayer for the Houstons.
Read the full extract in the Bulletin magazine.
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