Interview with Megachurch Leader Brian Houston of Hillsong Church
Brian Houston tells what it’s like to be the founder of the megachurch Hillsong in his experience so far.
Christian Pentecostal leader Brian Houston tells of his childhood, meeting his wife, Bobbie, the beginnings of Hillsong Church, being influential, charity, and controversial issues such as abortion, sexual abuse, and homosexuality.
When Brian Houston established a tiny house of worship in Sydney 20 years ago, he never dreamed he would be at the helm of Australia’s largest independent church. He tells Australian Story what the experience has been like.
I think I’m a genuine person. I think I love life, I love God. I love people, I think enjoy the simple things.
I’ve got role models probably in different walks of life. In church life I’ve got role models that would range right from Billy Graham through to people that would generally not be known. People obviously who have stood for a cause, like Nelson Mandela, I think anyone would respect. And I like some of the sports, Steve Waugh’s a role model for me. I think that the way he uses the opportunity he’s had in life to be building orphanages and so on in India, people like that I find inspiring.
I think responsibility comes with position. I’ve always felt dealing with other people that if people want to take positions in life then they’ve got to understand the responsibilities that go with those positions. So I carry the weight of that. But there’s a sense where I feel like I was born to do what I do.
Since I was a little boy, I really wanted to be a pastor and a church leader. I guess I looked at my father in those days and I used to watch him go off flying somewhere to preach, and I thought, one day I want to do that. So, there’s always been a sense in me that I was destined to be involved in Christian ministry.
“I believe in God as a personal being who cares about our everyday lives. I see God as just, I see God, especially with my perspective of Jesus, as full of mercy and full of grace, and wanting to build people’s lives for the better.”
I grew up in New Zealand. I was born in Auckland, but really grew up in Wellington. And my parents were ministers. They in those days, especially in my small childhood, my parents were very poor. They’d come out of the Salvation Army and really came out with nothing. So I can remember, I’ve got strong memories of my two parents in the front of our little Austin A40 and five kids in the back and leaky roof and there was one point when, when the only gear that would work was fourth gear and all sorts of things like that.
When I was still quite small really, I was only, I think, three, my parents left the Salvation Army. My father was actually ill, he was sick and couldn’t carry the weight of ministry. So they left the Salvation Army. They left with nothing really, at that time in our family we were living with, I think there were four kids then, in one room and from there, my father had an experience which really changed the direction of his life. He got filled with the Holy Spirit and it was from there that he became an Assemblies of God minister in New Zealand.
If you ask my mother what sort of child I was, she’d probably say mischievous, cheeky. In some ways I was the terror of the Sunday school teachers. But I always had a love for life and a zest for life.
I think at school my mind was definitely elsewhere. It’s funny really, because later in life when I went to Bible college I really applied myself and did well, but at school I was very distracted.
My parents were probably very conservative in their traditions and their morals. My father was a very impulsive person. He would do sort of outrageous things just for the sake of it. Sometimes I think I’ve got a little bit of that in me as well. But my childhood was, well I think was a fairly normal childhood. We grew up in what would be a housing commission house and I had lots of fights with my brothers and sisters. I can remember one of my brothers throwing a full bottle of milk at me once and so on, but we were always the best of friends, we’d always be the first to defend each other if anyone else touched us. But, for some reason or another we always seemed to be on the way to the casualty ward after some little episode in life.
I believe in God as a personal being who cares about our everyday lives. I see God as just, I see God, especially with my perspective of Jesus, as full of mercy and full of grace, and wanting to build people’s lives for the better.
I met Bobbie on the beach. I was 20 and she was just going 17, and I was with a group of friends and I looked at her and I can still remember clearly looking over and seeing her in her white swimsuit and I turned to my friends and said, ‘I bags that one there’.
Bobbie came from a great family. Her father went to war 11 days after her parents were married, was away for 4 or 5 years. And when he came home he really didn’t want to do anything else except to be with his family. He just worked as a brickie and he was with his family and totally committed. As a matter of fact it would be impossible, from the stories I’ve heard of Bobbie’s father, for me to live up to the type of person that he was.
I think the things that attracted me to Bobbie, were that she was very, very beautiful. She had long, long black hair, all the way down to her behind. And she was very passionate about really the things in life that I’m passionate about. She was very sincere about God, she’d given her life to Christ when she was 14 years of age, and a very genuine person. Very loving person. Very innocent person, really.
Bobbie and I got married in 1977 and we then had known each other for three or four years, and it had been an interesting three or four years. We really only went together for maybe nine months in the sense of our lives going somewhere in the same direction. We were both very motivated again by a commitment to God and our determination that one day we wanted to do something together to serve Him.
Bobbie and I have got a great relationship. I must say, I give her most of the credit. She is a very patient and very, very forgiving person, and I don’t know whether there are many people that could live with me, but she has and she’s done it beautifully.
I think that I’m the kind of person that knows what I want in life and tends to know where I’m heading, and it takes only certain people who perhaps can just get on board with that and say, I want to be part of that too.
In a sense I’ve got a conservative, biblical idea that a man should take a role of leadership in his life. But I certainly don’t adhere to the mentality that a woman must submit or that she should be pushed down. I absolutely believe that there’s a sense of walking together in life.
“I want to live my life in a way that relates to people.”I think that the worst thing you could say to me is that I look like a minister, because I think oftentimes people’s perception of the church is so out of touch and so bland and so unrelatable. So, I want to live my life in a way that relates to people.
My parents had moved to Australia, to start a church. Bobbie and I were fairly newly married, and we decided that we would go to Australia for a year. And we were actually talking about buying an old car and a caravan and starting out in Sydney and making our way around Australia. And we got to Sydney and we went to what was my father’s new church, down in Double Bay in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, as a young couple. It was just tiny, and it was radical, and in those days, really, it was full of hippies. But I think after maybe one or two weeks, deep down I knew that we were here to stay.
It was in 1983 and we were in the Baulkham Hill public school hall, very first meeting we had, 70 people turned up, which I thought was a great start, 70 people. We had a few friends and ring ins, but it was a great start. And the second week it was 65 and the third week 53, and the fourth week 45, and I worked out we only had 4 and a half more weeks until there were no more people.
With a team of people, Bobbie and I had started a couple of churches, and I actually had a friend who said to me one day, he said, Brian, if you start a church in Baulkham Hills, he said, I know so many people who will come. And in those days there used to be a guy who was famous or infamous, whatever, on TV, who many people might remember who used to be on the TV and sell Holdens, sell General Motors, and apparently he was the biggest Holden dealer in Australia. And I thought to myself, if you can build a Holden dealer like that, the largest Holden dealership in Australia, surely it must be somewhere where you could build a church. Between those things and me sensing a spiritual pull, we went and started in a little school hall.
The church didn’t grow for the first month or so, it went in exactly the opposite direction. And then after a month or two, I can remember we had over a hundred people for the first time, which I was very, very excited about, and it really, it really kept growing quickly. After maybe 18 months there were like 300 people actually coming to the church, which at that time, in the 1980s was a fast growing church. We’ve had moments when it didn’t quite grow the same, but really it’s just been a process, over 22 years, of growing. I think those Australians who know of Hillsong Church, it seems to have really come up above the radar in the last two or three years, but the growth has been progressive over more than 20 years.
“Over any given weekend, there’s over 18,000 people come who to our services. “Over any given weekend, there’s over 18,000 people come who to our services. So the total number of people on our church rolls is huge. I don’t even talk to people about that, because I don’t even believe it, let alone expecting anyone else to believe it.
I guess in the church’s history in Australia there’s never, to my knowledge, there’s never been an individual church with that size congregation. So, it’s a new thing and I ask myself all the time what it is specifically that has caused so many people to come and to continue to come to the church. Of course I believe it’s the grace of God, I see it as something that God’s graced us, or favoured us with, but I think there are things about the church that are attractive, the style of the worship. I think that the preaching and teaching is practical, I think that people have a sense of connectivity there. I think that people feel like they’re receiving genuine help and not just for themselves, but for their children and for their, their teenagers. And I think that people literally are seeing the results of their commitment to Christ through Hillsong Church, being outworked in their lives.
It’s certainly been clear to me that as the church has grown that with profile comes new levels of accountability. We’ve been working real hard at making sure that we are keeping up to speed at developing our governance. We’ve currently got a board of directors and our accounts are audited each year by KPMG. We now have an annual report released with those audited accounts in it and also just a general account of the actual work of the ministry and what the church is doing to help people, and I’m the chairman of that board of directors.
As the senior pastors of the church, I made the decision, actually, many years ago, that I didn’t want to be a signatory to any of the accounts, which the directors agreed to, and so to this day, neither Bobbie or I are signatory to any church accounts.
I appoint the elders, and then the rest of the elders vote on that. And the general church have the opportunity to give input, as they wish.
I think there’s like three types of church government models. One is, let’s call it Episcopal, it’s like a pope. And another is congregational, which is more like the way that many Baptist churches are run and the other is government by eldership, which I believe is New Testament church government, which is a group that is recognised by the church who are the overseers in the direction of the church.
We’ve got a lot of women involved in very active ministry in our church, including Bobbie my wife, and of course our worship pastor, and it is true that at this point, none of the church Elders are women. I think it’s something that we need to keep addressing, but I do have one particular key person who has a real strong biblical stance on that, and I think mostly it’s out of respect to them at this point, that I haven’t considered bringing a woman onto the eldership. However, our style of leadership is very much husbands and wives, really the team, male or female, working together.
I’m the senior pastor of Hillsong Church, which is a church, these days, with two congregations, two campuses, one in the hills area of Sydney and one in the inner city. And we also have around 10, 11, extension services that operate on Sunday mornings as part of that one church.
Bobbie works alongside me. We’re very much a team. I think that the way we work together makes it work.
I actually want to minister to people in a way that stretches them and challenges them. I don’t believe that we are only called to be Christians to feel good, I think our lives need to grow because we actually are called to purposes beyond ourselves, actually help more people and make a bigger difference. So, there might be some people who say we preach a feel good message, but I think actually often times the way that we speak to people would really challenge them, challenge their comfort zones and stretch them. Certainly what I want to be doing.
“My passion in life is really to help people to understand that they are alive for God’s purposes.”My passion in life is really to help people to understand that they are alive for God’s purposes. I am an absolute believer in the potential of people, and I want to do everything I can do to bring that potential out of people, to get them believing in themselves, to get them believing in whatever endeavour in life they’re called to. And whether it’s secular or ministry or politics or the arts or sport, whatever it is, I want to encourage them to do their very best. And I would say that’s the greatest motivation I have, really, trying to connect people to God and a leader in a church.
Before our church had any influence really, I sat down one day and imagined the church that I would I’d love to pastor. So I called it The Church That I See. And in that I describe the church, I talk about its worship, I talk about its mission, I talk about its people. And I would have to say that at that time, our church didn’t look like that, but I read it now, and it sounds like I’ve just sat down, and in some ways, described what, what the church has become. Which to me is quite an amazing thing.
I think that my sole purpose in wanting the church to be influential, is I believe in the message and I believe in the church. And you sit back and you watch a church in a country just declining, and if we do nothing, I mean it’ll eventually decline into oblivion. And I just believe that we do have answers and that we can help people, and I want to make sure that the church is strong and positioned to do exactly what it’s called to do.
“I absolutely believe that the Bible can be applied to our lives today”
The Bible’s a big book, and you’re never going to get people to have total agreement on that big book. I do believe that our church is essentially evangelical. Obviously it’s centred around the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and what that means for every individual. Probably the emphasis that our church has and churches like it have, on the gifts of the spirit and the belief that God is interested in our lives. I don’t believe for a moment we’re just saved for heaven, or that God just worked in the Old Testament and we’ll work on going to heaven, but at the moment that he’s asleep. I absolutely believe that the Bible can be applied to our lives today and so perhaps some traditional churches would see spiritual blessing to be far more to do with what’s in the future than today. Today I think a lot of church ministers believe that the suffering is the plight of people and there’s nothing we can do about it. I’m sure not so blind that I can’t see that people suffer and struggle. I just believe that we should have and can have answers that do something about it.
I believe with Christianity comes a responsibility to outwork that in our attitude to other people. I think we all need to be committed, literally living our lives in a way that makes a difference in whatever sphere we’re in. So whatever walk of life and wherever we’re at, I just want to encourage people to be looking beyond themselves. And if any.. any of us have got any of God’s blessing in our life, the responsibility with that is that we’re blessed to be a blessing.
I believe that God makes a big difference in our lives for the better. I think that the impact of living the Bible way should affect, ultimately, your relationships, your family, your mentality, every part of your life. But with that, I think also we need to have a commitment that we’re going to live purposeful lives where we want to see that difference for other people, where we actually want to make sure that our lives are bigger than ourselves. I just think Christianity can be a very selfish message if it’s all turned back in on ourselves and so I want to encourage people not to turn all of that Christianity and all of God’s blessing back in on themselves, but in fact see it as giving us an opportunity to live beyond ourselves.
I don’t think we have to look far, round and about us to see opportunities to help other people and to make a difference for them. So whether that’s in our own little neighbourhood or whether it’s in your business or your work or whether it’s internationally in missions and so on, I think as a church that’s what we want to be doing.
I think that the Bible, God’s work, is going to work in any age. So, call this a material age, then yes, I think that you would be able to apply the scriptures, to be able to live your life effectively in this age. It doesn’t change the fact that Jesus preaches against, or taught us against loving money. It doesn’t change the fact that we’re taught in the scriptures not to trust uncertain riches. It doesn’t change the fact that if you want to try and serve God in money that’s not going to work. All of those things are absolutely established. So it’s not a matter of whether or not a person loves money or not, or whether they’re going to serve money, it’s absolutely certain that that’s only going to be destructive in your life, but if you build your life in a way that you resource it so that you can be more effective. I see it like this, if a person has nothing and they see a need, then materially speaking, there’s nothing they can do. If they have a little, they can help a little, and if they have a lot, there’s a whole lot they can do. So I want to encourage people to resource their lives in a way where they can do a whole lot to be a blessing and to help other people.
I don’t think you can look at success one dimensionally. I think too many people make that mistake of judging success, or even when they hear the word success, immediately take it to material things. I think you’ve got to look at people’s well-being in their relationships, I think their impact on other people, I think ultimately success is whether or not we live close to the potential that God’s given us.
I think that whether or not a person looks good or doesn’t look good is absolutely immaterial. I think that a person’s size and so on is nowhere near as important as what’s really going on inside of them. But I have a commitment to health because I believe that I’m on earth for a specific purpose, which is to help people and build a church and I want to be alive and around and healthy enough to do it. So it’s with that mindset that I would approach fitness and health.
I certainly care about health and I think that God’s given us a body and we should care about our lives body soul and spirit, so I clearly want to make sure that I have a balance across all those areas in my life.
Our church is autonomous and the movement that I lead, the Assemblies of God is also autonomous. In other words, we’re not answering to an American church, or no American church is telling us what to do. I think we’re an Australian church, we’re called to reach Australians and that’s where our focus is.
I think the religious right in the United States is actually a long way from where I would see me being. I remember hearing one guy say when 9/11 happened, that it was the judgement of God. And that would repulse me as much as it would repulse anybody else. I don’t want to be like that religious right. I look at the church in America and its American culture and American context and frankly I don’t think it would even work here. I think we need to have an Aussie church. And so, I clearly want our church to stay Aussie, not to be too impacted by American culture.
I think the perception that people sometimes get from mainly people who have never been to Hillsong, is this mindset that we think, pray a prayer and all your problems will go away. I don’t even believe that for one second. I know that people face real life challenges, real life’s issues. I’ve had real issues myself I’ve had to confront in life. All I want to do is help people see that whatever they’re facing, there’s hope. I want to be able to represent a God of hope. The day I feel like I can’t put hope into hopeless situations, is the day I feel like I might as well retire.
I think in an outer suburb of a big city like Sydney, we do have to be careful that we don’t build a world view and a mindset just from that middle class perspective, that loses sight completely of human pain and human need. I try and challenge our church all the time to understand the world that we do live in. But the fact is, all people are facing challenges of problems and pain in some level of their life. It’s just helping them to understand that on the scale of things, sometimes there’s people out there, our pain is tiny compared to the real people that we need to be helping.
I don’t have any political agenda. I know what my calling is. My calling is to build a church and to influence people in a way that helps them to live the life that I believe God would want them to live, which is a life that can overcome, it’s a life that has answers to very real issues.
I don’t see my role as being political. I think people get very hysterical about Christians when it comes to politics. I see it as being hypocritical actually, because if someone comes to me, Louise Marcus came to me, I’ve known Louise 20 years, and she said she wanted to stand for pre-selection in Greenway here in the western suburbs of Sydney. I encouraged her and supported her, but I would give her the same support regardless of party politics, because I believe in her. It’s about the person. But it’s a funny thing, Christians going into politics, it’s like, the church in politics. If a gay person went into politics, or a Muslim goes into politics, I imagine there’d be a huge uproar if someone said that, but the moment a Christian goes into politics, it’s like they’re the only people who can’t have any input into the future direction of the country. And I refuse to accept that.
It’s a funny thing that people sort of want to box everything. They want to box God and church and family. I actually don’t believe in letting your life get that boxed, I really think that they can co-exist and they can work together. And that’s the way Bobbie and I have tried to bring up our family.
I don’t have an issue with me or any of our pastors owning their own homes and building their lives and building for the generations to come. I think that the Christian message is a generational message. The Bible talks about your children’s children, and I want to make sure that we are building for the generations to come.
I think that our lives are not out of touch with where people are at. I think many people of similar age would live in similar circumstances, or, of course, some would live in far, far more affluent situations than Bobbie and I. I am also aware that we are far better off than a lot of people as well. And so, I just think that we live our lives according to our hard work and our longevity and so on.
In 1999, Bobbie and I took over oversight of the city congregation which was, up till that point, the church that my dad had pastored and over the next year or two we morphed it into a single church called Hillsong Church.
One of the things we haven’t really tried to do is establish the Hillsong brand everywhere. There’s only three Hillsongs in the world. We’ve got one in London, we’ve got one in Kiev and we’ve got the one here in Sydney. We have a relationship with churches and we’ve planted churches in many, many other places, but that name Hillsong we haven’t sort of allowed to go out and be used everywhere.
Hillsong was originally the name of our music. We were a church in the hills when we started out, and we started letting our praise and worship music be recorded and go out, and we called it Hillsong. Then we had the conference, Hillsong, and the church was called Hills Christian Life Centre, but people used to talk about that Hillsong church, that Hillsong church, and the name Hillsong actually became famous, if you like, around the world, so in the end, we thought, that’s what we’re known as, so we became Hillsong Church.
“I really believe that it’s our responsibility to build a church that has the kind of strength that then has the kind of resource that can really seriously make a difference, and get the message out and get the gospel out and help more people.”
In my mind, Hillsong is a church in its entirety. There’s no other motive there. We want to reach people, we want to help people. I absolutely believe, though, that the church needs to be resourced to do its job well. And the reality is that if we just sit back and fit into other people’s mindsets of church, it keeps diminishing, it keeps getting poorer, keeps getting smaller, it’s inhibited, can’t reach anyone, I won’t buy into that. I really believe that it’s our responsibility to build a church that has the kind of strength that then has the kind of resource that can really seriously make a difference, and get the message out and get the gospel out and help more people. And so, with that in mind, I believe the church should do things well.
It always amazes me, with all that our church is doing to help people, that some people can’t look past my motorbike and.. It’s quite funny actually, I was away recently, a friend of mine took my motorbike down to get serviced. And the guy says to him down at the shop, he says, Brian’s about the 8th minister now whose Harleys I’m servicing. And I smiled to myself because I thought, where are the other seven, it seems like my motorbike’s the one that’s interesting. But hey, I do like to ride.
I’m 51 years of age and let’s think about what we’re saying here. I’ve got a motorbike, and a watch. Yes, I do have a nice watch but it’s just not a big deal to me. My watch means nothing to me. Look, it’s.. honestly, if there’s a charity who says, we want your watch, I’d give my watch away, I don’t care about my watch. I do love my motorbike, I do love to ride, it’s a great hobby, but I don’t think that in itself it’s a sign that I’m living this massively over affluent life.
The Hillsong conference is to champion the cause of the local church. By the church, I mean people, Christian people and churches and helping them to have the equipping to be more effective. There’s three major streams in the Hillsong conference, there’s a leadership stream, there’s a community action stream, and there’s a worship and creative arts stream.
For the last 8 years I’ve been the president of the Assemblies of God in Australia, which has over a thousand churches, Hillsong being one of those churches. Really, overseeing the Assemblies of God is more of a visionary role. A lot of work, if you like, of the church is carried out at a state level. So as national president I’m part of a national executive. Really it’s more a matter of setting the vision.
When Hillsong Church’s music started to become more and more popular, the demand for it started to grow, I think much more than we would ever have expected. And interestingly, initially, I remember going with our then worship pastor and sitting talking to distributors and they sort of tried to pigeon hole it and say, ‘oh well it’s good for young people’. But despite that, the music just kept sort of growing and it wasn’t long before we had distributors coming and asking if we were interested in seeing it distributed at a wider level.
I think a lot of Australians would get a shock if they realised just how widely sung internationally Darlene’s songs and Hillsong’s songs have become. There’s one book that states that the song, Shout to the Lord, that Darlene Zschech wrote is sung by 35 million Christians every week. But you won’t go to a country, I don’t think, or you won’t find a language where the songs aren’t being sung in Christian churches.
Because Darlene’s songs have been so successful, the royalties that are due her as a composer have probably been quite significant. But the wonderful thing with Darlene is that she has been a real testimony to the message we preach, because they have really focussed on helping other people in a lot of areas, but especially with Mercy Ministries and the work they’re doing for young women.
There’s various ways that we’ve been able to raise finance for the programs and community projects that we’re involved in, and they include everything from private enterprise to the church’s own resources to members of the congregation to government grants going towards those things.
We’ve had the opportunity to get involved with the United Nations and with Opportunity International in micro enterprise, which is helping people develop small businesses, mainly amongst indigenous people in Redfern and in northern New South Wales and in Cape York. And so they find ways, like, there’s been Aboriginal people that have had the opportunity to develop little fashion businesses and all sorts of other things, artists and it’s really cool stuff. So it’s just given people the start that’s helping them to really start building their lives.
We want to be able to give people a hand up so that they can develop and be building their own lives, and not just a hand out. I think there’s always room to give people a hand out and help people who are desperate, but there’s something powerful about putting people in a position where they can start to move forward and develop in their own lives.
We had the thought of child sponsorship, which oftentimes is a child here and a child there. But what if rather than doing it that way, we would focus in on a region and sponsor children in one region, so you didn’t just change a life, as powerful as that is, we thought about being able to change a community, a village, a community, and who knows, perhaps even through someone there, might become somebody who can change a nation. So with that in mind we’ve really worked together as a congregation. To date there’s 2600 children being sponsored in one part of Uganda, and it’s giving them the opportunity for education, literally putting clothes on their back, giving them the medical help that they need on a scale that’s affecting whole regions.
One of the things I’m really excited about is the focus next year on Rwanda. Mark and Darlene Zschech had the idea of a hundred days of hope in Rwanda; there were a hundred days that a million people or so were wiped out, so, giving a hundred days of hope [the genocide ten years ago]. And as a church we want to give it everything we can and be involved in as many ways as we can, in that. Mark and Darlene went to Rwanda. They were there on a mission, saw the need for themselves and they came up with the idea of Hope Rwanda.
Our congregation are very generous, and willingly so, it’s their heart. That’s what I love about our church, there’s just such a generous spirit. In two Sundays at the beginning of the year, our church people gave $500,000 towards helping with the Tsunami, and we’ve been able to work with others in Sri Lanka and in southern India in seeing the re-establishing of communities there. We’ve seen the opportunity to give over a $100,000 to the crisis in Dafur through World Vision in Sudan. We’ve had the opportunity to give amounts of that size, $150,000 towards the families of the victims of the Bali bombing. We’ve had the opportunity to help with victims of the Canberra bushfires and other similar things.
We started our community work when the church was small. The community work was small then, the church was small then. Now the church has grown and the community work has also grown.
I don’t think it ends up mattering where someone goes to church, or even what style of church that it is. I think the most important thing is that people connect with God, and some people find that they like to worship God in a worship style like ours, and others would prefer a far more traditional style of worship, and I’m more than comfortable with that.
I would love to think that every time someone comes to Hillsong Church, in a sense they have to make a choice. To be able to walk into a church and out of a church and really not be confronted with anything, I think is sad. I would like people to have to make decisions, make choices, to, to receive the word, the message in a way where they have to think, how do I apply that to my life, or decide, I’m not going to, you know, apply that to my life.
I believe in creation. The Bible starts in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. If I waver on the first 10 words of the Bible I think I’m going to have problems properly representing the rest of the Bible. However, timeframes, over what period of time that was, whether there was room for any evolving in some areas of life as well, I’m more than open to that. I’m happy to leave that to the experts.
I think that the homosexual question and sexuality generally is one of the most challenging questions there is for the church in the 21st century. And it’s one where I feel conflict myself, as a believer in the Bible and specifically the New Testament, I think that marriage is God’s idea, and I think it’s for a man and a woman. But I also represent a God that’s merciful and gracious and kind, and having to connect those two things I think is one of the great challenges for me as a church leader.
In the church we can point the finger so easily. On the subject of abortion, I’m pro-life. But in a way I’m pro-choice as well, because I believe in the sanctity of life and I believe that life begins at conception. But I also believe that ultimately human beings have to make their own choices, and I ultimately can’t tell you what you should do. I can only give you the parameters that I believe.
One day, about late 1999 or early 2000, one of my team came in and we had the weekly appointment we normally have, and he went through his normal agenda of work and as it was coming to an end he says, there’s one more thing, and I could tell by the look on his face that it was serious. He said, it’s not about you, it’s about your father. And I just looked at him and he began to tell me about a complaint that related to more than 30 years before, about my father, that involved sexual abuse. I was just absolutely stunned. As a matter of fact it, it kind of hit me in layers. I couldn’t even compute what he was saying at first.
I knew instantly that I had to confront it and I had to deal with it. I knew instantly that I had no choice but to confront my father and then follow that through, whatever that meant. He was away at the time, and so it gave me the chance to make some phone calls and find out a little more information. When my father came back he came into my office and it was just horrific, I’ll never forget it, because I had to confront him with this complaint that I heard. It was the.. it was the most difficult thing I ever had to do. He made certain admissions that meant that I had to go to our own church’s leadership, and I talked to them and I called together the leadership of the Assemblies of God in the movement. These things had happened when he was a pastor of the New Zealand Assemblies of God, back a long time ago. But I had to speak to our movement. So the end result of that was he never preached again.
I think I’m quite a tolerant person, but one thing I’ve really never had any tolerance for is sexual abuse, and especially child abuse. So, I don’t think you could have kicked me in the guts with a bigger blow, in some ways.
Last year my mother and my father both died. I kind of feel like the stress of their last few years may have er, contributed to that.
My father and I were always friends right to his dying day. The last time I saw him was at my son’s wedding. And I think that he probably understood my position, but I’ll always have sadness about those last few years.
I often think that if I had’ve found that out at the time when I myself was 19 or 20, I’m not sure whether I’d even be part of the church today. Fortunately, in my 40s I think my own faith in God and my own.. my own life had reached a point where it didn’t sway me from my faith. But man it certainly rattled every part of me.
Growing up in a Christian home and a church home, there’ve been many times when I’ve questioned my beliefs, many times when I’ve had to really think through what my beliefs are and what my tenets and foundations are. But the questions have never ever been strong enough to shake me away from my fundamental belief that there is a personal God and that I can know him as my own personal saviour.
We’re paid a wage that’s set by the board of the church. And it’s a good wage but the average private high school teacher in New South Wales gets paid significantly more.
I think one myth that people have is that we get royalties from the products sold in the bookshop at the church. Basically, the books and tapes that Bobbie and I have written, we write and pay for, we own those books ourselves. If they are sold through the church, then that’s where the profits go. But what we do extends beyond the church. And so a lot of our income comes from our speaking and our writing and the things we do outside of the church. It’s put us in the position where over the last few years we’ve been able to give to the church, literally as much, or even on some years, more than the church has given us.
So I make no apology for that, because it really is an outworking of the message that we’re teaching everyone else, to resource your life in a way that can enable you to be more effective.
There’s been reports written about me, that I was a property developer, or a silent investor in property development, that I’ve been a director in a café, that I own a travel agent. Again, that we receive royalties off the books in the front of the church, none of which has ever been true, and yet they get perpetuated, it seems, from one publication to the next publication.
Hillsong church is a non-profit organisation, and like any non-profit organisation there are tax breaks, so that we are able to put back into people, put back into ministry. Some people get upset about that, especially as the church gets bigger and it gets more effective. The reality is, I feel like we operate under the rules. If those rules ever change, we then have to operate under the new rules. I’m quite okay with that. All it ultimately affects is our ability to help people.
I am in favour of the idea of some form of charities commission or some greater scrutiny of non-profit organisations, simply because I think it takes away the ability of people to point the finger and misrepresent the motives of non-profit organisations.
In 2004, Hillsong Church’s income was $40,000,000. It goes 60% towards helping people directly through our programs and our ministries and so on, 28% of that has gone into buildings and facilities, which ultimately also are about the people, because you have to house all those people somewhere. And then the other 12% goes towards general administration and the running of the ministry.
All the giving in our church is free will. No one is told what to give. Tithing is a biblical principle. I think the last sermon I heard in our church on tithing was probably five years ago. And so giving is a hard issue. It’s something that people do because they want to do it.
Our church is a modern church, and yes, if people want to give with their credit card, they’re welcome to, because the reality is, people use it in every part of their lives. I was talking to a friend just this week and he told me in their little Anglican church they’re about to give people the opportunity to give through credit card. So to me it’s no big deal, it just is a convenience for people.
I think that God’s work would go forward whether I’m involved or whether I’m not. I believe that I am the right person in the right place, doing the right thing, that God has honoured me to do. But if I weren’t there, I feel like the work of the Lord would go forward.
I’d like to be the pastor of Hillsong until they have to wheel me out. The reality is I really want to empower the next generation, and I want more than anything else to feel like I hand over well. I don’t want to be so old that I’m completely out of touch before I let go of this, this work.
I do have a sense of fulfillment in terms of the opportunity that we’ve had. My best fulfillment is not in seeing buildings or, or even how far the album sales have gone. When I see lives growing, when I see little kids who have grown up and their lives are starting to build and I feel like we’ve had something to do with that, that to me is the most fulfilling thing of all.
I think God is great. I think He is all powerful. I believe that God is gracious. I think God is loving, I think that God is just. In an unjust world, it’s hard for people sometimes to connect that God is just, but in eternity I believe in every instance the justice of God will win.