hillsong church

Justin Bieber’s Hip New Church Has a History of Sexual Abuse and Conversion Therapy

Since Justin Bieber canceled his tour 10 days ago, rumors have speculated as to why — mostly pointing towards his renewed relationship with God. Or, more importantly, his renewed relationship with “cool pastor” Carl Lentz of Hillsong Church.

Bieber came out to clear the air on his Instagram yesterday, where he penned a note full of imperfections (grammatical errors) that was, more importantly, “from the heart.”

“Learning and growing hasn’t always been easy but knowing I im [sic] not alone has kept me going,” he wrote. “I have let my insecurities get the best of me at times.”

Bieber then got introspective, saying, “I let my broken relationships dictate the way I acted toward people and the way I treated them! i let bitterness, jealously and fear run my life.!!!! … I wanna be a man that learns from them and grows from them.”

The pop star considers himself “extremely blessed to have people in the past few years help me build my character back up reminding me of who I am and who I want to be!!!”

Hillsong Church Bieber
Pastor Carl and Bieber

One of those people is Pastor Carl Lentz, the leader of New York City’s Hillsong Church.

Hillsong, which began in Australia, is a “megachurch” with outposts all over the globe, from Kiev to Paris to Buenos Aires. Its growing popularity is thanks to a number of young celebrities attending services — including Bieber, Kendall Jenner and Selena Gomez.

“People say we cater to celebrities,” Pastor Carl said. “And I say, yes, we do. Celebrities deserve a relationship with God. Celebrities deserve a place to pray.”

The church landed in New York City in 2010 thanks to Pastor Carl and Pastor Joel, with a branch at the Manhattan nightclub Irving Plaza, a branch at a theater in Times Square and a branch in an auditorium at Montclair State University. On any given Sunday, Hillsong NYC ‘touches the souls’ of 10,000 people.

When profiled in 2015 by GQ, Lentz admitted to believing homosexuality is a sin, and that gays will not be able to hold leadership positions in the church.

After news broke that two men (Josh Canfield and Reed Kelly) in the New York City choir were in a committed Christian relationship, the church was forced to clarify its stance on same-sex relationships. Joel’s father, Pastor Brian Houston, made an official statement that the church is against two men in a relationship. Brian Houston and his wife Bobbie are currently the global senior pastors of Hillsong Church.

josh canfield and reed kelly
Josh Canfield and Reed Kelly

“These two men in particular are amazing human beings,” Carl said in 2015.

And they are going through a really amazing journey called life. Yes, their sexuality is involved with it, but it’s not as cut-and-dry as you think it is. And if they make a decision to live as gay men, they are going to get married. Our stance in this church is there’s going to be a limited involvement when it comes to leadership, because you don’t believe what I believe.

This would create friction that wouldn’t be fair to the people that we’re serving. If you believe that homosexuality is God’s will for your life, and I disagree, well, what if you’re a leader and, you know, a young man comes up to you, and he has questions about his sexuality? What are you going to tell him? What I believe or what you believe?

But these current anti-gay views of Hillsong aren’t the only troublesome thing about the church. What’s worse is a long history of sexual abuse and conversion therapy — a history that starts with Pastor Joel’s grandfather, Frank.

A history of sexual abuse

Joel’s grandfather, Frank Houston, was the original pastor of Hillsong Church when it began in 1993.

After reports that he molested a 7-year-old boy, Houston resigned from the church and spent his last years in a state of dementia.

A January 2016 Daily Beast article reports that in October 2014, an Australian royal commission delved into the church’s response to allegations that Houston had abused up to nine children in the 1960s and 1970s.

One victim testified that when he was a 7, Houston stayed with his family and after church meetings would “hug and kiss me in front of other people” and “sometimes go into an office alone where he would feel between my legs.” According to the victim, Frank would “creep into my room late at night nearly every night of the week” to molest him. “I could not speak while this was happening and felt like I could not breathe. I’m not sure how long he would stay in the room with me but it felt like forever.”

The victim told the royal commission, “The church community made me feel like it was my problem. I have received absolutely no support, no counseling, apology or acknowledgment of the abuse. I believe that Brian Houston and other elders of the Hillsong Church kept the abuse as quiet as they could, and have not been held accountable.”

“I think my father was homosexual, a closet homosexual,” Brian Houston told Good Weekend’s Deborah Snow. “I’m no psychiatrist … but I think whatever frustrations he had, he took out on children.”

This brings Brian Houston, current Global Senior Pastor for Hillsong Church, to deal with the “gay situation” as he refers to it. It’s the elephant in the room.

What’s the “weight we live with”?

The Daily Beast continues its 2016 report by detailing a scene in which Hillsong pastors utilized partial nudity as a church-approved bonding technique amongst its teen members. It sent closeted gay teen Alex Pittawey into a panic attack. But “the hell of a lot of homoerotic behavior” isn’t why he quit.

Pittawey left the church in 2008 after his youth pastor referred him to gay conversion therapy — counseling that claimed it would make him straight — which we’re now well aware is both bogus and particularly damaging to the “patient.”

From the Daily Beast’s reporting:

For years, in fact, coming out to a Hillsong pastor landed a church member in just such an ‘ex-gay’ program. According to former members, Hillsong first helped congregants struggling with their sexuality pray their gay away in Exit Ministries, started by Frank Houston, or Mercy Ministries for lesbians; the church then outsourced the conversion work to Living Waters (self-shuttered in 2014) or Exodus (closed in 2013), or maybe an online course like Setting Captives Free (banned in the Apple Store in 2013). Self-proclaimed reformed gay, and former executive director of Exodus, Sy Rogers — who now identifies as transgender and is married to a woman — wrote books and tapes and would preach at Hillsong conferences about overcoming his gay demons. He’d tell the struggling faithful: “You gotta learn to bow down and obey and deal with it.” Rogers’s current ministry has moved away from the ex-gay message and though Rogers hasn’t said so publicly, Brian Houston told a blogger that Rogers probably regrets his involvement with Exodus.

But according to Hillsong Church, it no longer tries to “fix” its LGBT congregants. The Daily Beast reports that it was around 2011 when Houston distanced Hillsong from gay conversion therapy programs. Now he claims the “weight” the church bears when it comes to its treatment of LGBTs is heavy. “They feel like ‘maybe I’m gay’ and they go to a youth leader and they are rejected,” he said in 2013. “At that moment a great hatred comes in. At that moment some of them have gone so far with the rejection and gone to parents who didn’t understand and ended up committing suicide. That’s the weight we live with.”

But while Hillsong doesn’t use conversation therapy techniques anymore, the church still struggles with its acceptance of gay people.

“Gay people need to know that when they go to Hillsong, they have to go to the back of the bus,” former congregant Pittawey says. “Hillsong is hip and attractive and contemporary, but there’s certainly nothing contemporary about what LGBT people will face if they want to be a leader in the church or offer themselves up for service. That’s something [Hillsong] will have to be upfront with, and they haven’t been so far.”

So while Hillsong may seem hip to the outsider, its inability to fully accept the LGBT community make it no cooler than any other bigotry-filled religion.

 

We reached out to Josh Canfield for an update to his current relationship with Hillsong. We will update our post if he responds.