Brian Houston Steps Down as Leader of Hillsong, Australian Megachurch

MELBOURNE, Australia – The leader of Hillsong, Australia’s megachurch that has drawn crowds of young people and celebrities around the world, has resigned as he prepares to fight a criminal charge of covering up sexual abuse on children by his father.

Church leader Brian Houston said in a statement on the Hillsong website on Sunday that he had agreed to relinquish “all ministry responsibilities” until the end of 2022 to focus on his legal battle following the advice of Hillsong’s legal advisors.

Australian police charged Mr Houston in August 2021 with one count of concealing a serious criminal act by his father, Frank Houston. Police alleged that young Mr Houston, now 67, “knew of information relating to the sexual abuse of a young man in the 1970s and did not bring this information to the ‘police attention’.

Mr Houston strenuously denied the charge and reiterated in his Sunday statement that “these allegations shock me, and I intend to vigorously defend them”.

Mr Houston has pleaded not guilty, according to the Sydney court where his case is being heard.

The police investigation came after an allegation was made to the Australian Royal Commission into child sexual abuse. In 2014, the commission heard evidence that her father had sexually abused a 7-year-old boy decades earlier. Her father, who died in 2004, was never charged.

The Hillsong megachurch was born from the merger of two organizations: the Sydney Christian Life Center, founded by Frank Houston in 1977, and the Hills Christian Life Center, founded by his son. It became a global juggernaut at a time when religion was struggling in a secularizing Europe and North America. Propelled by a lucrative record label that dominated contemporary Christian music, Hillsong sold millions of albums and drew large crowds for arena concerts.

Using a “research-sensitive” approach, he sought to attract young Christians in big cities, or people who were suspicious or unfamiliar with more traditional churches. It has attracted celebrities like Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Kevin Durant. The church drew an estimated 100,000 people to its pews each weekend and amassed millions of followers on social media. His songs have been played in churches from Uzbekistan to Papua New Guinea.

Hillsong’s Ideal Sermon “leaves people feeling better about themselves than they came in,” Brian Houston said.

But scandal and criticism dogged the church.

The church has been criticized for taking a hipster approach to Christianity and for dodging a tough public stance on same-sex marriage and homosexuality.

In November 2020, Mr Houston fired Carl Lentz, the senior pastor of Hillsong’s New York branch, for “leadership issues and breach of trust, as well as a recent revelation of moral failures”, according to an e -mail to the faithful. Mr. Lentz later wrote on Instagram that he had been unfaithful in his marriage.

Mr Houston apologized in June 2020 for comments by the head of the church’s London branch who appeared to make dismissive comments about the death of George Floyd and the anti-racism protests that followed.

This month the church also apologized after footage emerged of worshipers singing and dancing at a youth camp in Sydney, apparently in breach of pandemic restrictions.

After being indicted last year, Mr Houston stepped back from some responsibilities but retained his role as church leader. Then, in December, Hillsong’s legal counsel advised the church’s board of trustees that it would be “best practice” for Mr. Houston to step away from church leadership altogether while the legal proceedings was continuing, according to the Sunday statement.

Hearings would most likely be “interminable” and take up most of the year, with the pandemic exacerbating a backlog of cases, Houston said.

Two pastors will assume the roles of interim leaders, and Mr Houston’s wife, Bobbie Houston, will continue to “remain fully engaged in the life of the church”.

The next hearing in the case will be on March 3.