Is This the Hillsong Swan Song?

Brian Houston. Photo: Jeff Gilbert/Shutterstock/Jeff Gilbert/Shutterstock

Brian Houston, who co-founded the global hipster megachurch Hillsong, has been asked to return to Australia to face charges of failing to inform police when he discovered his father was assaulting children.

People working for Hillsong released identical statements to media outlets that described Houston’s shock at being charged — this despite a yearslong official inquiry and an affecting public campaign against Houston by a victim of his father. In his own statement, Houston said, “I vehemently profess my innocence and will defend these charges, and I welcome the opportunity to set the record straight.”

Houston and his spouse and church co-founder, Bobbie, have been in the United States and Mexico recently. The Australian press were slightly scandalized at their recent departure from Australia, which has instituted strict COVID travel restrictions. Spokespeople for the couple said they qualified to leave the country because they planned to be gone more than three months.

On July 25, they were in Monterrey, Mexico, preaching in a Hillsong outpost. Then Bobbie Houston appeared with “Two of my awesome and lovely grand-girls” on Instagram last weekend; those young women look to be two of the children of her son Ben and his wife Lucille Houston, who moved to Los Angeles to open Hillsong there a few years back.

Houston’s legal plight isn’t the only crisis the church is contending with. This week, the Southern California chapter of his family has been grieving the death of Stephen Harmon, an active member of the church in Los Angeles. Harmon came to national attention when he tweeted “I got 99 problems, but a vax ain’t one” and then fairly promptly died from complications of the coronavirus.

After this awful death, Brian Houston did not take to the airwaves to endorse vaccinations, but instead told CNN that “we recognize this is a personal decision.”

Not exactly role-model behavior, but he may not be much of an influencer anyway. Hillsong is still suffering from having to fire its ripped star pastor Carl Lentz for generally being a bad dude last year, plus the ensuing defection of Justin Bieber. The sexual-abuse inquiry can’t have helped matters, and Hillsong doesn’t appear to have prospered during the pandemic, at least in the U.S. Many locations remain online-only; the church’s YouTube views are not impressive.

Maybe this is less about Hillsong and more about praying over Zoom. Church, like yoga and 12-step programs, can absolutely work online but can also be dreadful. An hour-and-a-half of hipster Bible-banging and trippy-hippie backgrounds goes from inspiring to exhausting when it’s setting off your laptop motor in bed. The miracle all falls apart when you know the pastor is facing an empty room with a camera guy on a folding chair in a dirty tank top eating a ham sandwich.

But, yes. Where is Brian Houston as he is being charged with covering up his father’s terrible acts? He “is believed to be currently residing in the United States with his wife,” was the most accurate The New York Times could do on Thursday. According to People, the couple also recently preached in Los Angeles. Hillsong itself looks to be muddying the waters. “A new message from Brian Houston was recorded live from the Hills Convention Centre in Sydney, Australia,” claims a video dated Jul 31, 2021. Seems unlikely! (The comments are not too kind, as you might imagine.)

Representatives did not quickly respond to a request asking where the Houstons are. The Australian court appearance date is set for October.

The Trouble at Hillsong