An open letter to Tanya Levin, Hillsong critic

OPINION | John Sandeman

Thursday 16 July 2015

Let’s start with a story.

His name was Golitsyn, and he was nicknamed “Gollywog” – things were less politically correct back then. His full name was Anatolly Mikhaylovich Golitsyn and he was a colonel in the KGB until he defected to the CIA in 1961. It was Golitsyn who provided proof that the head of British intelligence in Washington had been a soviet mole.

But Golitsyn fell victim to this role as a professional defector. His accusations became wilder and wilder the longer he remained in the role and his direct knowledge of KGB work was exhausted. He accused British PM Harold Wilson of being a KGB informer. He said the split between China and the Soviet Communists was KGB misinformation. And later he claimed that Gorbachov’s “glasnost” (openness) policy, which triggered the democratization of the Soviet Union, was more KGB deception.


You have probably guessed the moral of this story: that you too are in danger of being a “professional defector”. I hope that does not seem too harsh – we’ll get back to Mr Golitsyn later.

Your book People in Glass Houses contains many moving stories. It is a story of great pain. Your family was part of the early days of Hillsong, when as you say, “Pastors were battlers like everyone else … they managed, but it was easy to feel sorry for their sacrifices, and admiration for their hard-won convictions.”

Hillsong, as it was later called, was your community. You write that “Brian often used to talk to people in the congregation. He’d make them stand up and show their baby, or wave for whatever reason there was to share,” there in a warehouse at the edge of town at Baulkham Hills.

I hear your pain. You miss it. “I still wish I could sit in row five and hear Brian say that his church looks fantastic, and know he means me too.”

There’s the friends, Jewels and Shazza, who you left behind. Jewels “saved my life a hundred thousand times. Without her I would have had nowhere to expunge so much of the turmoil and the turbulence.”

We Christians often let down people who move to the fringes of our congregations, and then leave.

Because when you leave Hillsong “you go from having a family to being spiritually homeless.”

Tanya, it is not just Hillsong. We Christians often let down people who move to the fringes of our congregations, and then leave. I could tell you stories from churches very different to Hillsong who fall short of the Christian ideal. You wanted a horde to rush after you when you left. But you only had Jewels, who was a jewel for being there.

There’s the pain of the gap between the best you saw at church and the worst. You put it beautifully, “…. none of those miracles or revelations you hear about matter in the end. In the places we don’t talk about, for me, it was the moments that me and Jesus created together. When everything in my world was quiet and I could be alone with God … Loving your neighbour is a fantastic postmodern plan for peace. It was license to do good, and if people rip you off, well you were doing what Jesus would have you do.”

Then you tell a story of how, having “named and claimed it” in prayer you miss out on a Uni course. “We had heard so many stories of people who pinned photos of cars on their fridges, or made a list of the perfect spouse, and God had delivered to them their details. All I wanted was a lousy law degree. Why didn’t my plans succeed?”

You recount this with wry humour. Yet the issue of “name it and claim it”, or prosperity doctrine, is a big part of your pain.

One thing that you make clear is that the early Hillsong was a church of battlers. Talking to another Hillsong pioneer who remembers you gives me another clue about those cars on the fridges. Some Hillsong leaders were involved in Amway back when Hillsong leaders were battlers. Putting the “car on the fridge” so to speak was a standard Amway technique to get people to work harder, to knock on more doors. Rather than magical thinking (“name it and claim it”) the fridge door was a call to the value of hard work – something that “holiness”churches have been doing since Wesley and probably before that. 

Reading Brian Houston’s new book Live Love Lead makes it clear that if Hillsong was previously influenced by prosperity thinking – as you suggest – it no longer is.

Perhaps this is where Mr Golitsyn fits in. Because things do change. Let’s start with an amusing example that highlights the differences between your account of Hillsong and Brian’s newer one. It is perhaps an easier example of how things may have moved on.

Things do change.

One of the laugh-out-loud moments in your book is where you describe how all the pastors during your teenage years had moustaches. Some time later, you go back to the church and all the pastors have ponytails.

You write, “One pastor later told me that he woke up one morning, and said, ‘I am 37 and I have a ponytail.’ He cut it off, but he suffered a verbal thrashing for ‘attempting to change the church’s image without permission’.” Which gives the impression of a church a little obsessed with image.

It’s probably fair to say that Hillsong still tries to look smart. But Brian has come to terms with his inner dag, it seems to me. So on the subject of hair, he writes in Live Love Lead:

“I don’t know about you, but there have been times when I have tried to be something I am not, and it has always got me into trouble. For example a few years ago, the night before Hillsong Conference was about to begin, I was standing in front of my bathroom mirror with my hair clipper and thought I would have a go at being my own hairdresser.

“Needless to say after trimming my facial stubble, I forgot to attach the comb and cut a track into my hair, similar to the impact of a mower on an overgrown lawn. I ended up completely bald, much to the amusement of thousands who gathered on the first night if Hillsong Conference … not my best look!”

Houston’s new book is a good place to go to get an idea of “heart of Hillsong” today. It’s not a prosperity gospel book. It has many stories of heartache and failure. Some of them are the same stories that appear in your book although Brian Houston occasionally leaves out people’s names, especially if they have left Hillsong.

One person he names is his father Frank Houston (the chapter that deals with that was excerpted in The Weekend Australian Magazine recently). Brian tells of the effect his father’s sexual assault charges had on him:

“Over the next twelve years after that initial conversation about my father with George [Aghajanian, Hillsong’s general manager] I found myself in a downward slide toward depression, traumatised by the experience years earlier and inwardly declining as I tried to look after everyone but myself. Outwardly my life was exploding. Our church was flourishing in Australia and taking off globally, the impact of Hillsong Music was on the rise, our television ministry was experiencing unprecedented growth, and God was affording me a growing influence over our kingdom endeavours. And yet internally I was exploding.”

This has not been a grudging confession written out once; Houston has told this story several times, including to this writer.

There are many stories of Hillsong staff and others enduring trials, and it’s striking how many of them have praised God on stage at critical moments in the Hillsong story when carrying personal grief or challenges.

But, as Houston puts it, “ We have a Saviour … (who) defeated death so that we can have grace and joy and hope. Because Christ rose from the dead we can endure the trials that come our way on life’s difficult path.”

There are many stories of Hillsong staff and others enduring trials, and it’s striking how many of them have praised God on stage at critical moments in the Hillsong story when carrying personal grief or challenges.

Houston is keen that defeated people don’t stay defeated, and those dealing with shame can move forward. The stories in Live Love Lead are miles away from the simplistic prosperity gospel formula you present in People in Glass Houses. Houston’s book is full of stories of ordinary people, facing the normal difficulties we all have, but with an extraordinary God. 

Golitsyn, the Russian defector found it hard to acknowledge that Russia had changed in the decades after he had escaped to the west. That a Russian leader could radically change the country and demolish communism was beyond him.

It’s time you had a good look at Hillsong again. Some things are very different. If you are unable to go because Hillsong does not want you there, send a trusted friend. Or if Hillsong is not the sort of church that appeals to you – and I attend a different type of church myself – explore another.

From warehouse churches to cathedrals, to brand new church plants which will remind you of the “old” Hillsong, they will all have their struggles in following Jesus. We all do.

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