27 November 2022

Megachurches bring power risks, unique opportunities to engage: Experts

Hillsong’s founder Brian Houston recently faced controversy and later resigned from his position. Image: File.

Kirralee Nicolle

9 June 2022

Megachurch accountability structures have come under scrutiny following the recent negative publicity surrounding Hillsong and the multi-campus Mars Hill in the United States.

Western Sydney University Religion and Society Research Cluster director Professor Cristina Rocha said that typically male-heavy leadership within churches was a cause for concern, but that Pentecostalism was well-known for offering women a voice in the church.

Sociology researcher and theology lecturer Dr Sam Hey said he believed accountability structures in larger churches may be more robust than those in smaller churches, but that megachurches tended to build their structures around a small number of key leaders.

Allegations recently surfaced of inappropriate behaviour by Brian Houston, the founder of Hillsong Church. A recent Christianity Today podcast has also scrutinised the collapse of Mars Hill, founded in 1996 by senior pastor Mark Driscoll.

Dr Rocha said combining the spiritual elements within a church with a business-like structure could create fractures.

Read more: The Pentecostals are coming. Are we ready?

“You mix the everyday power of a corporation with a spiritual power and it is very hard to control,” Professor Rocha said.

“The power is concentrated in the hands of the senior pastor,” she said.

Professor Rocha also said desiring to protect the church’s brand led to a lack of accountability.

She said that the Royal Commission findings showed that this issue was widespread, not just in megachurches.

“Once they have to protect the brand or the church, they have to overlook a few things and then the scandals come out [later than they should have],” she said.

But she said that unlike Mars Hill, Hillsong recognised the importance of spreading leadership and influence across the organisation.

Dr Rocha said that while the Mars Hill brand centred around Driscoll, Hillsong’s popularity and success did not rely on the personality of Brian Houston.

Two women complained about Houston’s behaviour towards them in 2013 and 2019, according to an ABC report from March.  

The report told how in 2013 Houston was reported to have sent messages of a sexual nature to a female staffer and in 2019 spent time in a woman’s hotel room while under the influence of alcohol.

Houston later resigned from his position as Hillsong’s senior global pastor.

Mark Driscoll’s misogyny and bullying were at the centre of the Seattle-based Mars Hill church’s demise in 2014, according to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast.

Dr Hey said he believed the megachurch structure can lead to more accountability rather than less.

Dr Hey said that the larger financial structures in a megachurch necessitated greater controls, as the church was required to be accountable to both the congregation and the government.

“They have more and more paperwork, and manuals get thicker each year,” he said.

“It would be harder for a megachurch to get into trouble than a smaller church.”

But he said that larger churches struggled when one of their key leaders was found to have acted inappropriately.

Dr Hey said that one of the realities of a larger church was a larger need for financial stability, and for this reason megachurches tended to play it safe on matters of doctrine and theology.

He said that the benefit of this was that it offered a place for attendees to discuss dominant issues in society.

Read more: Why Anglicanism needs the charismatic renewal

Dr Hey said that a decline in the involvement of individuals in community groups meant that people lacked opportunities to ask faith-related questions.

“In the world over the last 300 years, the focus on the material has created a decline in opportunity to give expression and take note of non-material concerns,” he said.

“The megachurch is one response to the loss of opportunity to engage with the big spiritual concerns that people have. They are very pragmatic, in that they respond to very real, pragmatic needs that are found in our society.”

However, he said that smaller churches offer a better environment for tackling more controversial issues.

Hillsong has been approached for comment.

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