How Scandals Drove Hillsong to Lose its American Churches


Mr. Dooley, the interim leader, said in an email to The Times through the church press office that he has been “talking with members of our team around the world in what seems like a nonstop conversation” since the revelations of Mr. Houston’s behavior. He described the crisis as a challenging and emotional time for both members and leaders. “This difficult season has sparked conversations that we should have been having as a church for a very long time,” he said. He said the church is reviewing its policies and procedures to “provide both health and accountability for leaders.”

Hillsong exercises some control over the financial operations of each member church, though congregations set their own budgets. Churches also pass on 5 percent of the contributions they receive to the global church. In return, they receive organizational and teaching resources, and what was at one time a straightforwardly valuable association with one of the most recognizable evangelical churches in the world.

For some leaders of local Hillsong branches, the baggage has become too burdensome to be worth the benefits of affiliation.

Last week, the lead pastor of Hillsong Atlanta, Sam Collier, emailed his church to inform them that he was withdrawing his church from Hillsong in the wake of “consistent media attacks, slander, and accusations” against Hillsong — some of which, he acknowledged, were true.

“All the challenges and the speculation and the scandal and the articles and all of the above, it got to a point where the people in our church just did not want to deal with it anymore,” Mr. Collier said in an interview. His hiring as Hillsong’s first Black lead pastor was announced about a week before the news of Mr. Lentz’s misconduct became public in 2020, meaning his entire tenure at the church has been clouded by scandal emanating from Hillsong entities far from Atlanta.

Sunday’s service was the last for Hillsong Atlanta. “We believe the Lord is calling us to move into the next season,” Mr. Collier told his congregation. Mr. Collier is launching a new church on Easter Sunday, and expects much of his Hillsong congregation to migrate there. The press office for Hillsong said there were no plans to reestablish Hillsong Atlanta.

Another branch, Hillsong Kansas City, which launched in 2019, quietly separated from Hillsong about two weeks ago and relaunched as Kingdom City Church. The press office for the global church said the two parties “made a mutual decision to separate” before Mr. Houston’s departure. A person who answered the phone at Kingdom City last week said the church had no comment.