The Daily Beast reports…
“….When Alex Pittaway’s youth pastor stood before a group of 800 evangelical Christian boys and men in Sydney and shouted, “Shirts off!” everybody listened. Boys as young as 13 and their leaders, some as old as 30, all ripped off shirts in a sign of godly macho solidarity. Someone jumped on stage and was shouted down, with jeers of “Go to the gym, mate!”
It wasn’t just pastor Scott “Sanga” Samways (the nickname is slang in Australia for a sausage sandwich) who utilized partial nudity as a church-approved bonding technique, Pittaway said. At youth group and Bible camp, or any time when men and women were separated, Alex remembers “a hell of a lot of homoerotic behaviour.”
For Alex—a closeted gay teen and member of Hillsong—the command was terrifying. Did the brothers in Christ slapping his back or complimenting his abs know he was gay? If someone knew, would he think Alex was “looking”?
Alex quit the church in 2008, after a traumatic coming out where he says he was referred by his youth pastor to counseling that proposed to make him straight—the kind of conversion therapy we now know is based on pseudoscience, as ineffectual as it is damaging.
For years, in fact, coming out to a Hillsong pastor landed a church member in just such an ‘ex-gay’ program. According to former members, Hillsong first helped congregants struggling with their sexuality pray their gay away in Exit Ministries, started by Frank Houston, or Mercy Ministries for lesbians; the church then outsourced the conversion work to Living Waters (self-shuttered in 2014) or Exodus (closed in 2013), or maybe an online course like Setting Captives Free (banned in the Apple Store in 2013). Self-proclaimed reformed gay, and former executive director of Exodus, Sy Rogers—who now identifies as transgender and is married to a woman—wrote books and tapes and would preach at Hillsong conferences about overcoming his gay demons. He’d tell the struggling faithful: “You gotta learn to bow down and obey and deal with it.” Rogers’s current ministry has moved away from the ex-gay message and though Rogers hasn’t said so publicly, Brian Houston told a blogger that Rogers probably regrets his involvement with Exodus.
But Hillsong doesn’t try to “fix” gay congregants anymore. Sometime around 2011, Houston distanced his church from conversion programs, and he now talks often about the “weight” the church bears when it comes to its treatment of gays and lesbians. “They feel like ‘maybe I’m gay’ and they go to a youth leader and they are rejected,” Brian said in a 2013 sermon. “At that moment a great hatred comes in. At that moment some of them have gone so far with the rejection and gone to parents who didn’t understand and ended up committing suicide. That’s the weight we live with.”
It should be said here that Alex, now an openly gay seminary student in Indiana, still thinks of Hillsong fondly, speaks of it warmly, and often catches himself humming the church tunes. He says that while he didn’t feel safe or comfortable trying to find God in a building where most of the people in it thought he was going to hell, for those who don’t define themselves by their sexuality, who can compartmentalize, it’s a fine place to “worship anonymously.”
Ben Fenlon, a three-year member of Hillsong’s London satellite, explained his reasons for quitting the church in a piece for the Huffington Post. He wrote, “I can’t worship at a church knowing that I am not fully accepted and considered equal to all those around me. Surrounded by people that might love me as a person but do not accept me as being gay; instead tolerate me. People who might tell me that being gay is okay, but on the inside are praying for me to let Jesus move in my life and change me. People who don’t recognise that any relationship that I have with a man is part of God’s plan and that it would be full of love, equal to any other.”
Alex told me about a gay friend who had been booted from his position in Hillsong’s children’s ministry after he came out and another who, after coming out to Hillsong leadership, was relieved of his duties as an usher. “He wasn’t even allowed to serve cups of coffee or help direct traffic in the parking lot,” he said. (Hillsong did not return requests for comment on these alleged incidents.)
“Gay people need to know that when they go to Hillsong, they have to go to the back of the bus.” Alex said. “Hillsong is hip and attractive and contemporary, but there’s certainly nothing contemporary about what LGBT people will face if they want to be a leader in the church or offer themselves up for service. That’s something [Hillsong] will have to be upfront with, and they haven’t been so far.”
To be fair, Hillsong’s task isn’t an easy one. How does an extremely conservative pentecostal church fight irrelevancy and attract those coveted millennials—a group that’s been running from churches and overwhelmingly supports gay marriage and equal rights for LGBT people—and maintain its tithing, if intolerant, base at the same time?
Hillsong has taken certain halting steps that place the church to the left of its conservative counterparts, some of which have labeled the Aussie megachurch as unbiblical, and say its leaders have sold out God’s word for a younger, more tolerant crowd. For example: Hillsong Leadership College recently removed homosexuality from the list of “sexual sins” in the student code of conduct. And some members have taken Pastor Carl Lentz’s stance—basically that homosexuality is a sin, OK, but no worse than any other, and he gets why everyone is always asking, but he’d rather not address it, because Jesus pretty much didn’t, and Hillsong loves everyone anyway—as a move in the right direction.
It’s not just conservative churches that are criticizing Hillsong’s stance. Anna Flowers, pastor at Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn—a “progressive, young and vibrant church” where she shares the pulpit with two lesbian pastors and one transgender male pastor—has tweeted about what she calls Hillsong’s false permissiveness. “not as hip as Hillsong Hipsters, but we actually love and accept everyone,” she said in one tweet. In another: “drives us NUTS when Hipster evang. churches fool ppl into thinking they are progressive.” Flowers tells me, “there are far more truly progressive churches than people realize. And sometimes churches look more progressive than they really are.”
I read as many of Lentz’s statements on the LGBT issue as I could find and he gave what I consider the most straightforward answer to Jonathan Merritt at Religion News Service in August of 2015:
“Our beliefs on biblical marriage and sexual morality have never changed at Hillsong church. Yet we stay open and desperate in our pursuit of the whosoevers.”
What that means in practical terms is that Hillsong wants anyone and everyone in the seats, but neither supports same-sex marriage nor allows LGBT people to serve in positions of leadership. As Brian Houston clarified last year, following the sacking of a choir director who announced his same-sex engagement to another member of the choir, acceptance of gays and lesbians extends only as far the the pew.
And for some, including Josh Canfield and Reed Kelly, the couple at the center of the choir controversy, that’s enough. For now at least.
Ben Gresham also still attends Hillsong in Sydney, despite a complicated past with the church, because he believes gay and lesbian members are key to helping the church move forward. “I try and speak to church pastors and leaders when I can and have had some encouraging discussions,” he said.
Gresham has told the story of coming out at Hillsong on his blog. After three years of ex-gay therapy, constant praying, even undergoing an exorcism, he realized he would never be straight. The thought of never being able to enter the kingdom of heaven, to marry a woman, to be the person Hillsong told him that God wanted him to be, led him to cut himself with a razor blade, and one night, to drive his speeding car nearly off the side of a highway. He considers the last-minute change of heart a miracle.
“For me, Hillsong still feels like home. It has been a source of harm for me in the past but continues to bring me much joy and help me grow in my faith, which is invaluable,” he said. “As a gay man and a Christian I would love to see Hillsong fully affirm and include its queer members. I hope it happens sooner rather than later but given my experience I remain doubtful.
“Hillsong is a big church and so it takes time to move it forward. I just wish they would move a bit faster.”