CAROLINE JONES, PRESENTER: Hello, I’m Caroline Jones. Tonight, a revealing look at the family behind the Hillsong phenomenon. When Brian and Bobbie Houston established their own tiny house of worship 20 years ago, they didn’t dream they’d end up at the helm of the biggest independent church in Australia. While Hillsong revels in chart-topping CDs and the beaming approval of some prominent politicians, it does divide observers. Some admire the church’s material and spiritual success. Others suspect a political agenda and worry about Hillsong’s financial arrangements. Through it all the Houstons have avoided personal media scrutiny, but tonight, for the first time, they’ve allowed cameras into both their church and their private life so people can judge for themselves. This is their story.
BRIAN HOUSTON, SENIOR PASTOR: The worst thing you could say to me is that I look like a minister, because I think oftentimes people’s perception of the church is so out of touch and so bland and so unrelatable. I want to live my life in a way that relates to people. Today, I think a lot of church ministers believe that suffering is the plight of people and there’s nothing we can do about it. I’m sure not so blind that I can’t see that people suffer and struggle. I just believe that we should have and can have answers that do something about it. I am an absolute believer in the potential of people, and I want to do everything I can do to bring that potential out of people, to get them believing in themselves, to get them believing in whatever endeavour in life they’re called to. My passion in life is really to help people to understand that they’re alive for God’s purposes. I believe in God absolutely, and so whatever confidence I have, whatever security I have hopefully is founded in Christ. I think sometimes we’re too afraid of personality. I think God gives us personality…and I believe, like every other part of us, it can be used for the glory of God. I really have this belief that church should be enjoyed and not endured. Sadly, I think it is possible for church to be a very long hour. I want people to be able to be animated about their worship.
JOEL HOUSTON: Dad’s an incredible preacher. Yeah, he’s my favourite. Dad’s certainly not like a hellfire and brimstone preacher. He’s never one to kind of use fear to motivate people. He’s certainly charismatic. I think he’s free and he’s real. When he preaches, it’s for me, I see an authenticity that I see at home as well, and I love that, and I think that’s why people are drawn to what he has to say.
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LAURA HOUSTON: My dad is an amazing person. I love him more than anything. He’s fun, he’s spontaneous. Sometimes he’s embarrassing. But he’s cool. He’s a dork sometimes, but he’s cool. I love him.
BEN HOUSTON: I think my dad’s hilarious as a preacher. Oh, no, he’s very funny, um, but also great, you know. He knows how to take the message of God and share it with people.
BRIAN HOUSTON, SENIOR PASTOR: I would love to think that every time someone comes to Hillsong Church, in a sense they have to make a choice. To be able to walk into a church and out of a church and really not be confronted with anything, I think, is sad. I think responsibility comes with position, so I carry the weight of that, but there’s a sense where I feel like I was born to do what I do. I grew up in New Zealand. My parents were Salvation Army officers. When I was still quite small, really – I was only, I think, three – my parents left the Salvation Army. They left with nothing, really, at that time. We grew up in what would be a Housing Commission house and my father was very, very important to my beliefs in life. He got filled with the Holy Spirit, so it was from there that he became an Assemblies of God minister in New Zealand. I guess I looked at my father in those days and I used to watch him go off flying somewhere to preach and I thought, one day I want to do that.
BOBBIE HOUSTON, SENIOR PASTOR: I think my husband’s fairly amazing, but obviously I’m biased. I’m his wife of 28 years. He’s a great leader and a great visionary. But, you know, I remember when he first started preaching. He would get so nervous and so intimidated that he would blink. He would, like, blink. And we make a joke about it now that it’s really good that he overcame that, because otherwise, you know, he would still be the blinking pastor.
BRIAN HOUSTON, SENIOR PASTOR: Bobbie works alongside me. We’re very much a team. In a sense, I’ve got a conservative, biblical idea that a man should take a role of leadership in his life, but I certainly don’t adhere to the mentality that a woman must submit or that she should be pushed down. I absolutely believe that there’s a sense of walking together in life. I met Bobbie on the beach. I was 20 and she was just going 17. She was very, very beautiful. And I was with a group of friends and I looked at her and I can still remember clearly looking over and seeing her in her white swimsuit, and I turned to my friends and said, “I bags that one there.”
BOBBIE HOUSTON, SENIOR PASTOR: Brian was just fresh out of Bible college. I was working as a secretary in a pharmaceutical company in Auckland. He fell completely in love with me, and has just been, like, a wonderful person to do life with. We married in February 1977. You know, the thing that I actually love about him is that, you know, he’s always believed in me. He’s never pressured me to be anything that I wasn’t or to do anything that I wasn’t capable of, but also at the same time he has at times, you know, nudged me across the line, and I love him for that. We came to Australia a year after we were married, and Brian’s father had just started a new pioneer church in Sydney.
BRIAN HOUSTON, SENIOR PASTOR: I think there was a sense deep down in me that for me to do something lasting in ministry, I would have to have that sense that it was something that I was able to do myself, that it wasn’t just something that someone else had put in my hand. I actually had a friend who said to me one day, he said, “Brian, if you start a church in Baulkham Hills,” he said, “I know so many people who will come.”
BOBBIE HOUSTON, SENIOR PASTOR: It was on the outskirts of Sydney, but it was young and growing and thriving.
BRIAN HOUSTON, SENIOR PASTOR: And in those days, there used to be a guy who was famous – or infamous, whatever – who used to be on the TV and sell Holdens. And I thought to myself that if you could build a Holden dealer like that, the largest Holden dealership in Australia, surely it must be somewhere where you could build a church.
BOBBIE HOUSTON, SENIOR PASTOR: And we started with just a handful of people in a school hall, and the church did grow fast and was renowned for being the fastest-growing church in Australia at the time. Brian and I are the senior pastors, and so, you know, that’s, like, a God appointment. That’s, like, you know, a biblical appointment. And I also oversee our women’s ministry. I hope that we present just a very real Gospel. You know, the Gospel, the message of the Gospel is timeless. You know, that doesn’t change. But, you know, the way we present it and the way we bring truth to people has to change.
BRIAN HOUSTON, SENIOR PASTOR: Hillsong was originally the name of our music and the church was called Hills Christian Life Centre, but people used to talk about “that Hillsong church” and the name Hillsong actually became famous, if you like, around the world. So in the end, we thought, that’s what we’re known as, so we became Hillsong Church. Over any given weekend, there’s over 18,000 people that come to our services. I really believe in the message that we preach and teach, and I have no problem whatsoever in doing what we can to market that message. Our services are broadcast to something like 160 countries around the world weekly. Darlene Zschech is a great lady. She’s an absolute ambassador for the church. She oversees our worship and creative arts department. I think a lot of Australians would get a shock if they realised just how widely sung internationally Darlene’s songs and the Hillsong songs have become. The songs ‘Shout to the Lord’ that Darlene wrote is sung by 35 million Christians every week.
DARLENE ZSCHECH, WORSHIP PASTOR: Lots of people ask about the church and the music and which comes first, the chicken or the egg. The music would not have been as strong as it is without a strong church and without a strong teacher. You know, a lot of the songs would come straight from Brian’s messages. Um, and he does inspire ordinary people to dream big.
JOEL HOUSTON, YOUTH VOLUNTEER: Ben, Laura and myself all went to an Anglican high school. So, we’d go to Anglican church services. To be honest, it wasn’t really any different to Hillsong. I mean, it’s just a church. It’s about loving God, it’s about loving people. My brother and sister both work at the church. And I’m there as a volunteer. Dad’s always encouraged us to be in church. But he was never one to put, like, too much pressure on us as kids. I remember he tried one time. He tried to like, you know, we’re going to have like a little Bible study before we have dinner. And so, we’re like, oh, OK. And we all got around the table, and like, you know, he said something for a bit, then we kind of all looked at each other and went like, no, this isn’t going to work.
BEN HOUSTON, YOUTH PASTOR: I think the greatest thing my parents have done for us is just believing in us and just always being there, so supporting. They are always so, so honest with each other, so, so caring. They communicate really well. They’ve got the same values, the same vision. They’re living for the same thing and it just works.
BRIAN HOUSTON, SENIOR PASTOR: There’s no doubt that our church breaks Australia’s perception of Christianity. Hillsong church today has facilities valued somewhere near $100 million. In our last accounting period, the total income was fifty million dollars. I think that the idea of a church being big and successful and effective threatens some people. And there are certain people who point at motives and try to make them shallow or try and marginalise our motives. I just don’t feel like I can be ruled by that. I feel we have to stay committed to what we’re called to do.
JOHN WALKER, CORPORATE GOVERNANCE ANALYST: I run IMF (Australia) which investigates corporate governance issues and I have looked at Hillsong Church Ltd’s annual report and its constitution. Hillsong is not unusual in the sense that, like all other churches, it is a not for profit organisation, which brings with it a privilege of not paying income tax. It differentiates itself however, from other churches in that it runs through a corporate model. This in a not for profit environment will ensure that Australian taxpayers keep a spotlight on Hillsong and its directors over the coming years.
BRIAN HOUSTON, SENIOR PASTOR: Hillsong Church, I think, is a thriving church. There’s something like two or three hundred staff. And of those, I think somewhere around 70 are pastors, which means they’re directly involved in the ministry or helping people. We’ve got a Bible college, or a leadership college, that has 800-plus students that come from all over the world. And then we’ve got the music ministry, the worship in song, which goes out around the world.
LEIGH COLEMAN, CEO, COMMUNTIY WORK: Brian, as the leader of Hillsong church, is very critical because he, kind of sets the culture. And it’s a very empowering culture. I came on board as a staff member at Hillsong five years ago. If I come up with an idea, the reaction to get from Brian is, “Hey, that sounds great. How can we make that happen?” And it’s not that we don’t question the pros and cons of it, but the bias is towards yes, it’s not towards no. And most organisations, they have bureaucracies and systems that somehow tend to say, “Don’t change.” My role with the church is, I oversee all the community work. We work in a whole broad spectrum of community initiatives with people with all sorts of issues: sexual abuse issues, grief, divorce. We work with the Indigenous communities in helping economic development. We have a health centre. We have a drug and alcohol centre. We run personal development programs in schools. We work in the prisons. We do a lot of street teams.
BRIAN HOUSTON, SENIOR PASTOR: Our focus on helping people in any area we can is large. We’ve got programs with aged care, we’ve got programs inside the Villawood Detention Centre. Then internationally, we’re involved in emergency relief programs. And we’ve got, through our congregation, the sponsoring of over 2,500 children. One region of Uganda.
BRIAN HOUSTON, SENIOR PASTOR: There’s various ways that we are able to fund the various projects and community programs that we’re involved in. And they include everything from private enterprise to the church’s own resources, to members of the congregation, to government grants. Sixty per cent of the total income goes towards helping people directly through our programs. And like any non-profit organisation, there are tax breaks. Some people get upset about that.
BOBBIE HOUSTON, SENIOR PASTOR: You know, I think some people out there may have a perception that this is religion for a material age. But, um, that is so far from the reality of what it really is.
BRIAN HOUSTON, SENIOR PASTOR: Darlene Zschech, as a songwriter, has been very, very successful. And, I guess, because of that, her composing royalties are quite significant. But the wonderful thing with Darlene is that she has been a real testimony to the message we preach because she and Mark, her husband, have really focused that on helping other people. One of the key areas is mercy ministries, where young women can come, free of charge, with areas and issues like eating disorders, or unwanted pregnancies, or whatever, to get support. And they’ve had some fantastic results.
DARLENE ZSCHECH, WORSHIP PASTOR: When I was 13, I developed an eating disorder, bulimia, and that controlled my life for about six years. We have two homes already. And we’re wanting to open up homes in every capital city. And, you know, just be an answer, that’s all. I look at material wealth a lot differently now than I used to. I used to see it as some sort of evil. But, truly, now I see it as such a great blessing. Because if you’ve only got a little, sometimes you can only do a little, but if you have more, you can do more. And, um, I’m loving that. I’m just loving that.
BRIAN HOUSTON, SENIOR PASTOR: It always amazes me, with all that our church is doing to help people, that some people can’t look past my motorbike, and a watch. Yes, I do have a nice watch, but it’s just not a big deal to me. Look, honestly, if there was a charity who says, “We want your watch,” I’d give my watch away. I don’t, I don’t care about my watch. I do like my motorbike. I love to ride, it’s a great hobby. But I don’t think that in itself it’s a sign that I’m living this massively, over-affluent life. Some of the things that have been written about me are complete myths. It’s been said that I’m a silent partner of property developments. I’m a director of a cafe. That I own a travel agent. None of which has ever been true. Um, and yet they get perpetuated, it seems, from one publication to the next publication. Bobbie and I have been working now 35 years or so. We’ve worked hard. And there’s no doubt that our lives have become blessed. I don’t make any apology for it. I think that it represents all of the things that I teach others. In terms of our own property, we’ve got our house, and a one-bedroom apartment at Bondi Beach, and that’s it. Bobbie and I are paid a wage that’s set by the board of the church, and, it’s a good wage, but the average private high school teacher in NSW gets paid significantly more. I think one myth that people have is that we get royalties from the products sold in the bookshop at the church. Basically, the books and tapes that Bobbie and I have written, we write and pay for, and we own those books ourselves. If they are sold through the church, then, that’s where the profits go. But what we do extends beyond the church, so a lot of our income comes from our speaking and our writing and the things we do outside of the church. And, from that, our speaking and writing, it’s put us in a position where over the last few years we’ve been able to give to the church, literally, as much, or even on some years, more than the church has given us.
JOHN WALKER, CORPORATE GOVERNANCE ANALYST: It is very unusual in a business environment for directors to be providing goods and services that can be provided by the company on whose board they serve. In other words directors don’t compete against their companies. So it’s fair to say that people may be uneasy about these types of arrangements in a religious organisation.
BRIAN HOUSTON, SENIOR PASTOR: When Bobbie and I set out in the school hall all those years ago, the last thing on our mind was that we’d ever have number one albums or that on election night they’d be talking about the ‘Hillsong Factor’, or that we’d have a conference for nearly 30,000 daytime delegates. I don’t have any political agenda. Our church is autonomous. In other words, we’re not answering to an American church. I think the religious right in the United States, is actually a long way from where I would see me being. I don’t want to be like that religious right. I think I’m a, quite a tolerant person, but one thing I’ve really never had any tolerance for is sexual abuse, and especially child abuse. In late 1999, I was sitting having a weekly appointment with one of my team. He began to tell me about a complaint that my father had sexually abused, er, someone under the age of 16. And, um well, it was devastating. I had to confront my own father. I asked him directly, and he told me directly, really, that over 30 years ago, these things had happened. Um, it was just a painful meeting. Er, I ultimately, as a result of that, had to oversee the removal of his credential to minister for the rest of his life.
BOBBIE HOUSTON, SENIOR PASTOR: You couldn’t have thrown a more hideous thing against us, and against the church, and against, I guess, the ministry of what Hillsong represents. It did take an emotional toll on him. There were many sleepless nights for him. He still is tender. Frank was like his mentor in life ministries.
BRIAN HOUSTON, SENIOR PASTOR: Last year, my mother and my father both died. It was, it was difficult. I would be lying if I didn’t say that, you know, when he died I don’t have all sorts of regrets about those last few years.
DARLENE ZSCHECH, WORSHIP PASTOR: I think one of the misconceptions of Brian is that he preaches a perfect life. And that’s actually not what he preaches at all. Generally, in the Australian culture, if you don’t understand something, you criticise it. I never enjoy seeing people criticise Brian. I get a bit protective, because I know. He’s just a normal guy. He has great things and he has flaws, like the rest of us. But he truly is living his life trying to make a difference. He’s teaching from a position of hope, not false promise. And wouldn’t you much rather live your life from a position of ‘there is hope’ rather than ‘it’s just all hopeless’?