by Emily Joy Allison, Communications Consultant and author of #ChurchToo
and Stephanie Krehbiel, PhD, Executive Director
The question of what to do when an artist, musician, composer or band whose work you love gets outed as an abuser of some kind is perennial, but it has been on many people’s minds since the Discovery+ documentary Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed was released last week. This three-part documentary series details a culture of abuse, misogyny, homophobia and secrecy at the Australia-based megachurch that spread throughout the world during the 1990s and into the present day. Celebrities like Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and more attended Hillsong churches at various times; Hillsong’s music is used in churches of all denominations and across the theological spectrum, and their worship songs are some of the most well-known in the United States, including hits like “Oceans,” “From the Inside Out,” “Mighty to Save” and more.
But as Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed reveals, underneath this veneer of celebrity and success was a sordid underground network of abusive men covering for each other’s predations. As it turns out, Hillsong founder Brian Houston’s father, also a pastor, had abused young boys in his early ministry and proper reports and investigative protocols were never followed. Carl Lentz, the most well-known Hillsong pastor stateside, was preaching purity culture from the pulpit and cheating on his wife while attempting to assume a false identity behind closed doors. The son of the head of HR at Hillsong had assaulted a young student in the ministry, and she was interrogated rather than supported. And from the many, many former members of Hillsong that were interviewed in the documentary, the message was clear: these stories are just the tip of the iceberg.
When faced with the reality that those who created art that is spiritually significant to us are the same people abusing and harming vulnerable people, the cognitive dissonance can sometimes be too much to bear. At Into Account, this is something we’re deeply familiar with, as a large project in our work since 2020 has been gathering and publicizing reports from the abuse victims of sacred music composer David Haas, who used his platform as a well-known Christian musician to select, groom and prey on women and girls throughout his entire career.
Since April 2020, over fifty women have submitted reports to Into Account about being abused by David Haas. Of the women who have reported to us about Haas, the youngest is currently 21. The oldest is over 70. Over three generations of women within his orbit have been forced to carry this burden, mostly alone. In 2021, GIA Publications, Inc., announced the release of the latest edition of the Gather hymnal (the most widely used hardcover hymnal in Catholic churches in the U.S.). It’s always been full of Haas songs. Until now. Thanks in particular to Kate Williams, the Vice President of Sacred Music at GIA who risked her career to hold the line against an onslaught of bullying and misogyny, there isn’t a single David Haas song in the new edition of Gather.
Why is this so important? The survivors’ words speak for themselves. Trying to separate the art from the artist “is impossible given that Haas used his music as a tool to abuse his victims, even choosing lyrics designed to manipulate.” Ceasing the use of abusers’ music is also a crucial way of making survivors feel safe in any religious community, many of who have had to ask themselves, “How do I deal with it when my abuser’s words are being quite literally shoved down my throat in my place of refuge, my Church?” Not only that, but every choice to not use music created by an abusive person or group is an opportunity to highlight new (or old) music by other creators, including women, LGBTQ+ persons, and people of color. GIA removing Haas’s songs from the Gather hymnal made room for other composers who aren’t David Haas, who aren’t all white men, and whose music desperately needs to be sung. Holding abusers accountable in this way liberates people. It brings healing. It transforms our art for the better. It changes the world.
Survivors and former members of Hillsong spoke in similar ways about the culture and leadership in the documentary. They spoke of the way that the composition and performance of the music, the repetitive swell of chord progressions and the lights in the room manipulated an emotional response out of attendees. The spoke of the way that leadership attempted to exert ownership over the sexual and romantic behaviors of members, going as far as to tell them who they could date and whether they could have sex. They spoke of the culture of celebrity, partying and alcohol that was hidden from public view but very much alive and well.
The time has come for churches and Christian schools, camps, conferences and festivals to stop using the music of Hillsong in their services and events. Full stop, no exceptions. Individuals can stop financially supporting Hillsong and purchasing/streaming their music, but until larger churches and organizations make the decision to divest from Hillsong, they will continue to flourish with the support of organizations that claim to care about the vulnerable. Removing Hillsong music from their repertoire will make room for other creators who have not abused others and upheld a culture that promotes abuse, and will create safe spaces for those survivors who are still interested in engagement with the church. Love or affinity or admiration for a song or an artist or a group is not more important than survivors’ well-being.
Survivors of abusive behavior by individuals or groups at Hillsong are welcome to contact Into Account for support. Our online report form is confidential and will go directly to our advocates.