A recent series of scandals that rocked Hillsong, a global network of popular megachurches, has led a fast-growing Lakeland congregation to drop its affiliation with the organization.
Co-pastor Andrew Gard said Grace City has always been an independent nondenominational church but was one of numerous churches in Hillsong’s orbit, adopting its modern style of Pentecostal worship and teaching that draws young, multicultural crowds by the thousands.
That changed two weeks ago when the Lakeland church’s council voted to drop the affiliation following the resignation of Hillsong founder and pastor Brian Houston, who was accused of inappropriate behavior with women.
“It was a pretty easy decision,” Gard said. “Hillsong Family is about relationship. When the leadership changed, then the nature of the relationship with Hillsong changed.”
Grace City has “north of 2,000” people in worship each week, Gard said, which would place it among the four or five largest churches in Lakeland. Its rapid growth mirrors that of the Hillsong Church, which Gard said has been a magnet for drawing in people disaffected by religion, especially a younger generation.
Hillsong was founded by Brian Houston and his wife, Bobbie, with a handful of people in a Sydney suburb in 1983. Originally affiliated with the Australian branch of the Assemblies of God, Hillsong emphasized traditional Pentecostal teachings about repentance and being “filled” by the Holy Spirit, but delivered in a lighter, joyous way.
It quickly grew into a worldwide phenomenon, especially noted for its contemporary Christian music, which became a Grammy-winning label in its own right. In 2018, Hillsong became a distinct denomination, with churches in cities around the globe, including major American cities. A-list celebrities, notably pop singer Justin Bieber, were among its worshipers.
“It’s helping the church connect with people who don’t normally go to church, with its music and its style of communication,” he said. “We reach a lot of young people. They’re fascinated, and we read a lot about young people not going to church these days.”
Gard, who was campus pastor at Southeastern University in Lakeland for four years, and his wife, Christina, started Grace City because they had difficulty finding a church “like what we had in our hearts,” he said.
They began meeting with about 50 people in their living room, and when the church held its first weekly worship service in September 2015, there were 250 people in attendance, he said. Grace City outgrew its first building on South Florida Avenue and now holds services at the former Lakeside Baptist Church on New Jersey Road. It lists 24 people on its staff, including Christina Gard, who is co-pastor with her husband.
Gard said Grace City’s leadership decided early on to remain independent but approached Hillsong about becoming part of its Family network, churches that share its “vibe” without formal denominational ties. He said he came to know Houston well.
“You don’t get into Hillsong unless he approves,” he said.
Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz and his family were among the first members of the church. Mutz’s son, Michael, served as an assistant pastor at Grace City for several years, and Mutz is a member of the church’s council. He said Hillsong initially provided an identity and resources for the fledgling church.
“Hillsong provided us a couple of things. One, it has a great network of pastors around the world that ours could learn from. Second, it had ministries that could come alongside ours and help us. Brian Houston provided excellent leadership as we got started,” he said. “He’s been a wonderful influence in Andrew’s life.”
In addition, Gard said, he was drawn to Hillsong because of his longtime friendship with Carl Lentz, a Hillsong staffer who would go on to become the star pastor of its Manhattan church.
But in recent years, allegations of sexual impropriety among Hillsong leaders began to crop up. In 2020, Lentz was fired from the Manhattan church after an investigation revealed he had an extramarital affair. About six months later, a church staffer and nanny for the Lentz family accused him of bullying and sexual abuse over the course of several years.
Gard said Lentz had preached at Grace City just a month before he was fired, and he still stays in touch with him but said Lentz’s fall has left Gard feeling sad.
“It’s heartbreaking. He still means a lot to me as a friend, but he made terrible decisions that have messed with the way people view God,” he said.
In 2021, Reed Bogard, the pastor of Hillsong’s Dallas, Texas, church resigned suddenly and the church closed after an internal investigation showed a failure “to meet the commitments and standards of Hillsong Church.” A recent Australian news report alleged that Bogard raped a female staff member at the New York church before he assumed the post in Dallas.
Houston himself was charged last year by Australian officials of covering up a decades-earlier sexual assault by his late father, who was also a pastor. In January, he announced he was taking a leave of absence to deal with the charges.
Then on March 18, Hillsong’s board announced there had been two allegations of impropriety against Houston. The first, dating from a decade before, accused him of flirting with a female staff member through text messages, an incident that was blamed on a dependence on sleeping medication. The second incident took place at a conference in 2019, when Houston was said to have become disoriented while under the influence of alcohol and anti-anxiety medication, entered the hotel room of a woman and spent an unspecified amount of time there.
On March 23, Houston resigned as global senior pastor of Hillsong. In a statement, Hillsong Church’s board said, “Irrespective of the circumstances around this, we can all agree that Brian and Bobbie have served God faithfully over many decades and that their ministry has resulted in millions of people across the world being impacted by the power, grace, and love of Jesus Christ.” Phil Dooley, former pastor of Hillsong’s Cape Town, South Africa, church, has been appointed interim global leader.
Gard said he had the same reaction to Houston’s resignation as he did to Lentz’s downfall – sadness.
“It’s a sobering reminder to people like me that character matters,” Gard said. “My take is that nobody wakes up and asks ‘How can I destroy my life today?’ Addiction, lying, cheating – all of us are susceptible to the things people have always been susceptible to. The sad part is that except for this, (Houston) would have been the same as, like, Billy Graham. He had that kind of impact.”
The fallout has been swift. The New York Times reported last week that nine of Hillsong’s 16 churches in the U.S. have broken with the denomination, including congregations in Phoenix and Kansas City, and the newly appointed pastor of the Atlanta church resigned rather than deal with the scandals.
Grace City’s council voted to join the exodus.
“Once Brian Houston resigned, there was no reason for us to stay,” Mutz said. “It’s not that we were that closely aligned with Hillsong anyway.”
Mutz and Gard said the reaction among church members has been muted and they expect there to be little, if any, loss of membership.
“I don’t have any concerns it will impact attendance because, again, we aren’t a Hillsong church, so people have always seen us as Grace City,” Gard said.
As to the future of Hillsong, Gard said Dooley is “a great guy with a lot of character.”
“Hillsong is trying to keep pushing, but it will be a long journey,” he said. “They’ve lost a lot of credibility, and that’s not easy to get back.”
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