When a megachurch scandal makes headlines, it doesn’t usually affect your Sunday morning set list. But Hillsong isn’t just a megachurch. It’s a major global force in worship music.
Since the explosion of the song “Shout to the Lord” in 1994, Sydney-based Hillsong has shaped worship in the US, particularly among Pentecostals and evangelicals. The pop and rock sounds of Hillsong United and Hillsong Young and Free reach Americans through the pews on Sunday, radio and streaming, and arena concert tours.
Currently, four of the ten most popular worship songs sung in churches have come out of Hillsong (“The Goodness of God,” “What a Beautiful Name,” “Who You Say I Am,” and “King Of Kings”).
But as successive headlines chronicle revelations of moral failings among Hillsong leadership, accusations of abuse, toxic internal structures, pastors stepping down, and congregations leaving the denomination, some worship leaders are questioning whether the musical fruit of such a ministry belongs in their own churches.
Recently, the situation at Hillsong was featured in Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed, a Discovery+ docuseries hooked to the 2020 termination of Hillsong New York pastor Carl Lentz, who admitted to infidelity in his marriage.
“At first, it’s like, ‘There is no way this is happening’ … but then it goes to anger,” said Katie Thrush, a longtime Hillsong fan, a worship leader, and a survivor of abuse. Following the stories out of Hillsong, she said, felt like going through the stages of grief.
Now, she’s conflicted about whether to keep singing favorites like “What a Beautiful Name.” “I really love that song. It speaks volumes to me and a lot of other people,” Thrush said.
She’s worried that continuing to use that music could associate her or her church with Hillsong or serve as a reminder of the harm its leaders have caused. Founder Brian Houston left the church in March after a pair of investigations into his inappropriate behavior and awaits trial on charges he covered up abuse by his father.
The question over whether to keep playing Hillsong’s music in worship falls in an interesting place. Musicologists and critics have considered how we engage with songs produced by problematic composers for centuries, and revelations around contemporary artists like Michael Jackson and R. Kelly have also challenged how listeners engage with groundbreaking and chart-topping songs.
We don’t evaluate historical compositions and Billboard hits in the same way we consider music meant to facilitate worship, but the question of the separation between art and artist, or even art and the system that generated it, is a relevant one.
The conversation around Hillsong music also runs parallel to considerations around promoting the work of fallen pastors that have emerged in recent years. While some are quick to ask, “What about the psalms of David?” or “If we can’t sing songs written by sinners, what’s left?” others emphasize the need to hold worship music—for all its formative power—to a higher standard.
Even before the Hillsong news over the past two years, worship leaders in the US had been vetting worship hits on a theological basis. Some churches had already opted not to include songs by Hillsong (or Bethel or Elevation) because of conflicting beliefs or different approaches of ministry.
Anyone looking to have a nuanced conversation about the future of Hillsong’s music in the church may benefit from considering how musicologists and critics talk about important music with a troubling backstory.
“Musicologists are very good at drawing up borders around the circumstances in which a piece of music was composed and the way the music itself goes,” said Peter Mercer-Taylor, a professor at the University of Minnesota.
Sometimes, those borders are easy to draw. Franz Joseph Haydn—an influential Austrian composer of the 18th century—“worked for an incredibly wealthy prince for 30 years. He creates this great pile of symphonies that lay the blueprint for the future of the genre, just invaluable work,” Mercer-Taylor said. “I don’t like the idea of a princely court or the concentration of wealth … but the moral challenges don’t linger in the work itself.”
Haydn, though a far-flung parallel, is relevant as one example of a composer whose music has transcended its provenance as a product of the patronage of an unjust system or corrupt organization. With Hillsong, questions of power, wealth, proximity, and association are still relevant.
Hillsong leaders have criticized the Discovery+ documentary, saying its slanted portrayal is an attempt to harm the church, not an effort to present a true and fair account its ministry work. Some fans have drawn distinctions between Hillsong Church and Hillsong music. But even the musicians don’t claim to be their own entity.
In an Instagram post on April 6, Hillsong Worship announced its withdrawal from an upcoming tour with Casting Crowns and We The Kingdom, saying, “Uniquely, Hillsong Worship is not and has never been a band. We are an extension and expression of Hillsong Church.”
It is true that big-name Hillsong artists like Brooke Ligertwood and Joel Houston have their own brands and images, but they are still employees of the church, and they have acknowledged the difficulties facing Hillsong, though in relatively veiled or general terms.
“The question becomes, ‘What do you do when you have teams of young people who have worked really hard at what they do and are really good at it?’” Mercer-Taylor said. “[They] have developed music that a lot of people find catchy and spiritually nourishing, that has gone out into the world and served a lot of people … but it turns out that the organization they serve is a bad organization.”
Hillsong has an unusual structure around the royalties for its music that gives the church the performance royalties in addition to those paid to the songwriters. For worship leaders worried about guilt by association, the financial connection between Hillsong and its music may be irreconcilable.
For others, the primary concern may be more about being identified with an organization that has lost its moral authority.
The legacy of composer Richard Wagner, another giant in the Western canon, is frequently relitigated because of his antisemitism and Hitler’s embrace of his music as a symbol of German greatness. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a college course on the era that doesn’t include his works, even if they must come with an asterisk.
Unlike worship leaders in the context of a church service, music historians have the benefit of teaching and engaging with musical works while providing extensive context and facilitating discussion about a particular composer’s biography.
The 2019 documentary about Michael Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse of minors, Leaving Neverland, stirred fans to reconsider the artist and his musical legacy. The Guardian’s chief pop critic Alexis Petridis wrote:
You can’t easily eradicate Jackson from history: too many people have too much of their lives bound up with his music. And perhaps you shouldn’t. Perhaps it is all right that his music continues to be heard, so long as it comes with a caveat: that it reminds us great art can be made by terrible people, that talent can be weaponised in the most appalling way, that believing an artist automatically embodies goodness because we like their work is a dreadful mistake that can have awful consequences.
Mercer-Taylor, an expert in American hymnology and popular music, still includes Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video in his courses. “This was the first video by a nonwhite artist to broadcast on the MTV network. It’s just historically a very significant thing, and Michael Jackson was a very significant figure.”
Some may dismiss the expulsion of Hillsong’s music as an example of cancel culture, a rush to get rid of historically significant influence on worship culture and songs that have been meaningful and formative for so many.
But this moment follows a gradual crescendo of calls to at least proceed with caution when it comes to engagement with Hillsong, claims that the charismatic church promotes a kind of prosperity gospel or a celebrity culture in Christianity.
“If I wouldn’t quote their pastor or allow him to preach in our pulpit, then I won’t use the songs their bands write,” wrote musician Dan Cogan in a blog post in 2016. Unlike singing an old hymn that may be doctrinally sound but have been written by someone with questionable theology, singing Hillsong or Bethel songs, he argued, “lends credence” to the active ministry of two influential churches.
The American worship music industry has always uncomfortably existed under the pressures of both the marketplace and the church. The bargain musicians make when they release worship music is that the same impulses that drive ideological boycotts will apply to their music.
In the case of Hillsong, said Mercer-Taylor, the music will be handled as a commodity, subject to being unseated in the marketplace even if it has artistic or spiritual value.
“It enters the world as a commodity; it enters the world under a brand name,” he said. People may decide they just can’t justify subsidizing the organization behind the brand.
The reality, though, is that “What a Beautiful Name” and other Hillsong hits will likely remain in the regular music rotation for many churches. Hillsong has produced a body of singable and infectious songs that are meaningful, encouraging, and comforting for many believers.
Oklahoma pastor Sam Storms, a past president of the Evangelical Theological Society and council member for The Gospel Coalition, defended singing Hillsong songs in a blog post last summer. He emphasized the orthodoxy of Hillsong’s statement of faith and lyrics.
He wrote, “In no way do I endorse or turn a blind eye to the scandals that have rocked Hillsong in recent days” and acknowledged some points of disagreement on ministry approaches. But he concluded, “To refuse to sing thoroughly biblical worship songs they wrote lest we be somehow tainted or defiled in doing so is both impractical and absurd and will only lead to a legalistic and Pharisaical local church culture.”
Many worship leaders agree. They see the content of songs themselves as a priority, not to mention the familiarity and sing-ability, over what’s happening at the church that bears the same name.
Thrush finds it understandable that many worship leaders would continue using Hillsong music. The songs “are biblically based,” she said, “and some [worship leaders] have never even heard of the documentary.”
As a worship leader, Thrush hopes that the attention around Hillsong will push leaders and worshipers to have difficult and honest conversations that acknowledge the associations with its music. Perhaps other leaders will also question whether using their songs sends a message of endorsement.
Lyndsey Winship, dance critic at The Guardian, wrote of Michael Jackson, “It must be possible to condemn the person, even shelve the records, without being ashamed of the influence his music had on us.”
That sentiment is strangely relevant to this very different situation. Regardless of how each individual or congregation decides to reckon with Hillsong, the profound spiritual experiences facilitated by its music need not be a source of shame or embarrassment, even if the memories of those experiences are now altered.
Kelsey Kramer McGinnis is a musicologist, educator, and writer. She holds a PhD from the University of Iowa and researches music in Christian communities.