Journalist Marc Fennell takes us into the dark heart of the Hillsong church, sharing the pain of his experience and that of other victims. Digital editor Dan Jensen checks out a new SBS documentary on the downfall of the megachurch.
THE HILLSONG CHURCH has gained a reputation as being a dangerous organisation through its political influence and subsequent scandals that have led to its downfall. While appearing as a religious body, delving deeper into its inner workings reveals the true nature of the beast and how it succeeded in luring hundreds of thousands of members into its fold.
Australian journalist, author and media presenter, Marc Fennell, was one of many who was part of the Pentecostal religion and fell victim to the Hillsong empire. In The Kingdom, he explores the history of Hillsong, how it became so successful and why the megachurch is now in ruins. But more importantly, he also shows how when one head is cut off, another grows in its place.
The Kingdom features archival footage and historic interviews to take us through the origins of Hillsong and it’s all quite fascinating. Fennell draws on his own experience of growing up within the Pentecostal religion and how at the time, it seemed like the right way to live. But upon breaking free of its confines, it dawned on him how toxic an environment it was, leading him to reach out to others and create this documentary.
Starting out as a small organisation, Hillsong grew into a megachurch that attracted tens of thousands of followers at a time to each event, held in a concert hall and giving the impression of a rock show. The church used music and live bands to attract younger people. There were skateboarding events. And all the bright, flashing lights drew the devout in easily. It’s easy to see from The Kingdom how all of this was used as a tool to hook people in as a business, rather than having any actual religious significance.
And it’s through interviews with former churchgoers and even pastors themselves that we are really shown how Hillsong was simply out to make money off what it determined were easy targets. It’s all been exposed before in countless headlines, but The Kingdom goes one step further by sitting us down with the people who suffered.
Marc Fennell travels as far as Arizona to speak with people who were affected by Hillsong and the Pentecostal church in general. One of the more heartbreaking interviews is with a man named Dave Lillo-Trynes, who tried to take his own life and ended up in a mental hospital after suffering from depression and anxiety from what the church put him through. This is a man who had seen the dark heart of Hillsong and his demeanour speaks volumes.
The Kingdom examines how the church insisted on its followers giving up 10 per cent of their income because it’s what God wanted. Apparently, there’s something in the Bible that says so. People were so brainwashed by the dazzle and glamour of the church that contributing money to it became more important than making mortgage payments or other essentials. And this led to people's lives being destroyed, all in the name of Christianity.
But it’s when Fennell’s documentary delves into the true darkness of Hillsong that things become uncomfortably scary. Exploring the controversies surrounding founder Brian Houston and his father, Frank, who were involved in financial scandals and allegations of child sexual abuse, The Kingdom shows first-hand how the empire influenced Australia’s Liberal Party leaders, including prime ministers John Howard and Scott Morrison.
Again, it’s all been said before, but the way in which this documentary is crafted gives us a front-row seat to the evil that drives Hillsong. One chilling photo shows a very young Fennell standing with Frank Houston behind him, oblivious to how much of a danger the man presented.
While Hillsong is crumbling after countless scandals have destroyed its reputation, The Kingdom brings us inside the doors of Kingdomcity, a relatively new Pentecostal megachurch that is beginning to rise in its place. While currently free of controversy, Fennell points out to its founder, Mark Varughese, that comparisons are being drawn between the two churches, to which he replies that he would rather focus on the positive aspect of that connection. But time will tell.
The Kingdom is well worth a watch and offers an insight into the evil of Hillsong of which news articles only touch the surface. Even though we don’t learn much that is new, to see the anguish on the faces of those who suffered and taking the journey through Fennell’s own recollections and history can be quite a confronting experience.
The Kingdom is now streaming on SBS On Demand.
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