My experience of being deceived by Australia’s most powerful celebrity pastor

Benjamin Ady

This is a guest post from my friend Benjamin Ady. Benjamin lives in Australia. He is an atheist. He is an honest, caring and extremely intelligent guy. He also spearheaded the campaign to remove Mark Driscoll from the Hillsong Conference, which is something concerned Christians should have done. The campaign worked, that is, until the senior pastor of Hillsong reneged on his promise, and interviewed Driscoll anyway. I asked Benjamin to tell the story.

My name is Benjamin Ady. I lived in Seattle Washington from the age of 13, in 1987, almost continuously until late 2009, when I and my small family moved to Melbourne, Australia. I grew up as part of a very small, very sectarian Christian church which was part of a large, loose network of such churches in the United States call the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches–known to survivors of such churches as IFB. I grew up inundated and surrounded by the Christian Scriptures, which were of great import to my small community, and memorised large sections of the New Testament and some from the Old Testament. I realised years later, when I got a slightly wider view of the world, that I’d been given a really delicious educational gift, as the entire literature and history of the US/Anglo culture is infused with the stories of the Old and New Testaments, and I recognise every single allusion.

In 2007/2008, I gradually completed a transition/deconversion out of Christianity. I had been aware of this deconversion process for a while, and one day while in conversation with my good friend Nathalie, I realised I no longer believed Jesus rose from the dead, and that as such, I could really no longer in any sense call myself a Christian. (I acknowledge here that there are of course very small communities of people within worldwide Christianity who do call themselves Christians and yet don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead, and I don’t have any argument with or judgement against these people.) For me, the transition out of Christianity correlated with a much larger internal transition from the long term personal experience of fairly high levels of anxiety and depression and a sense of worthlessness and purposelessness toward my experience now, which is one of rather an enormous amount of joy and a much greater skill in loving myself and other people.

Now that I’ve given a tiny bit of context–on to the story! Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, I and a number of both Christian and not-Christian friends of mine in Seattle were keeping our eyes on a growingly successful megachurch pastor in Seattle–Mark Driscoll. Mark’s church, Mars Hill, grew to 15,000 members across more than a dozen campuses mostly in Seattle by 2013/2014. This all happened in the 2nd least churched city in the United States. As my friend Jim Henderson points out in his book “Question Mark: Why the church Welcomes Bullies and How to Stop It”, Mark was almost entirely attracting young people who had a lot of desire for certainty and black/whiteness in a culture and more specifically in a city that was increasingly embracing post-modernism and rather a gigantic palette of shades of gray. The problem was that as young people, these folks mostly lacked the life-experience to recognise in Mark Driscoll an abusive, violent bully–something which was exceedingly and increasingly obvious to those of us with a bit more life experience.

In 2014, much of Mark Driscoll’s long term pattern of terrible, abusive behaviour became, through a series of events, much much more public. Among the scores of former staff members and thousands of former church members who had been treated really hideously, a brave and amazing group of folks emerged who decided that they were done with seeing ever more young people who were abused and driven right out of Christianity and would probably never return. In 2014 these folks finally gained enough of a voice and enough exposure that by the end of 2014, Mars Hill Church literally disintegrated and ceased to exist as an entity. An internal group of pastors were tasked with investigating formal charges which were brought against Mr. Driscoll, and just before the results of the their investigation could be made public, Mark Driscoll “audibly heard the voice of God” telling him to resign. The results of that investigation were suppressed (and still haven’t been made public) by a tiny group of wealthy powerful men whom Mark Driscoll had connived to leave holding all the power in this gigantic, multi-million dollar organisation.

Almost immediately after the disintegration of Mars Hill, Mark Driscoll began his clearly well planned comeback. Ignoring the trauma and pleas of his thousands of victims, a number of powerful mega-church pastors throughout the US began inviting Driscoll to speak at their churches. He and they worked together to spin a narrative in which Driscoll himself was the victim, and all those people he had abused were themselves the abusers, refusing to forgive him and therefore obviously not genuine followers of Jesus. Mega-church pastors even broke down in tears as they empathised with the terrible way this multi-millionaire former mega-church pastor had so narrowly escaped the results of the investigation by his own church’s pastors via God audibly speaking to him telling him to resign.

The crown jewel of Mark Driscoll’s comeback tour was an appearance at the conference of the most powerful and popular church in Australia–Hillsong. It’s widely known in Australia that Hillsong has inroads to the highest level of both NSW state government and the federal Australian government, with the prime minister and other highly placed politicians having attended and spoken at their annual conference in years past. In fact, so great is their power that when the senior lawyer for the Royal Commission into Institutional child sexual abuse recommended last year that their senior pastor, Brian Houston, be investigated by the NSW police for breaking the law in failing to report his pedophile father, HIllsong’s founding pastor Frank Houston, to the police, he was utterly ignored. It’s very convenient for Hillsong and Brian Houston that the NSW police commissioner is a friend of the Houston family who attended Frank Houston’s funeral, during which Frank was lionised, and during which Frank’s history of sexually abusing minors in the church was described as “some big mistakes”.

Not only is Hillsong powerful in Australia–they’re also gigantic in the United States, where hundreds of thousand of churches and scores of millions of Christians sing and buy Hillsong’s enormously popular praise and worship music. Long before moving to Australia myself, I had heard of Hillsong because I myself, and the super-conservative, fundamentalist church I grew up in, loved their worship music and used it regularly during worship services. Given all this–one can easily see why an appearance at Hillsong’s annual conference was all Mark Driscoll could have imagined in his sweetest dreams, as part of his comeback tour. This appearance would grant him a level of kudos, glory, and religious power-currency unavailable almost anywhere else on the planet. It would be akin to a disgraced band being invited to open for U2 or Taylor Swift.

As a person from Seattle now living in Australia, and with personal friends who had been terribly abused and hurt by Mark Driscoll, I felt very unhappy about Driscoll’s appearance at Hillsong Conference here in Australia. It was almost as if this toxic ex-pastor, having been basically kicked out of Seattle, was now following me with his toxic, abusive Christianity all the way down here to Australia. So I decided to see if I couldn’t get his appearance cancelled. Honestly, I thought chances were slim to zilch. I’m just a regular working fellow with a middling income and hardly any wealth, and putting myself up against the gigantic power structure and vast wealth of Hillsong, coupled with the wealth, power, and still-in-some-circles popularity of Mark Driscoll seemed fairly futile. Nevertheless, I decided to give it my best go.

In the 8-10 weeks before the HIllsong Conference in Sydney in late June this year, I devoted about 100 hours and about $500, along with all the creativity and networking I could muster, towards this end. I ended up connecting with a number of Hillsong insiders and outsiders who seemed to be very much on board with the idea of getting Driscoll’s appearance cancelled. Finally, much to my surprise, delight, and amazement, just a few weeks before the conference, a media firestorm erupted. Suddenly, there were gigantic, powerful groups jumping in on my side, and again, amazingly, much to my enormous surprise and delight, and under enormous pressure from pro-women groups and powerful media figures, as well as, no doubt, a number of highly placed people including leaders within his own church, Brian Houston acquiesced to our request and agreed to cancel Driscoll’s appearance at the conference. His decision to cancel Driscoll’s appearance was widely reported in newspapers in both Australia, the United States, and the UK.

As you can imagine, Driscoll’s many victims in Seattle were amazed and delighted, as were the many pro-women Hillsong Insiders and Outsiders who had joined our campaign. Just as his appearance at Hillsong Conference was the crown jewel in Driscoll’s comeback plan, his rejection from that same conference represented a gigantic speed bump in his comeback. Given Hillsong’s vast popularity in the United States, their cancellation of his appearance would certainly very much mute plans for his appearance at even more megachurches in the US in the future. We were actually genuinely delighted for Driscoll himself, as we hoped that the cancellation of his appearance would provide a space and opportunity for him to more fully appreciate and understand the breadth and depth of his abusive behaviour and to move towards genuine change and genuine apologies to and reconciliation with his victims, many of whom he has ongoingly refused to interact with despite their ongoing attempts to reach out to him over the years.

In the context of all of the above, you can imagine my shock upon hearing, on the 3rd day of my annual vacation time with my little family, that Brian Houston had actually decided to go ahead with an interview with Mr. Driscoll at Hillsong Conference anyway. It turns out in the end he had actively deceived me and the many other Australians who had jumped on board to pressure him to cancel Driscoll’s appearance, as well as the media, with a carefully worded announcement which we all understood to mean that Driscoll’s appearance was being cancelled, whereas technically reading the letter of the announcement Houston had left open a loophole, as it were, by means of which he could still record an interview with Driscoll and then broadcast it at the conference without having technically “lied”.

After having had a few days to get over my initial shock, and even to notice and gently laugh at myself for a certain amount of judgement towards Houston’s deception, I have reached the point where I can look at it slightly more dispassionately and ask with curiosity “Hmmmm. I wonder why he did that?”

Of course ultimately such a question can only be answered by Houston himself. But I have some thoughts on it. My initial conjecture involves cowardice. He wanted to do the interview, but didn’t want to have to face and deal with the public outrage–so he just lied. This seems quite a plausible explanation to me.

However, I don’t think it might be the whole story. This because having developed a few channels with Hillsong Insiders, I’ve heard another explanation. I’ve heard that Houston has communicated to high-level Hillsong insiders that the reasons revolve around a framework of insiders and outsiders. What I’ve heard is that Brian has expressed that if it had been church insiders who had run the campaign against Driscoll’s appearance, he would have been more open to actually cancelling Driscoll’s appearance. But instead, because the bulk of the pressure was brought by folks who were obviously church-outsiders, Houston felt that A. He didn’t really have to listen to a word we said and B. It was totally okay to intentionally deceive us.

Obviously I have no idea whether this latter explanation is true or not. But it strikes me as even more plausible than my first conjecture. It makes enormous sense to me. Houston is operating the largest, most powerful, and most successful church in a nation mostly composed of church outsiders–a nation where much more so than in the US most people look down a bit at the church and Christianity. It’s like the unchurchiness of Seattle, which is already very unusual for the United States, multiplied by 100 and made nationwide. To wit, the most recent prime minister of Australia was an openly declared atheist. It makes sense to me that in such a context, Houston would both enormously identify with and like Driscoll, and would have a kind of “f*** you” attitude towards critical church-outsiders trying to pressure him to do things in a certain way–an attitude that matches up quite well with Driscoll’s own attitude.

This is a bit of an eye opener for me. I had been operating from the belief that I was the underdog trying to have a conversation with the very powerful person. But it seems to me that at least in this interaction, he has seen himself as the underdog, and more-than-that, from that mindset, rather than trying to have a conversation with those of us he sees as critical bullies, he has kind of written us off–not worth trying to talk to. I honestly don’t know where that leaves us, but I have to say it’s really really not attractive, and really doesn’t seem at all like Jesus, who was at least willing to converse authentically with both outsiders and insiders, and who never, as best I can tell, acted out of cowardice.

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