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Randall Frederick interviews not one, but two Tanyas – Tanya Levin and Tanya Riches – on their different relationships with the Hillsong Church and their unlikely friendship.
Australia’s Hillsong Church remains one of the premiere powerhouses in Neo-Pentecostalism, rivalling if not exceeding media-savvy predecessors like Jimmy Swaggart, Dr. James Dobson, T.D. Jakes, even Billy Graham. Every album produced under the Hillsong label, every church opened under their signage, every former pastor seeking to “branch out” and become an evangelist with a book deal, every sermon by pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston – every. thing. touched by the Hillsong magic turns to gold. Except, of course, when it doesn’t…
With great power comes great responsibility, and with great responsibility comes great criticism. Hillsong, in this, is no different, attracting the attention of any slow-day news source looking for curmudgeon self-prophesied artists with wounded egos expelled for minor or moral offences. They still find their way into the headlines and footnotes because – hey, that’s the price of being a big name in big lights.
Tanya Levin’s People in Glass Houses: An Insider’s Story of a Life In and Out of Hillsong (2007) was a major blow to the public’s perception of the church and especially the pastoral leadership. It wasn’t long before more stories and allegations began to surface – humour from sermons taken out of context, gaps in the financial reports, the leadership’s repeated insistence that they lived a modest life and that their private real estate holdings were “similar to an Anglican vicarage or a Catholic rectory.” Naturally, even well-intentioned explanations went awry and blew up online through bloggers with an axe to grind, seeking to blow out the Houstons’ candles to make their own brighter. It was, and remains, very much like Melville’s whaling adventure, an exercise in taking down the Houston family. In response to Levin’s exposé, many involved with the megachurch grimaced. It was a familiar story. The closer to God, the more a leader needs a “prayer covering” from devoted followers, followers who will operate as perpetual public relations puppets. One of those supporters was Tanya Riches.
Riches chose to break away from Hillsong around the time that Levin’s book was released. Since childhood, she had felt called to write songs. Over the years, her singing and songwriting abilities attracted the attention of the Hillsong music machine and she found her star rising at the age of 15. Just before Levin’s book was released, she began traveling under her own name. It was a decision that had nothing to do with the issues raised in the book or dissatisfaction with its senior leadership. In fact, Riches maintains her affection for the Houstons and their children. Still, she decided to study theology – which is how we met – and at the request of her Master’s supervisor, published her own academic account of the church. Her Master’s thesis, Shout to the Lord! Music and Change at Hillsong: 1996-2007, was the first ethnographic research of its kind as an inside account of the church.
Both women moved on with their lives after Hillsong. Riches continues to publish academic research and in 2012, Levin released a second book. Crimwife detailed the romances that inmates develop with women outside of prison – including Levin’s own five-year relationship with an inmate at a prison where she worked as a social worker. She subsequently lost her position. Meanwhile, Riches moved to America to attend Fuller Theological Seminary for her doctorate and continued her music career, eventually returning as a member of the church. And Hillsong? Hillsong continued to build its music brand, and the church began planting churches in London, then New York and now Los Angeles. In the intervening years, the humble church had become a recognised name in music, exporting the very hierarchy that Levin had criticised to other regions of the globe.
Having worked with churches for over a decade, many of the issues Riches raised with me concerning her almost three decade relationship with Hillsong sound like the issues any church would have. An occasional hurt ego, the trouble of a growing church and financial entanglements which made sense once they were explained in detail. Leadership whose aggressive “discipline” could also be seen as a testament to strong cohesion. In my conversations with Riches during this time, I never heard her say a critical word that was not entirely explainable. So what gives? How can Hillsong be both divine and demonic?
Against all odds, the “Two Tanyas” became friends and remain in contact with one another, even though their perception of Hillsong remains diametrically opposed. Their friendship, as evidenced online, is brutally honest. I recently interviewed both women to discuss their experiences with Hillsong and how their experiences of the same events could be so radically different.
What brought you to Hillsong Church?
Levin: My South African Jewish mother and my English Anglican father converted to Pentecostalism when I was eight. Later, when I was 14, we moved to the area where the Hills Christian Life Center (Hillsong Church’s first incarnation) was the local Pentecostal church.
It was small then, only about 300 people in the congregation. By the time I was 16, I was attending two services on Sundays as well as youth group on Saturday nights, but even though I loved the community, what was being taught just didn’t sit right.
Riches: My journey to Hillsong started when I was about five. My parents made a decision to leave their Anglican church when the pastor rejected the spirituality of the charismatic movement during the mid 1980s. As we lived in a pretty “British” area, I’ve always suspected he was resisting the “Americanization” of the Australian church. After a church split, my parents floated out of established services for a while, hosting small gatherings to sing charismatic songs and read the bible together, but eventually felt they wanted to contribute to a more structured faith community. Hillsong’s music was slowly appearing in contemporary Anglican songlists with a new sound, along with reports it represented a genuinely Australian charismatic church. After visiting, my parents believed Brian Houston provided strong leadership focus for the people at Hills CLC but with the freedom of worship they desired.
We turned up at the warehouse in the late ’80s, when there were under 1,000 people in attendance. As a small child, I just remember seeing girls in taffeta bubble skirts – the kind that was so in fashion then – and instantly, I made a new friend, who loved my little navy sailor dress, no less! It’s so funny, I realise now it was a Sydney tribal thing – the shiny nouveau riche Hills District meets a North Shore, ABC-watching family – but I still always felt included. While my parents were in the service, I attended children’s church, and when they opened a youth group for teens, my brother and I joined. I was 13 at the time, he was 11, and he became the mascot because he was so small. There was no way he would let me go to youth by myself.
I made many great friendships at youth. That’s where I met Levin. She was funny and older. At the time she used a different name, Tanya Proudfoot. We had a mutual friend, Jane, who used to look out for me and make sure I didn’t get squashed in the moshing. The musical worship was high energy and the older boys didn’t always look underneath their feet for smaller kids when dancing. For a while, if no one was “slain in the Spirit” at youth, we were worried. Hillsong quickly adapted to trend, and Toronto Vineyard Fellowship manifestations were followed by expectations of Brownsville Revival type meetings. But eventually the church became less and less interested in third wave charismatic-ism and its worship expressions began to reflect that.
It sounds like you were both encouraged to think for yourselves – which is a really healthy thing, I would think – at an early age. But both of you left the church for a period. What drove you away?
Riches: When I was 15, I wrote a song at the youth camp that was eventually sung by our church. This led to my involvement in the church’s music department. At the time, we had a motto, “Whatever it takes.” Three of us looked after young musicians in the youth band – Reuben Morgan, Marcus Beaumont and myself. In order to help our band, I ended up doing a lot of administration – photocopying of charts, structuring events, scheduling band members, pastoral followup. I led the youth choir, which basically meant that each week I’d ring about a hundred young people, to connect and encourage them, helping them pursue their artistic giftings through the church. It was a lot of work. Someone later told me that they had to employ six people to cover what I did! I’m sure it’s not a true story but it made me feel better about my capabilities at the time. Anyway, I did this until I was 23 and then our team decided to “retire.” I guess it was just a natural sense of moving on, becoming a worship pastor at an affiliated church.
Levin: For me, there were many aspects to my leaving the church. Despite wanting more than anything for Christianity to be true, I couldn’t defend the text and the worldview that it demanded. This was at a time when Hills was changing, as well. By the end of my time in high school, they had become focused on fundraising and recruitment and were stepping further and further away from the charity orientation that had been so important to my understanding of Christianity. The break really came when I became aware of some corruption within the church. I wanted very much to continue believing, but it became harder by the day. It wasn’t a simple thing; it really distressed me to the brink of insanity and something had to give. So I stepped away.
Riches: There’s been lots of ups and downs for the church. I think some of the hardest to deal with was the international attention Hillsong received for its music, with people flying to Australia to visit, sort of tourism, if you’d like. The numerical expansion was also difficult. And then the media onslaughts.
Levin: Altogether, it was about 12 years I spent with them. As an idealistic twenty-something, I wanted to live a life free of hypocrisy. I was not prepared to live according to the standards of the church and of the Bible, but I also wasn’t prepared to lie about it. I feared the afterlife and my inevitable punishment, but the truth was, I couldn’t pretend to be someone I just wasn’t. But it wasn’t until Pastor Brian Houston defended allegations of his father’s sex offences in 2002 that I was liberated from the control that a church like this can have.
Riches: Well, we disagree on many things. But let’s be clear – Frank Houston, “The Bishop,” was a beloved and esteemed visiting preacher, but was never a part of the original congregation, Hills Christian Life Centre, which became Hillsong Church.
Levin: Rather than offer any kind of apology or guarantee safety for the children in his church, Houston described the enormous effect the allegations had had on his own family, and he asked for prayer. As the entire audience stood to applaud and support him, I became thoroughly aware that if there was any kind of hell, it wasn’t me who was bound for it.
Riches: Of course in Australia, we are in the process of a Royal Inquiry and I believe we should leave any commentary on this to the committee. But I’ll admit it, I clapped to show my support as Pastor Brian announced his father’s credentials were removed (the worst punishment at the movement’s disposal), but I would hate for that to be perceived as a lack of compassion for any victims. I felt empathy for Brian and I wanted to say “the sins of the fathers shouldn’t be visited on the sins of the sons.”
It feels to me like your experiences were pretty similar up to a point, and I’m interested in that. How is it that you grow up together, you have the same experiences, but you see it so differently? All of the stories about Hillsong really hinge on this – people just perceive things differently, like there is some kind of misunderstanding. If things seem fine, you stay. If you have questions, you have no other option than to leave.
Levin: There is no misunderstanding. When I first left the church, I assured myself that I was causing no harm because I did not want to interfere with anyone else’s salvation. There were still only about 1,000 people then and –
Riches: No, more like 4,000!
Levin: – I made a promise to myself that while they, Hillsong, kept to themselves, I didn’t have to do anything. If they were to start to infiltrate unsuspecting outside organisations, then I had to act. It was a moral conviction, nothing more. We can’t change the whole world alone, but we each have a responsibility to act on the wrongdoing that we know about.
Wait. What do you mean by that exactly? “Infiltrate”? Are you saying Hillsong is some kind of cult?
Riches: (laughs) She says it’s a cult, so there you go! Unbelievably, the media usually takes her word on what Hillsong is or is not.
Levin: The Hillsongs of this world can only work in resource-heavy environments. Without the lighting and music and sound system, it would not be nearly as appealing, or compelling. That, in itself, speaks volumes to me. This highly polished system is the religion of the rich white man. It is founded on middle class values of self-improvement with some charity thrown in for “the feels.”
The literature and research on how cults operate are very consistent. It is a fairly straightforward process, unfortunately, and quite similar to the dynamics of domestic violence. People don’t usually get involved in extreme religion or abusive relationships unless they are vulnerable, or going through a transitional phase in life. This is why evangelistic churches such as Hillsong target youth so heavily, at a stage in life when people have not formed their abilities to think critically and evaluate clearly.
Riches: Well, in my opinion, which is by no means the official position, Hillsong’s audience does seem polarised at times. A part of that seems to be about proximity to organisational decision-making, and participation in its rituals. There are a few ex-members that seem to have just “cooled off” in their affection for the church, but people seem to be either lovers or haters. In the decades of involvement I have had, both up close and now attending but at a distance, I haven’t personally seen anything that would make me believe there is any corruption. But I wonder if high involvement in the church makes you less aware of what your ordinary atheist neighbours need. Staff are so busy attending the various meetings and things. The pace can be breathtaking. There isn’t always time to stop and try to work out how to engage the media positively. Increasingly, this is happening, but mainly Pentecostals just get on with the business of church.
Levin insists on saying Hillsong is a cult. But I don’t agree that it is. I don’t agree that the lights “make” the community function. She’s depending on a sociological reading that isn’t really equipped to deal with personal religious commitment. By her definition, lots of things are “cults” and the word should maybe even be redefined positively. When we have these types of discussions, it’s pretty technical and based in our different views. I have to admit, I’m not that worried if sociology and social work read a Christian organisation that way because there are theological readings too. And anthropological ones. Who has the ultimate finite, or even an “objective” view of any community? I definitely don’t claim to.
Levin: The vast majority of people inherit their spiritual beliefs from their parents, like I did, and don’t know any differently. Most people who are new to the church enter after a significant loss, such as a death or marriage breakdown, or while they are at university, when people are open to changing some of their values. Being surrounded by loving, caring people is appealing and it’s only after the honeymoon phase is over that people find themselves committing to more than they ever anticipated, time wise, financially, socially.
Riches: I don’t know that I see a problem in continuing a family’s religious commitment, and I would disagree that all members enter at a period of vulnerability. “Deprivation” theories have been significantly challenged in the Pentecostalism literature. And while the media continues to stereotype Hillsong attendees, I’m not convinced there is in fact a “problem.” It’s a church. Hillsong church has a wide appeal and exposure – a large “platform”, I guess. I believe the Houston family is committed to local and organic community building, even as the church is expanding transnationally. Many attendees are successful in their careers. They draw people from the top, middle and bottom of the social spectrum into one worshipping community.
What’s something you agree on?
Riches: Both Levin’s and my heart is aligned in our compassion for the powerless people of the world. But we have different ways of working towards this goal. She thinks the church stands against the powerless, I believe that it is for the powerless. I do think churches can produce transformative growth. So does education (we both also agree on that). But education is a privilege that we both can’t assume everybody has had.
I believe my community changes for the better when I change for the better! And, if I can see something is “wrong,” my community learns when I articulate it, and adapts to create more functional or equal systems.
Beyond all of the analysis is my personal commitment is to follow Jesus. And I’m grateful to the church for helping me in this quest. no longer holds faith. It’s not a crime! It’s sad to me personally that she can’t experience this because my faith is so important to me. I can’t imagine not having it. It’s hard to convince someone of the value of faith community who doesn’t share faith. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. In fact, I see Jesus as a character who was friends with everybody. It didn’t make religious people happy, but He was.
Part 2 of this interview will be published next weekend.
To celebrate being a year old we want you, the readers, to help us decide the articles you loved best during our first year – and to encourage you to participate, we are giving away three prizes!
All you have to do is look through our archives of content and email us your favourite article – and also if you want, the one you weren’t so up with. From the submissions, we will assess the most-loved content from our first year and republish it at the end of our birthday month.
Both writers and readers are encouraged to enter (no, Paris, you cannot nominate your own articles…#justsaying), so please email us at [email protected] by Nov 30 to enter! Please include your name, address and mobile number.
And the prizes are…(did we mention there are prizes…?)
First prize: A brilliant acting course based in Sydney and hosted by Darlo Drama worth $550!
Second prize: A gift pack from our friends at Booktopia
Third prize: Four movie passes
(Plus watch out for a couple of other competitions during our birthday month!)