Thursday, May 24, 2012
Breakfast with Brian: Hillsong, Homosexuality and the Future
A blog entry on my breakfast with the Senior Pastor of Hillsong Church, Brian Houston. This entry shares Brian’s thoughts on homosexuality, gays in church, the future of the church and dealing with the whole ‘gay issue'.
Hillsong Church claims that over 20,000 people attend their Sydney services every weekend. Conservative figures state that the population who are gay or lesbian is somewhere between 6 to 10% (Gallup, 2012). If this is true then there are anywhere from 1,200 to 2000 gay and lesbian members of Hillsong Church in Sydney alone. These figures really prompt me to be open and honest, in the hope that many others will follow. The figures also raise concern as LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Intersex) people are the highest suicide risk group in Australia (Suicide Prevention Australia, 2009) and yet the church thinks its ok just to ignore them.
My involvement in freedom2b and the upcoming trip to Brisbane for the Asia-Pacific Suicide Prevention Conference in 2010 prompted me to do something about the alarming rates of suicide amongst LGBTI people and so one day I decided to send a tweet (twitter) to the Senior Pastor of my church, Brian Houston (Brian) not thinking much more of it. Surprisingly he chose to respond, asking me if I would like to do coffee. It seems simple but in reality this was a breakthrough and after so much written communication between Brian and me, here I was finally getting a chance to meet face-to-face.
It was a beautiful friday morning on the 12th November 2010 in Glenhaven in Sydney’s North West. I drove there from my parent’s house in Cherrybrook and arrived at the cafe early to pray and to make sure I was prepared for what was to be a very important meeting. I remember sitting there, knowing that this meeting was important not only for me, but also very important for the many gay and lesbian people at the Hillsong churches around the world.
As Brian Houston walked into the café, it seemed like he was more nervous of this conversation happening than I was. He shook my hand, mentioned my name, smiled and we said good morning to each other.
A discussion then progressed that went for over an hour and Brian was more than happy to answer most of my questions and concerns and possibly even learned something himself. Here’s a bit of a breakdown of what happened in three categories:
• Brian stated clearly that Hillsong church (and himself) no longer support ex-gay ministries
• Brian acknowledged the involvement of Hillsong church in ex-gay ministries in the past such as Exit Ministries, Living Waters and Exodus. Brian mentioned that he was never truly convinced of the idea of ex-gay ministries, although his father Frank Houston supported them.
• Brian does not want an ex-gay message preached from the pulpit of Hillsong.
• When questioned about Sy Rogers, Brian responded by saying “I think Sy regrets his previous involvement in Exodus”.
• More training and education on sexual orientation and sexuality (particularly amongst youth leaders)
• Commitment to read and explore theology and resources on homosexuality.
• Discussions with other pastors (such as Rob Buckingham of Bayside Church, Melbourne)
• Position statement on homosexuality which can be easily accessed on the Hillsong website
• Vulnerable people
• Predatory behaviour
• Balancing theology with compassion
• Suicide amongst LGBT young people (particularly within the church)
Brian’s main concerns about welcoming LGBT people in to the church mainly focused around vulnerable people and protecting their safety. This included a fear of predatory behaviour and ‘hook-ups’ happening within the church. I explained to him “That is understandable; however that kind of behaviour can happen with straight people as well as gay people in the church”. I explained the safe space we have at Freedom2b and the cruise-free zone policy. He seemed interested in how we create a safe space and what Hillsong could do to maintain that the church is a safe place, free of agendas.
So, the three most important questions for LGBT people...
Q – Question A – Answer LA – Long Answer
1. Are gays welcome in Hillsong?
A: The short answer is yes!
LA: However in reality, many of us have not had such welcoming experiences. Almost every week I get another email, facebook message or someone else from church speaks to me, telling me they are being bullied at church or that they are depressed and just can’t break free from self hatred. Sadly, the most common story I hear is of a closeted gay or lesbian person at Hillsong who tells me that they are too scared to come out because they feel like if they did, people in church wouldn’t treat them the same. Saying this, I can think of a certain young man that I know in Senior leadership at Hillsong. He’s closeted and although he knows he is gay, if he came out he would be thrown out of leadership, loose friends and loose his reputation.
Unfortunately, Brian doesn’t see what I see. What’s being said in higher leadership is not travelling down to the youth pastors, connect leaders and mentors. It’s not enough to have a personal belief that ‘gay people are welcome’, this belief and the reasons why must be shared with the leadership teams and then the whole congregation. The church must be educated but this is not happening. This is the problem! Even Brian admitted "I agree that we need to educate the leaders and others in our church! We need to start talking about it".
2. Does Hillsong support ex-gay ministries?
A: The simple answer is No... well not anymore.
LA: For a long time Hillsong did run an ‘ex-gay’ program called Exit Ministries which was started by Brian’s father Frank. This lasted for many years until they decided to close Exit Ministries and start referring people to Exodus and Living Waters. Hillsong was referring people to Living Waters up until the mid 2000s. Following this, same-sex attracted people have been referred to other ex-gay ministries around Sydney, online ex-gay ministries such as Setting Captives Free and reparative therapy (done under the guise of Christian counselling). Ex-gay preaching has taken full form at Hillsong with Sy Rogers visiting almost every year (most recently in 2010) and still selling his resources from the 1990s when he was heavily involved with Exodus International. Although I know of some that are still being referred to ‘ex-gay’ ministries, there are a few people that are being referred to psychologists and groups such as Freedom2b. The best news was that in 2011, Brian issued a statement saying that Hillsong church does not support ex-gay ministries and will not be referring anybody to them. Slowly people are getting real answers to difficult questions.
3. Does Hillsong have a heart to welcome gay people, just as they are?
A: Yes they do.
LA: The leaders and members of Hillsong church generally have a heart for people and a desire to love others. Unfortunately those 6 ‘clobber passages’ in the Bible take their effect, mixed with years of discrimination in Australia and a literalistic religious upbringing of many teaching them that gay and lesbian people are sinful and unnatural.
As a gay Christian I have had to study the bible and have realised that the bible does not condemn homosexual sexual-orientation, nor does it condemn loving monogamous same-sex relationships. The so called ‘clobber passages’ often used to condemn LGBT people can be understood through context, culture and language. For more info read Stuart Edser’s book ‘Being Gay Being Christian’ or the wonderful document ‘What the Bible really says about homosexuality’.
So, in essence Brian Houston and the majority of people at Hillsong are well-meaning Christians with a heart to help people, including LGBT people...they are just going about it the wrong way!
Why should Hillsong welcome gays?
Simply put, because the at least 1200 gay and lesbian church members need more than just occaisional preaching from Sy Rogers or J John. They need more than just a sexual purity LIFE course and they need more than a message of change or celibacy. LGBT people deserve a place in the church. They deserve messages relating to them, they deserve a sustainable option for the future and the support of a group like Freedom2b. LGBT Christians have been blessed with wonderful gifts which can be used to grow the church and serve the kingdom. Most importantly, LGBT people deserve a church pastor who is honest and open with them. They deserve a pastor and church that loves them and understands them and sees them not as a problem but as a valued member of the church family.
So… after all that do I have answers from Brian on issues such as gay relationships, marriage or whether gays should serve in church? No. But the simple, honest answers he gave must be commended. He placed himself in a vulnerable position to meet with me. He didn’t really have to, nor did he have to say anything.
If I can take away one thing from my breakfast with Brian, it would be the realisation that Brian (and many other leaders at Hillsong) really does aim to love God and love people. They acknowledge that they have not always gotten it right, and they do not pretend to be perfect, but like all of us they are on a journey and are trying to do the best they can.
Some of the answers to the questions I asked are a step forward but in reality, there is still much more work to be done to make Hillsong church a welcoming place for LGBT people.
As a gay man and a member of Hillsong Church, I was happy to hear all that Brian had to say, however I was left wanting more… perhaps an apology for everything I went through and for many people in the church treating me so badly when I came out. I also wish Brian’s commitments had been more concrete. It’s been more than a year since our breakfast meeting and very little has changed. I am encouraged when I hear about recent stories of gay and lesbian people coming out and being welcomed at church just as they are. Yet I know of other stories where a gay man at Hillsong was not allowed to serve at Hillsong Conference because he was in a relationship with another man.
I don’t think we will see an article in the News saying ‘Hillsong Welcomes Gays’ anytime soon. But I do know that we are moving forward in trying to make the church a safer place. And that many of us are making a positive difference for future generations. As Anthony Venn-Brown often says “the enemy is not political parties, church denominations or individual people. The enemy is ignorance”. I hope that my meeting with Brian chipped away at that ignorance that exists within the Christian church about LGBT people. Ultimately, if the church is going to become a safer and more welcoming place then it will take both gay Christians and the church to work together.
Brian – If you are reading this I want to say thank you again for meeting with me. We may not agree with everything but I appreciate your honesty and your willingness to meet with me and hear my story. I am very grateful. I’m happy to work together to create a safer, more welcoming space for gay and lesbian people and would love to chat again soon.
Ben Gresham, 2012