‘Chewed up and spat out’: SBS documentary delves into world of megachurch Hillsong

An upcoming SBS documentary sees Walkley Award-winning journalist Marc Fennell return to the world of Pentecostalism – 17 years after he ran away from the religious movement.

“Hi, I’m Marc Fennell, and I think I’m going to hell,” Fennell says.

In the show, the self-professed “dirty heathen” investigates how Australia produced one of the world’s most successful and scandal-plagued megachurches, Hillsong.

Pentecostal megachurches have exploded in popularity over recent years, largely thanks to social media savviness, music performances and church-planting approaches, which appeal to a younger demographic.

From Australia to the US, he examines the human cost of the megachurch through meetings with current and fellow former believers, and explores how allegations of bullying, sexual assault and financial mismanagement have eroded Hillsong’s once-mighty empire. 

Fennell also confronts his own past spent in these churches, where he witnessed adults speaking in tongues, falling to the ground, and demons being cast out of people.

He explains why he escaped, and why he has remained largely silent about his experience until now.

“The moment the rest of the world knows that you have this in your past, they don’t pay attention to whether you liked it, hated it or if you left. You get tarred with it,” he said.

“Many people have had their lives positively transformed by Pentecostalism.”

But he says, “there are also volunteers, staff, victims, and others who have been completely chewed up and spat out by modern megachurches”.

What comes under particular scrutiny is the pressure put on Hillsong’s volunteers, taking a toll on their mental health, and the megachurch’s ‘manipulative’ take on tithing.

Tithing is a portion of churchgoers’ income traditionally given in offering to a local church, which Hillsong used to put on its awe-inspiring conferences – and fund the luxury lifestyles of its leadership.

This is not the first time Fennell has spoken out against his previous faith, which began as a child at a church led by Frank Houston (pastor, paedophile and father of Hillsong founder Brian Houston) and spanned “countless” Pentecostal churches, youth groups and convention centres.

In 2022, in a story he wrote for the ABC, he wrote that faith had “morphed into something uncomfortable and inauthentic”.

Watch the official trailer for 'The Kingdom'

Source: YouTube/SBS

Hillsong controversies

Hillsong, which has at times counted former prime minister Scott Morrison and US pop singer Justin Bieber as members, came from relatively humble beginnings in the western suburbs of Sydney in 1983.

The megachurch’s website says it has outposts in 30 countries around the world and an average global attendance of 150,000 people a week.

But co-founder Brian Houston has recently found himself at the centre of multiple scandals for drink driving, his mistreatment of women, and allegedly covering up his father’s sexual abuse of children.

Mr Morrison has since distanced himself from Houston and Hillsong, after previously praising Houston for his role in the former prime minister’s faith journey.

In March, Houston was also accused of money laundering and tax evasion by independent MP Andrew Wilkie, who alleged Hillsong earns $80 million more in Australian annual income than publicly reported.

Mr Wilkie said more than 1000 leaked documents show “criminality” on the part of the church, with the Hillsong founding family using churchgoers’ money to fuel a high life full of short-distance private jet trips, overseas holidays, and the “the kind of shopping that would embarrass a Kardashian”.

Hillsong’s modern approach helped it reach a younger demographic. Photo: SBS Australia

Although churches like Hillsong have enjoyed enormous popularity in Australia, drawing younger crowds with expensive, packed-out concerts, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports the Pentecostal faith experienced a decline of more than 4000 followers between 2016 and 2021.

Pentecostalism is largely a Protestant movement that emphasises the gifts of the Holy Spirit — specifically, speaking in tongues, as well as supernatural healing and other manifestations of the Holy Spirit.

The Kingdom premieres on June 8 on SBS On Demand and June 11 on SBS at 7.30pm

Stay informed, daily
A FREE subscription to The New Daily arrives every morning and evening.
The New Daily is a trusted source of national news and information and is provided free for all Australians. Read our editorial charter
Copyright © 2024 The New Daily.
All rights reserved.