Hillsong Church Australia suffers marked drop in giving, attendance amid COVID-19, scandals: report

Hillsong Church, Baulkham Hills, Northwest Sydney.
Hillsong Church, Baulkham Hills, Northwest Sydney. | Getty Images

Hillsong Church Australia, the flagship branch for the global Hillsong Church brand, suffered significant drops in both giving and church attendance in 2021 as the COVID-19 pandemic marched into its second year and a series of sex and financial scandals enveloped the church network in the United States and Australia.

In its recently published annual report, a financial statement audited by Ernst & Young shows a drop of nearly $11 million in Hillsong Australia's revenue, which comes primarily from donations.

George Aghajanian, Hillsong Church Australia's general manager, said in the report that it would take years to recover from the financial hit.

Hillsong Church Australia's total revenue for 2021 was $76,924,646 — or 12.3% less than the nearly $88 million in revenue generated by the church in 2020 during the height of the pandemic.

This resulted in the church cutting its operation costs, including for "church and other benevolent activities," the report shows.

"Our church has not been immune to the vast and varying effects of the pandemic which is still causing challenges across the world. We have had to make significant operational changes to meet the demands this has placed on our staff and resources," Aghajanian wrote in the report.

Pastor Brian Houston appears on stage during Hillsong's 2014 conference in New York City at The Theater at Madison Square Garden.
Pastor Brian Houston appears on stage during Hillsong's 2014 conference in New York City at The Theater at Madison Square Garden. | Hillsong Church

"The interruption to activities along with the effects of COVID on our congregation have impacted the church's operating revenue. We experienced a 12.3% drop in total revenue compared to 2020 resulting in a reduction of our surplus to $514,318 for 2021."

Hillsong Church Australia, which has 30 locations in five states, had a nearly $4.7 million surplus for 2020.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the 2020 annual report, the average weekly live views of services online for Hillsong Church Australia was 4,684. After COVID-19, the average live views across weekend services was 444,127 in 2020.

In 2021, however, the average weekly attendance online and in-person combined was 21,219. 

While the report did not make specific reference to any of the headline-grabbing scandals, the Hillsong Church brand has taken a series of hits beginning with the firing of Carl Lentz, former lead pastor of Hillsong Church New York City, in November 2020 over "leadership issues" and moral failures, including being unfaithful to his wife.

A few weeks later, Hillsong pastors in the U.S. were accused of splurging tithes on luxury lifestyles, and reports of financial and sexual misconduct have continued into 2022.

Hillsong Church's founder Brian Houston resigned as global senior pastor on March 23 after it was revealed that two women made serious complaints of misconduct against him in the last 10 years.

After Houston and other church leaders praised the denomination's "record of excellence in financial accountability globally and an unwavering commitment to financial integrity," Hillsong Church Australia employee Natalie Moses filed a lawsuit earlier this month alleging that church leaders misappropriated donations and gave "large cash gifts" to Houston, his family and other church leaders.

In his message in the report, Aghajanian remained optimistic about the church's ability to overcome a difficult season, thanks to "good fiscal management" and their "generous congregation."

"In order to meet these challenges, we had to respond with a reduction in expenditure and will continue to rationalize costs as it may take several years to rebuild from the current season," he wrote.

"The good news is that we have always operated from a basis of good fiscal management and went into this period debt free, coupled with strong savings," Aghajanian added. "We have a generous congregation which has supported the vision and work of our church strongly whether it is through the general offerings or the Hillsong Foundation."

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