Hillsong Church launching Atlanta branch with first-ever African-American lead pastors

Sam and Toni Collier, the lead pastors of Hillsong Atlanta.
Sam and Toni Collier, the lead pastors of Hillsong Atlanta. | Hillsong

Hillsong Church is launching a new location in Atlanta, Georgia, led by husband-and-wife duo Sam and Toni Collier, the first-ever African-American lead pastors of a Hillsong church.

“We want to start a movement that not only changes Atlanta, but changes the world,” Sam Collier, author, adviser to the MLK Jr. family, and founder of A Greater Story Ministries, told The Christian Post. “Just like God did with Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta nearly 60 years ago, there was a model that was built that went on to impact the entire world. We want to be a model of unity and understanding and bring about revival.”

The mission of Hillsong Atlanta, Collier told CP, is to “reach and influence the world by building a large Christ-centered, Bible-based church, changing mindsets and empowering people to lead and impact in every sphere of life.”

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“Hillsong Atlanta is the marrying of many different worlds, racially, and even politically, to represent the fullness of God,” he said. “What better place to launch a church with this vision than in the birthplace of civil rights?” 

Prior to pastoring Hillsong Atlanta, Collier, who authored the 2020 book A Greater Story, served at Atlanta-based North Point Community Church, led by Andy Stanley. Seven years after serving at North Point, Collier felt God calling him to the next stage in ministry. 

“When I discussed church planting with Andy, he told me, “Sam, I think you want to build a different type of church, and that’s OK. God does His thing in a lot of different environments,’” Collier recalled. “He blessed us and freed us, and challenged us to go to seminary. After praying about what we should do next, that’s when I called a friend about Hillsong and said, ‘I think this might be our new home.’”

Founded in Australia in 1983 by Brian and Bobbie Houston, Hillsong has since become one of the largest evangelical Christian churches in the world. In addition to multiple locations across Sydney, Hillsong also has international branches in London, Kiev, Cape Town, Stockholm, Paris, Moscow, New York City and Los Angeles, among others.

But while the church has a diverse leadership staff, the Colliers, who share a young daughter, Dylan, are the first African Americans to serve as lead pastors. 

“It’s awesome,” said Collier, who added that amid the racial unrest prevalent in 2020, Houston felt it was time to “break the mold.”

“Brian’s heart was ‘it’s time for us to do this,’” he said. “When we first talked, I said, ‘Can I talk about race?’ and Brian said, ‘I want you to.’”

That answer, Collier said, was “not what I was used to hearing from a man of his stature and of his influence, and even of his skin color.”

“For me, it was so important to be able to talk about it, and Brian was so passionate about addressing the issues of the day. We wanted to go with a ministry that gave us the freedom to talk about it.”

An Atlanta native, Collier said the city is close to his heart. And representation and equity are “so important” in the city, he said — not just for “leveling the playing field,” but for the sake of the Gospel.

“I think the church's credibility is at stake,” he stressed. “Jesus talks about us going into all of the world and reaching everyone from all different types of backgrounds. Paul talks about being all things to all men. If we just see a white man proclaiming the Gospel at the highest level, we will think it’s a white religion. But if we can see all people proclaiming the Gospel, that helps us understand that we all have a place in the game.”

The Colliers were also drawn to Hillsong because of their commitment to giving women a voice, visibility, and positions of leadership. Collier revealed that during a particularly dark time in his own story, when he had “fallen away,” it was the witness of a female pastor that compelled him to return to church. 

“I know the church is split on this issue, but we believe that women need a seat at the table,” he said. “When a woman gets her words and hands around the Gospel, it’s a powerful thing. There’s something that women can contribute that men will never be able to and vice versa.”

“You need fathers of faith and you need mothers of faith. Sometimes, you need to be nurtured in a different way to be healed.” 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced churches to shut their physical doors, Hillsong’s global attendance averaged 150,000 weekly and reached 164 million potential households daily. 

Collier acknowledged there are many unknowns with launching an Atlanta branch amid a pandemic, but said he and his wife are eager to embrace the “uniqueness of the day.”

“I think the pandemic has caused us to question everything about how we do church,” he said. “When your physical gatherings are pulled away, what does it mean to really be a church? Is it the physical body in one place, or is it relationships, discipleship, and community? I think it's caused us to go back to the basics. It’s forced us to say, ‘Let’s build this foundation right.'”

Hillsong Atlanta hopes to physically open in March 2021, Collier said, adding: “I don’t think the physical church is going away.” But he anticipates the needs of the local community will look a bit different when the pandemic subsides. 

“I think that's what this pandemic has taught, is that the church has to be about caring for the greatest need of the people right where they,” he said. “If that’s in the church building, or in a hospital suffering from COVID and in need of healing, or on a zoom call getting to know each other, then that’s where we want to be.”

Hillsong Atlanta, he said, aims to be a “multicultural, spirit-filled and theologically astute church” — one that models unity in a desperately divided time in history. 

“We’ve kind of dropped the ball, historically, when it comes to unity,” he said, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., who once stated that Sunday morning tends to be the most “segregated hour” in America. 

“The world models how to come together better than the church does,” he noted. “We want to change that. Hillsong Atlanta wants to provide a model for how to be unified. We want to have a ministry that is multicultural and unified so we can help people learn to live together for the sake of the Kingdom of God.”

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