Hillsong is a megachurch founded in Australia. The church’s band produced albums and became known worldwide, going on worldwide tours. A trending Variety article about a documentary about the megachurch on Twitter sent me on a deep dive (the result: an info dump) to determine whether the issues I had with the megachurch I became a member of in high school are linked to the Hillsong cult.
The megachurch membership
I became a member of Fellowship Church, run by Ed Young, by going to a volunteer meeting with my dad and stepmom. They were both keen to volunteer and encouraged me to do so as well, since they would also be volunteering.
Thing is, you had to get baptized before you could become a member so you could volunteer. This church didn’t have a small congregation, and those who got baptized did it in a luxurious pool, surrounded by others getting baptized on that designated day, in front of a live audience — millions, as the live stream was available online and to each church location — who applauded and cheered after each one.
I visited my grandmother Easter weekend in 2008, and decided to get baptized that day, in front of just her, in a basic baptism pool inside a basic church. In 2019, I’d receive a Bible with my legal name engraved and the baptism date written in calligraphy on the inside with the this belongs to… info.
When I returned, my dad and stepmom were greatly disappointed, saying it was selfish of me to not let them witness my baptism, to not allow the church the opportunity to witness it, and to not get baptized at the church I was to become a member at.
I didn’t understand the big idea. The Bible literally says not to publicize your faith practices to prove to other people what a great Jesus follower you are.
My baptism was not going to be someone else’s form of entertainment.
Volunteering at a megachurch
As a neurodivergent high school student who was also stuffed into therapy — the same therapist my dad and stepmom saw, by the way, which was equally awful and felt more like attempts to condition me to behave like I didn’t experience trauma, and I didn’t trust him knowing full well that my parents definitely discussed me in their sessions — I had little energy. I didn’t know at the time that I was neurodivergent in the sense that I do now, but I knew I was different from my peers in indescribable ways.
This didn’t entirely matter, because there are little volunteer opportunities at a megachurch unless you are one of the rich, “popular” people with an “in” with the cliques who ran the place.
I was great enough at graphic design, but did not have access to Adobe Photoshop at home. I applied anyway, and they replied back saying that that was required. You designed the graphics at the church, brainstorming and working together in an office, but they wanted you to have that access at home in case they needed to send you something to work on outside of your volunteer hours.
I ended up volunteering as a greeter, which meant I’d check in youth group people (they called us high schoolers The Mix, and there were hundreds of us). I don’t know why they needed to keep track of us, as if we got participation points for perfect attendance — we got awards — but I didn’t question it anymore after I’d done it long enough. I also volunteered at the megachurch’s version of Vacation Bible School where I grew close to someone from The Mix who had also volunteered. She introduced me to her best friend, but I never felt close enough with either of them because I didn’t connect with people the same way non-autistic people connect with each other.
My stepmom volunteered in the church cafe, serving pastries and fancy drinks. They didn’t get free drinks. Like a workplace, it was very cut-and-dry: they had scheduled hours, a call-in process, an attendance policy, and break times. They were classified as volunteers, so they didn’t get paid — but the pastor lived in a mansion (I’ve been there!) owned a private jet and the church made millions from tithes and sales.
The only free anything the cafe workers ever got was expiring food.
Looking back, the stipulations made were all kinds of labor exploitation and problematic. I’d never been to a church where my curious head couldn’t look into a room or see if it smelled like that nostalgic old church smell until this one. Everywhere I turned, I felt like I wasn’t allowed. I got lost a few times and went into some rooms I wasn’t supposed to be, and the security guards got onto me for that.
Also: The security guards received legit security guard training so they could carry weapons. They were also unpaid volunteers.
Some volunteer positions required having a college degree, preferably a master’s, for the corresponding field you wished to apply. For example, they wanted photographers who had strong portfolios or art/media degrees to volunteer to be photographers.
I’d always seen volunteering at church as something anyone could do with a little guidance and volunteering to be a great way to gain skills — not something you had to jump through hoops to do the same way you did with having a job.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, I was expected to go to school, do my homework, attend church, volunteer, attend therapy, attend my after-school club, and apply for jobs that I would walk to and figure out how to enroll in driver’s ed! The latter two things never happened. Of course they never happened, because I was ND AF.
Participating at a megachurch
Nothing is free at a megachurch except the communion and promotional material. Sometimes this material is branded poker chips (actually pretty cool, and I still have them!); other times, it’s fan-type swag that keeps you interested.
I’m in a few of their Closer to the Start (album) concert videos, because The Mix got to be nearest the stage, where we had higher chances of appearing on camera. For weeks, the youth group leaders had us practice the songs. They taught us when to hold our hands up towards the ceiling. My stepmom told me she was jealous because I was going to get to be on camera for the church; this made me feel great at the time, but I feel icky thinking back to it. I shouldn’t have felt so great to have someone jealous of me like that, especially over something like that, but I was immersed in the megachurch hype.
When Allaso Ranch opened up, hundreds of us got to there for a weekend winter camp. I hadn’t bothered to ask if I could go because I’d never had the types of parents who made me feel like I could ask them for money to go to camp (I couldn’t even ask them for lunch money without feeling like a burden). My new best friend from school, who I’d met via my after school program, got in on a scholarship after I mentioned that I was going.
At winter camp, we were in the same group because she was my guest. She let me borrow her phone on the way there to message my boyfriend (I was grounded over something that was entirely because of what I now know as dissociation), but I didn’t have much interest in him anymore, so we shared my iPod earbuds. I introduced her to corporal cadet, a YouTube celeb, who posted a hilarious story called “First Day of School” that I haven’t been able to find again since 2011.
Going to camp was the best thing that ever could have happened in regard to getting to tour the forbidden rooms of the church, because 1) we were non-cool kids in the cool kids group and 2) it’s where we met our two camp counselors. Both were super different. The one I’m not going to discuss is someone I still consider an overall great influence in my life, and I’m glad to have met her.
The other camp counselor was a salaried member of the aforementioned megachurch. She often asked and called for me to help her out, and I followed and did what she said like any puppy. She was aesthetically pleasing to look at, her voice was the right kind of sensory input, and her bubbly energy was pleasant to be around. Unlike the other church employees, she was not super strict or firm, but a soft ray of sunshine.
She also let me eat some extra Battenberg cake cubes from the kitchen! I was so fascinated by it because it looked like pastel checkerboards.
They capitalized on my trauma without my permission
I emailed my volunteer mentor, with whom I’d grown close enough to share my trauma with, after a sermon one evening. I shared the whole story, exactly as it had happened.
She’d replied something along the lines of, they’re your parents, and you should be ashamed of yourself. If they punished you, they must have had good reason. There’s no reason God or Jesus would make you feel like you needed to stand up to your parents instead of respecting them. You should have accepted the consequences of your actions.
Months later, The Mix band released an album, which I can’t remember the name of (or find anywhere), that they premiered one night. The first song was “Rain Down”, and it began after the voice over of a female saying word for word my story.
My body couldn’t stop shaking. I left mid-song.
I explained to an adult volunteer who followed me out that I needed out.
Apparently they didn’t just let us out; we were captives, unable to leave until our parents came to check us out or the class was over.
I couldn’t see anything. I removed my glasses and wiped my eyes. I felt my dinner resurfacing, but pushed it down. The adult volunteer entered the restroom and asked me if everything was okay. That was my story. I never gave them permission to use that. Why would they use it? Why wouldn’t they have warned me about that?
She furrowed her brows, looked at me like a concerned citizen, and said:
Anything you email us may be used for educational purposes. I’m sorry you feel this way, but you should be proud. Be grateful that they found a way to help reach thousands of people come to God with your story. Your story will help us grow the church. It’s a wonderful thing, really.
They used that night to emphasize how they used tithing to help our classmates with stories like mine.
The crack in the teacup
After they triggered my dissociative identity disorder and PTSD, it was all downhill from there — I just didn’t know it yet.
My best friend walked out on an anti-gay sermon, only to surprise me with her decision to get baptized some weeks later. I wasn’t happy. I was happy for her because she was happy, but I was not happy with the entire event of things. For some reason, I was disappointed.
Only now, at nearly 31 years old, am I able to articulate why: the facade was unraveling; I was realizing this church for what it was: a cult.
The people at church were not what they seemed. Ed Young was more of a brand personality than a pastor, even though he preached what his congregation eagerly consumed.
He twisted the words of the Bible to say that marriage is about sex, encouraging kids’ parents while we were in the same sermon to have sex everyday for 30 days (“sexperiment”, it was called).
He encouraged women to have sex with their husbands, and men to have sex with their wives, even when they didn’t want to [small](for whatever reason, including exhaustion and not feeling like it) in the name of God.
The concept: God = sex God, because that’s what you call out during sex.
He encouraged young couples (of age) to get married now or breakup so they could participate.
And, by golly, they did it. And the congregation grew, because there were lots of pregnancies.
If Ed Young wanted to, he could encourage his church members to do anything he wanted by convincing them it was glorious in the eyes of the Lord.
Since I left
This is where the deep dive starts.
Ed Young has preached at Hillsong, and his main church store in Grapevine had Hillsong albums the last time I looked around it. I do believe these churches are connected, at least the sense that the leaders received the same church-related business advice. The marketing is essentially the same: personality creates a cult following. They probably all read the same books, or studied at the same college, or just had the money to pretend like they had their isht together until it got even more together.
Girl bosses did the same shit.
- The pressure to tithe is truly insane. Not everyone can afford it, but the meek have no place in such a church.
- The concept of Fellowship Church is that the more you tithe, the better Christian you are. Ed Young told his congregation they were cursed if they didn’t tithe 10% and had forms for them to write their bank account and routing numbers.
- I wouldn’t be surprised if their legit employees lost 10% of their checks for tithing purposes.
- (Factor this into the fact that the church exploits volunteers for labor instead of hiring proper staff when the church itself can definitely afford it. In other words: As a volunteer, you’re expected to pay to work there. All participation in that church had a fee attached to it The Sunday and Wednesday services are the same as newsletter incentives.)
- Ed Young sold his Miami church. The congregation didn’t know until the last Sunday.
- Two months prior, Chris King encouraged them to dole out hefty gifts to the church; after announcing the purchase of the church, he went back to Grapevine.
- (Ergo, the congregation donated to a megachurch who just sold them out to another megachurch.)
- In 2008, many sermons were about who we should vote for. He never said it outright, but it was obvious who he didn’t want people to vote for when he said the words “get the man out of the office”. I can’t find a credible source of proof of him encouraging people to pick the “right” president in the 2016/2020 elections without linking directly to his content.
- One of his promotions was tithing and fasting. He’d created his own fasting, which was eating only the kinds of foods they would have had in Biblical times and not cooking anything unless you could do it over a fire pit or grill. My dad did it. My step mom did it. I was encouraged to do it, but I was barely eating anything. Not once did Ed Young do a medical disclaimer — only said that true church members will do their best. He also had a cookbook.
- His private jet goes to exotic locations — but why? Also: His personal attorney is his business partner, best friend and fishing buddy; together, they have created several for-profit businesses off the Fellowship Church brand. His 10k sq ft, $1.5mil estate on Lake Grapevine found to be listed under Palometa Revocable Trust instead of his name. He also owns a lavish $1mil Miami condo on a high-rise. Don’t get me started on the $5.5mil beach condo he sold.
- He seeks to entertain, claims Jesus himself was an entertainer.
- A transcript of his father’s sermon is an excellent example of how pastors in megachurches preach: from their own mouths, not so much from the word itself.
Overall, the tactics Ed Young + Fellowship Church use mimic those of Autism $peaks. They donate to charity and the people they claim to support, but they spend more money on the marketing and salaries — and rely heavily on their cult following to infiltrate the masses with brand awareness until it’s everywhere you look.(FYI, autistic deep dives don’t necessarily have a point; they’re basically info dumps. A “deep dive” literally translates to “look at all this info I just found — have some!”)
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