Hillsong under fire on Channel Nine, but was it fair?

Channel Nine criticism of Hillsong a “beat-up”

The Channel Nine promo said “Inside the Hillsong Money Machine, raking in $55-million dollars a year – so where is it being spent?”

Channel Nine had earnings of $150 to $180 million from revenue of $1 billion in fiscal 2012, according to Crikey. Hillsong – with revenues of $55 million – is a minnow.

Channel Nine’s A Current Affair (ACA) reports that in 2011 Hillsong made $28 million from tithes and donations –  labelled “tax free” by ACA. This is based on Hillsong’s publicly available ASIC filings.

These Hillsong figures for giving are not that much different from other churches.

For example the 65,000 Sydney Anglicans (who share a similar geographical reach with the Hillsong home base) gave $89m in tithes and offerings in 2011. 20,000 people attend Hillsong in Sydney. So $28m in tithes is comparable. Hillsong probably is including tithes from outside of Sydney and both sets of figures may leave out many sorts of church giving- to missionaries and social work campaigns.

So while we are not comparing exactly same variety of oranges to each other, we can say that the level of giving across these two groups of Christians is comparable. It is also clear that neither group is tithing (if you do the maths assuming average earnings).

When preparing their annual report, Nine Entertainment Co carefully separate profit from revenue. But in the ACA episode, the churches revenues are held up as if they are profit: “there‘s money to be made in Jesus”, the program says. The distinction between profit and revenues gets lost in the ACA report.

Hillsong comes in for a sledging even when ACA is not talking about money. The building is “a monstrosity”; “Inside everything is all about show”. You don’t have to be a Hillsong attendee to detect exaggerated “beat-up” language in Nine’s report.

“Undercover at a Hillsong service”, ACA recorded a plea for money. “Giving a new way” turns out to be using online banking. And the message is to tithe—put possibly more forcefully than other churches—but reinforcing a standard that a lot of churches promote. Tithing is as old as the Old Testament, and suggests that there is a normal standard of giving, restricted to only ten per cent of income. Not every Christian accepts that rule, but it is hardly controversial.

This report by ACA marks Hillsong joining other Churches in the sort of media coverage they can expect. Like the Sydney Anglicans and the Catholics, Hillsong has “go to” critics. These are often dissatisfied former attenders.

Hillsong has placed information about Brian Houston’s income on their website. His income of $150,000 is not out of line with other non-profits CEO’s, and is more modest than some. Hillsong is rather more public about this sort of issue than most churches. We are even told what kind of car Houston drives: a Holden Caprice. This somehow failed to be included in ACA’s description of Houston’s lifestyle.

Mixed in with ACA’s beat-ups are some issues that are worthy of discussion. Which church activities should be tax deductible is a question that applies to many more churches than Hillsong, and which the new charities regulator may well look at. But you have to wade through a lot of exaggeration to find them in the ACA report.

It would be wonderful to think that somewhere there is a pot of gold in Christian ministry Australia. But all ACA reveals is that Hillsong is remarkably like other churches. Doing better than most, perhaps, but still in the same ballpark.