John Smith on Hillsong: Money, Sex and Power. Part 1: Prosperity Gospel.

It’s a very ordinary name for an extraordinary man. Rev Dr John Smith, Founder-in-Chief of God’s Squad Christian Motorcycle Club, was a one-off. Likened to John Wesley on a bike, he was a minister to the marginalised – but he still got a message from Bono at this funeral service in 2019, which was attended by well over a thousand, including some rival biker gangs.

Although Smith has sadly left us, his words about the prosperity gospel – born of his first-hand experience of the early days of the Hillsong phenomenon – are (also sadly) still very much needed.

This piece is a re-working of my still-relevant interview with Smith from 2004.


Hillsong is a global mega-church for celebrities (Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Chris Pratt and Vanessa Hudgens are among those have attended) and their vibrant image is a huge attraction. But Aussie Smith knew the leadership and the tactics they have employed to court the wealthy. So when he likened the brand to cancer, it was a serious and informed accusation.

Hillsong has become the acceptable and subtle face of the ‘prosperity gospel’ that claims God wants everyone to be wealthy. That theology’s more brazen exponents are regulars on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, Smith told me.

“Trinity is huge. They’ve got megabucks, huge satellite projection, and in Australia on cable.

“This man gets up – a guy called Dr Lingerfield (he gets 20,000 people at his church service) – and he says, ‘Brethren, I have a revelation from God that you in this congregation are meant to be wealthy to the point of obscenity. You know, I used to live in an ordinary house, but now I live in a multimillion dollar house. I wasn’t happy then, I’m happy now. Most people’s marriages break up over economics. Brethren, money is the thing that breaks up marriages, so you’d better get rich real fast if you want your marriage to survive.”

Smith was astonished that he was taking the biblical text ‘offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God… Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind’ and twisting it to mean, ‘Don’t be conformed to a loser mentality, but be transformed into believing that you can be a millionaire.’

“It was just the most bizarre… These guys are sinning so boldly that they take all the verses we radicals use for limiting our lifestyle to actually promote the lifestyle! It’s gone so far now that people are accepting stuff that once would have been outrageous.

“In the local radio station in Kentucky, they have an investment advice programme run by a Pentecostal pastor, who begins his show with the words, ‘We are American Spirit-filled believers. We believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of cash – lots of cash!’ That’s his call sign for the start of his Christian advice programme!

“That’s still lightweight. What has happened on Trinity is a whole lot of the preachers have caught up with what they call ‘Holy Ghost economics’. They say if you can’t pay for your house, through Holy Ghost economics you can fix it, because Jesus controls the Internet (with respect, he’s not doing a good job if he’s micromanaging that!). Therefore he can get into your bank and because the records are electronic, not hard copy, he can get that record taken out of the computer system, so there is no record of your indebtedness for the loan your bank’s given you and you won’t have to pay for it. You can have your house, that 4-wheel drive that you want, BMW that you want through Holy Ghost economics. This is how sick it is.”

Smith admitted that the Hillsong founders Brian and Bobby Houston “may not have gone quite that far,” but that they and others “are playing with fire.”

He added, “I make no apologies for this, but I believe the Christian church in our country should boycott Hillsong conferences until Hillsong come to the table about the way in which they are distorting the Gospel.

“I’m not malicious against my brothers in the ministry, and I wish I didn’t have to name names, but I’m prepared to attack Brian Houston because he’s gone into print and I’ll attack what he’s said in his book. Personal things I know about the operation of his church – I’d rather not name them for ethical reasons, not because I don’t know the facts…”

The particular book he referred to is Houston’s shamelessly-titled You Need More Money, which twists texts with the dexterity of one well-practised in the art.

With his experience, would Smith say that Hillsong is a good operation gone wrong, or did they set out in the beginning largely to make money?

“No, I’ve actually preached at Hillsong, and when they first started their arts gatherings, I spoke at those,” he replied. “I believe that when they started they had a real desire to serve the Lord, but they went to America, got linked up with certain people and I believe they brought an American-culture Christianity. It’s very insidious.

“The sad thing is that there is some very clever and good stuff there. You put strychnine in a good piece of meat and you get a dingo. The problem with those books is there’s some great advice for people that are feeling bad about themselves, that need to get up and say, ‘I can do it’. I don’t want to tell people, ‘You can’t do it’ but I don’t want to tell people, ‘You can be whatever you want to be’. The only thing I can say to you is, ‘If God wants you to be something, you can be that,’ because the Lord will not want for you anything that he won’t make provision for.

“But, to say, as [Houston] does in You Need More Money, that there are some misguided individuals who think that they can serve God without being rich, but if only these people knew they could have been rich they’d have served God better…

“Think of John Wesley, who when he was at the end of his life had lived to the penny virtually on exactly the same budget for about fifty years, because he was committed to the Gospel, and he could have been a millionaire, because he sold so many books… Or do you think today we would remember a millionaire Francis of Assisi? Mother Theresa? Do you think Nelson Mandela would be accepted today on the basis of being the richest guy in South Africa in the days of apartheid, by playing the system and going along with the overlords? This is bizarre; it’s completely idiotic!

“I don’t feel any malice, mate, but I’ve got my tail feathers up, because I believe this is a complete sell out. Brian says in his book that Jesus talks about economics more than anything else. He’s right – but he doesn’t finish by saying that almost every verse is negative about the mythology of wealth and power. The bible is warning all the time.”

Smith used to suggest people did an exercise. It was to list down a page every passage in the gospels where Jesus had an encounter with someone; list in the next column who they were, such as Pharisees, lepers, or whoever; then fill in a column saying whether they were materially or socially rich or poor. In a final column, state whether the encounter with Jesus was positive or negative.

His conclusion? “I think there’s only one case in all the gospels where a person with both wealth and social power had a positive encounter with Jesus.”

And he gave an example from the book of how Houston twists Jesus’ words.

The gospel story in question is when a rich young ruler meets Jesus. Smith reminds us that after speaking with Jesus, his face fell and he went away sad.

“Brian Houston takes the final verses, where the disciples say, ‘But Lord, have we not left all for you?’ And [Jesus] says, ‘Don’t worry; anybody who leaves everything for me shall have several fold over, more houses, ra ra ra and eternal life to follow.’ So [Houston] says, ‘There you are. The rich young ruler story is saying God wants you to be rich.’

“There’s two problems with that. Everybody knows the apostles did exactly what Jesus said. None of them ended up rich. 11 out of the 12 died violent deaths prematurely, and the 12th was exiled to the island of Patmos, in which case, you have to say Jesus lied, because he didn’t keep his promise to those disciples.

“Or else you have to say, What did this mean? Is it congruent with everything else Jesus taught? The very simple answer to that is, when you live out the gospel, you live out relationships. I go all over the world. I’ve got homes everywhere, but I don’t own them, but I have homes where they welcome me in Rumania, homes that will welcome me even in Beniza in the Ukraine, people who will welcome me in Ireland, people who will welcome me in El Salvador, I can go everywhere. That’s the only thing that would make sense out of that passage, because it simply didn’t happen in the story of the disciples, and it’s a one off.

“The second thing is, if that’s the case, why did he go away sad? He obviously read it very clearly from what Jesus was saying. A medieval priest who believed in the prosperity doctrine – ‘cause this thing keeps coming up in the church; it justifies the way we want to live – a medieval priest gives the interpretation that many preachers still give regarding the eye of a needle, that there’s a gate in Jerusalem called the Eye of a Needle gate, and that you had to take all the stuff off a camel to get through, because it was so small, and when you got the other side you put it back on and off you went. The only problem with that is that there’s absolutely not one shred of historical evidence that such a thing ever existed. And if they all knew that gate was there, why did the disciples say, ‘Well how can anybody get saved?’ And why did the rich young ruler go away sad?”

Smith, who died from cancer in 2019, told me that some of his friends think Hillsong must be fine, because it is growing.

“I wish my church was growing a lot more, but I wouldn’t want it to grow for the reasons that the prosperity doctrine churches are growing. Because, you see, I’ve had cancer, and I know that the most enduring cell is a cancer cell. It has no ‘use-by’ date on it like the rest of the cells in my body, and I know it’s the fastest growing, healthiest-looking cell in my body. And it breeds death.”

Part 2 looks at Hillsong’s unchecked power and influence, and where it had led us today.

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