ATLANTA — On his final Sunday as pastor of Hillsong Atlanta, Sam Collier reflected on the crucial role justice, trust and safety play in the health and growth of a church and expressed his confidence in God’s sovereignty as he prepares for the next season of ministry.
“We are living in a new generation. And this generation is focused on justice, on calling out what’s right and what’s wrong, and making sure that we’re living honestly in all of our actions, while in the previous generation, we handled a lot of these ills behind the scenes,” the 33-year-old pastor told The Christian Post.
“Now more than ever, one of the things that the Church can learn is, it’s important to let people know that they can be safe. It’s just so paramount. Justice, safety, trust matters more than anything. People used to assume trust as soon as they came into the church. Now, people are saying, ‘Prove it to me.’”
Collier understands firsthand what it means to be tasked with rebuilding trust in the face of ministry scandals. On Wednesday, Collier, the first-ever African American lead pastor of a Hillsong church, announced he would be stepping down from his position as controversy continues to swirl around the global church and its founder, Brian Houston.
“With all of the documentaries, scandals, articles, accusations and the church’s subsequent management of these attacks it’s become too difficult to lead and grow a young Church in this environment,” he wrote in a public statement.
And after a brief sabbatical, during which Collier and his wife, Toni, plan to reset and rest, the couple and their ministry team will launch a new church, Story Church, on Easter Sunday 2022.
But the pastor acknowledges that rebuilding in the current climate will come with challenges.
“Transitioning into Story Church, so many people have questioned, ‘Well, we hear what happened over here, but what’s going to make you different? What policies are you putting in place?’” the pastor said. “We’re imperfect; somebody is going to make a mistake. But when somebody makes a mistake, what are we going to do to reassure members and congregants that they can trust us with their lives and their investment?”
Ahead of Story Church’s opening, Collier and his leadership team are partnering with a team of experts, including a chief culture officer and fellow pastors, to “really go deep on how we can guarantee that safety.” And like Hillsong Atlanta, Story Church will be focused on racial reconciliation and modeling unity amid division.
“Racial reconciliation is our number one reason for existing besides salvation,” Collier, who is also an author and founder of A Greater Story Ministries, contended.
“There are so many churches within Atlanta; Atlanta doesn’t need another church. But what we believe is that Atlanta needs a church that is focused on uniting our world. In such a polarizing climate, no matter how you vote, no matter how you look, no matter where you come from, there should be a safe place for believers, for believers to gather under one name, and that’s Jesus.”
“We can work out our differences,” he added. “I believe if we all come to the table and become unified about being unified, we can change the world.”
This time, Collier is looking forward to shepherding a young church without the shadow cast by the scandals that have plagued Hillsong over the last two years.
Speaking before hundreds gathered for an emotional final Sunday service, the pastor reflected on the moment in 2020 that Brian Houston and his wife, Bobbi, told the Colliers they’d be launching Hillsong Atlanta in early 2021.
“We were in,” he said, reflecting on the excitement that came with being affiliated with one of the world’s most well-known churches and the opportunity to realize their vision of a unified church focused on racial reconciliation.
“We would be announced as the first-ever African American couple to lead a Hillsong Church. We were excited to be the Jackie Robinson of the situation.”
But shortly after Hillsong Atlanta was announced, over the next few weeks, Collier estimated “there was probably an article every single week” about a scandal surrounding a Hillsong Church or its leadership.
In December 2020, Carl Lentz, the famed leader of Hillsong Church in New York City, was fired over “leadership issues” and moral failures, including being unfaithful to his wife.
In early 2021, it was revealed that former Hillsong Dallas Lead Pastor Reed Bogard and his wife, Jess, were under investigation for leadership failures when they abruptly resigned in January of that year.
Later that year, Darnell Barrett, who served on the leadership of the church’s Montclair, New Jersey, branch resigned after sending a sexual photo to a church volunteer. Around this time, Hillsong leadership was made aware that documentaries about the church were going to be released.
But amid all the headlines and negative media attention surrounding the church, which has about 80 branches in 21 countries, Collier said he sought to faithfully lead his young congregation.
“I said, ‘Well, God, if I want to ever leave, what’s the sign?’” he recalled. “God said to me, ‘The moment you begin to lose trust, and you cannot continue the growth or the expansion of the vision is the moment that you should leave.”
In August 2021, Brian Houston, who founded the church in 1983, was accused of covering up his father’s crimes against underage boys, and criminal charges were brought against him in Australia. Though he denied the allegations, the charges led Houston to step down as Hillsong’s Global Pastor in January.
At that time, Collier said, Hillsong Atlanta leadership “started to notice that there was a shift that started to happen in our ministry,” adding: “People started to become more and more skeptical of not just the global church, but our church.”
During this time, the pastor said donors, members, and even Hillsong Atlanta staff would tell him, “This is not what we came to church for. We didn’t come to church to continuously go through scandal after scandal after scandal. We’re not sure we can trust this.”
“In that moment, the Holy Spirit reminded me, ‘I told you, the moment you can no longer continue to build the ministry because of the scandal, because of the mistrust, is the moment for you to go,'” he shared.
On Monday, March 21, Collier formally informed Hillsong of his resignation. Two days later, Houston formally resigned as global senior pastor in the wake of recent revelations that two women made serious complaints of misconduct against him in the last 10 years. Collier publicly announced his resignation hours later.
“Between Monday and Wednesday, things did speed up. And why did they speed up? Because, as a global church, we entered into crisis mode,” Collier said. “There’s one goal for me as a pastor, and that’s that you will be able to trust the church you attend and that you will feel safe. And that’s my decision.”
Though the Colliers are leaving Hillsong entirely, the pastor stressed that the global churches “are not our enemies.” He shared a brief video of Phil Dooley — who has taken over for Houston — giving Collier the church’s blessing.
“Hillsong Church is so excited that we’re continuing,” Collier said, adding that he and Dooley “speak almost every day.”
Story Church, he said, will remain in the same location as Hillsong Atlanta, with the same worship team, and likely, the majority of the congregation.
“Same people, same goodness, new name,” the pastor said. “There is a multicultural movement being birthed here. We want you to be a part.”
Collier knows there’s work to do ahead of him — but he expressed repeated confidence in God’s sovereignty over the future of Story Church. He added that coincidentally, the end of Hillsong Atlanta comes a symbolic nine months after its launch.
“Hillsong has been the ground on which the seed is planted,” he said. “[God] does nothing on accident. He used that incubation period to birth somebody new … I believe God for the new.”
Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: [email protected]