NEW YORK — Hillsong leader Brian Houston confirmed this week that the youth minister at Hillsong NYC recently appeared as a “Naked Cowboy” lookalike at the congregation’s recent women’s conference, but said he didn’t know about the plan in advance and that it “won’t happen again.”
As previously reported, Hillsong’s Colour Conference was held on May 6 and 7 in Madison Square Garden with ticket prices set at $209.50 a person in advance and $219.50 at the door.
“Colour seeks to ‘gather, equip and mobilize’ women of all age, background and culture in the belief that together we can and will make the world a better place,” a description of the event reads. “Our team labor to create an atmosphere that will refresh heart and soul, and inspire transformation. Our desire is that worship, creativity and the presentation of God’s Word (the Bible) will honor the King of heaven and cause faith to rise, enabling the enormous potential within to become reality.”
But online video footage of the event shows members of Hillsong NYC engaging in patriotic shout-outs and performing the song “New York, New York” surrounded by firemen, a costumed statue of liberty, Broadway dancers—and a look-alike of the city’s notorious “Naked Cowboy,” Robert John Burck.
The “Naked Cowboy,” dressed in only what appears to be underwear and a cowboy hat, moves to the front of the stage at one point and blows kisses to the cheering, flag-waving crowd. Hillsong NYC leader Carl Lentz is believed to be seen in the footage, as well as Bobbie Houston and her son Ben Houston, who leads Hillsong Los Angeles.
The identity of the cowboy was soon revealed as being Diego Simila, who has served as the youth leader at Hillsong NYC since 2010. A former model, Simila sports his last name tattooed in large script across his chest, which can be seen in the video footage.
Some expressed concern over the matter, finding the situation to be inappropriate—especially for a women’s conference presented by a professing Christian church.
“I usually don’t expect to see a near-naked cowboy gyrating from the stage of a Christian women’s conference. Nor would I see and hear thousands of Christian females applauding and squealing in delight, and spurring on the performance. Indeed if I were of the world, I’d expect these sights and sounds to come from a giant bachelorette party at a strip club,” wrote Amy Spreeman of Berean Research.
On Friday, Brian Houston, Hillsong co-founder, published a blog post in which he explained that he and others were not aware of the plan.
“I do know that Bobbie—my wife—who was convener of the conference was clearly unaware that this was going to happen and was taken back by it,” he wrote. “She was at the dress rehearsal and there was no sign of a cowboy there. Carl and Laura Lentz were also not part of the decision.”
“I can only guess at this point, that some one thought it would be funny and sent him out there without thinking about the ramifications,” Houston said.
However, he denied that Simila was wearing underwear and noted that the youth leader had a flag draped over one shoulder. He refuted those who referred to Simila as being the “Naked Cowboy” since he wasn’t completely naked.
“He was wearing proper shorts, not underwear, and he had a flag draped over him—bare-chested and perhaps inappropriate, certainly unexpected and unauthorized; but not naked,” he said in defense.
Robert John Burck, who Simila was emulating, is known in New York City as the “Naked Cowboy” as he walks the city shirtless and without pants, with only a cowboy hat and underwear. Burck’s manager has since released a statement that Hillsong did not obtain permission to replicate his likeness, and that they object to the emulation at a church event.
“What I also know is that talk of apostates etc., is nonsense. Some well-meaning person just made a silly decision,” Houston asserted. “It won’t happen again.”
But some have noted that the incident is just one among a number of recent concerns regarding Hillsong.
“First they brought us sleazy Silent Night. Then they had the sexual pervert Austin Powers appear at their women’s conference in London, and now they’ve had The Naked Cowboy appear at their women’s conference in New York. We fear to see what they have in store for their next conference,” wrote the blog Pirate Christian.