Houston, William Francis (Frank) (22 April, 1922, Wanganui, New Zealand – 9 November, 2004, Sydney, Australia), Pentecostal pastor, latter rain healing evangelist, church planter, founder of the ‘Christian Life Centre’ movement.
William Francis Houston was born on 22 April, 1922. He was the third of four children: Gretha, Linda, Frank, and finally Allan. His first experience of divine healing was in his initial weeks of life. He contracted pneumonia and may have died but for the prayer of a Reverend Weller, who prayed for him and assured the family that he believed that the child would recover.
At school Houston was a small boy who was teased about his height, weight and “skinny legs”. He was also the target of insensitive comments from his teachers. Well into his sixties Houston would recount the story of the teacher who retorted to Houston that he needn’t worry (about being a person of influence) because “you’ll never amount to anything”. According to his wife Hazel’s biography, “… he carried the wound for years. He really believed that he wouldn’t amount to anything.”
A positive formative influence during his school years was a schoolmate by the name of Frank (Francis) Howard. They sat together at the same bench during successive years at school, both before and after Francis was converted at the age of ten, through the efforts of the Salvation Army. After his salvation, Francis was a zealous evangelist who “never gave up” on the shy Houston or his school-mates: “… If they were alone Houston would listen, but if others were around he was too embarrassed …”
It took a tragedy to shake an eighteen year old Frank Houston, a “drunken lout” by his own description, into the kingdom of God. Francis Howard died in an accident. “Houston was devastated … he still considered Francis one of his best friends”.
Standing at his friend’s graveside he heard a voice say three times: “I want you to take that young man’s place”. He realised it was the voice of God. He responded to an invitation to a special Salvation Army service in Francis’ memory, and came under great conviction during the service. He found himself unable to respond to the altar-call, but was converted as he prayed beside his bed at home.
The next morning Houston confessed his salvation to his mother, who was overjoyed at the answer to her prayers, and committed himself to meet Captain Spillett, the commanding officer of the local Salvation Army outpost. This commitment, and the ensuing discipline and training Houston would receive in the Salvation Army, was to have an impact that Houston would remark upon in later stages of his ministry. Frank was first asked to testify at an open air meeting only five days after his conversion. He remembered intense discomfort, especially as a group of his old friends were there to heckle him. This was to be the beginning of a torrid time for Houston, as his friends and workmates “encouraged” him to return to his old lifestyle. The army, however, was a highly disciplined, highly committed environment, with many meetings, personal follow-up from “the captain”, Personal evangelistic work and regular 5am “knee drill” (prayer meetings). An internal need to amount to something, the force of his conversion and the external discipline worked together to heighten Houston’s commitment.
Houston decided to become a Salvation Army officer, and from July 1945 entered Bible college for six months training. It was there he first met Hazel Rawson, who was to become his wife. During his training Houston also read material by the General, William Booth, that was positive about experiences of the Spirit and the need for empowering by the Spirit. But it was not until their second pastorate, in Levin, that the Houstons encountered Salvationists that claimed to be filled * with the Spirit, and it was at this time that Houston read Gordon Lindsay’s A Man Sent from God, * which contained teaching and anecdotes of William Branham’s prophetic ministry. For Houston it was revolutionary. These people, and this book, seem to have led the Houstons along a totally new path, and led to a revolution in their ministry in that place. Prayer meetings led to new corporate experiences of God, and new effectiveness in evangelism. One example cited in his biography was of a fifty two year old man with (one of the first) heart transplants - facing death, he asked for the prayer of faith, and experienced a dramatic healing. Unfortunately, however, their next pastorate proved a more difficult challenge, and Houston and Hazel were left, not only with a feeling of failure but the shadow of financial mis-management. The books didn’t balance. They resigned, and resigned their Salvation Army commissions as well.
What do ministers do when they leave the ministry? The Houstons tried to sneak in the back door of the local Baptist church. Fortunately they were unsuccessful in that the minister, the Rev. Cliff Reay, managed to catch them after the service and was instrumental in helping the Houstons both spiritually and practically (for example in helping a cash strapped family find a “miracle” home.) Nevertheless, this was a bleak period for Houston, of ‘backsliding’, much to the consternation of his wife.
The Assemblies of God
Houston was led back to Christ through the audacious witness of a teenager called Tony Austin, who witnessed to Houston and invited him to the Queen St AOG. It was at his first service there that he met David Batterham, who became a friend and mentor, and who introduced Houston to Ray Bloomfield. It was through Batterham that he came to an understanding of a deep impression God had made upon him that ‘healing was in the atonement’, and that he too could be healed of his recurrent problems with pneumonia. With this experience of healing in his background, Houston was understandably attracted by Ray Bloomfield’s emphasis on healing, and by his personal love for people and ability to communicate. Soon Houston was attending Ray’s new church plant, the Ellerslie-Tamaki Faith Mission, and within six weeks Houston had accepted the role of assistant minister.
The Ellerslie-Tamaki Faith Mission’s stated purpose was to bring deliverance to the area, and healings and miracles were reportedly regular occurrences in the services. Before one of these meetings Houston prayed that, if God wanted him to pursue such a ministry, would He please cause a miracle to take place under his hand that night. A boy with a lung collapsed through tuberculosis was instantly healed as Houston prayed for him. Ray Bloomfield’s faith in God was infectious, but perhaps even more important for Houston’s restoration to ministry was Ray’s mix of love, generosity, and a positive attitude to the difficulties of life and ministry. Then, unexpectedly, Bloomfield accepted a call to minister in Canada, and so in 1955 Houston found himself leading a church again. On the last Sunday before his departure, Bloomfield prayed that Houston would have “a double portion of my spirit and let my mantle fall on this your servant …”. It was to be a defining moment of Houston’s life. Houston’s biography speaks in terms of a “transfer of faith” and a new “sense of divine authority”.
Within a month, however, attendance had dropped from four hundred to eighty people, and for two months no new people joined the church. Bloomfield’s advice to Houston at this time, “The success of your work will not depend on how many you have lost or retained but rather on how many new ones you have added”, was to become a central plank of his philosophy of ministry. Much of the contemporary Pentecostal movement has followed his lead. Leadership depends on people being willing to follow – the disappearance of a previous strong leader inevitably caused a decline in attendance. Eventually the tide turned. New families started coming, and as miracles started happening again it was soon standing room only, and “the atmosphere in the meetings became electric”.
Only four years later, however, a combination of hurtful and providential circumstances seemed to confirm to the Houstons that God was calling them “into the South”. (Within a week of Frank being offered the position at Lower Hutt one of the Ellerslie elders convinced the other elders to cancel an upcoming crusade, without consulting their pastor.) On 13 December 1959 the Houstons moved to Lower Hutt. The Lower Hutt ministry was the beginning of a new chapter in Houston’s ministry. For one thing, it meant that the “umbilical cord” to Bloomfield was broken. Within weeks of arriving he decided to go, for the first time, to the annual Assemblies of God (AOG) “Christmas camp”. He was surprised to find himself not only nominated but elected to the Executive Council. This was perhaps the beginning of Houston’s wider influence within the New Zealand AOG, and other New Zealand churches. Later, Houston was elected to Superintend that council in 1966, further strengthening his influence. He remained superintendent until he left for Australia in 1977.
Houston’s influence upon the NZ AOG was dynamic. The movement was in many ways transformed. Souls were saved, both through Houston’s crusades and his example. Churches were planted, and grew stronger, in fact it was claimed that “…sixty five of the ninety something churches [comprising AOG NZ at the time] were planted because of him and people that had come under his ministry …”
Certainly a great part of this influence was the modelling effect of his own faith, energetic leadership, boldness, evangelistic passion, pragmatism and reliance on the supernatural in ministry. In 1966, while in New York, he had felt strongly that he should go back home and start a Bible College – the first class of thirteen students commenced in February 1967. This was a profound model for church based ministry training which was to typify later megachurch institutions. Effectively, it aimed to replicate the particular style of the charismatic leader and multiply that ministry in other places. As Mark Bridgewater, who attended Houston’s Lower Hutt Christian Life Bible college in 1977-78, described his experience:
I sat under his ministry, I’ve had friends that have been healed under his ministry, words of knowledge like I’ve hardly ever seen anyone do, telling people how much money was in their purse to locate them and he taught us all about the boldness of using the word of knowledge to capture the essence of the moment to seize the meeting, and lift faith in a meeting, and it was that dynamic and the stories that he told about the past, of taking whole Maori villages, and going for the worst cases of sickness and palsy and people in sick beds and out of wheelchairs and that was Houston - and that dynamic and that boldness and that brashness, the reputation of speaking in tongues all the time…
Organisationally, Houston replaced the congregational style of church government with a “pastor led” style where the senior minister had decisive influence upon who would be on the eldership and upon the interpretation of the nature and mission of the church. This mission was seen primarily in terms of evangelism, which was to be achieved by a preaching of the gospel that was both contemporary in style and supernatural in impact. Houston’s stress on contemporary praise & worship music exemplifies both these emphases, and was certainly part of his overall evangelistic strategy.
His inclusiveness and openness toward independent churches and other Pentecostal denominations was also a noteworthy feature of Houston’s ministry [Knowles, 302]. Perhaps these factors are best understood as outworkings of Houston’s oft repeated dictum that “church is all about God and people”, and in particular his passion for evangelism. Houston’s biography hints at this by stating that he thought that much of what happened at business meetings was “inconsequential to the lives of people”, and that one of his first thoughts upon election was that God might use him to motivate more evangelism within the fellowship.
During Houston’s time in Lower Hutt, his ministry extended around the world, including in Australia. His Australian ministry was powerful but controversial, especially as far as the Australian AOG were concerned. This was due in part to his being considered part of the Charismatic Movement, a movement which elements of the older Australian AOG leadership strongly opposed [Cartledge, 139].
In the Queensland Conference of 1972, for example, a whole day was spent
… debating the ministries of three men – Trevor Chandler, Robert Midgley and Frank Houston … [Houston] was considered to be the focal point of the controversial ‘New Move’. [Cartledge, 139].
It would not have been possible for the Houstons to have joined the AOG in Australia had it continued this stance, and in fact they planned not to. In a seeming stroke of providence, however, at the 1977 conference, only months before the Houstons arrived permanently in Sydney, the superintendent and seven other members of the executive were replaced and Andrew Evans became national Superintendent, and leader of a very different executive to the one it replaced. Andrew Evans welcomed the Houstons with open arms, and stated as much in the open forum of the AOG National Conference. Soon after their arrival in Australia, his previous evangelistic connections were solidified as he participated with the work of the national charismatic organisation, the Temple Trust, and preached all over Australia spreading a latter rain form of healing evangelism.
In January 1977, Houston had a dream to come to Australia, where the Lord gave him a vision of crowds of people on the streets of Sydney, attached to which was an impulse to read Isaiah 54. It was a dream he fulfilled in July later that year. He was fifty five years old. Christian Life Centre (CLC) Sydney began with a team of eight (or nine) adults and five children one Sunday morning. It soon began to grow into a strong church, despite the doomsayers who warned Houston that all church plants in the Eastern Suburbs had failed, and the fear and consternation of the city’s Pentecostal ministers. Within six months they had filled Double Bay’s “Sherbrooke Hall”. Attendances were up over 150, and they were searching for bigger premises. It would be a problem they would face several times, as Frank chased the vision of "[putting] God on the main street of Sydney." In other words, to see realised a move of God that would so impress the people of Sydney that they would know God was alive. It was a vision which was to resonate with his son Brian, whose desire was to make Hillsong Church “a church of influence”.
The growth of CLC Sydney was enhanced by developments in Houston’s approach to ministry. The evangelist started to pastor and equip people: he developed a small group system and a ministry team, he changed his style of dress and became less title oriented. Many of these changes probably owe something to the impact on Houston of his 1977 trip to Korea, and the impact of Yonggi Cho’s church growth principles.
CLC Sydney became a thriving church which exemplified the Houston trademarks of supernatural signs and contemporary packaging directed towards the goal of evangelistic impact. Size restrictions imposed by lack of parking and auditorium size were overcome by the progressive planting of a series of churches around the city. Other churches were also planted around the country and around the world as part of the church motto “Our City and Beyond”. By the mid 1980s, CLC Sydney was exercising a significant influence on Australian (and international) charismatics and Pentecostals. It became “the church” to visit if you were in Sydney, and according to Cartledge it had an “incalculable impact”, similar to that enjoyed by the Hillsong church at the present time. (D. Cartledge, interviews)
However, not all were happy about the level of Houston’s influence, regarding CLC as a “movement within a movement”. These suspicions of his motives were substantially overcome by Houston, largely by his very success, paving the way for his election to the state and national executives. In contrast to most of his other roles, Cartledge typifies Houston’s influence on the national executive as that of a moderating influence, often counselling moderation and understanding. (D. Cartledge, interviews) Perhaps his greatest influence, however, was through his leadership of the NSW AOG executive. Under his leadership the “Cinderella State”, (as NSW had been known due to the AOG’s lack of impact there, both in terms of the number and size of the churches), was transformed and became a strong and vibrant expression of the AOG in Australia. This transformation was affected, in Cartledge’s view, by some simple adjustments that created an environment where growth could occur: providing a fun and informal atmosphere at conferences, modelling a style that people could take on. These things were building a “right atmosphere” and “right momentum” where growth could occur.
However, Houston’s late start in Australia, his increasing age and failing health, began to tell on his ministry. During the latter half of the 1990s, Houston experienced problems with his short term memory and resigned from his executive positions, culminating in his handing over leadership of CLC Sydney to his son Brian in May 2000. In December 2001 a letter regarding sexual misconduct of Frank Houston (and another minister) was circulated to all ministers of the AOG in Australia. Although the exact nature of the misconduct was not specified, it was described as “serious” and “repeated” and happening over thirty years previously in New Zealand. According to Cartledge, Houston’s confession to the AOG executive was that he had repented of it and had never fallen back into that sin. Nevertheless, his credentials with the AOG were withdrawn indefinitely.
Sexual misconduct is always a terrible thing and inexcusable. And yet it seems likely, in retrospect, that this experience of his own weakness and God’s grace was a formative experience that lay behind compassionate developments in Houston’s ministry: his growing humility, moderating effect on the national executive, not wanting to dismiss objectors (even those who were to hound him in his latter years) and compassion for others, including other ministers, being disciplined. For example, Houston never flagged in his support for and communication with Jim Williams when he was under discipline for sexual misconduct. A number of times he was to speak about this support, and how the church tended to “shoot itself in the foot” by focusing church discipline on punishment rather than restoration of offending ministers. One also wonders what the outcome would have been if Houston had confessed to his sin while still in NZ, and undergone a disciplinary process under the NZ AOG. He may never have been able to minister again. His ministry may never have recovered.
In light of his alleged repentance and supernatural call to Australia, and the undeniable impact of his ministry in Australia (which presumably have all happened after the offence occurred), one is left to ponder the appropriateness and justice of the processes involved. Undeniably offending ministers should be appropriately disciplined. Undeniably a serious offence has occurred.
From a different perspective, this very public fall raised questions for many people about the “pastor led” style of church government championed by Houston. In view of the cultural power wielded by senior ministers in such churches, some asked whether there were sufficient safeguards in place to protect ministers from the temptations they will inevitably face. While it is inevitable that charismatic leaders will fall from time to time, the movements they serve entered the twenty first century exploring ways to better protect their leaders.
Despite his failings, Frank Houston was a significant figure in the rise of the Australian charismatic megachurch. His faith, boldness, evangelistic passion, and reliance on the supernatural in ministry made a difference in thousands of lives; his energetic and pragmatic leadership resulted in innovations aimed at making church a place of effective evangelism and, increasingly, discipleship; his open and inclusive attitude to others outside his denomination helped build – and heal divisions within – the church; and Houston’s faith and vision were contagious. After experiencing his ministry, and in many cases after being mentored by him, others – in the Australian AOG and beyond - followed in his footsteps and went beyond him.
In his latter years, Houston declined due to dementia, a situation aggravated by the predecease of his wife, Hazel. On Sunday, 7 November 2004, he suffered a massive stroke, and died the next day.
Bridgewater M, Taped conversation, 27 March 2002.
Cartledge, D, Interviews, 8 May and 22nd May 2002, Pentecostal Heritage Centre, Alphacrucis College, Sydney.
Cartledge, D, The Apostolic Revolution, The Restoration of Apostles and Prophets in the Assemblies of God in Australia, (Chester Hill, Sydney: Paraclete Institute, 2000).
Gibbs, Stephen, “Hillsong farewells a lost sheep pioneer”, Sydney Morning Herald, November 13, 2004
Houston, H, Being Frank, The Frank Houston Story, (London: Marshall Pickering, 1989)
Knowles, B, The History of a New Zealand Pentecostal Movement, The New Life Churches of New Zealand From 1946 to 1979, Studies in Religion and Society, Vol 45, Queenston: Edwin Meller Press, 2000.
Vision Magazine, no. 26, March-April 1978.