‘Why do pastors keep falling?’: inside the shocking downfall of Hillsong church

Before the Hot Priest in the BBC comedy series Fleabag, there was Carl Lentz. For a time the young, tattooed “hype-priest” was the face of global megachurch Hillsong, preaching a cool brand of Christianity to sports stars and celebrities such as Justin Bieber.

“Carl was incredibly charismatic, an insanely good speaker, able to break down the Bible in relevant, almost street terms,” explains film-maker Stacey Lee. “He was funny, he was vulnerable, he just gave so much of himself. He unto himself became his own celebrity.

But to paraphrase John Milton, Lentz dropped from the zenith like a falling star when an extramarital affair came to light and he was fired from Hillsong. The fact that he has now broken his silence in a frank, expansive interview with Lee has made headlines this week.

But Lee’s four-part documentary series, The Secrets of Hillsong, based on original reporting by Vanity Fair magazine journalists Alex French and Dan Adler, is about more than one turbulent priest. Lentz’s scandal was just the first layer of an onion of allegations of child abuse, sexual assault, racial discrimination and labour exploitation that left Hillsong’s reputation in tatters.

At the centre is Brian Houston, a New Zealand-born pastor and evangelist who prayed for Donald Trump during a visit to the White House, the culmination of a journey that had begun in a small church in Sydney back in 1983. When Houston founded Hillsong with wife, Bobbie, it shook up staid old ways of worship with vibrant services and creative sermons.

In the 1990s Hillsong Music, the church’s music ministry, began producing and releasing worship albums such as Shout to the Lord and The Power of Your Love that took off churches worldwide, fuelling the growth of the brand. Hillsong expanded its reach by establishing campuses and affiliate churches overseas, starting in London in 1992.

The turning point for its ambitions in America came in 2010. On 6 October that year, the photo and video sharing social networking service Instagram was born; on 17 October, HillsongNYC in New York was launched. They were a perfect match for each other and for millennials.

Lee, who was born in New Zealand and is in her 30s, explains: “This was a church that was perfect Instagram fodder: a pastor [Lentz] in a leather jacket hangs out with Justin Bieber; churches in a nightclub. Every week there’s a plethora of Instagram worthy moments that you can document. You can see how the church was able to cultivate a very public image and infiltrate the pop culture world.”

Hillsong’s style of mass gatherings, slick online reach and Grammy-winning Christian rock music spread to Los Angeles, Paris, Moscow, Cape Town, Buenos Aires and other cities. More than 100,000 people were attending weekly services at Hillsong in about 20 countries, including over 10,000 at several locations in the US.

But for all the energy and enterprise, Hillsong ran into scrutiny and controversy over its theology, financial practices and leadership structure. Rapacious growth had become an end in itself.

Speaking via Zoom from Joshua Tree, California, Lee says: “There was so much murkiness in the mission that the original goals of the church somehow got lost. The goal of this church from the very outset was reaching as many people as possible and, as our religious historian says in the documentary, in their desire to grow, they never stopped to think if they should.

“The whole point of church is to protect the people within but what happened with Hillsong is that got turned around: let’s just keep getting more and more and more rather than taking care of the people that we’ve already got within your own walls. Ultimately that model, replicated across countries, across decades, turned out to be not the best model after all.”

Lentz, of HillsongNYC, was a charismatic, larger than life figure. He spun yarns about how he baptised Bieber in the New York bathtub of basketball veteran Tyson Chandler in the middle of the night (Bieber has since denounced the church). His marriage to Laura, a fellow pastor whom he met when they were students at Hillsong’s training college in Sydney, was part of the mythology.

Justin Bieber and Carl Lentz in 2017 Photograph: Shareif Ziyadat/Getty Images

Lee reflects: “Laura is not just his wife. She was Hillsong royalty well before Carl came along. She was epicentre of this church and the origins of this church so ultimately there’s a double betrayal that happens here: it’s not just her husband in this insanely public way, but it’s also the church.”

Lentz had an extramarital affair with Ranin Karim, a designer in New York. In 2020 he acknowledged on Instagram that he had cheated on Laura, meaning that both were rapidly forced out. “She lost everything at that exact same moment that her husband does. Again, this role of a church, a place of safety, of refuge, of support in your worst moments, and this church was not there in that moment.

“We couldn’t just go straight to the systemic issues. You have to build up their story as well in order to understand how deep those ties were to the origin and how cut throat, perhaps, that action to excommunicate them was.”

The affair and marital strife is recounted in painful detail in the second episode of Secrets of Hillsong through the first major interviews with Lentz and Laura since they left the megachurch.

Lentz prays aloud on camera, describes how Hillsong’s fast growth led him to take excessive amounts of medication and admits that he was unfit to lead by the end. He also reveals that he had another affair with the couple’s nanny, who was also a member of the church.

He says: “I did those things. Those are on me. I take responsibility for those, and for the rest of my life I’ll be making amends where I can.”

Despite everything, the Lentzes are still together and living in Sarasota, Florida, where he now works in advertising. Their candour was the result of months of patient trust-building by Lee.

“You can feel that and the gravity of Carl sitting down at the end of episode one. Like, where to begin? I try to see the human side of every subject. I wanted to be able to evolve the conversation: why do pastors keep falling? This is not the first time and it’s certainly not going to be the last. But why does this keep happening?

“What is it about his life and the position he’s put in that didn’t enable him to reach out to someone and say, hey, I’m not qualified for this anymore, I’m stepping back? There were no people around. There were no structures or systems of accountability that were happening for him.

“There were no support around them for the marriage and that’s not an excuse but it’s just the structure of the church. So what happens when things start to go wrong? Who do they turn to? Who pastors the pastor?”

People pray during a service at Hillsong Church in New York Photograph: Andrés Kudacki/AP

She adds: “I didn’t see a lot of those conversations. This was about being able to understand the systematic mechanisms at place within Hillsong and what was happening with the leadership when other issues were coming up.

“What we know, as the documentary talks about, is this system of controlling the narrative, covering up where you need to cover up, slicing someone off over here, being able to ultimately protect the church instead of protecting the congregants of the church.

The Secrets of Hillsong gives a voice to survivors and victims. For all its modernity, the church was corrosively traditional in its attitudes toward women, people of colour and the LGBTQ+ community. Senior positions were dominated by white men. Five female congregants in New York wrote a letter in 2017 alleging inappropriate sexual behaviour between staff and interns; all five have since departed.

In 2015 a royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse found that Houston had failed to alert police about allegations his father, Frank, had sexually assaulted children. Houston has pleaded not guilty to a charge of concealing the crime until his father’s death in 2004. The case remains before the courts, with hearings to resume next month.

The documentary also explores allegations that Houston himself made sexually suggestive remarks to a woman at a conference in 2019. He claims the incident was the result of accidental mix of alcohol and anxiety medication.

Before he stepped down as Hillsong leader last year, Houston had enjoyed political cover for much of his career. He took great pride in visiting Trump – a US president eager to garner support from Christian evangelicals despite his own unbiblical behaviour – in 2019 when he could be seen telling supporters that he was in the cabinet room and “just had the chance to pray for president Trump”.

Lee comments: “Hillsong comes from Australia so it’s very intertwined there, but what we started to witness at the end of Brian’s reign was that, if you’re going to make it big on a global scale, you also have to make it big within political America and he was certainly making inroads at that point in time.”

She adds: “What we are witnessing within modern religion is not just this institution that exists within its own silo but has fingers in many pies. The moral majority and all the rest of it: that history of religion and politics being intertwined goes back a long way, even though there are laws supposedly to protect against that.

“What was so shocking about the roots of Hillsong is not just within the political system but within the judicial system. Why are the accounts of child sexual abuse victims not being heard? These are violent criminal acts against children. Where is everybody? That is the part we’re trying to untangle. It’s not just the power structures within celebrity but where does it get more dangerous? Where does it get more problematic?”

Title: ‘Why do pastors keep falling?’: inside the shocking downfall of Hillsong church
URL: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2023/may/18/hillsong-church-documentary-carl-lentz-scandal
Source: World news: Religion | guardian.co.uk
Source URL: https://www.theguardian.com/world/religion
Date: May 18, 2023 at 06:34PM
Feedly Board(s): Religion