How Hillsong, a Hip Megachurch, Became Entangled in Scandal

The global megachurch Hillsong was known for its hipster trappings, celebrity congregants and wildly popular worship music in the 2010s, but in recent years it has been more closely tied to a series of scandals, including the firing of its charismatic celebrity pastor, Carl Lentz, for “moral failures.”

A four-part documentary series, “The Secrets of Hillsong,” premieres on FX on Friday and delves into the turmoil. The series, which is based on a 2021 article in Vanity Fair magazine, features the first interview with Mr. Lentz since he was fired in 2020.

Here’s how the trouble unfolded.

Brian Houston and his wife, Bobbie, founded Hillsong in Australia in 1983 and opened its first United States branch in New York in 2010. The church was a member of the Australian branch of the Pentecostal denomination, the Assemblies of God, before it formed its own denomination in 2018.

Hillsong’s expansion into the United States built on its enormous success in presenting worship music. Its services drew in young people in big cities, where services were held in concert venues, such as Irving Plaza and the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York. The congregants were fashionable and included celebrities such as Justin Bieber, Kevin Durant and Vanessa Hudgens.

Mr. Lentz, the lead pastor of Hillsong’s New York branch, also became a celebrity.

This hip veneer suggested that Hillsong supported a more progressive form of Evangelicalism, but the church was criticized for its position on L.G.B.T.Q. rights. In an August 2015 blog post, the church’s founder, Mr. Houston, said that gay people were welcome at Hillsong, but that it did “not affirm a gay lifestyle.”

Mr. Lentz mingled with celebrities including Mr. Bieber, whom he baptized in the bathtub of an N.B.A. player’s home. In 2017, GQ magazine called Mr. Lentz a “hypepriest” to reflect his trendy wardrobe, which included aviator glasses, skinny jeans and designer sneakers. He spoke frequently about racial inequality and in 2016 declared his support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

It all came to a halt when he was fired from Hillsong in November 2020. The church said that his termination had followed discussions about “leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures.” Mr. Lentz said on Instagram shortly afterward that he had been “unfaithful in my marriage, the most important relationship in my life.” His wife, Laura Lentz, was also a Hillsong pastor.

Since then, he has stayed out of the spotlight. Last week, he said in an Instagram post that his wife and children had been his “only priority” for the past three years.

“Part of the healing from that heartache led us to the decision to be a part of a documentary that we do not control, that we don’t have any say in and that we haven’t even seen yet,” he said.

More turmoil. Hillsong’s founder, Mr. Houston, resigned in March 2022 after the church said that an internal investigation had found that he behaved inappropriately toward two women, breaching the church’s code of conduct.

He had already stepped away from his ministry duties in January 2022 to fight a criminal charge accusing him of concealing child sexual abuse by his late father, Frank Houston. Brian Houston has denied the allegations. The case is still in the courts, The Australian Associated Press reported.

In March, Mr. Houston said he had been charged with drunken driving in the United States in February 2022. Mr. Houston said that at the time “it seemed like all hell had broken loose within Hillsong church.”

Mr. Houston did not respond to a request for comment. In a video posted on his social media accounts in November, he criticized Hillsong’s leadership for how it had handled the allegations of misconduct made against him.

“I didn’t resign because of my mistakes,” he said. “I resigned because of the announcements and statements that had been made.”

In March 2022, nine of the 16 Hillsong churches in the United States cut ties with the organization, abruptly shrinking the church’s American presence. Hillsong’s website says it has seven churches in the United States, as well as locations in more than two dozen other countries.

The website also says that about 150,000 people worldwide attend its services weekly, but that is an estimate the church has been using since before the pandemic. Hillsong did not respond to questions about current attendance figures.

The documentary premiering on Friday includes interviews with congregants and looks at the history of the church’s relationship with money, sex and God.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *