Sit down for this one, it is a wild ride. In November 2020, Carl Lentz—one-time “spiritual confidant” to celebrities including Justin Bieber and the head pastor at Hillsong megachurch known for his rock show-style sermons—was “released” from his job due to unspecified “moral failures.” By December, it was revealed that Lentz cheated on his wife, having had an affair with Brooklyn-based fashion designer Ranin Karim (and potentially, many others). And so Lentz did what any celebrity would do: he kickstarted his redemption arc, reportedly entered treatment for anxiety, depression, and “pastoral burnout.” It might’ve worked, had new information about a seedy, “sexually inappropriate” culture at Hillsong not emerged.
According to a very long Vanity Fair investigation into the megachurch, Lentz’s affair is just the tip of the iceberg. As he might say, here’s the tea:
- After hanging out with Joel Houston, son of Hillsong founder Brian Houston, on New Year’s Eve 2009, Joel and Lentz decide to go to New York City to open their own branch of the church. They moved into 184 Kent Avenue on the Williamsburg waterfront, referred to as “the compound”—where models attended exclusive late-night parties held by pastors. “Those guys were dicking down!,” a former Hillsong volunteer told Vanity Fairr, despite the fact that the church preaches against pre-marital sex.
- Lentz allegedly made aspiring pastors work for him 24/7, acting as his round the clock chauffeurs. He also allegedly made volunteers act as his assistants. Leona Kimes, a pastor who “ran Laura’s life” passed along the instructions she received about Lentz, per Vanity Fair: “Don’t talk to him, don’t look at him, don’t be in his way.” And so, Lentz became a celebrity—getting driven to the back entrances of venues, waiting in green rooms with actual celebrity followers until showtime, performing and then leaving out the back, never actually coming into contact with the congregation. One volunteer told Vanity Fair, “In six years I never came face-to-face with [Carl]. My turning point came one night after church at Serendipity, when one of my friends said to me, ‘I just wanna meet Carl, I just wanna touch his coat.’”
- Hillsong Church preaches “prosperity doctrine,” which means if a volunteer donates to the church, they donate to God—a spiritual investment that comes right out of their pocket. A Hillsong College student described the teaching: “‘If you step out in faith and make that first step with a donation, you will be rewarded and it will come back to you.’ That’s not biblical. That’s essentially a pyramid scheme... [although] with pyramid schemes at least you get employment out of it.” If that’s not damning enough: in 2010, founder Brian Houston claimed he earned $300,000 a year. That same year, The Sunday Telegraph reported that the Houstons had multimillion-dollar beachfront properties and a million-dollar tax-free church expense account.
- Volunteers ran the big, expensive production church sermons, “pastors, back-office workers, and interns who themselves pay up to $4,000 to work at the church,” as Vanity Fair reports. They unload trucks, they set up tech, they clean vomit from concerts the night before. Those with the worst jobs are not “the called,” a former Hillsong Sydney employee told Vanity Fair. “If you complain, you’ll keep cleaning toilets. If you don’t complain, you can climb the ladder.”
- Also: racism! Hillsong is overwhelmingly white. Ashley Jones, described as “the only Black woman leader on the worship team,” recalled being excluded from Hillsong’s Black History Month plans, showing up to the meeting anyway, and learning their plan was to have a “blue-eyed, blond-haired woman who has a reputation for singing Black” perform “Amazing Grace” with Black backup singers.
- Homophobia: Founder Brian Houston allegedly forced director Josh Canfield to step down from his position after he discussed his identity as a gay Hillsong member on CBS’s Survivor.
- Child sexual abuse: Frank Houston—Brian Houston’s father and the founder of Sydney Christian Life Centre, Hillsong Church’s forerunner—was accused of abusing nine boys at his church. He confessed to committing child sex abuse and retired with a pension. A royal commission in Australia found that Brian “failed to notify authorities about the allegations upon learning of them,” Vanity Fair reports, which means Frank continued to preach even after his son was made aware of the child sexual abuse. One of the victims, Brett Sengstock, who alleged he was abused from ages 7 to 12 years old, said he was promised $10,000 not to speak out. Brian Houston allegedly told him, “Yes, okay, I’ll get the money to you. There’s no problem. You know, it’s your fault all of this happened. You tempted my father.” Brian has, of course, denied saying that.
- Anna Crenshaw, a student at Hillsong College who says she was once abused by a church leader as a child, was allegedly assaulted by Jason Mays, son of the Australian church’s human resources head, in front of multiple witnesses, one of which told her not to tell anyone about it. Mays denied the incident, but because the other witnesses were able to verify Crenshaw’s account, Mays was placed on paid leave. He is now in an administrative role with the church. “Reporting what happened was the issue, not what happened to me,” Crenshaw said.
So what’s in store for Hillsong’s future? Ideally, a total dismantling of the megachurch. But not so fast: last week, Lentz’s friend John Termini “quietly began taking over” Lentz’s place as Hillsong’s Executive Pastor—a former real estate broker who wants to sell property to God. How pious.
Read the full Vanity Fair piece here.