You’ve probably heard about Hillsong Church and former senior pastor Brian Houston, thanks to a celebrity following that included A-listers like Justin Bieber, Hailey Bieber, Chris Pratt, Kendall Jenner, Selena Gomez, and Kevin Durant. You’ve probably also heard something or another about Hillsong’s sleaziness. A new, three-part docuseries Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed, now streaming on Discovery+, excavates the controversies behind the celebrity-approved veneer—and it appears that regardless of where you stand when it comes to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, that imposing beast karma still gets the final word in on earth.
As with most megachurches, Hillsong’s background story matters, and the first episode of the docuseries focuses on its humble beginnings. Frank Houston planted the initial roots in a thriving urban enclave of Sydney, Australia, back in the mid-’70s. However, the groundwork for the meteoric rise of the Hillsong brand wasn’t laid until well into the ‘90s, when Frank’s son Brian Houston and Brian’s wife Bobbie stepped in to merge their own creation, known as Hills CLC, with Frank’s church.
This was a lot more than a hungry expansion of the family brand. The docuseries theorizes that the move warded off child sex abuse allegations that had been levied against Frank; the elder Houston apparently stepped away from his Waterloo church so it could be joined with his son’s scandal-free chapter. During the years-long investigation into his father’s alleged sex crimes, Brian Houston allegedly withheld vital information from authorities—presumably to keep his lofty ambitions to rule over a massive congregation on track. Brian was criminally charged in 2021 while Frank died without atoning for his sins back in 2004.
Mid-way into the docuseries, we learn that Brian has also been accused of sexual misconduct by women in his own church. The first accusation was raised in 2010 and another came in 2019—the final straws that led to his resignation from Hillsong in early 2022. The roosters, as they say, had come to roost. But there’s a lot more to this seedy soap opera that captures the crux of what give megachurches a very bad name.
As funds pumped fast and furiously into the family empire before its fall, the series shows us how Hillsong expanded into the United States during the mid-t0-late 2010s with the launch of new venues in New York City and Los Angeles, two culturally driven cities that tend to attract the young and adventurous. It doesn’t take long for the popularity of these well-positioned megachurches to soar. The hypnotic vibes of high-energy services are fueled by mind-blowing musical numbers and the sweating charisma of animated pastors. The celebrities show up in droves. So do non-famous congregation members seeking religion with an infusion of cool. Even my skeptical attitude towards organized religion—trust me, it’s well-earned—couldn’t keep me from admiring Hillsong’s state-of-the-art production and the youthful appeal of its performers as they cast their spells on throngs of worshippers, all set to music that sounds an awful like what you would be grooving to at a Coldplay concert.
Nothing quite epitomized the energy Hillsong courted like young, dynamic pastor Carl Lentz, who resembled every ripped fitness trainer in Hollywood with the outward aesthetic of a hipster. Houston recruited him in 2010 from the Wave Church in Virginia Beach, and former congregants featured in Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed claimed Lentz built a cult-like following with his inappropriate insertion into their private lives, including regulating their dating habits and shaming their sexuality.
Lentz became a focal point of the Hillsong brand, thanks in part to his very tight and very public friendship with celebs like Justin Bieber (which developed just in time to rescue the young singer from the demons that were tainting his fragile reputation). But as Hillsong progresses, we see how swiftly that too unraveled. Lentz’s extramarital affair made the news in 2020. The woman at the center of the scandal, Ranin Karim, is given ample onscreen time
in the series to chart her five-month dalliance with Hillsong’s most recognizable face, and even shares clips of video messages he prepared for his mistress. (Lentz and his wife Laura did not participate in the docuseries, nor did anyone from the Houston family.)
Not long after these devastating revelations that proved this supposed man of God was living a double life were made public, Lentz announced his departure from Hillsong. He did so with an Instagram post featuring a wholesome family photo of his smiling wife and three kids, all dressed in their Sunday best, exuding the picturesque view of a modern Christian family. From a PR standpoint, the staging was perfect.
Behind the scenes though, Hillsong interestingly positions Brian Houston’s reaction to his main man’s shameful ouster as suspicious, hinting that the Hillsong founder may have blackmailed Lentz, and set him up to fail as a way of permanently tarnishing his reputation. The crown prince was becoming a bigger star than the king himself, and that needed to be curbed. But before the affair, the docuseries alleges Houston had been made aware of Lentz’s track record, including allegations of sexual misconduct brought against Lentz by two former volunteers, who claimed their accusations were dismissed by church leadership.
It’s now darkly ironic that almost two years after Lentz’s departure, Houston has also been forced to step down as senior global pastor. After years of spreading the Hillsong gospel far and wide, sporting million-dollar apparel and the deceitful smile of a scammer, he must face the punishment for willfully hiding his father’s alleged sex crimes. That brings us to today.
Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed director Dan Johnstone is a master at steering the layered narrative of the famed megachurch’s bitter fall from grace. Viewers are transported to a world that they know exists but looks a lot different when the studio lights shine brightly on the villains with the precision of Hillsong’s aim. In an interview with Variety about the project, Johnstone talked about how he was reared in “a religious household.” His love for music and fashion as “a child of the ‘80s and ‘90s” attracted his attention to the “cultural phenomenon” that became the Hillsong brand: “And so I sort of followed Hillsong, and I just saw this church that had crossed through all of those barriers.”
Like Johnstone, I’m fixated on Hillsong and megachurches like it that are committed to exploiting the faith and loyalty of worshippers, who are simply following the traditions that shaped their youth. My childhood in Lagos, Nigeria, was entrenched in the teachings of Christ. I was bombarded with billboards advertising the lucrative business of Pentecostal gatherings at massive event halls. My adolescent years were spent at a boarding school that insisted on terrorizing students into submission with violent Christian films. Later on, when I moved to New York right after college graduation, I was invited by a young woman at a local Starbucks to check out her “church.” She perceived that I was relatively new to the city and wanted to offer a support system, which revolved around a smallish man with a bevy of young, attractive women at his beck and call. Needless to say, I was out of there.
In my experiences, I learned how religious groups cater to our vulnerabilities— particularly when they are governed by an absolute ruler, handpicked by God to lead the hopeless out of darkness and into the light. Their members share the commonality of wanting to belong, and this leader gives them a place to do it. Sometimes, a cultish sect, like the one I was invited to, grows into an empire.
The way I see it, the tragic fall of Hillsong was an inevitable collision of evil vs. righteousness. It was pre-ordained the moment its self-serving decision makers chose the cowardly, ungodly route at the expense of real victims, who deserve
The late pastor Eddie Long, a once-prominent megachurch leader of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church based in Georgia, faced allegations of sexual harassment brought on by four young men who accused their spiritual mentor of weaponizing his power for sexual favors. It’s also worth pointing out that Long tirelessly preached about the evils of homosexuality. The accusations didn’t go away until he was forced to settle the lawsuit in 2011. Six years later, Long, who had gained enough notoriety to rub shoulders with former President George W. Bush, passed away.
Joel Osteen is the shiny epitome of the trend that ushered in a slew of “Prosperity Preachers.” The very rich and well-coiffed showman was in danger of destroying the family business—Texas’s Lakewood megachurch—at the height of Hurricane Harvey, when he was accused of barricading its doors, as witnessed by those who came to seek refuge. Olsteen was quick to implement damage control and managed to come out of that controversy mostly unscathed. Perhaps future inquiries that won’t be so easily diminished.
Fast-talking performers wield bibles as a decoy, but the hypocrisy runs deep. At a critical time when millennials, who are the key demographic for recruitment by megachurches, are moving away from organized religion due to the ravages of a global pandemic and the real-life uncertainties it presents, there’s no doubt that Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed is a warning flare for the megachurch industry: Its most famous institution succumbed from an infestation too severe to keep under wraps.
As he battles the legal ramifications stemming from his late father’s reported child sex crimes, Houston issued an apology to Hillsong Church members. He did so in response to the misconduct allegations, not long after his resignation was confirmed by church leadership. What happens in the dark will come to light. Or at least, we’re supposed to believe the bad guys rarely get away with it. Despite the mountain of troubling evidence though, congregants are more likely to forgive and move on. Houston is out, but Hillsong the brand could survive all this. And this was very much in my thoughts as I soaked in the last moments of Hillsong, and wondered why the hypocrisy is not so obvious to most—why the combination of “mega” and “church” doesn’t create a monster in everyone’s mind that has to be vanquished.
Until it does, the most lucrative show on earth will keep trying to give the pearly gates of heaven a run for their money.