The new documentary “Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed” reveals how hipster pastor Carl Lentz’s affair was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this house of sin.
We all remember when Justin Bieber found Jesus after some run-ins with the law and pissing in a mop bucket back in the early 2010s. Paparazzi photos of the Canadian pop singer strolling around New York and Los Angeles with a jacked, often shirtless Diplo look-alike began to emerge online.
It turned out the tattooed fellow wasn’t a security guard or Bieber’s fitness trainer but the senior pastor and co-founder of Hillsong NYC, the Australian megachurch’s first branch in the United States and the latest hotspot for celebrity followers of Christ.
Since entering the public consciousness and experiencing influencer-level fame, Carl Lentz represented the stereotypical image of the young, “hip” pastor grasping for relevance in the social media age while also raising awareness for the Hillsong youth-oriented brand.
With his hypebeast fashion, “real talk” method of preaching, and A-list followers including Kevin Durant, Selena Gomez and Chris Pratt, his presentation and leadership style was as fascinating as it was grotesque and off-putting.
Then came the pastor’s admission during the pandemic that he cheated on his wife Laura Lentz and had been ousted from the church, along with other damning headlines about Hillsong’s financial records, working conditions, and abuse allegations accumulating online. Bieber publicly distanced himself from Lentz in 2021, migrating with many of his famous peers to copycat establishments like Churchome, the controversial Zoe Church, and Kanye West’s Sunday Services.
A new docuseries premiering on Discovery+ today, Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed, attempts to contextualize Lentz’s meteoric rise and swift downfall within the toxic, financially driven culture of Hillsong Church. It feels like the right time, considering the recent boom of media exploring notorious con artists and cult leaders.
However, the three-part series doesn’t spend all of its energy exposing the charismatic leader. As much as the former congregants, journalists and religious experts interviewed throughout the episodes depict him as a misogynist who inflicted trauma on his young congregants—mostly women—we’re also meant to understand him as a scapegoat for the megachurch’s laundry list of indiscretions and abuses, including those of co-founder Brian Houston, who just resigned from the church this week after a probe into claims of inappropriate behavior.
Much of Lentz’s undoing is captured in the series’ second episode, and it makes for some of the most compelling minutes. But first, we’re given an introductory look into the conception of Hillsong and its growth as a global brand, which grew out of Sydney Christian Life Centre—led by Houston’s now-deceased father Frank in the ‘80s.
The “neo-Pentecostal” megachurch rose to prominence amid a wave of “charismatic” churches with a corporate focus and the rise of televangelism. We see notable faces like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker along other white men shouting into a camera.
Likewise, as much as the docuseries attempts to present certain aspects of Hillsong as anomalous, anyone who spent time in an evangelical, Baptist or Pentecostal church growing up (or is still a part of one) won’t be shocked to hear about the concept of “prosperity gospel” or the way contemporary-sounding music is utilized to lure young congregants—although, the profits Hillsong turns annually from their record label are much more shocking than your average church with a lively choir.
As the docuseries puts it, Hillsong and its business-minded, male leadership was always hell-bent on global expansion, with North America as a primary market. Enter Hillsong NYC, which began operating out of Irving Plaza in 2010 with lines wrapped around the street. This is where we’re formally introduced to Lentz, whose track record as a youth pastor at the equally dubious-sounding Wave Church in Virginia Beach prior to Hillsong is revealed by former members and provides some context for his infidelity and scrutinized views on abortion.
For the most part, Lentz is described as being a militant enforcer of purity culture during his tenure at Wave. A former female member vaguely discusses feeling controlled and “put in [her] place” as a woman under his guidance. Another reveals a time that she was shamed by him for having pre-marital sex, prompting her to marry her boyfriend of only three months. We also see a gross clip of him sharing some advice he learned from his father about women being formed by their fathers and how husbands have to “get in there early.” Basically, the premise of John Mayer’s “Daughters.”
The clips of Lentz’s preaching, both at Wave and Hillsong—which received significantly less circulation than the photos of his abs by non-churchgoers—are amusing to watch, considering how ineloquent, aggressive and unwelcoming he is onstage (not to mention the ridiculously tight clothing). Despite how often he’s framed as charming and magnetic throughout the doc, his stage presence resembles Tom Cruise in Magnolia.
“The clips of Lentz’s preaching, both at Wave and Hillsong—which received significantly less circulation than the photos of his abs by non-churchgoers—are amusing to watch, considering how ineloquent, aggressive and unwelcoming he is onstage (not to mention the ridiculously tight clothing).”
The crux of the Lentz portion is an interview with the woman he would go on to have an affair with, New York fashion designer Ranin Karim. Considering she’s already detailed their relationship at-length to the press, her appearance in the series doesn’t necessarily have the bombshell element the producers are going for, even with the creepy video messages from Lentz that she shows on her phone.
You also wonder about Lentz’s former nanny, Leona Kimes, who claimed the pastor sexually assaulted her from 2011 to 2017 and why she isn’t mentioned at all in the documentary, especially considering how much sexual abuse is a topic later on. (Lentz has denied the allegations.)
By the end of the series, we realize that the Lentz fallout is really just the appetizer to the rest of Hillsong’s egregious controversies, making the supposition by some of the talking heads that his affair was weaponized by Houston to distract from other scandals sound believable.
Likewise, the third episode stuffs testimonies and breakdowns of Hillsong’s poorly run college, sketchy financial records, poor working conditions for volunteers, and allegations of sexual assault and child abuse into a gripping final hour. These revelations—most of them already public information—include Frank Houston’s rampant sexual abuse of boys throughout the ’70s and ’80s and the sorry payments his son Brian had made to victims, while still allowing the founder to preach.
Watching the 68-year-old co-founder maintain an unsettling smirk and relaxed demeanor as he discusses his father’s pedophilia to members of the Australian child abuse commission while describing the criticisms of Hillsong as an “assault” on a broadcast is equally infuriating and bone-chilling. The Houston family’s vile legacy and Brian’s Machiavellian tactics to protect the church’s profits feel deserving of their own documentary and will presumably be put under a larger microscope following his termination and ongoing criminal charges.
Like most docuseries, Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed suffers from being slightly too long and the occasional navel-gazing. But it gives some necessary insight into the mental damage that purity culture has on young people and the predatory nature of youth-targeted religious outreach.
Despite how accessible and non-restrictive Hillsong presents itself, lacking a formal dress code and modeling its services after a fun, party environment, the lack of care and manipulative messaging are just as oppressive and controlling as your grandmother’s stuffy church down the road.
Of course, the documentary has to conclude on a soundbite from Ben Kirby, who runs the famous PreachersNSneakers Instagram page, that the “majority of Christians” don’t want to be led by corrupt, power-hungry abusers. But the takeaway of the docuseries seems to be that many of them are and easily can be—for the right price.