Stars like Justin Bieber helped make Hillsong church a household name. When its 'celebrity pastor' Carl Lentz fell from grace, it did too.
"The Secrets of Hillsong" director Stacy Lee says the docuseries is "a story not just of religion, but where we are culturally."
The Secrets of Hillsong, FX's buzzy new documentary, lifts the curtain on decades-long misconduct at the megachurch once known for its super famous congregants — and the four-part series features the first interviews with Carl and Laura Lentz since their very public ouster three years ago.
Carl, known as the "celebrity pastor," was the face of Hillsong New York, credited with making Christianity "cool" for a new generation. He was known for his sleek style (even GQ-profile worthy), hip sermons and, of course, being BFFs with Justin Bieber. But in 2020, Carl's world came crashing down when he was abruptly fired for "moral failures." It wasn't just the former pastor's extramarital affairs that garnered headlines. Hillsong, billed as a progressive church, was fundamentally very conservative rooted in beliefs from its evangelist founder, Brian Houston. In the documentary, ex-congregants accuse people at the top of racism, sexual abuse, homophobia and volunteer exploitation.
As it turns out, moral failures within the organization go back generations. Secrets of Hillsong director Stacey Lee tells Yahoo Entertainment the scandal with its pop culture hook is ultimately a "significant and important" story that needs to be told.
"I think this is a story of our time," she says. "This is a story not just of religion, but where we are culturally."
Lee asks, "Why are we willing to put idols up on a pedestal and then we're surprised when they fall?"
The reason most people know about Hillsong is probably because of Carl, and the first episode sets up the allure of its star pastor: "It felt like he was preaching just to me and it was life-changing," one former member declares. Lee says she intentionally wanted to show "how magnetic and incredible Carl was as a speaker." Just as evangelical churches in the '80s and '90s relied on televisions to disseminate their messages, Hillsong, which originated in Australia, tapped into social media.
"Instagram enabled this image of church — particularly a pastor who's young, hip, good looking, wearing a leather jacket — like the antithesis of church. It just was the perfect fodder for Instagram and unlike TVs, Instagram is immediate and it's global," Lee explains. (Both Instagram and Hillsong New York launched in 2010.) "Hillsong had all these interesting kind of facets... they could have this ironic hip progressive tone of voice that ran counter to this very conservative style of church that a lot of people had kind of grown up with."
Hillsong's popularity erupted as influencer culture took off. At its height in 2015, there were 30 Hillsong locations around the world generating $100 million, largely untaxed. Hillsong had an average global attendance of 150,000 people weekly in 30 countries. As for the celebrity factor, Lee thinks Hillsong specifically appealed to stars who often felt "isolated" or "alone" with fame. Hillsong also had a secret weapon.
"I think Carl himself was very important," she explains. "Like you cannot underestimate the power of him as a public speaker... how he presented himself was a celebrity in his own right. So, he was trading in circles where other celebrities might be. He kind of became a magnet, not just for celebrities that were seeking something and a community to help support their life, but also because he was one too."
Hailey Bieber, Selena Gomez, Kourtney Kardashian, Kendall and Kylie Jenner are just a few big names who attended services. But Hillsong was most synonymous with Bieber as he frequently spoke about his close bond with Carl. In 2014, the pop star moved in with Lentzs amid a personal crisis where he detoxed at their home. In 2017, when Bieber abruptly canceled the remainder of a concert tour, he leaned on the Lentzs. The "Holy" singer even interned at Hillsong while he refocused on his religious faith. It was reported Carl and Bieber had a falling out in 2018, so it isn't too surprising that the singer declined to participate in the docuseries.
"We certainly reached out to [former celebrity members] and I think you can kind of understand why they didn't want to talk in regards to this because they, too, felt like they were victims as well, you know?" Lee tells Yahoo. "[Justin] so publicly was affiliated with Carl and I think there's a sense personally for, you know, anyone who's placed a lot of trust publicly in someone — when that person falls I don't think it can necessarily reflect positively on your own decisions for being associated with them."
Getting Carl and Laura to participate on camera took "months," Lee says. After the scandal, the Lentzs essentially disappeared. In the show, viewers learn they relocated to Sarasota, Fla. with their three children. Carl recently revealed on Instagram he and Laura celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary. ("For the last 3 years my entire focus has been fighting for my wife and my kids," Lentz wrote in a lengthy post. "In order to do that, seeking sobriety and healing had to run parallel with those goals.")
When Lee signed on to direct the project, she says she made it clear to Carl "that this wasn't just going to be [a documentary] about how you're feeling, what are you up to now, you know, spill the beans. It was also him answering some very concerning and troubling claims that had been made against him. That was very clear from the onset."
In Secrets of Hillsong, Carl admits to cheating on Laura multiple times. He reveals he had a dependency on Adderall. One of his extramarital relationships was with married Hillsong member Leona Kimes, who also worked as their nanny. Kimes accused him of emotional manipulation and sexual abuse, the latter of which he flatly denies.
"I am responsible for allowing an inappropriate relationship to develop in my house with someone who worked for us. Any notion of abuse is categorically false. There were mutual adult decisions made by two people who lied profusely, mainly to my wife," Carl says in the second episode, but admits there was an off-balance power dynamic between them. After the scandal erupted three years ago, Carl says he "thought about vacating the planet."
"The goal of this documentary is truth," Lee continues. "Hillsong was incredible at the PR facade for so long. It wasn't until Carl fell that there was this first chink in the armor with which to examine the church with this slightly more critical eye."
In 2022, Hillsong founder Brian Houston, a mentor of Carl's, resigned after an internal investigation found he had breached the church's code of conduct by behaving inappropriately toward two women. Months earlier, Brian stepped away and was criminally charged for allegedly covering up allegations that his late father, pastor Frank Houston, sexually abused a young boy. The documentary investigates further allegations of sexual abuse against Frank decades prior. (Brian pleaded not guilty and a verdict is expected in June.) Additional criminal charges against Brian are expected related to Hillsong's alleged financial malfeasance. Hillsong's tax exemption status in Australia is in jeopardy.
Hillsong's popularity is not at all what it was in the height of Carl's era. As of March 2023, only six out of 16 Hillsong locations remain in the U.S. Hillsong New York only has around 500 congregates a week, according to the docuseries.
Brian denied repeated requests to be interviewed in The Secrets of Hillsong. Aside from Carl and Laura, the series features poignant conversations with many past congregants who speak about the discrimination and disappointment they faced and how that reckoned with their faith.
"When people fall or they are not held accountable to the same standards that the rest of us are, it's incredibly problematic. And even more so in a church, which is supposed to be a safe place, a place of refuge, a place where if you are in trouble, you can turn to for help. And I think so much of what we saw within this church institution is that was twisted," Lee says.
"For anyone watching this, it's really about being able to understand and perhaps have your eyes wide open as you walk into any of these situations. What are you a part of? And why are you there? Because if that comes from a place of spirituality and community and the people that you are a part of are reflecting that, then that's great," she adds. "But there's also obviously a number of cases at this point in time, Hillsong included, where ultimately you come thinking it's a church and it's a safe place, and it's found to be something very, very different."
The Secrets of Hillsong premieres Thursday, May 19 at on 10 p.m. on FX.