Hillsong founder admits to fostering celebrity culture, but defends church: 'Look at Justin Bieber today'

Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston is speaking out about recent scandals surrounding the Christian megachurch, including former pastor Carl Lentz's firing for "moral failures."

Hillsong, an Australia-based church founded in 1983, became something of a pop culture namesake due to famous worshipers like Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Chris Pratt. During a sit down with Today's Savannah Guthrie, Houston admitted to missteps when asked if celebrities got "better" treatment and more attention.

Justin Bieber and Carl Lentz, a former Hillsong pastor, in 2017.
Justin Bieber and Carl Lentz, a former Hillsong pastor, in 2017. (Photo: Getty Images)

"I do think that we did allow a culture to develop where it was one rule for celebrities and a different rule for other people," Houston said in Wednesday's interview.

Bieber became synonymous with Hillsong due to his close ties with Lentz, who served as his former spiritual advisor. The "Lonely" singer even moved in with Lentz and his wife in 2014 during what Bieber called a personal low point. Houston pointed to the singer as being one of the church's success stories.

"One person who's obviously been well reported is Justin Bieber," he explained. "If you think back several years now when he was wrecking hotel rooms and basically on the edge of getting deported to Canada, there was certainly talk about that and living an out-of-control life with abuse of drugs and so on. And look at Justin Bieber today. Anyone who's being fair could see a radical change, and so not everything about [Hillsong] is bad."

Lentz, dubbed a "styled-up pastor to the stars" by GQ, was one of the biggest faces of Hillsong. But some inside the church claimed he started acting like a celebrity himself.

"People described Carl Lentz as somewhat aloof and removed from the actual ministry. They say he would come in in a chauffeured car, wait in a green room, come do a sermon and depart. Does that bother you?" Guthrie asked.

"It does to a degree, for sure," Houston replied. "Carl was Carl. He's a unique character. There's a lot of things I miss about Carl. But having said that, there were leadership issues that I believe included lying, included what I would call narcissistic behavior."

Lentz was fired in November due "to leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures," Houston said in a statement at the time. Lentz admitted to cheating on his wife of 17 years. Houston told Guthrie he had "concerns and many conversations over the years with Carl."

"I think there's a lot of things I should've known earlier, and hopefully, moving forward, we'll make sure we have far better systems in place and better accountability," Houston said.

Hillsong has churches in 28 countries around the world. The church has an average global attendance of 150,000 weekly, according to its website. While contemporary, it has also been criticized for its outdated views of LGBTQ rights. (Houston wrote a blog post years ago about how he believes in "traditional Christian thought on gay lifestyles and gay marriage.")

"I want us to get better at the way we communicate and embrace and work with people who are gay," Houston told Guthrie. "I don't have any personal bias at all against gay or lesbian people. But unfortunately, as a pastor, you don't represent what you think. You represent what the Bible says. And so at this point, we're still a conservative one on the subject of active gay relationship, et cetera."

"But it's a journey," he added. "Everyone's welcome. Many, many people who are gay come to Hillsong Church."

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