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In ‘Secrets of Hillsong,’ Carl Lentz Finally Speaks About the Shady Megachurch’s Scandals

FX
FX

Over the past few decades, pious profiteering has become so commonplace that it’s a cliché, such that Steve Martin was lampooning it back in 1992 with Leap of Faith and Danny McBride is still using it as fodder for HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones. Thus, it’s no revelation that making money was the prime directive of Hillsong, a megachurch that was founded in Australia in the early 1980s and became a recent American sensation courtesy of its New York branch run by Carl Lentz, an unconventional and charismatic pastor who made Christianity cool for younger generations. Carl was a superstar on the fast track until scandal derailed his career. As it turns out, though, his missteps were the least of Hillsong’s problems, what with its own closeted skeletons involving alleged financial malfeasance and pedophilic sexual abuse.

Produced and directed by Stacey Lee, FX’s four-part The Secrets of Hillsong (May 19) tells a story full of disgusting elements that are now routine in conversations about religious organizations, much of them centering, in this instance, around Hillsong bigwig Brian Houston. Nonetheless, its main selling points are the first on-camera interviews with Brian’s hand-picked protégé Carl and his wife Laura, whom Carl was revealed to have cheated on in 2020, thus outing him as a hypocrite and ending his tenure with Hillsong. Considering his public profile as a rising celebrity phenom who served as Justin Bieber’s spiritual advisor (he even baptized him) and befriended Selena Gomez, Kevin Durant, and Oprah Winfrey, Carl’s infidelity was headline news, undercutting his reputation with his flock, destroying his marriage, and compelling Brian to let him go.

Carl is now an advertising executive in Sarasota, Florida, and in The Secrets of Hillsong’s late bombshell, he’s still with Laura, who despite her spouse’s betrayal has chosen to take him back. That’s certainly the biggest Carl-centric surprise to be found in Lee’s docuseries, given that otherwise, his downfall was brought about by a fairly standard mixture of unchecked hubris and horniness. The thing that truly made Carl unique—and successful—was that he didn’t resemble a pastor in the first place. With NSYNC hair (as he himself describes it), arms full of tattoos, a ripped body, and a wardrobe of leather jackets and tight jeans, he more closely resembled a pop star or model—or a particularly attractive hipster from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the location of his NYC headquarters—than a stereotypical man of the cloth.

The fact that Carl used Instagram as a marketing tool for Hillsong, and leaned heavily on the church’s rich music tradition (its albums and songs have been chart-topping best-sellers and Grammy winners), helped make Hillsong seem exciting to its congregation, which he rapidly grew. Many Hillsong devotees speak about the church’s breath-of-fresh-air approach to sermons and community, even as they also, in some cases, chastise its old-fashioned power structure, with minorities welcomed through the front door but prevented from assuming leadership positions on the stage or behind the scenes. Couple that with commentary about the way in which Hillsong utilized—and in many instances seemingly exploited—unpaid volunteers to keep itself afloat, and what emerges is a snapshot of an outfit that promoted itself as trendy and inclusive, and yet was far more conservative than it let on.

Exposing Hillsong: The Pedophile Church That Justin Bieber Made Famous

Buoyed by input from a collection of reporters (including Vanity Fair’s Alex French and Dan Adler, Mike Cosper, Katelyn Beaty, and David Hardaker), The Secrets of Hillsong contends that Carl—who drew praise for supporting Black Lives Matter and cast Hillsong as a “home” for all—was a veritable Trojan Horse designed to entice people to join a die-hard Pentecostal church founded on extremist evangelical principles, replete with speaking in tongues and magical healing demonstrations. In that light, Carl was a phony in multiple respects, and Lee’s thorough series doesn’t let him off the hook, this despite allowing him to candidly confess his mistakes, apologize, and discuss his attempts at atonement. Carl comes off badly in The Secrets of Hillsong, and his trademark tears—which he used to shed to his megachurch throngs, and does so again for TV viewers—don’t soften his newfound image as a fraud.

<div class="inline-image__credit">FX</div>
FX

The Secrets of Hillsong’s true enmity, however, is reserved for Brian. Having learned at the feet of his father Frank, a pastor who’d led New Zealand’s Assemblies of God into Australia, as well as from modern American evangelists who preached that financial success was the way to God (and proof of one’s holiness), Brian transformed Frank’s church into the immensely lucrative Hillsong. Along the way, he allegedly covered up his dad’s fondness for molesting young boys—a charge that Brian is currently fighting in court following his dismissal from Hillsong. That a verdict isn’t due until this July suggests that FX’s series is a tad premature. Nonetheless, with the aid of numerous journalists, as well as the heartrending testimony of some of his victims, director Lee persuasively argues that Frank was a pedophilic monster and that Brian knew full well what his dad was up to, no matter that he downplayed his awareness of these crimes to a 2014 Royal Commission.

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The Secrets of Hillsong’s final two episodes detail Brian’s sexually inappropriate behavior with two separate women, and the payoffs and non-disclosure agreements that were employed to silence them. Factor in Brian and other church elders’ treatment of Hillsong as their private piggy bank, and what you have is a familiar tale of corporatized greed and misconduct. In light of this ugliness, it’s no shock that Hillsong’s global reach has dwindled, and it’s likely to shrink more, courtesy of the audio and video recordings presented by Lee—in particular, a Zoom conference call in which Hillsong bigwigs talk about covering up Brian’s misdeeds.

Per modern docuseries convention, The Secrets of Hillsong runs at least one episode too long. Regardless, it’s a comprehensive overview of a reprehensible situation that often plays out in the religious world—one in which power, wealth, and sex, rather than biblical standards of benevolence, generosity, and selflessness, are the prime motivators of those claiming to have a direct line to God.

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