5 Embarrassing Takeaways From The Latest Hipster Church Scandal
Megachurch scandals are nothing new. As long as televangelists have been gracing our TV screens, they have been falling from grace just as publicly. Hillsong Church and its now-former pastor Carl Lentz is just the most recent example, and while their scandal may lack the usual moral failures like tax fraud, prostitutes, pool boys, or begging for a $2 million jet, it does make up for it in some bizarre details in the lead-up and the aftermath ...
About Hillsong Church
Hillsong Church began as Hills Christian Life Centre in 1983 in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia, by Brian Houston and his wife, Bobbie. Since then, the church has grown to over 250,000 members and has "planted" almost 1,100 churches on six continents. We like to imagine they tried to go for all seven continents, but, as we know from that '80s documentary, Antarctica belongs to The Thing.
Hillsong is part of a growing movement referred to as Charismatic Christianity. Their belief structure is primarily Pentecostal, but they're aiming to bring those beliefs into the modern age by making the scripture more accessible and practical and to bring people together in a world that seems to be more divided than ever. They're also trying to make Jesus Christ way hipper in the process. This ain't your grandad's megachurch. This is the cool church.
What has made Hillsong so successful is their marketing ... and their music. The church has produced over 40 albums, selling over 11 million copies to date. They even have a Grammy to their name. Stylistically, they have tried to cover as many bases as possible, forming four bands to help spread their message. Their most popular band, Hillsong United, is mainly God-themed arena rock. There's also Hillsong Worship, their most mainstream band. They also have Hillsong Kids, which is obviously their death metal band (citation needed), and finally, there's Hillsong Young and Free, their EDM band. Ever wonder what Jesus-themed club music sounds like? Have a listen:
Wait for the
bass praise drop.
Hillsong remained primarily in Australia until the '90s, when it built a church in London, and into the 2000s, it was expanding by planting new campuses in Moscow, Stockholm, and South Africa. Hillsong made it to America with its first location in New York City in 2010, and the man who helped make that happen was a charismatic young pastor named Carl Lentz.
The Rise of the "Hipster Pastor"
Carl Lentz was a Virginia native who had studied at Hillsong International Leadership College and had developed a strong friendship with Joel Houston, Hillsong founder Brian Houston's son. Lentz later interned for the elder Houston and helped Joel establish the church's NYC location. Joel brought the message, but Carl brought the showmanship. What started out as small gatherings at people's apartments quickly grew to the church having to switch to larger theaters three times to accommodate all of the new congregants.
What really put Lentz on the map was his friendship with and the spiritual mentorship of Justin Bieber. The two hung out together quite regularly, and Beiber even lived with Lentz and his family for a short time when the singer was going through a rough patch back in 2014. Between having one of the biggest pop stars on the planet crash on his couch, the story of Lentz baptizing Bieber in NBA player Tyson Chandler's bathtub, and getting to talk one-on-one with Oprah about it, Lentz's star was on the rise. And with the celebrities he was attracting, Hillsong NYC's services soon had a VIP section.
That's Lentz showing more collar bone than any pastor in history.
But it wasn't just Lentz's celebrity friends that brought in the parishioners. He was a passionate, charismatic speaker, able to break down scripture to be much more palatable for status-obsessed youth. He was also very fashion-conscious, sporting leather jackets, tattoos, a slick haircut, skinny jeans, and t-shirts with necks deeper than Immanuel Kant.
Lentz had proven himself to be so popular that other staff members started to copy his style. They started adopting his fashion and, in some cases, his mannerisms, right down to his Virginia accent, but no one was really coming close to matching his charisma. Compared to him, they were basically the church version of, "We're out of Coke, is Pastoral Pepsi okay?" It just hits different.
On November 4, 2020, Hillsong's Global Senior Pastor, Brian Houston, announced in an email to church members that Carl Lentz had been fired, citing the reason as "leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures." The next day, Lentz posted to his Instagram announcing his departure from Hillsong, admitting that he had been unfaithful in his marriage. The choice to include a picture of his entire family in this confession post is a little odd, but not nearly as odd as the fact that they're all dressed so formally in the picture.
Nothing says "I'm sorry for destroying my family's trust" quite like a tuxedo.
The 42-year-old Lentz had been having an affair with a 34-year-old woman named Ranin Karim, a jewelry designer from Brooklyn. When news of the affair broke, Karim was not mentioned by name, but sensing it was only a matter of time before the media tracked her down, she went public with her side of the story to counter what certainly would be a tabloid feeding frenzy.
She knew Lentz was married when they met, but he was evasive about who he was and what he did for a living, even going so far as to ask her not to Google him. And Google him she did, because someone you're banging begging "Hey, don't Google me," usually means they're married and/or a serial killer. Even though she now knew about what was at stake by being together, Karim says she gave him every chance to walk away, yet he kept pursuing her. In her interviews after they were found out, she painted a pretty clear, no-nonsense picture of what the affair really was: a shitty situation she was ready to move on from. She didn't dish any salacious gossip other than Lentz's confliction with his work, which was so painfully obvious at that point that it left the tabloids with nothing to exploit from her.
Besides, the tabloids had plenty of red meat from Carl Lentz, as well as Hillsong's handling of the situation. The affair was reportedly first discovered two weeks before the church's announcement -- after a staff member reported to church leadership that they found intimate texts and shared pictures on Lentz's work computer. Some reports say that it was actually his wife that discovered the texts, and it was one of the staff members in the room with her at the time that sounded the alarm. Either way ... his WORK COMPUTER?!? Far be it from us to give people pointers on committing adultery, but if you wanna keep it secret, maybe don't sync your iPhone to a church computer.
Not long after Lentz's firing, a recording of a private staff video conference was leaked, and it revealed that his admitted affair was not the only reason for his firing and more like the straw that broke the camel's back. It turns out it was not just one affair; it was more like four. In the recordings, Brian Houston stated that Lentz's firing was also due to multiple instances of him being narcissistic, manipulative, mistreating everyone below him, and being a massive liar. You know, just what everyone looks for in a spiritual leader.
As the scandals broke, more and more former church members started sharing their horror stories of dealing with Carl Lentz. Stories of inappropriate conduct, diva behavior, and other acts that Jesus would definitely want a word with him about. Honestly, Lentz was just some stolen office supplies and a dead body away from blackout bingo on the 10 Commandments.
The Nuclear Fallout
Within days of his public firing, Lentz hired A-list public relations firm Sunshine Sachs to salvage his now tarnished reputation. The firm dropped him after four months. They reportedly became fed up with his avalanche of lies that kept undoing their work of trying to help him polish his turd of a public image. Do you have any idea how badly you have to screw up for Harvey Weinstein's PR firm to think you're a lost cause?
In the meantime, Carl Lentz and his family have moved out of their home in Montclair, New Jersey, and into a rented beach house in L.A. The $16,000 a month rent on the house has reportedly been paid for by one of the only friends that have stood by him throughout this ordeal: Tyler Perry. Didn't expect this guy to get a bailout from Madea, did you?
Only two weeks after being fired, it was reported by tabloids that Lentz was reaching out to every connection he had in Hollywood to pitch a reality show about himself and his current predicament -- really putting the me in mea culpa at this point.
Fame is a hell of a drug, and it's perhaps the hardest one to quit cold turkey. Lentz's work with Hillsong and his celebrity friends provided him with pure, uncut national attention ... but now his dealer has cut him off. A show about his life now would feel more like a relapse than an intervention. It's probably a blessing that he's apparently had zero takers on a reality show.
Hillsong Has To Do Some Serious Damage Control
Hillsong Church has quite a road ahead of them. In the wake of these scandals, they've been losing congregants, and staff members left and right. Many feel betrayed by Carl Lentz's misdeeds, and others feel disillusioned by the way the church covered up his toxic behavior for so long. Meanwhile, some are upset that they're not gonna get selfies with Justin Bieber anymore.
A lot of what has happened with Hillsong are the same things we see happen time and time again when a church becomes a megachurch; when it's no longer just a house of worship, it's a marketable product. At that point, megachurches set the standard on stage while having some serious double standards behind the scenes. Even if their hearts were in the right place, Hillsong was in the unenviable position of having a wildly popular pastor putting a lot of butts in the pews while being a ticking time bomb of moral impropriety. To paraphrase the book of Matthew, "Between this rock and this hard place, I shall build my church."
The fact of the matter is, Carl Lentz's scandals have put Hillsong under a microscope, and over the years, they haven't exactly been squeaky clean themselves. Hillsong's controversies have ranged from their founder's father being a child molester, to shifty accounting, to being a little too extreme on pro-life issues, to being pro-gay, and for not being anti-gay enough. There's even a weird story where they're accused of trying to rig Australian Idol. Former members have even written tell-all books about the church, which means when Hillsong won't talk about their inner workings, these people will.
It's gonna take Hillsong a long time to rebuild trust ... possibly a Noah-building-the-ark kinda long time. After kicking Carl Lentz to the curb, church leader Brian Houston announced that "We need a solid foundation for a fresh start and new beginning," which is a nice sentiment ... and also the kind of thing you'd expect to hear at a parole hearing, or from a divorced dad telling his kids the babysitter's gonna be their new stepmom.
Top image: Carl Lentz/Instagram