Just a few years ago, Carl Lentz was on top of the world.
The pastor had founded the New York City outpost of Hillsong, a Pentecostal megachurch with roots in Australia, in 2010. Over the following decade, the church became a sensation, drawing thousands of diverse, young congregants every Sunday to services at Irving Plaza in Manhattan.
Known for his designer skinny jeans, plunging V-neck shirts and wildly charismatic sermons, Lentz attracted numerous celebrities to his flock and in 2014, famously baptized Justin Bieber in a bathtub belonging to NBA player Tyson Chandler. In the process, Lentz turned into a star himself, a “hypepriest” to the rich and famous who was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and profiled in major magazines.
As a white Evangelical who lived in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, and wasn’t afraid to say Black lives matter — even on "The 700 Club" — he seemed to represent a new, more progressive strain of Christianity, even as he skillfully dodged questions about the church’s stance on LGBTQ+ issues and did little to increase diversity in the organization's leadership.
Then, in late 2020, he was fired from Hillsong for “moral failures.” On Instagram, Lentz apologized for cheating on his wife, Laura, disappointing the thousands of congregants who looked to him for spiritual guidance. Then, he disappeared from public view, even as Ranin Karim talked about her affair with Lentz on “Good Morning America,” and the family’s former nanny, Leona Kimes, publicly accused Carl Lentz of misdeeds. "I was subjected to manipulation, control, bullying, abuse of power and sexual abuse," she wrote in a 2021 blog post.
To many, it seemed like a predictable twist in an all-too-familiar tale: Lentz, despite his hipster trappings, was just another hypocritical religious leader caught up in a sex scandal and ultimately undone by his own hubris.
“The Secrets of Hillsong,” a four-part docuseries premiering Friday on FX, makes the case that Lentz, although flawed, was a convenient, high-profile scapegoat for an institution that went much deeper than a single wayward pastor.
“The Secrets of Hillsong” features the first interviews with the Lentzes, who were both ousted from the church, and includes new revelations about the personal demons that contributed to Carl Lentz’s behavior. Lentz, who relocated with his family to Sarasota, Fla., after a stint in rehab, says he was sexually abused by a family friend as a child, an experience that led to intense shame and secrecy around his private life. Lentz also says he misused drugs prescribed for ADHD for years, including during his tenure at Hillsong, when he would oversee as many as seven worship services on a single Sunday.
“My actions are my fault. What I’ve done is my fault, but where that thing started, I have no control over. I was a kid,” says Lentz.
Lentz also admits an inappropriate relationship with Kimes, who was co-pastor of Hillsong in Boston, in addition to being the family’s nanny, but insists that it was consensual.
“I am responsible for allowing an inappropriate relationship to develop in my house with someone that worked for us,” he says. “Any notion of abuse is categorically false. There were mutual decisions made by two people who lied profusely, mainly to my wife.”
Lentz is also critical of Hillsong’s leadership, particularly that of founder Brian Houston, a former friend and mentor, who is now in the midst of a trial in Australia, where he is accused of failing to report child sexual abuse by his father, Frank Houston, a preacher who died in 2004 and whose Pentecostal church there was a precursor to Hillsong.
“Typically, the way that Hillsong has handled scandal ... was [by doing] what looks best for the church,” Lentz says. “Most of the time, it serves everybody to push everything down. You just push it as far under the rug as you can. We choose narrative over truth and that leads to absolute disaster, because the truth doesn’t go anywhere just because you cover it up”
Directed by Stacey Lee and drawn from reporting by Vanity Fair’s Alex French and Dan Adler, the series goes deep into the history of the Australian megachurch, alleging a pattern of cover-ups, inappropriate behavior and financial self-dealing by Brian Houston, who resigned from Hillsong last year and will return to court in Australia next month as his trial continues. It also includes interviews with several people who allege that they were abused by Frank Houston, as well as former Hillsong congregants and employees, who say they carry deep emotional scars from their experiences with the church.
The megachurch, which once boasted a weekly global attendance of 150,000 in 30 countries, is now in disarray: numerous pastors have resigned, and in the United States, only six of 16 locations remain open.
Vanity Fair published a gripping account of Lentz’s downfall in early 2021. “It became very clear to both of us that the problems with Hillsong New York were not specific to Carl, that there was a larger cultural malaise, a toxic cultural climate that Carl was maybe a symptom of, not so much the cause of,” French said in an interview with The Times (he and Adler are executive producers on the series). “There were these deep, systemic, inborn problems with this church that date back to Frank Houston using his ministry as a tool for grooming and abusing young boys. Carl was just the handsomest, most charismatic, most camera-friendly version of what the problem looks like when it's full grown.”
Scout Productions, known for creating such programs as “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” soon came on board to develop the Vanity Fair story into a docuseries.
For executive producer David Collins, the subject was personal: He is a former member of Hillsong’s Los Angeles congregation. He’d been invited to come to the church around 2011, at a time when he was going through a divorce, raising two small kids and was “hurting and wanting to find connection.”
Collins, who is gay and grew up in a Southern Baptist church, became a regular, attending for a year and a half until a confrontation with a homophobic Sunday School teacher who questioned his family’s validity on Mother’s Day. “I grabbed my daughters’ hands, and we walked out and never went back,” he said.
Collins was also crucial in securing Lentz’s participation in the documentary. Adler and French had repeatedly reached out to Lentz while writing their Vanity Fair story, but had gotten nowhere.
Collins sent Lentz a lengthy text message telling him about his experience with Hillsong, ending with an open invitation to have lunch. Lentz replied within minutes, and they soon met up.
“I saw his humanity, and he saw mine. And without sounding too Brené Brown [a professor and podcast host] and cliche, we were vulnerable with each other, we shared our truths. I talked about how painful that time in my life was, re-reevaluating who I was,” Collins said. “We found common ground. I think his wife, Laura, was the motivating factor for him.”
Eventually, after months of conversations with Collins and Lee,the Lentzes agreed to participate in the series. Lee conducted extensive pre-interviews before picking up a camera, “because I wanted to get a sense of the holistic story,” she said. “It wasn't a quick process. It wasn't immediate trust. I'm literally walking into everybody's worst moment of their life.”
In his first appearance on camera, Lentz is visibly uncomfortable. We learn that he relocated with his wife and three children in part to escape media scrutiny.
But over the course of the series, Lentz opens up about the therapy he has undergone in an effort to better understand his compulsions and, as he puts it, "peel back what sexual abuse does to somebody’s brain." He also allows Lee to follow him at home with his family and at the generic office where he was then working in advertising.
“I get what it looks like,” he says of his new job, which doesn’t involve baptizing pop stars in bathtubs or preaching to throngs of adoring congregants. “It’s not better or worse or higher or lower. It’s a different setting.”
“I think this moment of quiet must be disorientating for him, compared to what the measures of success used to look like,” said Lee.
Lentz was hired in March by the nondenominational Transformation Church in Tulsa, Okla., though his role will reportedly not involve any public ministry. After leaving his Instagram account dormant for most of the last two years, Lentz posted an update last week, saying that he and his wife had celebrated their 20th anniversary “in the purest way” after overcoming “a lot of humiliation and embarrassment and heartache.”
“Part of the healing from that heartache led us to the decision to be a part of a documentary that we do not control, that we don’t have any say in and that we haven’t even seen yet,” he wrote. “We’ll see it when the world does.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.