Justin Bieber’s Disgraced Pastor Carl Lentz Breaks His Silence
With his short fade, skinny jeans, toned bod, and tattoos, Carl Lentz wasn’t like other men of the cloth. As the lead pastor of Hillsong NYC, a megachurch specializing in youth-courting “come as you are” sermons and “Coldplay for Christ” music, Lentz became a bona-fide celebrity, palling around with A-list congregants like Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, Kendall and Kylie Jenner, and Kevin Durant. He also served as team chaplain for the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets. At the height of his PR problems, Bieber even crashed with Lentz for several months and was baptized by him at 2 a.m. in the tub of former NBA star Tyson Chandler. It all came crashing down in November 2020, when Lentz was fired from Hillsong for what the church called “leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures,” after it came to light that he’d been conducting a tequila-soaked extramarital affair with Ranin Karim, a 34-year-old Brooklyn designer of rings and kimonos. Lentz and his family, including his wife, Laura, and their three young children, proceeded to vanish from the public eye. But now the Lentzes are ready to talk, and they feel that Carl’s fall from grace is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Hillsong’s culture of abuse, discrimination, and corruption.
The Secrets of Hillsong, a four-part docuseries premiering May 19 on FX, and based on an investigative series by Vanity Fair, contains the first interviews with the Lentzes since the whole cheating scandal blew up their lives, as well as those with ex-congregants who accuse the church of everything from discrimination and graft to sexual abuse. The four-hour-plus docuseries, directed by Stacey Lee (Olivia Rodrigo: driving home 2 u), pulls back the curtain on the Hillsong operation — a global network of charismatic Christian megachurches that once boasted 150,000 members in 30 countries — albeit at the expense of Carl’s narrative, which gets lost in the miasma.
The story of Hillsong begins in 1977, when pastor Frank Houston founded the Sydney Christian Life Centre, a Pentecostal church affiliated with America’s Assemblies of God, in Sydney, Australia. Six years later, Frank’s son Brian and his wife, Bobbie, started the Hills Christian Life Centre in nearby Sydney. In 1999, the two churches merged with Brian as their leader following a number of pedophilia allegations against Frank; then, in 2001, it rebranded as Hillsong Church. Hillsong built a young, diverse array of followers thanks to its more modern, Christian rock-driven worship music, international reach, and its façade of tolerance. Then-President Donald Trump even invited Houston to the White House as a special guest in 2019, where the two prayed together.
Josh Canfield, a gay Hillsong choir leader who appears in the docuseries, thought the church was accepting of him, maintaining that he and his boyfriend had been members of Hillsong for eight years and their status as a couple was well-known in church circles. Then, after he appeared on Survivor with his partner, Houston wrote a blog entry on behalf of the church stating, “We do not affirm a gay lifestyle and because of this we do not knowingly have actively gay people in positions of leadership, either paid or unpaid,” while adding that they oppose gay marriage. (Houston, now 69, did not participate in the docuseries and categorically denies all allegations of impropriety.)
“On the outside, Hillsong looks super progressive. But then, as you look underneath it, at the heart of Hillsong Global are really super-conservative white men, and that’s not what they believe,” offers Canfield. “No matter how cool and how hip you think they are, at the heart of it is: Come as you are, and then we’ll change you.”
Hillsong is also anti-abortion, believes creationism should be taught in schools, preaches purity (or no sex before marriage), and the prosperity gospel (or if you give money to God, He’ll repay you), encouraging congregants to tithe at least 10 percent of their income. In addition to their churches across the globe, Hillsong also operated a record label for its bands, including the popular Hillsong United; Hillsong Leadership College, where young students learned how to get leadership positions in the church (and apparently not much else); a Hillsong Channel; Hillsong Conferences in numerous countries; and tens of millions of dollars in tax-exempt real-estate acquisitions.
“It looks like a corporation, and acts like a corporation,” alleges one of the doc’s journalist subjects. Not only that, but the entire enterprise is run on the backs of volunteers, with some interns even paying up to $4,000 to work at Hillsong, reported Vanity Fair. That same Vanity Fair report in early 2021 contained the allegation from Hillsong Leadership College student Anna Crenshaw that she’d been assaulted by Hillsong staffer Jason Mays, who’d pleaded guilty to indecent assault and received probation and mandatory counseling one year prior. Following a suspension, Hillsong reinstated Mays, whose father was the head of Hillsong HR, and Houston defended him publicly.
“Why is it hard for people to speak out against Hillsong Church? Because they’ve signed NDAs, that’s why,” explains Lentz in the docuseries. “We signed such an ironclad NDA that limited our … it does feel off. It does feel like people should be able to say what they need to say.”
Lentz’s combination of unbridled charisma, trendy looks, and celeb friends catapulted Hillsong into the stratosphere. He attended Hillsong Leadership College with Joel Houston, the son of Brian, and the two became best friends. Lentz and Joel Houston then co-founded Hillsong NYC in 2010. Hillsong NYC had a base of operations known as “The Compound” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that was notorious for hosting boozy, model-packed parties where many a Hillsonger is said to have broken purity rules. Lentz, for his part, garnered a ton of positive publicity for supporting the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020, though Ashley Jones and her mother, Mary, Black former congregants whom Lentz had befriended, allege in the docuseries that Black people were denied leadership positions within Hillsong.
“From the platform, you would look out and be like, ‘Man, this is so beautiful. There are so many different people of color here. It’s incredible,’” explains Ashley in the docuseries. “And then, if you reverse it, you look at the platform and you’re like, ‘The platform does not represent the people in this congregation.’”
Crystal Rose, one of the only Black female congregants of Hillsong Kansas City, also says in the docuseries that she was removed by police from the church after they learned she’d complained about Hillsong’s overall lack of diversity.
When asked whether the system at Hillsong allowed all types of people to rise to positions of power, Lentz says, “No, I don’t think it was. We struggled with diversity as a leadership team… I’m not saying that we’re a deeply racist church. I’m just saying we don’t have a single pastor, on a global level, that is not a white man.” Lentz also claims in the docuseries that he brought these issues to church leadership but was shouted down.
Lentz sat down with the doc crew for an interview in 2022, about two years after his ouster from Hillsong. The 44-year-old is still with his wife, Laura, and is now working at an advertising agency in Sarasota, Florida, where their family calls home. Gone are the sharp hairdo and snazzy treads. He looks a bit haggard, with shoulder-length curly hair and graying stubble. He calls his indiscretion “a breach of trust to thousands of people” before saying that Hillsong also “failed” to respect congregants’ trust.
“I definitely thought about vacating the planet,” Lentz says of the scandal.
The ex-“hipster pastor” paints himself throughout The Secrets of Hillsong as the church’s fall guy, saying that he was on the cusp of breaking off from Hillsong and starting his own church, which angered the volatile Houston, who himself would be accused of making hush-money payments to two women who he allegedly had inappropriate relations with. Houston was pushed to resign in March 2022, following an emergency Zoom meeting with Hillsong Elders wherein they confronted him about the two incidents (footage of the meeting was leaked to the press).
“The stuff that’s happening with Brian now, this is tough for me,” says Lentz in the docuseries. “Some of it’s frustrating, yeah, because the stuff that he looked at me, with [pointing] the finger, and this is what you did, if there’s one person who’s not qualified to talk about the state of another person in this situation, it would be Brian. But I hate to see what’s happening right now.”
But Lentz wasn’t only accused of being unfaithful. Leona Kimes was married to a Hillsong Boston pastor but became the Lentz family’s nanny (even though she had her own young child). Laura says in the docuseries that she found Carl and Kimes in a “a compromising position” one night, and she pounced on them both and punched Leona. Still, she remained their nanny.
“I was pretty much gaslit by both of them for quite a while,” Laura says in the docuseries.
Kimes, however, has a different view of things. In May 2021, Leona published an essay on Medium titled “Writing My Voice Back.” In it, she accuses her pastor (Carl) of “manipulation, control, bullying, abuse of power, and sexual abuse,” adding, “Having told almost no one before this, I am just now able to share what I experienced in their home as the result of intense therapy.” (Kimes did not participate in the docuseries.)
“I am responsible for allowing an inappropriate relationship to develop in my house, with someone that worked for us,” says Carl Lentz in Secrets of Hillsong. “Any notion of abuse is categorically false. There were mutual adult decisions made by two people who lied profusely — mainly to my wife.”
In addition to an Adderall addiction, Lentz blames his behavior on alleged “sexual abuse” he fell victim to as a child, which he says he came to the realization of during rehab.
“It took me this awful, rock-bottom moment to peel back what sexual abuse does to somebody’s brain in regards to how I handle sex, how I handle truth, how I handle defense systems, how I handle control,” says Lentz. “For a long time, it kind of dominated my life without me knowing.”
He continues: “A family friend had sexually abused me. My brain had kind of shut off some of that memory … I was told when I was abused, ‘Let’s not tell anybody about this. This is going to be our secret.’” Lentz reasons that he then developed “a pattern of secrecy” due to his “deep shame.”
One of the film’s more powerful moments concerns Carl’s wife, Laura. The two had been married for 17 years, and had three young children, when Carl’s affair became tabloid fodder. She chose to stay with him, describing through tears why she did it.
“Why did you stay? I think that’s a question a lot of people have wanted to ask me,” shares Laura. “When my kids ask me that, I said, because I see your dad trying and I see him changing, and if I didn’t see that — and when I don’t see that — I would leave.”
As far as Brian Houston goes, Australian authorities produced receipts during an inquiry detailing how Houston allegedly used Hillsong’s coffers as his own personal piggy bank, spending $150,000 on a three-day trip to Cancun, “treating private jets like Ubers,” purchasing a number of expensive watches, and making $10,000 cash payments to pastors who investigated one of Houston’s incidents of inappropriate conduct with another woman in 2019. Worse than that, though, is he’s currently facing up to five years in jail for allegedly covering up his father’s sexual abuse of children. The trial is set to resume this June. (Houston has pleaded not guilty and denied the allegations.)
The Secrets of Hillsong claims that while Hillsong once boasted locations in 30 countries and 150,000 congregants worldwide, only six out of 16 U.S. locations currently remain, and Hillsong New York has around 500 congregants per week.
“I’ve learned a lot about what church can be — in recovery rooms,” says Lentz. “Unfortunately, in our Christian community, we have sometimes neglected logic, neglected science, neglected therapy, neglected help … I went to a rehab, and we prayed and talked about God, but then we talked about the stuff that prayer in and of itself, and talking about Jesus, is not going to fix.”