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Joe Hoover, S.J.July 28, 2023
Pastor Carl Lentz in the FX documentary “The Secrets of Hillsong" (photo: FX Networks)Pastor Carl Lentz in the FX documentary “The Secrets of Hillsong" (photo: FX Networks)

Dapper, ripped and very cool Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz ultimately was not disgraced by his deceptions, sexual affairs and banishment from the pulpit of the megawatt Pentecostal church: He was re-graced.

And if the entire Christian church, far too often caught up in a spirituality that is not as transforming as we may think (and that in fact may keep us from confronting difficult questions about ourselves), watched Lentz’s interviews in “The Secrets of Hillsong,” it could start to become re-graced too.

The FX/Vanity Fair documentary series, released in May, follows the rise of Hillsong from a small Australian church affiliated with the Assemblies of God to a multi-country megachurch whose signature appeal is impassioned, relatable preaching and Grammy-winning praise and worship music. At its peak Hillsong had churches in 30 cities worldwide with an average attendance of 150,000 people weekly.

Carl Lentz ultimately was not disgraced by his deceptions, sexual affairs and banishment from the pulpit of the megawatt Pentecostal church: He was re-graced.

Writing for America, Michael Charboneau described a Hillsong service as filled with pulsing music and colored lights, with video screens of people surfing and skateboarding. The guest preacher was “engaging and fluid,” Charboneau wrote, “and he talks to the crowd as if they are a group of friends lounging in his living room. He expounds on the importance of having a relationship with Jesus, as opposed to following the dogmatic strictures of organized religion—ideas that are key tenets in Hillsong’s brand of Christianity.” (Nota bene: Every church has doctrine and dogma; for churches like Hillsong, the doctrine is whatever the pastor happens to teach.)

Hillsong in Crisis

The documentary is built around reporting by Alex Frend and Dan Adler for Vanity Fair, and details how that remarkable charismatic church is now reeling. In the United States, 10 of the 16 Hillsong churches have closed. In New York City, services that used to garner thousands now play to about 500. Worldwide, Hillsong attendance is down, donations are cascading, its reputation deeply tarnished. The church is not finished, but it is struggling to find its footing.

The series narrative centers on two dominant figures in the Hillsong universe, Lentz and founding pastor Brian Houston, the tall and rough-voiced Australian preacher who resigned from his position in March 2022.

Houston was brought down by scandals involving alleged sexual improprieties with women and the cover-up of the sexual abuse of a minor. The sexual abuse was committed by his father, Frank Houston, founder of the Sydney Christian Life Centre, out of which Hillsong grew. That the scandal involved Brian and Frank Houston, the two men who founded Hillsong and were also father and son, made the whole affair all the more complicated and poisonous.

In the series, former Hillsong congregants also call out the church for, among other things, using young members for long hours of free labor; not promoting women and people of color within the church; and prying into the sexual lives of students who applied to Hillsong College. Accusations of tax evasion, money laundering and other financial improprieties have also been leveled against Hillsong. Brian Houston was tried in a Sydney court for not reporting sexual abuse and a verdict is expected in mid-August.

Hillsong is reeling from scandal. In the United States, 10 of the 16 of their churches have closed.

The most compelling part of the documentary is not the larger Hillsong narrative, though, but Carl Lentz’s story. He was boyishly handsome and stylishly decked out. His sermons and media appearances were by turns earnest, jokey, offhand, moving, casual, passionate. His neck veins bulged and muscles rippled beneath tight designer shirts while he proclaimed the word. Lentz wore ugly-cool glasses, mesh hats, red-and-white Supreme outfits.

As a preacher, his core message was God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. While he assented to the church’s traditional teaching on the difficult issues like abortion and homosexuality, he also emphasized accompanying people and not judging them. He called out the pro-life Christian church for being hypocritical in not supporting policies that would support poor women and mothers. He once responded to criticisms of Hillsong’s open-arms approach to gays and lesbians by marveling at how people were not more concerned about “the young gay teens that are killing themselves, and the LGBT community that has found zero refuge in our ‘churches.’”

Celebrities like Kevin Durant, Kylie and Kendall Jenner, and Selena Gomez attended Hillsong NYC. When Justin Beiber’s life began to crash around him in 2017, Lentz took him into his home with his family for a few months to spiritually nourish him back to health.

Celebrities like Kevin Durant, Kylie and Kendall Jenner, and Selena Gomez attended Hillsong NYC.

Running in elite circles is familiar territory for my own religious order, the Jesuits. The abiding hope is that, when you influence the elite few in the world, you can influence the many through the church. Whether advising at the Chinese imperial court in the 17th century or giving retreats to A-list actors in the 21st, “influencing the Influencers” is one of those things that—with only the rarest lapses of humility—Jesuits have always strived to do.

But Lentz was trying to hold two worlds together at an acutely heightened pitch: a GQ model in hip-hop gear trying to braid the humble gospel of Jesus Christ into a church whose services look like “A Night at the Roxbury,” yet operates out of Pentecostal fundamentalism, yet still tries to appeal to everyone. Can anyone pull that off?

The Fall

In the fall of 2020 Carl Lentz was found to have had an affair with Ranin Karim, a Brooklyn jewelry designer, and was removed from his position at Hillsong. Later he was accused of “bullying, abuse of power and sexual abuse” by his family’s former nanny, Leona Kimes. (In “The Secrets of Hillsong,” Lentz said, “Any notion of abuse is categorically false.”)

The film shows Lentz a couple years after his expulsion from the church. He is living with his wife Laura and their three kids in a (relatively) small house in Florida. The man who once commanded thousands of enthusiastic Christians and was courted by celebrities now worked in one corner of a drab advertising office. White walls, gray dividers, a simple black desk.

After leaving Hillsong, Lentz had gone to rehab for burnout and addiction.

After leaving Hillsong, Lentz had gone to rehab for burnout and addiction, and he speaks from that space in the documentary. Lents reveals that in rehab he finally dealt with the fact that he was sexually abused as a child. Getting in touch with that fact, meeting again the traumatized child who operated at the heart of his adult acting-out, was the great gift of his life collapse. Carl Lentz needed the words of Jesus, sure—who doesn’t? But even more urgently, he needed the words of Socrates: Know thyself. And who doesn’t need that?

In the fourth episode of the series (at minutes 37--39), Lentz speaks in a humble and grounded way that we so rarely hear from pastors. It is worth any modern Christian’s time to play the tape and just listen to him for a bit:

I found out at that rehab center that I was a mess, inside I was a mess. I’ve learned a lot about what church can be in recovery rooms. Unfortunately, sometimes in our Christian community we have just neglected, you know, logic, neglected science, neglected therapy, neglected help.
Christianity would say, “You’ve got a problem with lust.” You know, you go to rehab and my therapist says, “Can you stop using that word? You know, you were a child and you were forced to do these things. And now you have some issue you need to work through, but let’s save the lust stuff for your Christian summer camp and let’s talk about your brain chemistry for a moment…
And is lust a thing? Of course it is. But my point is I went to a rehab and we prayed and we talked about God, but then we went in and talked about the stuff that prayer in and of itself isn’t and talking about Jesus is not going to fix.

Taking the yoke of Christ upon our heavy-laden selves is not the same as taking a deep survey of one’s entire life, confronting every terrible thing, and becoming transformed back to wholeness. Engaging in Thérèse of Lisieux’s “Little Way” does not end an addiction. Arriving at Ignatian spiritual freedom, preferring neither riches nor poverty, long life nor short life, does not do for us the difficult work of reconciling with an estranged sibling. The spiritual cleansing of the dark night of the soul alone does not heal deep anxiety. Experiencing the revelations of Julian of Norwich does not automatically help us overcome the deep shame of childhood poverty or religious abuse.

Sometimes immersing our lives in spirituality, reflexively meeting all challenges with “I’m trusting in God,” can actually be the farthest thing from trusting in God. The God, that is, who wants us to take active, practical steps to be physically and emotionally and mentally healthy. The God who puts in our lives mentors, support groups, healthy disciplines; who has given us friends and spouses and allies who want to help. If we only ask.

If we don’t deal with our past, our past will deal with us. It will cause us to unconsciously inflict a lot of pain on others too. This is doubly true for a public leader, and especially a religious one. One hurt man sitting for all appearances on the throne of the Almighty God can do a lot of damage out there.

If we don’t deal with our past, our past will deal with us.

“I let down genuinely a lot of good people,” says Lentz. “And I can only apologize and change. My story is now one of recovery. And it hasn’t been without its failures. So it is a pretty humbling road to be on every day.”

Lentz can preach a powerful and persuasive sermon invoking the Holy Spirit into our lives. But his still small voice, speaking the hard truth of his past and his difficult healing, testifies to God’s grace just as loudly.

Since the filming of “The Secrets of Hillsong,” Lentz and his family have moved on from Florida to Oklahoma. There he is advising Transformation Church, a primarily Black megachurch in the suburbs of Tulsa. His focus there, he said in a statement, will be on creating structures to support pastors, strengthen addiction programs and help people who have gone down similar roads he has.

He will not be doing direct ministry with the congregation, Lentz said, but, “I’ll be the guy standing with his arms open wide for anyone who’s been on this path of addiction and destruction.”

Ultimately the sickness of Carl Letnz is not unto death—it is for the glory of God.

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