Sex Scandals, Celebrities and the Business of Christianity: Inside Hillsong Church's Rise and Fall
The family behind Hillsong Church had been mapping out its course to "take over the world" for decades, an insider explained in A&E's docuseries Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed, but its reign didn't last long.
Hillsong finally found a place in the global zeitgeist in 2017, thanks in large part to celebrity pastor Carl Lentz's bond with Justin Bieber. Just three years later, Bieber had moved on, Lentz had left the church in disgrace, and Hillsong's leadership was on the cusp of a dramatic shakeup in the wake of criminal sex abuse concealment charges.
A&E's three-part docuseries — out now — has examined this trajectory and more. Below, read some of the bombshell claims made by former Hillsong churchgoers and employees, not only against the organization but also specifically founder Brian Houston, in the docuseries.
Episode 1 traced the roots of the modern Hillsong Church to New Zealand, where Frank Houston began his ministry. But it was Frank's son Brian who borrowed from American Pentecostal church practices and resolved to scale up the church, then known as the Sydney Christian Life Centre, on a global level.
Brian found a winning formula when he tapped former Australian child performer Darlene Zschech to be the church's second worship leader. Zschech penned the 1993 song "Shout to the Lord" for the church's Hillsong band, and it was such a hit that in that same decade, according to the docuseries, "Hillsong began licensing its music to Christian organizations around the world, creating an exponential source of revenue and exposure."
Indeed, the notoriety became so great for Hillsong's musical offerings, which were and continue to be consciously modeled after contemporary hits, that Houston officially renamed the church Hillsong in 2001.
"The goal of Hillsong is to stay current," said Kelsey McKinney, author of God Spare the Girls. "Instead of refurbishing your grandma's old hymns, it's something new and shiny. These kind of swells of emotion and huge, momentous chord progressions. It's made the make you feel something."
Former Hillsong Sydney member Tanya Levin affirmed, "Music is a really huge department because it's so critical to [the church's power of] hypnosis. The music is completely weaponized for whatever the church's needs are, as well as financial, which is the aim of the game — is to get the money out of the people."
Flush with royalties totaling a reported $100 million per year, Brian pursued aggressive expansion for Hillsong throughout the '90s and early 2000s while also cultivating its growing network of colleges, annual conferences and more.
AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo
RELATED: What to Know About Hillsong's Star Pastor Carl Lentz
CARL LENTZHEARS THE CALL
Hillsong had another exponential burst when they opened their New York City location in 2008 and brought on pastor Carl Lentz, a rising star who had received training from Hillsong College.
Lentz's rock star looks (six pack, swooped hair, designer wardrobe and all) and his passionate preaching complemented the Coldplay-for-Christ-style music, creating a nightclub-like vibe at Hillsong's services. Soon the queue of worshipers stretched around the block to get into Hillsong's weekly booking at the Irving Plaza concert space.
Recalled former Hillsong L.A. volunteer Craig Carson, "You should see that line on a Sunday morning. But, let's face it, they're not coming there for sound doctrine, they're not coming there to be fed the Word, they're coming there to see the cool Carl Lentz."
Janice Lagata, a former Hillsong NYC stage manager, had frequent interactions with Lentz and acknowledged it was easy to succumb to his charm: "The way he looks at you, I was like, 'Oh, okay, I'd follow this guy anywhere.'"
This magnetism especially appealed to Brian Houston, who'd had "upfront, explicit intentions to take over the world with his church … for 30 years now," said Levin, "and I think when he saw Carl Lentz, he realized he'd hit the jackpot."
Toby Zerna/Newspix/Getty Images Carl Lentz
RELATED: All the Celebrities Who Attended Hillsong Church
THE BIEBER EFFECT
Soon Hillsong's flock was growing simply because people attended services in hopes of crossing paths with Bieber and his then-girlfriendSelena Gomez, plus a slew of Lentz's famous pals (at least according to his Instagram and the church volunteers in the docuseries), including Kendall Jenner, Jay-Z, Oprah Winfrey, Kevin Durant, Hugh Jackman and his family, Bono, and Lenny Kravitz, just to name a few.
But Bieber was the most prominent Hillsong devotee, and his commitment to a path of faith and atonement came at a time when Bieber was navigating several unflattering outbursts, including a 2014 arrest, an egging incident (also in 2014) and an incident involving a confiscated capuchin in 2013.
"Was it a lucky coincidence that Bieber got involved with Hillsong?" asked Page Six senior reporter Oli Coleman. "I'm going to have to be a bit of a cynic, given that I feel very sure that it was part of the Hillsong strategy to attract celebrities and to make them sort of front and center of their branding."
Calling Lentz's intentions "inherently duplicitous or hypocritical," Coleman continued, "The motivation seems to have been to use celebrity, to use glamor, to amass a following, to amass power, to amass fame. Someone like Carl Lentz, who has these goals in mind, saw an opportunity to bring Bieber on board."
PreachersNSneakers Instagram account creator Ben Kirby said, "For a lot of people, it looked like it was just a tool to build his own personal network."
Shareif Ziyadat/Getty Images Justin Bieber and Carl Lentz
Soon, volunteers began to question the celebrity-focused nature of services, including a VIP section that everyday worshipers were forbidden to enter.
But more than that, many were concerned about the growing cult of personality forming around Lentz — and how Brian Houston would respond to Lentz's perceived power eclipsing his own.
"If the church's whole thing is based on that one guy or girl … [they are always] one misstep away from literally imploding the entire thing. Your ministry is now eroded, it's built on sand in a lot of ways," said Kirby.
"It was always like, 'Be careful, man,'" remembered Lagata. "Because the only thing everyone likes more than a rising star is a falling star, right? Eventually this stuff is gonna catch up with you."
'I PRAY YOU CAN FORGIVE ME'
Episode 2 focused, in part, on the downfall of Lentz due to "moral failures."
"When we talk about Carl and purity, wolf in sheep's clothing is honestly the mental picture I get," said Jaclyn Hayes, a former member of Wave Church, the West Virginia church where Lentz preached before joining Hillsong.
Lentz was allegedly known at Wave as being vehement about abstinence and purity — even though some claim it was an open secret that he was a womanizer.
One docuseries participant (known simply as Doreen to protect her identity) said, "This was a very, very known thing about Carl. I think people like him are just very intuitive of where they can go to prey."
Ultimately Lentz's undoing at Hillsong came because he was "unfaithful" to his wife of 17 years, Laura, which he publicly acknowledged in 2020. A woman named Ranin Karim came forward as his alleged mistress and participated in the docuseries.
Discovery+ Ranin Karim
The pair undertook a five-month affair after meeting in a park one Friday in May 2019, she claimed. By Sunday, they'd shared their kiss over tequila.
"He kept saying a lot that we were so similar, me and him, that we found each other because we were both broken," said Karim.
Soon, though, she realized, she was "just an add-on" for Lentz and that "his persona … brought chaos into my life," she explained.
"The more you say no to him, the more he kept coming back," she continued. "So you started to understand this person cannot lose a battle. But then he said something that triggered me. He said, 'You know, at the end of the day, I go to my family, and you go to nothing.' And I was like, Wow, that's a slap in the face. … It was the most toxic thing I ever had to deal with."
RELATED: Carl Lentz's Alleged Mistress Speaks Out About 'Toxic' Relationship
The relationship ended, but the repercussions of it — a digital paper trail allegedly left by Lentz on his work computer — would be professionally, and personally, devastating.
https://www.instagram.com/p/CHONe5ODr9z”>View this post on Instagram
A post shared by Carl Lentz (@carllentz)
Lentz announced his departure from Hillsong via an Instagram post on Nov. 5, 2020.
"I remember thinking when I was reading Carl Lentz's post that he had really screwed up," said New York Post reporter Hannah Frishberg. "I mean, it's such, like, a PR-ified Instagram caption on a sweet photo of his family, trying to play it down as much as possible, but it's pretty bad."
Said Karim, "He just doesn't know how to have compassion [for] others because he thinks he's the only one who suffers."
Lentz would soon enter treatment for "depression, anxiety and pastoral burnout," even as Karim told her story to various outlets including Vanity Fair and Good Morning America, and additional allegations of sexual abuse and financial finagling emerged.
RELATED: Hillsong Staffer Accuses Ex-Pastor Carl Lentz of Sexual Abuse as He 'Vehemently' Denies Claims
HE SAID, HE SAID
When leaked audio of Hillsong leadership's conversations about Lentz's "narcissistic behavior" and his firing hit YouTube, it raised eyebrows among some members of the church and media, according to the docuseries.
"This is the devil calling the devil the devil," said Carson. "If we unravel or start to peel back layers of Brian Houston, he's no better."
Marcus Ingram/Getty Images Brian Houston
Vera and Zhenya Kasevich, then the leaders of Hillsong Kiev, believe the audio was intentionally leaked and claim they had previously told Houston of other issues with Lentz (such as "behaving in an unpastorly manner, including smoking and drinking").
The docuseries then provided a statement: "Producers of this series spoke with two former volunteers who brought multiple reports of sexual impropriety against Carl Lentz to Hillsong leadership in 2017. The sources allege that they were accused of fabricating the accusations and were dismissed from their positions in the church."
The statement continued, "Brian Houston claims that leadership looked into the allegations against Carl at the time and found no evidence to substantiate them. Both sources have since left the church. After initial phone calls, they declined to participate in this series, citing a desire to move on from the stress of their experiences."
But Zhenya believes that "church leadership needs to take responsibility for their decisions and for their mistakes. Covering up and dealing in secrecy, it's a pattern for Hillsong Church, and that's why we've got so many scandals."
AP Photo/Tina Fineberg Carl Lentz
(According to producers, Carl Lentz and Brian Houston have not responded to requests for comment regarding allegations in the docuseries. Lentz, Houston, and Hillsong did not immediately return PEOPLE's requests for comment.)
'A CONVENIENT EXCUSE'
Ed and Anna Crenshaw found the timing of Lentz's ultra-public resignation and the subsequent pile-on rather coincidental. According to Ed, a senior pastor at Victory Church in Philadelphia, it helped the church "get off the hook a little bit from some cultural issues, culture within the church."
Ed's daughter Anna said she had had her own experience with sexual abuse at Hillsong, albeit not at the hands of Carl Lentz. But Anna gleaned no satisfaction from seeing Lentz get publicly crucified because, she claimed, her own victimization had been minimized and then weaponized against her.
Anna was a student at Hillsong College in the fall of 2018 when she alleges that Jason Mays — a married Hillsong staff administrator and the son of human resources head John Mays — sexually assaulted her, drunkenly groping and kissing her without her consent at a party.
She said she reported the accusation that December to Margaret Aghajanian, Hillsong's head of Pastoral Care, by reading a statement she had written out. After she was called in for two additional interviews and saw that Jason had faced no public consequences for the incident, Anna said she realized, "Okay, they are not on my side." (Aghajanian did not return PEOPLE's request for comment.)
Anna believed a double standard was at play: "If a student does something wrong, whether that is get drunk … or they sleep with their partner, they're sent home. It is serious. It is something they take really seriously. Yet if a person on staff assaults a student, it's looked at differently? That does not line up."
Discovery+ Anna Crenshaw
Months passed, but according to Anna, the situation only escalated in April 2019 once she asked her father to advocate for her. At that point, the college told Anna she would need to file a report with local police, she claimed in the docuseries. They further disputed the date Anna reported the incident to them, placing it several months after when she claimed she read her statement, Anna claimed.
"They know that they were sitting on it, hoping that the problem would just go away, minimizing the problem, continuing to question her, continuing to make her tell her story over and over again," said Ed. "It exacerbated the trauma, and they want to cover that up now. So it becomes absolutely essential now for them to discredit her earlier account. She did not get care, she got handled."
Once Anna's report was lodged in May 2019, Jason was charged with assault with an act of indecency, the docuseries explained. He pleaded guilty in January 2020 and was sentenced to two years' probation and mandatory counseling. He was also suspended without pay for a year by Hillsong.
The Crenshaws took the extra step of telling their story to the Christian Post, prompting Houston to respond with a tweet referencing a previous sexual assault Anna had experienced at her father's church.
Anna called the tweet "victim-shaming," and Ed thought it was "atrocious to refer to a previous victimization as a way of diminishing the impact of her current situation." (Houston deleted the tweet and apologized to Ed, who deemed it disingenuous.)
Ed drew a parallel between his daughter's experience and what happened with Lentz, calling them "closely connected" because "when [church leaders] obviously have desire to protect themselves more than help the victim, then that becomes problematic."
After several years covering Lentz, Frishberg said, "I don't feel bad for Carl, but I think he was also groomed in his own way by Hillsong and then used, and then the moment that he no longer could serve them, they totally kicked him to the curb for everything. When it's like, 'Alright, obviously some of these things are a little bit bigger than just one pastor in New York who had an affair.' The recent series of scandals have really damaged any trust in the church."
She continued, "The toxicity at Hillsong seems to clearly come from the top down. I think so many of my sources have placed the blame squarely on Brian Houston for just creating this poisonous culture."
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or go to rainn.org.
AP Photo/Andres Kudacki
'A BRAINWASHING PROCESS'
Episode 3 dug into some facets of that "poisonous culture," including the code of secrecy and the extreme expectations of both students and volunteers.
Trinity Foundation private investigator Barry Bowen, who specializes in investigating religious organizations, said Hillsong's organization raises many red flags, including its use of limited liability companies to shield its assets from litigation. (According to the docuseries, Hillsong has an estimated 44 limited liability companies registered in the United States alone.)
Also concerning for the participants in the series were mandatory non-disclosure agreements students had to sign before matriculating to Hillsong College.
"If you were a church that is open and trusting, why would you get your members to sign an NDA?" asked student Yolandi Bosch. "Unless you're hiding something, of course."
But students claimed they didn't have the option of hiding anything when it came to their personal lives.
Bailey Krawczyk, who attended Hillsong College from 2017–21, detailed how incoming students were required to provide personal information so they could be "red-lighted" or "green-lighted" to work with children in the community.
A survivor of sexual assault, Krawczyk felt victim-blamed: "They never brought it up to me that it wasn't my fault. Everybody just told me that I did a bad thing, but I'm now forgiven."
Hillsong addressed the program, telling the docuseries it was intended "to gauge suitability and preparedness to undertake a vocation with high moral and professional standards. 'Consequently, we seek to gauge whether an applicant is likely to be a safe member of our student body.'"
"I do believe that is also a control thing," said Krawczyk. "It's always [hanging] over your head. Looking back on this experience, I do believe that it is the beginning of a brainwashing process. It's just very, very messed up."
Said Levin, "The bullying, the intimidation, the fear — it's very, very real."
Noemi Uribe, former Hillsong Boston volunteer, spoke to the demands on unpaid workers responsible for putting together Hillsong's services, conferences and other events.
"You'd be exhausted, you'd be tired, people would have panic attacks in the break rooms, and everyone would just look at each other and [repeat Brian Houston's mantra du jour:] 'Wow, do you believe we get to do this?' And it was repeatedly said, and you start to believe it," she recalled.
"They want you to believe Brian Houston is doing this all for God and the Kingdom. He's not," said L.A. volunteer Carson. "He's doing it to make himself very wealthy. Brian Houston [and his wife Bobbie] are absolute millionaires many times over, and they live a very luxurious life at the behest of their congregation."
Said Uribe, "Now that I look back, I'm like, 'Damn.' They're trying to manipulate you into receiving and accepting the abuse that they're causing. That all stems from the top."
60 Minutes Australia/Youtube Frank Houston
The docuseries concluded by drawing a direct line to Frank Houston, who died in 2004.
David Shoebridge, a member of the New South Wales Parliament's Legislative Council, spoke to Frank's "deeply, deeply troubling background," including allegations of abuse going back to his days with the Assemblies of God (a precursor to Hillsong) in his native New Zealand.
According to the series, at least eight men have come forward with accusations of abuse by Frank Houston between 1965 and 1977.
One of those men was Brett Sengstock, who declined to participate in the series due to ongoing legal proceedings, but whose story prompted a 2014 investigation by the Australian Royal Commission into Institution Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The Commission was the first time Brian publicly addressed the allegations against his father.
"For a good many years, Brian Houston has proven to be successful in terms of systemic cover-up," said Shoebridge, "but then thankfully we had the Royal Commission, and they really lifted the lid on exactly what went on in Hillsong."
Sengstock's victim statement (which was first submitted anonymously before he self-identified in 2018) claimed years of abuse at the hands of Frank Houston in the late 1960s from the time he was roughly 7 or 8 years old, both at the Assemblies of God and on group family vacations. Sengstock took years to come forward, he said, because when he told his mother, she warned him, "You don't want to be responsible for turning people from the church and sending them to hell."
Years later, Brian Houston first heard of the accusations in 1999. According to Levin, he and several other "top men in the inner circle … had a meeting in the Qantas Businessmen's Lounge. There are minutes, and it very explicitly says, it's very clear, 'We're not going to say a thing, we're going to focus on Frank's restoration [as a religious leader], getting him back into ministry after two years, making sure he's looked after.' And that was the meeting, and they signed off on it. They signed off on the cover-up."
Shoebridge added, "The records of Hillsong show that [Brian Houston] and the governing council of Hillsong were very much aware and indeed discussed and debated the fact that Brett Sengstock had come forward and disclosed the abuse by Frank Houston. They wanted to protect the founder of Hillsong."
Though Frank officially stepped away from the church in 2002 (with Brian calling his offense "a serious moral failure"), the docuseries obtained audio of him preaching in 2004, including an unsettling exchange with an 8-year-old boy Frank described as "good-looking," adding, "and it's not your fault your good-looking, so thank God you are."
In the years before his death, Frank sought to make financial reparations with Sengstock, according to the docuseries. They wrote out the terms of the deal on a paper napkin at McDonald's, a move Shoebridge said demonstrated "the contempt that Hillsong showed to this victim."
60 Minutes Australia/Youtube Brett Sengstock
Sengstock was to be paid $10,000 AUD (about $11,500 in U.S. dollars today) — but he had to follow up with Brian to receive his payment, the series stated. According to Sengstock's testimony, when Sengstock reached Brian, he said, "You know, it's all of your fault that this happened — you tempted my father." (Brian "absolutely 100%" denied that during his testimony before the Royal Commission.)
In 2015, the Royal Commission found Brian guilty of failing to report his knowledge of the abuse.
Though the case was sent to the New South Wales Police to investigate, action was not taken for years. Shoebridge cited close "connections" between Hillsong and the former police commissioner in New South Wales, as well as the state's former premiere (governor) and prime minister.
For their part, Hillsong released a statement on Nov. 23, 2015, listing various "indisputable" facts supporting Brian Houston's actions, including the fact that Sengstock waited until he was 36 years old to report the abuse.
"It's just this whole method of minimizing a criminal, traumatic act. It's part of a strategy," said Boz Tchividjian, an attorney advocate for abuse survivors.
"People have reached out for 40 years to ask this man for help, to ask him to be the basic Christian leader that he pretends he is," said Levin. "And for 40 years, people have been cast aside."
According to Loxie Gant, founder of the Coalition for Institutional Child Abuse Prevention, "Brian Houston was integral in the cover-up and the victim-shaming and the coercion of the ministry. He kept the brand above board, he kept moving forward, he kept planting churches in new countries and new spaces — coming to the U.S., having colleges."
Shoebridge observed, "Their reputation has taken a hit … [so] they are hoping to spread their wings into foreign markets, get away from some of this history and reach into the United States. And you can't help but reflect on the history of Frank Houston in that regard. He stepped away from what happened in New Zealand to expand the market in Australia. … History has a horrible, horrible, horrible habit of repeating."
In episode 2, journalist and Beyond Belief author Elle Hardy noted that Brian "built [Hillsong] up from 45 people in a school hall in western Sydney. [Now] he's got churches in 130 countries and 150,000 a week, and he will protect the brand at all costs."
She continued, "Ultimately it is about conquering territories bit by bit and whatever it takes to achieve that. They're in a battle for everything. They really do believe that they need to conquer Earth in order to make Heaven on Earth."
Said Hardy, "Hillsong and Brian Houston's endgame is really about transforming society. And when you want to transform society, you want to transform it in your own image."
AP Photo/Andres Kudacki Hillsong
On Oct. 5, 2021, Brian Houston was charged with concealing child sexual abuse. If convicted he faces up to five years in prison. He pleaded not guilty on all charges.
On Jan. 30, 2022, Brian Houston announced that he would temporarily step down from Hillsong leadership to "vigorously defend the charges against him." His hearing regarding his alleged cover-up of his father's abuse has been slated to begin on Dec. 2, per the Daily Mail.
In late February, interim senior pastor Phil Dooley claimed the documentary's "purpose is not the healing of people but simply to hurt the church" — just weeks before Dooley, according the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, addressed the church to acknowledge that Houston is personally facing multiple allegations of sexual misconduct.
On Wednesday, just one day before the premiere of the docuseries, it was announced that Houston had resigned following complaints that he behaved inappropriately towards two women in two separate incidents.
All three hours of Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed can now be streamed on discovery+.
If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.
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