How did Carl Lentz cause the downfall of Hillsong Church?
Carl Lentz wasn’t your grandaddy’s preacher. Covered in tattoos, hair slicked back, and wearing the hottest clothing, everything about this Hillsong Church pastor was designed to scream young & hip. Youth pastor short-sleeved button-ups? What are those? Carl Lentz raked in a large congregation in New York City thanks to his unorthodox preaching style and creative elements.
Ultimately, this hip pastor who attracted young celebrities to Hillsong Church like flies to honey would lead to its downfall. Over the last few months, allegations against Lentz cost him his job and his respect, leading him to pack up his family, move across the country, and hire a PR firm to clean up his reputation per Vanity Fair.
So how did it come to this, and what’s the state of Hillsong Church after Lentz’s public, messy departure? Let’s take a look.
What is Hillsong?
Hillsong is an Evangelical church founded in Australia in the 1980s. They also reportedly believe in the prosperity gospel, a controversial doctrine claiming that God rewards his most devoted followers with massive net worths. However, Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston distanced himself from the prosperity gospel label in a 2018 interview, and it’s been reported the church regularly audits church funds’ spending.
Hillsong also reportedly embraces conservative Christianity, meaning they’ve stated they don’t believe in abortion or embryonic stem cell research. They have been called out by many, including former members and actor Elliot Page, for reportedly barring queer members from church roles & leadership.
Despite their controversial stances, Hillsong boasts over 150,000 congregants in over thirty countries per Vanity Fair. Their publications, documentaries, and popular Christian artists have found their way into nonaffiliated Evangelical churches. and their song catalog is used by worship teams in numerous churches around the world.
Hillsong also boasts a following of young celebrities, including Vanessa Hudgens, Chris Pratt, members of the Kardashian family, and Justin Bieber.
Anyone who’s ever been near a church knows that adultery made God’s top 10 list of things “thou shalt not” do. Thus, when Carl Lentz publicly confessed to having an affair on his Instagram page in November 2020, members were shook. The head pastor of Hillsong himself, Brian Houston, fired Carl Lentz for “leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures” in an open letter.
“When you lead out of an empty place, you make choices that have real and painful consequences. I was unfaithful in my marriage, the most important relationship in my life and held accountable for that”, Carl Lentz’s confession began on his Instagram page the following day.
Ranin Karim, a jewelry designer who claimed to have an affair with the former Hillsong Pastor, came forward to multiple publications to detail drunken nights and questionable nicknames like “Middle Eastern unicorn woman”. According to Vanity Fair, the affair was blown open when Carl Lentz’s wife, Lisa, discovered emails between Lentz & Karim on his computer.
Even more damning: an audio recording emerged in December of Carl Lentz’s firing meeting. In it, Hillsong co-founder Brian Houston said: “These issues were more than one affair, they were significant. And at least some bad moral behavior had gone back historically.”
Packing up and moving
Carl Lentz moved out of his suburban home in Montclair, New Jersey, which Vanity Fair described as a hub for the Hillsong Church community. Lentz & his family hosted cookouts and joined a pool club, enlisting Hillsong Church volunteers to help run their lives and manage their affairs in the same manner as one of Lentz’s celebrity followers.
One volunteer & fellow pastor reported that Lentz gave her instructions not to let volunteers or domestic workers look him in the eye. Some volunteers were instructed to act as Lentz’s security or ward off his fans.
Addressing these allegations, Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston released the following statement: “If this occurred, it was extremely inappropriate and not in keeping with the culture or the expectations of Hillsong Church. We value each member of our team, especially volunteers.”
Following Carl Lentz’s announcement after his firing from Hillsong, accusations against Hillsong came flying out of the woodwork. Letters from the late 2010s circulated about exploitation, labor abuse, and sexual assault being swept under the rug. More allegations about Hillsong’s alleged treatment of minorities & LGBT members also surfaced.
Volunteers had to work long hours on Sundays, from 5 a.m. well into Monday morning. One staffer claimed: “If you complain, you’ll keep cleaning toilets. If you don’t complain, you can climb the ladder.”
Former allegations against Hillsong Church’s senior founder Frank Houston, Brian’s father who died in 2004 were also resurrected. Frank Houston allegedly confessed to sexually abusing minors, although Hillsong has vehemently addressed the allegations were handled internally.
“From the moment Pastor Brian discovered this shocking news, around 20 years ago, he has always been very open and clear about the circumstances around this, and our church has stood with him and his family”, Hillsong Church said in an email.
Further responding to the reported actions of Carl Lentz, Brian Houston said: “Although we have had very strong leadership in other countries, it is important to note that this tremendous growth has contributed to a lack of supporting infrastructure and oversight in the United States. We are now aware of the scope of changes that need to be made and are addressing those immediately.”