The dramatic end to Carl Lentz’s pastorship at Hillsong Church looked a lot like the 10 years he spent at the pulpit: plenty of media attention, accusations of bad behavior, and some peripheral A-List celebrity involvement.
On the morning of November 4, as first reported by Religion News Service, staff and members of Hillsong East Coast were notified by email that Lentz had been fired for “leadership issues and breaches of trust” in addition to a “recent revelation of moral failures.” In a public statement issued later that day, founding pastor Brian Houston commended Lentz’s service to the New York City location of the Hillsong conglomerate, which Lentz began with Houston’s son Joel in 2010.
“In terminating his tenure, we in no way want to diminish the good work he did here,” Houston wrote, declining to specify what “moral failures” would lead to firing one of Hillsong’s most recognizable figures: “It would not be appropriate for us to go into detail about the events that led to this decision. Our focus at this time is to honor God and pastorally care for our East Coast church community as well as the Lentz family.”
Outside of the evangelical universe, news of Lentz’s termination landed more with a thud than a bang, albeit with plenty of breathless updates about what Lentz could have done wrong and what he would be doing next. To some, it was evidence that yet another egoistic megachurch pastor was embroiled in scandal.
Kellie Rodriguez, a music student at New York University and member of the Hillsong NYC flock, read the news like everyone else.
“It’s like telling your kid that you’re getting a divorce,” she told VICE. “But Pastor Carl is a person at the end of the day. I came there for the church, not for him.”
Hillsong NYC will be different under new leadership, and perhaps one difference will be that it starts to look a little bit like other churches––fewer articles in national tabloids, fewer Instagram accounts dedicated to pastoral Yeezys, and the regular amount of anxiety about declining belief in organized religion nationwide.
Rodriguez’s sentiment—that the termination is sad, but necessary—throws into question how essential one pastor can be, even when the church is an enterprise. Lentz is in the news because Lentz is considered newsworthy; it’s something that happens when you start getting called a “hypepriest.” But the conflation of Lentz and the giant that is Hillsong might be overestimating his influence, at least among the public who know him best—those who spent their weekends standing shoulder to shoulder listening to him speak about Jesus, when such a thing was permitted.
A day after Houston released his statement, Lentz took it upon himself to bring his congregation into the know. In a long, penitent Instagram post, he confessed that he had been unfaithful to his wife, Laura, who also served as a pastor at Hillsong and was reportedly let go at the same time.
“When you accept the calling of being a pastor, you must live in such a way that it honors the mandate. That it honors the church, and that it honors God,” Lentz wrote. “When that does not happen, a change needs to be made and has been made in this case to ensure that standard is upheld.”
The next week, a woman who identified herself only as “Ranin,” a fashion designer from New York, told The Sun and The New York Post that she engaged in an emotional and physical relationship with Lentz over the course of five months. In her reports to the tabloids, Ranin said that the relationship was probably due to pandemic boredom and a midlife crisis.
On November 12, Brian Houston tweeted that Hillsong would launch an “independent investigation into the inner workings of Hillsong NYC/East Coast,” and, in a one-two punch to the organization, celebrity parishioners Justin and Hailey Bieber unfollowed Carl Lentz on Instagram (Lentz famously baptized the popstar in N.B.A. center Tyson Chandler’s bathtub).
Lentz removed comments on Instagram a few days after his admission, but not before a flood of support rushed in from a cast of evangelical heavyweights.
“I love you and Laura and will be praying,” wrote Beth Moore, the Texan evangelist known for her outspokenness on sexism within the church. “May God hold you both so close. Don’t rush the work. It has to go deep to last.” Similar comments were written by T.D. Jakes, a prominent megachurch pastor in Dallas, and Shelly Giglio, co-founder of the Passion Movement. “Love you SOOOO much!,” wrote Chandler Moore, a popular gospel musician in Atlanta.
But one of the few religious leaders not offering Lentz consolation was Esther Houston, Joel Houston’s wife.
“Amazing to see all the support being poured out for this despicable ongoing behavior. Listen, I’m not gonna play this game,” Esther wrote. “I fully denounce this and make no excuses for it. You’ve been dealt a good hand, and you played it wrong.”
“If it’s not bigger than Carl Lentz then it’s not a godly church.”
In his post, Lentz asked for forgiveness from those he had served who would feel betrayed by the new information. Indeed, while Lentz certainly served miscellaneous blue-checked celebrities, their affirmations do not necessarily reflect the thousands who regularly gathered to hear him preach at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan. For the non-celebrities who worshipped alongside him, feelings have been more complicated—after all, Hillsong grounds itself in tenets of reconciliation and forgiveness.
“[It] feels like we’re choking on our hypocrisy,” one member commented on a recent Hillsong NYC Instagram post. “So many have exiled Carl as though his building this church and leading so many of us (myself included) to Christ just didn’t happen.”
The comment was offset by others who felt Hillsong was skirting responsibility for Lentz’s actions. “Let’s be real, Carl made his mistakes, but the church let that happen,” one said. “Thank the man and his family for everything they’ve done and let us know you’re taking ownership of lack of systems to prevent this from happening in the future.”
Lentz’s infidelity is not Hillsong’s first controversy, and far from its biggest. The flagship church began in Sydney, Australia, in 1983 under the leadership of Brian and Bobbie Houston, merging with the Assemblies of God church founded by Brian’s father, Frank Houston. In 1999, it was revealed that Frank, who died in 2004, sexually abused up to nine boys and his son failed to refer the allegations to the police when they were brought to him as an adult.
In the decades that followed, the Houston family worked to sand off that layer of the Hillsong origin story and create something new, something young and effortlessly charismatic. It’s hard to name another church system that has franchised with the same success. There are Hillsong churches in 30 countries with attendance of upwards of 150,000 each week, something of a holy SimCity built to scale. Its three worship bands account for millions of dollars of revenue each year and even non-churchgoers may recognize Hillsong UNITED’s “Oceans.”
Hillsong’s branding—the idea that you could stroll out of a Supreme pop-up and into the pews—adds a glossy sheen to what is, at the end of the day, a church with exceptionally ordinary evangelical beliefs and practices.
Years ago, after much prodding, Carl Lentz clarified Hillsong’s stance on LGBTQ issues, stating that the church would “stay open and desperate in [its] pursuit of the whosoevers,” while holding to a traditional view on biblical marriage and sexual morality. This came after two choir members were removed from the ministry for their same-sex relationship and Brian Houston declared Hillsong a “gay welcoming church,” but not a church that would “[affirm] a gay lifestyle.”
This cultural dissonance has been part of the pitch to young Christians. At Hillsong, you can wear the clothes you want to wear, indulge in most of what the world has to offer, and still engage with traditional theologies.
It was one of the first things that Pao Durán noticed when she started attending Hillsong. “There were a lot of young people there who were really zealous for the Lord,” she told VICE. “And they looked normal.”
Durán came to New York to study history and political science at Columbia University and found it difficult to maintain her faith in college. She bounced around a few churches in the city—first the Times Square Church, then the Brooklyn Tabernacle, then another in Chelsea called Redeemer—before she found Hillsong.
“I’m from Puerto Rico, straight off the island,” Durán said. “I had just gotten to this university, I didn’t know how to build community. There was this huge sense of loneliness.”
When she found Hillsong, the celebrity association wasn’t of any real interest, and neither was the fervor around Lentz. She liked that it was filled with people her age with doctrine that felt legitimate—at service, pastors spoke to an “honest” interpretation of scripture and didn’t show signs of hyper-grace (when churches emphasize God’s forgiveness to the point where it eclipses personal accountability). She quickly became involved in the church’s small groups and found friends who “ended up feeling like family.”
Lentz’s termination was disappointing, but Durán thinks Hillsong ultimately made the right call.
“You have to have a righteous person leading other people,” she said. “If such blatant sin has occurred then it’s only right to step down and have that person redeem themselves in the sight of the Lord.”
Rodriguez, like Durán, came to Hillsong to ground herself in college, where faith-based outlets are few and far between. She was raised in Marietta, Georgia, the daughter of a pastor at a small Hispanic Baptist church. When she moved to New York and began school, she tried out the “stereotypical pastor’s kid” rebellion, but wound up feeling misplaced.
“I was living a Hannah Montana best of both worlds type of situation,” Rodriguez said. She had been attending Hillsong services by herself before a friendly Fashion Institute of Technology student folded her into The Block, Hillsong NYC’s young adult community.
For Rodriguez, the drama surrounding Lentz’s termination is an unfortunate distraction from the heart of Hillsong, which she sees as a place where anyone is welcome, regardless of where they are in their spiritual journey. The idolization of pastors is natural—they are influencers by default—but the basis of evangelicalism is a personal relationship with Jesus.
“I think that sin is more complicated than we make it out to be. We’re complex human beings,” Rodriguez said. “But of course, if you’ve been unfaithful, you probably shouldn’t be up there telling people to go with Jesus. It’s not a good look.”
Lentz is far from the first megachurch pastor to have compromised his position by stepping out of a marriage. On November 6, John Gray of Relentless Church in Greenville, South Carolina, admitted to “emotional unfaithfulness” in an Instagram post after years of cheating allegations. (His admission—and Lentz’s—conveniently landed in the middle of election mania, raising questions of whether the scandals were meant to be buried in the news cycle.) Gray wrote that he willingly chose to step down from his pastorship, but would return once he had “[done] the work.” In 2013, three Floridian megachurch pastors resigned over adulterous relationships over a span of six months. In 2015, Billy Graham’s grandson Tullian Tchividjian, a pastor at Coral Ridge Presbyterian, became a fourth.
But Lentz’s case is unusual in that Hillsong did not attempt to save face by allowing him the dignity of a resignation, leading to some skepticism about whether the infidelity reflects the whole story.
For Mike Brooks, a broker and Hillsong member from Long Island, the cheating was just the latest development in what he saw as a full docket of leadership issues from Lentz.
“I don’t like to see people knocked off their horse or anything like that,” Brooks told VICE. “But when I saw what happened to him, I was like wow, I was absolutely right.”
In August, Lentz said he believed churches “might be one of the biggest propagators of racist ideology” in the U.S. and made headlines after supporting the Black Lives Matter organization from the pulpit. Brooks saw this as a politicization of the pastoral role and criticized Lentz on social media for taking sides on “new movements.” But with Lentz removed from his post, Brooks said he would have no problem returning to Hillsong NYC. For the last five years, he dutifully tithed, which he feels was an investment in the organization.
“Hillsong better be bigger than Carl Lentz, that’s what I say,” Brooks said. “If it’s not bigger than Carl Lentz then it’s not a godly church.”
As reporter Tanya Chen noted, it may be that Lentz is better equipped to navigate a post-Hillsong world than Hillsong is able to navigate a world post-Lentz. And the way the power will settle between the two is yet to be seen: Lentz developed his platform as an Insta-evangelist for a decade, and it is easy to imagine him making a lateral move to TikTok or YouTube stardom.
The path for Hillsong is less clear. Pastor John Termini led the service on November 8, preaching that the best days of Hillsong were ahead, regardless of the antics that might be happening within the church.
He quoted “A Few Good Men” and John 14, reminding his congregation that they were not fighting a human battle, but a war against dark forces, one that only they as Christians—“the light of the world”—would be able to fight. In a denim button-down and with the trademark Hillsong sincerity, he looked like a natural heir to the house that Lentz built.
Follow Scout Brobst on Twitter.