The True Story Behind the FX Documentary Series The Secrets of Hillsong

10 minute read

The Secrets of Hillsong, a four-part FX documentary series streaming on Hulu on May 19, traces the rise and fall of the controversial megachurch Hillsong.

Expanding upon source material from a 2021 Vanity Fair exposé on the church, which revealed cracks in the church’s picture-perfect facade, the series features interviews with former pastor Carl Lentz, who is speaking publicly for the first time since being fired from Hillsong Church NYC in 2020 amid a cheating scandal.

A non-denominational Christian church that began in Australia in 1983, Hillsong quickly expanded to a global audience, including the U.S. and nearly 30 other countries–launching its first U.S. location in New York City in 2010. The church’s rapid growth can be credited to its casual, almost secular style–pastors wear shredded jeans and leather jackets while preaching instead of more traditional wear; music for the congregants resembles a Kings of Leon concert; and church services are regularly held in venues like nightclubs.

As Secrets of Hillsong reveals, the church’s modern appearance helped to obscure some darker truths. At its height in popularity, Hillsong became a household name with the help of figures like Lentz. It was more than a church—it was a conglomerate that worked with several celebrities, spawned a Grammy-winning Christian worship band, Hillsong United, and even ran a college. Since 2020, multiple scandals connected to Hillsong have surfaced, including the resignation of Hillsong’s founder and former leader Brian Houston, who was investigated for ‘inappropriate behavior’ with female staff and is awaiting trial for concealing his late-father’s history of child sex abuse.

David Collins, the executive producer of The Secrets of Hillsong, was endeared to the church’s unique approach at first, after visiting its Los Angeles branch with his two children for the first time in 2010 (he no longer attends Hillsong). “It felt familiar. It was modern praise and worship,” he says. “I saw people like me and I was like ‘I found home.’” According to the series’ director, Stacy Lee, that special connection was something many church attendees felt—and what allowed Hillsong to go unscathed for so long.

“People fell for it hard because they didn’t want the authority or the rigidness of the previous church iterations,” Lee says. “The love of that presentation unfortunately allows one to overlook systems of accountability and structure–the kind of safety nets that are required within institutions that wield so much power.”

Here are the major revelations from Secrets of Hillsong.

Carl and Laura Lentz share their story

THE SECRETS OF HILLSONG “The Prodigal Son” — Season 1, Episode 2 (airs Friday, May 19th) — Pictured: Carl Lentz. CR: FX.
Carl LentzFX

Lentz has been largely off the grid since November 2020, after Hillsong Church fired him for ‘moral failures’ due to his affair with jewelry designer Ranin Karim. Lentz’s staffers approached leadership of the church upon finding incriminating text messages they exchanged. Lentz confirmed via Instagram that he’d been “unfaithful” in his nearly 20-year-long marriage and would be stepping away from the church.

Lentz grew up in Virginia and then attended Hillsong College in Australia in the early-2000s where he met Brian Houston and his now-wife Laura Lentz. The charming pastor and gifted speaker credited for bringing Hillsong even further into the mainstream was Houston’s assistant—and eventual shining star. Lentz recalls in the series that Houston assigned him to launch the church in New York City, saying, “I picked you for this because I know you’ll try to win this city one-by-one if you have to.”

In The Secrets of Hillsong, the Lentzes speak about the cheating scandal and his firing on-the-record for the first time.

“I just remember feeling like ‘Am I in an alternate universe right now?’ The hardest part of this was just trying not to look my wife in the eye ever,” Lentz says in the series. Laura adds, “As soon as he shut the door and I saw his face my heart just dropped and I could tell it was something big. I didn’t know what he was going to say but when he did, my whole world crashed.”

THE SECRETS OF HILLSONG “The Prodigal Son” — Season 1, Episode 2 (airs Friday, May 19th) — Pictured:  Laura Lentz. CR: FX.
Laura LentzFX

The couple also address another instance of alleged infidelity by Lentz, with Leona Kimes, a Hillsong member and the Lentz family’s former nanny. In the series, Laura recalls finding her husband and Kimes in a “compromising position,” years before his other cheating scandal emerged. But it wasn’t until the Lentzes were brought onto a group Zoom call in 2020 that “the truth came out there in front of everyone” about their “inappropriate relationship.” Kimes said in 2020 that she was allegedly sexually and emotionally abused by Lentz. In the series, Lentz says that “any notion of abuse is categorically false.” Laura said, “Out of everything I’ve dealt with, I’ve had to process that situation the most.”

Collins tells TIME that the filmmaking team got access to Carl and Laura Lentz after he sent the former pastor a text message about his own first-hand experience of feeling othered from Hillsong that he correctly sensed would resonate with Lentz. They grabbed lunch, and after several months of conversations, Lentz and his family agreed to share their story.

Since his firing, Carl and Laura Lentz have relocated to Florida with their three children. “Florida is off the radar,” says Lentz, who now works a desk job (likely advertising-adjacent).

“This isn’t a better or worse or higher or low. It’s just a different setting,” he says.

Brian Houston’s influence and downfall

Brian Houston founded Hillsong (originally called the Hills Christian Life Centre) in 1983 in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia, inspired by his now late-father, Frank Houston, a former pastor who founded Sydney Christian Life Centre, which would later merge into the creation of Hillsong. In his later years, Frank Houston would face allegations that he sexually abused children. In 1999, Frank Houston admitted to one instance of abuse to Brian Houston. He eventually admitted to it in court, but claimed to have no memory of others, before dying in 2004.

To date, there are 13 alleged victims and survivors of Frank Houston, according to the documentary. Brian Houston remained the lead pastor of Hillsong until 2022, when he resigned from his position amid allegations that he concealed information related to the confirmed case of his father’s child sex abuse, rather than bringing it to the police. The verdict for Houston’s trial for the alleged concealment is expected in June.

Houston’s work with Lentz was intertwined with Hillsong’s success—the church started small but soon became a cultural powerhouse, thanks in part to efforts by Lentz to make the New York City branch successful. As Lentz’s cheating scandal unfolded in 2020, Houston vocally denounced him, despite the two having a seemingly close relationship for decades. “There were leadership issues that I believe included lying, included what I would call narcissistic behavior,” he said told the TODAY show. “I don’t think Carl really is anything like me.”

Just two years after publicly denouncing Lentz, Houston would face allegations of being inappropriate with two female staffers, which ultimately led to his resignation. In the documentary, Lentz addresses his views on Houston. “If there is one person 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.” He says they have not spoken in the three years since Houston fired him on a Zoom call.

Due to pending legal matters, Houston was unable to be interviewed for the documentary, although he did respond to comment via email about several allegations, including denying overworking volunteers, leading by intimidation, or having fears that he’d lose congregants if Lentz left. Hillsong did not respond to any of the documentary’s requests for interviews.

Hillsong is accused of discrimination and money laundering

THE SECRETS OF HILLSONG “Church in the Wild” — Season 1, Episode 1 (airs Friday, May 19th) — Pictured: Josh Canfield (congregant from 2010-2016). CR: FX.
Josh Canfield (congregant from 2010-2016)FX

Secrets addresses a long list of allegations of misconduct against the church, including congregants facing racial and LGBTQ+ discrimination. The church’s “modern” approach begged the question of whether their political stances would be progressive. (Spoiler alert: they were not.) “Under the radar, yes, welcome, come one come all, but outside this is Hillsong Church. We believe traditional stuff here,” Lentz says.

Former Hillsong choir director and Survivor contestant Josh Canfield was denied from his position at the church after publicly announcing his relationship to his partner. “At the heart of Hillsong global are super conservative white men. No matter how cool or hip you think they are, at the heart of it is: come as you are and then we’ll change you,” Canfield says in the series.

EP Collins, who attended Hillsong in Los Angeles up until 2013, says a church staffer denounced him and his children’s alleged LGBTQ+ parental household, which led him to step away from the church. “I walked out of that church feeling so hurt,” he tells TIME. “I had promised myself as a daddy of girls that I wasn’t gonna cause the same pain that I was subjected to as a little child in Ohio so when that happened it devastated me.” Hillsong did not respond to TIME’s request for comment on the incident.

Hillsong has also been accused of racial discrimination and the documentary addresses the lack of Black leaders in the church. “We struggled with diversity as a leadership team,” says Lentz in the documentary, noting there was diversity among congregants and non-leadership staff. “We do not have a single pastor on a global level that is not a white man.” Additionally, the white pastors, who lacked the required cultural understanding, were often sent to minister in minority populations, Vanity Fair journalist Alex French says in the series.

While Lentz has spoken out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, ex-congregant Janice Lagata says in the documentary, “You take him out of church he’s not progressive, but in the church world he seems ahead of his time.”

The allegations that have led Hillsong to court centers on the church’s mismanagement of funds. In 2019, Hillsong made an annual revenue of nearly $100 million that included tithe money from congregants. Since then, its revenue has fallen by nearly 20%. Ex-congregants of the church recall not knowing where those funds went during times of need for their community. Secrets unveils that some of Hillsong’s misused funds were used for purchases like private jets and luxury watches.

According to the documentary, additional criminal charges are expected in regards to Hillsong’s alleged financial malfeasance. Sources inside the Australian government believe Hillsong’s charity status may be revoked and laws regulating tax exemptions for charities will be reviewed.

Where does Hillsong stand now?

Houston’s Hillsong global senior position has since been replaced with Phil Dooley, another Australian pastor. At one point, Hillsong had locations in 30 countries and over 150,000 congregants. According to the documentary, as of March 2023, ten out of sixteen U.S. locations have closed, including branches in Phoenix and Dallas. Hillsong Church NYC, known to have hosted thousands of congregations weekly, continues to see about 500 attendees per week.

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