Hillsong—which originated in Australia in 1983 before expanding globally over the next several years, including at one point 16 locations in the U.S.—isn’t your typical megachurch. At its height in popularity throughout the 2010s, you had to fight to get a seat inside.
“I remember going down on a Sunday morning to Hillsong Church LA and there were literally people wrapped around the block to get in,” David Collins, the executive producer of the new documentary series The Secrets of Hillsong, tells TIME. “I was like ‘What the hell is happening here? It was modern praise and worship.”
The four-part FX series, streaming May 19 on Hulu, tracks the rise and fall of the non-denominational Christian church that attracted congregants through its modern appeal—which included fashion-forward pastors, sans-serif font programming, alternative rock “praise and worship” music, and, most notably, the favor of several celebrity attendees. Secrets highlights how Instagram, which launched in the same week in 2010 as Hillsong’s New York City church, played a role in its influence—mimicking what evangelicals were able to do with television in the 1980s to reach a mass audience. “This was the ability to do that digitally and to do it immediately,” Secrets director Stacey Lee tells TIME. “It really changed the game.”
How Hillsong became ‘the celebrity church’
Hillsong’s 2010 launch in the U.S. attracted a range of stars, including actors Chris Pratt, Selena Gomez, and Vanessa Hudgens; musicians Justin Bieber, Joe Jonas, and Bono; and athletes like Kyrie Irving and Tyson Chandler.
“I felt very empowered when I walked out and I was very happy,” Gomez said in a 2017 appearance on the Elvis Duran and the Morning Show.
Part of Hillsong’s appeal came from its pastors’ cultivated personalities, in particular Carl Lentz, who led its popular New York City location, the documentary shows. Lentz became a minor celebrity in his own right, gaining hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, sporting designer clothing, and making courtside basketball appearances.
“At Hillsong it was an ensemble cast built around a star,” journalist Howie Kahn says in the documentary series. Dan Adler, a Vanity Fair journalist who co-wrote a 2021 exposé on allegations of misconduct by church leadership, adds in the series, “Carl was the star. He was mobbed by the congregants in the same way any other celebrity would be.”
Secrets further traces the close friendship that grew between Lentz and Bieber, who was among Hillsong’s most A-list members, and spoke of finding solace in the church after several tumultuous years in the public eye. In 2014, Bieber briefly lived with the Lentz family; Lentz even baptized the pop star in NBA player Tyson Chandler’s bathtub.
Lentz’s hip approach to church quickly took on with others. “Carl was associating with other celebrities, then it became known as the celebrity church, and then other pastors are popping up in other churches almost looking identical to him,” Lee says.
Collins, who attended Hillsong from 2010 to 2013 says Hillsong’s Los Angeles church had a red carpet entrance, a VIP section, and “paparazzi-like” photographers, creating an environment that attracted celebrities. “It was held at a nightclub in Downtown LA. The club would finish a rave at 4:30AM, Hillsong would come in and clean the entire place, set up, and you would go in and it still smelled like cigarettes and booze,” Collins says. “It was as LA as LA could get.” (Collins eventually stopped attending the church due to an alleged experience of LGBTQ+ discrimination. Hillsong did not respond to TIME’s request for comment on the incident.)
When Hillsong’s celebrity influence waned
Celebrities are no longer as vocal about their Hillsong attendance—presumably due to the many scandals that have followed the church since 2020. In 2021, Bieber said in an Instagram post, “Hillsong is not my church … For clarity I am a part of Churchome.” Churchome is another celebrity-endorsed modern church, whose lead pastor Judah Smith notably officiated Bieber’s wedding to Hailey Baldwin Bieber in 2019.
Lentz, once the key to Hillsong’s global success and celebrity roster, was fired from his leadership role in 2020 due to an infidelity scandal. Secrets marks the first interview with Lentz and his family since his removal; in the series, the former pastor showcases a new, humble life in Florida sans celebrity friends and exclusive appearances.
Hillsong’s Australian founder and global lead pastor Brian Houston stepped down from position in 2022, due to allegations of ‘inappropriate behavior’ with female staff and financial misconduct. He currently awaits criminal trial over his role in covering up a case of child sex abuse by his late-father Frank Houston, a former pastor himself.
The church has declined in its overall popularity among congregants—according to the documentary, as of March 2023, only six out of Hillsong’s once 16 U.S. locations remain open. Hillsong Church NYC, which at one point hosted up to five packed services per Sunday at Hammerstein Ballroom, a venue with over 2,000 seats, now sees about 500 congregants per week.
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