Even if you’re not a remotely religious person, you’ve probably heard of Hillsong Church. It’s been in the news a lot lately thanks to its popularity with A-list celebs such as Justin Bieber. It’s also become embroiled in scandal due to the behavior of Carl Lentz, one of the church’s most well-known pastors. To get you up to speed on this megachurch and its connections to the rich and famous, here’s a deep dive into its history and details about its current scandals.
Hillsong Church Was Founded In Australia In 1983
Hillsong Church was founded by Australian pastor and evangelist Brian Houston and his wife, Bobbie, in Baulkham Hills, New South Wales, in 1983. It’s a nondenominational Christian megachurch, which means it has a huge following. In fact, through the 1980s and into the ‘90s, Hillsong grew from a small 45-member congregation to one with close to 20,000 members. Currently, it has more than 250,000 worshipers across Australia alone.
According to the Church’s website, Hillsong’s mission is “to reach and influence the world by building a large Christ-centered, Bible-based church, changing mindsets and empowering people to lead and impact in every sphere of life.” They believe that “the Bible is God’s Word” and that it is “accurate, authoritative and applicable to our everyday lives.” They also state that “God has individually equipped us so that we can successfully achieve His purpose for our lives which is to worship God, fulfil our role in the Church and serve the community in which we live.”
Hillsong is well-known for its worship music and has spawned some successful contemporary Christian groups, including Hillsong Worship, Hillsong United, and Hillsong Young & Free. The Church’s association with pop music is one of the reasons it has become so popular among young celebrity circles.
Justin Bieber Is One Of Many A-List Celebrities That Have Attended
While Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin are probably two of the most well-known celebs associated with Hillsong Church, there are plenty of other famous faces who have jumped on the Hillsong bandwagon.
Actor Chris Pratt is known to attend Zoe Church in Los Angeles, which is a part of the Hillsong Family. Selena Gomez was said to accompany Justin Bieber to Hillsong services back when they were dating. Other celebs purported to have attended services or become members include Kylie and Kendall Jenner, Vanessa Hudgens and Austin Butler, Nick Jonas, Kourtney Kardashian, Tyson Chandler, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Hailee Steinfeld, and Bono.
Hillsong Church Was A Part Of Justin Bieber’s Image Repair
One of the reasons Hillsong has been so closely associated with the “Peaches” singer is because the church played a key role in the pop star’s image transformation a few years ago.
Back in 2014, Bieber had reached a rough spot in both his personal and professional life. Just 19 years old at the time, he was burnt out, partying too much, and quickly becoming tabloid fodder due to a number of unbecoming indiscretions, including a night in jail for drag racing and driving under the influence. “I forgot what I was about, what my mom raised me to be,” Justin later told Complex in a 2015 interview. “I veered off, and I got tainted.”
Right around this time, Bieber met Carl Lentz, a young, influential pastor from the New York City branch of the Hillsong Church. As the story goes, Lentz convinced the pop star that Jesus Christ could help him turn his life around, baptizing him at 3 a.m. in the bathtub of NBA player and fellow Hillsong member Tyson Chandler. Almost immediately, Bieber was singing a brand new tune. His Instagram feed shifted from wild party shots to Bible verses and psalms. Still in 2021, a quick scroll through his Instagram reveals a number of faith-based posts.
In one note he posted on Instagram, the “Boyfriend” singer wrote:
“Jesus has changed my life. Easter is not about a bunny, it’s a reminder that my Jesus died on the cross for my sins and then rose from the dead defeating death. I believe this happened and it changes everything. I am set free from bondage and shame. I am a child of the most high God and he loves me exactly where I am, how am, for who I am.”
The image resurrection worked. In 2015, Bieber released the album Purpose and scored his first number-one single on the Billboard Hot 100 with “What Do You Mean?” The number-one hits “Sorry” and “Love Yourself” soon followed, making Bieber the first male artist in almost a decade to have three number-ones from one album.
Hillsong Church Was Recently Involved In A Major Scandal
Unfortunately, as Bieber’s public image was on the mend, rumors were on the rise about Carl Lentz’s problematic behavior. In late 2020, he was publicly fired by Church founder Brian Houston, who said in statement:
“Today Hillsong Church East Coast advised our congregation that we have terminated the employment of Pastor Carl Lentz. This action was not taken lightly and was done in the best interests of everyone, including Pastor Carl…. This action has been taken following ongoing discussions in relation to leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures.”
The leader added: “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.”
While Houston did not give an explicit reason for the firing, it came on the heels of a woman publicly disclosing details of her extramarital affair with Lentz. Furthermore, a leaked audio recording of Houston revealed that it had been widely known that Lentz had engaged in multiple affairs. And Lentz even admitted to his indiscretions, writing in an Instagram post:
“I was unfaithful in my marriage, the most important relationship in my life and held accountable for that. This failure is on me, and me alone and I take full responsibility for my actions. I now begin a journey of rebuilding trust with my wife, Laura and my children and taking real time to work on and heal my own life and seek out the help that I need.”
Not long after his admission, the disgraced pastor checked into an outpatient facility for depression and anxiety treatment.
Another Pastor Stepped Down In The Wake Of The Scandal
In the wake of the Lentz controversy, another prominent Hillsong leader was forced to walk away from the church due to inappropriate behavior. Darnell Barrett, pastor and creative director of Hillsong’s Montclair, New Jersey, church, resigned in April of 2021 after sending explicit photos of himself to a woman who was not his wife. While the pastor claimed he sent the photos by accident, he admitted to infidelity in his marriage and told the Daily Mail he and his wife “thought it was best for me to move on” from the Church as a result of the incident.
Justin Bieber Left Hillsong For Churchome
Once the Church’s most visible celebrity success story, Bieber has now distanced himself from Hillsong and Carl Lentz. In a May 2021 interview with GQ, the pop star touched on his feeling about the disgraced pastor, saying:
“I think so many pastors put themselves on this pedestal. it’s basically, church can be surrounded around the man, the pastor, the guy, and it’s like, ‘This guy has this ultimate relationship with God that we all want but we can’t get because we’re not this guy.’ That’s not the reality, though. The reality is, every human being has the same access to God.”
And in a couple of January 2021 Instagram stories, Bieber made it crystal clear he’s no longer a Hillsong member, writing (as reported by Vanity Fair):
“IM [sic] NOT STUDYING TO BE A MINISTER OR ANYTHING EVEN CLOSE TO THAT. HAVE NO DESIRE FOR THAT THIS IS FAKE NEWS…AND BTW HILLSONG IS NOT MY CHURCH.. FOR CLARITY I AM A PART OF CHURCHOME.”
Churchome is another nondenominational Christian megachurch, led by Pastors Judah and Chelsea Smith. According to the organization’s website, its name is meant to reflect the “belief that we are going to be a church that functions like a home, that looks like a home, and that loves like a home. And ultimately, what we experience on earth will look a lot like heaven.”