Carl Lentz and the Trouble With Hillsong

Carl Lentz commanding a 2015 crowd. (PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE LEVITT.)

In mid-November 2020, a crisis manager from the public relations firm Sunshine Sachs took on a new client: Carl Lentz, former head of Hillsong Church’s four locations in the American Northeast. Hillsong is an Australia-based megachurch that averages more than 150,000 weekly congregants at satellites in 30 countries. It is also a multimedia conglomerate that produces documentaries, books, and chart-topping musical acts. After joining Hillsong as head pastor of the New York outpost in 2010, Lentz quickly became the church’s most recognizable face. Liberally tattooed, elaborately coiffed, and often dressed like a teenage hypebeast, Lentz, 42, achieved mild mainstream fame based on his proximity and access to the millennial celebrities in his flock: Justin and Hailey Bieber, Vanessa Hudgens, Kevin Durant, Selena Gomez. Tens of thousands of urban evangelical professionals followed Lentz for his soaring sermons at weekly services that resembled rock concerts.

But in late 2020, Lentz needed a new path. On November 4, Hillsong’s global senior pastor and founder, Brian Houston, publicly fired Lentz and his wife of 17 years, Laura, pointing to “leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures.” On Instagram the next day, Carl Lentz paired a photo of his family decked out in formal attire at the Biebers’ wedding with a confession:

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…

On November 9, Ranin Karim, a 34-year-old jewelry designer and actor with a septum piercing and her own sleeves of tattoos, described a monthslong tequila-drenched love affair with Lentz in interviews with The Sun, the New York Post, and others. She said Lentz introduced himself as a sports agent in Williamsburg’s Domino Park and called her his “Middle Eastern unicorn woman.” Laura Lentz discovered the affair after a Hillsong staffer saw Lentz’s messages on his office computer. With the tabloids feasting on his humiliation, Lentz’s new P.R. advisers believed his return began with three months out of public view, followed by a news cycle dominating mea maxima culpa—perhaps, as suggested for a time, in this magazine.

Having recently sold their home in Montclair, New Jersey, the Lentz family moved to a grand Spanish-style home with a terra-cotta roof and ocean views in Manhattan Beach, California. Entertainment mogul Tyler Perry reportedly paid their $16,000 monthly rent. News of the relocation shocked Hillsong NYC congregants, who felt the Lentzes had just picked up and left. They changed their cell phone numbers, updating only a select few friends, according to one.

For a few weeks it seemed as if redemption might be possible. Pictures of the family appeared on gossip sites: Carl, shirtless in cornrows, performing Sun Salutations on the beach; Laura beelining into a tanning salon. A Lentz family insider provided People.com with updates: family nights on the beach and Thanksgiving plans. The Daily Mail reported that the Lentzes were in intense couples therapy.

Then, on December 3, audio surfaced of Houston explaining Lentz’s firing in an internal meeting: “These issues were more than one affair, they were significant. And at least some bad moral behavior had gone back historically.”

That afternoon, Lentz’s publicists said he enrolled in a 28-day outpatient program for “pastoral burnout.” A few weeks later, The New York Times reported that Hillsong NYC volunteers had complained to church officials about rumors of Lentz acting inappropriately with women in 2017. Then Lentz’s former dog walker went public about a 2014 incident in which he stumbled in on Lentz making sex noises with a younger star. The Lentzes and Sunshine Sachs parted ways. (Lentz declined to comment for this story.)

Since his days as a student at Hillsong College in the mid-2000s, Lentz had established himself as a golden child of the church with access to Houston’s tight inner circle. In casting Lentz out, Houston exiled not only the leading avatar of the culture he built, but something of a son as well. The effects of the split between the church’s founder and his most famous acolyte went far beyond the two men’s relationship. For years, Hillsong experienced rapid growth as it offered itself as a house of worship and community for its young followers seeking what they needed—be that healing, fellowship, or grace. Its contemporary spin on Christianity, embodied by Lentz, packed a thriving network of on-trend believers into services across the globe every week. But Lentz’s scandal and subsequent departure caused many of its congregants to reevaluate their relationship with the church. In the months following Lentz’s exit, Hillsong volunteers and former congregants from New York; Los Angeles; Boston; Kansas City, Missouri; and Sydney offered stories about the church that included exploitation, bullying, and alienation.

The Lentzes arrived in New York City in 2010 from Virginia Beach, Virginia, Carl’s hometown. Though Lentz came from a family of believers, by college at North Carolina State, where he earned a spot on the varsity basketball team, he had just about given up on his faith. During a visit home before his sophomore year, his parents brought him to a service at the newly established Wave Church. That afternoon, the pastor gave out a clear call: If you want to change your life and serve Jesus and Jesus alone, lift up your hand. “I don’t know what happened to me, I mean I’ve done that before, but something clicked,” Lentz later said. He left school and eventually made his way to Hillsong College in Sydney.

At the school, Lentz made fast friends with Brian Houston’s son Joel. According to a 2011 interview with Lentz in The Christian Post, as early 20-something students, Lentz and the younger Houston fantasized about someday teaming up to establish a Hillsong church in New York. In class, Lentz established himself as a brash and discursive presence. He’d interrupt lectures from the back of the room to pose counterarguments at length. He and Joel grew a joint reputation for their nightlife exploits.

He also met Laura, a native Australian whose parents are longtime friends of the Houstons. Lentz found himself in rarefied territory for a Hillsong student, hanging out at the Houston family home and in Brian’s ultraprivate church greenroom. An avid sports fan, Houston loved Lentz’s basketball stories and his aptitude for name-dropping while telling them. In his last year of school, Lentz interned for Houston, washing his car and picking up his dry cleaning.

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