Many of my friends are, like myself, what I like to call “religious tourists”. They fill up church pews only at Easter and Christmas. They mumble along to rote creeds and doting hymns with the same amount of faith reserved for clicking Captcha squares to confirm that they’re human. Their faith had been wavering, or non-existent, until a recent religious scandal involving a “hypepriest”, a New York fashion designer and the Biebers renewed their collective trust in how God provides when you least expect it.
If you have somehow avoided Hillsong until now – meaning, until its star pastor Carl Lentz recently admitted to an adulterous relationship and was subsequently fired from his position – then let me explain.
Hillsong is an evangelical Christian megachurch with an unusually large congregation spread across several countries. Founded in Australia in the 1980s, it’s been described by Tom Wagner, author of The Hillsong Movement Examined, as a “confluence of sophisticated marketing techniques and popular music”.
After it came to the US in 2010, its pious jingles and achingly hip reading of the scriptures attracted regular crowds – 100,000 each week – to sing along and wave their hands at its services. Hillsong has its own record label that’s sold at least 16 million albums of Christian music, generating over $100 million in sales. The word of God is spread via inhouse “worship band” Hillsong UNITED, in tunes like Oceans (Where Feet May Fail), So Will I (100 Billion X) and Lead Me to the Cross.
Its celebrity contingent is like a Hollywood spiderweb: Justin and Hailey Bieber are at its centre, with silk threads extending out to Kylie and Kendall Jenner, Chris Pratt, Selena Gomez, Nick Jonas and Kourtney Kardashian. By Kardashian-Jenner extension, its spiritual network and marketing strategy has seemingly indirectly inspired Kanye West’s Sunday Service.
A celebrity church, of course, needs a rock star for its leader. Carl Lentz looks like a judge on The Voice. The 42-year-old lead pastor of HillsongNYC has tattoos, which are mostly symbols of faith or odes to his family. He’s been called a “hypepriest” (a twist on the “hypebeast” moniker).
“When I first met him, I was like: ‘You’re a pastor?’” Landry Fields, 32, a former player and assistant general manager of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team, said to Bleacher Report in 2015. “It was brand new, shocking, but his appearance helps. He’s a guy that you can easily relate to, and he’s unlike anybody else in terms of the Christian pastoral world.”
After attending one of his sermons in 2013, Bieber tweeted: “Love to my guy @CarlLentzNYC for the amazing sermon at church this morning. Love you man. I broke down today. Thank u :).”
Was it his winsome attitude or his Maroon 5‑esque V‑neck and aviators that endeared him to Ranin Karim? Karim, a 34-year-old fashion designer, is the woman with whom Lentz reportedly had a six month affair from May to November this year. The two met at Domino Park, which borders the East River on the Brooklyn side. It became famous during lockdown as the only park to draw white chalk circles on its astroturf so people would know how far apart they should sit.
One of those drawn to its fame was Lentz, a man who had been married for 17 years to another Hillsong pastor, Laura. On a sunny Friday in May, he gestured for Karim, then a complete stranger with nowhere to sit, to join him in his circle.
“I was telling him everything,” she told The New York Post. “I thought: he’s single, he’s a good-looking man, why not?”
Upon leaving the park, he asked for her number and entered it into his Notes app.
“That, for me, was a red flag,” Karim said. Other red flags include, but were not limited to: Lentz telling her that he was an unmarried sports agent; that he frequently worked with celebrities; that, per Karim, “the most beautiful women come from the Middle East.”
Yet the pair fell into an intoxicating spiral of frequent FaceTime conversations, twice-weekly tequila tastings and impassioned arguments about Christianity. “We were obsessed with each other. He was like a drug to me. I was a drug to him,” Karim told The New York Post.
The sports agent fib wasn’t too far fetched, since a 2013 interview with Lentz revealed him to be the speed-dial pastor of basketball player Kevin Durant of the Brooklyn Nets. It also quotes him as saying: “There are only two times when I’m talking: [while] balling and preaching.” Other ballers taking his spiritual advice were 10-time NBA All-Star Carmelo Anthony and Houston Rockets centre Tyson Chandler.
The non-sports celebrity connections were there, too. He baptised Justin Bieber in the bathtub of Chandler’s home in New York in 2015 when the pool in his building was closed (it was 2 am).
Bieber met Lentz in 2008 and they quickly struck up a bromance. Lentz helped to rehab the star in 2014 following a world tour of pissing in a mop bucket, emerging from a Brazilian brothel under a bed sheet and the abandonment of a pet monkey in Germany. They had fun, too – they hit up the Louis Vuitton x Supreme pop-up shop together in Sydney. Pastor Carl steered him through an attempted rekindling of his relationship with Selena Gomez in 2017. Bieber later introduced Lentz to Kendall Jenner. In an Instagram post, he wrote of Lentz: “He’s the biggest Brodog, ride or die.. til the wheels fall off!!”
But now the wheels, as the old adage goes, have fallen off. Around October, his texts with Karim, which downloaded from his iCloud to his computer, were discovered by his wife and another Hillsong employee. “He’s not really a good cheater,” Karim told The Post, concluding that there was at least one game this former baller couldn’t play.
The downfall was swift. Lentz and his wife have, like Judas before them, reportedly been “iced out” by their celebrity friends. The Biebers both unfollowed Lentz on Instagram. His departure from Hillsong was announced in an Instagram post dated 6th November, clearing up speculation after an official 4th November missive that gave the reason for his dismissal as “a recent revelation of moral failures”. Laura, who also worked at HillsongNYC, reportedly also lost her job.
“Our time at HillsongNYC has come to an end,” Lentz solemnly wrote on Instagram. “I was unfaithful in my marriage, the most important relationship in my life and held accountable for that.”
There are rumours that this is only the beginning, as an investigation has been opened by founder Brian Houston to look at the “inner workings” of HillsongNYC. Might more pastors come forward admitting to wrongdoings?
After all, something similar transpired before. In 1995, Hillsong faced its first crisis when Geoff Bullock, a music pastor who wrote many of Hillsong’s buzziest tracks, resigned from the church because of marital issues. He remarried and left his position. Yet Hillsong thrived after his withdrawal, buoyed by sales of a live album release, Shout to the Lord, which peaked at #13 on the Billboard Top Contemporary Christian Artist Chart.
Maybe it can thrive again, if Hillsong can contain this cause célèbre. A cheating pastor doesn’t spell the end of an entire megachurch. What it does tell us, however, is that humanity is a master class in making mistakes, and no person, nor celebrity, is immune.
Surely, there’s a good song to come out of this calamity, but many of Hillsong’s famous devotees available to record it have scattered. In Lentz’s case, and in the words of his former pal, it does beg the question: Is it too late now to say sorry?