Carl Lentz, the pastor credited with bringing the Instagram-friendly Australian megachurch Hillsong to the U.S. and baptizing Justin Bieber, was fired this week from the New York franchise he helped found.
Hillsong founder Brian Houston announced the news in an email to Hillsong East Coast members on Nov. 5. “God will use Carl in another way outside of Hillsong Church,” Houston wrote. “This action has been taken following ongoing discussions in retaliation to leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures.”
Houston didn’t elaborate on the “moral failures,” but Lentz hinted at them the following day in a statement on Instagram. “I did not do an adequate job of protecting my own spirit, refilling my own soul, and reaching out for the readily available help that is available,” Lentz wrote. “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.” (Lentz and his wife Laura have three children.)
“I am deeply sorry for breaking the trust of many people who we have loved serving and understand that this news can be very hard and confusing for people to hear and process,” Lentz said. “I would have liked to say this with my voice, to you, in person because you are owed that. But that opportunity I will not have. So to those people, I pray you can forgive me and that over time I can live a life where trust is earned again. ”
Founded in 1983 by Houston and his wife, Bobbie, Hillsong led the charge of youth-friendly “hypepriest” churches that took off in the 2010s. With a combination of high production-value Christian pop music produced by Hillsong’s three record labels (and performed by their band Hillsong UNITED), a lineup of annual conferences, several academies and support programs, and an entire TV and podcasting network, the megachurch cultivated, as one GQ profile put it, a “fashion-forward, Disney Channel teen, aggressively accessorized aesthetic.” Their yuppie-hipster, clear glasses-wearing pastors became minor influencers, hitting the club with Christian celebrities or taking shots with Justin Bieber.
The aesthetic had mass appeal: the congregation now claims 150,000 members in 23 countries, and their music has more than 50 million weekly listeners. Lentz, who met his wife Laura at Hillsong’s training college in Australia and married her in 2003, proposed the church expand its operation to New York City. In 2010, he opened the first of Hillsong’s East Coast locations in Manhattan, where it quickly earned a reputation for its evening concerts, long lines, and uniform baseball caps. Not long after, Lentz became pastor.
Over the years, Hillsong has taken heat for several scandals. When Houston founded the church, he merged congregations with the one led by his father, Frank Houston. It was later revealed that Frank had abused several adolescent boys throughout his career. At one point, Frank offered one of the victims $10,000 in a McDonald’s parking lot in exchange for absolution.
More recently, Australian media has investigated the church’s finances—which, like all faiths there, are tax-exempt. In 2010, The Sunday Telegraph ran a piece titled: “Taxpayers support lavish Hillsong lifestyle.” The investigation found records of the Houstons’ $1.4 million deals on beachfront properties, $120,000 cars, and “a $1 million, fringe benefits tax-free expense account each year for five people, including the Houstons,” and a non-profit called Leadership Ministries Inc. that refunded all pastoral expenses.
Like Hillsong, Lentz has stated openly that he believes homosexuality and abortion are sins. “He says that if he could just show a person how to walk with Jesus, really walk with him every day,” Taffy Brodesser-Ackner wrote in GQ, “it would be easy to resist the temptation of loving someone of your own gender.” (He has also rather confusingly claimed the church is “gay-welcoming.”)
Hillsong made headlines in part for its A-list clientele—a roster Lentz has helped grow. Lentz baptized NBA superstar Kevin Durant and once palled around with basketball player Tyson Chandler. In 2014, when Justin Bieber was recovering from a spate of public foibles, including an incident that involved a recording of him peeing in a bucket, he moved into Lentz’s house for nearly two months. It was while living together that Lentz baptized Bieber—whom he reportedly calls “buckaroo”—in Chandler’s Upper West Side mansion bathroom. Later, after Bieber split from his longtime girlfriend, fellow Hillsong member Selena Gomez, Lentz reportedly counseled them through a short-lived reunion.
According to People, Hillsong services have been attended by Chris Pratt and Katherine Schwarzenegger, Selena Gomez, Tyson Chandler, Kylie Jenner, Kendall Jenner, Hailey Baldwin, Kourtney Kardashian, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Vanessa Hudgens, Austin Butler, Nick Jonas, Hailee Steinfeld, and Bono. “People say we cater to celebrities,” Lentz told GQ. “And I say, yes, we do. Celebrities deserve a relationship with God. Celebrities deserve a place to pray.”
Hillsong did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Bieber has not addressed the pastor’s firing—in 2018, TMZ reported the pair had spiritually split ways. But Bieber remains a Hillsong devotee both in practice and spirit. On Thursday, the pop singer shared a new Hillsong-style hymn called “Holy.” In an announcement on Instagram, he wrote: “#Holy acoustic tonight.”