Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed is produced by Breaklight Pictures in association with New York Post Entertainment for Discovery+. Post reporter Hannah Frishberg stars in the documentary.
Under the famous pastor Carl Lentz, the international megachurch Hillsong became trendy and influential, garnering attention-grabbing profiles in outlets like GQ and attracting stars like Chris Pratt, Kendall Jenner, Nick Jonas and Justin Bieber.
But not everything was sacred. Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed, a new three-part docuseries premiering March 24 on Discovery+, delves into the breathtaking story of the religious institution and its founder Brian Houston, who has been accused of everything from embezzling church funds to to covering up child abuse. Houston, 68, resigned as church director in January (amid a court case in which Houston was accused of concealing his late father’s child sexual abuse — which the church all deny), and he resigned on March 23 an internal misconduct investigation that found Houston had acted inappropriately toward two women.
“It’s a culture of ‘protecting the brand at all costs,'” says Elle Hardy, author of Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity Is Taking Over the World, in the documentary. “And whatever it takes to make that happen.”
Hillsong originated in Australia in 1983 and was founded by Houston, who grew up in Father Frank Houston’s Pentecostal church in Sydney. In 2010, when Houston wanted to expand to America, he became aware of the charismatic young Pastor Lentz, now 43.
“It makes you feel like your belief system is valid in the modern world,” Hardy says, referring to Lentz’s cutting-edge haircut, tattoos, and clothing that attracted millennials and Gen Z.
Lentz became Hillsong’s shining star, becoming so famous that he rubbed elbows with the likes of Bieber and Oprah Winfrey.
Ben Kirby, who created the PreachersNSneakers Instagram account, began noticing Lentz for his expensive threads. “I posted a picture of him wearing a Supreme-Louis Vuitton hoodie,” he says in the document. “This hoodie was on the resale market at the time for $10-$15,000. The prices were crazy.”
As revealed in the documentary, Lentz grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia and was a youth pastor at Wave Church in Virginia Beach from 2010-2020 before serving for decades as the leader of Hillsong NYC.
Jaclyn Hayes, a former Wave Church volunteer, describes in the series how Lentz spoke about sexual purity, the importance of fathers controlling their daughters, and his “rules” for dating — such as a dictate that a couple shouldn’t even kiss for the first year together and never have sex before marriage.
When Hayes and a then-boyfriend had sex and Lentz confessed to her slip-up, she recalled their exchange: “Carl asked, ‘Did you use protection?’ I interrupted: ‘Yes, of course.’ And his next response was, “Huh. Well then it was intentional.’ I would have expected a different reaction from him. I just shared something so personal and . . . you use it to shame and judge me.”
Lentz told Hayes and her then-boyfriend to stop seeing each other, and they did, to their mutual heartbreak. But behind the scenes, he did not practice what he preached.
A former Wave Church employee, who appears anonymously in the documentary for signing a nondisclosure agreement, says onscreen, “I was with Wave for a couple of years before Carl left. I remember going to leadership meetings and he was pounding into our heads, ‘Don’t have sex before marriage.’ He was aggressive.”
Meanwhile, the employee claims, “I had a boyfriend . . . Carl tried to sleep with her. this [womanizing] was a very well known thing about Carl.”
Ranin Karim, 35, claims she had a five-month fling with Lentz that eventually led to Hillsong ousting him in 2020, as she exclusively told The Post in November 2020. In the documentary, Karim describes how they met at a park and exchanged phone numbers. When she asked him his last name, “he said, ‘When people google people. . . it does not look good. It’s better to get to know the person before looking for them.’ That was the weirdest answer I’d ever heard,” she says.
Karim later found out that Lentz was married and she asked if there was something wrong with his relationship.
“He said, ‘I’ve never done this before, there’s nothing wrong with my relationship. . . but you have everything I want in a woman.’ It was very strange,” she says.
According to Karim, Lentz cried in front of her throughout their affair, which she took as a sign of his vulnerability. But: “I later realized that it was cops – – t,” says Karim. “People in the church said he cried the whole time on stage. In the months that we saw each other, I began to realize that . . . it was always his way or no way. I started withdrawing and saying, ‘I don’t want this anymore, leave me alone.’ But the more times you say ‘no’ to him, the more times he comes back.”
Karim describes her relationship with Lentz as “the most toxic thing I’ve ever had to deal with. If I could go back and never meet Carl, I would.”
After Lentz’s alleged affair with Karim made headlines, Hayes watched the news and recalled how Lentz broke up with her boyfriend simply because they had premarital sex.
“When it all came out, I was really angry,” she says. “It just makes you very angry that what you were shamed for is the same thing [he did]. It’s literally the definition of a hypocrite.”
Lentz was fired from Hillsong in November 2020, with Houston citing his “moral failure.”
“There’s a rumor going around that Carl and his wife wanted to leave Hillsong and I believe that Brian [Houston] knew his profile was too high and that people would follow him. . . I think it was just a way of getting rid of him and trying to tarnish his brand,” speculates Janice Lagata, a former Hillsong student and volunteer who has worked with Hillsong NYC church leadership, in the document.
“You can blame Carl and not the culture at church,” she says.
But according to the documentary, Lentz’s behavior was not an anomaly within the larger organization.
Anna Crenshaw, the daughter of a preacher who graduated from Hillsong College in 2016, appears in the document to describe a case in which she claims she was assaulted by a Hillsong employee who groped her in front of others at a house party have. She reported the incident to church leaders in December 2018. But when questioned about it, Crenshaw said, “It was incredible[t] like an interrogation.”
“They were definitely looking for mix-ups or mistakes. All I was like was, ‘Okay, they’re not on my side,'” she says.
The documentary also includes footage of statements by Brett Sengstock, who alleges that Frank Houston sexually abused him in the 1970s when Sengstock was 7 and 8 years old.
Sengstock claims that when he reported this to church officials, they tried to pay him off with hush money. He claims Brian Houston told him, “You know, it’s your fault that all of this happened. You tried my father.” (Brian Houston has denied that he said the abuse was Sengstock’s fault.)
Houston, who is not interviewed in the documentary, has since pleaded not guilty to concealing his father’s sexual abuse when New South Wales Police indicted him in August 2021.
But former students at Hillsong College — the megachurch version of spiritual education — allege in the document that cover-ups were part of the culture, where they claim they were used for free labor and had to sign non-disclosure agreements.
Former Hillsong College student Yolandi Bosch says, “If you were an open and trusting church, why would you get your members to sign a non-disclosure agreement? Unless you’re hiding something.”