The FX series illustrates the dark side of attempting to mix religion with clout chasing.
On October 17th, 2010, Pastor Carl Lentz co-founded Hillsong NYC, a satellite of an Australian Pentecostal megachurch. Lentz’s mission was to make the old-time religion feel fresh and hip for millennials. That might have seemed like a tall order, but Lentz’s good looks, charisma, and hipster aesthetic mixed with Hillsong’s iconic music turned the church into a sort of Studio 54 for Holy Rollers. Soon, Lentz was hobnobbing with the likes of Justin Bieber and Kevin Durant.
For a decade, Lentz was able to straddle the line between a man of God and a celebrity. However, in November of 2020, he was fired from his position due to an extramarital affair with his nanny Leona Kimes (who was also the wife of Hillsong Pastor Josh Kimes). In a matter of weeks, Lentz went from an in-demand preacher to persona non grata.
The story of Lentz’s downfall is where FX’s latest docuseries The Secrets of Hillsong starts, but his disgrace is only one secret among many hidden behind the church’s catchy music and flashy services. Director/producer Stacey Lee is determined to uncover all of Hillsong’s skeletons. It’s an arduous task, and oftentimes Secrets can feel a little unfocused in its eagerness to catalog every wrongdoing, but Lee manages to weave the threads into a fascinating, if disturbing, narrative.
Secrets’ four episodes can be split into two parts. The first two episodes detail the rise and fall of Hillsong NYC, while the last two go into the sordid history of Hillsong Australia. Lee’s decision to start in New York is a strategic one: not only is the glamour of Hillsong NYC a good draw for audiences, but the scandal itself is also a relatively simple one. Pastors cheating on their wives isn’t exactly a rare occurrence, but the treatment of Lentz by Hillsong sets us up perfectly for the hypocrisy of its leaders.
In fact, Lentz is something of a protagonist in this story, or at least its anti-hero. One of Secrets’ big draws is that it features the first interviews of Lentz and his wife Laura since their ousting from Hillsong. While you couldn’t call these interviews (or Secrets’ portrayal of Lentz) flattering, they are sympathetic. We hear about his traumatic past, his fights with the church over racial issues (Lentz famously came out in support for Black Lives Matter), and his realization that the church’s emphasis on sin can prevent people from developing science-based coping mechanisms for behavioral issues.
This nuanced portrayal of Lentz is a needed one. All too often, it’s easy to see a disgraced pastor as nothing more than a symbol of hypocrisy. Lentz is a hypocrite, but he’s still a person, with all the complexity that entails, and Lee’s refusal to see him as a stock character gives the series additional depth.
This depth is missing in the other main character in Hillsong’s story: church founder Brian Houston. In many ways, Houston is presented as a stock character of a hypocritical preacher. Part of this is because, unlike Lentz, he has no onscreen interviews, but also because he fits that mold. The church he created is more enterprise than ecclesiastical and much of that money goes towards luxury goods and vacations. Like Lentz, he also had to resign due to sexual misconduct.
However, Houston’s worst sin is his covering up of his father Frank’s sexual abuse of several male minors throughout the ’60s and ’70s. The history of Frank’s systemic abuse, and the question of how much Brian knew takes up much of the final two episodes.
Secrets can feel a little unfocused in its eagerness to catalog every wrongdoing, but Lee manages to weave the threads into a fascinating, if disturbing, narrative.
Thankfully, Lee centers the voices of survivors as much as possible. Specifically, Brett Sengstock, who waived his right to anonymity to accuse Brian of failing to notify police of Frank’s abuse (previously Sengstock was only referred to as AHA in the press). Lee also interviews fellow survivor David Cowdrey. Their testimonies are heartbreaking, but they’re portrayed not as victims, but as men who are able to overcome their trauma to help try and bring the Houstons to justice.
While it would be easy to portray Brian and Frank as the main villains in Hillsong’s story (and indeed, they are the most culpable), Secrets makes it clear that these issues are systemic in nature. The megachurch would prohibit openly LGBT members from having any positions of authority, and while women and POC weren’t explicitly prohibited from leadership positions, most of Hillsong’s pastors were white men, even if the majority of their congregation were people of color. There were also countless volunteers and students of Hillsong Bible college who were overworked and unpaid. and held to strict standards while leadership’s misdoings were swept under the rug.
Unfortunately, those stories are pushed to the sidelines in favor of Lentz and the Houstons. While we get plenty of anecdotes about members who have criticisms of Hillsong, they aren’t given much depth and at times seem out of place. An additional episode just focusing on Hillsong culture outside of the actions of its leadership would have given these stories room to breathe.
The focus on systemic issues also has the side effect of giving Lentz an undeserved pass on certain actions. Whenever Lentz talks about discrimination or shady practices in Hillsong, he tends to frame himself as a passive bystander as opposed to an active participant. Oftentimes he speaks as if he had no real power. While I have no doubt that he was often prevented from making changes by Hillsong’s governing body, I also have no doubt that he is presenting himself in the best possible light.
This is especially egregious in regard to Lentz’s affair with Kimes. Kimes described Lentz’s advances as unwanted, while he is adamant that it was consensual. While Secrets doesn’t dispute Kimes’ version, the event is mostly told from Lentz’s point of view, which seems odd for a series that otherwise champions victims of sexual abuse.
At its best, the church can be a source of community and support. But if a church values its financial health over the spiritual health of its congregation and turns its clergy into celebrities, people can get hurt. Hopefully, shows like The Secrets of Hillsong can help people recognize the signs of a toxic church culture.
The Secrets of Hillsong is now available on Hulu.