Hillsong: The Celebrity Megachurch's Bombshell Scandals and Controversies Through the Years

Over the years, Hillsong has counted plenty of celebrities among its congregants but has also suffered a series of scandals. Here's a look at the megachurch's most controversial moments

Daniel Knighton/Getty
Daniel Knighton/Getty

Hillsong Church became part of the zeitgeist in 2014 when former pastor Carl Lentz baptized Justin Bieber in NBA star Tyson Chandler's bathtub — but Hillsong's history extends far beyond that.

Founded by Brian Houston in Australia, Hillsong was originally called the Hills Christian Life Centre in 1983. Hills CLC was affiliated with the Australian Christian Churches network and inspired by Houston's father Frank's Sydney Christian Life Centre, founded six years earlier. Hills quickly grew into a megachurch, attracting members thanks to the popularity of contemporary Christian worship music during the 1980s and 1990s and Houston's work in bringing American Pentecostal elements to its services.

After merging the Hills and Sydney CLCs, Houston rebranded the church as Hillsong in 2001 and soon expanded its reach, opening ministries in 30 countries across six continents and, as of 2022, in more than a dozen locations in the U.S.

At its peak, Hillsong services were a haven for celebrity congregants. In recent years, however, the church has faced massive scandals, including allegations of sexual abuse going back nearly five decades, marital infidelity and accusations of bigotry among its leadership. Multiple documentaries have explored the church's rise and fall, including the upcoming FX docuseries The Secrets of Hillsong, which premieres on May 19.

Here are the biggest controversies surrounding Hillsong.

Hillsong's services were celebrity hotspots

Theo Wargo/Getty
Theo Wargo/Getty

For several years, Hillsong Church rivaled some red carpets in terms of celebrity sightings: Stars like Hailey and Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Bono, Nick Jonas, Vanessa Hudgens, Austin Butler, Chris Pratt, Katherine Schwarzenegger, Kourtney Kardashian and Kendall and Kylie Jenner are among those who have been spotted attending the megachurch's services in the past. Gomez frequently performed a cover of the Hillsong United track "Transfiguration" during her Revival Tour.

In December 2017, sources told PEOPLE that Gomez and Bieber even sought couples counseling from Lentz before they split for the final time in 2018.

In January 2021, the "Peaches" singer denied a report that he was studying to be a pastor for Hillsong and specified that he was a member of Churchome, another megachurch frequented by celebs.

In a conversation with Savannah Guthrie later that year, then-senior pastor Houston shared on the Today show that he and his wife, Bobbie, were frustrated by the claim that they actively courted stars to Hillsong and treated them differently from other congregants.

"I find it annoying that people thought that it was important to me and my wife, Bobbie, to attract famous people to church," he told Guthrie.

"I do think that we did allow a culture to develop where it was one rule for celebrities and a different rule for other people," Houston said. Despite Bieber distancing himself from Hillsong, Houston name-dropped him, telling Guthrie that Bieber represented "another side" of the church's impact.

"If you think back several years now, when he was wrecking hotel rooms and basically on the edge of getting deported to Canada, and look at Justin Bieber today," he said. "Anyone who's being fair could see a radical change, and so not everything about it is bad."

Hillsong's music sells in huge numbers

Daniel Knighton/Getty
Daniel Knighton/Getty

In 1998, Hillsong created the contemporary worship band Hillsong United. The group, which has seen members change and rotate since its inception, has released six studio albums (five of which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Christian chart), 15 live albums, six EPs, 32 singles and nine DVDs and Blu-Ray discs. The group's biggest hit song yet is "Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)," which was certified 4x platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America, followed by "So Will I (100 Billion X)," which went platinum in February 2023.

Tanya Levin, a former member of Hillsong Sydney and now a critic, said Hillsong United is a large source of funding for the church. "Music is a really huge department because it's so critical to [the church's power of] hypnosis," Levin alleged in the 2022 docuseries Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed. "The music is completely weaponized for whatever the church's needs are, as well as financial, which is the aim of the game — is to get the money out of the people."

Elliot Page called out Chris Pratt for his association with Hillsong in 2019

Karwai Tang/WireImage ; Mike Coppola/Getty
Karwai Tang/WireImage ; Mike Coppola/Getty

In February 2019, Elliot Page called out Pratt for being a member, responding to a story about Pratt discussing his spirituality on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

"Oh. K. Um. But his church is infamously anti lgbtq so maybe address that too?" Page tweeted.

Pratt defended the church on his Instagram Story, writing in part: "It has recently been suggested that I belong to a church which 'hates a certain group of people' and is 'infamously anti-LGBTQ.' Nothing could be further from the truth. I go to a church that opens their doors to absolutely everyone."

The Super Mario Bros. Movie star also referenced his 2018 divorce from Anna Faris, saying that Hillsong welcomed him with open arms. "They helped me tremendously offering love and support," he added. "It is what I have seen them do for others on countless occasions regardless of sexual orientation, race or gender."

Pratt also noted that he was never the face of Hillsong, explaining, "Faith is important to me but no church defines me or my life, and I am not a spokesman for any church or any group of people." The actor has also been spotted attending services at Zoe Church in Los Angeles.

In 2022, Pratt told Men's Health that he had "never actually been to" and didn't know "anyone" from Hillsong.

The church was accused of homophobia on a larger scale

Fairfax Media via Getty Images/Fairfax Media/Getty
Fairfax Media via Getty Images/Fairfax Media/Getty

Page wasn't the only person to allege Hillsong of homophobia. Former Hillsong member Noemi Uribe told Business Insider in 2019 that when she came out as bisexual, her pastor at the time told her "everyone is welcome" at Hillsong, but it would be problematic if she "were to start practicing" homosexuality.

Uribe began struggling with her mental health and, at one point, considered suicide. She was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment — and said that no pastors from Hillsong ever checked in on her while she was away, Insider reported.

Following the allegations, Hillsong pastor Josh Kimes said in a statement to Business Insider: "Noemi Uribe's account does not align with my experience. What I can tell you is that Hillsong Boston welcomes all people."

A few years earlier, Broadway actor and former Survivor contestant Josh Canfield, who helped establish Hillsong NYC and served as its choir director, announced his engagement to partner and choir singer Reed Kelly. The news caught the attention of Houston, who said in a statement in August 2015 that their relationship "was a complete surprise," and Canfield was removed from his position as choir director.

In a blog post titled "Do I Love Gay People?", Houston wrote: "Hillsong Church welcomes ALL people but does not affirm all lifestyles. Put clearly, we do not affirm a gay lifestyle and because of this we do not knowingly have actively gay people in positions of leadership, either paid or unpaid."

Canfield and Kelly followed up with their own statement, saying they "have been open and forthright about our relationship from the get-go," per The Christian Post.

In his 2021 appearance on Today, Houston told Guthrie: "I want us to get better at the way we communicate and embrace and work with people who are gay. I don't have any personal bias at all against gay or lesbian people. But unfortunately, as a pastor, you don't represent what you think. You represent what the Bible says."

Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz had a cheating scandal

Charley Gallay/Getty Carl Lentz and wife Laura
Charley Gallay/Getty Carl Lentz and wife Laura

In November 2020, Houston announced that Hillsong had parted ways with its star pastor Carl Lentz for "moral failures." The next day, Lentz revealed that he had been "unfaithful" to his wife, Laura, who he'd met at the church's training program, Hillsong College.

Within weeks, a woman named Ranin Karim told Vanity Fair that she'd had a months-long affair with Lentz after meeting him in a Brooklyn park in the spring of 2020. Karim said that Lentz told her he was married not long after they met. She claimed that she tried to end her affair with Lentz multiple times but that he kept pursuing her.

"I know what I got myself into, but at the same time I wanted to do the right thing and walk, walk away," Karim told the outlet. "I am not a monster." During a November 2020 appearance on Good Morning America, Karim said that she and Lentz ended things for good when Lentz called her in late October 2020 and told her that his wife found out about their affair, leaving Karim "devastated."

That December, Page Six leaked an audio recording allegedly of Houston; in the recording, the speaker claimed that Lentz had more than one affair, that the affairs were "significant," and that they had been discovered through text messages on Lentz's laptop.

Lentz and Laura stayed together after his affair with Karim became public. "He messed up and is taking full responsibility for having an affair. He is taking time to work on his marriage," a source told PEOPLE at the time. "He is committed to rebuilding trust and fixing his marriage. In this time of COVID, they have been able to spend more time together."

In September 2022, Lentz posted an Instagram photo with Laura and their three children and wrote: "It's been a challenging road but we are alive, we are at peace and thanks to the grace of God we are TOGETHER. Not sure what the future holds for us, but we do know that we face it as a family and for that I am so thankful."

For her part, Karim has continued speaking out about the affair. In Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed, Karim called the affair "the most toxic thing I've ever had to deal with." During an April 2022 appearance on MTV's Ex on the Beach, Karim said, "I don't like to be referred to as a mistress, I'm more like a mystery woman."

Carl Lentz was accused of sexual and emotional abuse

Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images Carl Lentz
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images Carl Lentz

While Karim said her affair with Lentz was consensual, a former Hillsong staffer, who had also been the Lentz family's nanny, accused him of emotional and sexual abuse.

Former Hillsong Boston pastor Leona Kimes, whose husband is former pastor Josh Kimes, published an essay on Medium titled "Writing My Voice Back." In the piece, she recalled moving from Australia to the U.S. to help establish Hillsong NYC. She wrote that she was hired as a nanny for the church's lead pastors, including Lentz, and that "boundaries between personal and professional blurred early on, and an unhealthy bond and attachment was formed."

She continued: "During the years I spent serving them, I was subjected to manipulation, control, bullying, abuse of power and sexual abuse. Having told almost no one before this, I am just now able to share what I experienced in their home as the result of intense therapy."

Kimes alleged that Lentz offered to pay for a "boob job" after she had kids and often stared and commented on her body. She claimed that the behavior escalated, with comments that became "predatory" and Lentz began to sexually harass her — including around his children.

"While he never had intercourse with me and never kissed me, I was physically violated by his unwanted and repeated sexual touching of my intimate areas," she alleged. "I froze. Every time, I froze."

Kimes said she never felt like she had a safe space to speak out about what she experienced; when she did come forward to the lead pastors with her concerns on two separate occasions, she was "blamed and silenced." When she tried to find a job outside Hillsong, Lentz told her she'd never get hired in New York City without a college degree.

"I won't forget how that made me feel, so alone, so worth absolutely nothing, so fearful of my future, so fearful for my husband's future," she wrote.

Lentz vehemently denied the allegations in a statement through his family's attorney, who said that Lentz and Laura had "irrefutable proof the events did not happen as Leona Kimes has described." The statement continued: "Due to the high degree of the ongoing reckless and slanderous misstatements by Leona Kimes, Laura and Carl Lentz are exploring all legal actions available to them."

In a note on Hillsong's website, Houston and his wife Bobbie called the allegations "very disturbing," adding, "We know that Leona may face criticism for her story and her choice to share it. In that light, we commend her for her courage and have assured her of our utmost compassion in their journey forward. Abuse of any kind, in any circumstance, is always deplorable. As a church, we are committed to learning more about how to identify such trauma and bring meaningful support to anyone who has experienced it."

Josh and Leona Kimes remained with Hillsong Boston until Josh resigned amid accusations of racism in 2022.

Hillsong was accused of racial discrimination

Fairfax Media/Getty
Fairfax Media/Getty

In December 2020, former Hillsong members accused the church of discriminating against members of color.

Former member Noemi Uribe, who is Mexican American, told Business Insider that another Boston pastor, Donnie Mainellis, called her Spanish-speaking worship group "the Rosetta Stone group" during a meeting.

"I corrected him several times, saying 'Spanish-speaking Connect Group,' and he would just laugh," she recalled.

Other volunteers of color alleged that Boston pastor Josh Kimes rarely invited them to group gatherings and exclusively used Black female stage managers to bring him water when he was onstage. Kimes said in a statement at the time, "Our Hillsong Boston team has taken some intentional steps to improve racial diversity and equity at Hillsong Boston since we launched and we're committed to make further strides as we continue to listen and learn."

Kimes was also accused of sending a racist text to church colleagues. The Christian Post reported that he had admitted to sending that text and apologized in an internal investigation. He later resigned from Hillsong Boston. Elsewhere in the internal investigation, Kane Keatinge, a Hillsong NYC co-founder, was accused of making a racially insensitive joke during a Connect Group meeting.

Hillsong pastor Darnell Barrett quit after a photo scandal

STEVE TV Darnell Barrett
STEVE TV Darnell Barrett

In April 2021, Darnell Barrett, a married pastor for Hillsong in Montclair, New Jersey, resigned after sharing explicit photos with a volunteer. Photos obtained by Daily Mail showed Barrett wearing compression tights that exposed him. Barrett posted the photos on his Instagram Story with text explaining how going to the gym helped improve his depression and anxiety.

An anonymous Hillsong volunteer told Daily Mail that Barrett sent her the photos before posting them to his Story, then he messaged her to say it was accidental. The volunteer shared screenshots of messages in which she accused Barrett of trying to "bait" her into seeing the photos. He apologized to her but denied any intentional wrongdoing to the Daily Mail, explaining: "I was not at all trying to lure her. I get that she, within the context of what's happening with Hillsong, that she would draw those conclusions. This was something that was just an honest mistake and I informed my wife as soon as it happened."

After the scandal broke, Barrett stepped down from his role as pastor and creative director in Montclair. In a statement, the church said: "Hillsong accepted his resignation and agreed that he could not continue as part of our team. We were disappointed to learn about choices he made that were unacceptable for any Hillsong staff member."

Frank Houston was accused of sexual abuse — and Brian Houston was charged with covering it up

Alexander James Towle/Fairfax Media/Getty
Alexander James Towle/Fairfax Media/Getty

According to the docuseries Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed, at least eight men came forward with allegations that Frank Houston sexually abused them between 1965 and 1977. In 2014, the Australian Royal Commission into Institution Responses to Child Sexual Abuse launched an investigation into allegations against Frank, including accusations from a man named Brett Sengstock. Sengstock alleged that Frank sexually abused him in the late 1960s when he was around 7 or 8 years old.

Houston said in a deposition that he first learned of the pedophilia allegations against his father, Frank, in 1999. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote that Frank had confessed to his son before Houston forced him to step down in 2002. The docuseries obtained an audio recording of Frank preaching and telling an 8-year-old boy he was "good-looking" in 2004. Frank died later that year.

David Shoebridge, a member of the New South Wales Parliament's Legislative Council, said in the documentary that Houston and Hillsong leadership were aware of the allegations against Frank and hid them from the public to protect Frank and the church. In August 2021, following a two-year investigation from the New South Wales police, Houston was formally charged with concealing child sexual abuse. He temporarily resigned from church responsibilities in January 2022 and pleaded not guilty in the trial, which began in December 2022. A verdict has not yet been announced.

Brian Houston was accused of sexual impropriety

Marcus Ingram/Getty
Marcus Ingram/Getty

In March 2022, Houston officially resigned as global senior pastor of Hillsong Church, the church's board announced. The news came two months after he'd temporarily stepped down from all church responsibilities in light of his criminal charges. His official resignation was tied to different allegations.

The board announced that two women accused Houston of inappropriate behavior within the last decade.

One incident involved Houston sending "inappropriate text messages" to a staff member, who then resigned, a decade prior. "At the time, Pastor Brian was under the influence of sleeping tablets, upon which he had developed a dependence," the church said in a statement. The board claimed that the church helped Houston get sober and that Houston apologized to the woman in question.

The board said that the second incident occurred in 2019. "Following an in-depth investigation, it was found that Pastor Brian became disoriented after a session at the Hillsong Conference, following the consumption of anti-anxiety medication beyond the prescribed dose, mixed with alcohol," the statement said. "This resulted in him knocking on the door of a hotel room that was not his, entering this room and spending time with the female occupant."

Hillsong's board added that Houston agreed to take "specific action" following the incident, but he failed to complete all of the steps required by late 2021 — though these steps were not specified publicly.

Hillsong's first Black pastor quit

Marcus Ingram/Getty
Marcus Ingram/Getty

Sam Collier, the first and only Black pastor at Hillsong, stepped down in March 2022, citing the greater church's leadership issues and a lack of trust from the congregation.

"My greatest reason for stepping down as Pastor of Hillsong Atlanta is probably not a secret to any of you," he wrote on Instagram. "With all of the documentaries, scandals, articles, accusations and the church's subsequent management of these attacks it's become too difficult to lead and grow a young Church in this environment."

Collier told Atlanta's CBS 46 that he and his wife Toni had just started getting Hillsong Atlanta off the ground when the scandals surrounding Lentz and Houston first broke.

"When me and my wife got announced as the first African American couple in the Hillsong world, a week after that, Hillsong New York happened with the call-ins," he recalled. "And so for about a year and a half it was just nonstop media. … We had so many congregants saying, 'I don't know if I can trust this place.' "

Collier concluded his Instagram statement, "I truly love the Hillsong family and believe they will get through this storm and come out better than they were before."

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