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The Secrets of Hillsong

In the mid-2010s, the Australian-born Hillsong Church was on top of the world. In 2016, its celebrity pastor, Carl Lentz, baptized pop ingenue Justin Bieber in the bathtub of NBA player Tyson Chandler. The year before that, the international, progressive-presenting megachurch reported over $100 million in revenue, largely untaxed. Hillsong was the latest megachurch to become a household name, and it had the image of Lentz hanging with an enamored Bieber to win over new followers and media praise. 

Such a big spotlight helped make a scandal more prominent in 2020 when Lentz admitted to having extramarital affairs. Once seen as the wholesome, handsome face of the Pentecostal and Evangelical organization, Lentz was very publicly kicked out of the church by leader Brian Houston for his “moral failures.” But when reporters in both Australia and America looked into Hillsong's intense disowning of Lentz, they found far worse moral failures than Lentz's, including stories of discrimination, psychological and sexual abuse, misuse of funds, and more. As former congregant Mary Jones says later in the series: “You plant things in rotten soil, you gonna have rotten fruit.”  

“The Secrets of Hillsong,” a fascinating four-part docuseries, looks at the church’s shiny edifice and dismantles it piece by piece. It takes on the community for what it is—a business that once included 100+ churches at its height across 30 different countries, with attendees singing from the prolific, Grammy-winning Hillsong songbook. As it respects the emotional journeys of its aggrieved congregants, it also surveys the power moves and scandals that can create a Hillsong church. 

The documentary is expansive yet focused; it equally feels like director Stacey Lee could have been a former Hillsong congregant or someone whose only skin in the game is clarity. Produced in part by Vanity Fair, "The Secrets of Hillsong" has some extraneous beats of various interviewed reporters saying something like, "And then we realized there was more to the story." But those flaws can highlight its strengths, how the series is best when its accountability and atonement feel personal. 

With lead editing by Eva Dubovoy, "The Secrets of Hillsong" keeps its storytelling snappy and emotionally fine-tuned, largely overcoming its numbing talking-head-heavy style. Its first episode swiftly disproves its presentation as a progressive church—yes, they had sold out crowds in New York City and other diverse metropolises, but they rarely gave the platform to people who weren't white, male, and heterosexual, just like Carl Lentz and Hillsong founder, Australian Brian Houston. The church is aptly criticized for thinking of crowds and not people, including how volunteers were used for hard, free labor to organize services or how people of color were not seen or supported on the main stage. A congregant from NYC, Tiff Perez, talks about what she gave to one day help preach at Hillsong, before realizing no support would be given back. 

This is a story of voluminous spiritual abuse, told from the inside out. And that includes adding more nuance to the passion of Carl Lentz, whose background made him a Hillsong hero. For the first time since being banned from the church, Lentz speaks in front of the camera. Now he has long Jesus-y curls and a Florida tan and works behind a small desk, off in the corner of an office for a vague advertisement company. It is a big change from the thousand-people crowds; his $4,500 leather jacket and glint of showmanship are nowhere to be seen. What can be seen is his desire to share his story after leaving the public eye, especially about how therapy allowed him to talk about what faith didn’t have space for. 

This documentary is about the best platform that Lentz could ask for—a fair series that partly wants to hold him accountable for how he failed as a self-proclaimed ally, reinforcing how Hillsong sought to elevate some and denigrate others. But the series is not out for his blood or shame, nor does Lentz carry himself like he’s looking for pity. Instead, the documentary gives poignant room for him and his wife, Laura, to be honest. As the doc takes on many powerful forms, it also looks at a married couple wrestling with the pain of infidelity, while Lentz shares things about his past that do not excuse his actions but hint at his ways of being secretive. Among the series' gracefully handled details, Lentz reveals his own story of being sexually abused as a child. 

This gutting revelation, one of many moments that deepens the series beyond scandal, becomes all the more horrific considering what we hear about Brian Houston’s father, Frank Houston. Frank was also a pastor with his own church and a desire to be everyone’s messenger. Frank was accused of child sexual abuse by multiple people in Australia and New Zealand across decades. His son Brian allegedly learned about these allegations in the early ‘90s while making Hillsong’s community even more widespread with his father as a central figure. Interviews and investigations within “The Secrets of Hillsong” posit that Brian made concerted efforts to prevent these problems from going public or to the authorities. Brian is under trial for allegedly concealing allegations against his father as of this writing. The series' third episode goes into detail about these allegations, honoring the courage of the survivors who have gone public about such traumatic experiences. 

But Hillsong had corruption on its side. When a Royal Commission in Australia did their investigations in the early 2010s and found these cases of alleged abuse, certain police and political figures did not act on it—possibly, in part, because they were Hillsong members. It is sobering how the series places these moments together in the same timeline to show things that were not a part of Hillsong’s narrative as it was wooing followers. In America, we were caught up in the growth of Hillsong while Australia was attempting to hold its insidious origins to account. 

“The Secrets of Hillsong” is an empathetic pursuit of truth, and it gives viewers many reasons not to believe in this megachurch. But it saves a lingering question about everyone's faith for a moving finale: How does being a part of this story affect one's relationship with God? The answers are expansive and touching. One interviewee admits to being a happy atheist; another says they have since found a smaller church and feel loved. And Carl Lentz still wears a crucifix around his neck. 

Whole series was screened for review. The first two episodes of "The Secrets of Hillsong" premieres on Hulu on FX on May 19th. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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The Secrets of Hillsong (2023)

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