In the summer of 2017, the singer Justin Bieber abruptly canceled the remainder of a concert tour that had taken him across six continents in 16 months. Mr. Bieber cited fatigue; his fans fretted. But on the tabloid website TMZ, a more hopeful narrative quickly emerged. The 23-year-old singer left the tour because he “rededicated his life to Christ” thanks to a pastor named Carl Lentz, leader of the New York City branch of the global megachurch Hillsong. The pastor and the pop star were inseparable, the gossip site reported. Two days later, the site reported that Mr. Bieber saw Mr. Lentz “as a 2nd father.”
That year Hillsong and Mr. Lentz became a fixture on TMZ, always in flattering items citing unnamed sources. One article reported that at Hillsong, “Justin worships in total peace, and at least feels he’s treated like a regular person.” In another, TMZ said it “got our hands on some video” of Mr. Lentz dunking a basketball in what appeared to be a near-empty gym. “If that doesn’t get you to church nothing will,” the site concluded.
The association with Mr. Bieber catapulted Mr. Lentz, 42, into a new stratosphere of fame, in which he became not just a friend to celebrities but a celebrity himself. He was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, and showed up on Kourtney Kardashian’s Instagram. He mixed with a jet-setting group of other hip pastors, including Rich Wilkerson Jr., a Miami pastor who performed the wedding ceremony for Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.
But as Mr. Lentz’s profile rose, many congregants felt the focus on fame and cultural power that had helped the church grow was overwhelming its spiritual mission. Last month, it all came crashing down for Mr. Lentz in a scandal that has cast a shadow on one of the most influential megachurches in America.
On Nov. 4, Brian Houston, the founder of Hillsong, announced he had fired Mr. Lentz, citing “leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures” in an email to churchgoers. The day after the announcement, Mr. Lentz confessed on Instagram, where he has almost 700,000 followers: “I was unfaithful in my marriage, the most important relationship in my life.”
In a private video conference with staff members and volunteers at the church’s East Coast branch on Nov. 19, a recording of which was obtained by The New York Times, Mr. Houston described the church’s discovery of “more than one affair. They were significant.” But sexual infidelity was only one piece of the story. Mr. Houston also connected Mr. Lentz’s dismissal to “general narcissistic behavior, manipulating, mistreating people,” as well as “breaches of trust connected to lying, and constantly lying.”
Even in the contemporary era of megachurches, Hillsong stands apart. Founded in Australia under a different name in the 1980s, its great innovation was to offer urban Christians a religious environment that did not clash with the rest of their lives.
At a time when many Americans have abandoned regular churchgoing, Hillsong attracts thousands of young churchgoers through soaring music and upbeat preaching. If anything, it is cooler than everyday life, with celebrities like the actor and singer Selena Gomez and the N.B.A. star Kevin Durant showing up at Sunday services.
By now, Hillsong is not just a church, but a brand. Hillsong is a look: neutrals, streetwear, body-conscious fashion. And it is a sound, too. The church’s bands have won a Grammy. Their most popular song, the soaring ballad “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail),” has been streamed more than 235 million times on Spotify. And the formula works. The global church now has congregations on six continents, and claims an average attendance of 150,000 people weekly.
But there was another side to Hillsong in its most popular branch in America, according to many current and former attendees: a pastor who was so swept up in ministering to the famous that ordinary congregants felt neglected. A culture that worshiped wealth, while making volunteers cater to leaders as royalty. And a sense that for all the celebrity surrounding the church, its soul was harder to find.
A representative for Mr. Lentz declined to comment on a detailed list of questions about his tenure at Hillsong and his departure. In his Instagram post after his firing, Mr. Lentz wrote, “This failure is on me, and me alone and I take full responsibility for my actions. I now begin a journey of rebuilding trust with my wife, Laura and my children and taking real time to work on and heal my own life and seek out the help that I need.”
Mr. Houston, who is also the global church’s senior pastor, said in a statement that “our heart and care is for our church in Hillsong East Coast and we are saddened that a lot of people are hurting.”
“I want to make it very clear that celebrity culture is not a core value of Hillsong Church,” he continued. “People are a core value. Jesus is a core value.”
The church has contracted with a New York law firm to conduct what Mr. Houston described as an independent investigation of “Carl’s leadership of Hillsong New York, and culture of the church during that time.”
Living Well and Looking Good
Mr. Lentz, who was raised in Virginia Beach, spent years looking for his calling. He played basketball at North Carolina State University before dropping out. He worked as a greeter at a Gucci store on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. But in the early 2000s he made his way to Australia, where he attended a school operated by Hillsong Church.
Mr. Lentz interned for Mr. Houston, who founded the church with his wife, Bobbie, and befriended his oldest son, Joel. By 2010, Hillsong was opening its first church in the United States, and Mr. Lentz and his wife, Laura, moved from Virginia to New York to help Joel Houston lead it.
Around this time Mr. Lentz became friends with Mr. Bieber, the young pop star. The two became so close that Mr. Bieber moved in with the Lentz family temporarily in 2014. They were photographed together often: at a recording studio in Beverly Hills, a go-kart racetrack in Los Angeles, and — ruffling feathers in conservative Christian circles — apparently doing shots at a bar in New Zealand.
Mr. Lentz was known for his look: tattoos, edgy glasses and not just style but fashion. Women’s Wear Daily described Mr. Lentz’s “uniform” as a Saint Laurent leather jacket, ripped jeans and a low-cut T-shirt. He often sported a Rolex, too. Pastors and other staff members who arrived at Hillsong wearing traditional suits and ties often gradually started to dress like Mr. Lentz, and even imitate his Southern-inflected accent.
Thanks in part to Mr. Lentz’s high profile, Hillsong’s New York branch appeared to thrive. A church that started as series of small group meetings in apartments across the city began gathering at the downtown concert venue Irving Plaza, then at the larger Hammerstein Ballroom, and then at United Palace, a venue that advertises itself as Manhattan’s fourth-largest theater.
The New York church, which reported a weekly attendance of more than 7,000 people last year, soon started outposts in Montclair, N.J., Norwalk, Conn., and Boston. Those four locations became known as Hillsong East Coast, and the Lentzes were in charge of all of them.
Click here to read more.