The Biggest Scandals To Hit Hillsong Church

Once upon a time, protestant churches were tiny, humble buildings, serving a small but tight-knit congregation of mostly local parishioners who would come to services each Sunday to sing, pray, worship, and find fellowship with those who shared their faith. The last few decades, however, have given rise to the megachurch — glistening, multi-million-dollar architectural behemoths that reach heavenward but also can seat as many as a few thousand people and resemble professional sports arenas more than simple houses of worship. These megachurches are presided over by charismatic pastors and ministers who lead multimedia worship extravaganzas with huge bands and video screens. These can be central to a whole subculture that may include numerous fundraising offshoots and ministries alike.

One of the main players that helped bring the megachurch mainstream was Hillsong Church. Founded as a small, modern, progressive church in Australia in the early 1980s, it's grown to include multiple affiliates all over the United States, particularly in New York and Los Angeles, and many famous musicians (Justin Bieber) and movie stars (Chris Pratt) have been seen attending services. 

But with that much attention, influence, and money involved, a scandal is almost inevitable. Here are all the times Hillsong Church made headlines for less than pious reasons.

Hillsong fired a high-ranking pastor because he cheated on his wife

Pastor Carl Lentz —  in many ways the public face of Hillsong Church, on account of how he frequently appeared in public alongside congregant Justin Bieber, for whom he acted as a spiritual advisor and life coach — was fired by Hillsong in November 2020. According to a statement by founder Brian Houston and published by People, Lentz's employment was terminated "in the best interests of everyone, including Pastor Carl." The firing followed "ongoing discussions in relation to leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures." Houston declined to get into specifics, but a day later, Lentz explained the situation on Instagram: "I was unfaithful in my marriage, the most important relationship in my life," he wrote.

In leaked audio of a church meeting obtained by Page Six, Houston referenced Lentz partaking in "more than one affair," and that one was with a New York designer named Ranin Karim. And according to the tabloid The U.S. Sun, it's Hillsong Church policy to fire both parties of a marriage if one is terminated, meaning Lauren Lentz was not only cheated on but lost her job at Hillsong, too. In 2021, she revealed on Instagram that as a result of the scandal and marital problems, she'd suffered from anxiety and PTSD.

A Hillsong pastor was accused of assault and impropriety by a colleague

Prior to ascending to the position of lead pastor at Hillsong Church's Boston affiliate, Leona Kimes worked as a nanny for Hillsong New York City pastors. In a May 2021 blog post on Medium, Kimes alleged that during this period in the 2010s, she endured "manipulation, control, bullying, abuse of power, and sexual abuse," and that she was only able to discuss any of it after years of intensive therapy. Kimes reported that her workday would last from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and that pastors teasingly called her Cinderella while verbally bullying her husband.

Kimes says that comments of a sexual nature started early and ramped up over time, moving from "flirty teasing" to one pastor's offer of buying her breast augmentation surgery after she had children. One pastor took her photo while she was sunbathing, repeatedly asked for massages, sent inappropriate text messages, and touched her without consent on a number of occasions. While Kimes didn't identify the pastor in her post, a representative for Pastor Carl Lentz and his wife, Lauren Lentz, sent a pre-emptive statement to Religion News Services to "vehemently deny the allegations, and, in addition to that, have irrefutable proof the events did not happen as they are being described."

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Hillsong's founder failed to report and hid evidence of systemic child abuse

Brian Houston founded Hillsong Church, while his father, Frank Houston, created the Sydney Christian Life Centre, which was later absorbed into Hillsong. According to The Guardian, Frank also served as the head of Assemblies of God and in Australia and New Zealand, where, in the 1960s, he allegedly abused multiple boys. One repeated victim from Sydney came forward in 1998, and his mother reported the abuse to Assemblies of God, lead at the time by Hillsong's Brian Houston. He forced his father to resign from his church duties, and over the next year, an internal investigation uncovered more abuse cases. But Brian Houston didn't report any of those findings to authorities — a crime in Australia.

In 2014, Brian Houston testified to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that his father (who died in 2004) had engaged in many acts of abuse and assault against minors, and that Brian was "devastated" (per Australia's ABC) when he learned about it. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Commission censured Brian for his silence, while in 2018, "60 Minutes Australia" aired a report that uncovered evidence that he actively helped cover up his father's actions. Hillsong released a statement in response expressing sympathy for the victims as well as a "non-exhaustive list of false statements and/or misrepresentations." In 2021, police in Sydney issued a warrant for Brian Houston's arrest (via The Guardian); his case goes to trial in 2022.

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

Hillsong pastors misappropriated funds

There's a time-honored practice in Christianity called tithing, or donating a set percentage of one's income each month to their place of worship. It's understood that the money is supposed to go toward paying for building maintenance and staff salaries, as most churches are not income-earning organizations. Many Hillsong Church congregants tithe, which helped the organization's U.S. branches amass a huge fortune. According to the New York Post, Hillsong East Coast raked in $12.7 million in 2019, of which nearly 90% came from tithing. And because Hillsong is a religious organization, it doesn't have to pay taxes on any of it.

Not only that, but Hillsong higher-ups in New York and Los Angeles apparently spent much of that money freely, and on themselves. Ex-staffers told the Post that collected church money was added onto reloadable debit cards to use for expenses, however they chose to define them. "We had a team count the tithes after every service and they would allocate X amount of money" for the cards, former Hillsong LA pastor Nicole Herman said. Volunteers and pastors alike got handed cards, which the latter used for lavish restaurant meals, expensive clothes, vehicles, high-rent apartments, manicures, catering, designer handbags, and fancy hotel stays. After Carl Lentz's adultery-related dismissal from Hillsong in 2020, the organization started an internal investigation into Lentz's Hillsong East Coast, where ex-congregant Jenna Babbitt admitted that no expenses were ever reconciled.

Multiple Hillsong men were accused of assault

In 2021, Hillsong Church's complex in Australia was rocked — and publicly outraged — when two women accused church associates of assault. Anna Crenshaw, an American student who attended Hillsong College in Australia, told the Christian Post that shortly after her arrival in 2016, she was assaulted by Jason Mays, a Hillsong administrator, singer, and son of the church's Human Resources leader. Crenshaw says Mays attempted to touch her genitals and pelvic region, and kissed her stomach, all with force and without consent. She reported the incident to the pastoral care oversight department, who insisted that Mays was a decent person and his actions an aberration. Crenshaw recounted her story on "60 Minutes Australia," recalling that after the attack, Mays was promoted and the church took five months to report the crime to police, and only after the intervention of Crenshaw's father. Mays pleaded guilty to assault with an act of indecency.

The "60 Minutes Australia" report also included the testimony of a former Hillsong Melbourne East youth leader identified as "Katherine." She alleges a sexual assault by a church member in 2018. When Katherine reported it to a pastor, he declined to listen. "That's not for my ears to hear. You got to sort that out with him," she recalled being told. It wasn't until 2021 that Hillsong referred the matter to the police.

According to Australia's, Hillsong responded to the "60 Minutes" report, labeling the story "gutter journalism at its finest."

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Hillsong has been called out for anti-LGBT views

Traditionally and historically, according to the New York Times, Christian churches have taken a hard stance against homosexuality, citing biblical text as proof that same-sex relationships are a sin. In 2014, Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston recognized that in a changing world, his outlook as a pastor would have to change. Houston cited the problem of young LGBT-identifying Christians developing depression or suicidal ideation "because they feel that the church rejected them." Still, he declined to take a public stance for or against same-sex marriage. "We feel at this point, that it is an ongoing conversation," Houston said. In 2015, after two gay choir members at Hillsong's New York branch got engaged, Houston released a statement condemning the idea. "Hillsong's position on homosexuality and gay marriage has not changed and is consistent with Scripture," he wrote.

Four years later, Chris Pratt spoke highly of Hillsong on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," per Variety. Elliot Page called out Pratt on Twitter. "If you are a famous actor and you belong to an organization that hates a certain group of people, don't be surprised if someone simply wonders why it's not addressed," Page wrote. "Being anti-LGBTQ is wrong, there aren't two sides." Pratt replied on Instagram (via The Cut), "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."

Hillsong claims to be apolitical, buts its activities suggest otherwise

According to Crikey, Hillsong Church has historically and emphatically denied and downplayed any sort of political involvement, at one point bluntly stating on its official website that it doesn't contribute money to any political party, candidate, or cause. The actions of the church, and records thereof, paint a different picture. Two months before the 2007 statewide elections in Australia's New South Wales, Hillsong donated $600 to the campaign of Labor Party member of Parliament Kristina Keneally. That figure appeared in electoral commission disclosures, indicating that the money came from tickets Hillsong purchased for a Keneally fundraiser. At the time of the donation, Hillsong had just purchased a parcel of land in Keneally's district, where it planned to build a 2,700-seat church and a 7-story office building.

When Scott Morrison took over as prime minister of Australia in 2008, his first address to Parliament included references to major political leaders in the country, including major Hillsong player Brian Houston, according to The Big Smoke. Morrison and Houston are reportedly so close that the politician attempted to bring the religious leader to Washington, D.C., for a state dinner at the White House.

Hillsong went after a former member who called the church a cult

Before it became an international and influential consortium of megachurches with a thriving media wing, Hillsong Church began life in 1983 as Hills Christian Life Centre in Baulkham Hills, Australia, a suburb of Sydney. Tanya Levin was deeply involved with the facility, attending services with her family as a teenager in the 1980s, but, according to PopMatters, she slowly broke away and ended her involvement as she headed into adulthood. The following decades gave Levin some critical distance from the church that would grow and evolve into Hillsong, and she felt concern, if not alarm. In 2007, she published "People in Glass Houses: An Insider's Story of a Life Inside & Out of Hillsong," a first-person memoir/exposé.

Levin recounts many of Hillsong's scandals and positions that are a matter of public record, including accusations of abuse and assault against high-ranking officials, and its conservative views on women and LGBT individuals. The author also presents observations and circumstantial evidence that suggest Hillsong is a money-centered cult that has somewhat brainwashed its congregants. "Recruitment and fundraising is what it's all about," Levin told Australia's Courier-Mail in 2009 (via watchdog group Hillsong Church Watch). 

Hillsong seemingly retaliated against Levin on numerous occasions. When she showed up to a church conference in 2015, Hillsong had her arrested and charged with trespassing, then threatened to have her arrested should she ever again enter a Hillsong building (via Hillsong Church Watch).

A Hillsong musician faked cancer

According to the U.K. tabloid The Daily Mail, Michael Guglielmucci performed with the Hillsong United musical ministry in the 2000s. His original song "Healer," written about how faith had helped him cope with leukemia, appeared on Hillsong's 2008 compilation "This Is Our God," which sold so many copies it reached #2 on Billboard's Top Christian Albums chart. According to Vanity Fair, Guglielmucci's cancer was very much a part of his story — he performed with an oxygen tube in his nose and accepted donations to help pay for his costly medical treatments.

As it turns out, Guglielmucci didn't actually have cancer at all — he had a 16-year addiction to pornography, and pretending to have leukemia was an elaborate, misguided attempt to cover it up. After the New York Post exposed his lie in 2008, Guglielmucci released a statement claiming that while he didn't really have cancer, he'd been made physically ill by his steady diet of smut. "As a result of this secret life of sin, my body would often breakdown," he said. "I'd report the cause of my symptoms simply as illnesses and I've thrown my life into a ministry for many years trying to compensate for my sin." According to Australia's ABC, the singer's father, Daniel Guglielmucci, read an admission of guilt from his son and suggested that anybody who donated to the cancer treatment fund could receive a refund.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

A Hillsong facility violated COVID-19 protocols

With a drastic uptick in confirmed COVID-19 infections in the Australian state of New South Wales in January 2022, local health officials instituted restrictions to curb the spread of the potentially fatal virus. According to Australia's 7News, singing and dancing at both indoor and outdoor festivals were forbidden, as the former sends a viral load of particles into the air, and dancing brings people physically close together. Organizers of Grapevine Gathering, a massive wine-and-concert festival, canceled, but Hillsong Church went ahead with a 4-day summer camp for young people in Newcastle. Videos of that gathering hit the internet, and they categorically featured unmasked celebrants singing and dancing to a Christian rock concert. NSW Health ordered Hillsong to ban singing and dancing. "This event is clearly in breach of both the spirit and intent of the order, which is in place to help keep the community safe," Health Minister Brad Hazzard said.

Hillsong said in a statement that it was holding a "summer camp" and not a music festival, claiming adherence to COVID protocols, and that what it was doing was advisable under a loophole in the law that exempted religious gatherings. Many members of the Australian music community called out Hillsong online, forming a fake, ironic supergroup called Thrillsong, that only played "churches and sporting events" because they'd been banned from all other venues. NSW police ultimately decided against levying fines or punishment at Hillsong.