WHAT WE'RE WATCHING
The Secrets of Hillsong: an airtight docuseries on the collusion of Christianity and capitalism
In 'The Secrets of Hillsong', director Stacy Lee pieces together a thoughtful and empathetic four-part documentary series about the fall of one of the world's largest megachurches, powered by Vanity Fair's reporting on the scandal that tarnished its reputation, and interviews with the church's former pastor Carl Lentz and his wife Laura in their first appearance since being exiled.
This four-part documentary on the fall of one of the largest ever megachurches is crafted with sublime impartiality and empathy to unpack a conspiracy not at all like the celebrity scandal we were sold when it fell.
In a nutshell
In 2016, Carl Lentz, the heartthrob celebrity pastor of Hillsong Church baptised Justin Bieber in NBA player Tyson Chandler’s bathtub. The megachurch was the pinnacle of religious consumerism. A few years later, Lentz was fired from the church for “moral failures” after admitting to having cheated on his wife, and the entire organisation crumbled to pieces. Based on Vanity Fair’s reporting of the scandal, this four-part documentary series empathetically examines the outcome of this fall from grace and what it’s meant for Lentz, and the musicians, athletes, actors, and hundreds of thousands of other congregants who were part of the church’s flock.
At least that’s what it says on the tin – in actuality, the fall of Hillsong involved “moral failures” far worse than the ones Lentz was accused of. The interviews with Lentz and his wife are their first appearance in front of a camera since their being exiled from the church, and the authenticity with which they approach their time as the faces of this enormous, manipulative corporation makes it difficult to turn away. Director Stacy Lee unpacks every brick of this enormous church and exposes its insides to the cold light of objectivity. The only agenda is truth, and the truth is awful, complicated and reveals a lot about faith and people.
Where to watch it
The Secrets Of Hillsong is available on Disney+.
What’s the vibe?
Unlike most documentaries about megachurches and cult-like church scandals, The Secrets Of Hillsong does not play like a crime thriller, relying largely on our fascination with charismatic crime. Instead, the exceptional production with which the series approaches the joy and rot in the community is comparable to that of the excellent Netflix docuseries Wild Wild Country.
The tone is perfectly poised – approaching a subject as touchy as religion with journalistic impartiality, aided of course by Alex French and Dan Adler, the journalists from Vanity Fair who covered the story. It’s respectful and empathetic to the beliefs and experiences of those involved, while sober and quick enough to recognise the ridiculous extremes of the story and be playful with it.
The editing, led by Eva Dubovoy, is sublime. The soundtrack is diverse, energetic, surprising – witty even – helping to keep the pacing tight without having to rush. Yes, this documentary could have been a feature film instead. However, with so many perspectives involved – and clever editing giving each aspect of it the space to breathe – and incorporating the human touch of relatable, contextualising stories adds a lot of colour and understanding.
A closer look
The Secrets of Hillsong begins with a normal member of its congregation. As it should. Hillsong reached its insane fever-pitch fame because of a heartthrob pastor and a gaggle of celebrities, but the congregants numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Each week something like 50 million people were singing Hillsong songs across the globe. By 2015 there were 30 Hillsong locations around the world, generating $100-million, largely untaxed.
The services filled stadiums. There were fireworks. There were mobs of screaming fans and people being turned away at the gates. If Christianity’s business model is broad appeal, evangelism and mass-produced absolution, Hillsong represented a merger between Christianity Inc. and New Age capitalism. It was essentially an enormous rave where the drug of choice is the love of Jesus, and it was built on theatrics that have more in common with boybands than most religious communities.
The frontman of this “boyband” was Lentz, Hillsong New York’s pastor. Instagram first launched on 6 October 2010. Hillsong New York launched 17 October 2010 – perfect timing to take advantage of influencer culture. Lentz was hip, confident and sexy. He was a gamer, he was funny, and he was extremely charming; the series is not coy about the role that his forbidden sex appeal played in the church’s success. He was also very much a performer; an actor playing a role. Mama Jones, one of the former congregants interviewed, speaks about him being able to cry on cue. He cried at just about every service, and the crowd went wild.
This is not the Carl Lentz we meet. He looks different and his demeanour is unrecognisable. As he comes clean, his sincerity and ownership of his shortcomings charm you, despite yourself, and the tragedy he is so painfully aware of is that given his past, no one will ever trust which version of him is the real one. The series does hold him accountable, but if ever there was a way he could redeem himself in the public’s eyes, this is it.
An interviewee notes that the Hillsong story was like Watergate in that the coverup was worse than the crime. The most scandalous thing about Hillsong wasn’t the devout golden boy’s cheating, it was the devilish fashion in which the church was being run behind the scenes. This is a story of embezzlement, greed, sexual abuse and exploitation of volunteers bribed with the prospect of belonging.
Although Hillsong New York is where the church exploded into the public eye, it was actually founded in Australia by a Pentecostal evangelist named Brian Houston. Houston would proudly state that “our worship is very contemporary, but our theology is very conservative”. Pentecostalism is characterised by demonstrations of the spirit – things like speaking in tongues or receiving messages from God directly, dreams and visions, physical healings and miracles.
There’s a strong correlation between Pentecostalism and right-wing stances on social issues like abortion rights and homophobia. Leading up to the 2016 election, 81% of white evangelical votes were for Donald Trump. While the church’s edifice was perched dangerously on the edge of secular culture, Hillsong’s politics were designed to consolidate power and maximise profit. It benefitted from a tax-deductibility status, which secular industries aren’t subject to, despite competing in the same spaces, giving it enormous potential for profit.
And it’s clear that profit was the goal. Hillsong even introduced different levels of worshippers based on the amount of money they were donating. Next to such shameless large-scale manipulations, Lentz’s extramarital activities seem rather trivial. The show seamlessly delves into messy matters of infidelity and the shame that comes with it, using Lentz and his wife as a case study.
Lentz also opens up about having been sexually abused as a child, a narrative that does not get sensationalised or leveraged for anything other than transparency. Much of the third episode concerns sexual abuse. How horrifying that it is no longer surprising to hear that a megachurch covered up systematic sexual assault among its leadership.
Despite the applaudable impartiality of the series, or arguably because of it, a viewer is unlikely to join a megachurch anytime soon after watching the series, but the show does not malign religion in itself, and the interviews with previous Hillsong members about how the fall of the church affected their beliefs paint an expansive landscape of the interaction of faith and a sense of belonging. DM
Secrets of Hillsong is available in South Africa on Disney+
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