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The Secrets of Hillsong Makes a Damning Case Against a Megachurch

FX’s docuseries gets intensely personal with the megachurch’s leaders and survivors
  • Carl Lentz being interview for The Secrets of Hillsong (Photo: FX)
    Carl Lentz being interview for The Secrets of Hillsong (Photo: FX)

    Even in a sea of corrupt megachurches, Hillsong stands out. This is an organization that, at its peak, not only had outposts around the world, but also cornered the market on contemporary Christian worship music, selling millions of albums and winning a Grammy Award. It was a place where everyone — celebrities, dudes with ripped jeans, gay people willing to be half in the closet — could sate their need for spiritual connection and feel cool at the same time. It was a church that doubled as a lifestyle brand, but instead of some vague notion of wellness, it promised eternal salvation. No wonder Hillsong’s leaders kept getting upbeat attention from the secular press.

    The church’s collapse has been just as remarkable, as the last few years have unearthed a pattern of abuse that stretches back decades. Frank Houston, who founded the congregation that eventually became Hillsong, has been accused of sexually abusing boys and young men since the 1940s. His son Brian, who steered the church into its media-friendly era, is currently on trial for covering that up, along with misusing millions of dollars in donations. But that’s hardly all. Carl Lentz, who led Hillsong’s influential New York City branch, took a public fall after he was exposed as an adulterer, and many other leaders were accused of sexual misconduct, victim intimidation, and a variety of other heinous acts. These scandals create a daunting task for FX’s docuseries The Secrets of Hillsong: In just four hour-long episodes, director Stacey Lee tries not only to distill the essence of this sprawling rot, but also to comprehend where it came from.

    Mostly, she succeeds. First and foremost, The Secrets of Hillsong is a structural marvel, pounding its complex story into a satisfying shape. The first episode chronicles the magic of the church’s peak, interviewing a host of former congregants about the good times. There are immediate caveats — one Hillsong musician acknowledges he earned almost nothing, despite working full-time — but it’s clear what drew people in: They felt valued, accepted, and loved. They felt they had a community that was good for their souls.

    The second episode explores Lentz’s disgrace in 2020, and by interviewing Lentz and his wife Laura, Lee humanizes Hillsong’s elite as effectively as its rank and file members. She persuasively suggests that everyone who rose through the ranks at the church became trapped in a twisted system that both gave them a purpose and forced them to abandon their morals. That’s a good setup for the third episode, which digs into Frank’s long history of reported abuse and provides context for how Hillsong’s poisonous culture was born. And thanks in part to fortunate timing, Lee closes the series with an episode about Brian’s ongoing legal battles, which are set to resolve in June 2023. This creates a natural ending point, with wounded former members looking hopefully to the future and the tainted scion on the verge of his comeuppance.

    And while it’s true that many documentaries have used a similar structure — the first season of HBO’s The Vow comes to mind — The Secrets of Hillsong fills the familiar story beats with vibrant material. Lentz is remarkably candid, and so are former church members like Josh Canfield, a Broadway performer and Survivor alum who speaks eloquently about his conflicted experience as a gay man in the New York City congregation. Their vivid storytelling styles, combined with the depth of Lee’s research on the Houston family, suggest a traditional structure was almost necessary. Anything more experimental might have distracted from the hard facts of the tale.

    That said, Lee goes so deep on individual stories that she can skimp on larger context. In one early section, she flashes paintings of Christ alongside footage of Carl preaching to his flock, which makes a tantalizing point about the perpetual human need to find messianic leaders. But that’s as far as she pushes the idea. She also touches on the hundreds of students who got a dubious education at Hillsong’s college, but leaves out what the school promised them, how it recruited them, and why the church felt it needed a higher education division in the first place. A few minutes on these ideas could deepen the point about what people need from a place like Hillsong and what they lose when their church betrays them.

    The one theme that does feel fully explored is the racism embedded in Hillsong’s methods. Lee interviews many people of color who were attracted to and eventually disillusioned by the church, and she draws complex, illuminating answers from Lentz about how he was able to support Black Lives Matter on TV while alienating so many of his Black parishioners. Nobody pretends these issues have been solved, but because the interviewees speak about them at such length, the problems are well framed.

    Speaking of unsolved issues: Some viewers may bristle at the way Lentz is presented in the final episode. He gets something close to a redemption arc, even though plenty of people are still healing from what they experienced during his tenure at Hillsong. But as frustrating as it can be to hear about, his struggle to evolve is a fascinating contrast to Brian Houston’s ongoing, vigorous denials of wrongdoing. (Houston declined to be interviewed on-camera, but he did send emails to the production team, refuting all claims against him.) By pairing their responses so effectively, The Secrets of Hillsong challenges us to consider what true justice looks like for the leaders of a faithless institution.

    The Secrets of Hillsong premieres Friday, May 19 at 10:00 PM ET on FX, streaming the next day on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: The Secrets of Hillsong, FX, Carl Lentz

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