Hillsong is best known as the international church that has attracted a group of high-profile attendees, including Justin and Hailey Bieber, Chris Pratt, Katherine Schwarzenegger, Kevin Durant, and Kylie and Kendall Jenner. When Dan Johnstone first approached making a documentary about the church – the three-part Discovery Plus docuseries “Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed” – however, his interest was much wider.
“I was a kid in the 80s and 90s,” Johnstone said in his first interview on the project, which he produced.. “I was, like, a huge sneakerhead; I’m into music, I’m into fashion. I grew up in a religious home. And so I kind of followed Hillsong, and I just saw this church that had come through all these barriers.
After working with Discovery on two previous projects, Johnstone and his company Breaklight Pictures set out to tell the story of how Hillsong – the scandal-ridden grassroots church founded in 1983 in Australia by Brian Houston – had become “a cultural phenomenon”, as Johnstone put it, and “has moved from religious culture to pop culture”.
The resulting docuseries, which will premiere on Discovery Plus on March 24, will explore the full and tangled history of Hillsong. This includes Houston founding the church as an offshoot of his father Frank Houston’s Sydney-based Pentecostal Church; the rise and fall of Carl Lentz, Hillsong’s most famous pastor; and Houston’s recent announcement that he is leaving Hillsong for the rest of the year. The reason: He is fighting criminal charges in Australia that he covered up decades-old child sexual abuse perpetrated by his father, which is also covered in the docuseries.
Johnstone said “Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed” is aimed at the general public and Hillsong obsessives, and seeks to answer the fundamental question of how the church became a massive international place of worship – as well as a huge business. In order to dig deeper into these topics, the docuseries was set to take a close look at Hillsong’s appeal, which on a macro level is largely about its ability to tap into hipster Christian music — which in turn has appealed to celebrity devotees like Biber. “Gospel music is amazing,” Johnstone said. “I love it. And the theory of that is multiple voices united into one. And I wanted that emotional side, to hear people’s stories.
“So it was double,” Johnstone continued. “It was explaining the superstructure of the church and their achievement, and then this emotional story underneath that just happened as I was researching and talking to people.”
For talking heads in the docuseries, “Hillsong” relies on experts such as journalist Elle Hardy, who has written extensively about the church; New York Post reporters Hannah Frishberg and Oli Coleman; and a slew of former Hillsong volunteers and church members, none of whom look back on their experiences with much emotion.
Lentz — who was the Hillsong New York chapter pastor until Houston fired him in November 2020 for “moral failures” — is of course a central figure in the investigation. “I don’t think we would be having this conversation without Carl Lentz,” Johnstone said with a laugh. “Carl Lentz is the catalyst that crossed them.”
Prior to Hillsong, Lentz was at Wave Church in Virginia Beach, where he exercised cult-like control over congregants’ behavior — particularly in their love lives, as several “Hillsong” interviewees attest. But when Lentz moved to New York for Hillsong, her public profile skyrocketed. “He’s got incredible talent,” Johnstone said. “He’s incredibly charismatic, and he can stand next to superstars, and he looks no different. He stands next to Justin Bieber, and he’s as big a personality as he is – or stands next to next to Oprah and Kevin Durant. Like, he’s a superstar.
Or Lentz has been a superstar, anyway: After Houston fired him in 2020, Ranin Karim, a woman with whom groom Lentz had an affair, became part of the story of the famed pastor’s downfall and made the subject of intense media scrutiny.
In “Hillsong”, Karim says his piece. “I wanted Ranin to have a voice,” Johnstone said. “One of her concerns is that she is defined by this event. And I wanted her to be individualized.
On camera, Karim plays the effusive video messages Lentz sent him during their five-month relationship, which Johnstone says shows “that conversation between the two of them” and illustrates that the affair wasn’t “one-sided. unique”.
“It makes it more real,” he added.
“Hillsong” posits that Houston and Lentz were rivals and that their competitiveness contributed to Lentz’s ouster – but Johnstone is careful about how he characterizes the relationship between the two men. “I wanted to show acceleration,” he said. “I wanted to show that Brian had a vision for the church, and Carl was the catalyst that became that vision. Nothing more than that, I can’t talk about.
Another infamous misstep by the church was its cruel and tentative cover-up of the sexual assault of Anna Crenshaw, who while a student at Hillsong College in Sydney, Australia, was mugged at a party by a Hillsong cult leader (whose father was the church’s head of human resources). Crenshaw appears in “Hillsong” to tell her story, as does her father Ed Crenshaw who helped force Hillsong to come to terms with what happened to his daughter.
“I wanted their vocals to be more than just a title,” Johnstone said. “Talking to Ed and Anna was powerful.”
With 150,000 members worldwide, Hillsong continues to be a powerful global brand. The question remains whether Houston’s decision to step down, which Johnstone calls “a huge event,” will affect the church’s expansion (and business success). “I’m waiting to see,” Johnstone said.
In “Hillsong”, several interviewees are upset as they discuss their past traumas with the church. “I was very surprised at the depth of people’s feelings,” Johnstone said. “I wasn’t prepared for the depth of some of these feelings.”