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'The Secrets of Hillsong' explores allegations behind the international megachurch

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Hillsong Church set out to make church cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SECRETS OF HILLSONG")

CARL LENTZ: And you can rest a little bit easier tonight knowing that God is protecting you from things you have not seen yet. He is protecting you from forces that you cannot fight on your own. This is our...

MCCAMMON: The international evangelical megachurch set up their first U.S. operation in New York in 2010, led by soon-to-be-celebrity pastor Carl Lentz, who you just heard. After celebrities like Justin Bieber joined the congregation, its popularity exploded. Then in late 2020, the church publicly fired Lentz and his wife over what they cited as, quote, "moral failings." The ousting of that lead pastor was just the tip of the iceberg for years of accusations of misconduct by leaders of the church. FX just dropped the first two episodes in a new four-part documentary series titled "The Secrets Of Hillsong." It examines the church's fall from grace over the last decade. Here to talk about this new documentary series are director Stacey Lee and Alex French, one of the Vanity Fair journalists who broke the story that laid the foundation for this documentary. Welcome to you both.

STACEY LEE: Thanks for having us.

ALEX FRENCH: Thank you.

MCCAMMON: Alex, I'll begin with you. How did you and your Vanity Fair colleague, Dan Adler, first come across the story of Hillsong? And what was it that interested you?

FRENCH: I was first put on the case by my editor, Matt Lynch. The sort of initial story was going to be a profile of Carl and an examination of how he was going to turn the page and sort of go on with his life in the wake of the affair. What happened, though, was Carl disappeared. And my partner, Dan Adler, and I were sort of left wondering what to do next. And as we sort of started reporting around the edges, it became really clear to us that, you know, while a lot of Carl's behavior was incredibly problematic, he wasn't the problem. Rather, he was a symptom of a larger sort of toxic culture that was rooted in the the main Hillsong Church in Sydney and disseminated throughout the world.

MCCAMMON: And, Stacey, what about you?

LEE: Really, the driving force for me is that we hear this kind of narrative over and over and again, you know, these - whether it's church or whether it's Washington or Hollywood, you know, there's this societal kind of trend of, you know, putting these people up on pedestals and really putting so much trust and faith and power in their hands. For me, you know, I wasn't a religious person kind of going into this. And I didn't want this to be a takedown of religion by any sense. I really wanted this to be a deeper exploration of not just how this happens, but why it happens.

MCCAMMON: But this story happens at a church. Hillsong is a megachurch. It's based in Australia. And even for a megachurch, it's huge, I mean, churches all over the world. Just describe Hillsong a little bit more for me if you would, Alex.

FRENCH: Sure. So at its height, Hillsong had branches - or I guess they're almost like franchises - in 31 countries. Weekly, they had about 150,000 congregants. And Hillsong's thing is it's like - it's an experience. It's like a rock concert, right? Like, you know, Hillsong music is famous worldwide. It's a - it sounds a lot like Coldplay or, you know, like U2, sort of like big anthem-y, chills inducing, heart-swaying melodies. And they put out these incredibly charismatic pastors. The other thing that I think Hillsong did really well was it disguised traditional Pentecostal conservative values underneath all of that cool window dressing.

MCCAMMON: And what was the goal of that sort of disguise, as you describe it?

FRENCH: I mean, Brian Houston, Hillsong, it is a prosperity gospel church. So the goal, sort of the end is profit.

MCCAMMON: Yeah. These leaders you've mentioned, Brian Houston and Carl Lentz and others, they were apparently getting very rich. What do we know, Stacey, about how Hillsong made money from churchgoers and where that money was going?

LEE: Sure. I mean, this was one of the big challenges with the documentary because, you know, even though Hillsong are incredibly good at telling us the numbers of how many people are attending and how many people are listening to our records, like, statistics were very, very, very big, the numbers about money were incredibly vague. And for years and years, you know - Alex can speak to this as well, but - incredibly hard for journalists to understand or see because there are no checks and balances, not in Australia and certainly not in America, that tell us where this money might be going and ensures that the money is going to the places it's saying it's going to.

MCCAMMON: At the same time, most of the labor that made Hillsong function was coming from volunteers. There's an interview in the first episode with a former member of the congregation who talks about how volunteers in New York City's church were coming to her asking for help with rent or evictions. Many of them didn't have food to eat. Here's what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SECRETS OF HILLSONG")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They were coming to me and asking, can I get them help? Is there any way that they can get help? The head of pastoral care said to me it's illegal for the church to give people lump sums of money. I said, no, it's not. The church helps its people and people outside of the church. Come on.

MCCAMMON: Alex, what has Hillsong said in response to these kinds of allegations?

FRENCH: You know, Hillsong with us has remained pretty quiet. I will say you are correct about Hillsong's use of labor. Like, it is - the volunteer aspects. Every church depends in part on volunteers to operate, but what Hillsong has done is basically provided small skeleton staffs to franchises all over the world and filled in the blanks, you know, with volunteers. Nobody who really works on a Hillsong service is being paid, really except for the pastor.

LEE: The other aspect of this is that this was in New York City. You know, the wealth discrepancy is incredibly huge. And these weren't just hours where they were just serving around one service. Like, Hillsong went from 5 in the morning till midnight on a Sunday. Every single night of the week, there was programming of events and things you needed to be at. So really, what happens over time is that it begins to surpass their own careers, their own opportunities to make money where they're forgoing those things in order to serve the church. And obviously, the expectation and what we'll be hearing in the documentary and the piece you just played is then on the other hand of that, when some of these congregants were going through their own issues and needed the help and support, and they've given so much to the church, the church, in some instances, wasn't ready to help them in return. And I feel like that is one of the things that we heard over and over again. It wasn't just volunteering for just a couple of hours. It was really giving over your life. And in some ways, that return began to feel exploitative.

MCCAMMON: You know, Stacey, on kind of a related note, an important theme in this documentary is the idea of persecution, that Hillsong leaders, when criticized, would characterize what was happening as persecution. And they would echo themes from the Bible. How effective were leaders like Brian Houston at making that argument to the people in their church, their followers?

LEE: I mean, I think incredibly effective. The allegations about the alleged cover-up as far as alleged sexual abuse have been around it for over a decade. And when he's standing in the royal commission talking about his own role within all of this is also when Hillsong's numbers are reaching their highest ever around the world globally. And I think this is what we were trying to juxtapose within the documentary is just these two worlds that were coexisting, where the underbelly of the past was starting to catch up with this incredibly glittery, shining, sparkly future. And I think the same tools that were used to kind of bolster and grow Hillsong - Instagram, social media, all these things - ultimately became the same tools that people who had been suppressed or silenced or victimized and blamed across the years were finally able to kind of speak out.

MCCAMMON: Stacey Lee and Alex French. Their documentary is "The Secrets Of Hillsong" on FX. Thanks so much to both of you.

LEE: Thank you for your time.

FRENCH: Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.