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The Rise and Fall of Carl Lentz, the Celebrity Pastor of Hillsong Church

Mr. Lentz, who was raised in Virginia Beach, spent years looking for his calling. He played basketball at North Carolina State University before dropping out. He worked as a greeter at a Gucci store on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. But in the early 2000s he made his way to Australia, where he attended a school operated by Hillsong Church.

Mr. Lentz interned for Mr. Houston, who founded the church with his wife, Bobbie, and befriended his oldest son, Joel. By 2010, Hillsong was opening its first church in the United States, and Mr. Lentz and his wife, Laura, moved from Virginia to New York to help Joel Houston lead it.

Around this time Mr. Lentz became friends with Mr. Bieber, the young pop star. The two became so close that Mr. Bieber moved in with the Lentz family temporarily in 2014. They were photographed together often: at a recording studio in Beverly Hills, a go-kart racetrack in Los Angeles, and — ruffling feathers in conservative Christian circles — apparently doing shots at a bar in New Zealand.

Mr. Lentz was known for his look: tattoos, edgy glasses and not just style but fashion. Women’s Wear Daily described Mr. Lentz’s “uniform” as a Saint Laurent leather jacket, ripped jeans and a low-cut T-shirt. He often sported a Rolex, too. Pastors and other staff members who arrived at Hillsong wearing traditional suits and ties often gradually started to dress like Mr. Lentz, and even imitate his Southern-inflected accent.

Thanks in part to Mr. Lentz’s high profile, Hillsong’s New York branch appeared to thrive. A church that started as series of small group meetings in apartments across the city began gathering at the downtown concert venue Irving Plaza, then at the larger Hammerstein Ballroom, and then at United Palace, a venue that advertises itself as Manhattan’s fourth-largest theater.

The New York church, which reported a weekly attendance of more than 7,000 people last year, soon started outposts in Montclair, N.J., Norwalk, Conn., and Boston. Those four locations became known as Hillsong East Coast, and the Lentzes were in charge of all of them.

Hillsong’s model is what is known as “seeker sensitive,” a consumer-oriented approach that aims to attract people wary of or unfamiliar with traditional church. Instead of old hymns and dry sermons on Sunday morning, Hillsong and the churches like it offer a slick concert punctuated by a “message” that often sounds more like a self-help seminar. Mr. Houston’s rules for leaders in Australia instruct that a Hillsong sermon “leaves people feeling better about themselves than they came.”


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