Underneath the glitzy veneer of rock concert religious services and glamorous members is a conservative value system at odds with its Hollywood congregation
Sexism and homophobia are not the first things most people would think of when evangelical mega-church Hillsong is mentioned.
The fast-growing Christian movement is primarily known for its celebrity congregation -- from the likes of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez to Chris Pratt and Kourtney Kardashian. The media has breathlessly dubbed the church's most prominent figure -- and Bieber BFF -- pastor Carl Lentz as a "rock star" in his own right.
However, underneath the glitzy veneer of rock concert religious services and glamorous members is a conservative value system at odds with the liberal ethos commonly associated with Hollywood.
To understand the two faces of Hillsong -- the public hipster image and the privately homophobic -- TooFab spoke with former members who were initially taken in by the inclusive message preached on the pulpit only to later be ostracized by its core values.
In fact, Hillsong's past is marred by a history of homophobic beliefs and a valuation of women that harkens back to a darker age. When one looks beneath the surface, the core values of the church become clear. Truth be told, Hillsong has admitted to every one of the claims made above, just not in those words.
The following is an investigation TooFab conducted on the church that included conversations with former members, unearthing government documents in Australia, and on the ground research at its Los Angeles chapter which revealed a trackrecord of discrimination against gays.
TooFab has made Hillsong aware of every assertion in this story. The church has refused to comment.
The Gay 'Survivor' Star Who Was Fired By Hillsong
When Josh Canfield, a Broadway actor and former contestant on CBS' "Survivor," moved to New York in 2010 he was relieved to find a Hillsong church just opening its doors.
The theater actor had been part of Hillsong's London congregation and was new to the Big Apple with no contacts or friends in the American city. He was there to pursue a career on Broadway after working on the stage in the UK and getting his masters in the performing arts at a Scottish school -- ultimately spending three years overseas before returning to the U.S.
Josh ended up helping establish the New York chapter of Hillsong with Carl Lentz, and took on the role of choir director.
Never in a million years would he have imagined back then that nearly a decade of service at the church (both in the UK and US) would result in his public expulsion from a leadership role due solely to his sexuality.
Canfield's roots in religion are deep. He was raised on the road with his traveling pastor of a father. Nine months out of the year he and his five siblings (and a tutor) piled into a trailer and roamed the United States, stopping for two weeks at a time in the parking lot of a church and camping out while his father ministered to the local flock.
"My dad and now three of my brothers are Christian pastors," the actor told TooFab, "I grew up quite conservatively because of that and even went to a Christian university. It's the reason why I went overseas to get my masters at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to get space to grow, have my own thoughts, and grow into my sexuality."
After coming to accept himself as he was, Canfield felt he'd found a spiritual home with Hillsong and Carl Lentz as his pastor.
"I gave 9 years to Hillsong, volunteering, and acting as choir director," he said. "I was there at the start of Hillsong in New York with pastor Carl Lentz."
Regarding his sexuality, Canfield said, "Carl knew, I was open about that fact," but his attitude on the subject in general was, "'let's not talk about it.'"
According to Canfield, his friendship with pastor Carl represents the tensions undergirding the church itself, which is ultimately conservative but also wants to embrace what it deems as sinners -- but only under certain conditions.
"I was singing and leading choir. Then I went on to 'Survivor' with my then boyfriend. I told Carl I was being myself on the show – a gay person who goes to Hillsong."
"At the time he said he was fine with it," Canfield claims.
But when news outlets, in 2014, began reporting that a gay "Survivor" contestant was leading choir at a conservative evangelical church that's when problems began. Hillsong's official stance is that homosexuality is a sin.
In response to the controversy Hillsong founder, pastor Brian Houston, came out with a statement claiming Josh Canfield (who he refused to name and simply called him "a gay man") had kept his sexuality a secret from the church. Houston said at the time, "Several months ago when one of our choir directors made an unexpected public statement regarding his engagement to a man who sometimes sang in the choir, it was a complete surprise to us as well."
"He made me look like a liar," Canfield told TooFab. "I had been out to pastor Carl for years. Brian made a false statement because he did not have all the facts." Lentz appeared to confirm this in an interview at that time with Religion News Service, saying he took the time "to sit at the table and hear their pain" when Canfield first revealed his engagement to another man well before his ousting.
The church's official statement also reiterated: "Hillsong's position on homosexuality and gay marriage has not changed and is consistent with Scripture."
It was at that point, Canfield claimed, he was forced to vacate his leadership role onstage at Hillsong New York.
"Hillsong asked me to step down as choir director," Canfield said. As a kind of compromise, Lentz persuaded him to take a behind-the-scenes role as a vocal coach for the choir.
Of the traumatic experience, Canfield revealed to TooFab, he decided against disclosing his true thoughts publicly at the time and when interviewed during that period stayed close to the church's official story.
"I decided to treat people with grace," he admitted to TooFab. "I still loved the people at Hillsong and I felt at the time that things would only change through relationships."
However, no matter how much he tried to exercise grace, patience and understanding, "it got to the point where it was clear that inclusivity was not a priority at Hillsong. It was not a priority with Hillsong to include gays."
Shortly after Canfield's expulsion as choir director, Brian Houston released another statement: "Hillsong Church welcomes ALL people but does not affirm all lifestyles. Put clearly, we do not affirm a gay lifestyle and because of this we do not knowingly have actively gay people in positions of leadership, either paid or unpaid."
Not long after Josh left Hillsong entirely.
"I was looking for a church that was not afraid to embrace and affirm the LGBTQ community and just as importantly treat women as equal to men," he told TooFab.
Canfield said it was only after being removed from a leadership role after many years in the church that he fully grasped its true values.
"When [Hillsong] says 'we welcome everyone' it's not an entirely true statement. Because the truth is, it's 'yes we welcome everyone -- we want you all to come in -- but we don't think you should be gay.' Though, they're not going to tell you that from the platform," Canfield said. "And that's where the hurt comes in."
However, the actor to this day does not bear a grudge against Carl Lentz, "Like all humans, we fail. He's not perfect and this is what happened."
Josh has moved on from Hillsong to another church, Trinity Grace Tribeca, where he now serves as a worship leader.
At his new church, Josh said, he feels "it's okay that you're gay and love Jesus."
The English Journalist Who Was Told He Was No Different Than a Pedophile
English journalist Ben Fenlon joined Hillsong's London chapter during a "lonely" period in his life. He ended up belonging to the church for three years.
The openly gay reporter spoke with TooFab about his time with Hillsong and why he ultimately parted ways with it after confronting the religious movement's anti-LGBTQ+ values -- something that took years to uncover as a congregant.
Fenlon described how for several years -- from 2013 to 2016 -- the subject of sexuality was a topic mostly avoided by pastors and fellow congregants. A friend, who had introduced him to the church, once implied he hoped the journalist might end up "with a woman."
Finally, during a meeting at a churchgoer's home, Fenlon was able to have a deeper conversation regarding sexuality with a Hillsong pastor.
"When I asked this pastor about being gay, he told me that I shouldn't be so obsessed with identifying as gay - that it wasn't my fault, I was born that way, just like someone who is a drug addict, a pedophile, or someone with mental health problems," Fenlon explained of his meeting.
Fenlon recalled the pastor telling him "'Just because you are born this way, it doesn't mean that you have to be this 'thing' for the rest of your life. God can change you.'"
"When I pushed him to tell me if he believes that God can make me straight, he said 'yes,'" Fenlon claimed.
The British journalist admitted that his conversation with the pastor led him to a "real low point" in his life, leading him to question "what it meant to be gay" and if it was a mental health problem that "can be fixed."
"It took a lot of soul-searching to realize that what he was saying is wrong," Fenlon revealed. He did say that the pastor later apologized for comparing his sexuality to being a pedophile -- however, the conflation of homosexuality with pedophilia is seemingly a belief held by Hillsong's founder Brian Houston, who equated his own father's alleged history of pedophilia with "being gay" in an interview.
Fenlon, meanwhile, believes the reason why the church is reticent to openly discuss its actual value system comes down to something very simple -- by "presenting a more lenient public face" Hillsong has "more people coming to church [which] means more money."
The reporter explained how each week during services Hillsong followers were encouraged to donate 10% of their income to the church, "The idea being you put faith in God, he will return the money somehow."
Fenlon said he began seeing a pattern "regarding how people were introduced to the church."
"Every week you were encouraged to bring someone new to the church, someone who could be saved," he said. "The people that were being brought to the church were always vulnerable in some way - it could be they had just moved to London and were on their own, going through a period of change, [or] mental health problems."
Fenlon went on to admit, "I recognised that I was vulnerable when I joined the church -- I was unhappy at work, my home life was changing dramatically, I was lonely."
Justin Bieber on Welcoming the 'Queer' Community
Hillsong's posterboy Justin Bieber was recently seen hugging a fan outside of an evening church service, which was captured in a Twitter video. In the social media clip, the pop star was asked by a fan: "Isn't your church like really inclusive, like of the gay community?"
After a long pause, Bieber said, "Yeah." He then added: "Yeah. Anybody can come."
The fan then explained: "I'm trying to find a place that is like, inclusive of everybody, because I came out as queer not long ago. So, I'm trying to find a nice place. Because, like no one is nice. Everybody is so homophobic. I grew up Catholic and everybody is such shit."
Bieber's attitude then appeared to change and he said: "Yeah, that's the sad thing about religion. It can be like that sometimes. Yeah, that breaks my heart for you. I'm so sorry. That's not okay."
"If you ever want to come to any of the services," he said continuing to hug the fan, "any of them would love to have you. [We'd] love to have you in there, you're more than welcome to come any time. Seriously."
Trey Pearson, a former chart topping Christian singer who came out as gay two years ago and sent shockwaves around the world, responded on Twitter to the moment.
"This seems lovely, but it's a shame Hillsong is really NOT an affirming church," Trey wrote, "'You're welcome,' but [they] think something is wrong with you and that you need to change. They wouldn't marry same-sex couples or let you on leadership or staff. But we'd love to see that change!"
When TooFab contacted Trey to clarify his tweet he responded with a phone call.
"I've heard the same language from any number of homophobic Christians who I've talked to through the years," the former evangelical pop star said.
"They say 'all are welcome' but they would never sanction a gay marriage or allow an LGBTQ person to have a leadership role," he continued. "Evangelicals will tell anyone they are welcome to church."
"They will welcome a queer person in the same way they welcome a drug addict – like 'we got to get them cleaned up,'" he added.
Trey, who still identifies with being a Christian, went on to explain what he meant in his Twitter response to the Justin Bieber video.
"I don't know if he [Bieber] is truly accepting of the LGBTQ community but I'd love to hear him say it if he is," he told TooFab. "If you really care it's important to be a voice. Unless he comes out with a statement affirming the LGBTQ community then it doesn't mean anything."
When asked why a church like Hillsong won't preach their core ethics on the pulpit, Trey said: "It's the strategy of the mega-church model – trying to be the 'hip' and 'cool' church. In my experience the most conservative ones [churches] try the hardest to seem cool and liberal. They try to attract young people without talking about [the issue of] homophobia."
Trey maintains that the reason churches like Hillsong have an open door policy to LGBTQ+ without actually affirming them as full members of the community has to do with their main mission: salvation.
"Their goal is to get you saved," Trey said.
Baptism by Bathtub
Justin Bieber was baptized in a bathtub at 3am in New York in 2014. The tub belonged to basketball player Tyson Chandler and the pastor was none other than Carl Lentz.
In an interview with Oprah in 2016, Lentz described the baptism "as probably one of the most special things I've been a part of."
In the four years since Bieber's baptism by bathtub Hillsong has seen its profile raised to epic proportions in America. It now counts among its members some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry and has played host to Bieber's rolling list of love interests - from a reunion with Selena Gomez to a reported fling with Kourtney Kardashian to his on-off thing with Hailey Baldwin. Each one of these women are current Hillsong members and attend regular services right beside the "Baby" singer.
One former Hillsong member, a writer named Tanya Levin, has compared Bieber's role in the church to Tom Cruise in Scientology. Levin told TooFab the church is just "like Scientology" in its efforts to recruit Hollywood celebrities.
Hillsong, which originated in Australia, has become a worldwide sensation with millions of dollars pouring into its coffers every year, not only due to its celebrity followers but even more importantly its membership in the tens of thousands. (In 2014 alone the church grossed nearly $100 million according to their financial report.)
The presence of Hollywood celebrity always casts a liberal shadow over any movement but hidden beneath this carefully orchestrated brand is a religious movement still deeply rooted in a conservative ideology -- one that is historically entrenched in the homophobia and sexism of its fundamentalist forefather the Assemblies of God.
The Two Faces of Carl Lentz
Carl Lentz, perhaps the most liberal of the pastors at Hillsong, has previously admitted he is aligned with the church's official stance on gays and women's rights.
The preacher, however, will rarely be heard making anti-LGBTQ+ or anti-feminist statements. In fact his unwillingness to preach against homosexuality and abortion has drawn criticism from conservative Christians. His style from the pulpit is less fire and brimstone and more reminiscent of a self-help guru with the fashion sensibility of a hipster coffee brewer in Brooklyn.
While Lentz allowed Josh Canfield to be removed from his position as choir director for living an active gay lifestyle he has also publicly stated he does not know Jesus' position on the issue of homosexuality. In an interview on CNN in 2014 the pastor voiced what appeared to be moral uncertainty: "Jesus was in the thick of an era where homosexuality, just like it is today, was widely prevalent. And I'm still waiting for someone to show me the quote where Jesus addressed it on the record in front of people. You won't find it because he never did."
Last November he appeared on "The View" and failed to condemn abortion when questioned by Joy Behar. His unwillingness to state the church's official stance in no uncertain terms was widely criticized by many right-leaning Christians.
Carl responded soon after with a tweet explaining that the church viewed abortion as a sin but he didn't want to "further cast shame and guilt."
The question looming over Carl Lentz's head -- at least among many American Christian conservatives -- is if his unwillingness to "cast shame" stems from moral uncertainty on his own part or if he is afraid of alienating potential followers; especially when his target market are millennial disciples of Selena Gomez and Hailey Baldwin.
The American faction of Hillsong is constantly under fire from the US Christian right for appearing to hedge their bets and not blatantly state their core values when under pressure.
Point in fact, when TooFab attended a service led by Hillsong founders Brian and Bobbie Houston's son Ben, in Downtown Los Angeles, he refused to provide comment and voiced fears of having his words "taken out of context." To be clear, this publication had yet to even ask a single question. Instead he directed TooFab to the PR arm of the church and pastor Carl Lentz, "who is great at talking to the press."
Carl Lentz's PR team declined an interview with TooFab.
Hillsong's position on LGBTQ issues and women's reproductive rights reveals a conflict at its core, a public face and an internal value system that are ultimately opposing.
Carl Lentz will preach inclusion in public appearances but will, according to Josh Canfield, allow a gay man to be expelled from a leadership position in his church due solely to sexual orientation.
Women Are 'Homes for Men's Penises'
There is much less hesitancy, however, when it comes to Hillsong founders Brian and his wife Bobbie Houston.
Bobbie, who is an influential pastor herself, told a Hillsong conference in 2008 that women were created by God to take the lower position in relationship to their husbands.
The preacher said, according to ABC: "[Women are] big, we can step back from an argument. Someone has to step down, to leave a space for God to work, and God put it in feminine DNA to do that."
Bobbie's husband Brian Houston, Hillsong's founder, seems to be on the same page. In 2015 he invited controversial pastor Mark Driscoll to speak at a Hillsong conference, a year after Driscoll was kicked out of his own American church for "arrogance."
Houston later disinvited him from the conference in the wake of media uproar. However, well before he was scheduled to even speak at Hillsong Australia, Driscoll already had a reputation for mysogyny.
Driscoll famously preached what many have dubbed the "Testosterone Gospel," featuring an alpha male Jesus.
"Ultimately, God created you and it is His penis," Driscoll said in his infamous sermon according to ABC. "You are simply borrowing it for a while."
"While His penis is on loan you must admit that it is sort of just hanging out there very lonely as if it needed a home, sort of like a man wandering the streets looking for a house to live in," his sermon continued.
"Knowing that His penis would need a home, God created a woman to be your wife. And when you marry her and look down you will notice that your wife is shaped differently than you and makes a very nice home."
Driscoll later said some of his statements in the sermon were "wrong." He did not respond to TooFab's request for comment.
Esther Houston is a former model with 400,000 Instagram followers. In 2012 she married into the Hillsong family, wedding Brian and Bobbie Houston's son Joel (who is the global director for the church).
The family welcomed her with an online post saying, "Esther joins the women of the house." In that same announcement they described her "passion" as "placing value on women and 'redefining' modern day misconceptions."
In a 2014 blog post titled "Women In The Workplace", Esther, now a fashion designer, described her "value on women" in no uncertain terms.
"I am no feminist," she wrote. "I don't believe that men and women should be equal. Simply because we aren't. Men and women are different, physically and mentally, so that we can fulfill different roles and carry different responsibilities in life."
"I mean, if my car breaks down and there is a man around," Esther continued, "no way I'm fixing it myself. There is also no way I would get out of the car and run around it to open my husband's door and help him out, but I expect him to. There are men, and they should do 'men things,' and then there are women."
Esther Houston never responded to TooFab's request for an interview.
However, Tanya Levin, author of "People in Glass Houses: An Insider's Story In & Out of Hillsong," seemed to confirm Esther's perspective as being consistent with Hillsong's culture and values.
Tanya told TooFab women were "treated like morons" when she grew up in the church in Australia.
Brian Houston Believes His Father's History of Pedophilia is a Product of Homosexuality
Brian Houston's father Frank Houston, a pastor himself, admitted in the early 2000s to sexually abusing a boy in the 1970s. An official investigation in Australia found that Frank may have molested up to nine children over the years. (You can read victim statement here.)
Frank was the leader of the Assemblies of God in New Zealand in the 1960s and early 1970s. The preacher later founded the Sydney Christian Life Centre in 1977, which led to his son Brian Houston founding the Hills Christian Life Centre in 1983.
The churches merged in 2000 one year after Frank's abuse of a young boy in the 1970s came to light. Brian later rebranded both churches as Hillsong in 2001 with Frank withdrawing from a leadership role amid his sex abuse scandal.
In 2015, nearly two decades after the alleged abuse came to light, Brian Houston was confronted about his father's pedophilia in an interview in Australia and he appeared to conflate it with homosexuality.
"I think my father was homosexual, a closet homosexual," he told the Sydney Morning Herald, "I'm no psychiatrist ... but I think whatever frustrations he had, he took out on children."
The belief that there is a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia has been widely discredited.
TooFab has contacted Brian Houston and his Hillsong headquarters seeking comment. We have yet to receive a response.
The Celebrity Silence
Among Hillsong's robust list of celebrity members are of course Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Hailey Baldwin, Kourtney Kardashian, Hailee Steinfeld, Chris Pratt, Vanessa Hudgens, Austin Butler and Kevin Durant.
Khloe Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, and Nick Jonas are also known to have attended Hillsong services.
Each one of these stars has a significant fan base in the LGBTQ+ community and has numerous friends in the entertainment industry who span the diverse spectrum of sexuality and gender.
However, not a single one of these celebrities has publicly criticized Hillsong's position on gay marriage or women's reproductive rights.
TooFab has contacted each of the stars named above but has yet to receive any response.