He regularly hosts Bieber at his family’s suburban Jersey digs, sometimes for weeks at a time. And when the 23-year-old pop star abruptly cancelled his Purpose World Tour last July — and posted a rambling apology on Instagram stating how “blessed” he was to have people in his life to “build my character back up reminding me of who I am and who I want to be” — all fingers pointed to Lentz as the catalyst.
So who is this Svengali-like figure who has infiltrated Bieber’s innermost circle?
Carl Lentz is the rock star of Hillsong NYC, a spin-off of the Australian evangelical mega-church. Known as the “hipster pastor”, he has attracted a slew of celebrity followers since launching the church in Manhattan eight years ago, including models Hailey Baldwin and Kendall Jenner, actors Vanessa Hudgens and Hailee Steinfeld, singer Nick Jonas and NBA stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. (Lentz also moonlights as the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets team chaplain.)
The church’s four Sunday concert-like services, replete with a 10-piece band and light show, at Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan draw 9000 devotees, according to Lentz.
He even goes so far as to compare the weekly devotional to a can’t-miss bash.
“Any good party, you’re going to invite friends to,” he told The Post. “That goes for famous people, too.”
“If you’re at a certain level of celebrity and you feel like that person is safe, the word will get out. And that has happened with our church. And it’s happened ... with people who are at the apex of their careers and one thing leads to another.”
The preacher wasn’t always destined for religious stardom.
Raised in Virginia, Carl Lentz’s father was a television ad salesman and his mother was a housewife. He attended North Carolina State University but dropped out in his sophomore year because, as the pastor put it in a 2014 interview with The Post, “I was off course in a major way,” partying too much and “being my own God”.
He grew up with three sisters and said his “mum and dad are awesome Christians, not religious, but churchgoing”.
But he felt empty. “I was just thinking there’s got to be more to this than what the world is offering.”
He moved to Los Angeles, working as a greeter at the Gucci store on Rodeo Drive while attending King’s College and Seminary in Van Nuys. In 2000, he headed to Sydney, Australia, to attend Hillsong International Leadership College, a training college for Hillsong Church, where he graduated with a degree in theology in 2003. It was there he met his wife, Laura. The couple now have three children — sons Roman and Charlie and daughter Ava — aged between 8 and 13.
It was in Sydney where he and Joel Houston — the son of Hillsong’s Australian founder, Brian Houston — dreamt up the idea of Hillsong NYC.
“Carl was groomed for the role [of lead pastor],” said Tanya Levin, former Hillsong member and author of People In Glass Houses: An Insider’s Story Of A Life In And Out Of Hillsong. She noted that Lentz had help in his choice of wife Laura, who happens to be the daughter of Brian Houston’s best friend.
“Brian needed someone who is very charismatic [to take the pulpit in America],” she said. “[The Hillsong leaders] are redefining what church means. And it means happy images and beautiful people and well-dressed people.”
In 2004, Lentz moved to Virginia where he was ordained and worked as an assistant pastor at a youth ministry, before moving to Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 2010. That’s when he and his wife were tapped to launch Hillsong NYC alongside Joel Houston at Irving Plaza — the church’s first United States outpost.
Since then, the church has gained a reputation as the “cool church”, where congregants show up in ripped jeans and Bieber sightings are not uncommon. The pastors serve up aspirational images on and off the pulpit — their sermons as well as their Instagram posts are slick and carefully curated and sometimes self-congratulatory. According to a 2016 Yelp review, during a sermon one Hillsong LA pastor thanked God his wife was still hot after having given birth to three children.
Even Joel Houston’s wife, Esther, who works as a lead Hillsong NYC pastor alongside her husband, serves up cleavage-bearing pictures to her nearly 400,000 Instagram followers, hawking wares from her clothing line Houston Graeff — including $342 dresses and shirts printed with the words “Pink Champagne on Ice”.
Flaunting their aspirational lifestyle has paid off: According to the church’s 2016 financial report, Hillsong now has 27 locations worldwide and raked in nearly $US 105 million, tax-free.
But despite Hillsong’s hip image and its pastors’ revealing pics, it is an ultraconservative, evangelical church that emphasises direct personal experience of God through baptism and believes in followers being gifted with the ability to speak in tongues.
Hillsong was founded 35 years ago by Brian Houston and his wife, Bobbie, in Baulkham Hills, Sydney. Back then, it was called Hills Christian Life Centre and had just 45 congregants, and was an offshoot of a church started by Brian’s father, Frank.
In 1999, when Frank Houston confessed to his son that he had molested a seven-year-old boy 30 years earlier, Brian let his father retire with a pension until his 2004 death. In 2007, news broke that Frank had abused multiple boys in the ’60s and ’70s. But Brian didn’t place all the blame on Frank. One of his father’s accusers alleged that Brian told the man that he had “tempted” Frank. In a 2016 interview, Brian stated that his father was a “closet homosexual”.
“I think whatever frustrations he had, he took out on children,” Brian said, suggesting that homosexuality and paedophilia were intrinsically linked.
The church’s stance on homosexuality seems at odds with its enlightened image.
In August 2015, when it came to light that a gay couple at the Hillsong NYC branch was engaged and one of the men was a choir director at the church, Brian Houston issued a statement reassuring followers that the two gay men “have not been involved in an active leadership or ministry role” since the engagement was revealed.
Over the years, when questioned about the church’s — as well as his own — stance on homosexuality and abortion, Lentz has generally shied away from giving concrete answers.
He was forced into admitting that he does “believe abortion is sinful” in a November tweet after dodging the question during an appearance on US talk show The View.
Asked whether he would marry a gay couple at Hillsong, the pastor told The Post: “If a gay couple — which, they never have — asked me to do their marriage, I would sit down with them and we would have really awesome discussions about what we all believe.”
When pressed as to whether or not this meant he would, indeed, preside over a gay wedding, he continued to evade the question.
“I’m not going to answer that ... your question is, ‘Would I do it?’ and my answer is, ‘I’ve never been asked.’”
He went on to add, generally, of the hot topics: “We believe what the Bible says ... your beef is not with us. Your beef is with what the Bible says.”
In a 2015 interview with GQ, Lentz let his guard down a bit more, telling the writer that “if he could just show a person how to walk with Jesus, really walk with him every day, it would be easy to resist the temptation of loving someone of your own gender”.
The church leader told the magazine that he was fine having gay parishioners because, as the writer explained, “homosexuality isn’t a different kind of sin to him than, say, tithing at 9 per cent instead of 10 per cent, or gossiping or telling a lie”.
Lentz’s ability to remain a crowd-pleaser while adhering to very conservative principles is impressive. But his strength, after all, is his ability to bring people in and build people up, something that’s not lost on his celebrity pals.
Williamsburg-based photographer Joe Termini, 34, isn’t at all surprised the pastor has become such an integral part of Bieber’s life.
“When me and Carl met [seven years ago], I was in a bad place — and he forcibly became my friend. He has this way about him where he’s like, ‘Let’s hang out’ and you’re like, ‘OK’, and then he’s at your house and you’re hanging out,” said Mr Termini, who was hired by the pastor as an assistant.
When it comes to Bieber, it seems, the influence goes two ways.
Look quickly and it can be hard to tell the singer and the preacher apart in their matching skinny sweatpants, aviators and bare chests, which they both like to display regularly on social media.
Lentz gives all style credit to Bieber.
“Oh my goodness, it would be him keeping me wildly relevant,” Lentz told The Post. “Once in a while, Justin will leave something cool at my house and I’ll steal it. He left his Supreme hat, which he doesn’t know he left, so I have that.”
Bieber and Lentz first met in 2008 at the singer’s concert in New Jersey. The latter was a guest of Judah Smith, a Seattle-based pastor with whom Bieber is also reportedly close.
“I remember being involved in this pre-service prayer [backstage] and just looking at him and going, ‘This is going to be a challenge,’” Lentz told The Post in 2014. “And that day being like, ‘I’m going to pray for this boy to make it.’”
Nowadays, whenever Bieber says or does anything with a hint of maturity, the pastor immediately gets credit (and criticism) for puppeteering behind the scenes.
“Justin wrote a really beautiful piece of his heart on Instagram and it was too good. So people were like, ‘No way ... let’s look around his life and see who might influence him,’” Lentz said.
“I’m not a tour manager. I’m not a guy who would tell him what to do with his career. I speak when he needs wisdom and asks me for it,” said Lentz who added that he thinks Bieber made the right decision to cut short his tour.
“He’s 23. He’s got this giant life ahead of him. At the end of the day, if you feel like that right now, to take a break, do it,” he said. “We act like we get so sad when celebrities bottom out ... but then when celebrities make good calls, we’re critical of them.”
As for singer Selena Gomez, who recently completed a two-week treatment program for anxiety and depression, Lentz said: “She’s a pretty awesome woman and she’s a fighter and she does what she needs to do. Her soul is getting healthy.”
Meanwhile, Lentz and Bieber’s friendship seems to have had a positive effect on the singer, who has dealt with a string of seemingly self-inflicted troubles over the past several years, including facing a DUI in Miami, punching a fan in Barcelona, and allegedly sleeping with a prostitute in Brazil.
It seems he’s ready to take a step back from the madness, with the pastor’s help.
In May, when hanging out in Montclair with Lentz, Bieber implored a bunch of fans who had crowded around him to break away from social media.
“Put down your phones and be normal for a second. Goodness gracious, how are ya? Put down your phone and be a normal person for a second,” he begged the bystanders.
They didn’t oblige. But Lentz says he’s proud of how far Bieber has come.
“He’s inspired me a lot,” said the pastor. “Just to see someone remain so teachable and so kind in the face of a lot of scrutiny, it’s really challenging. If he can do that, we all should be able to do that.”