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The rise and fall of Carl Lentz, the famous pastor of Hillsong Church

Mr. Lentz, who grew up in Virginia Beach, has spent years seeking his calling. He played basketball at North Carolina State University before dropping out. He worked as a receptionist in a Gucci store on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. But in the early 2000s, he traveled to Australia, where he attended a school run by Hillsong Church.

Mr. Lentz was interned for Mr. Houston, who founded the church with his wife, Bobbie, and befriended his eldest son, Joel. In 2010, Hillsong opened its first church in the United States, and Mr. Lentz and his wife, Laura, moved from Virginia to New York City 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 temporarily moved in with the Lentz family in 2014. They have often been photographed together: in a recording studio in Beverly Hills, on a go-kart track in Los Angeles, and – feathers tousled in conservative Christian circles – apparently shooting at a bar in New Zealand.

Mr. Lentz was known for his looks: 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 scooped T-shirt. He also often wore a Rolex. Pastors and other staff who arrived in Hillsong wearing traditional costumes and ties often gradually began to dress like Mr. Lentz and even imitate his southern accent.

Thanks in part to Mr. Lentz’s notoriety, Hillsong’s New York branch appeared to thrive. A church that started with a series of small group meetings in apartments across town began to congregate in the downtown Irving Plaza concert hall, then the larger Hammerstein Ballroom, then United Palace, a place that bills itself as the fourth largest theater in Manhattan.

The New York Church, which reported a weekly attendance of over 7,000 people last year, quickly opened outposts in Montclair, NJ, Norwalk, Connecticut and Boston. These four localities became known as Hillsong East Coast, and the Lentz were all responsible.

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

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