Update, 2:02 a.m. ET: In another Hillsong-related incident, Justin Bieber was involved in a car accident in front of a church event in Beverly Hills, California. The singer was reportedly driving a black truck when he struck at least one photographer, who was taken to a local hospital with “non-life-threatening injuries.”
Original article continues below:
Canada’s prodigal son has always taken his Christianity seriously. Justin Bieber may have peed in a few buckets and lost his virginity along the way, but his road to redemption is apparently back on track. This week, the pop star announced that he would be canceling the remainder of his Purpose world tour. According to a statement on the cherubic crooner’s Facebook page, Bieber would be bowing out “due to unforeseen circumstances.”
“Justin loves his fans and hates to disappoint them,” the statement continued. “He thanks his fans for the incredible experience of the Purpose World Tour over [the] last 18 months."
The star, who was recently banned from performing in Beijing due to his “series of misbehaviors while living abroad and during his performances in China,” seems to be reorienting himself toward only the most wholesome activities. He told TMZ that his post-tour plans are “just resting, getting some relaxation. We’re gonna ride some bikes.” So a 23-year-old multimillionaire would rather be dirt-biking, unwinding, and quietly waiting for more celebrity offspring to turn 18 than subjecting himself to a punishing tour and travel schedule. Nothing unusual going on here, right?
But what you see isn’t always what you get with Justin Bieber. One moment he’s dating Sofia Richie, the next he’s stepping out with Bronte Blampied. First you think he’s canceling his tour to catch up on some R&R, then you realize that his preacher/BFF may have inspired him to sabotage his career for Jesus. At least, that’s what TMZ is claiming. On Tuesday, Hollywood’s least-holy gossip site ran a story explaining that, according to sources connected to Hillsong, Bieber’s church, the singer is taking a professional step back because he has “rededicated his life to Christ.” The update continues, “Bieber’s decision seemed to come out of the blue, but our sources say it was squarely based on what Bieber believes is religious enlightenment.”
Attending more Sunday services is one thing, but opening your own franchise for the Lord is quite another. According to TMZ’s “inside source,” Bieber “may be even planning to start his own church,” which sounds like a magical place where DUIs are automatically stricken from your record and Selena Gomez is always willing to give you a second chance. Unfortunately—shockingly!—the entertainment blogosphere may be getting ahead of itself. Bieber has emphatically denied that his tour cancellation had anything to do with Jesus. According to TMZ, the pop star “seemed perplexed” when a paparazzi asked him if religion played a role in the decision, responding “no” repeatedly.
Of course, the premature ending of the Purpose tour is a bit of a “fuck you” to Bieber’s fans, many of whom have already taken the star into their hearts as their personal lord and savior. Bieber’s relatively mysterious decision becomes even stranger in light of another recent TMZ disclosure. On Wednesday, the website reported that NBA player Kyrie Irving’s controversial trade request from the Cleveland Cavaliers was influenced by Hillsong leader Carl Lentz—Bieber’s very own rock ’n’ roll pastor. According to TMZ, “Church sources tell us Kyrie, who’s been an active member for a long time, met with Lentz earlier this month about his desires to step out of LeBron James’ shadow. We’re told Lentz didn’t tell Kyrie to ‘leave Cleveland’—instead he listened to Kyrie’s concerns, and encouraged him to make the decision he felt was best.” Just over a week ago, Lentz, Bieber, and Irving all hung out together at Dave & Buster’s; now, suddenly, two-thirds of that spiritual squad are making drastic career moves.
So is this celebrity church as cult-y as it sounds? For Bieber, Hillsong, which started as an Australian Pentecostal megachurch in Sydney, and its NYC leader Carl Lentz have constituted his longest continuously running relationship. A 2015 GQ article by Taffy Brodesser-Akner tells the story of Bieber’s first brush with the trendy megachurch. According to the piece, 2014 Justin Bieber—that’s height-of-infamy, egging-his-neighbors Justin Bieber—moved in with Lentz and his family for a month and a half. “One day, according to Carl, Justin looked in the mirror and he was ravaged by feelings of loss. He got on his knees and he cried. ‘I want to know Jesus,’ Justin Bieber sobbed to Pastor Carl. And so together they prayed. Suddenly, Justin was overcome by the Gospel, and he said, ‘Baptize me.’ And Pastor Carl said, ‘Yes, buckaroo’—he really does call Bieber buckaroo, and now you should, too— ‘let’s do this. Let’s schedule a time.’ But Justin Bieber couldn’t be Justin Bieber for one minute longer. ‘No, I want to do it now.’” The almost too-touching-to-be-true story leads to Bieber and Lentz wandering around potential baptism spots, only to find hordes of paparazzi blocking their way at each location. Like a modern-day Mary, J.B., desperate and out of options, finally found his manger: NBA player (and friend of the church) Tyson Chandler’s huge Upper West Side bathtub.
It’s a story Lentz has pulled out of his leather pockets on more than one occasion. In 2016, he recounted it again during an Oprah Winfrey interview, in which he praised Bieber’s faith in spite of his (frequent, well-documented) failings. But while Lentz and his church’s publicity push may seem a touch too secular, Bieber is clearly getting something out of his close relationship with the pastor, and has reportedly broken down at more than one church service. In addition to an emphasis on God and Jesus in his social media, sources reported that, prior to its cancellation, the Purpose tour had become quite spiritual. One source claimed, “Backstage on his Purpose tour, Justin has been sitting down with his opening acts and encouraging them to put Christ before everything. His aim is to convert the people he loves and warn other stars against the evils of the industry.” In other words, anyone expecting to hotbox a dressing room with Biebs would be more likely to stumble on a Bible study class.
It’s one thing to incorporate your spirituality into your tour, and quite another to streamline your traditional Christian values and your star-studded personal life. Bieber, who has said that his ideal match “has to push me spiritually,” has even managed to bring Hillsong into the bedroom, enjoying church services with a number of his exes. Hillsong was allegedly “the special place” Bieber would take Selena Gomez when they were together—so much so that when the famous exes were both spotted at church services in 2015, they immediately sparked reunion rumors. Also in 2015, Bieber and rumored then-girlfriend Hailey Baldwin traveled to Sydney for Hillsong’s annual church conference (the two showed up separately, with Bieber taking a private jet and Baldwin flying commercial). Bieber attended another Hillsong conference this year, just days before his cancellation announcement. In a video from this most recent conference, Bieber commented on his triumphant return to Sydney, explaining, “My faith grows every day, so my faith is stronger than two years ago. I’m better, stronger, wiser... kinda.”
Despite being the church of Kendall Jenner, Kevin Durant, and all of Justin Bieber’s exes, Hillsong boasts a surprisingly old-school set of ideological strictures. Beneath the veneer of young people music and hipster haircuts, Hillsong is like any other traditional Pentecostal church. It opposes embryonic stem-cell research and abortion, support the theories of creationism and “intelligent design,” and hold that homosexuality is at odds with biblical teachings. As The Daily Beast’s Brandy Zadrozny reported last year, Hillsong “has a long history of rejecting and even self-admittedly damaging its gay and lesbian members.” Of course, these sentiments are more or less in keeping with Bieber’s faith, since the pop star has always been a far more “traditional” Christian than his large crucifix chest tattoo would suggest. Biebs famously came under fire early in his career when he told Rolling Stone, “I really don’t believe in abortion.” When pressed on whether his opinion would shift in the case of a sexual assault, the 16-year-old responded, “Well, I think that’s really sad, but everything happens for a reason.”
Doctrine aside, Hillsong has also been haunted by its fair share of scandals. As The Daily Beast reported, “Hillsong made nearly $100 million in total revenue in 2014, according to their annual report—up 10 percent from the previous year—more than half of which came from donations. And all of this money—from albums and Bible college tuition and books and DVDs for preschoolers and T-shirts and conferences—it’s all tax-free, of course. Exactly where this money goes, including how much is given to pastors’ salaries, as well as how much the Houstons make in ‘love offerings’ for speaking engagements at other venues, is somewhat opaque, which makes it another point of contention for Hillsong critics who argue that Hillsong is essentially a family business that doesn’t have to tithe.”
As Justin Bieber was getting more and more involved in the church, Hillsong was weathering its greatest scandal yet. In October 2015, a royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse in Australia released a report regarding allegations against Frank Houston, the religious leader whose son Brian is currently Hillsong’s senior pastor. The investigation found that despite allegations that Houston had sexually abused as many as nine children in the 1960s and 1970s, the cases were never referred to the police. Additionally, Brian Houston “had a serious conflict of interest in assuming responsibility for dealing with the allegations; and the Assemblies of God in Australia departed from their policies and procedures set out in the Administration Manual when it came to disciplining Frank Houston.” The report also noted that after the abuse allegations surfaced, Frank Houston was still allowed to resign with a retirement package and “without damage to his reputation or the reputation of Hillsong Church.”
In a statement, Brian Houston admitted that the extent of his father’s abuse was still unknown. “We probably don’t know how many. We may never know how far it went,” he said.