A Chronicle of Renewal and Revival

Diana Bagnall wrote this cover story for the 11 April, 2000 issue of The Bulletin, with Newsweek, reproduced here with permission. 

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The Great Leap of Faith – comment by Max Welsh, Editor-in-Chief of The Bulletin:

In discussing the role of religion in Australian politics, especially with Americans, I stress the fact that Australia is probably the most secular of all the democracies. We do not have an established church.  At the individual level, people may claim allegiance to one faith or another but, in practice, we are not a church-going nation.

We do have religious leaders who speak with the authority of their rank. However, their ability to influence the national debate, let alone to set the national agenda is, at best, modest and usually marginal.

While committed Christians have formed themselves into non-partisan fellowships, at the federal parliamentary level there is no real equivalent of the Moral Majority movement in the United States.

I’m referring here to a mass political force.  The Pentecostal movement, which operates outside traditional religious groups, has been around for some time but it has a low profile in the national political-cum-social debate.

It may be that I’m the one out of touch, but I was surprised when senior writer Diana Bagnall told me more Australians attend Pentecostal services than Anglican churches.  This is a major, fast-growing religious force.

Its low profile is in large part due to its atomistic, as distinct from hierarchical, form of organisation.  But it also reflects a widely held view among Pentecostal leaders that the mass media – a singularly secular institution – has in the past sensationalised their activities, exhibiting more scorn and ridicule than sensitivity and understanding.

If that is true, it’s a pity because what is happening in this corner of Australian life is both interesting and important for what it says about our society.  It was on this basis that Bagnall researched and wrote our cover story.

____________________________________

The New Believers, by Diana Bagnall

Christianity is being born again.  Pentecostal congregations are swelling, the influence of their leaders is soaring, and politicians are starting to take notice.  Diana Bagnall examines the attraction of the absolute in an age of doubt.

There’s a point at which continuing to caricature a sizeable group of Australians as a weird or loony fringe when they are going about a lawful activity in a purposeful, well-organised manner begins to backfire.  Think of One Nation.  When the group numbers scores of thousands and has been notching up double-digit member- ship growth each year for the best part of two decades, the ridicule is clearly unsustainable.

Call them misguided if you want, or politically subversive, which they undoubtedly have the potential to become, but don’t trivialise born-again Christians as marginal or eccentric.  Because the numbers tell a different story.  Their signature mix of conservative theology and radical religious practice is as mainstream as the church comes these days if by mainstream we mean belonging to that part of the river where the water flows most strongly and in greatest volume.

That they are relatively invisible at a national level is partly because their culture and vocabulary is so particular (in many respects theirs is a parallel universe), and partly because the Pentecostal churches that attract them in the greatest numbers don’t have the street-corner presence of traditional churches.  Sure, a handful of Pentecostal congregations are housed on big acreages in large, purpose-built auditoriums, complete with cafes and youth centres, recording studios and schools, but more find a home in recycled buildings – warehouses, primary schools, community centres.  And that’s what’s fooled us.

We haven’t seen the communities and the networks.  And they’re big, vigorous and potentially powerful.  Brian Houston, who heads the Assemblies of God denomination in Australia, estimates that there are 3000 full-time trainees in AOG Bible colleges across the country.  Many of these churches are young churches.  In the Christian City Church, a Sydney-based denomination that didn’t exist 20 years ago and now claims 25,000 members worldwide, for example, 70% of attendees are aged I5-39.  The predominant style is contemporary and prosperous.  Hip even.

These are places where winners hang out, where the rewards are tangible and tantalising.  They promise the good life on Earth, and of course, the bonus of eternal life.  They offer intimacy and excitement, a sense of belonging and of righteousness.  A heady mix.

The church in decline has become a media cliché.  Church leaders, those whose opinions are sought out because their brands of Christianity are familiar and visible, are increasingly portrayed as desperate men, maximising what’s left of greatly depleted stores of spiritual and temporal authority.  One minute they’re talking of the need to market their spiritual “programs” more effectively, the next they’re wading more deeply, with government encouragement, into bureaucratised social welfare.

Save for the odd embarrassing episode where a triumphant Melbourne Cup jockey  or superstar footballer takes advantage of  his media access to proclaim his love for the  Lord, there is little in the mainstream media  to suggest that the church is anything other  than a cultural backwater populated by the  elderly and the backward-looking.  Census data seems to prove the point.  It shows a 35. 5% increase between I99I and I996 in the number of Australians saying they had no religion and the major Christian denominations losing market share.

So what about the 3500 people who turn up each weekend to worship at the Christian City Church in Oxford Falls, near Sydney’s northern beaches?  What about the 5000 women who milled among the marquees and pots of pink and magenta petunias at Pastor Bobbie Houston’s women’s conference last month at the Hills Christian Life Centre in Sydney’s Baulkham Hills?  What about the 1200-strong Ipswich Region Community Church in Queensland waiting on the completion of a new 1000-seat auditorium and 350-seat youth and children’s facility?  What about the 100,000 people who are expected to march into the Sydney Olympic Stadium on June 10  (the Day of Pentecost) under the banner of the Awakening 2000 movement to celebrate ‘the reason for the turning of the millennium’?  Don’t they count?

As a combined grouping, there are now more people worshipping in Pentecostal churches than at Anglican churches each week, according to the most recent National Church Life Survey.  Only Catholic parishes have a greater number of attendees.  But these new Christian communities don’t just restrict themselves to Pentecostal churches, which makes the business of mapping their influence much more difficult than simply counting bums on pews.  There are contemporary evangelical, charismatic and Pentecostal churches across denominations, says Melbourne Anglican leader Peter Corney.  “The majority of adults attending Protestant churches on Sunday in Australia would go to one of these types of churches,” he says.  “Almost all the large churches (that is, over 500 members), and the churches with young congregations, fall into those categories.”

For just as loyalty to political parties has broken down over the past decade and capturing the swinging voter has become the measure of political success, so too the old religious tribal connections have broken down.  People are open to persuasion.  In the new churches the power of the message is in its communication.  “We scratch where people    are itching,” says Mark Edwards, 41, an ex-lawyer who has increased membership of the Ipswich Region Community Church sixfold in the eight years he has been its senior minister.

His sermons are more likely to focus on financial management (he has just finished a two-year term as president of the local chamber of commerce) and work issues, relationships and raising children than on fine theological argument.  But, fundamentally, there is still only one message – salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.  Part and parcel of that is acceptance of the Bible’s authority, literally across the board. …  For it is now well understood by those who analyse patterns of church growth and decline that firmly drawn boundaries and clearly stated values are an asset rather than a liability to churches in a post-modernist world characterised by impermanence and relativity.  The balance of theological power is shifting on the ground as people vote with their feet for more conservative, orthodox Christian values.

“Liberal theology has reigned supreme in the theological colleges, and still does, but out there, in the trenches, the whole liberal theology thing just hasn’t worked,” explains Peter Corney, who until last June was vicar of St Hillary’s Anglican Church, in Melbourne’s Kew.  “It has failed to capture the hearts and minds of a generation of young people.”

The average size of Anglican and Protestant congregations in Australia is around 70, with more than a third having fewer than 25 attendees, according to the National Church Life Survey.  Yet in 20 years, under Corney’s evangelical leadership, the congregation at St Hillary’s grew from 150 to 1000.  Most of those filling the pews in the two Sunday evening services are under 25.  Further east in the same city, 2300 people pack the pews of Crossway Baptist Church which under ex-missionary Stuart Robinson’s leadership has grown by about 20% each year since the mid ’90s.  People lock into clearly defined vision and values, says Robinson.  “They want to know where they are going.”

In fact, St Hillary’s and Crossway are the exception rather than the rule in more than one respect.  For while Corney believes that the church is entering a post-denominational era, it is an undeniable fact that most of Australia’s mega-churches are Pentecostal, not in itself a denomination but a brand of Christianity that features as its centrepiece the highly charged experience called baptism of the Holy Spirit.  The most common sign of a Pentecostal experience is that a person begins speaking in tongues (making sounds that usually they can’t understand and feel they can’t control), but there are other signs such as falling to the ground in a trance or, as happened first in Toronto in the early ’90s, laughing uncontrollably (the Toronto Blessing).

Pentecostal churches have been around since the beginning of the century, but burst into international prominence in the ’70s during the so-called charismatic renewal.  At that time, a fair few people attending regular churches were also caught up in Pentecostal-style worship.  While some of them defected early on to the Pentecostal churches, many hung in with the old denominations hoping they would move with the times.  By and large they were disappointed, and by the mid ’80s large numbers of church-goers were spilling out of old churches and into new ones in a massive shift in the Protestant landscape that some have compared to the Reformation of the 16th century.

That exodus gathered momentum in the ’90s.  Between the 1991 and 1996 censuses, Pentecostal groups overall increased their membership by 16%.  In terms of the number of congregations established, the growth appears to be even more dramatic.  The National Church Life Survey found that between 1991 and 1996 the number of congregations within four Pentecostal denominations, the Assemblies of God, Foursquare Gospel, Christian Revival Crusade and the Apostolic Church, had grown from 832 to 1046, a 26% increase.

The NCLS found that the overall growth in Pentecostal denominations was predominantly due to ‘switchers’, that is people who are joining from other denominations.  The survey found nearly three times as many switches joining the Pentecostal churches as there were newcomers without a church background.

The leaders of these new churches make no apology for their gain at another’s expense,  “People will go where it’s happening for them,” Phil Pringle, 47, founding head of Christian City Churches and senior pastor of the mega-church at Oxford Falls.  At Brian Houston’s Assembly of God church at Baulkham Hills in the north-west of Sydney, growth is limited to how many carpark spaces can be accommodated on the 8.5-hectare site.   The church is about to embark on building a 3500-seat auditorium.  “Most people here think it is too small,” he says.  Already, the Hills Christian Life Centre pushes through 7000 churchgoers on any one weekend.  Like those who attend any of the big, new regional churches, they are likely to drive past 100 other churches on their way.  The question is, why?

We can talk, as Pringle does, about an “ache” for God, we can talk about seeking refuge from the confusion of modern life and about the eternal longing for meaning.  And all these things go some way to explaining the filling up of the churches.  But there are more temporal reasons, to do with charisma, seductive packaging, the power of positive thinking, professional standards and, possibly most importantly, the effective harnessing of youthful idealism and passion.

Men like Pringle and Houston bear as little resemblance to conventional clergymen as Brad Pitt does to Laurence Olivier.  Pringle, once an art student and still a painter, started his church in 1980 with 12 people in the Dee Why Surf Club on Sydney’s northern beaches.  It has grown into a denomination (a formalised denomination, that is) encompassing, according to his estimates, 25,000 people in 100 churches around the world.  Houston, 46, runs two Assembly of God churches and one of gospel music’s most successful recording stories, Hillsong Music, which claims annual worldwide sales of more than 2 million albums.  Aside from the Baulkham Hills operation, there’s a smaller church at Waterloo in central Sydney with a congregation of 2300.

Not for Pringle or Houston the quiet scratch of pen on paper within the sanctuary of a book-lined study.  They move at a furious pace, as much entrepreneur as pastor, as much celebrity as preacher.  It is nothing for them to be opening a new church in Los Angeles one week, addressing a conference on the Gold Coast the next, all the while churning out the next motivational book, overseeing the operations of their various training colleges and schools and co-ordinating the activities of roving teams of laptop-toting pastors, big pools of musicians and singers, and expanding counselling and community service arms.

Masters of communications technologies, they draw around them sophisticated teams to produce web sites and videos, music recordings and television programs for broadcast on both free-to-air and pay TV (the Australian Christian Channel is part of Optus TVs basic package).  Their core role, however, is to spearhead the growth of their churches by presenting their deeply conservative religious message week after week in a compelling, high-energy, contemporary format.

“I would struggle with that kind of pressure,” admits Father Mike Delancy, a Catholic parish priest at New Norfolk in rural Tasmania whose daily pastoral fare is much more likely to be a funeral service than a baptism of any sort.  He’s involved in the ecumenical Awakening movement, and unusually for a man of his cloth, counts many  Pentecostal pastors as his friends.  “The flip side for them is that when the high energy drops off, so do the people,” he says.

Physically, the churches these men lead (and make no mistake, this is a man’s world – women have a vital place in it, but the Bible’s teaching is firm on the gender hierarchy) are designed to be user-friendly for “seekers”, as newcomers are called.  No knee-bruising pews, no distracting religious icons.  The purpose-built auditoriums are cathedrals of modern entertainment with all the technological wizardry.  Christian City Church at Oxford Falls is in the process of redesigning its web site to give live online access to church services.  But even in more modest locations, church services are conceived of as multimedia events – display windows for marketing Christianity – rather than as liturgical set pieces to mark a religious calendar.

There’s none of that intimidating business of knowing when to stand and when to kneel, and which page of the order of service or which number hymn to turn to.  “Culturally relevant” is the buzz phrase used to describe the approach.  Instead of priests and altar boys, the focus of attention is a rock band, usually several musicians and singers who pump out music with the catchy rhythms and romantic tub of good pop.  The words are simple, and projected on big screens.

In fact, the services are not unlike Saturday night variety TV – seemingly effortless, but planned down to the last minute.  At Edwards’Assembly of God church in Ipswich each service (and, typically, there are several each Sunday, designed for different congregations) is planned six months in advance by a salaried creative arts director who leads a team of about nine people and draws on a bigger pool of about 70 musicians, singers, sound, lighting and drama people.  Edwards explains: “You go to a Barbra Streisand concert and you expect a certain standard of that concert.  Why should people who come to our church expect any less?”

Edwards is a former lawyer, a local lad who switched careers in his mid-30s to follow his passionate belief.  He’s typical of the new breed of church leader – intelligent, thoughtful and community oriented.  Bronwyn Hughes, a member of the National Church Life Survey team, says leaders of growing churches have a profile that closely matches the leadership profile of management literature.  “These people function in a similar change environment.  [Their role] is about mobilising people, and gaining their trust.”

Some of the new church leaders are traditionally trained denominational ministers but the great majority are not.  Melbourne pastor Mark Conner, for example, inherited the church from his father, Kevin.  He was a musician and a youth leader before he took over the reins.  Houston, too, inherited his church from his father Frank (there’s a dynastic streak in these churches).  Robinson, of Crossway Baptist, says his Pentecostal friends laugh at him because he has a string of degrees.  “In contemporary church, we don’t  place a high value on the status of ordination,” he explains.  A leadership “gift”, by contrast, is mandatory.  “I think all these guys could run a large company somewhere,” explains  Corney, who is now executive director of the  interdenominational Institute of  Contemporary Christian Leadership.

Yet, curiously, they have relatively little  profile beyond their own world.  That, it seems, is about to change.  “The church that  I see is a church of influence, a church so large in size that the city and the nation can’t ignore it, a church growing so quickly that the buildings struggle to contain [it] . . .” write Houston and his wife Bobbie in a manifesto placed prominently in the foyer at Baulkham Hills -just a few metres away from the Brian and Bobbie exhibition stand, a bookstall of their books and videos over  which their names are written in neon script.

Houston’s stated desire for influence more in keeping with the size of his church is a sharp new turn for the Pentecostals.  Until very recently, Pentecostals have lacked a cohesive national voice.  The hallmark of Pentecostal churches is that they are strongly autonomous.  Individual pastors run their own show and are not answerable to a church hierarchy.  To their members, that flat management structure is undoubtedly a drawcard, but it means these new churches lack any kind of  national cohesion, and they’ve punched  below their weight politically.  But if politics is about whose values are going to prevail, then these communities are finding their voice.

On February 18, Houston launched a new alliance of Pentecostal churches called  Australian Christian Churches claiming to represent more than 1000 churches and  170,000 members.  That’s by no means all the Pentecostals in Australia.  Pringle’s Christian City Church is not yet involved, and may never he (there is territorial jealousy in this arm of the church too).

But the intention behind the new alliance is what counts.  “If the people of God see  themselves as grasshoppers, everyone else sees  them as grasshoppers,” says Houston, leaning  forward, his elbows resting on his long legs, the blond highlights in his hair an altogether unsurprising touch in a thoroughly modern  preacher.  “I want to change inside the church  . . .  [I want it to he known] that the message of God is valid, that there is nothing to apologise for.  I believe it is time that we started to see ourselves as a legitimate voice of the church and no one else is going to see that if we don’t even see ourselves that way.”

Rearing its head here is the old Pentecostal underdog.  They are used to being out in the cold.  For example, Houston was only in January asked to join the National Council of Churches even though he was appointed national president of the Assemblies of God in May 1997.  Pringle comments wryly that “maybe we have enjoyed it out there a little.”  And it is undoubtedly true that Pentecostals revel in their outsider status.   When Hollywood pastor in pink, the impeccably manicured Holly Wagner (a dead ringer  for Meg Ryan) excitedly told of a deal she had  struck with “the secular publisher HarperCollins” to publish her book The Dumb Things She Does, The Dumb Things He Does, she  spoke of taking her book “out there”.  There is that degree of them and us going on here.

So what is the Australian Christian Churches’agenda?  Making disciples, of course.   There is no other for Christians.  “I love this country and I really believe the church has answers for Australia.  I genuinely would like to see the church helping people and give them the answers that they want,” says Houston.

Pringle is going down another path.  Last year, Prime Minister John Howard opened Pringle’s church at Oxford Falls.  Pringle is in Canberra reasonably often, at the invitation of Alan Cadman, federal member for Mitchell, who attends some of the CCC’s services.  He has lunched with John Anderson, John Forrest and Brian Harradine.  He doesn’t like the idea of Australia developing a Christian political party.  Neither does Ian Jagelman, a former PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant who is now senior pastor of a 1000-strong church in the Sydney district of Lane Cove-Ryde.  “I am not sure that we are not better off having strong relationships with our local members and when an issue comes up letting them know what we think about it,” he says.  “There comes a point where our church will he so big, where clearly people in the political process will want to know what we think.”

©  Reproduced with permission from The Bulletin, Vol. 118, No 6219, 11 April 2000.

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Comments on: "The New Believers, by Diana Bagnall" (1)

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