24 Heaven – Why God never closes for business

The Bulletin with Newsweek April 2005

Diana Bagnall

Australia’s Pentecostal churches are leading a Christian revival. Beyond spiritual rewards, they now promise their followers earthly success – and political power. Diana Bagnall reports.

At 7.45am on a grey and muggy Sunday in February, taxis pull up in quick succession outside a large blue building in Waterloo. Most of the neighbourhood – once light industrial but now welded onto Sydney’s inner-city gay hub – is still locked down. An opportunistic cafe in nearby Danks Street pushes open its concertina doors, but the crowd streaming into hillsong Church’s city branch is looking for another kind of kickstart to the day.

Inside, a six-piece band warms up in front of swimming coloured lights and volunteers in “Hillsong Inc” T-shirts add rows of chairs with the speed of a knitting machine. I take a deep breath, and slide in beside Anthony Venn Brown. In another life, he was a popular Pentecostal preacher, married with kids. The church spat him out. He’s back on a crusade of sorts. We’re an odd couple: he unashamedly gay with his hands raised up in prayer, me standing stiffly in a sea of ecstatic worshippers. Not that I couldn’t have turned up alone. Welcoming newcomers is a major element in any Pentecostal church.

In fact, this morning’s service focuses almost exclusively on church growth. The A-team has come in from the Hills (Baulkham Hills, in Sydney’s north-west, that is) where Australia’s biggest church has headquarters in a business park. Singer-songwriter Darlene Zschech,  Hillsong’s homegrown superstar, leads the worship and Brian Houston, its senior pastor and the head of Australia’s Assemblies of God denomination, delivers the sermon. It’s pre-packaged in DVD form, a “vision” statement. The estimated 17,000 people who attend Hillsong services in Sydney each week, plus the satellite congregations in London and Kiev, which reportedly number several thousand apiece, will see it.

The vision isn’t complex. For Pentecostals it’s onward and upward, with Moscow and Paris (gasp) targeted for evangelism this year. “It would be selfish to draw back,” Houston tells his flock. “What God has given us is great, and great means big, great is powerful. I tell you,
the devil likes to contain and give the church a small mentality … I want you to buckle up your seat-belt and get ready for a big year.”


If you were looking for a team to join and you weren’t fussy about the code, you’d have to consider the Pentecostal Christians. They’ve had a dream run over the past 30 years and there’s nothing to suggest that their form is fading. Quite the reverse. They’ve never looked more confident, more energetic, more ambitious. They talk like winners. They walk like winners. They’ve got their eye on the big prize. There are more than a few people now who wonder whether the God squad, given the right conditions and the right support, can’t wipe the table here in Australia.

A year ago, we would have been laughed out of town for putting up such an idea. While the bishops and cardinals of mainstream churches had at least name recognition in the mainstream media, the leaders of Australia’s fastest-growing churches were largely invisible.

Australian Pentecostal churches, even the very large ones, were then still operating in a parallel universe. Houston acknowledged as much when I interviewed him for a profile of Zschech for this magazine six months ago, though something in his manner implied a breakthrough was imminent. That was shortly before Family First, which is to all intents the political arm of the Assemblies of God, of which Houston is national president, launched itself into federal politics.

When voting was over and Family First had won a place in the Senate, politicians started openly staking faith claims. When John Howard dismissed his parliamentary colleagues for the summer break with a strong product endorsement for the Christian religion – “the greatest force for good, progress and dignity of the individual in this nation” – and encouraged those who held that view, as he did, to express it, no one batted an eyelid. In a year, much has changed.


Let’s put it into context first of all. Australia isn’t a godly country. The Pentecostals may have collared the market in public religion, shifting its political position from left of centre to the right, but their raw numbers are still comparatively low (200,000) and the league they’re in – organised religion – is shrinking, as it has been for decades. The mainstream churches are in a “psychological pit”, says Alan Nichols, acting director of theology for the Evangelical Alliance.

Philip Hughes, of Melbourne’s Christian Research Centre, fixes on the big picture, and in it, religion and spirituality are but specks. (In a major 2003 survey which asked Australians about their important guiding principles for life, they ranked a spiritual life and being devout at 20 and 21 respectively out of 22.)

However, the average Australian isn’t so much godless (73% identified with a religion in the 2001 census) as unchurched (only 9% reported going to a place of worship every week) – and is quite happy to leave it that way, says Monash University sociologist Gary Bouma. Marion Maddox, whose new book God Under Howard tracks the rise of the religious Right in politics, says that “Australians who have no religious commitments are often very willing to see religion as desirable for other people”. That’s the dynamic behind the growth of small Christian schools, she argues. They’re seen as standard-bearers for values and stability and moral clarity. “It’s not that as a nation we’re getting more religious; we might be getting more censorious and more ready to entertain the idea that religion is a disciplining force,” she says.

The Boxing Day tsunami overwhelmed the end of a year in which God cranked up his presence in public life to a level not seen in 50 years. While most religious leaders resisted the temptation to use the devastation as a teaching tool, not so the Anglican Dean of Sydney, Phillip Jensen. He opined that disasters were a sign of God’s pending judgment. He was howled down, but the evangelical Anglicans’ most trusty provocateur hit his mark. The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell, followed through a month later. If Jensen had clumsily touched a raw nerve, he wrote in a weekend newspaper, it was partly because Australians were unwilling to recognise God as a personal judge. God was back, he said. As if we didn’t know by then.

Family First’s performance in the federal election was Australia’s big wake-up call, and it caught most of the country napping. A lot of people struggled to find a context for a political party marching squarely behind God’s banner. Secularism has been wrong-footed by history, as David Brooks, a “recovering secularist”, wrote in The Atlantic Monthly. “We’re living through one of the great periods of scientific progress and the creation of wealth. At the same time, we’re in the midst of a religious boom … Moreover, it is the denominations that refuse to adapt to secularism that are growing the fastest, while those that try to be ‘modern’ and ‘relevant’ are withering.”

Of all the faiths, Christianity is growing the fastest on the back of Pentecostal or charismatic revivals around the world. David Barrett’s statistics in The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements put the worldwide total of Pentecostal church members in 2000 at 523 million … found in 9000 ethnolinguistic cultures and speaking 8000 languages. American religious studies professor Philip Jenkins has estimated that by 2050, 1 billion of the estimated 3 billion Christians in the world will be Pentecostals. Not bad for a church brand that was kicked off at the turn of the 20th century.

Pentecostal churches are slippery creatures for outsiders to come to grips with. They don’t group themselves as, say, Anglican or Catholic churches do. In Australia, there are multiple brands – Assemblies of God, Christian City Church, Vineyard, Bethesda Ministries and Christian Revival Crusade and so on, and then there are the mainline churches with a strong evangelical or charismatic bent. For example, a big church which is nominally Baptist or Anglican or Uniting might actually be part of the team. While outsiders might not recognise who belongs, insiders have no such trouble. “The men and women in my mobile would be all different denominations but they think about church in the same way,” says Phil Baker, pastor of Perth’s Riverview Church and president of the Australian Christian Churches, the umbrella organisation for 1500 Pentecostal churches in this country.

Typically, they thumb their noses at the watered-down, liberal attitudes of the mainstream churches – for instance, they have a zero-tolerance policy towards homosexuality and sex outside of marriage. The pastor of Paradise Community Church in South Australia, Ashley Evans (whose father, Andrew Evans, a previous pastor of the same church, set up Family First in the state), explained to the ABC’s Compass program how the compliance system works: “We believe that the Holy Spirit is the policeman and that our job is to speak the values, encourage people to live the joyful kind of life we know they’re meant to live and also encourage them to have a relationship with God, and as they do, as they go along the way, God begins to speak to them, ‘I don’t want you to do that’ or ‘I don’t want you to do this’ or ‘I want you to do this’ or, ‘I want you to do that’.”

Lots of people like that. It keeps life simple; they know where they stand. “I would never say that these churches are cults but when that culture is pushed too strong, it has a cultish flavour to it,” says Venn Brown. “I call it corporate Christianity.” His book A Life of Unlearning is an ungrudging account of his corporate experience and the high price exacted for nonconformity. “As far as I’m aware, Pentecostals are not evil leaders,” he tells me. “Their intentions are good and honourable, but they lose their perspective.” Another former Pentecostal leader is much less forgiving. He tells me in confidence: “I don’t see that much difference between the Taliban and [a major Pentecostal church]. It’s just a different weapon, a different team with a different sense of belonging.”

Disaffected Pentecostals often have that bitter edge to their  commentary. Many spend years trying to understand their leap of faith.  Social commentator Hugh Mackay – once an ardent young “fundo” himself – identifies the lure of fundamentalism to young people (the biggest slice of Pentecostal church congregations are between 15 and 30) as “its heady mixture of faith and sex”. When the hormones are racing, “it’s often hard to tell whether the sense of ecstasy is sexual or religious, or a complex blend of the two”, he writes in the latest issue of the Griffith Review. When the ecstasy wanes and the complexity of life reveals itself, a good number of young move on.

There’s a high turnover in all Pentecostal churches. Between 1991 and 1996, 32% of those who attended Pentecostal churches left. But they had even more newcomers – they grew 10% in that period. The charts all point heavenward.

That growth isn’t accidental. For years, the Pentecostals have been building up their church numbers, streamlining their decision-making processes, consolidating their corporate culture – in short, preparing to participate in the life of the nation. They talk openly of their desire for influence – and Guy Sebastian’s win last year in Australian Idol is just the beginning of it.

Adelaide businessman Peter Harris, the federal president of Family First, is promoting a new leadership program run by his Business Generation Ministry International to train young Christians to become “wealth-builders” who dominate the “gate to their cities”. BMGI goals complement those of the Pathfinders Business Management program run out of that Christian City Church’s Oxford Falls headquarters on Sydney’s northern beaches. “God’s will is that we are successful and prosperous in whatever we do,” says Phil Pringle, founder of the global CCC movement, in his introduction to Pathfinders.

Hillsong is in on the business act, too. As is Baker who, over the past four years, has run business-breakfast tours promoting values and leadership. “The church for so long has been campaigning against most people, telling them what they are doing wrong, but we think it is helpful to help them to do life better,” he explains. On his February tour, Baker spoke to 500 at a major city hotel in Melbourne, and 1000 in Perth. The roll-up included Kevin Rudd, Geoff Gallop, the King’s School in Parramatta – it’s networking, stupid. And if that seems unremarkable, then you need to understand the historical context of Pentecostalism in this country. Then you wonder what’s coming next.


Family First founder Andrew Evans has strenuously denied formal links between the major Pentecostal denomination, the Assemblies of God, and Australia’s newest political party, but his involvement speaks for itself. Evans can quite reasonably be called the godfather of the contemporary AOG church in Australia, having presided over the denomination during two decades of extraordinary and unprecedented growth.

The AOG began in Australia in 1937 and for the next 40 years growth was slow. It was a severe, inward-looking church. Women wore no make-up, and dancing and popular music were frowned upon – at one point there was a tract in circulation called “Twenty Reasons not to attend a Sinema”. 1977 was a turning point. It was when Evans, who’d been invited to head Paradise in 1970 and was leading a revival there, took over the AOG movement in Australia, ousting the conservative leadership. He set about transforming the church, with the help of Reg Klimoinok and David Cartledge, pastors in Brisbane and Townsville.

These men looked at what was happening in Korea (Korean pastor Yonggi Cho was invited to address the 1977 AOG conference) and in American churches, and also began mining the corporate world for leadership theory. They discovered the notion of relevance, and overhauled their presentation techniques accordingly. They did an about-turn on contemporary music (old-style churches considered it the work of the devil) and began talking about money and relationships (once taboo subjects) – in other words, they made a play for young people. They benefited from the charismatic renewal of the ’70s and ’80s which swept all Christian churches, but was tolerated by few outside of the Pentecostal movement.

The charismatic renewal is largely over though it’s still part of the DNA of the Pentecostals. The last burst was the Toronto Blessing in 1994. What’s hot now is the message of prosperity, and success. “I don’t think it is necessarily as bad [as it’s made out to be],” says Shane Clifton, a teacher at Southern Cross College, the oldest seminary for AOG pastors in Australia. “It’s an emphasis on human flourishing.” Baker, who says Riverview doesn’t preach prosperity, puts it this way. “We do preach that if you have a purpose bigger than yourself, you are well leveraged to do well beyond yourself.” You could call it the gospel of aspiration, and if you were a politician, you might find a lot to work with there.

The rapid growth in church numbers led to changes in church structure made in the name of efficiency. Frank Houston, Brian’s father, who had moved from New Zealand to Sydney and set up a church in Waterloo in 1978, was the first to do away with the traditional congregational government which he portrayed as “not Biblical” (making the case that the early church was governed by apostles and elders, not the membership). With power now concentrated in the pastor and his board, the culture of team-building kicked in. Big churches set up their own in-house Bible colleges to strengthen their culture. If the old congregational governance was cumbersome, it also provided a forum for criticism.

These days, criticism may be interpreted as negativity, and negativity translates as something wrong in a believer’s relationship with God (it gets that personal).

“[When I was in the church], whenever I had doubts and questions and conflict, I would always say, ‘How could I be right and all this be wrong,’ “ comments Geoff Bullock, a popular Christian songwriter who left Hillsong church abruptly in 1995. “So much of fundamentalism is people saying they haven’t got the confidence to question … putting their faith in someone else’s faith.”

There are dissenters, of course. Peter Downes, an ex-Anglican pastor,leads a church in Lilydale in semi-rural Victoria which is part of the US-founded Vineyard denomination. It’s usually counted as Pentecostal, but Downes (who heads Vineyard in Australia) doesn’t identify with what he calls the “behave, believe and you will belong” image of Pentecostalism. Most of those who come to his church would fail the Pentecostal lifestyle check. None is wealthy. Many are still sinners – they’re drug and alcohol abusers, or living otherwise ungodly lives.

The church itself is a humble show: tables and chairs rather than miles of aisles. People don’t visit by the busload, but from his church alone over the past nine years have come seven new churches, and he expects to “plant” 20 to 25 in the next decade. “We invest in people’s lives very strongly,” he says.

Many of the big showstopper churches would now say the same, though it’s only in the past five or six years that the broader Pentecostal movement has looked beyond the church walls. The new push is social services – again, as Clifton puts it, with the deliberate intention to make the churches relevant to Australian society for the sake of proclaiming the gospel. Tony Ryan, a former Catholic who spent 23 years in the IT industry before joining the welfare arm of 1100-strong Whitehorse Christian City Church in Box Hill a year ago, is engaged in typical old-school church business — fixing up desperate families with food and housing, helping broken souls through tough times after drug rehab or prison. He doesn’t push his Biblical values down his clients’ throats but many of them want to talk about God. Why? They’re trying to get their lives back in order, he says, and “they have talked about everything else, and it’s got them nowhere”.

Talking about God, of course, is not the exclusive preserve of Pentecostal Christians. It’s just that they’re the ones we’re hearing most loudly at the moment. Their message is getting through in a way it hasn’t before from places they’ve never been before. Places of influence. When Harris and Victorian Family First senator-elect Steven Fielding addressed the National Press Club last November, they spoke like victors. Their tone was defiant, proud. They claimed to be able to mobilise tens of thousands of people and to build relationships with all dimensions of society.

Maddox takes a distinctly chilly view of the increasing visibility of the hand-clappers’ God in politics. It bodes badly for the poor and the meek, and justifies the tactics of those already well placed to inherit the Earth. “If you are wanting to promote a corporate ideology that says, ‘Don’t worry about the environment, let’s just maximise profits’, what is better than an ideology that says, ‘It doesn’t matter because Jesus is coming back soon anyway’,” she says. “Or if you are looking for a political situation that is most conducive to the growth of corporate power, and the concentration of capital, then what could be a better ideology than one that says, what we need are leaders who are successful, and you can tell who God’s chosen leaders are because worldly success is a sign of divine favour.”

These are fighting words, but as Maddox and others see it, Australians need to get smarter about religion’s potency in the social and political mix. The current surge of interest in fundamentalism may be no more than a form of social protest against rampant materialism and hedonism, as Mackay suggests, and as such may well abate as Australian society settles into a more conservative cycle. But this is not just a local phenomenon. It’s a bit like the collapse of the Berlin Wall, says Melbourne academic and author of The Spirituality Revolution, David Tacey. “Western culture is coming out of its secular phase but is not quite sure how to express its religious longings.” Pentecostals are not going to involve the majority of Australians, he believes. They are still trying to find their spiritual voice, to have religion without winding the clock back 50 years. It’s their desperate signals which Howard and his treasurer Peter Costello are picking up and which gives the religious Right its confidence.

But Venn Brown’s desire is expansionist, too. It’s that the Pentecostal church embrace gay men and women as fellow believers. He doesn’t run around with a rainbow flag. He sits in the congregation at Waterloo and worships. That’s enough. “If I want to live in a world where a gay person is able to go to church without fear of rejection or being judged, then I have to do that. My role is just to be a gay man with a relationship to God.”

Buckle up your seat-belt and get ready for a big year indeed.