Inside our Pentecostal PM’s church
As Australia’s first Pentecostal PM, Scott Morrison will worship this Easter in the fold of a fast-growing Christian movement that’s starkly different to many of its counterparts.
By Jacqueline Maley
APRIL 20, 2019
The heavens have opened, but Jackson the youth pastor will not let us get wet. It’s a Sunday evening in late March, and we have arrived in southern Sydney’s Sutherland Shire – known to locals as “God’s own country” – to attend a 6pm service at the Pentecostal Horizon Church, the church where Scott Morrison worships with his wife, Jenny, and their two daughters. We’ve missed the Prime Minister; he attended the 9am service today. But Jackson is here. He bounces up the pavement to greet us, protecting us from the autumn rain with his large umbrella and dazzling smile. It gleams through the gloom.
“Hi guys!” he beams, bringing us in under the umbrella. “I’m Jackson! Pretty wet tonight, hey! Remind me of your names again?”
This is our first time at Horizon, which describes itself as a “Christ-centred, Word-based, Spirit-led church in the heart of the Sutherland Shire”. Jackson delivers us, dry, to an ascending staircase at the entrance of the church, an unprepossessing building that looks more like an office block than a place of worship. A series of upbeat, hyper-cheerful, super-smilers continues to greet us, all the way up to the first floor, where one of the church’s senior pastors, Brad Bonhomme, stands at the door. Brad also leads with his teeth, erupting into a smile as he welcomes us.
We wander into the foyer, a brightly lit, fashionable space with a coffee nook in the corner. It’s brimming with congregants. The evening service is targeted at young people and everyone is wearing some variation of a well-dressed hipster uniform: jeans, designer trainers, Brooklyn beards and sleeve tattoos. A personable, middle-aged blonde swoops, smiling. She introduces herself as Heather and batters us with hyper-friendly questioning: how far have we come? Where did we drive from? Have we attended Horizon before?
When I and my companion confess to being journalists, the smiles do not falter. Pastor Brad directs us immediately to the church’s media manager, Kristy, a pretty blonde woman with a soft floral scarf floating around her neck and a brilliant, bone-white smile. Kristy tells us we are welcome, that the church is open to the public, but asks us to respect it as a place of worship.
She walks us into the church’s auditorium, which can hold up to 1000 worshippers. It is dark, with coloured concert lighting and stage smoke. A large curved stage takes the place of an altar, and there is none of the usual Christian iconography you would expect in a church. Behind the stage is an enormous screen that lights up over the next hour and a half, with the lyrics of the Christian contemporary songs performed by the five-piece band, advertisements for Horizon Church activities and programs, and prompts about the various ways you can give the church money. A card placed on our seats also lists “giving options”. You can donate via direct-debit or credit card, or set up a tithe, which siphons regular payments directly out of your bank account. You can connect to Horizon via app, Facebook or Instagram. There is also an old-fashioned bucket, which is passed along the aisles twice during the service.
Sound technicians in headphones check levels from a podium in the bleachers. On stage, the band plays, and a troupe of five 20-somethings sings about Jesus. The atmosphere feels wholesome and upbeat, like an audition round for Australian Idol. Everyone in tonight’s 300-strong congregation is super-excited to be here, and already a throng of young worshippers crowds the stage, swaying and clapping to the music, their faces upturned to the singers. Some hold their hands out. Kristy directs us, smilingly, to a seat next to a friendly, burly bloke called Warren, who looks to be in his 40s. Later, when I check the church’s website, I learn Warren is a member of its leadership team – its missions director – and tonight the preachers are raising money for its overseas missions in Cambodia and Papua New Guinea.
“The PM was sitting in these very seats this morning!” Warren says, shaking my hand. “Welcome to Horizon!”
We’ve only been here 10 minutes, but already it’s clear there’s no slipping into this church to worship quietly, unobserved, in a back row. There is nothing quiet, and certainly nothing traditionally churchy, about Horizon, or about Pentecostalism, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “any of a number of Christian movements emphasising baptism in the Holy Spirit, evidenced by ‘speaking in tongues’, prophecy, healing and exorcism”.
The service resembles a cross between a Christian youth group concert (albeit one with extremely high production values), an Anthony Robbins seminar, and what I imagine a team meeting at an Apple store would look and sound like: full of photogenic 20-somethings, all highly motivated to help. The band plays two upbeat numbers, with the crowd singing along, then downshifts to a long, low crooning song with repetitive lyrics that mimic those of a teenage love ballad, except that Jesus has been subbed in for the love interest. The crescendo to “Oh, I don’t want no blessing Jesus, I just want you” throws some of the young worshippers into a trance-like state, swaying and rocking with their hands held high.
Soon the band segues to jazzy background music for the entrance of pastor Brad. He bounds onto the stage with a microphone, wearing ripped blue jeans, a red checked shirt and pristine white sneakers. He throws up a hand in greeting, and when he speaks, he borrows from the Prime Minister’s phrasebook. “How good is God tonight?!”
Scott Morrison is Australia’s first Pentecostal prime minister, and his sudden and unexpected ascension to that position last August has thrown a spotlight on this church movement, which is fast-growing and especially dedicated, compared to other forms of Christianity. Morrison’s rise has also raised the profile of his church, so much so that Horizon’s media management strategy seems to be on lock-down. Requests from Good Weekend to interview Brad, or any representative of the church, are politely declined.
The Horizon Church, and Pentecostalism, don’t need the publicity anyway. Pentecostalism in Australia is on a tear: Australian Bureau of Statistics figures reveal the number of Pentecostal church members increased from nearly 220,000 in 2006 and 238,000 in 2011 to 260,500 in 2016. While the Catholic Church still has the highest number of weekly church attendees, the Australian Christian Churches, the mainstream affiliate body of Australian Pentecostalism, had become equal second in 2011 alongside the Anglican Church.
Over the past decade, Pentecostalism in Australia has grown by 30 per cent, despite the overall Christian population dropping 4 per cent. About 400,000 Australians attend a Pentecostal or charismatic church each week. Perhaps most importantly, while congregations of all other Christian denominations are ageing, the average age at Pentecostal services is 39. According to Kristy, the median age for Horizon worshippers is in the mid-20s.
Despite this wildfire growth, little is known among the wider public of Pentecostalism, beyond vague clichés about “happy clappers” and the practice of speaking in tongues, a form of ecstatic worship Pentecostalists engage in. It is said that Pentecostalists emphasise the Second Coming of Jesus, believing it imminent, and that they are big on the battle between the devil and the forces of good.
There is speculation about whether Morrison has had an adult water baptism, as many Pentecostals do. Some wonder how much his faith has informed his position on everything from same-sex marriage to immigration policy and corporate tax cuts. Leaked footage of Morrison at a Pentecostal church in Albury last October, praying for rain during the drought, was seen by some as evidence of the dangers of blind faith over science. A recent article by James Boyce in The Monthly on the Prime Minister’s religion made the bold assertion that “Pentecostalism is in fact the perfect faith for a conviction politician without convictions”.
Morrison, whose office did not respond to an interview request for this article, has said that the Bible is “not a policy handbook”, and that his faith is “not a political agenda”. When asked by ABC broadcaster Julia Baird in 2011 what it means to be a politician who is a Christian, he said, “It informs, you know, your world view”. He expanded thus: “It enables me, you know, to have, to identify some very clear values which I think are informed by that faith … I think there are important moral and righteous sort of issues that are highlighted. There are important justice issues which are highlighted. There are important compassion issues that are highlighted.”
Morrison, of course, strongly opposed same-sex marriage, and abstained from voting on the final bill in 2017 after his electorate voted “Yes” by 55 per cent. After the postal survey, he proposed an amendment to the same-sex marriage bill allowing parents to remove their children from classes if “non-traditional” marriage was discussed. The amendment failed. In 2018, when rugby union player Israel Folau was widely condemned for saying gay people would go to hell, Morrison said: “He’s a good man. Good on him for standing up for his faith.” (He did, however, describe Folau’s social-media attack on homosexuals earlier this month as “terribly insensitive”.) One of Morrison’s first priorities as Prime Minister was to open a discussion about laws to protect religious freedom, which he said were necessary to “safeguard personal liberty”. Morrison argued public schools should not curb Christian traditions. “That is our culture,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. The narcs can leave those things alone.”
So what exactly is Pentecostalism, which is populated by such happy people, is perhaps a little bit secretive, and which many Australians are still somewhat suspicious about?
Professor Stephen Fogarty, president of Alphacrucis, Australia’s leading Pentecostal college, says there is little doctrinal difference between it and other forms of Christianity, but there are differences of emphasis and style. “Pentecostalism is a contemporary expression of Christianity … It’s more experiential and less intellectual than some of the older expressions of Christianity. There is a quest for an immediate encounter with God in worship. The Pentecostal church service tends to be a bit more free-flowing. It has emotional songs. The speakers are not pitched solely at informing you; they’re trying to move you.” Fogarty is a poster-boy of ecumenicalism. He was raised a Catholic, studied at the Anglican Moore Theological College, and is now Pentecostal.
Pentecostalism draws its name from the Pentecost, the holy day which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the 12 apostles, and belief in the Holy Spirit is central to the faith, much more so than in other Christian faiths. Pentecostals believe being filled with the Holy Spirit is somatic, a supra-intellectual experience that is felt in the body rather than processed in the mind. Joyful music and dancing help you connect with it, and when you are filled with the Holy Spirit, you may speak in tongues.
“Pentecostalism is literally a bodily experience of the Holy Spirit – miracles, awe, the sense of God,” says Tim Costello, the head of World Vision and an Australian Baptist minister.
Pentecostalism has been around in Australia since 1908, and its early history was associated with female leaders – according to Fogarty, by 1930, 20 of the 37 Pentecostal churches were established and led by women. The 1960s and 1970s saw a surge of growth for Pentecostalism in Australia, and the rise of the Australian charismatic mega-churches, the most famous of which is Sydney’s Hillsong, founded in the 1980s, which has franchises all over the world. Hillsong members have been courted by Australian politicians of all persuasions over the years, from former Liberal treasurer Peter Costello to NSW Labor ex-premier Bob Carr. The modern face of Australian Pentecostalism is young, hip, middle-class, affluent and well-educated, so much so that it has been dubbed “cool Christianity”.
“They’re fun and fashionable and the pastors are really young,” says Professor Cristina Rocha from Western Sydney University. Rocha is president of the Australian Association for the Study of Religion, and has extensively researched the attraction of Pentecostalism, particularly to young people, and how its ideas have become global, booming through Latin America and Asia.
Rocha points to the phenomenon of “seeker churches” that are almost secular in their outlook. “They establish a bridge between the religious and secular worlds, so it’s not weird to go in there,” she continues. “They have a cafe, and a bookstore, and celebrity pastors. It’s very sleek, more like a corporate building, they follow a business model of excellence and leadership. They don’t talk openly about the devil and negative things.” Most importantly, says Rocha, seeker churches are fun. “The music is very important. That is where you have this experience, in your body, in the Holy Spirit of God. They emphasise strength and self-reliance; that’s why you had Brian Houston doing push-ups on stage at the Hillsong conference at Olympic Park a few years ago.”
Brian Houston is the founder of Hillsong and a friend of Morrison, who famously thanked Houston in his maiden speech. Both Horizon and Hillsong specialise in the “cool Christianity” which has drawn in everyone from pop star Justin Bieber to actor Denzel Washington and, well, our Prime Minister. Horizon was established in 1949 and has been through many name changes since then. In 2000, it was renamed Shire Christian Centre, and it moved from being an unincorporated body to a company. In 2006, it was “rebranded” as Shirelive, with a further name change to Horizon Church in 2016.
Morrison was raised in Sydney’s eastern suburbs in the Presbyterian-Uniting Church faith by his policeman father John (who served on Waverley Municipal Council for 16 years) and mother Marion, and found the Pentecostal faith as an adult. He became involved in Horizon when he moved to the Shire following his preselection for the seat of Cook in 2007, and subsequent election as an MP. At that time, Horizon’s pastor was Michael Murphy.
Last year, after Morrison assumed the prime ministership, Murphy was interviewed for the Christian website Eternity News.
“We had a desire to help and support political leaders no matter their political persuasion,” said Murphy. “We knew most of the federal and state members. Bruce Baird, who was the local member before Scott, was a close friend. So the relationship between Scott and I was kind of a natural thing, and for our church to embrace him and Jen when he was just a backbencher. And we started the journey from there.”
In 2016, Brad Bonhomme and his wife, Alison, were appointed Horizon’s senior pastors. Horizon has two companies: Shirelive and Shirelive Property. Shirelive reported $1.8 million in gross income last financial year, and Shirelive Property reported just over $1 million in gross income. In both cases, the large majority came from donations and bequests. Income tithing is common among Pentecostals, although Horizon did not respond to questions about it. The church building itself is valued at $13 million, according to the 2017 financial report of Shirelive Property.
Back at the service, the drummer has produced a drum brush and the music has gone jazzy. Brad directs us to the prayer cards on our seats; some congregants turn to their phones to read along on a Bible app. He segues between talking to the crowd, which answers him with affirmations like “Yeah!” and “Preach it!”, and talking directly to God. “At Horizon Church, we believe that God answers prayers!” Brad cries. “We pray for people’s hopelessness! We thank You for our blessings! Nothing is possible without You! With God, all things are possible.” This is at the heart of what is called the “prosperity gospel”, a strong concept in Pentecostalism and one which stands in contrast to more ascetic styles of Christianity, which hold that it’s “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God”.
Associate Professor Andrew Singleton, a leading religion sociologist from Deakin University in Victoria, says Pentecostals believe God is actively interested in the everyday. “They have a very individualistic philosophy,” he says. ” ‘God is for you. God is interested in you, God wants you to be successful, not just materially but in your relationships,’ etc. The prosperity gospel is this idea that God would seek to reward you not just in the afterlife, but in this life.” Hillsong’s Brian Houston wrote a book two decades ago titled You Need More Money: Discovering God’s Amazing Financial Plan for Your Life. Singleton says Pentecostals are “not wedded to that prosperity doctrine, and it’s a bit out of favour”.
The ‘prosperity gospel’ is a strong concept in Pentecostalism, one which stands in contrast to more ascetic styles of Christianity.
Shane Clifton is a former professor of theology at Alphacrucis College. He describes himself as “post-Pentecostal”. He now worships at a gay-inclusive Pentecostal church, but it is one that other Pentecostal churches might not recognise. Clifton, who is married with children, is not gay himself, but felt uncomfortable with the views of mainstream Pentecostalism on homosexuality, which it deems as a “broken-ness”, a favourite Pentecostal word.
He says Pentecostalism’s popularity with younger generations can be put down, in part, to fun. “They’re not singing theology, they’re singing to enjoy the freedom of worship, and have fun and praise God,” he says. “It’s young, trendy music, it’s attractive to young people, where mainstream Christianity has aged itself out of existence.” Clifton says the Pentecostal style of preaching is focused on issues from everyday life. “Less ‘Let’s look at the Book of Mark’. As a general rule the messages are going to be addressing everyday life, and generally they are more positive. Hellfire and brimstone preaching isn’t common.”
However, the Australian Christian Churches (ACC) website (to which I am directed for questions over Horizon’s doctrine) makes clear that hell is a real prospect for Pentecostals, and that the Second Coming is a central belief. “We believe that God wants to heal and transform us so that we can live healthy and prosperous lives in order to help others more effectively,” it reads. “We believe that our eternal destination of either heaven or hell is determined by our response to the Lord Jesus Christ. We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is coming back again as He promised.”
Horizon did not answer specific questions on whether its members speak in tongues, but the ACC website says, “The Holy Spirit enables us to use spiritual gifts, including speaking in tongues which is the initial evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit.” Morrison told The Australian Women’s Weekly last year that he does not engage in the practice himself.
Former Pentecostal preacher Anthony Venn-Brown, who was once married with children and later came out as gay. “You can’t be out and proud in Pentecostal churches,” he says.
Former Pentecostal preacher Anthony Venn-Brown, who was once married with children and later came out as gay. “You can’t be out and proud in Pentecostal churches,” he says.
Anthony Venn-Brown was once married with children, and a Pentecostal preacher ordained with the Assemblies of God, the precursor to the ACC. At age 40, it became clear that all the years of gay conversion therapy he had as a young Pentecostalist hadn’t worked. He fell in love with a man and had to resign his ministry. Venn-Brown later wrote a book about his experiences, and now he heads Ambassadors and Bridge Builders International, an organisation created to foster connections between the LGBTI community and religious organisations. He says that attitudes towards LGBTI people have softened within Pentecostalism, although homosexuality still isn’t accepted.
“In the congregations themselves you will find people who have gay or transgender colleagues or family, and they don’t believe those people should change,” he says. But at the church leadership level, homosexuality is regarded as “not what God wants for you”.
“You can’t be out and proud in Pentecostal churches, and that’s the bottom line,” he says. “If you do come out and have accepted your sexual orientation, you are seen as promoting your sexual orientation.”
Alphacrucis’s Fogarty says Pentecostalism is “socially conservative” when it comes to issues such as homosexuality and abortion. “We don’t think homosexuality is some special sin, or abortion is some special sin,” he says. “In the Bible, lying and stealing are all sins. We do aspire to the ideal … of a man and a woman in a lifelong monogamous relationship.”
I ask what would happen if I came to him as my pastor and told him I was gay, or that I wanted an abortion. “I wouldn’t condemn you, but I would say that there are other options. We are for the traditional Christian notion of the sanctity of life and the ideal of human sexuality being heterosexual. Some [churches] would be much more open and accepting but in general, hoping that through their influence, they could help that person to see the Biblical ideal.” He pauses. “If we are completely honest,” he says, “we will try to promote an ideal which is Biblical, but the application of that ideal is varied and I don’t think there is going to be much attempt at conversion of sexual orientation.”
Back in church, pastor Brad draws our attention to the “Hello” cards on our seats, on which you fill in basic personal and contact information. He then tells us about the “beautiful coffee machine” that has just been installed in the foyer. He, however, is on a coffee detox and hasn’t had a cup in nearly a week. The crowd cheers and claps him. “That’s an amazing feat, right?” he says. “My teeth are whiter all of a sudden!”
He smiles, to confirm it. “They’re like, gangsta, man!” He directs the congregation again to the “giving options available on screen”, then breaks into prayer. “We pray for the Sutherland Shire!” he begins. “We are always looking beyond ourselves, always looking to make a difference in people’s lives!” The giant screen behind his head advertises “Church n Chill”, a hang-out session after tonight’s service, and finally, he booms across the crowd: “Have you enjoyed church tonight?”
As the congregation breaks up, young people bounce and bound and, in one case, literally skip out the door. It seems that they have.
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