Archives For Hillsong

I’m not sure who to address this open letter to. Open letters, as a medium, allow opinions to be voiced from an individual for the people addressed, but the point of the genre is that it provides some sort of benefit for the “public” – the reader, as well as the addressee.

I thought about making this an open letter to Hillsong. But who am I to tell another church how to do their business. I’m barely out of nappies as far as this ministry caper is concerned. So I decided I’d try addressing the people we have in common – the people who live around us.

There will be people who say I should’ve sent this straight to Hillsong, without making it open. And I would’ve, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how to contact the relevant people at Hillsong. They’re not exactly transparent on that front. I will tweet them. It is also hard to provide criticism on the basis of “thought” when the well on that front has been poisoned in the sermon. More than once. Apparently trusting God’s word means not really grappling with it all that hard, unless you’re one of the few who can “rightly divide” it (2 Tim 2:15). So much for the priesthood of all believers. I’m also pretty sure that the people who watched our little group at Hillsong assumed we weren’t being moved by the Spirit, because we weren’t moving with the crowd. We weren’t responding to the talk the way we were called to. So I felt uncomfortable talking about the talk with anybody there tonight.

But I want to assure you, if you’re from Hillsong, that I, with meagre powers, love Jesus. He has captured my heart, and my head. And I offer this humbly as a suggestion that something was missing from Hillsong tonight. Something pretty big. Essential even.

Dear Brisbane,

I’m not an expert on Hillsong, or what goes on there. I’ve been once. Once was enough.

I’m not the emotional type. I’m, I hope, a relatively typical Aussie bloke. But I do go to church. Lots. I work for a church as a student, I’m training to be a minister. A few weeks back, when I was going through a pre-delivery critique of one of my sermons, someone suggested it lacked a little passion. I wondered a bit about whether or not I’m passionate enough about the gospel. I wondered whether I really do get excited about the cross. I wondered if I should be more like my brothers and sisters at Hillsong. None of this really matters. Except that I’m a typical person and I want to make where I’m coming from pretty clear. I’m no more or less special than the average church goer, but I am in a position to have some idea what should happen in church.

I try to give people a fair hearing. I try not to judge others. I’m not very good at this. We’re all a package of our prejudice,  our personalities, and our inherent self importance. So I fail. But I do try to be not just objective in how I assess things, but charitable. Using a standard that I hope is objective, and a standard that I’d want applied to me in return.

Let me declare my “bias” – I’m not a pentecostal, in part because I’m not an emotional type, in part because I’ve been raised in a non-pentecostal setting so I have a natural inclination towards non-pentecostal expressions of Christianity, and in part because I’m a more rational type and I have problems with some pentecostal accounts of theology and the human experience. I love my pentecostal brothers and sisters in Christ – and I think we have much to learn from them about loving people, serving people, seeking justice, and many many lessons in terms of connecting with society and not avoiding “cool” as though the gospel is purer if we’re not working hard to connect it to people. In fact, we were there tonight to learn from Hillsong. We wanted to learn about how to look after new people (hint – it’s not taking pot shots at people who aren’t physically expressive, who sit with their arms crossed, or are “intellectual” about their faith – three of the points from tonight’s sermon). Their production values are excellent. Their music is excellent. Their people are passionate, and warm, and care about changing the world – and they do something about it. Starting local, but thinking interstate and global too.

My problem is not with Pentecostal theology. My problem is not with the music, or the production values, or the social justice, or the passion of the people. My problem with tonight’s service is not with pentecostal theology – it’s with what I think is a failure to do what church is meant to be on about. Something that in no way undermines any of the great stuff that happened at Hillsong tonight.

So here’s what I think the church gathering should be about, because I think the church gathering should reflect what unites the church who are gathered, and the church that has gathered and will gather since Jesus, and until he returns.

Jesus.

Jesus, the God who created the world made flesh. Made human. So that we can know God.

Jesus, the son of man, the son of God, who went to the cross and was executed like the scummiest of criminals. Because when it comes to God’s standards we – humans who aren’t Jesus – are the scummiest of criminals. He died our death so we could live his life.

Jesus. God’s “word” to humanity. God’s communication to us. The one life that sums up what the whole Bible is about.

Church is about Jesus. Church is a gathering of people brought together by Jesus, for Jesus. Broken and imperfect people. Like me.

Any time someone gets up in a church and doesn’t talk about Jesus it’s a wasted opportunity. It’s worse, in my opinion, than getting up in the political sphere as a Christian and not talking about Jesus. If you’ve read my criticisms of the ACL  you’ll understand something of my feelings on this front.

The reason I’m writing this is that I went to one of Brisbane’s biggest churches tonight. A church that is part of one of the biggest networks of churches in the world. A mover and shaker in the church business. And apart from a few cursory references, and a couple of verses in a couple of songs, Jesus wasn’t spoken about. Jesus was there in name. And he was there as guarantor of our happiness and victory (effect), but he was absent as cause. He wasn’t there in the sermon underpinning the promises the Bible makes about humanity. And he should have been. And I’m sorry. Brisbane. Because people need to hear about Jesus.

Hillsong promises all sorts of good stuff for people who get on board with God. And God is powerful, like they say. But God demonstrates his power at the cross of Jesus. Power in humility. Strength in suffering. Honour in shame. Victory in sacrifice. The cross isn’t a message of triumph like we might understand it in human terms. It’s a message of triumph in subversion. It turns the world upside down. Victory, for the Christian, is cross shaped. It’s not shaped like the life we want to have. It’s shaped like the life Jesus had. Sacrifice for others. Discomfort for others. Voluntarily.

Tonight I went to Hillsong. The talk was about Psalm 149. Verse 6 of Psalm 149 that is. A verse that in the words of preacher Steve Dixon, is where the Psalm pivots from being about praise, to being about God’s word.

God’s word is important. We can’t know God without it. I’m not sure you can jump straight from one use of the word “sword” into every mention of the word “sword” in the Bible.

“May the praise of God be in their mouths
and a double-edged sword in their hands,”

But we went from here to Hebrews 4. Via a long description of the functions of swords through the ages. Why the function of swords in the Middle Ages and Scotland and in knighting people today was worth a significant chunk of time was a bit beyond me.

12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

A great verse. A powerful verse. God’s word is alive and active. It is powerful. It can upend lives because it upended the world. It created the world. It holds the world together. That’s what Hebrews 1 says anyway. And it equates God’s word with Jesus.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

The talk didn’t go there.

At one point, in a bit of ironic demonstration of why some actual Bible study is a good thing, Steve Dixon talked about the difference between the two Greek words for word. λογος (logos) and ῥῆμα (rhema). Logos, he said, rightly, is the notion of the whole counsel on an issue, the final word, the comprehensive word, the wisdom on a subject… But apparently that’s too much for our little human brains to comprehend. We can only deal with rhemas. Small parts of the logos given to us by the Spirit in particular moments. That sounds great. But it’s not really true. Because we have access to the full wisdom of God in Jesus. Here’s how John puts it. In chapter 1, verses 1 and 14.

In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

We can know the Logos. It’s mind blowing. But it’s true. We need to know God’s logos. The words or utterances spoken by God aren’t enough. The whole counsel is. We may not ever grasp it fully. We are finite, God is infinite. We may only grasp it from utterances (rhema). But God’s word is Jesus.

The worst part of the rhema v logos logic is that Hebrews 4, when it talks about the word of God it says “the logos of God.” Probably worse still, in terms of setting up some magical interpretive distinction between the two is that the Hebrews 1 passage above uses rhema. For something much bigger and grander than a small word applied to an individual. The logic just doesn’t stand up.

And if you’re going to talk about the power of God’s word to transform lives – any transformation of lives begins with Jesus. And it begins at the cross. The word (logos) of God that is living and active is Jesus, who speaks words that are powerful (rhema). There is no word of God without Jesus. There is no point talking about the word of God’s impact in our life without talking about Jesus – and that’s where tonight failed. It was all about the power of God’s word spoken into the lives of people, but it wasn’t about Jesus.

The transformation God works in human lives is through Jesus… not just through the words of moral wisdom found in the Bible. Which is, as much as I could tell, and I was listening pretty hard, the message of tonight’s talk. If we live by the words we find in the Bible it’ll change our life for the better. We’ll suddenly become passionate worshippers of God and the world will change through our actions.

It sounds nice. And the Bible is full of wisdom. Living the words of the Bible will make you a healthier, wealthier, and wiser, person. Probably. Until something goes wrong in your life – like your selfishness or the selfishness of someone else gets in the way. Or until you get the gospel and realise you’re called to sacrifice for others and to be prepared to suffer as you take up your cross and follow Jesus. As you give up your life. As you suffer well. As you die well.

It felt a lot like the talk had 1 Corinthians in the background – especially in the anti-intellectual bits.

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

That’s a powerful account of the usefulness of intellectual endeavour without God. But the next bit is more important.

21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

There wasn’t any of that preaching tonight. If there was it was so implied that I didn’t get it. I was listening out for it. I was waiting for it. I could feel every fibre in my body tensing as it became clearer and clearer that a long sermon was going to go by without God’s word being linked to Jesus. I was collapsing in on myself hoping against hope that we’d get to John 1, or Hebrews 1, or any presentation of the gospel.

Here’s a challenge I have for Steve and for any other Hillsong people who find this post via their google alerts, or Twitter… listen back to tonight’s sermon. Listen for anything that might point someone to the gospel. To the foot of the cross. To Jesus, the word made flesh, not simply to Scripture as a handbook for life. Scripture is Scripture because Jesus said it testified about him, and he showed he was God by coming back from the dead. Without him it’s just some old text. It is living and powerful because it centres on the cross. The pivot point in human history.

Steve used the example of two hypothetical people in the congregation who might respond to his talk in different ways – by fully physically engaging in worship, as he suggested the Psalm called us to, getting out of their comfort zone and giving themselves over to God, or by sitting back, arms folded, unchallenged and unmoved.

Jesus doesn’t care about how high you lift your arms, or how uncomfortable the self-aware bit of your psyche is when you are praising him. He cares about the condition of your heart – and sure, responding to Jesus with your whole being is part of responding to your changed heart. And the passion and social justice stuff Hillsong and churches of its ilk get into is fruit of a changed heart. I have no doubt about that.

I’m not a hypothetical listener. I’m not a sermon illustration. I was there. In the flesh. In the second row. I could’ve walked out at the end of that sermon insulted (I was sitting with my arms crossed apparently a sign that God’s word wasn’t engaging me), and that would’ve been sad, I could’ve walked out of that talk no clearer on who Jesus is, and that’s a tragedy. But I walked out angry. So at least Hillsong promoted a passionate response from me. I’m thankful for that. But mostly for Jesus.

So dear Brisbane, if you go to Hillsong and it isn’t clear what they’re on about in the sermon, or why they’re singing with such passion. Please ask someone. I’m sure they’ll be able to tell you. Then ask them, given how amazing the gospel is, why it isn’t front and centre every week in everything they do. It might be other weeks, it wasn’t this week.

Regards,

Nathan

I feel dumber for writing anything about this 15 minute journalistic monstrosity from A Current Affair last night. But on the same night John Dickson was presenting Christianity in a positive light on Q&A, the knives were out for Christians, and churches, but mostly Hillsong, on Australia’s least reputable tabloid television show.

The Chaser team has done a pretty good job at showing why A Current Affair isn’t really worth watching or engaging with over the years. But I’m a sucker for things that make me angry. So I’ll bite.

There was not one redeeming feature about this feature. The reporting was bad. The production was bad. The story was bad. The subject was bad. The Hillsong they presented in the story through a montage of sermon footage, interview footage, and interviews with parishioners was bad, the overt campaigning for a particular political objective without really featuring any view to the contrary was bad, and the logic behind that campaign was bad, and the Jesus presented in the story was bad.

It was bad. The worst bit of the bad bunch, I reckon, was the complete lack of anybody from the church – congregation members or staff – talking about the significance of Jesus beyond the (presumably material) “blessing” being a follower of Jesus brings, and the “Jesus said feed my sheep” stuff from the soup kitchen minister was almost equally bad.

That a story on national television can feature the line:

“There’s money to be made from Jesus. Lots of it.”

Makes me a bit sick.

Lets break this story and its problems down three ways – the problem with the story, the problem with Hillsong, and the problem with the alternative vision offered by Bill Crews and his Loaves and Fishes restaurant.

The problems with the story

I’m further and further away from being able to call myself a journalist every day – it’s a long time since I finished my degree, and a long time since I did anything that looked like journalism – if you can count the hours of unpaid work I did in newsrooms as journalism. It’s not so long since I last did paid PR work, which I guess is a bit like journalism. That was Friday. Of last week. I guess I’m saying you should take what I say here with a grain of salt – because I have a professional interest in journalists not being objective. When I do PR, I want them telling my story, and not focusing too hard on alternative views.

Or do I?

Not really. I want journalists to be telling truth. So I want to be telling them the truth. And telling the “other side” the truth. And letting people decide what the truth is.

Fundamentally, and this gets me in trouble all the time because I’m rubbish at keeping secrets – I believe that there’s a certain type of information that wants to be free. It’s not always my job to tell information – and I’ll largely respect that – but I‘ll almost always encourage the person who shares an unknown truth with me that the best way to either rob that truth of its negative power, or maximise its positive impact, is to get it out there.

I had a theory, back when I was writing about things that people were a bit more interested in, or things that were a bit more controversial, that it actually served my case to let my “opponents” see my hand, but to play it relatively forcefully. There was a group that formed in opposition to something my organisation was lobbying for, and for one reason or another, I gave them a bunch of stats from a report we had been basing our work on that hadn’t been publicly released – because if the numbers didn’t add up, we wanted to know about it. We didn’t want to be pushing for something that wasn’t really a good idea. We had nothing to hide.

Anyway… this is a pretty long preamble to suggest that the people driving the agenda driving this story – be it the journalist, his sources, his interviewees, or whatever lobby groups are pushing this legislation that’ll remove the tax protection from religious organisations, aren’t doing their cause any favours by being so sloppy with the truth. Be it by picking Hillsong as representative of the church in Australia (it’s an outlier when it comes to church size, operating budget, and reach), or by picking sources who obviously have an axe to grind but aren’t really all that qualified to be making the statements they’re making, or by not presenting valid alternative views, or by so obviously editorialising when it comes to the pejorative adjectives used and the cliched graphics and sinister music employed to make a point.

We’d be better off, I think, sitting down with the numbers, hearing from Hillsong about how they use the money, hearing from sociologists or legislators, about the contribution, or lack of contribution that churches make to public life and what justification they might have for providing financial benefits and protection for churches…

Objectivity isn’t necessarily about balancing two competing accounts of truth, you’ve got to give the right amount of weight to the right perspectives – a vox pop interview with a few joe averages off the street isn’t a more credible voice than someone who has devoted their life to studying something, that’s Australian egalitarianism/tall-poppy syndrome gone mad… objectivity is created by collecting data, then asking, and answering, the big questions about the data fairly, carefully and professionally.

This story was not objective. It was a pretty awful piece of propaganda.

Here, I think, is the central thesis of the story, as a direct quote… from the journalist, Ben McCormack.

“Hillsong takes advantage of an antiquated piece of legislation which says that if you’re a religion it’s the same thing as a charity so you don’t have to pay any tax.”

The bolded bits indicate where the lack of objectivity hits. The italicised bit is where I think the whole exercise falls down a bit – the real question he should be asking is whether all the aspects of Hillsong’s business model meet the religious element of that law.

Now. He’s in a bit of trouble here, I think, when it comes to trying to overturn this “antiquated piece of legislation” in the ordinary business of a Christian church – which one might define as preaching the gospel, and encouraging Christian living by pointing people to the example Jesus sets on the cross.

From what I can gather, there’s actually not yet any definition of charity legislated in Australia (it seems there’ll be one from July 2013), there’s some case law though, this a bit of a court judgment cited in an appropriately titled Commonwealth Charities Definition Inquiry:

“There is no intrinsic legal definition of a charity. As a matter of technique, Courts can only describe the attributes of charities. And the essential attribute required is that a charitable activity must seek the public weal; or, to put it another way, a charity is not concerned with the conferment of private advantage.”

Say what you want about Hillsong – and we’ll get there – but Christianity, in its essential form, is not interested in conferring private advantage, it’s about encouraging people to give up material advantage to take up a cross, and follow Jesus. Sure – like Brian Houston says in a clip from the sermon – we hope for heaven in the future, and that’s an advantage… but it’s hard to argue that it’s a private advantage.

He’s in more trouble because that’s not entirely the truth – religions aren’t protected because they’re charities, religions are protected because they’re religious groups. Here’s some more from the Charities Definition Inquiry (chapter 30) about what the present, and future situation here looks like:

“Since the Commonwealth enacted the first comprehensive income tax statute in 1915, an income tax exemption has been available to a distinct grouping of entities known collectively as `religious, scientific, charitable or public educational institutions’…

Its [a religious institution’s] objects and activities need to reflect its character as a body instituted for the promotion of some religious object, and the beliefs and practices of the members must constitute a religion.

Charities falling under the head of `the advancement of religion’ would also meet the requirements for a religious institution. (In Chapter 16 the Committee recommends that the `advancement of religion’ should continue to be a charitable purpose.)”

Whoops. Seems the facts aren’t quite what the story suggested. It took me a couple of minutes with google to find that out.

You could ask if Hillsong’s music and publishing arms are promotions of a religious object, and you’d probably find that since, well, the Bible, and perhaps the book of Psalms, that music and publishing are pretty essential to promoting Christian beliefs.

Adam Shand their “expert” (as in, that’s what they called him, I’m not passing judgment on his expertise) on this tax exemption front, had this to say:

“Every year more than $30 billion leaks out of the tax system to these not for profits, at this time when we’re in these deficit budgets and we’re seeing hospitals, roads, schools, their budgets being cut, this is money that could go towards that, and I don’t think it would harm Hillsong or any of these other churches to pay their fare whack, like anybody else does.”

This quote annoys me on a bunch of levels. It draws a bunch of disparate and largely unrelated strands together, and assumes the church is a drain on, rather than a contributor, to society in terms of the services it provides.

Hillsong makes a huge percentage of its revenue from after tax donations that don’t benefit the people making them in any way. They’re not tax deductible. People are directing the money they’ve already paid tax on to a cause they care about, and it’d be just as easy to support that cause “off the books” – they could give Hillsong $28 million worth of tinned soup if they thought that was the best way to see their religious cause – the mission of Jesus – advanced.

Huge sums aside, if Hillsong is a not-for-profit, and it is legitimately engaged in a Government approved activity, where presumably they see some benefit flowing through to society, the tax revenue isn’t “leaking out” – it’s not even tax revenue.

I had some other issues with the story.

The “tax free” refrain, coupled with a red rubber stamp, was, frankly, cheap and pointless.

The “why are these guys tax free if they’re not doing charitable work?” question wasn’t answered, or even asked, presumably the government has access to the same stats as some ridiculously bad television tabloid journalist.

Tax Free

 

My other issue was that for large chunks of the story it wasn’t clear why the people being interviewed were being interviewed.

I’d hope that most people can’t be bothered watching this sort of trash for more than 5 minutes, but investigative journalist Adam Shand, who time and time again was the man the not-very-investigative journalist Ben McCormack turned to for expert opinion wasn’t actually introduced or given a title until 7 minutes and 40 seconds in. The other source, Anti-Hillsong campaigner Tanya Levin was briefly introduced about four minutes in. These two appeared on the screen time and time again, and it would have been the easiest thing in the world to provide a superscript with their names and titles on it – but this wasn’t done. We really had no idea how credible they were as sources. Bill Crews from the Exodus Foundation wasn’t introduced until almost the end of the story, he was clearly clerical, and critical, and wholesome, charitable, and good – but this was, in my opinion, a poorly produced and presented story based on shoddy reporting and horrible research.

Which is why it was on A Current Affair. I guess.

What’s the Problem with Hillsong

I’m fairly convinced that the legal processes that are in place are appropriate, and that Hillsong, as a big and wealthy church is well and truly on their radar, and I don’t think Brian Houston had any reason to lie when he wrote this response to similar media interest in 2010, and I think this media release is a largely helpful response to the story.

“It is a fundamental right of every person to support organisations of their choice and many who are a part of our church community – just like other Christians – freely choose to give of their time, resources and finances to ensure that the church is able to fulfil its mission of bringing hope to the world through Jesus Christ.”…

We have always recognised the need to be accountable and transparent and produce an annual report that is available publicly. The figures given by ACA were taken from publicly available ASIC records which we lodge annually and were presented in isolation simply to suit the program’s agenda; however the facts are very different. We operate an open book policy whereby congregation members are welcome to make an appointment to inspect the audited financial results of the church.

It wouldn’t surprise me if ACA didn’t contacted Brian Houston for comment, this is the sort of story you react to immediately, rather than waiting to respond on your website…

My problem with Hillsong is that despite making moves away from the prosperity doctrine being their core thing in recent songs and stuff – I’m willing to cede that to them – when members of their congregation are interviewed about life as part of the church you get stuff like:

“I’ve seen much much more blessing than I could ever have if I didn’t give that 10% of my income to God.”

And it’s unfortunate that there seems (and again, it’s quite possible that the picture of the service you get in the story isn’t accurate) to be such an emphasis on money in their services – there certainly wasn’t a shortage of money material for the story to draw on.

It’s a massively unhelpful thing for the rest of us that the biggest church in Australia seems to be on about money, prosperity, and blessing, as much as they’re on about Jesus. Even if that perception isn’t reality – some deliberate work on overturning that perception is required.

I’m not really interested in questioning this stuff though, I am interested, like Hillsong, in the “bringing hope to the world in Jesus” thing (as a non-pentecostal, I think they, like most pentecostals ‘over-realise their eschatology’ which means they bring to many promises about the future for Christians into the present, and ‘under-realise the place of suffering’).

What irks me is that the alternative proffered to Hillsong’s flashing lights and rock show is the ascetic “give everything to the poor” approach to ministry advocated by Bill Crews.

It’s true that Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything he had and give it to the poor – but the next bit of that instruction, the “follow me” was really where it was at for that guy. The problem with Crews, and it taps into the problem with the story itself, is the idea that the gospel itself doesn’t help people. My guess is that the parishioners interviewed in the story understood that this is how their money helps people.

Knowing Jesus helps people. So when Bill Crews sets up a dichotomy between “helping the poor” and other activities of the church, he’s ignoring the huge imperative for the Australian church to work with the spiritually bankrupt.

“If it doesn’t go to help the poor the amount of money that goes in should be taxed… it’s a business just like anything else.”

I’m with Bill that we’re meant to be like Jesus. I’m with Bill that what Jesus says about money should frame how we think about money. I’m with Bill that the way Jesus thought of his responsibility to the poor should influence how we help the poor (I think Hillsong is with me, and Bill, at this point)… I just don’t want to limit the way Jesus wanted the poor to be cared for to literally feeding them – that has to be part of the mix, but it can’t possibly be all of the mix.

Here’s how Jesus talks about his ministry to the poor in Luke 4.

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The good news was that he had arrived as king. That he died, was buried, and was raised – and that this confirmed that he was king, and gives us victory over death… and the promise of life with him, in the new creation, where there is no poverty, sadness, or oppression – nobody taking advantage of people, imprisoning them, or being generally nasty. And sure. We’ve got to let that future reality shape how we live in the present… but we’re ultimately going to be shaped by the cross. Sacrificial love for others, at any cost, so that they might be set free to.

Bill is loving people in a radical way. A necessary way – but so are those who preach the gospel (especially when they also love people in a radical way). The “feed my sheep” line that Bill uses  in the interview is what Jesus says to Peter when he’s reinstating him after he denied him before he was killed in John 21, I’m struggling to figure out how it applies to a soup kitchen without first applying to teaching people the good news.

Ben McCormack was unhelpful again when he said “Brian Houston does a lot of talking, while Bill Crews does a lot of doing” – they’re equally essential parts of being a religious organisation, especially a Christian church, and doing what the government expects us to do when they give us tax free status.

A way forward

Briefly, now, because this post is already too long. If transparency isn’t the answer – and it doesn’t appear to have protected Hillsong from stupid journalism, and if stupid journalism undermines our ability to be on about the gospel clearly… then at some point it’s going to be easier for us to talk about Jesus unhindered if we don’t just pay tax, but campaign for the laws to be changed, not in our favour, but against our financial interests.

That might be the price we have to pay so that we can be seen to give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give God what is God’s.

I have no plans to plant a megachurch. Imagine the administration hassles. But I am an armchair megachurch planter. And here are my ten steps based on my observations. I have studied (some might say rigorously) five different megachurches at various stages of the developmental process – form megachurch megastar Joel Osteen to the New Calvinism’s Mark Driscoll. Lest you be concerned, the essential steps to growing your megachurch (based on my observations and my list), don’t seem to require any mention of Jesus.

  1. Be improbably good looking and well presented. Lets face it. If you’re not good looking there’s no chance the TV stations are going to want to interview you about anything. If you’re not blessed with natural good looks you can always get surgery. Self improvement is the first step down the road to success. You need to be good looking so that you can plaster your face all over the covers of your books and your church website. It doesn’t matter what doctrinal bent you come from. As the pictures below demonstrate (yes, they are all pastors – can you name them?).




  2. Marry an improbably good looking woman so that you can talk about your “hot wife” – This is also important because all the single guys will listen to you wondering how you managed to, to quote an Australian beer ad, punch above your weight. Here are the wives of the improbably good looking guys above. This is also really important when it comes to preaching the annual series on sex that all Megachurches must have in order to stay edgy, relevant and controversial.





  3. If you’re not a good looking guy with an equally (or slightly better looking) wife then you should resign yourself to just running an ordinary church. If you are good looking then here are the rest of the steps…

  4. Pick a suburb or sub culture – also known as an audience, target market or mission field. Contextualise like crazy. If your sub-culture is a group of inner-city gothic vegetarians then dress like they do – but eat meat to show that this is an issue of preference and conscience. To be a megachurch you either need to be in the subculture but not of the subculture, or you need to present that to which the subculture aspires to…
  5. Come up with a name for your church – Here you have three choices – you can choose an edgy buzzword, a relatively obscure Biblical reference, or a buzzword based on a relatively obscure Biblical reference. This choice should be made subject to the availability of the web domain. I would call mine “Buzzword Church”. Here are the names of our five case study churches.
    • Mars Hill Church
    • The Village Church
    • Elevation Church
    • Lakewood Church
    • Hillsong
  6. Come up with position titles – This one isn’t that hard. You’re either Pastor (your name) or some sort of edgy non-Biblical name that makes people feel comfortable. If you go down the pastor line you also need to distinguish yourself from your colleagues with a reference to your particular role.
  7. Pick some venues – Did someone say multisite? Your sites need to be far enough apart that there are clear suburban boundaries so that you can selectively allocate new families to the appropriate multisite location (or campus) just like the public schooling system – but close enough that there isn’t a change in demographic.
  8. Hire a marketing team – you’ll need a graphic designer (Image Pastor), a publicist (Media Pastor), a web developer (IT Pastor), a marketing manager (Evangelism Pastor) and a social media strategist (Community Pastor). Just to start with.
  9. Build a functional and edgy website – there are two design aesthetics you can choose from that cover every possible sub culture. Grungy or Minimalist with a feature image/sliding gallery (preferably featuring a picture of someone raising their hands). This choice is largely cosmetic – you can even combine them. What matters is your ability to “convert” in the web marketing sense – you need to turn casual visitors into podcast subscribers. Once you’ve built a substantial base of podcasters you can hit the lucrative conference circuit. There you get to hang out with a bunch of other improbably good looking “Lead Pastors” from your theological persuasion.




  10. You can gain megachurch style points by having your own personal website too. You get extra points if your own website outranks your church website when searching for your name, but lose points if the .com version of your name belongs to someone else (I’m looking at you Mark Driscoll, and you Brian Houston).


  11. Set up a publishing/recording company – You need to share your thoughts with the whole world. This sort of notoriety is good for your brand at home and abroad. A publishing arm will help get your initial tomes off the ground, and hopefully get money coming through the doors in the long term. If your writing is sensational enough it will generate a buzz.  A recording arm will encourage talented musicians to join your church – having the added bonus of improving the quality of service. This will also help to justify your outlay on the best AV equipment available. God hates bad sound. And podcast video needs to be as clear as possible if your missional agenda is to gain traction in the global market place.
  12. Stir up controversy – Part of being a successful Megachurch planter is creating the buzz that comes with being a megachurch. To achieve this you need to pick some touchy issues to be passionately outspoken about. You can recant about these later (or become more passionate). The point is to get your name blogged about lots. The ridiculously good looking people above have the following impressive results when you google them
    • “Mark Driscoll”: 313,000
    • “Joel Osteen”: 722,000
    • “Steven Furtick”: 45,300
    • “Brian Houston”: 121,000
    • “Matt Chandler”: 367,000

If at first you don’t succeed – Pull up stumps, blame God (or the Devil), reassess your marketing strategy and go back to step 3. Unless you decide that you aren’t actually really, really, ridiculously good looking. But even then there’s hope. You just have to wait until you’re old and austere.

So the Hillsong takeover of the Garden City Church is in full swing – with the church to be renamed: Hillsong Brisbane Campus.

The Houstons are turning their global domination strategies back to Australian shores and focusing on “multisite” expansion – ala Mark Driscoll.

Here’s how the previous minister of Garden City felt about the expansion – this is an excerpt of an article in the SMH today:

Garden City’s senior pastor for eight years, Bruce Hills, was forced out before the arrival of the Houstons. Garden City Christian Church announced Mr Hills’s resignation in December, amid criticism that the church was not growing enough. Yet in an address to a Christian conference at Easter, Mr Hills revealed he had a nervous breakdown last September. “Emotionally I just imploded,” he said.

When he returned from eight weeks’ leave, Garden City Christian Church elders told him: “We’d rather have more of a CEO leader than you. We’d like you to resign.”

Describing it as “the deepest, darkest experience I’ve ever been through”, Mr Hills said he was “really angry about what these people had done”.

Steve Dixon, who has been acting pastor at Garden City since Mr Hills’s resignation, will now be “campus pastor” of Hillsong Brisbane.

I love the way this church – and Hillsong – have been so caring and compassionate to their leader. Very biblical. Especially the bit where they sacked him because the church was not growing enough… I assume they mean numerically, because this would certainly indicate a level of spiritual immaturity.

Oh, and Craig reckons they’re now a denomination. In completely unrelated news – have you ever noticed that you only have to switch one letter in denomination to make it demonination? That would be a Freudian slip if ever I saw one…

Hostile unity

Hillsong has taken over the Garden City Church today. They were voted in by the members – but not cleanly. According to Ten news anyway…

It raises an interesting question about how much ownership a minister should have over their flock – and whether churches should ever be considered a “commodity” – surely Hillsong could simply have purchased their own block of land rather than launching a wholesale takeover.

If I were the current minister I’d be feeling a little ripped off having been turfed out just because a Sydney brand wanted somewhere to expand.

So the large Hadron Collider has been turned on. While I may have spent yesterday running around yelling “Panic Panic!!!” and singing Muse’s Supermassive Black Hole… they’re not actually colliding any serious particles until later this year.  

The idea, for the unconcerned among you, is to recreate the conditions of the big bang by colliding particles travelling at close to the speed of light. The intention is to find the Higgs Boson or the “God Particle” – how Mr Peter Higgs name became synonymous with God is beyond me.

When you perform a task of this magnitude a lot of nut cases come out of the wood works – there’s a group convinced the experiment will create black holes which will destroy the world. They made a youtube video – which I haven’t seen so won’t link to. There are crazy Christians who seem a little concerned this will somehow “disprove God” or help atheists in their thinking. And then there are the stupid, ignorant atheists – perhaps my favourite group in this situation who provide comments like this on the news.com.au forum:

“I love how 99% of the negative comments about the LHC are all from Christians. I’ll Believe Physics, thats been proven, over christianity, which hasnt been proven, anyday…Christians: Look at it from a ignorant christian perspective. They are spending 11billion to prove that God created the earth. Meanwhile i dont see Christians spending money to prove that Science didnt create the earth..” – Alex from Adelaide.

Thanks Alex for your valuable insight.

Christians do not argue that science didn’t create the earth because to do so would elevate science from a study of observable phenomena to a sentient being able to perform the act of “creation”.

My other favourite was this one:

“The church must be soiling itself waiting for the day that scientists proove there is no god and that we were created from the big bang and they have the hard and fast proof. The biggest business in the world “the church” will be bankrupted. Unless of course religion can actually proove god exists. Science will have the hard and fast proof very soon. Posted by: Andrew of Australia

Andrew is obviously pretty angry at the church – angry enough to make a claim about science’s ability to prove or disprove the metaphysical.

Atheists, in the main, are a fairly ignorant lot, often influenced by militant atheists to “believe in science” as some form of religion. Here’s the thing Alex, and other atheists out there, us Christians also believe in science. Some Christians even engage science as a weapon (think Creation Science Ministries or whatever those guys call themselves). Scientific outcomes are driven by starting hypotheses – and these are driven by the organisations funding the research. Science is not an objective entity. Science is a broad church. The reality is that science is now driven by ideology and commercial imperatives more than any church I know. Throw money into the mix and see what sort of “scientific findings” we can come up with. Most churches are driven by a goal to spread the gospel – for free. Most churches I know are “not for profits” and their “wealth” is tied up in physical assets used for the cause. Would you have churches meet in our “public” school buildings Andrew?

Not if the Sydney Morning Herald has its way. I’m no Hillsong apologist – in fact I have massive problems with their “prosperity” theology and their music, and and endless list of other gripes that I won’t go into. But this article on public schools as secular institutions being no place for any form of religion is dangerous and stupid. It’s also the worst piece of ideologically driven journalism I’ve seen for a long time, and it belongs in the opinion pages – not the news.

Quotes from the article below:

“A teacher at one public school said students had returned to class after an Exo day concert complaining about attempts to convert them, while the Federation of Parents and Citizens’ Associations says it is an attempt to sneak evangelism into schools and reveals the need for new laws.”

“The NSW Education Act says that “instruction” at public schools must be non-sectarian and secular except in designated religious education classes.”

“A spokeswoman for the Federation of Parents and Citizens’ Association said religious recruitment in schools was inappropriate. “We need to ensure that children when they go to school aren’t exposed to discreet evangelism,” she said.”

I would think that an opt in program clearly run by a church group openly trying to promote the bible is hardly “discreet evangelism” or “instruction” or an attempt to “sneak” evangelize.

Rack off lefty scum

The title of this ‘ere little post is stolen from perhaps my favourite piece of Junior Liberal’s propaganda – perhaps only marginally beating Liberals: We put the fun into funding cuts. The current batch of Liberal slogans ala “go for growth” are a little to obscure, obtuse and obviously written by geriatrics for me to get excited – but (segue) one thing that is sure to get me excited, one thing that’s sure to raise my ire, is the nu-left trendy hippy intellectually self-congratulatory latte pinko lefties. That’s right – the kind of people who when they hear that I – due to the AEC’s stringent and altogether too rigorous attempts to cut the yoof out of the polls and restrict the chances of messy electoral change – am not voting at this election and respond by saying “good, we don’t want your conservative vote anyway” – they’re the one’s who really raise my hackles. Let me tell you a thing or two about these self absorbed commies who go running around with their commercially mass-produced Che Guevara t-shirts extolling the evils of economic rationalism while enjoying their imported South American coffee, French art house films and hydroponic cones… they trumpet idealism and moral superiority, call on the government to end poverty, global corruption and anything resembling “the machine”, “the man”, or “globalisation”… What really gets me is their hypocrisy – their complete inability or lack of desire to put their money where their mouth is. And I mean that literally. Sure be a hippy, smoke your dope, call for a removal of inhibiting laws, the woman’s right to choose to terminate her unborn child’s life, make dope legal, build injection rooms, feed the hungry, water the trees, save the whales…protest against globalisation, protest against free trade, protest against war. But don’t ever let your personal convictions get in the way of your pleasure and comfort. These wacko lefties claim to be all about social justice but the ideologues aren’t prepared to reach into their own pockets (except through taxes) to support anything except the “save a panda” foundation which is just marginally trendy enough to score kudos with their stoned John Butler loving friends. Climate Change and saving whales are in vogue with those of the environmentally superior – but they’re bandwagon jumping, cause loving anti-establishment fiends who’d support the extermination of a people group if the government was against it and decry it as fascism when the government endorses it. Ok – that was pure hyperbole and exaggeration. My point is this – before you, my lefty friends go decrying me and my “conservative Christian” friends who happen to be generally supportive of public morality being maintained in the guise of “law and order” – as callous, unfeeling bigots, be prepared to defend the fact that while you spend your money on Hare Krishna “smile” stickers for your combi or whatever it is you drive these days, and sign your name to whatever Greenpeace petition is thrust in front of your face, us “conservatives” are out practicing the theories of a freemarket economy and donating to worthy charities designed to bring people out of poverty. For ever barb you chardonnay swillers throw at Hillsong for counselling young, pregnant women against having abortions, they’re donating real money to causes like getting people off the street and into jobs. You whinging dole bludging “arts graduate” wannabees are much too busy fighting for intellectual causes to actually address the physical reality.