Hillsong: Songs of praise ”” and politics
July 3, 2005
JANA WENDT: The word ‘church’ hardly seems to describe Hillsong, which looks more like a convention centre for God’s delegates. Today its 18,000 Pentecostal Christians represent the largest congregation in Australia.
BRIAN HOUSTON, HILLSONG CHURCH: Perhaps the reason why we’ve been effective and have grown so much simply really is we’ve put it into a contemporary context. I think it’s answering questions in a very relevant way. I try to speak to people’s Mondays, not just their Sundays.
JANA WENDT: Worshipping at Hillsong is made as comfortable as possible, with volunteers helping to park the thousands of cars that roll up for services. If caffeine is your vice, you can order a long black at the coffee carts installed outside by a popular coffee chain. Security guards keep a watchful eye in case of unwanted visitors to the house of the Lord, a house made rich in part by the enormous international success of Hillsong music and its chart-topping hit songs.
RT REV ROBERT FORSYTH, ANGLICAN BISHOP SOUTH SYDNEY: Now that shows, I think, the strengths and weaknesses of this form of Christianity. What remarkable pizazz, what a wonderful way to reach people, a memorable name, that’s Australian known, right? At the same time, you think ‘Hillsong’ is a funny name for a church.
JANA WENDT: It certainly made sense to this family, Richard and Jo Lhurs, along with son Daniel, daughter Deborah and boyfriend Michael, are members of Hillsong. The family moved to Sydney from Queensland expressly to be part of the booming congregation.
RICHARD LUHRS: The whole family were committed to the church, and there was something about Hillsong that was special and we wanted to be a part of that long-term.
JANA WENDT: Jo, do you know what that something special was?
JO LUHRS: It actually just felt like we’d come home.
JANA WENDT: Hillsong and its fellow Pentecostal churches now boast the second-largest number of churchgoers nationwide, almost 200,000 a week, second only to the Catholics. But while Catholic Church attendances have dropped by 13% in the past decade, the Pentecostal congregations have grown by 30%.
RICHARD LUHRS: My core beliefs are that salvation comes through believing in Jesus Christ and I believe that God wants us to be lights of the world, so not just… Basically one of the core beliefs is I’m not saved for myself but for others.
JANA WENDT: What does “giving God your all” mean to you?
JO LUHRS: Just, like, with your mind, giving him all in your worship, giving him 100%.
JANA WENDT: Despite its popularity, Hillsong draws more than its fair share of flak. Its style is seen as more American than homegrown. And far from encouraging a modest lifestyle, Hillsong is a church that celebrates success. Since the last federal election, it’s attracted even greater scrutiny, especially from the ALP, which has probed the $800,000 in grants that its charities have received from the Federal Government in the past five years.
BRIAN HOUSTON: I actually try not to be distracted by who may or may not be my enemies. I think that perhaps a large church, an influential and growing church, may threaten the agendas of some people. But I really, really do try not to get too distracted by that, because I know what I’m called to do, I’m called to build the church.
VOICE-OVER: Don’t miss the ‘Jesus is My Superhero’ DVD.
JANA WENDT: And that church is expanding, with offshoots in London, Kiev and others planned for Berlin and Moscow.
VOICE-OVER: Phone now and order ‘Look to You Today’, or visit hillsongtv.com.
BRIAN HOUSTON: The church is there to make a difference, so if we’re just going to be conducting church the way it was in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, or even the 1990s, I just believe we can sit back and watch the church go into steady decline until it has no relevance whatsoever.
JANA WENDT: The traditional churches, meanwhile, remain just that, traditional, delivering their solemn liturgies, often to shrinking congregations. The drift towards the Pentecostals has churchmen like the Anglican Bishop of South Sydney, Robert Forsyth, eyeing off the ingredients that go into Hillsong’s success.
ROBERT FORSYTH: Growing churches are big belief churches. That is, it’s worth your while, you’re going to meet God, you’re going to have your life changed, not vague and vapid moralisms or sort of watered down political statements from the pulpit. That’s not going to grow a church.
JANA WENDT: There are undoubtedly more exclamation marks than questions in Brian Houston’s message.
BRIAN HOUSTON: I know who I am, I know what I’m meant to do, I know who’s going to help me to do it.
JANA WENDT: Often described as one of this country’s most influential church leaders, he’s also taken his message directly to MPs in Canberra, where he’s addressed what’s known as the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, organised by Liberal Bruce Baird.
BRUCE BAIRD, LIBERAL MP: And some people liked him, some people didn’t. But he gave an interesting talk, yeah. Somebody who’s got the biggest church in Australia, you need to listen to.
BRIAN HOUSTON: It should be shocking. Is there anything shocking? Shocking?
JANA WENDT: Brian Houston’s preaching style is showcased on network TV in Australia and broadcast in another 120 countries around the world. He built up Hillsong with his wife Bobbie starting from scratch 20 years ago. Hillsong’s modest beginnings were the starting point for what’s become a very, very successful enterprise.
BRIAN HOUSTON: Our total income last year was, I think, $40 million. Now exactly how much of that was donations, I’m not sure. But you’ve got your donations, you’ve got your conferences and then the Hillsong music arm, and different sources. The important thing for me is that obviously it’s a non-profit organisation.
JANA WENDT: And he’s not alone. All over Australia, Pentecostal mega-churches, usually run by husband and wife teams, have sprung up. Among them, the high-profile pastor Phil Pringle, at his Christian City Church, which even runs business courses.
PHIL PRINGLE: How many of us need a new day, like in your money, in your finances, how many would like to have another shot at it?
JANA WENDT: But the attitude of the new churches to money is more controversial. Their detractors claim they preach what has become known as the “prosperity gospel” ”” the more you give, the more you get.
PHIL PRINGLE: Jesus is coming to this world to give you the keys to success.
JANA WENDT: Something that rankles with Brian Houston, who points to his church’s charitable and fundraising efforts, whose contributions to tsunami victims in one weekend alone reached $500,000. But media reports usually focus on his material possessions.
BRIAN HOUSTON: I just find it really interesting that sometimes people will give more space to my watch and my motor bike than they will to that huge, huge impact the church is having on people’s lives.
JANA WENDT: Yet Houston’s attitude to money was spelled out in his own book with the snappy title, ‘You Need More Money ”” Discovering God’s Amazing Financial Plan For Your Life’. A book, which he’s now withdrawn from sale.
BRIAN HOUSTON: Looking back at it now, it was a purposely provocative title. I think I might as well just have painted a bullseye on my head in some ways.
BOOK EXCERPT: “We have to become comfortable with wealth and break the bondage, guilt and condemnation of impoverished thinking.”
BRIAN HOUSTON: It’s about resourcing your life to make a bigger difference. The real message is not personal wealth, it’s personal effectiveness.
JANA WENDT: What does “personal effectiveness” mean?
BRIAN HOUSTON: It means that all of us… I don’t believe any of us are Christians for our own selfish purpose. I think we’re Christians to make a bigger difference, to help people, to lift the lives of people.
RICHARD LUHRS: Money isn’t the root of all evil, money can help. Like, you look at the tsunami again, money was a great help for those people, wasn’t it? A lot of money was. So what’s wrong with a lot of money if it’s helping people?
BRIAN HOUSTON: Why don’t you give him a big warm welcome as he comes to greet us tonight?
JANA WENDT: Success, of course, is a powerful magnet. So it was hardly surprising when in the lead-up to the federal election Treasurer Peter Costello accepted an invitation to address Hillsong’s annual conference at Sydney’s Superdome.
PETER COSTELLO, TREASURER: I’ve addressed a few audiences in my time, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one with the enthusiasm and the commitment of tonight’s gathering.
JANA WENDT: It was seen by some as a meeting of minds ”” the Liberal Treasurer welcomed into a church which is itself an economic success story. Others read it as a dangerous liaison between church and state.
PETER COSTELLO: To be frank with you, I didn’t see that as a political occasion. I saw that as an occasion for me to reaffirm my, my belief in the fundamentals that make a society strong in front of a lot of people who share that belief.
JANA WENDT: Is he there because he shares their values, do you think, or because everyone out there in the audience was a potential voter?
BRUCE BAIRD: I think, if he was honest with himself, it’s a bit of both. I mean, obviously, a crowd of 20,000 you can’t ignore. But he also shares their values. I mean, he is a conservative politician with a religious background.
BRIAN HOUSTON: You see, it all comes back to knowing who you are in Christ.
PETER COSTELLO: I think there’s probably an orthodoxy in what they preach that makes you think that they really do seriously believe the Christian faith. You can go to some of the established churches and come away with the feeling that sometimes even the preachers don’t really believe in the orthodox faith.
JANA WENDT: Hillsong is part of the Assemblies of God, or AOG, which is a grouping of Pentecostal churches. They believe that the Bible is the literal word of God and that the Holy Spirit bestows on them certain spiritual gifts, including speaking in tongues. Where do you stand on the issue of creationism and evolution?
BRIAN HOUSTON: I believe in creation. I guess you would call me a fundamentalist in the sense that I believe that world view, for me, comes out of my belief in God, belief in his Word. And then I was watching the television news and it said that tonight Mr Howard has been speaking to President Bush and to Tony Blair, and I thought, “Isn’t it incredible, in the middle of such a big week, that he would take the time out to come to Hillsong Church and open our building?” So give our Prime Minister a big warm welcome.
JANA WENDT: Prime Minister Howard was also invited to Hillsong, and at a very sensitive time. Just after the Bali bombings in 2002, John Howard opened the church’s main complex in Sydney’s Baulkham Hills. It all gives rise to the suspicion that the popular new churches are not just relying on prayer, but rather positioning themselves for a political role.
JIM WALLACE, AUSTRALIAN CHRISTIAN LOBBY: This video should make it clear that, as Christians, the preferential system of voting allow us to state our real priority for who we think should be in government.
JANA WENDT: Jim Wallace runs the Christian Electoral Lobby, which promotes traditional Christian values, such as marriage, and challenges any policy moves towards what it sees as threats, such as euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research. He says the Pentecostal churches are turning to politics only reluctantly.
JIM WALLACE: And I do believe that they’re starting to get involved now only because they see the things that they really value, the Christian heritage of our country, the Christian principles of our country, being diminished by what has been years of work by very small constituencies.
JANA WENDT: What are the small constituencies you’re talking about?
JIM WALLACE: Certainly the homosexual lobby is one, the extreme feminists are another, the pro-choice movement. I think there are very, very crafty, very well-planned campaigns by what turn out to be very small constituencies which have, for a lot of years now, influenced public policy against the view of the majority.
JANA WENDT: Liberal Parliamentary newcomer Louise Markus threw Labor out of the seat of Greenway at the last election. Her electorate in the Bible belt of north-west Sydney is close to Hillsong. And in her maiden speech she gave thanks where they were due.
LOUISE MARKUS, LIBERAL MP: Over the last 21 years I’ve been blessed to sit under the teaching and leadership of pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston. Their passion and love for God and people is unmatched. They have taught me to live life large, to live for a larger cause. They have an approach to life that is amazing. To do the best you can, to really influence and impact the world that you live in.
JANA WENDT: The suspicion that the Assemblies of God churches were seizing a political opportunity was raised by the arrival on the federal stage of a new party, just before the last election.
CAMPAIGN WORKER: We do need a party which will be a voice for families.
JANA WENDT: Family First, and its apparent cosiness with the Government, has not gone unnoticed by the ALP. The party was bitten by the rise of Family First, which, in some seats, hit Labor hard.
KEVIN RUDD, SHADOW FOREIGN MINISTER: My fear is that maybe the Family First party is saying to those folk, “Look, if you really believe in God, you’ve got to come over to the Libs, don’t stick with those heathens in the Labor Party.”
JANA WENDT: All of which has left Labor’s foreign affairs spokesman, Anglican Kevin Rudd, adjusting his own principles.
KEVIN RUDD: I mean I’ve been in public life for quite a few years and it’s only in the last six months or so that I’ve started to speak out on these questions, but I think the political reality of what we saw at the last election now demands that we do.
JANA WENDT: Not since the ALP split of the 1950s have faith and politics come together in the federal sphere. The media were taken by surprise at the emergence of an active political party with a connection to a Christian denomination, the Assemblies of God, a connection which was forged in paradise. Paradise, in Adelaide, is a booming Assemblies of God church with an emphasis on music, and some well-known faces come from its congregation.
GUY SEBASTIAN: I guess it’s a matter of people realising that it really isn’t a religion, it’s not about that, but more a relationship with God and something that is about freedom and that is about being at one with God and, yeah, so it’s all good.
JANA WENDT: Another less well-known product of Paradise was its preacher of 20 years Andrew Evans. Like Brian Houston today, he was once the leader of the Assemblies of God churches. Then he had the idea of starting a party to stand up for family values.
ANDREW EVANS, FAMILY FIRST FOUNDER: It wasn’t meant to be a national party, it wasn’t even meant to be a State party. It was meant to be just little old me in my retirement years doing something which I felt would help our State.
JANA WENDT: It struck a chord. In 2002, Evans won the party’s first seat in the South Australian upper house. He campaigns on life issues that mirror the positions of some Christian churches, including the Assemblies of God.
ANDREW EVANS: I reckon there’s a big crowd of people believe what we believe. So when the media go out and attack me for being, say, anti-euthanasia, and they’re saying 80% of the population believe in euthanasia, I says, “Well, 20% will do me, I’ll take the 20%.”
JANA WENDT: The rise of Family First attracted the attention of a scholar who specialises in religion and politics. Marion Maddox thought she had heard it all before from the American religious right’s discovery that not everybody responds to a religious message.
MARION MADDOX, AUTHOR, ‘GOD UNDER HOWARD’: It’s safer to keep religion out of the overt language that you use, so instead of talking about sin or salvation or damnation or things like that, it’s safer to talk about family or tradition or heritage or values or mainstream, those sorts of terms, that nevertheless carry with them an echo of the religious position that they have become a kind of secular shorthand for.
JANA WENDT: The charge that Family First is a front for a brand of Christianity taking its lead from the American “moral majority” has stuck, even though its founding father says it’s ridiculous.
ANDREW EVANS: I’d never heard of or had anything to do with the religious right. I never made any contact, I still haven’t. I haven’t met any of the leaders in America, never read any of their stuff, not got involved with what they’re doing at all.
JANA WENDT: And back at Hillsong, Brian Houston, president of the AOG for the past eight years, says despite the party’s ancestry, it has no links with the church.
BRIAN HOUSTON: I try not to have a political agenda at all when it comes to our ministry and the way we live our lives.
JANA WENDT: But if you rang the PM, would he take your call?
BRIAN HOUSTON: I have never tried, and I would have my doubts, but who knows?
JANA WENDT: Nathan Zamprogno, is a dedicated member of his local AOG church. He was married within the fold and is now raising his son to be part of it. Why do you believe that Family First was so intent on claiming that there was no connection whatsoever?
NATHAN ZAMPROGNO, AOG CHURCHGOER: Because they wanted to find a broader base for their appeal. If they were seen as a solely church-based party then they would only have the same demographic as the Christian Democrats.
JANA WENDT: But Zamprogno was taken aback when, as it launched itself onto the federal scene at the last election, Family First denied any connection to the Assemblies of God, a connection he believes was unquestionably there.
NATHAN ZAMPROGNO: The claim that the church is keeping itself at arm’s length from the political process can’t be plausibly sustained when you have somebody who is a pastor preaching from their pulpit on one Sunday and then putting on another hat and saying they’re a Family First candidate for the Senate.
JANA WENDT: Party founder Andrew Evans also sits on the national executive of the Family First party, more than half of whom are members of AOG churches. New Victorian Senator Steve Fielding was the only Family First candidate to be successful at the last federal election.
STEVE FIELDING, FAMILY FIRST SENATOR: Because we believe in freedom of religion and freedom of speech, freedom of choice, therefore we’ve got no religious agenda. I think the other thing is for people to say we’re an AOG- or an Assemblies of God-based party really doesn’t understand how the church works.
NATHAN ZAMPROGNO: I believe the integrity of the political process and the integrity of the church are both damaged when the entanglements between church and politics become too enmeshed. There needs to be a greater attempt at keeping them at arm’s reach, and if Family First can leave the orbit of the church where they found their genesis, they can achieve that. They’ve either got a bright future or they’re heading for oblivion.
LITTLE GIRL: I pray that you bless the hands that prepared it and bless it to our bodies. In Jesus’ name, amen.
JANA WENDT: At the Fielding family home, they say grace before breakfast and attend a large local evangelical church with a conservative view of family values.
STEVE FIELDING: I think it’s to do with… Children, we believe, are best to be brought up with a mum and dad where that’s possible. And I suppose if you think about it then that automatically means that, you know, same-sex relationships really don’t produce families.
JANA WENDT: In the shark pool of politics, Family First’s guppy fish learned to swim very quickly indeed. They fast worked out that the most valuable pre-election currency is the preference, stitching up a deal to direct preferences to the Coalition in most seats.
JOHN HOWARD, PRIME MINISTER: The important thing is that nobody compromises their principles in order to get preferences and we certainly haven’t done that and I know Family First haven’t.
STEVE FIELDING: I understand that we, certainly, you know, engaged with, certainly, Labor and the Coalition. We approached both parties. One seemed to be more open with the relationship than the other.
JANA WENDT: Family First’s negotiations concluded with a deal with the Coalition to introduce a so-called family impact statement every time cabinet considered new legislation. The arrangement comes into force as Fielding takes up his Senate post.
STEVE FIELDING: I don’t think we need to be nervous about them, I think we should try and embrace them. It’s a little bit like having an economic impact statement, we do that straight away. How much does it cost? Can we afford it? Then we do the environment. Why not do social… it just makes sense. Why wouldn’t you agree to a family impact statement?
PETER COSTELLO: Of course, some of this will be very difficult to manage. Let’s suppose the Government is looking at buying a new Wolf Air destroyer. One can’t quite imagine what the family impact statement would say about that.
JANA WENDT: Professor John Warhurst, who studies religion and politics, says, while Family First is still small beer, the Prime Minister believes they could be destined for greater things.
JOHN WARHURST, ANU POLITICAL SCIENTIST: I think it’s significant about what it says about the Prime Minister’s judgment of the future. I think he’s taking out an insurance policy for the future, that he may well be dealing here with a party which represents a growing segment of the Australian community.
JANA WENDT: The ALP insists that Family First never offered it the same opportunity to win its preferences.
KEVIN RUDD: It made some of us wonder ”” particularly some of us who come from church and Christian traditions like I do ”” where exactly this outfit were coming from. Were they actually negotiating in good faith with both sides of politics, or did they have a pre-determined plan all along to simply lift up the Liberal vote?
JANA WENDT: Did you put this family impact statement idea to the ALP?
STEVE FIELDING: Look, I think before the election, as I said, we tried to engage with the Labor Party and there was… They didn’t want to engage on policy issues, so therefore made it difficult.
JANA WENDT: The irony is that despite all of Labor’s objections to Family First’s deal with the Coalition, in Victoria it was a preference deal with the ALP that helped Steve Fielding get over the line.
PETER COSTELLO: So in the State where Family First was successful, its preferences went to Labor ahead of the Liberal Party. So if there was any great deal that was done that advantaged Family First it was the Labor Party’s Senate preference deal.
FRANKLIN GRAHAM, EVANGELIST: Many here tonight, you’re guilty of sexual sins, but God will forgive you tonight.
JANA WENDT: But Family First has supporters beyond Australia’s borders too. Franklin Graham, son of the legendary evangelist Billy Graham, was recently here to save souls.
FRANKLIN GRAHAM: It should hearten every Australian, every Australian, that there are people that are concerned for the family. And are wanting to push values that will strengthen the family. I’m just trying to get the point across to you that you’re guilty!
JANA WENDT: Franklin Graham, like his father, is said to be close to presidents and believes that Christians have a right, like any other interest group, to influence policy.
FRANKLIN GRAHAM: Everybody else is in the political system. The gay/lesbian movement, they certainly have their voice, other political persuasions, ethnic groups, have their voice, and there’s a lot of mix out there. Why shouldn’t Christians have an opportunity to have a voice, to be heard, to speak?
JANA WENDT: Earlier this year, 800 churches combined for what they called Festival Victoria. The quest was to win more converts to Christ by cleansing them of their sins. And most of the 25,000 there were young.
YOUNG MAN: Doesn’t really matter what your appearance is, it’s just what you believe and I strongly believe in Jesus Christ, and that he died for me.
ANDREW EVANS: There’s a search in young people and there’s this rise. And most of the churches that are moving anywhere are loaded with young people. And politicians are seeing that, you know, it’s not the staid old, dry old thing, but there is life somewhere, and there’s votes out there.
VOICE-OVER: This video is aimed at showing you how to best use your vote for Christian and family values during the upcoming election.
JANA WENDT: Jim Wallace, a former commander of the SAS, now does battle as the chief of the Australian Christian Lobby, even providing a how to vote guide.
JIM WALLACE: I mean people say, and I think this is a problem for the church, they have stayed out of this for many years because people said, “Don’t legislate your morality on me.” They forgot that if it’s not legislative, we’re not legislating a Christian morality, then we’re legislating some other morality.
BRUCE BAIRD: The Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, who hosts you here today, meets regularly in the parliament.
JANA WENDT: Backbencher Bruce Baird chairs the fellowship, which between 30 and 50 from a total of 226 MPs attend.
BRUCE BAIRD: And we meet on a regular basis.
JANA WENDT: That share of practising Christians among the country’s lawmakers far outweighs that in the rest of the community. Do you think that disproportion is a good thing in terms of representative government?
BRUCE BAIRD: Well, as long as it doesn’t become, you know, some type of moral majority group that tries to impose their views on life, as to how legislation should be.
JANA WENDT: So has this political awakening created something resembling the American religious right in Australia? Marion Maddox, the author of ‘God Under Howard’, believes a Christian fringe has garnered influence well beyond its numbers.
MARION MADDOX: So it’s not that there’s been a mass religious revival of a conservative kind in Australia. On the contrary, as you say, it’s that a particular kind of religion, which represents only a small part of the spectrum of Christian faith, let alone of the beliefs of the general population, has become disproportionately influential on public policy in Australia.
JANA WENDT: Maddox claims that politicians have become far more open about their faith and prepared to use it for electoral advantage. And if that means wrenching God from the arms of your political opponents, then amen.
KEVIN RUDD: Well, up until now, we’ve seen religion as a private matter. But I think the challenge which is laid down by Family First and by the Liberal Party grabbing onto some of this religion symbolism as part of their own political pitch to a fair slice of the electorate is that those of us on the Labor side of politics who are from a Christian tradition probably now have to stand up and be counted.
JANA WENDT: The accusation being the Coalition, the Government, is using soft, faith-based issues and sending out warm fuzzies to the electorate.
PETER COSTELLO: I don’t think anybody is using anything. If you get the chance to make a statement of your belief you ought to do so. It will be judged on its content. And you’ll be judged against it.
MARION MADDOX: The theology that goes with those Pentecostal prosperity-gospel-oriented churches, the idea that if you give to the church then you’ll get back the blessings over and over, that’s a kind of theology that goes very well with a political and economic view based on individual aspiration.
BRIAN HOUSTON: Oh, there’s so much to do, so much to be accomplished in the name of the Lord.
JANA WENDT: Whether the growth of the Pentecostal churches translates into political influence is still open to debate. What is indisputable though is the dramatic change in the landscape that these energetic new congregations have brought about, filling the void left by the decline and the authority of the mainstream churches.
KEVIN RUDD: What you see, however, I think in suburban Australia and in many of the country towns of Australia, are new authority centres arising with some of these very large Pentecostal churches, where what the minister says or what the preacher says has a profound effect on the views of local congregations.
BRIAN HOUSTON: Believe me, there’s power in the Cross and there’s power in the Cross in 2005. You can know the power of God, which is the power of an eternal God!Leave a reply →