The Lord's Profits
This article appeared in the
Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday, 30 January, 2003, and was written by SMH
reporter, Greg Bearup.
The Lord's Profits
By Greg Bearup
(© Copyright Sydney Morning Herald. Used With Permission)
The music is catchy, the mood euphoric and the message perfect for a material age: believe in God and you'll be rewarded in this life as well as the next. Greg Bearup reports.
A sexy young Christian,
a walkie-talkie clipped to her hipsters, greets us on our walk from the car
park. "Hiya, howya doin'?" she says, with a flick of her mane and a smile.
"Welcome to God's house - what an awesome day!" She points us in the direction
of God's pad, a massive Olympic-style stadium up on the hill, and returns to
conducting traffic with a fluoro stick.
All around, beaming young folk (and they are mainly young) are decked out in their coolest threads - no Amish-skirted Christians here. Hundreds walk with us, and beneath the awnings and in the foyer of the building - all tubular steel and glass - thousands are milling excitedly. By the end of the weekend, almost 12,000 people will have made this walk. Once inside, the first thing the faithful strike is not a crucifix or stained-glass window (the building is devoid of Christian symbolism), but a vast bookshop, of sleek frosted glass and wood, where dozens wait by the till for books and tapes and CDs - or, as they like to call them here at Hillsong Church, "Christian resources" - from around the world. Most prominent, and with almost half the shop to themselves, are the titles by Brian Houston and his wife Bobbie, Hillsong's senior pastors.
As 6pm approaches, the crowd spills into the church, a massive 3500-seat auditorium in Sydney's Baulkham Hills. Australia's newest, wealthiest and largest single church, it holds almost twice as many people as that city's St Mary's Cathedral, its closest competitor (which has total weekend attendances of fewer than 2000). They are crowds no one can afford to ignore and, the day after he returned from visiting the scene of the Bali bombings in October, Prime Minister Howard put aside his war on terror to open this house of worship.
Today a 12-piece band with five back-up singers and a choir of 50-odd youngsters literally bounce into action. Behind them, three massive screens hang from the walls - the middle one morphs through different shades of red and blue, only the message, "Glory to God", remaining constant. The momentum builds with the tempo of the band as the packed stadium sings along to the words flashed up on the screens, swaying in a one-armed, open-palm salute to the band, to the Lord.
After 20 minutes, the warm-up pastor takes to the stage, chiming in with the band - "Come on, church, you can groove" - and then segues into his spiel. Our God, he says,is a God who delivers miracles, a totally awesome God. He rattles off stories, true stories, from this very congregation, of cancers cured, of cripples healed, of sinners saved. Why, the Lord even saw his way to finding $4000 for one student to pay his fees at the Hillsong Bible college. The congregation hoot and clap; a young fellow beside me has his eyes closed and as each miracle is proclaimed he shouts, "Amen, man. Awesome."
But you, too, should honour the Lord, the pastor tells his flock, and He will deliver these miracles, because the Bible says so, right here in Proverbs, chapter 3, which says that "if you honour the Lord with your possessions, and with the fruits of your increase, your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine". He makes the point numerous times, lets it sink in, then informs the throng that credit card facilities are available, and cheques should be made out to Hillsong. "Amen," shouts the pastor, thumping the air with his fists. "Amen, let's pass those buckets along."
And the faithful oblige - last year they filled the Hillsong buckets to the tune of $10 million. The church's music arm also bought in a tidy tax-free $8 million, and one of its albums, Blessed, debuted at No4 in the pop charts, above Shakira, and stayed there for weeks. Hillsong has bought into medical centres. Its Bible college has close to 1700 full- and part-time students, some paying annual fees of more than $4000. It has a staff of almost 200, including 70 pastors. It has built a state-of-the-art conference centre-cum-church worth $25 million. No fewer than five television cameras are mounted in the auditorium; the services are recorded and then televised in more than 80 countries.
Let's not be coy, Hillsong is not a church that is afraid of money - its spiritual leader, Brian Houston, is also the author of You Need More Money: Discovering God's Amazing Financial Plan for Your Life. Is that what makes this the seemingly fastest-growing Christian church in Australia? The census reveals that while millions identify as Catholic, Anglican or other Protestant denominations, few of them actually go to church. There are, for example, 3.9 million Anglicans, but only 180,000 attend church. (The Anglicans are like South Sydney rugby league club supporters - plenty of guernseys, but hardly any go to the games.) The Catholics are way out in front with 875,000 attendees from their 4.7 million flock. But with almost 200,000 people attending Pentecostal services each weekend around the country, they have nudged ahead of the Anglicans. The Pentecostals have a truancy rate of almost nil. What brand of God are they selling that sees the Almighty walking off the shelves, when the traditional churches struggle to give Him away?
Brian Houston, 48, saunters over to greet me, a tall, tanned man with a deep, radio man's drawl, and a silver and gold Breitling watch shimmering on his wrist. The pastor drives, among other vehicles, a Harley-Davidson Fatboy that a friend from overseas gave him. After emigrating from New Zealand, he and his wife, Bobbie, started this church in Baulkham Hills almost 20 years ago, preaching to a couple of dozen people in a hired school hall. Brian's father, Frank, had already set up a similar fundamentalist Pentecostal church (which has since joined with Hillsong) in the inner-Sydney suburb of Waterloo. Brian grew up with the church, while Bobbie got saved and "met Jesus" at the Auckland Town Hall at the age of 15. The couple met at church camp when Bobbie bought Brian an ice-cream ("He was the first boy I ever kissed," says Bobbie with a girlish giggle. "Can you believe I'm telling you this?"), were married when Bobbie was 19 and are now Hillsong's senior pastors.
They work out regularly and look like an advertiser's dream couple. Bobbie, 45, is blonde, busty and beautiful, and speaks in an airy, suburban earth-mother tone - part Phoebe from Friends, part Kath & Kim.
When asked to explain their roles in the church, Bobbie says pleasantly: "We are seen as one entity but obviously our roles will differ in that we kinda, we are united in this together so we are not afraid of that, yeah, so, so, we are not a kingdom divided against ourselves. So, we are yoked together in this, I mean, they are biblical words, we are yoked together, obviously his roles, I defer to him, I respect his role. Do you know what I mean?"
Brian and I leave Bobbie and go for a drive.
So why does he think the church has been so successful? "I think the biggest issue is relevance, I really do," he says, as we tour around the bland suburbs - row upon row of enormous, identical houses - of the Hills District, which surrounds his church. "We are scratching people where they are itching." This is the nearest thing Australia has to a Bible belt. Houston says that when he and Bobbie set out to build a church, he wanted to build one that he and his family would want to attend, with good music, good sermons and a positive message.
So, at Hillsong services, the music is modern and uplifting and the presentation theatrical. The show stopper is the communal baptism, held every few weeks. The giant stage rolls back and beneath is a baptismal pool. The faithful line up at the side to be dunked, fully clothed, while the onlookers cheer and clap.
Then, there's the message, which is simple and alluring. It says that if you embrace this brand of God you will be rewarded financially and spiritually in this life, as well as the next. It is religion for our material age. And there, as an example of what is possible, is the handsome, charismatic pastor, his bubbly wife and their three beautiful kids (Joel, 23, the oldest, is lead singer in the Hillsong rock band). All this comes with Brian's guarantee - from More Money - that "anyone who puts the Kingdom of God first (rich or poor) can expect bible economics to work in their life NOW".
Many of the young people I meet at the services volunteer their stories of financial success since joining Hillsong. "I was living in a housing commission house, working in a factory job and struggling to pay my bills," says Brian Griffiths, aged in his early twenties and still sweating from dancing in the bleachers. "Since I started coming [in 1999], great things have happened." He got a job selling insurance over the phone, with someone he met through the church. "God made me meet him." He is more than happy to give
10 per cent of his wage back, as most are. "Granted, many people have a life that's going great without God, yet I think that God probably had a whole lot more in mind for them."
"If you believe in Jesus," Houston tells me, "He will reward you here [on earth] as well [as in Heaven]." It is this prosperity gospel teaching that puts him at odds with people like the Reverend Tim Costello, the former head of the Baptist Union of Australia.
"The quickest way to degrade the gospel," says Costello, "is to link it with money and the pursuit of money. It is the total opposite of what Jesus preached. These people have learnt nothing from the mistakes made by the American televangelists."
Not so, says Houston. When Jesus said it was harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, he didn't mean rich Christians, because all you need is "God as your foremost priority. Jesus talks constantly of people's attitude to money but he never talks against money."
Costello, says Houston, "likes what we do generally" but has a problem with Hillsong's success. He, like those from some of the more traditional churches, is simply jealous of it, Houston tells me. "The irony is, Tim Costello is a pretty successful guy himself. The big difference between us is that I like to teach other people to be successful and not just enjoy the success myself."
Hillsong, he says, has moved with the times, while the old churches are stuck in the 19th century. "What good is a vow of poverty?" he asks. "A person who has more is able to help more. That's what we are all about, giving people a handout." The multi-million-dollar church's charitable arm, Hillsong Emerge, according to ASIC documents, has an annual budget of just a little over $400,000.
That's not to say that Houston's views on some other matters aren't conservative. He believes in speaking in tongues. He would like to see creationism taught in schools and abortion banned. Homosexuals are, of course, unwelcome, but Houston says he's not a Fred Nile-type fanatic on these matters. Picketing outside abortion clinics achieves little; a more pro-active approach is to help teenage girls through their pregnancies. The church partly funds a hostel, Mercy Ministries, for young pregnant women and other troubled girls (there's another for troubled boys at Bankstown) who can live there free for a year, on the proviso that they attend church. Another of the Hillsong Emerge projects, Young and Gorgeous, sees young Emerge women going into schools to teach 12- and
13-year-old girls about skin care and make-up, to help them learn, an Emerge woman told me, "that each and every one of them is unique and precious". Houston takes me for a drive past the youth hostel, in a bush setting near his church, and then on to a medical centre the church has bought in Baulkham Hills (they own another at Blacktown). It is all part of healing people "body, mind and spirit", he says, explaining the Hillsong approach.
The medical centres are small, but with plans for expansion. And while they may be helping the converted, they're also causing ripples among those outside Hillsong. Local doctors are angry that they will have to compete against a business that is exempt from all the normal business taxes - such as payroll tax - just because it is a religious organisation.
It is a matter the AMA intends to scrutinise.
Max Wallace, a sociologist at the Australian National University, is writing a book,
The Purple Economy, about the tax-free godsend enjoyed by the Australian churches. He says that while the traditional churches are "immensely wealthy", Australians had better get used to the "astronomical wealth growth"
of young, corporate churches such as Hillsong, which haven't the burden of maintaining ageing churches and small congregations (some don't even have the burden of charity). New churches are also moving into a host of new business ventures that have nothing
to do with religion - turf farms, fruit juice manufacturing, furniture making - often sending their competitors broke along the way.
Tim Costello wants to know how much of the Hillsong wealth is going to Brian and Bobbie. "The churches have an enormously privileged position in society - not only do they not pay tax, but they are exempt from many of the fringe benefit rules as well. As a result, they need to be open and fully accountable. Anyone can walk into my church and find out exactly how much I earn, what car I drive, whatever, including any other associated monies I might earn from being a minister. I would like to ask the same of Hillsong."
So I do. Brian Houston's open, good-guy demeanour disappears. No, he will not tell me what he or Bobbie earns. "All you guys [the media] want to know about is the money,"
he says. "You don't want to know about the church." Well, it's a bit like walking into Rose Hancock's house and not noticing the chandeliers - the money at Hillsong just leaps out at you.
Houston says that while he draws a wage, he donates it back to the church. "I want to make it clear that I cost this church nothing, I want that on the record." He earns some of his money, he says, as a property developer, "being a silent partner with a couple of guys from the church in building developments", but he gets "the vast majority" of his money from overseas speaking engagements at other charismatic churches. He and Bobbie also get the royalties from those "Christian resources" out the front of the church.
Phillip Powell, a Pentecostal preacher and a former general secretary of the Assemblies
of God (the umbrella group of which Houston is now president), says Houston's overseas speaking engagements are at churches whose own senior pastors are "on the circuit". Powell, who has set up a "watchdog ministry", Christian Witness Ministries, in part to monitor Hillsong, says, "They get paid huge amounts of money to speak at each other's churches. The money goes to Brian, but his profile comes from Hillsong." It is a bit like the Pope charging for speaking engagements, and then keeping the cash. (Houston says Powell's sentiments are "pitiful comments from a pitiful man who knows nothing of Hillsong or of me".)
The Hillsong church structure is tightly controlled. The general manager, Brian Aghajanian (also an elder), says the elders are nominated "by Brian or the other elders". No elections? "No, we feel that people might stand who don't have a great understanding of the way the church works or have the same vision we have for the church," Aghajanian says.
What we do know is that Houston wears a watch worth thousands of dollars, he owns an enormous house overlooking a bush valley, in a suburb of other enormous houses, at Glenhaven. He also owns a picturesque spread on the Hawkesbury River, near Windsor, just west of Sydney, gets paid handsomely to speak overseas and is a property developer - and he's not ashamed of any of it.
"Look," he says, "I can tell you that if I was in business, and held this sort of position, I would be earning three times as much. I don't do it for the money."
So, you couldn't see Jesus running into Hillsong and overturning the cash registers,
as he famously did with the money changers in the temple? "Absolutely not," he says. "Absolutely not. Because the spirit of those people was ... the house of God wasn't even about God any more. It was about, you know, it had become a marketplace inside the temple - it wasn't about Christian resources, resources that are helping people. It [the books and tapes and CDs] are not just about making money, it is about putting tools in people's hands.
[But] I have no problem if it makes a profit."
So, what exactly is in those Christian resources? One particularly irresistible title
is Bobbie's three-tape boxed set Kingdom Women Love Sex ($22, also available on CD). In it, Bobbie explains why it is important for Christians to be good at "it". "We need to
be good at sex ourselves so that if the world happens to come knocking we can tell the story of God in our lives," Bobbie says, on the tape. "Without being lurid or untruthful
- hello! - we can say [she whispers], 'I have a great marriage and a great sex life' - wink wink, nudge nudge. Yeah, truly."
Bobbie also offers some practical advice.
Fat is out. Do some exercise. "If I carry weight I feel like a retard ... How are you going to do anything to surprise your man when you need a hydraulic crane just to turn over in bed?" Have plastic surgery, if it makes you feel better and it is for the right reasons, and "girls, pelvic floor exercises - can you believe I am saying this? - you know, I have heard that orgasm is not as strong if you are really sloppy in that area".
As Bobbie says, "When you are doing what is correct in God there is a protection over your life. Like - hello! - it is just there. So it is a very powerful thing. Amen. Yeah, fully."
There have been some dramas in the House of Camelot in the past few years. Houston had to sack one of his senior preachers and good friends, Pat Mesiti, after it was revealed he'd been visiting prostitutes. And then Brian's father, former minister Frank Houston, confessed to being a pedophile.
Finding out his father had abused a child back in New Zealand was, Houston tells me, "like the jets flying into the twin towers of my soul". It was, understandably, one of
the hardest issues he has ever had to deal with. "Basically I received a complaint, so
I confronted my father and he admitted it." Houston removed his father from all roles in the church, but did not contact police in New Zealand because the victim was old enough to do that himself. He said that he was candid with his congregation, although he has been criticised for not acting quickly enough.
"I told our church what had happened [several months after he found out], but as soon as I found out I told the elders of this church and the Assemblies of God," Houston says. "To my congregation, when I told them, I used words like predator and sexual abuse and so on - I did not try to hide it."
It is a matter that appears unlikely to go away, and Houston tells me that, since the initial allegation was made public, other alleged victims have come forward. Good Weekend understands that another alleged male victim of his father is "extremely unhappy" with his treatment by the church and is currently considering civil action.
Bobbie says that the sexual abuse claims were the hardest thing her husband has ever had to confront. "But the leader in him rose and I think that is what endeared the congregation to us. This issue is rampant through society and you don't have to be Blind Willy to see that - sorry, blind Freddy, I always get my sayings wrong - but as a church we are dealing with those issues."
Phillip Powell, the watchdog, says he doesn't believe Brian Houston has dealt adequately with a whole range of issues within his church regarding accountability, and says he will continue to monitor the work of Hillsong. "There are alarm bells and people need to ring them," he says.
On one of the Sundays I attend a Hillsong service, Anne Luckwell, a 36-year-old administration officer with the Harvey Norman retail chain, is excitedly waiting to be baptised. She joined the church six months ago and is now ready to "dedicate my life to the Lord". She has a child and has been through a rough time. "I lived with a man for 15 years and we were splitting up - he said he was not going to give me anything from the house [he owned] in the settlement." She says that now, since she found Hillsong, she has come to an agreement with her former partner for a share of the house. It has as much to do with the law as it has with the Lord, but still she attributes the agreement to Hillsong. I call her up a few days later to see how she feels, post-baptism. "Not too good, actually," she croaks. "I've got the flu. I think it's because of the wet hair." Still, she says, she'll be back in church next Sunday, ready to hear the word of Brian - and, of course, willing to give in order to receive.
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