The Kingdom, Mark Fennell, and Hillsong Church
14 June 2023 Hits:3496
On the long weekend, I watched The Kingdom twice. I encourage you to watch it too. The Kingdom is a documentary in which Australian journalist Marc Fennell “investigates the successful but scandal-plagued megachurch Hillsong, stepping back into the world of Pentecostalism that he left behind and asking what happens as the Hillsong kingdom crumbles.” Unlike other documentaries on Hillsong, The Kingdom interviews people from various standpoints and looks for the good in Pentecostalism and the not-so-good.
And so, I write this blog NOT as another voice to knock Hillsong, but rather to ask what we can learn to ensure the church’s future is better than its past. I write as someone from within the church who loves and values the church and wants the church to be everything Jesus had in mind when he started it.
I attended Hills Christian Life Centre in the mid-80s while studying full-time at Bible College. Hills was in a school hall, Geoff Bullock was on piano, and the place was jumping. I stayed with Hills CLC as it moved into a factory. Eventually, I joined a small outreach from Hills, Westside CLC in St Marys, and was on the Ministry Team for over two years. We had a Sunday afternoon service and headed to Hills for Sunday night. It was an exciting, vibrant Pentecostal church. I loved every minute of it.
Since relocating to Melbourne in the late 80s, I have observed Hillsong from a distance, watching its phenomenal growth and influence. My interactions with Hillsong have mainly been positive, but I realise that is only the case for some. So, what can we Pentecostal Christians learn from all the scandal, negative press, and the multitudes who have been hurt and disillusioned by their experiences in our churches? What lessons can we learn to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself and that the future is safer and, simply, more like Jesus?
As I reflect on these questions, I am not targeting Hillsong or any other church. I have identified some of these negatives in my ministry and church leadership approach and have worked hard to address them in the past few years.
The American version of the church highly influences Australian Pentecostals. It’s no secret that Brian Houston’s trip to the US in 1989 proved a turning point for his church as he bought into the health, wealth, and success doctrines that had gripped the US church for a decade. As Hillsong leapt from success to success, many other Australian churches copied them, myself included. All this led to the second major problem amongst Pentecostal churches.
The Frenetic Pace
Marc Fennell said, “The insatiable growth of Pentecostalism has left far too many casualties.” I agree. The church growth movement of the 1980s focused our (pastors) attention on growth at all costs. At pastors’ conferences, the most often asked question was, “How many people do you have in your church?” It was like comparing sizes in the boys’ locker room at school. “How many are you running at Bayside these days?” The pressure was filling facilities, starting more services, opening campuses, and planting churches. Bayside Church had five services over three campuses every weekend at one stage. We were successful and exhausted.
I watch other pastors do the same thing and hear of their burnout and need for time off. I recently saw a Facebook post by a young man outlining his ministry schedule in the US, touring Australia, speaking at churches and conferences, producing a podcast and vlog, and running a youth conference. I wanted to comment, “It sounds like a recipe for burnout.” I didn’t, but it is. I know; I’ve been there. Not all growth is good. Cancer is growth, and we cut it out! Scripture says, “God doesn’t count us; he calls us by name. Arithmetic is not his focus.” (Romans 9:31 MSG)
Many years ago, a pastor friend stepped away from Pentecostal leadership and accepted a pastoral role in an evangelical church. He told me the difference was stark. The people expected so much less, and his job became manageable rather than exhausting.
Pentecostal churches have created a harrowing “success” cycle. Everything always has to be better. This year’s conference was phenomenal but wait for next year’s; it will be the best ever. Today’s service was incredible; next weekend will be even better. Once you’ve set the bar so high, you must keep performing to attract more Christian consumers. You can’t have great music one Sunday but an average band the following weekend. And no, you can’t take a break because the show must go on. The best is yet to come!
The expectancies of the senior leadership on their people are enormous, and the congregation return the compliment—the demands of leadership overwork volunteers and leaders are exhausted by the people’s expectations. I bought into this kind of churchianity in the past. I do so no longer, but I know that I’ve hurt some people on the way. And for that, I apologise unconditionally.
Being driven by success and wanting more people, resources, services, and campuses becomes more like an enterprise than a church. These are unholy expectations.
I feel deeply for Brian Houston. Keeping the show going for so long has taken its toll on him, and he’s turned to medication, alcohol, and other unhealthy practices to cope. He looks tired and shaken. I pray that he will take the time to heal and be restored. But how do you stop when you’ve been doing this for so long? I loved John Sanderman’s words in The Kingdom when he was asked what he hopes will happen for Brian: “that he takes time out, and he goes and does something of redeeming value that gives him pleasure and hope. He does not try and be what he was before.”
I have listened to more than my fair share of coercive offerings over the years in which people are made to feel guilty for not giving or not giving enough. “God has told me fifty people here will give $1000 each in the offering.” “Invest in this offering for your God-given breakthrough.” Don’t get me wrong. I believe in giving, tithing, and generosity to God and the work of a local church, but there’s a fine line between teaching Scripture and the high-pressure tactics of some Pente preachers.
Paul wrote this to the Corinthian church: “you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” The Greek word translated as “compulsion” means “to bend the arm.” I promised Bayside Church at its first service in 1992 that I would NEVER pressurise people to give. I vowed to teach the Bible and present needs when they arose but never to compel anyone. I have kept that promise.
I feel for the many good people in Pentecostal churches who have succumbed to coercion and given to the point where they are struggling financially because they’ve given more than they can afford. Seeing their leaders flying in private jets, receiving luxury gifts, money laundering, evading tax, and getting and providing huge offerings rubs salt in their wounds. People feel hoodwinked and often quietly walk away from the church and sometimes from Jesus.
But Wait … There’s More!
Time doesn’t allow me to detail every concern about the Pentecostal church or outline everything Marc Fennell raised in The Kingdom. So, here are a few other considerations:
- Sexual misconduct is sometimes common and invariably covered up. When sin is discovered, pastors take the role of victim and victim-shaming—blaming people and the devil instead of taking responsibility for mistakes.
- The power trap. When I first joined the Pentecostal church, we were on the fringes of society and the church world. And that’s where we thrived. Gaining power and respectability have not done us any favours. We don’t do well when we’re in charge.
- A lack of accountability, honesty, transparency, and good governance.
- The celebrity pastor who is beyond questioning or critique.
- Entertaining Christians rather than making disciples. It is my experience that many people from this church background have a wafer-thin understanding of Scripture and what it means to follow Jesus.
- Reserved seating for VIPs and famous people flies in the face of James’ injunctions to the church to treat all people equally (James 2:2-4). These churches also discriminate against women (men dominate) and LGBTIQ+ people. I have a gay friend who used to attend Hillsong Sydney, and when he came out, he was stepped down from all ministry. He said, “All they’d let me do is tithe.”
- Toxic positivity. We can’t just celebrate the good. We must own the damage that’s been done.
The Pentecostal / contemporary church must do better. Paul’s words to the Romans ring true here, “And Israel, who seemed so interested in reading and talking about what God was doing, missed it. How could they miss it? Because instead of trusting God, they took over. They were absorbed in what they themselves were doing. They were so absorbed in their “God projects” that they didn’t notice God right in front of them, like a huge rock in the middle of the road. And so, they stumbled into him and went sprawling.” (Romans 9:31-32 MSG)
Of course, thousands of pastors are getting it a good deal right, and we should thank God for them. These days my goal is to know and serve our people at Bayside Church, whether they be few or many, a shepherd that leads, teaches, loves and guides. People are precious; they are not numbers to make me look good at pastors’ conferences. People are not there to serve the pastors. Christians are called to support one another with humility and grace (John 13:1-17; Matthew 20:25-28; Philippians 2:1-7).
Marc Fennell ended The Kingdom by stating that he didn’t belong in a Pentecostal church anymore. And that’s fine. Pentecostal Christianity is just one flavour of Jesus’ church; not everyone will enjoy every aspect. The supernatural power of God attracted me to Jesus four decades ago, and I remain very much at home in that space. But people will explore their spirituality differently and should not be coerced or controlled in their search for meaning. God does not do control, and neither should his people!
Hillsong has given a gift of incredible worship songs to the church. I, for one, will keep singing them. After all, we sing songs (psalms) by people who are all equally flawed. In the meantime, let’s keep our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus, and whenever you encounter someone who’s been hurt by a church, listen, refrain from judgement, apologise, be kind, and don’t preach at them. They’ve had enough of that.