Wheaton, Christian Evangelicals and Islam

This whole Wheaton thing. I’m reading every press release perched on the edge of my chair, and holding my breath. I feel like I’m watching a car crash in slow motion, tumbling and turning.

Exhibit A – Professor Larycia Hawkins attempts to send a message of solidarity to Muslim people by wearing a hijab, and posts a statement to encourage her students to do the same. See: http://time.com/4174229/wheaton-college-larycia-hawkins-muslim-facebook/

Exhibit B – Wheaton leadership find themselves in a publicity mess with donors and decide to terminate her employment. See: http://time.com/4174229/wheaton-college-larycia-hawkins-muslim-facebook/

First up, I understand that any Christian institution, whether it be church, university, sporting group or prayer ministry has a right to set common guidelines for staff (and to be in charge of their brand and public image). That’s a given as far as I’m concerned. And someone has to monitor those boundaries.

But honestly? I’m weeping tears for Dr Hawkins. I can see her as a younger Christian scholar, becoming concerned about religious interfaith dialogue and perhaps reaching for her very first book on the topic. I see her, sitting prayerfully reading the Koran. I see her trying to reconcile her pastor’s sermons with larger global trends, and the confusing media coverage. I see the long years she traveled to sit in conferences and listen respectfully to people she did not hold the same faith as, and the first article she sent trembling to her editor, after researching and writing. I see her thinking maybe one day her work would be important, and contribute to something as ‘big’ as American religion and politics.

And then years later, she realized the people she was researching were suffering in her own local city. So she decided to wear a hijab. She posted a message. She covered her own Christianity with a symbol of those she was trying to reach. And she suggested her students do the same.

Maybe her particular choice of words was ill advised, and her forum of Facebook too explosive, too new, too unproven. But she’s since provided an extensive outline which shows that she was not intending to challenge the institutional Statement of Faith. Her words are intelligent, nuanced and clearly researched.

I’ll be honest, her actions speak of a particular graciousness I long for in the Christian community. I want to be able to communicate to people that they are loved because the image of God rests within them.

I do not want to be taught to love people in hope they will turn and accept our Christian language, our Christian conferences, buy our Christian CDs or turn up at the same service I’m attending so they can sing along. If this is evangelism, then it doesn’t seem very respectful.

Let me be clear, I believe that an encounter with Jesus is transformative. The Bible is the revealed word of God. I hope that each and every person would have the same transformation I’ve experienced.

But I don’t believe for a second that I (or the Christian church) have a monopoly on God’s Spirit. I’m simply someone who wants to partner in the mission of God on the earth, Missio Dei.

There are common spaces, infused with enspirited life, where the Holy Spirit lives outside of the church. God is not sitting in the church by the pulpit waiting for us all to turn up. God the Spirit is the Creator and Giver of Life that sustains all things. Even in darkness, grace abounds – and maybe it intensifies (Rom 5:12).

Surely there is something that can be shared in return? Something life giving in the other’s prayers, even moments from our common history?

I feel the hopefulness in the Muslim community as they see Dr Hawkins’ action, potentially able to move Church and Mosque towards some kind of relationship that could be life-giving for both. And I know this hope will probably disappoint, that Doc Hawkins’ employment will be terminated.

Most North American PhD students have come to realize that they will not get tenure track at a university. The odds are simply against them, as institutions do not need to cover the health care of employees working less than 20 hours a week. These are called “Adjunct Professors”. Many scholars just want a job, so they give in, and adjunct at a number of institutions. Universities have a constant stream of adjuncts as potential employees desperate for positions.

But Dr Larycia Hawkins made it up the ladder, and she was employed by Wheaton College full-time, tenure track. Until she decided to communicate solidarity with Muslims.

Perhaps in time, she will think the cost was worth it. Right now, I’m sure she is barely making it through each day.

All I can think is “Lord, have mercy”.


Why Love Makes A Way protested in Malcolm Turnbull’s Office (Or at least, why I did)

In every nation there’s a point where ordinary, everyday people turn from bystanders into activists. It’s naive to think that the citizens of any country, no matter how good it is, would be immune to political involvement.

In fact, that’s democracy. Our Australian democracy is built on the premise that ordinary people should, no in fact must gather and engage in their world – where necessary, look evil in the eye, and refuse it room to remain any longer. Men fought and women lost sons and lovers for that right. Not just to get a sausage sandwich after polling once every four years.

We shouldn’t doubt that people will have to stand up and give voice at times – even if seen at first as unsolicited, unrequested, unwanted opinion. The question is, at what point do you step up and make your voice heard?

The Bible offers a clear mandate for this:

Speak out on behalf of the voiceless,
    and for the rights of all who are vulnerable.
Speak out in order to judge with righteousness
    and to defend the needy and the poor.
– Proverbs 31: 8-10

For many Christians in Australia, it’s been a long road that has led now to the formation of the Love Makes A Way Movement, that builds upon the Christian church’s nonviolent direct action (for more info see this amazing online pdf) throughout history, challenging the powers.

Women I’ve prayed beside worked in detention centers for thirty years. Father Claude has decades of experience in this area. He recounted to me how a Sri Lankan refugee slashed himself in their offices after receiving notice he was to be returned to the place he watched his brother and brother-in-law be murdered.

Yes, that’s right, I sat with Christian leaders in Malcolm Turnbull’s office this Monday, and prayed my heart out for our nation’s leaders to turn, and for our government to seize the day to change Australia’s policy on refugees.

An image from inside MP Turnbull’s Office

You can read SBS’s take on the Love Makes A Way story here. And,  ABC’s Compass segment on Love Makes A Way here to hear a little about Jarrod McKenna and Teresa Lee’s First Home Project, which they share with a number of new Australians.

I first engaged with refugee workers in 2006, when I worship led for an International Teams conference, and met missionaries stationed in Australia who engaged refugees. That’s when I realized my church, Hillsong, held weekly services in Villawood Detention Centre. I started to beeline for these friends while they were drinking coffee in the foyer of church. They introduced me to other friends working offshore. It started with curiosity and asking too many questions, but it ended with a deep empathy for them and the people they were serving.

Their eyes often filled with tears. Some told me of terrible, unthinkable things that were going on. That guards raped in the middle of the night, leaving women incontinent. Trauma that, through constant threat of deportation, turned into a deep fear and eventually, a madness. The complete loss of hope.

This contrasted sharply with stories of families who were being supported out in the community.

At that point, there were reportedly one million displaced people. Now, the UN says there are 20 million people seeking asylum. 

During this time the media honed in on boat entries on Australia’s northern border. The Australian Labour Party decided it would intern those arriving by boat indefinitely, as deterrence. It was an act of arrogance, and of privilege but it was retained as a policy by the Liberal–National Coalition. Slogans were created. And sadly, elections were won with them.

All this time my friends wept, and tried to provide support for refugees. Denominations such as The Savation Army, Catholics and the Uniting Church have been long involved in endless behind-the-scene negotiations with the government. Eventually many denominations made public statements against the policies, including the Anglican Church, and Australian Baptists.

It is hoped that ALL Christians of Australia will join their hearts and minds, putting aside all other differences, to declare that the Australian government has crossed the moral line.

Australia has in indefinite detention about 2044 people, including 92 children on Nauru. And 112 children in Australia. There has been no change to this number for six months.

Many of us in Love Makes A Way are pentecostals. Any time I feel lonely, I remind myself of the day Jaxon wore his college t-shirt to the action. And got arrested in it.

Because once the line is crossed, we must decide what we will do about it.

It’s clear that we are in the wrong. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has spoken against our policies. Rapporteurs criticize the conditions of Australia’s detention centers as breaching the Torture Convention and constituting ‘calibrated cruelty’. There are warnings that incarceration has an irreparable effect on children. This is consistent with reports of Christian workers that have been going on for almost a decade. Enough is enough.

Some churches have decided to put out media calls for the government to release children before Christmas. 

“For some of the children, this will be their third Christmas in detention and we can see no reason why they can’t be released before spending another one in detention”

It’s not only about celebrating Christ together. It’s about the fact that our Senators also believe they should be released. Seven days ago, the Senate managed to pass amendments to a bill that includes significant changes to refugee and asylum seeker debate. It does the following:

a) ends the detainment of children in onshore processing centers.
b)  introduces mandatory reporting of abuse.
c) reverses legislation making it a criminal offence for public servants and contractors, including doctors, to disclose knowledge acquired in detention centres.
d) ensures reasonable access to journalists.

The opportunity is now for the Federal government in the House of Representatives to support the recent Senate amendments that would free all kids and their families from Australian detention centers before Christmas.

This would truly be something to celebrate.

Religion, Not-for-Profits, and those “endlessly-advertising Christians”

This week I thought a bit about social media, particularly for generation X & Y. Obviously, many of our interactions changed by moving online – but now, our online lives also affect our offline lives. For example, I’ve recently experienced awkwardness at what was once a very normal face-to-face question, “So! How have you been?”

It’s more difficult to answer when we regularly publicize personal information. To repeat a list of top recent statuses may result in a frustrated “oh. yeah, yeah, I know! What else is happening?” But, asking “umm… have you read my updates recently?” could be taken as an act of arrogance, and even set off a “Oh! I’m not into social media [rant]”. One small example of how real life interactions are changing.

It’s not only personal, but also group interactions. We’re now more likely to read the same media sources our friends read — especially when they actively share them on our timeline or tag us in a post. But conversely, I don’t know if you’ve also recently wondered “where do they get that from?” after stumbling into a conversing group from another industry, or the opposite political persuasion. Yet, everyone else is nodding along with the conversation.

Because I’m a student of Christianity (and its culture), I’m interested in the impact changes are having upon our faith commitment, and the reverse – how religious groups shape our world(s) through new media. I’m especially interested in how globalization affects the world’s margins, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Today, I read an article that discussed social media use for high profile Christians. It describes what I call “preach-tweets”. You know, a statement intended for instruction or teaching. Christians commonly receive this type of communication in a sermon. I actually don’t mind a strong “preach-tweet” from my pastors, or the theologians I follow.

But I find unsolicited “preach-tweets” hard to take. Perhaps because I don’t actually want, nor can I take advice from everyone.

The thing is, Sunday sermons once were relatively closed communication, meaning that the audience was mostly members and a few observers (often called “soon-to-be members”). It’s now the total opposite, we are broadcasting our sermons online and on YouTube to people who are not Christian (or at the very least, not attendees of our congregation).

However in the new world, the playing field is level – everyone is equal as a content creator. So there’s no easily discernible difference between a seasoned, seminary-trained pastor and an ordinary, enthusiastic lay Christian “preach-tweeting”. My atheist friends can’t even see the difference between a Westboro Baptist Church member and Miroslav Volf. It’s an interesting dynamic.

Discussion of media use for religious groups is a boom area for the academy. This is probably fueled by the fact that the Christian message has been conveyed incredibly successfully over two thousand years, with relative little attention paid to the “marketing techniques” of Christians.

You see, Christians long used mass-media to get the message of Jesus out to the world.

Apparently the mailing list kept by the leaders of the Asuza Street revival at the turn of the century is perhaps why many credit this site as the birth of Pentecostalism, despite many similar global movements. Just up the road in Pasadena, Charles E. Fuller was a simple orange farmer who pioneered an evangelistic radio show in 1937 – his name is now associated with the world’s largest evangelical seminary. Aimee Semple-McPherson broadcasted the Christian message from the 1920s through to the second world war with tours and publicity stunts. Billy Graham’s mass evangelism campaigns were unprecedented in size, and often televised. Kathryn Kuhlman, Oral Roberts… The ethos of these Christian greats continues into the late modern (or post-modern) era.

But I wonder whether a serious change in media platforms requires Christian leaders to now make serious shifts in how they communicate. Not just that, but push themselves beyond simple participation towards adopting, or forming strategies that convey their values.

I’ll explain..  in my four-year MPhil thesis undertaken at the Australian Catholic University, I outlined some marketing strategies of Australian church Hillsong as they grew exponentially between 1996-2006. The music was evangelistic, but with a twist – it was explicitly made for corporate use, in Christian communities. There is no doubt that excellent marketing of this music contributed to its success.

But most contributors I interviewed admitted they never expected the kind of success they achieved. All the people I spoke with would concede is that they consciously tried to evolve an inevitable need for publicizing their music releases (they use the word resource) into something that felt more authentic in the public space. For example, they wanted to value the key contributors but also challenge North American individualistic celebritization. They didn’t want young families to have worship leader parents on the road for forty weeks of the year, and so they slowly de-emphasized tours. They started a conference in their home town. Incredibly, Hillsong’s “marketing strategies” now are the model for the Australian church.

To me, it’s clear that if your church is creating music CDs with the intention of becoming “the next Hillsong”, you’re not only the gambling type, but probably ignorant as to what that even means.

How should we strategize, as people professing faith? Should Christian people (or leaders of churches) market their teaching or music? For example, should I promote my own CD? And if so, what are the right motives for marketing it? How widely should I push it? And which avenues should I use? Biblically, and ethically, it can be very unclear.

After writing my thesis, I met a scholar (genius) friend Tom Wagner, based in London. He had a deeper grounding in communications and marketing. We talked a lot about this, and agreed that Hillsong had strategically moved from marketing to branding, which also allowed it more authenticity regarding its message. As it moved from iconic-celebrity-heads CD covers towards a name, a logo, and cover art that vaguely depicted a community, most consumers became aware that Hillsong was not Darlene Zschech’s band, but a group of Christian believers, i.e. a church. We wrote an article on this, published in The Australian Journal of Communication.

However, the question about ‘best Christian practice’ still niggles at me. Of course, it also plays into the globalization of religions. On one hand, many would like Christians to abide by a ‘no proselytizing’ rule. This is the type of rule seen in France, and apparently one third of the world’s countries. The idea is, any communication directly intended for conversion shouldn’t be broadcast into the public space (usually because the public space is seen as an extension of a person’s personal space)

This is kind of what I want to say to the men wearing chicken costumes that ask me for donations “for the environment” when I’m on my way to the car with my hands full of groceries.

On the other side of the spectrum we have die-hard telly evangelists that want to take over every radio and television channel at once to present their summary of the gospel message – because people die daily without an opportunity to receive Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour. They would maybe follow a media shut down with a black screen and scrolling sinners’ prayer. Well… that’s seen as propaganda by most media people I know. It’s one thing to promote the name of Jesus briefly in Times Square, or put a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, but it’s another to have this type of communication as an aspiration. For the record, I don’t know any Christian in Australia that seriously believes they have the power to make this happen. So despite all joking, it’s not a serious position.

A personal clue I’ve clung to that helped me navigate this over the years was a small comment in the margins of my MPhil thesis, written by Australian Catholic liturgist Gerard Moore. While he noted that I had successfully charted the development of Hillsong’s marketing, he wanted to know how this information connected to the spirituality of the organization. He seemed frustrated that I had spent all my time outlining a mode of communication with basic content (entry to the community), but never really getting into the feedback loop regarding Hillsong’s implicit model of a human, or evaluating the effect its music has had in forming its ideal Christian character.

You see, the problem with Christian scholars viewing the “marketing practices” of a church through a secular communication lens is that it doesn’t answer the question “what does this church/congregation/organization believe a Christian to be?”

Being or becoming Christian is a theological inquiry – but we can ask the question more precisely, “How does this [Christian person/organization/NGO]  form its people to be Christian?”

… that is a liturgical question. And one I can’t answer here in this blogpost, so I won’t even try.

Recently I’ve connected with more theologians and pastors on my facebook page, and followed them on twitter. I’ve watched as they engage public conversations. My continued interest is in the religious values that drive Christian desire to communicate their faith with other people, and evaluating whether or not the methods they choose are conducive to

a) communicating the content they desire, and

b) forming themselves and other Christians in line with the values they hold.

While the medium is the message, according to Marshall McLuhan, neither mediums nor messages are the whole picture.

I think there are a number of theologically defensible reasons as to why Christians (particularly preachers and theologians) advertise Christianity as a product. And why they appear as corporations. Some seminaries and churches loudly communicate these reasons as the key identity markers of Christianity. The most obvious is that all media produced by or that publicizes Christianity is (by extension) spreading the core Christian message of Jesus, i.e. is an act of ‘evangelism’. Presumably this is the core motivation that causes a pastor to start a television ministry, or print tracts, believing this act to be essential to their Christian faith.

The question is, is this type of “preach-tweet” catching millenials?

All millennials now understand that with social media platforms, it’s easy to advertise a religious community’s events and products to its members. Email is a great example… Free! Facebook groups… Free! Even group smses are low cost. In regards to local evangelism, you can run off pamphlets and the Post Office will deliver them for you. All of these mediums have their drawbacks. But, by far the greatest costs incurred are in extending the message beyond your existing community to a city-wide, national or even global stage.

Today I scrolled down my facebook and twitter feeds – and found status after status advertising church events. Books. CDs. Teaching series in corporate-looking video links.

Do we really think that one-way blasts about our products satisfy the deeply-held Christian imperative of evangelism?

And this also made me ask my liturgical question: how is this use of media forming us?

The gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) show that Jesus had a group of small disciples with whom he spent most of his time. Most of his energy was spent in two-way communication, with a much smaller portion on mass-media type “preaching”. He didn’t seem to market himself much at all. You can imagine disciples yelling out during the beatitudes, “Mmmhmmm… that’ll tweet!” … but most of their personal development was in the context of his accessibility to them for dialogue.  This sets up a biblical value of discipleship. There’s no manual given for this in scripture, but it’s clear that conversation was an incredibly important teaching tool for Jesus.

For me, this begs the question, are we Christians placing enough importance, time and effort on two-way communication? Or are we just blasting at our friends, workmate and neighbours?

Because maybe that’s one key difference between the type of communication seen in a corporation, and that seen in the Bible …??

How do you navigate these tensions in social media?

Growing up Australian and Pentecostal: Academics and Media versus Hillsong Church

It’s nice to be home in Australia for January, after completing two and a half years of a PhD program at Fuller Theological Seminary in Los Angeles! A perk of being in Sydney (aside from reconnecting with family and friends) is attending my home church, Hillsong. I grew up in the congregation, and returned in 2010 before relocating to the USA. it’s the thing I missed most passionately while away. Of course, an announcement was just made about a new LA Hillsong plant in 2014 – so if I end up in Pasadena for dissertation writing (crossed fingers), I can worship there.

Because the new-ish Manhattan Hillsong plant is going so well in the USA, there’s growing interest in the church; well, among American theologians and religious scholars I spoke with. Academics are turning their attention to global Pentecostalism (or in this specific case, Oceanian charismatic evangelicals who really *don’t* like ‘tags’ being applied to them). This fuels more interest in Australia. A recent thread on a brilliant Australian theologians’ facebook wall, a casually delivered sermon by Joel and Julia A’Bell and a few other coincidences raised recurring themes for me, so I thought I’d write a little important something about growing up a “Hillsonger” that I’ve meant to say for a while. I hope you can hear me out.

My staunchly Anglican family joined Hillsong Church after the charismatic movement hit Sydney in the early 1980s. In California by this time, charismatic-ism was well established and the music of John Wimber dearly beloved. Furious debate on the role of the Spirit in everyday Christian life was merely a simmer. But Australia, positioned at the edge of the world, so to speak, tended to get things decades after other countries. Put it down to strong border control. My parents’ Rector successfully refuted all theological arguments, clamping down on charismatic eccentricities (now we know he was an AngliCAN’T and there are many AngliCANS). He didn’t realize our house on a Tuesday night was full of adults praying and studying bible passages on spiritual gifts, trying to work it out. I’ve since found out it was very Methodist of them to supplement Sunday’s liturgy with additional worship.

Ultimately, and pretty uneventfully, they sought a new church on the outskirts of the city, near the one-acre farm lots dad admired so much. He loved driving past cows and sheep on Sundays. Surprisingly for this location, Hillsong allowed my parents to re-imagine Christianity in a completely fresh way – a technologically savvy service that included children, youth and young adults, and even allowed speaking in tongues at times (quietly, during prayer requests, and in member events). After so many years of sneakily raising their hands, they just wanted to move on, and help build a new, charismatic biblically-based evangelical Australian church. They loved Brian and Bobbie’s forward-thinking vision, permeated by the energy of the Hills District with anticipation of growth and progress. And, conversions occurred every single week, something that astounds them even still. They consider the altar call a sacred moment – my dad sheds tears talking about the joy he feels in seeing people accept Christ. Even in its early venues, there was a sense that something incredible was taking place at Hillsong and no one person was in control – perhaps the Spirit was (??) – and because of this, our family wanted to be present as it happened.

So I guess Hillsong Church initially chose me, care of my parents, but it soon became my church, and my parents merely attended as far as I was concerned. It all happened at that Summer Camp of 1998, after which first generation Hillsongers suddenly had to cope with what were eventually dubbed “Jesus is my girlfriend” lyrics, as well as a growing group of bouncing teenagers dancing in the front rows (which they endured or loved, depending on which member of their generation you ask). We had what the church came to explain as “revival”, a completely unexplainable energy that flowed in and through the youth group – leaving visible and tangible evidence in new groups of Australian youth: skaters, surfers, geeks and university students, preppies, grungy kids, even a few goths. They just kept on coming. By 1996, we had thousands of youth. Someone had to roster the youth bands, and photocopy the music charts, which is where my involvement started. With a photocopy code.

The genius of Hillsong was the way multiple voices could be heard within the same space; and with so many new Christians, there was a diversity of views on every and any topic. Not only did the church represent many of Sydney’s all-pervasive territorial cultural barriers (people traveled from all over Sydney each week), but ethnic barriers seemed to recede as Hillsong embraced Sydney’s newer (and older) migrants. The elders are people of mixed Australian, New Zealander, Tongan, Scottish, Armenian, Iranian, Chinese, British, (and more) descent, and while multicultural assimilation was the Australian norm, Dr Gordon Lee pioneered language services even in the early days.  Women and men also held important roles side-by-side, modeled by Bobbie and Brian.

I’ve been the first person over the years to admit Hillsong church wasn’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. But one benefit of so many people was that when something annoyed me, it often also annoyed others – and was being worked on behind the scenes. It was in the Hub, those crazy think-tank rooms that I truly fell in love with my church.  Within all the vocal diversity was a consensus. The offices were a hive of volunteer and staff minds engaging problems and working towards creative solutions, contributing, as they were encouraged to do in Romans 12:3-8. It was always out of space, with offices in storage cabinets, or dug out of the very foundations. Almost everybody was building their leadership, and ministries grew strangely, organically – with nearly as many endeavors abandoned as sprung to life. There was freedom to try, and even to make mistakes, because somehow Pastor Brian had a sixth sense to fix things that weren’t flourishing quickly, re-channeling energy elsewhere when necessary, and opening up new areas no-one thought possible (e.g. acquiring the city congregation). All the Arts flourished – in Sydney, no less – with many thanks to Darlene Zschech. The spiritual gifts of ‘discernment’, ‘prophecy’ and ‘wisdom’ my parents had spent so long looking for were explained in Pastor Brian’s phrases “supernaturally natural” and “extraordinarily ordinary”. The inexplicable was explained with 1 Cor 2:14.

However, I quickly found out that on the North Shore, where I lived, mention of my church risked a slanderous tirade. My local high school, Cheltenham Girls High School, considered Hillsong a cult. This hit an all time low when they declared the “Shine” deportment program to be under-cover proselytism in violation of the tenets of feminism. Whatever the heck feminism now means. Seriously though, I’d love the memo, because I must have missed it in my six years of high school. Clearly nail polish application and teaching which fork to use is a no-no. But dressing girls in bright pink “feminine” uniforms is OK. Well, as a second generation “pink elephant”, I hope they understand me when I say I find this quite ironic. These complaints worked in collusion with Sydney Morning Herald journalists to expose and shut down some programs. But for the record, my mother and I worship along with many other former CGHS students who do not consider Hillsong repressive for women.

As its fame grew, Hillsong appeared irregularly in the media. Atheist journalists labeled it many things; money hungry, a sham, flamboyant, and corrupt. Friends I grew up with turned to secular papers to cash in on their stories about the congregation. They were screened on television, usually during the dinner hour. At school the next day, I would lay low. And the following Sunday, church leaders were hurt, upset, defensive and irate. It caused them to decry “intellectuals”, “academia” and “education”, because this seemed to be the problem. Sigh.

This tension came to a head in my honours third year of Political Economy at The Sydney University in the year 2000. Our garage style youth band, United (a name representing the youth groups merging together for special events) had gone gold on the Australian music charts, and in the busy-ness, I’d fallen one point behind on my required mark, a small little typed ’16’ I will never forget. I rang the university, and was engaged by a course administrator who tersely informed me I must choose between my faith and academic career. It was an engagement I had been regrettably primed for. I loudly and clearly declared that I was withdrawing from the course, and faded into the congregation, working as a barista on the side (for the entirely separate company Gloria Jeans), with my dreams of policy-writing and international development work shattered.

I slowly and cautiously re-entered academia, applying for a suitably “Christian” masters in Theology. A genetic susceptibility to research lead to another degree, and although I pleaded with my supervisor not to ask me to research Hillsong, she convinced me otherwise. I nervously presented my Masters of Philosophy to the Australian Catholic University music department in 2009 and received my first question “what does Hillsong do with its money?”

This seemed to suggest my questioners were not aware of how vast Hillsong actually was. Um… it pays its huge staff. It turns the light bulbs on and makes sure fridges are stocked for volunteer coffees. It develops young Australian leaders in skills like reliability, character development, and virtues society often forgets. It hires a bus to give over 80,000 food items away at Christmas. But “I don’t think this is pertinent to my thesis” seemed the best answer at the time. I played a Brooke Fraser United clip, and received some comments about the brain-washing repetitive nature of charismatic choruses. I returned to my Melbourne hotel shaking, but having passed.

Somehow, it has become normal to start the Hillsong story with “questionable theology”, or sexual abuse … not its later implemented counseling programs (many offered by outsiders lest God forbid, and I mean that quite literally there be any abuse cases). It has become normal in Australia to pick up the paper or open the computer and read blogs like this (my entire family votes Labor, so he had a strangely blue crowd for the city) or this. So normal, in fact, that when I recently questioned an American journalist about why she’d summarized the last twenty years of the Sydney Morning Herald articles, she furiously informed me that she had “even flown to Australia to write the story”. Touché.

The thing is, there’s only one side presented. Today I talked to a key leader, and she requested people ask her before assuming. Does she believe in prosperity theology? No. And I thought about it – do I? No. Does my husband? No. But are there people in the congregation that do? Sure! Almost every shade of thought imaginable is present. Hillsong members are not clones. While the leadership has a statement of belief, it presents basics, and for the rest, members aren’t conformed to one idea. Pastors Robert and Amanda Fergusson edit all songs for orthodoxy. But they also leave room for poetry. I’ve found members to be meticulous about finding strengths of varied theological arguments, not flaws. They want to leave debates open-ended until they gather all the facts. They are committed to exploring all verses of the bible, and humbly listening to each other’s perspective, even when they secretly think it may suck. They want to get central bits sorted out and leave the edges open-ended. That might be a different processing mode than your church, but no less Christian.

Look, I have close friends who genuinely hate Hillsong, and are incredibly fearful about me attending. I still manage to make it through online chats, or coffee dates. We even laugh about it at times. To be clear, I don’t believe human tragedy, pain or abuse should ever be covered up. In fact, I believe the opposite. The bible says that we should bring sin into the light.

But I honestly believe, in the same vein, that scandal-trading is an inappropriate mode for journalists to deal with Australian religious groups. This perpetuates stereotypes that are continually recounted time and time again. Any church is an organization, and my church is made up of thousands of ordinary Australians, with a variety of stories. Just like me. So in 2014, my New Years wish is that we can stop smear campaigns run by Australian journalists against religious groups. And maybe, in seeing the diversity of the people of the brand, we could even humanize what it means to be an Australian attending Sydney’s Hillsong Church.

The Exile Files #1: Insights for Church Pastors and Leaving Members

Most mornings I’ve spent here in Los Angeles, I drink one truly great coffee, my mind wandering from my assigned texts to Fullerton’s pretty fountain with blue painted tiles, and sparkling water. You can probably already tell some days are more productive than others. Recently, I was reading a method text in Phenomenology (the study of real life experience) when I realized it held mysterious healing properties for church members who have decided to leave a congregation, and pastors reeling in the wake of the member’s departure.  This may also have been prompted by a facebook post from a young Assemblies of God minister; “Will it ever stop hurting when a congregation member leaves my church?” And the response of solidarity flung back over cyberspace “No. I’ve been a pastor longer than you’ve been alive – and it will always hurt”.

This older pastor’s response caught me off guard somewhat. A church is usually considered a spiritual home by its members, who use it to structure their life in multiple ways; time, finances, friendships and activities. Some attend irregularly, but others attend weekly (or even daily). Leaving a church could be for all manner of benign reasons, such as physical relocation, a change in career, or new life stage (getting married, becoming a grandparent, those kinds of things). In most cases it’s positive for those involved. But in others, leaving a church causes immense grief and loss for the former member, and friends who stay. And, it seems, also the pastor. No matter what people tell you, when you leave a church, things change. In particular, relationships with those still attending. Some members continue to demonstrate love, and keep up the friendship despite increasing distance, but others do and say painfully spiteful things. It’s clear many aspects of this real life experience are not examined in church by pastors. So I’ve called my thoughts “The Exile Files”, which is intended to represent the mysterious hole where a church member once was.

Institutional messages are sent (both intentionally and not) by members leaving (or being absent from) a church. An absence may be slow and quiet, finally noticed by a pastor some months later (or noted with relief the week after an angry member yells and stomps out). That pastors get “hurt” by a members’ decision is often just a regrettable byproduct of events –  the decision to leave is often a long conversation that drags on for years. And, sorting through memories in the wake of a choice to leave a church is like playing a card game while missing a suite of hearts; the perspective of the ‘other’ party is not there, so sorting through data seems useless.

Firstly, out of empathy for all those in pain, I wondered “how has church membership gotten to this point?”, and concluded, with the help of the discipline of Missiology (or Mission Studies), that this is due to the new religious economy.

… In the old days, membership into a church was gained as byproduct of nationality. Whatever the King was, his subjects were also. Missiologist Dana Robert in her book Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion provides an illustration of Pope Gregory I spotting two little blonde boys for sale in a marketplace in the year 590, and, after pronouncing them Anglos or “Angels” (and hopefully sending them home to their mothers), he became intent upon the lands beyond Roman jurisdiction. In missionary old-old-school style, he and an entourage of forty men traveled to Kent in Britannia. They proudly lapped the court before King Ethelbert (D. 616) showing off flags and gilded outfits, and greatly impressed the King with their wealth (I heard they brought an elephant, I’m not sure if it’s historically factual). The Frankish Queen Bertha was already Christian, and Gregory’s mission was declared a success. On Christmas Day 597, King Engelbert was baptized with 10,000 English warriors (this simultaneously marked allegiance to the King, their conversion and membership into the Roman Catholic church) — and, all of England was declared saved. Simple. Following this event, Augustine (D. 604) was allocated land at Canterbury for a church and monastery, from which he drew up the new English Christian laws.

England (and most other kingdoms) see-sawed back and forth in their allegiance to the Roman Catholic church, with changes of monarchs, and with political strategics. Monks acted both as a help and a nuisance to popes and kings alike over the years. In all seriousness, there was little opportunity for families to freely declare religious allegiance until well after the Reformation in the 16th century. Even then, choices were limited (claims of sedition resulted in death), so families played their best possible hand until the latter part of the 18th century, when the French Revolution communicated something significant about the power of the people to “the people”. With the industrial revolution and free trade, religion changed in unthinkable ways. Without Roman central organization, Protestant states appropriated Reformation ideas differently, creating variety of church practices and denominations. Visibility of these different churches increased with travel and the decreasing price of printing. This is when, ‘individual choice’ became suddenly important. And at this point, we see European missionaries, unlike Pope Gregory, internally wracked over the state of the souls of unreached people groups – particularly remote tribes with low access to the Christian faith, or people speaking other languages who therefore lacked understanding. Passionate university students formed a conference in Edinburgh in 1910 to strategize towards the evangelization of the entire world, because every.single.soul.mattered.

It seems like only historical soundbites later, when the Beatles announced proudly on British radio that they were agnostics, started taking LSD and visiting shrines in India wearing Hare Krishna outfits. Young adults and university students worldwide followed suite and… the Hippie movement was born. It was clear religious choice was now influenced by new kings. Power shifted away from the state but also religious figures, perhaps due to reputed centuries of hypocrisy. The marketplace designated the new rulers. While Kings and Bishops still played a role, individuals could choose to migrate between states, and also reject or embrace Christianity. This meant that geography, which was once so simple, got mucked up – as in, places that were already “won” for Christianity began to seek alternative spirituality (New Religious Movements or NRMs) at an astounding rate and be “lost” while at the same time sending thousands of missionaries out to other continents seeking conversions. Phew! How confusing.

Which is exactly my point – the new religious economy is confounding; and varieties of Christian spiritual practice on offer for individuals are overwhelming. And this is just talking about Christianity! We live in an age when a Methodist congregation of two hundred meets next door and at the same time as an AME congregation of two hundred, in a building that hosts a Korean Pentecostal congregation of six hundred in the afternoon.  Members navigate their “followship” under various leaders, and attempt to make the best choices for their families’ spiritual health.

So, here’s some thoughts:

  1. Members, maybe spare a thought to your pastor, who may feel your departure more than you thought they did.
  2. Pastors, it’s a jungle out there. Please bear with us – and if you’re super resilient, and seem to have our best in mind, we might be back before you know it. No-one really likes a whole lot of change. But some of us are looking at jobs where we may have to relocate every three years. We want to have great experiences because we carry our relationship with you into our next church. And, others of us are just being… well, human. Just like every child at some point packs their bags and announces to their parent that they are running away, almost every member in your congregation is going to do this at some stage. So, please don’t over-react, just keep the door open!
  3. Evangelists, consider going back to using elephants. Only joking. No, but we do have to stop thinking about only the individual, but also consider the network of people they are embedded in.
  4. Christians: Maybe we should work out mature ways to talk about this.

I’m can’t wait to post part #2 of the Exile Files next week.

1. The above mentioned empathy for those struggling members departed from a community is genuinely my motivation for this post — but is also perhaps a topic of reflection due to the sad announcement we will be leaving the USA, where my husband is currently employed. I am so, so sad to be leaving Orange County but I need to do my PhD fieldwork in Australia. I *think* this is temporary, but I don’t actually know. It’s a crazy time for us. I love my North Hills congregation, so peeps, let’s just deal with this sans crying, and other unexpected stuff, or I will hug you like a turtle, which is just super awkward. I hate leaving but I think the USA will be slightly better than our Italian church friends who plead just like an ancient civilization well-schooled in persuasion. “Bella! You staaay with us! You come and live here!” …. ohhhh… I hate goodbyes.