Thursday, August 02, 2007

Us and Hillsong

by Nathan Brown

Even before its release this week (in Australia), Tanya Levin’s People in Glass Houses had received significant attention. Slated for publication earlier this year, her then-publisher withdrew from the project, prompted by fears of legal repercussions. But, known around the world for their music and seen by many as the smiling face of contemporary Christianity and Australia’s only real megachurch, an alternative perspective on Hillsong was always going to be of significant interest to religion-watchers of all kinds, so it is hardly surprising Levin’s book soon found another publisher willing to take it on.

What is surprising is that Levin’s book—billed as an exposĂ© of Hillsong—is more a personal story of faith, questions and doubt, set against the backdrop of the rapidly growing suburban Sydney congregation. Levin began attending Hills Christian Life Centre—as it was then known—with her family and grew up as a member of the church. But at key points in her life, the faith she had been taught seemed to let her down and as the questions grew so did her reservations about the organisation of which she was a part.

What is also surprising is how much I identified with Levin’s experiences and questions. Having also grown up in a conservative Australian church community in the 1980s and 90s, I could at least understand some of her perspectives, even if not agreeing with all her conclusions. While taking little comfort that others also experience our challenges, it can be helpful in understanding ourselves.

Of course, Hillsong has its own idiosyncrasies—which are the selling points of Levin’s book—including the scandal of prosperity theology and those leaders who benefit most from organizations dedicated to putting it into multi-million dollar practice, as well as the potential for growing political influence through close association with both Family First and the current Australian government. But because our “worldly successes” are less obvious or known does not mean we should be immune from at least self-examination.

Indeed, Levin’s only mention of Seventh-day Adventists comes with the curious description of us as those “who sit on the Pentecostal periphery as honorary citizens” and is used in contrast with gracious and accepting social work of the Salvation Army, with whom Levin has worked as a social worker. Given a choice, it seems obvious which model of Christianity we would do better to be identified with. Jesus urged the answer in Matthew 5:16: “Let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”*

Perhaps we need to come up with new ways and new models of thinking about what it means to be a church. On her closing page, Levin quotes one of her (still Hillsong-going) friends, telling her about “an Emerging Church, a new Christian movement who are very cross with the prosperity family and while not yet gaining the airtime, want to take Christianity’s future back to where it was supposed to be, saving the world.”

I confess to some less-than-positive motivations for leaping into Levin’s book with such interest. But was a little unnerved and challenged to learn more about my own faith and church in this roundabout way.

Arriving at the end of the book, I prayed for Tanya Levin—and for all those who have been abused and messed up by religion in so many ways, who have rejected a faith that is more about fear than about hope, more fundamentalism than freedom, more about power, money, programs, buildings and appearances than it is about people, and more about us than about God. They are right to reject religion, because what they have seen and experienced of it—even in our churches—is wrong.

So how do we do it better? In our culture, it isn’t easy to be a successful church. And if a church is successful, it is likely to be criticized, sometimes excessively or unduly. Neither is it easy to be a faithful church. But we do have some more solid guidelines on faithfulness:

“So be careful how you live, not as fools but as those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity for doing good in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but try to understand what the Lord wants you to do” (Ephesians 5:15-17).


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