Profit for Prophets

Transcript from Insight – SBS June 5, 2003


As many Christian churches struggle to get people through the doors on Sundays, one church is thriving. Hillsong is the country's fastest growing congregation. It, like many Charismatic churches, attracts thousands every weekend with an energetic brand of religion known as 'prosperity preaching'. But it also has a growing army of opponents concerned at what they see as an ungodly emphasis on money and materialism. Lara Cole reports.


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REPORTER: Lara Cole The mood is upbeat, the music pumping. The crowd, mainly young and well dressed. This is church, Hillsong-style.


REVEREND DAVID MILLIKAN, UNITING CHURCH MINISTER: You go to a charismatic church and the place is jumping, it's alive, so in that sense, they are offering something really positive to the Australian Christian scene.


Hillsong is the country's fastest growing Christian church. It operates two major worship centres, one in Sydney's north-western suburbs, the other in the inner city, with affiliated branches throughout the country. Each weekend, Hillsong attracts thousands through its doors. But it hasn't yet achieved its ultimate goal, detailed on the Hillsong website. “The church that I see is a church of influence - a church so large in size that the city and nation cannot ignore it.”


Hillsong is broadcast in over 100 countries around the world but while the church wants influence, it doesn't like media attention. Despite numerous approaches, the church refused to be involved in this story, forcing our cameras to stay outside. The reason could be the growing number of Christians who disapprove of what it does.


CHERILYN EVANS: Hillsong takes the approach that they need to market Christ and people like myself find that really offensive.


REVEREND DAVID MILLIKAN: I mean, in this astonishing sort of way, they've actually turned the teaching of Jesus on its head - all that stuff about the ambiguity of wealth which Jesus talked about. Jesus wasn't against wealth in itself, but he kept warning people about the seductions of wealth.


BRIAN HOUSTON, CHURCH HEAD: The scripture teaches me I was saved and called according to his good purpose and grace.


Hillsong describes itself as "contemporary and relevant" but there are people both within Christian circles and in the secular world who dislike its strong emphasis on money.


BRIAN HOUSTON: Have you got a sense of direction in terms of your career? Have you got a sense of direction in terms of your finances? Have you got a sense of direction in terms of your Christian service?


The critics call this "prosperity preaching" or "prosperity gospel".


STEVE BRADBURY, DIRECTOR, TEAR AUSTRALIA: The teaching that I get sort of concerned about is that prosperity teaching which says, "God wants every person to be wealthy and rich."


BRIAN HOUSTON: Taking responsibility, taking accountability is KEY to you having an INCREDIBLE year.


And Hillsong may find the term "prosperity preaching" offensive.


BRIAN HOUSTON: Do you really know where you're going?


Brian and Bobbie Houston, the husband and wife team who head up the church, believe their message is bigger than that, but even so, inside their multimillion-dollar complex, credit card slips are left on chairs. The congregation is encouraged to pray to help sell their homes, pay off their loans or find better jobs. This is an example from the Hillsong website: “Two weeks ago, I asked for financial assistance for my mum who was struggling. Yesterday, she was offered a car, a job and a house to live in - praise God.” In the foyer, shelves are filled with Brian and Bobbie Houston's tapes and publications. Titles include 'You Need More Money' and 'Employed, Prosperous and Happy'. Success, in particular financial success, is the Word of God, according to Hillsong, and as proof, they turn to the Bible: "For then you will make your way prosperous." "Bring all the tithes into the storehouse and all the nations will call you blessed." "For I know the thoughts and plans that I have for you, says the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future."


CHERILYN EVANS: We're just a little voice against this most powerful...


This focus on prosperity preaching has turned Cherilyn Evans into one of Hillsong's most outspoken critics. She feels her religion has been hijacked.


CHERILYN EVANS: When I first went there I thought it was a really nice church, it was a good church. Brian Houston was the second in charge there. His father, Frank Houston, was in charge and everyone referred to him as "the bishop".


PREACHER: You have a POWERFUL future if you build your life on the foundation and that foundation has gotta be God.


Cherilyn was in her 20s when she started going to the forerunner of Hillsong. It'd been set up by Frank Houston, Brian Houston's father, in the late 1970s. In those days, it a very different operation - run out of rented premises in these streets behind Sydney's busy nightclub district. But as time went on, Cherilyn says the need for money became more apparent.


CHERILYN EVANS: I remember Frank was really worried and if you had to go and get a pen from the stationery closet, they were worried, because they didn't have the money to support the church.


In 1983, Brian Houston saw the opportunity to move into Sydney's expanding north-western suburbs. He set up his own church at Baulkham Hills. Both Brian and his father Frank's churches would become Hillsong. Cherilyn says this was when the message from the pulpit started to change.


CHERILYN EVANS: I think it was Brian who had heard of a minister in America, an evangelist, who came out specifically to show the church how to raise money and I know that my friends were very uneasy about this.


BRIAN HOUSTON: God said, "I want to do great things through you."


CHERILYN EVANS: And he ran a program over a couple of weeks and he taught the leaders how to extract funds from the congregation. This went from the little kids in Sunday school - and I had a child in Sunday school at the time - right up to the adults.


BRIAN HOUSTON: If you wanna have a great year this year, you have to have a confidence in who you are.


CHERILYN EVANS: Now the way they did that was that they planted a vision. They said, "This is the vision for the church. You want to be a part of that vision and so this is what we're going to need from you." We had never had offering sermons, we had never had this kind of manipulation.


BRIAN HOUSTON: And the gates of Hell will not prevail...


With lessons learned, prosperity preaching began.


BRIAN HOUSTON: Friends, when God gives you the keys of the kingdom, it means that he gives you the keys to see the kingdom's answers working in your life. So you have the keys of blessing, the keys of freedom, the keys of healing, the keys of peace, the keys of victory, the keys of open doors, the keys of...of... of overcoming.


Hillsong the largest and most influential church of its kind in Australia. It dominates the Assemblies of God denomination. The group has grown aggressively in the last 15 years - in stark contrast to traditional Christian churches. At Hillsong, up to 14,000 flock to services every weekend. One of them is 22-year-old Ben Field.


BEN FIELD, MEMBER OF HILLSONG: I take the church as being my relationship with God and if this is where God wants me to be and this is where I'm being fed through his Word, then that's where I'll be. I think all those little things - it's not my personality to, sort of, think beyond that. For me, it's quite simple. For some people, not so much and they might dig in but personally for myself, it's quite simple.


For Ben, Hillsong complements his life. He's a successful assistant director on 'Home and Away' and engaged to one of the show's stars. Ben is sincerely committed to his faith.


BEN FIELD: Church is people, mainly, and it's not the building. It's people getting together and worshipping God. Whichever style of service that you like, I suppose, relates to you, you'll choose a church that fits.


So what do you think the first time you went along to the services?


BEN FIELD: I loved it. I thought it was great and I thought it was good that people were actually jumping around and having fun and being joyous about their belief and about their faith.


But for others, Hillsong is far from joyous. It expects its followers to fit its formula. Along with success, they're encouraged to be slim, attractive and well dressed - topics taught in courses run by Bobbie Houston, wife of the church's founder. For three years, Brett Biggs faithfully followed the gospel of prosperity.


BRETT BIGGS: And on the surface, everything was all, you know, true, correct and what, everything, but it never seemed to pan out exactly how they'd say it would and when it actually came to the crunch and you actually look at what's being said versus what might be in the Bible, the two don't necessarily go hand in hand.


Brett turned to a new pastor, Philip Powell. And as it turned out, he too had fled the prosperity preaching juggernaut.


PASTOR PHILIP POWELL, CHRISTIAN WITNESS MINISTRIES: "And because of them the way of truth will be maligned, will be spoken against."


Pastor Philip Powell sees himself as a Christian watchdog. He ministers to those disillusioned and damaged by prosperity preaching.


PASTOR PHILIP POWELL: I felt that there was a tendency to take the movement in the wrong direction. Particularly with people coming from overseas, notably from America. I believe that some of their messages were not correct - were not true, were not biblical - were not based on honesty and integrity, so I could see the tendency to go down that track.


DAVID MILLIKAN: Some people fall away because the charismatic movement doesn't deal with the nature of melancholy. I think being a believer in this world is in many ways a melancholy experience and the charismatic movement does not allow for melancholy. It allows only for victory and joy and happiness and success and prosperity. Now, that is an artificial state. You can't keep that going.


Currently gathering dust in Canberra is a recommendation for legislation against psychological harm inflicted by religious groups. Canberra academic and church critic Max Wallace wants to see such laws brought in.


MAX WALLACE, CHURCH COMMENTATOR: I believe that there should be some legislation, some comeback, so that if people come out of these groups in a devastated state, they should be able to take legal action. For example, in the United States, there's tort legislation called the Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress where you can sue in civil courts for financial damage that's been done to you.


Philip Powell's own religious beliefs are steeped in the evangelical Pentecostal tradition. After 16 years as a pastor in Manchester, the family moved to Australia in 1978. Here, Philip was pastor at churches in country Victoria and NSW. In 1989, he became general secretary of the Assemblies of God churches in Australia.


PASTOR PHILIP POWELL: I started to become ashamed of the Gospel that was being proclaimed in respect of, you know, position, prestige and personal finance and all that sort of thing. So I endeavoured, I suppose, to bring that out into the open, particularly as I was editor of the the 'Australian Evangel', by way of discussion and establish a platform for discussion. But it was quite clear that my colleagues didn't want that and, of course, I was in a minority and so ultimately that led to my resignation and I walked away from my position.


There was little compassion for this preacher who opposed Hillsong. Because of his opposition to prosperity preaching, Pastor Philip Powell lost the lot. He can no longer minister within the Assemblies of God and he's alienated from many of his former colleagues. Hillsong's leader, Brian Houston, publicly called him a 'pitiful man'.


PASTOR PHILIP POWELL: I'm disappointed, but I'm not angry. In fact, I'm grateful to the Lord for what happened because I believe he showed me certain things and took me out of it.


As a counter to Hillsong, he set up his own church, called the Christian Witness Ministers. From his home in Brisbane, Philip Powell devotes himself to exposing prosperity preaching wherever he finds it.


PASTOR PHILIP POWELL: Um, I heard of a church where they'll take up as many as three offerings and the pastor will sometimes count the offering after it's come in and say to the congregation, "We haven't got enough, we need some more." Now I am told that his pastoral staff, a lot of them drive around in very expensive sports cars, so, of course, they need money to maintain that. Well it comes back to this...


At prayer meetings like this, pastor Philip Powell prays for honesty and integrity to be restored. He offers special prayers for Brian Houston and Hillsong.


PASTOR PHILIP POWELL: Brian Houston says that what he teaches in his book are biblical principles of how to become wealthy. They're not really. I mean, he gets several things mixed up. He mixes the 'Old Testament' up with the 'New Testament'. He mixes the old covenant up with the new covenant and he mixes commercial principles up with biblical principles with respect to the kingdom of God.


PASTOR BILL RANDLES, US EVANGELIST: It would do no good to talk about positive confession and all this sort of stuff. Money preaching. At the root of it all of it is false view of God.


While prosperity preaching came from America, so do its critics.


PASTOR BILL RANDLES: It's a seduction, they tell you what want to hear. They flatter you and tell you that, you know, the secret, the lean company with the secret knowledge.


Bill Randles' sermons sound like the fire and brimstone of America's bible belt.


PASTOR BILL RANDLES: Who really owns God? Who really does know God and what does it mean to know God?


But Bill is no prosperity preacher. He's written three books criticising it and now travels the world spreading his message.




In Sydney, he attacked Hillsong and it's book 'Kingdom Women Love Sex'.


PASTOR BILL RANDLES: What would it be in people that would draw them to the Houstons' with their message of prosperity and sexuality and all of that, what's in us? There's a book out called 'Kingdom Women Love Sex'. I mean, try to picture Jesus and the apostles promoting anything like that, you know. This is, even by worldly standards, this is crass, this is no tag, no taste. It's not of God. I'm here to call you back to the old thing.


Pastor Randles knows what he's talking about. He used to be a follower of prosperity preaching.


PASTOR BILL RANDLES: There was a pivotal point where I was at a pastors' conference and which a man drove in with a vanity licence plate that said "I am a god" with a little 'g' and when I saw that licence plate, it forced me to re-examine everything I believed. I had to go back to the beginning. It was a very painful experience and it took about five years.


WOMAN: I'm tired of wallowin' in sin and being defeated.


These people believe they've been touched by God. This is the Toronto blessing. And for Cherilyn Evans, it was her pivotal point, her road to Damascus.


CHERILYN EVANS: I went to a service one night and I saw a man called Tim Hall, an evangelist, who was pushing everyone over. And so I just again, got my daughter and walked out and I said, "Look, I'm not going to go back while that's going on. I don't believe that's right. There's no precedent for it in the Bible."


PREACHER: This place shall be crowded with people who shall seek after God...


After becoming disillusioned with these outlandish displays, Cherilyn went back to her family church in Sydney's southern suburbs, but even there, things began to change.


PREACHER: It will be a nation church that will be known from one end of the earth to the other.


A new preacher was installed by Frank Houston at the church.


MICHAEL MURPHY, PREACHER: Summary presentation of some of the prophetic words of God to Shire Christian Centre.


Michael Murphy had done his apprenticeship at Hillsong. Under his stewardship, the church adopted a Hillsong look.


CHERILYN EVANS: What I left in the city and went back to my home church to avoid is now what is in place in that home church. There is no option. If you do not go along with Hillsong, you do not have an option.


Cherilyn did have one option available to her and that was to leave.


CHERILYN EVANS: We tried at the time. Hundreds of people went to Mike Murphy and said, "We don't agree with what's going on in this church and we do not believe in this prosperity preaching. We do not believe in this gospel."


Cherilyn intends to keep up her campaign.


CHERILYN EVANS: They can preach their message from their own church, they can tell people what colours to wear and how to make a lot of money, and I won't like it and I'll talk about it amongst my friends about it. But when they take over my church, then I have to speak out.


PASTOR PHILIP POWELL: Largely speaking, I think they try to ignore us but occasionally we do prompt a response.


While Hillsong generally ignores its critics, other opinion leaders are taking notice. In the week following the tragic Bali bombing in October last year, PM John Howard took time out of his busy schedule to open Hillsong's new $25 million complex.


BRIAN HOUSTON: I know our PM is amongst friends tonight. You know, isn't it incredible, in the middle of such a big week that he'd take the time out to come to Hillsong Church and open our building. So give our PM a big warm welcome as he comes to share with us. Wonderful.


JOHN HOWARD, PM: a bit friendlier than Parliament. You started with 45, I'm told. 45 - I don't believe it. I cannot believe there were only ever 45 in this congregation. You've gone from 45 at your first service in 1983 to a congregation of over 14,000. I've gotta tell you that I don't think there's any side of Australian politics that could do a branch stack as good as that.


DAVID MILLIKAN: Mainstream Christianity is a restless member and has a restless and somewhat troubled relationship with government. It always has and it always should. But Hillsong tends to sit much more passively within that relationship because in a sense, they support the principles of a free market operation. And they can certainly put their hands on a lot more money than any bishop can in Australia. So sooner or later that is going to work out in terms of their increased influence in the decision-making bodies within Australia.


PREACHER: Therefore we dedicate every investment of time, of finance, of energy.


God also seems to be helping their church leaders live a very desirable lifestyle.


CHERILYN EVANS: They have become superstars, they have become unapproachable.


DAVID MILLIKAN: It is fundamental to the image of charismatic leaders that they themselves show the benefits of this teaching. So they tend to live lavish and exuberant and prosperous lifestyles.


Max Wallace is writing a book on tax exemptions enjoyed by Australian churches. He believes this tax-free status allows new corporate churches to become incredibly wealthy. And he says these financial benefits accrue whether they're engaged in charity work or not.


MAX WALLACE, CHURCH COMMENTATOR: It is often the case that these small groups do do some charitable work. But I know of some groups that have been in existence in Australia for quite some period of time and that have memberships of around 70,000 to 80,000 people and have no charitable organisations at all. Any donations they receive, any income they generate, is all tax exempt and there is no reason why their wealth won't increase exponentially into the future. And my view is that if Australian taxpayers are giving them this privilege, they should put something back into the community.


Like so many other Christian churches, Hillsong has had its share of scandals.


BRIAN HOUSTON: I've faced challenges and have had to face challenges over the last several years.


Brian Houston expelled his father, Frank, after Frank Houston confessed to paedophilia. The offences took place while Frank Houston was a minister in New Zealand. But in the long run, the challenge Hillsong faces is to defend its get rich doctrine as it's that which will cause the deepest chasm within mainstream Christianity.


DAVID MILLIKAN: If they have something of significance for the future of Christianity, instead of hiving off and going about their business building their empires, they should begin to argue the case and persuade us recalcitrant critics in the mainstream denominations and do the hard work, do the hard theological work, do the hard intellectual work. At the moment that's not happening.


BRIAN HOUSTON: And you have the great privilege tonight to be the first of a multitude of people that are going to be baptised in this water in Jesus name.


But for every person disillusioned by what they find at Hillsong, there are plenty more prepared to take the plunge.


BRIAN HOUSTON: Amen! Yes! Who's next? Where's the next one?