Before reading the article by Steve West, it is important to understand who Steve West was.
Steve studied for his Diploma in Christian Ministry at Hillsong International Leadership College in 2001 and 2002.
During that time he served in most ministry areas – kids, youth, carpark, sound, new Christians, offering collection and ushering. He worked closely with many leaders and gave virtually all his available time and money to the church, volunteering at all conferences in that time and spending an average of six to seven days a week at Hillsong Church. He progressed to an effective pastor position at an affiliated church and ran a local young adults ministry effectively for several years.
With this in mind, Steve West wrote the following article.
Modern Pentecostalism in Australia Part 1
by Steve West on Saturday, 24 April 2010 at 19:45 ·
Christians, particularly of the Pentecostal variety, are keenly concerned with the motives of an individual. So let me begin with that. My motive here is as one who has a keen desire that true and Godly religion be promoted everywhere, that a rich and vital Christianity be presented attractively to people everywhere. The Christian religion itself demands that we recognise our flaws (confession of sins) before we go on to create something new (holy living). So please, no more patronising nonsense about how wrong it is to highlight flaws in the church. If we are not keenly judging ourselves, we leave ourselves open for others to judge us. If your faith is so rocky, and your trust in the church so precarious that you cannot afford to read a frank document like the one I am presenting here – then don’t read it. Exercise sound judgement. I’m not going to baby you.
I think someone who dismisses me as a bitter cynic does wrong as well. I have cared deeply about the church and given many years of my life to ministry, inside and outside the church, on a volunteer basis. If you wish to dismiss as a mere cynic, then you are being unwise. The stronger person shall listen carefully to such heartfelt and considered criticism (and of course decide what to take on board or disregard). I do not believe my thoughts are without substance or unwarranted. If you are used to dismissing criticism out of hand because criticism is ungodly, then you are a fool. Read the book of Proverbs to see how important it is to be able to take criticism constructively. Maybe you can be the one to make profound change that helps the church. I tried. But I did not succeed.
So what is my evaluation of the pentecostal church?
Demographics and the need for genuine Missiology
Well, first of all, I wish to challenge some myths that the Pentecostal church has historically perpetuated about itself.
Firstly, there is a demographic confidence held by the Pentecostals. My first point is that I wish to suggest that this is far more precarious than they would be willing to admit.
The Pentecostals, especially the mega churches, draw esteem from their attendance engines. They draw confidence in their status as one of the few church denominations that are growing in Australia. I am not so confident for them in this. Firstly, their growth is modest, and not explosive. Second, it is set in the context of a broader decline of Christianity in Australia; that is, growth in pentecostalism is nowhere near making up for the overall decline of Christianity in Australia. Third, a very high proportion of Pentecostal growth comes from church switchers, thereby marking the growth of Pentecostal churches as ‘cannibalising’ the Christian demographic in the country.
So what does this mean?
Well, by my understanding (ten years in pentecostal churches, three of which a church ministry leader) pentecostal culture and ministry is aimed at appealing to a Christian market, not to the broader society. Why is this?
Pentecostal churches are highly autonomous. Each congregation, excepting satellites, must be self-sufficient financially. There is no central denominational treasury, as per Anglicans, Catholics and others, that can support new or struggling congregations. Therefore, the entire emphasis in these churches is reaching self-sufficency and growth independently. The only way to achieve this is twofold: increased numbers and increased financial giving from those numbers. This creates the classic pentecostal emphasis – numbers of people and givng talks. In fact, the blessing of God, the anointing and prestige of a ministry etc is measured by those two factors. A leader of a church of 1000 has higher prestige than a leader of a church of 100. Of course there is a logic and a rationale to this. But it has some unfortunate side effects. And the discerning Christian leader must be able to see that this is resultant from a core pressure – the need to survive financially. Buildings and wages are paid from offerings. If the focus is not on building up a base that will pay these things, then the leader will lose his or her income, and their source of esteem. Therefore, what gets results is the key.
Only occassionally are pentecostal pastors so vulgar as to openly admit that numbers is what the game is all about. But it is obvious from their actions, if not their rhetoric, that it is. This leads to the great demographic danger of pentecostalism.
The easiest way to get numbers is to appeal to Christians, not non-Christians. Christians are the easiest group to get onside and activated, and to be motivated to give.
This means that the Pentecostal meeting is not geared to the long term success of a missional outreach. They are not interested in engaging in the discussions in wider society about faith and its outworking. This is because their target market is not interested in these things. Their target markert are already convinced about the merits of faith, all they want is a lively and fun expression of that faith. At this, the pentecostals excel.
However, by targeting such a narrow market, the pentecostal church in Australia has a very limited and precarious demographic future. The size of the church hopping market is shrinking. The other denominations are shrinking, and many are now leaving the pentecostal churches to return to denominations with a deeper tradition rising from their greater time to mature as organisation. I have been deeply unimpressed by the growth of the pentecostal church in the last decade, after it had advanced so remarkably in the two decades prior to that.
I attribute a good deal of this to the bizarre thinking of pentecostals, that prevents them seeing the demographic realities underlying their situation. They see church size as a function of anointing or similar. All ministries are judged on their size and incomes, not their undergirding health. As they are not geared to genuine outreach and engagement with mainstream Australia, but are geared as holding houses for Christians, they have effectively cut themselves from the biggest demographic in Australia.
It is my view that for its own good, the pentecostal church needs to extricate itself from some of its bizarre thinking habits and begin seeing things in a different light, or it shall continue to function as a bizarre peripheral culture that is largely incomprehensible to the Australian mainstream. In many respects, the culture gap seems to be growing, not narrowing, albeit, the pentecostals did do some good in this respect in their push for ‘relevant’ services.
(It should be noted that the push for relevance, by having light shows and rock style worship, alienated significant numbers of people. Western culture had come to associate holiness and godliness with certain forms, and when an individual who used those symbols sought holiness or godliness, the lack of those established norms within pentecostalism at times proved as much a barrier as a method of accessibility. Consider the man raised as a child on hymns. Reaching a stage of life where he wanted to get in touch with a God he felt he deserted, a lack of hymns would often be more a source of frustration than of ‘relevance’.)
Part 2 to follow.
Source: Steve West, Modern Pentecostalism in Australia Part 1, http://www.facebook.com/notes/steve-west/modern-pentecostalism-in-australia-part-1/419682131927, 24/04/2010. (Accessed 18/11/2012.)
(Disclaimer: The views of Steve West do not necessarily represent our own personal views. We have decided to publish his articles so people may witness his journey out of Hillsong.)
NOTE: SCREEN GRAB WAS TAKEN ON THE 18/11/2012.