Hang on, that’s a balanced Hillsong article!

July 7, 2011 was a big day for Hillsong. Not only was it the penultimate day of its 25th anniversary Hillsong conference at Darling Harbour, but also the day the Sydney Morning Herald printed a reasonably intelligent, mainly positive article about the mega-church.

Having taken to task the SMH several times for its mindless bias against Hillsong, which has seen the paper link the church with negative stories to which it has no actual connection, I thought it only fair to highlight the opposite.

Writer Ross Cameron describes how some friends visiting from England explain “they want to see Hillsong” and concludes with:

“Hillsong avoids many of the excesses of American TV spirituality. It’s delivered in the Australian vernacular and it respects the audience enough to make sure speakers know how to communicate. There are elements that don’t suit me, but Hillsong is changing people’s lives for the better. Some theological custodians argue Hillsong is just the power of positive thinking with a patina of Jesus. But even if that were true, would it be a bad thing? I would prefer being uplifted than depressed and it’s clearly better than my default position – lying on the couch with a coffee, The Insiders and three newspapers.

“Sydneysiders have taken a certain pleasure in finding fault with this church, and most have no idea of its impact. Hillsong is throwing modern Christianity a lifeline, while reaching out to others in a life beyond self.”
At last glance, there were 163 comments on the article with many agreeing that it is good to see a “positive Hillsong article from SMH for a change”. As usual, wherever there is a positive potrayal of Christianity, the evangelistic atheists are in a commenting frenzy with their usual taunts of “imaginary friends” and “sky fairy”.
Read more at the Sydney Morning Herald.
Previous Hillsong posts:


Where to with Utterance?

So, I’ve had a very long case of writer’s block. More writer’s coma than block. More writer’s near-death experience than coma. More…

Anyway, I’m just searching for that sweet-spot of an idea for what to do next. Don’t tell me, I’ll get it eventually.

In the meantime, it did spark my interest that the 7pm Project discussed falling church attendances tonight. Tellingly, they quoted no hard statistics, quoted a minister from a denomination with famously declining membership due to its abandonment of faith, and quoted an atheist who is too young to have any idea if there is a God or not because he hasn’t lived long enough to have a single conviction tested. Or so it seemed to me.

Host Carrie Bickmore admitted her mother had dragged her along to Hillsong, Steve Price had the usual hackneyed response about churches and money and Hughesy said that if it makes people happy and gives them good values then what’s the problem. The too-young-to-know atheist pondered what would happen without the community  that religion provides, but failed to give an alternative.

Oh, and by the way, on a different note, I’m reading my first Ernest Hemingway book, Death in the Afternoon, which is non-fiction and about bullfighting… well, it was the only Hemingway available at Leichhardt Library – but already I’ve gained a few insights into his approach to writing, which may or may not be a good thing.

Flurry of faith covers chaplains, cricket and caravan parks

The Sydney Morning Herald has started the year with a flurry of faith-related articles.

The church cricket competition, in which your’s truly plays (off to training this afternoon…), gets a mention in Cricket’s culture club hardest one to join.

That famous Australian Christian institution, beach mission, is covered favourably in Sun and salvation make a divine holiday for fun-seeking souls. And while this generous portrayal may be a pleasant surprise, it is unsurprising that David Marr has dug up some criticism of the highly acclaimed school chaplaincy program. Read his article (and what about sending in a letter to the editor in response?), Chaplains in schools are ‘inadequately supervised’.

It may be a new year, but the struggle in which all the world is involved, of ideas, reality, relationships and the true nature of personhood and love, continues unabated.

‘Jesus had two daddies too…’

Guido Reni's Joseph with the Infant Jesus, abo...
Image via Wikipedia

Sitting in a Christmas Eve service I was enjoying a short film from the kids of St Paul’s in New Zealand, when a phrase spoken by one of the children went off in my head like a gun.

‘Jesus had two daddies, God and Joseph…’

While people sometimes stumble over the paternal origins of Jesus, the children who made this Christmas film had no trouble accepting that there were, in some sense, two fathers in Jesus’ life.

And why would the kids of today have trouble with this concept when so many of them live with this reality, and even more complex ones.

In the work in which I’m currently involved, I spend much of my time with children and young people coming to terms with a constellation of adults who represent mother and father figures to them.

It is particularly difficult at times for foster children, who find themselves in a loving foster home with carers they regard as their mummy and daddy, while at the same time having regular contact with other people who are, in many cases, equally loving parents.

It is one of the main challenges of child protection globally to know how to resolve this issue in a healthy and a whole way, for the benefit of the child. It rarely is easy and often encounters incredible difficulties.

Hundreds and thousands of foster children will be faced with this dilemma this Christmas season and how well they negotiate it will depend a lot on the selflessness and security of the adults involved.

Then there is that other broad category of children who have multiple parental relationships – those from families touched by divorce.

Perhaps for the first time it occurred to me, during the Christmas eve service, that Jesus had found yet another way to identify with the heartache of this world – represented by the complexity of having two dads.

I know it’s different, and I know having God for a dad is unique, but in the moment that child spoke these words, ‘Jesus had two daddies’ I knew many children would feel happy to hear that they were not alone in working this out.

For many years I have attended church and was aware of and in touch with global poverty, local disadvantage, the ravages of substance abuse and the struggle of mental illness, but I had scant knowledge of the hundreds and thousands of children balanced in the fulcrum of parental responsibility. Who has responsibility for them – mum and/or dad? Uncle and/or aunt? The government and its delegated foster carers? Or have they taken responsibility for themselves at far too tender ages?

Jesus had two dads who both took responsibility for aspects of childhood wellbeing. We live in a time when more and more children are finding their parents will not or cannot take responsibility for them. These are rarely clear-cut or easy decisions.

Stepping into this breach are a range of government and non-government caseworkers, relative and foster carers trying to replicate the love and belonging of birth family, something that is remarkably hard to do. And yet many do it well – and deserve special recognition and thanks.

So if you are going to pray this Christmas, spare a line or two for kids with too many parents or too few; for parents who have lost their kids and can’t seem to work it out; for carers who are family and those who are not, who raise kids with love; and for government and non-government workers who try to put this stuff together, usually with not a thanks to be found. Happy Christmas. Jesus had two daddies too…

Enabling churches to be more inclusive

‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ Luke 14:21

Christian Blind Mission Australia has long worked with the disadvantaged across the globe but has recently fixed its gaze on an apparent injustice closer to home.

According to a CBM, disability ministry is a growing need yet only 5 per cent of Australian churches have any intentional programs to include people with disabilities.

Inspired by Jesus’ call in Luke 14, CBM Australia has developed a program of the same name that seeks to better equip churches to meet to be more inclusive of people with a disability.

Information about the launch of the program says:Luke14 is a CBM initiative aimed at equipping churches to welcome and include people with a disability. It is a process that assists churches to both reach in to improve church access and understanding, and reach out to offer support and friendship to people and families living with a disability in the community.

‘Many Australians living with disabilities aren’t a part of a caring church family, let alone involved in ministry. Luke14 seeks to help make our churches places where every person is appreciated, welcomed and encouraged to serve.’ 

CBM’s Luke14 will be launched with special guest speaker Therese Rein, wife of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, at St Anne’s Ryde Anglican Church Conference Centre on Thursday, November 25 at 9,30am and in Wollongong at Figtree Anglican Church on November 26 at 9.30am. Both launches are free. Check out the CBM website for details.

Farewell institutional power, hello grassroots influence

Sermon on the Mount by Bloch. Image: Wikipedia

Churches have probably lost the fight against the NSW Government’s plan to introduce ethic classes in public schools at the same time as optional special religious education.

Education Minister Verity Firth is glowingly positive about the review of the classes and while there are no plans to remove SRE, the once ‘sacred’ right to offer Scripture without competition in NSW public schools will soon be a thing of the past.

Of course this is a manifestation of a wider truth that the church has lost much of its institutional power and perhaps in the future will lose even more.

There are positives though and the main one is that if churches and Christians learn they can’t rely on a privileged institutional role in society, they may finally revert to the ancient source of Christian vitality –  personal and community transformation through offering real life encounters with a living God.

This of course can’t be done any other way than through authentic relationship and engagement with people of all kinds.

Grassroots influence verses institutional authority – which one sounds more like Jesus?Read More »

Suffer into Freshness

I wrote this poem on my phone, hence the short lines and meter. Clearly some angst on this particular day…

Suffer into Freshness

Is there a faith that is safe
From fading vacuous jargon
And well-intentioned simpletons
Who trample through the garden?

The further I remove myself
From religious ways of thinking
The more I notice emptiness
And sentiment that’s sinking.

Is this a sign of my decline
Into a heart that’s hardened?
Or a clearing of my sight
To metamorphing pardon.Read More »

Are we missing the very frontline of faith?

The Australian community is engaged in an extremely active and vigorous debate about the reality of God and I’m not sure the church at large is even aware it is going on.

While we faithful pray in our services and gatherings that God would move in our land, we may be missing the very answer to those prayers. (Try and stay with me my atheist readers, I know your blood pressure just rose at the mention of answered prayer.)

One of the first signs of spiritual revival might well be that people are even thinking about first order issues such as the origins and nature of life, is there supernatural or spiritual reality or only a material universe, and if religious claims are true how do we deal with many apparent contradictions and problems.

These kinds of questions are often and vigorously debated mainly in online forums and often in response to an increasing number of articles in the media addressing these questions from one perspective or another.

I can assure you this was not the case 10 or 20 years ago when most Australians didn’t want to discuss faith at all and where apathy and materialism (in this sense of material gain) seemed far more important.Read More »

How will we create in 2020?

Ever wondered where the rapid spread and influence of technology, particularly in the area of digital communication, is taking us?

Author John Maeda has some interesting ideas of what our lives might look like in 2020. For him, digital technology will become more of an unconscious norm leaving us free to major on more nuanced, creative and physical realities.

‘We’ll witness a return to the integrity of craft, the humanity of authorship, and the rebalancing of our virtual and physical spaces. We’ll see a 21st-century renaissance in arts- and design-centered approaches to making things, where you-the individual-will take centre stage in culture and commerce.’

This may have implications for churches (and already is) where technology allows small, boutique churches to be heavily related to their own indigenous culture while powerfully connected in an organic way to global communities.

Read Maeda’s full article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

How will Julia Gillard appeal to Christian voters?

Julie Gillard’s rise today to Prime Minister came just a few days too late for the thousands of Christians who watched Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott perform in the Make it Count webcast on Monday night.
Now it is back to the drawing board for Christian voters with a new Labor leader and Christian leaders, churches and commentators will be anxious to see where Gillard stands on various issues of importance to the Christian community.
Learn more about our first female and first foreign-born Prime Minister at Australian Christian Voter.

Prayer without walls but with Walkman

Mike walked into the prayer meeting, bare-chested, track pants low and blue headphones from his Walkman dangling over his ears.

He sat in various locations, including spread-legged on the floor.  The flow of prayer continued on around him.

While not phased by someone off the street suddenly appearing (relationship is a great leveller), there may have been a subtle shift in the group’s prayer to cover Mike, but not conspicuously.

Mike is a strong, nearly 40 man with partly shaven, partly spiked hair, a keen intelligence and the demeanour of an 11-year-old at a party. He can have an angry streak – I have talked him down from an Ice-induced rage on one occasion – but it was no where in sight this night.

‘Can I borrow your vacuum cleaner to vacuum my flat and then bring it right back,’ he said in a loud whisper to Patrick as the prayers continued. Pat quietly suggested they talk about it later.

He continued to find new seats and at times the music in his headphones was so loud, pray-ers had to lift their volume to compete. A gentle wave from one participant, suggesting he turn it down, was greeted with an obliging thumbs up.

As Mike got more jumpy, not in a disturbing way, but slightly distracting, I decided to invite him out to the kitchen for a cup of tea.

He gladly came. ‘Tea or coffee?’ I asked. ‘Tea,’ he said. ‘I like coffee but you said tea and tea reminds me of my grandmother. Can I have three sugars?’

I started preparing the tea and he asked me my name. When I told him he said, ‘I had an uncle named Peter. He was the shepherd of the family, that’s what my grandmother used to say. He was the only one to keep in touch while I was in gaol.’

‘That’s great, that there was someone like that in the family, who would keep an eye out for you,’ I replied.

‘Yeah it was good, although he did steal all the money I had saved up,’ he said. I was stunned by his gentle correction of my appraisal. ‘Well it sounds like he had a good heart, even if he made a few mistakes,’ I said.

‘Yeah, a good heart, even if it was false,’ he said, with no sign of malice. There was no way he was letting Uncle Peter of the hook even though he seemed well disposed to him.

Just as I was feeling a bit clever that I had successfully diverted Mike from disturbing the prayer team, he grabbed his cup of tea and said, ‘Can I go back out there?’ And before I had time to reply he took off, cup in hand, and I hurried after him with mine, realising I didn’t really want a cup of tea.

Mike sat in various locations again, spilt and then finished his tea and became perhaps a little too animated during some passionate prayer.

Finally, the leader of the meeting wound things up and asked if he could pray for Mike. He readily agreed to the prayer and to a hand being laid gently on his shoulder. The prayer began, with Mike giving a whispered sub-text.

‘Lord, deliver Mike from a spirit of fear and a spirit of rejection,’ Rick prayed with strength.

‘Cook it up!’ encouraged Mike.

‘And we pray against the spirit of violence that  troubles Mike.’

‘And that has disappeared,’ stresses Mike.

‘And Lord, let your love and your peace cover and fill him.’

‘Finally!’ Mike says.

With encouraging Amens, the prayer ends and Mike stands up, gazes around and with a big smile says, ‘That was great, and it was all true, all true. Look, I’m getting my goosebumps back, look at them all on my arms.’

Just another day at the church with no walls… PH

Names changed, true story. Creative non-fiction, Christian style…

Political leaders to address Christians across the nation

If your ear is aching, it probably has more to do with a fast approaching federal election than the onset of winter.

But don’t give up now – it’s time to cut through the wordfest and consider seriously how Christians should act as the nation decides its immediate future. If you are passionate about issues ranging from R-rated games to refugees, millenium goals to marriage support – you need to keep your ears and eyes open!

An excellent opportunity to do this has been organised by Australian Christian Lobby who have confirmed June 21 as the date for the Make It Count election webcast. 

Make it Count 2010 will see Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott address Christians and answer questions from Christian leaders in a live webcast to churches throughout Australia from Canberra’s Old Parliament House.

A similar event held before the 2007 federal election saw John Howard and Kevin Rudd address 100,000 Christians meeting at 846 churches across Australia.

ALC hopes to triple those numbers in 2010 – to register your church visit  www.australiavotes.org . PH

Farm in a bag brings food to the slums

The greatest population  movement in human history is underway as people on all continents leave rural areas and flood into ever-larger cities.

Africa is no exception and one community organisation has devised a way to bring the farm to the city, even the crowded slums of Nairobi, Kenya.

Life is hard in Nairobi’s densely populated slums but thanks to the innovative farm-in-a-sack project, some residents at least are able to return to their agricultural roots.

Poor families in the Mathare slum are given more than 40 seedlings which can be grown into food in just a few weeks. And even though the streets are narrow and garbage is strewn everywhere, mini-farms are cropping up on spare land.

The project was started by the Italian organisation Cooperazione Internazionale  (COOPI), which brought in rural agriculturists to teach community groups how to create vegetable farms in the slums.

COOPI provided each participating household with one sack containing soil mix and 43 seedlings to cultivate: 25 spinach, 15 kale, 2 capsicum and 1 spring onion. 

The vegetables can be harvested many times for at least one year. Capsicum and spring onions provide passive pest control instead of chemicals while the spinach is a rapid growing source of nutrition – sometimes even growing out of the side of the sack before being properly planted.

Claudio Torres, from COOPI, said of the project: ‘There are two effects. First people really have more food,  nutrition and micronutrients. But also, this brings together the community.’

Earlier this year, it was inspiring to meet in Sydney Pastor Evans Mage from Nairobi who is planting churches through the slums. How amazing it would be to join his spiritual planting with this natural planting, to truly change lives. PH (Source: CNN)

Royal Non-Easter Show bans Jesus

The Bible Society NSW  has been excitedly informing churches about its Easter All About Life stall at the Sydney Royal Easter Show with more than 200 volunteers arranged and thousands of resources purchased.

Then news broke that the stall would not go ahead because it was of a ‘religious nature’ and so the Bible Society hurriedly organised to re-distribute the Easter eggs, tracts, and Scripture resources to churches and Christian organisations for use in their own Easter activities.

Bible Society NSW, organiser of the Jesus All About Life (JAAL) multimedia campaign, has expressed dismay at not being allowed to have a JAAL stall at the Show.

‘It’s a curious thing that an event bearing the name “Easter” has disallowed anything to do with the very thing Easter is all about – the death and resurrection of Jesus,’ says CEO of Bible Society NSW, Daniel Willis.

Curious indeed… Perhaps it is concern that if one religious group is allowed entry then the floodgates will open. Surely it would be possible to carefully monitor this without the need for outright bans.

Or perhaps it is that the focus is agriculture but if that is the reasoning, they should say goodbye to side-shows and other entertainment. Afterall, it is in the country areas of Australia where churches traditionally play such a huge part in community life so to keep them out of the show seems downright un-agricultural!

Maybe the right response of the church is to withdraw permission for the Royal Agricultural Society to use the word ‘Easter’ in the show’s name on the basis that it is not of a religious nature… PH – with thanks to Eternity newspaper for some details.

Living a life of action

To some, living a life of action might suggest bungy jumping and skydiving. But according to dynamic-speaking-duo, Jeremy and Catherine Hallett (Eternity, March 28), it runs much deeper than extreme sports.

The ‘why’ of living a life of action is to glorify God and see his kingdom advance.

The ‘what’ is to move from apathy (going through the motions) to action to kingdom by identifying ourselves as followers of Christ and stepping into a new boldness.

The ‘who’ of a life of action is everyone, or more specifically, everyone who makes themselves available. The ‘when’ is now and forever, in season and out of season – providing we have taken time out to hear what God wants us to do.

The ‘where’ of living a life of action is to start at home – our relationships, family, daily lives – and allow God to grow it from there.

Finally, the ‘how’ will be different for everyone but starts with rejecting fear and embracing the truth that God gives us abundant life.

Hear anything good at church today? Add it as a comment! PH

Imagine beyond what we think we’ve learned

When Jesus reiterated the command to love God  (Mark 12:30)with everything we have he included the mind in the sense of our faculty for deep thought or imagination.

The human capacity to see something first in our imagination before seeing it formed (by the work of our hands or words of our mouth) is drawn from the very image of Creator God who spoke into being what he held in his heart.

Mark Youens, speaking this week in Port Macquarie, challenged the church to rediscover imagination. Just as Einstein’s creative approach to physics led to many of his great discoveries such as the theory of relativity, so too church leaders need to look afresh at the church to see what the real ‘constants’ are. Perhaps, Mark said, it is not Sunday services and church buildings but the making of disciples (Matthew 28:19-20).

Imagination is the ‘playground of the prophetic’ but there are also vain imaginations, such as the kind that led to the Tower of Babel. These imaginations are empty and profitless, manipulated as they are by human ambition.

Too often the church fails in imagination, Mark said, because its leaders have become institutionalised, begging the question, ‘Can we imagine beyond what we think we have learned?’ Another cause is that our imagination is manipulated by our own reason. We take what God has given creatively and make it less so we can hold it more easily in our hands. ‘Some things are never meant to be held in our hands,’ Mark said.

It is a season to re-imagine the kingdom of God as opposed to being preoccupied with the singular goal of building large churches.

Imagine if… PH

Can we co-exist downtown and in the church

I’ve never listened to singer Patty Griffin but the title of her latest album, Downtown Church, grabbed my attention, being part of an inner city church myself.

Bernard Zuel opens his Saturday SMH review of the album with words that give us great insight into the intersection of faith and culture. Zuel, as far as I know, is not a person of religious persuasion, making his words all the more instructive:

“…this is not an album for Sunday morning coming down but for coming up. It’s a gospel record for the not-necessarily religious by a woman in the prime of her songwriting and singing life who grew up Catholic but understands that faith (held and lost) and redemption (sought but not always found) aren’t just matters of pews and pulpits.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Bernard. One day I hope you’ll discover for yourself that Christians aren’t (all) plastic and religious but can be real and honest and broken and hurting and alive and full of faith all at the same time.

He concluded his review, commenting on some of the tracks on the album, with further, almost prophetic, insight:

“…that special ache Griffin specialises in: neither outright sadness nor comfortably accommodated acceptance. That they fit seamlessly within this quasi-religious setting explains why Griffin can co-exist in downtown and the church – and make you feel like you could too.”

Better find me a Patty Griffin album. Oh, and by the way, Bernard, I might be able to introduce you to a ‘downtown’ church you may enjoy. PH