Pentecostalism in Australia

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Inside Hillsong Church, AOG/ACC Church

Today the Australian Christian Churches, formerly known as the Australian Assemblies of God, is the oldest and longest lasting Pentecostal organization in Australia. The AOG/ACC is also the largest Pentecostal organization in Australia with over 200,000 members in 2009.[1] Hillsong Church is one of 10 megachurches in Australia associated with the ACC that have at least 2,000 members weekly.[2]

Scholars in recent years, such as Sam Hey, have noted the increase in Pentecostal membership began increasing in the 1970s with an increase in the 'youth generation.'[1]

Australian Pentecostalism began in the early 20th century under the leadership of Sarah Jane Lancaster.[3] The atmosphere was laid with Australia's colonization under the British Empire in the 18th century, its tradition of immigration, and non-class based society. Lancaster set up the first church called Good News Hall, and then merged with other burgeoning Pentecostal churches under the name Apostolic Faith Mission of Australia.[4] They experienced conflict and debate over Oneness theology, leading to disunity. In 1937, the Assemblies of God Queensland was formed from the splinter churches of the AFM and A.C. Valdez's Pentecostal Church of Australia.[3][5] This is the Assemblies of God that became known as Australian Christian Churches in 2007.

Early history[edit]

The creation of Australia as a prison colony for Great Britain caused the members of the colony early on to adapt to a non-class based system. The primary religion was Anglican, however the local people rejected Anglican authority on the grounds of their non-class based system. It was in this "free church" context that other religious traditions such as Catholicism and Methodism found adherents.[3] News of revivals happening worldwide reached Australia in the mid-19th century and similar stirrings began in Australia, particularly within Methodist circles of influence. It was with this backdrop that Sarah Jane Lancaster, the founder of the first Pentecostal church in Australia, practiced Methodism and began to learn about spiritual healing and related gifts of the Holy Spirit. She was introduced to Pentecostalism when she requested a pamphlet called "Back to Pentecost" from leadership in England. This pamphlet claimed that God had never revoked the gifts of the Holy Spirit, so she prayed for these gifts to come upon her.[3] She was finally baptized in the Holy Spirit in 1908.[3]

Apostolic Faith Mission of Australia[edit]

In 1909 Sarah Lancaster opened Good News Hall, the first Pentecostal church in Australia.[4] After the opening of the church, Sarah Lancaster began a series of preachings around the country to spread the message of Pentecostalism. Many accepted her message and created Pentecostal churches of their own, but did not formally unite under Lancaster's church until 1926 when a South African pastor named Fredrick Van Eyck recommended uniting under the title Apostolic Faith Mission of Australia (AFM).[3][4] The AMF had problems from the start because the anti-doctrinal approach and the emphasis on personal interpretation led to disunity.[3]

Reorganization of Denominations[edit]

In the same year, the Pentecostal Church of Australia was formed under the leadership of A.C. Valdez, an American convert from the Azusa Street Revival that had taken place in Los Angeles.[5] With growing tensions within the AFM, some of the churches broke off and renamed themselves the Assemblies of God Queensland.[3] In 1937, the Assemblies of God Queensland and the Pentecostal Church of Australia merged under the title Assemblies of God in Australia.[4] Though the AOG adopted the name "Australian Christian Churches" in 2007, this group AOG/ACC has since been the largest Pentecostal denomination in Australia.[6]

Pentecostalism in Australia Today[edit]

Though other religions dominate Australia's population today ( including from the top Catholicism, Anglicanism, Uniting Church and Presbyterian/Reformed) studies show that the number of proportional adherents of these traditions have all dropped. Conversely, the proportional number of adherents for Pentecostalism rose between the years 1991 and 2001.[6]

In 2007, the Assemblies of God changed its name to "Australian Christian Churches", under the leadership of Brian Houston. This change occurred in order to be less limiting in name recognition and to increase participation.[2] The largest church associated with the AOG/ACC in Australia is the popular Hillsong church, founded in 1983 by husband and wife Brian and Bobbie Houston.[6] The Hillsong megachurch boats more than 18,000 members every week and has over 30 affiliated churches in Sydney.[6] Hillsong Church is one of 10 megachurches in Australia associated with the ACC that have at least 2,000 members weekly.[2]

Extreme fundamentalist pentecostalism[edit]

There are numerous examples of Pentecostal churches in Australia morphing into more extreme fundamentalist cult-like movements. This was represented most notably by the infamous Logos Foundation, led by Howard Carter in Toowoomba, Queensland. The city of Toowoomba has become known as a hub for more extreme fundamentalist Pentecostal movements, particularly those with religio-political aspirations. Notable examples include the Logos Foundation and the Range Christian Fellowship.

The Range Christian Fellowship in Blake Street Toowoomba, is known for exuberant worship services and the public manifestation of phenomena and bizarre manifestations that place it well outside of mainstream Pentecostal church expression. It is possibly one of the prime Australian examples of churches associated with the New Apostolic Reformation, a fundamentalist Pentecostal religious right wing movement which has been described by American journalist Forrest Wilder as, "Their beliefs can tend toward the bizarre. Some prophets even claim to have seen demons at public meetings. They’ve taken biblical literalism to an extreme".[7] It operates in a converted squash centre [8] and was established on November 9, 1997 [9] as a breakaway group from the Rangeville Uniting Church in Toowoomba over disagreements with the national leadership of the Uniting Church in Australia. These disagreements were predominantly around the ordination of homosexual people into ministry.[10] Almost 300 people left the Rangeville Uniting Church at this time and of these, approximately 250 established the Range Christian Fellowship. The Range Christian Fellowship attracted a number of disaffected and marginalized Christians from other churches in Toowoomba and elsewhere, resulting in a divergent mix of worship preferences, expectations and issues. The church initially met in a Seventh Day Adventist church hall before purchasing the property in Blake Street at considerable cost. A loan was raised from a local bank, guaranteed by members, which created a large debt burden for the congregation to service.[11] Many people soon became disillusioned following the move to Blake Street. The church has been close to bankruptcy many times.[12] Recovery from financial stress has been hindered by the high turnover of committed congregants with very few of the original group remaining.[13] Large numbers of other people have been involved with the church since it was established, with most of these moving on to other churches after varying periods of time. Despite this, those who leave are quickly replaced by others.[14] The congregation attributes their continued avoidance of financial collapse to God's blessing and regard this as a miracle.[15] Remarkably, there is little emphasis on money or any compulsion to donate. Giving gifts of funds is viewed as a great privilege to be celebrated and the congregation has regularly been observed to break into spontaneous applause and cheering when the time for the offering in their services is announced.

Whilst adhering to mainstream protestant Christian beliefs, the church supplements these beliefs with strong influences from the New Apostolic Reformation, Revivalism, Dominion theology, Kingdom Now theology, Spiritual Warfare Christianity and Five-fold ministry thinking. Scripture is interpreted literally, although this is done in a selective manner. The behaviour of some congregants during meetings has been known for unusual manifestations attributed to the Holy Spirit or the presence of ‘the anointing’. This has included women and at times even men, moaning and retching as though experiencing child birth,[16] with some claiming to be having actual contractions of the womb (known as spiritual birthing).[17] At other times, those identifying as prophets or other attendees receiving a ‘word from the Lord’, have made dramatic and apocalyptic predictions regarding the future. This was particularly evident during the time leading up to Y2K, when a number of prophecies were shared publicly, all of which were proven to be false by subsequent events. The concept of revival has also become an overwhelming focus, which has included a number of failed prophecies regarding events related to this concept. Attendees are given a high degree of freedom, which has attracted people who have come into conflict with the leadership of their previous churches. This freedom has been influenced by the promotion of Jim Rutz's publication, "The Open Church", which was popular in the early days of the fellowship. The church seems to have attracted some attendees who have at times displayed cult-like tendencies or control-motivated spiritual elitism which brings them into conflict with others. Usually these people leave when they do not have the influence they desire, although the fellowship is very tolerant and patient with such persons. Individuals are free to put forward without restriction virtually any statement as a revelation, 'word from the Lord' or prophecy; and as such, there is no differentiation between these utterances and what may be individual feelings, reactions, imagination or personal preferences. This in turn provides great scope for those who deem themselves as being 'in the river' to exercise a form of spiritual elitism. Scripture verses (and even parts of verses) are used freely and selectively without regard to context, to justify or support virtually any statement.

At times, people within the fellowship claim to have seen visions in either dreams, whilst in a trance-like state during worship, or during moments of religious ecstasy, with these experiences frequently conveying a revelation or prophecy. Other occurrences have included people claiming to have been in an altered state of consciousness (referred to as ‘resting in the Lord’ and 'slain in the spirit' among other names), characterized by reduced external awareness and expanded interior mental and spiritual awareness, often accompanied by visions and emotional (and sometimes physical) euphoria. The church has hosted visits from various Christian leaders who claim to be modern day Apostles as well as many others who promote themselves as prophets or faith healers. Perhaps surprisingly, speaking in tongues, which is common in other Pentecostal churches, does occur but is not frequent nor is it promoted; and is rarely witnessed in public gatherings. Some church attendees exhibit a high degree of superstition pertaining to the perceived influence of evil spirits or demons and engage in superstitious behaviours to counter this. Such persons, among others, were strongly attracted to the Prayer of Jabez prosperity doctrine, promotional books and merchandise, and associated repetitive chanting of the prayer, when it was fashionable in similar churches during the early years of the 21st century. Adherents have embraced the teachings and experiences associated with North American Pentecostal movements such as the Toronto Blessing, Brownsville Revival (Pensacola Outpouring), Morningstar Ministries, Lakeland Revival, and the Vineyard group of churches. Despite being discredited by reputable leaders within the Pentecostal movement, some within the church have placed credence in the more bizarre claims made in these North American revivals, such as the spontaneous appearance of gold dust, holy oil, 'angel feathers', and precious stones. Attendees sometimes display hysterical and uncontrolled laughter (holy laughter) and an inability to stand or sit resulting in falling to the floor and rolling around.[18] The church has always been known for vibrant and at times euphoric and ecstatic worship utilising music, song, dancing, flags and banners. Outbursts of squealing, shrieking and other non-verbal noises have been witnessed. It is believed by some adherents, that the flags and banners used in worship carry special powers [19] as a result of the anointing of the Holy Spirit.[18] This thinking is proselytised by the online business, www.worshipbanners.com.au, which serves as the source of these objects, stating on their website, "...God is re-introducing banners in our day as a tool to set His people free. Banners draw people out from the blockages and bondages that restrict their freedom and obedience." These banners feature religious themed designs of contemporary artwork that some believe has been divinely inspired.[20]

The Range Christian Fellowship is strongly committed to the church unity movement in Toowoomba, with other like-minded churches (mainstream traditional denominations have a separate ecumenical group).[21][22][23] This group, known as the Christian Leaders' Network, aspires to be a Christian right wing influence group within the city, at the centre of a hoped-for great revival during which they will 'take the city for the Lord'. During the years roughly covering 1989 through till the late 1990's, some church leaders in this group, with their followers, engaged in significant strategic-level Spiritual Warfare, in which they claimed to have taken control of the Territorial Spirits (evil spirits) at work over the city. Following this, it was expected and predicted (at times through prophecies) that a great revival of Christian faith including thousands of new conversions would follow, in addition to a reduced crime rate, phenomenal church growth, improved morality, general prosperity among the population and the installation of men and women of God into government. There were further claims that this action had placed Toowoomba strategically to be a hub of the anticipated great Australian revival. This expectation of a city-wide transformation failed to materialize and was based on the teaching of George Otis, whose claims of great transformations in several South American locations have been unable to be verified when investigated by his critics. The Range Christian Fellowship has thrown itself wholeheartedly into city-wide events that are viewed as a foundation for stimulating revival, which have included Easterfest, "Christmas the Full Story",[24] and continuous 24-hour worship events.[25]

The church retains an impressive resilience inherited from their Uniting Church heritage, which has weathered it through difficult times. Their beliefs and actions which place them on the fringe of both mainstream and pentecostal Christianity are largely isolated to their Sunday gatherings or privately in their homes. Criticism of the church is regarded by some as a badge of honour, as it is viewed in terms of the expected persecution of the holy remnant of the true church in the last days. The church continues to be drawn to, and associate itself with fringe Pentecostal and fundamentalist movements, particularly those originating in North America, such as Doug Addison most recently.[26] Addison has become known for delivering prophecies through dreams and unconventionally through people's body tattoos, and mixes highly fundamentalist Christianity with elements of psychic spirituality.[27]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Simmons, Amy (July 30, 2011). "The Rise of Pentecostalism". ABC News. Retrieved May 6, 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c Hey, Sam (2013). Megachurches: Origins, Ministry and Prospects. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. 81. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Clifton, Shane (2009). Pentecostal Churches in Transition: Analysing the Ecclesiology of the Assemblies of God in Australia. Netherlands: Koninlijke Brill. 
  4. ^ a b c d Anderson, Allan Heaton (2014). An Introduction to Pentecostalism: Global Charismatic Christianity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  5. ^ a b Espinosa, Gastón (2014). William J. Seymour and the Origins of Global Pentecostalism. Durham: Duke University Press. 
  6. ^ a b c d Connell, John (August 19, 2006). "Hillsong: A Megachurch in the Sydney Suburbs". Australian Geographer. 
  7. ^ https://www.texasobserver.org/rick-perrys-army-of-god/
  8. ^ Hart, Timothy. "Church Discover". Retrieved 10 September 2016. 
  9. ^ Small, R. (2004). A Delightful Inheritance (1st ed.). Wilsonton: R.Small. p. 293. 
  10. ^ Small, R. (2004). A DelightfulInheritance (1st ed.). Wilsonton: R.Small. p. 287. 
  11. ^ Small, R. (2004). A Delightful Inheritance (1st ed.). Wilsonton: R.Small. pp. 299–300. 
  12. ^ Small, R (2004). A Delightful Inheritance (1st ed.). Wilsonton, Queensland: R.Small. p. 358. ISBN 1920855734. 
  13. ^ Small, R. (2004). A Delightful Inheritance (1st ed.). Wilsonton: R.Small. p. 306. 
  14. ^ Small, R. (2004). A Delightful Inheritance (1st ed.). Wilsonton: R.Small. p. 305. 
  15. ^ Small, R. (2004). A Delightful Inheritance (1st ed.). Wilsonton: R.Small. p. 316. 
  16. ^ http://www.visionintlm.com/articles_view.asp?columnid=5958&articleid=66581
  17. ^ http://www.spiritwatch.org/fireimpart.htm, 4th paragraph
  18. ^ a b rangechurch, 28 Nov 2010. "Range Christian Fellowship - Messy Church". Youtube. Retrieved 14 January 2015. 
  19. ^ http://www.worshipbanners.com.au/docs/an-introduction-to-banners-12.pdf
  20. ^ http://www.worshipbanners.com.au/index.php
  21. ^ "Christian Leaders' Network". Facebook. Retrieved 17 January 2015. 
  22. ^ "One City One Church One Heart". Toowoomba Christian Leaders' Network. Archived from the original on 14 February 2015. Retrieved 17 January 2015. 
  23. ^ Christian Fellowship, The Range. "The Range Christian Fellowship". Facebook. Retrieved 17 January 2015. 
  24. ^ Small, R. (2004). A Delightful Inheritance (1st ed.). Wilsonton: R.Small. p. 297. 
  25. ^ Small, R. (2004). A Delightful Inheritance (1st ed.). Wilsonton: R.Small. p. 308. 
  26. ^ https://www.facebook.com/TheRangeChristianFellowship/
  27. ^ http://www.letusreason.org/Popteach62.htm