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Sunday, 03 February 2008 01:49

Book Of Revelations

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The Bulletin with Newsweek
March 7, 2007

Tanya Levin spent her formative years at Hillsong. Disillusioned, she began to question its gospel of wealth. We present her exclusive account of life inside Australia's most influential evangelical church.

Sometimes Brian preached in the morning, but evangelism nights were his real domain. He was there most Sundays, but when he wasn't we knew he was out on the battlefield. Which made us love him all the more.

Brian was goofy and Brian was fun. He was clumsy and with a self-deprecating humour we could all relate to. Everyone had families and bills and embarrassing run-ins with people on the street. Brian was never a teacher. He was a preacher. When I would complain to my father that every Sunday night I was hearing the same old thing - get saved, celebrate, stay strong, move mountains - he would remind me that Brian's gift was evangelism.

Brian Houston's charisma is universally known. He speaks internationally, lectures at Bible colleges, and fills stadiums wherever he goes. I still can't figure out what the precise appeal is, but there it is en masse.

That raspy voice, with its New Zealand twang, was just another tool of the trade. You can listen to it any time on the squillions of CDs, but it won't have the same effect on you. After a couple of hundred times, though, after he's built you up with hope and promise and destiny, when the Hand of God is on your life and you can feel that God is right here today, and you know that your future is in His hands and THEN! when you hear Brian's voice drop, and he says something slowly, your heart may also drop with it as swiftly as it learns to rise. Brian laughs. You laugh.

When I see him now, I can't help but stare. What is it like to be Brian? What does he see when he looks around him? Is Brian aware yet of the impact his work has on people's lives? Does he see what happens after the lights go down?

Brian's father, Frank Houston, was renowned for his determined kindness and rousing messages. He was also well- known for his deep desire to see miracles and healings and the gifts of the Spirit. He moved in prophetic words of knowledge, and tangible experiences with God. Some even believed Frank could raise men from the dead.

In 1941, a swearing, smoking 18-year-old Frank gave his life to the Lord following a friend's tragic death. He joined the Salvation Army, where he met and married Hazel.

For 12 years, Frank worked in a preaching role, moving town with each army appointment. Deep down, though, Frank longed for the miraculous.

A most unmiraculous event occurred when an audit of Captain Houston's books revealed financial inconsistencies. When this was discovered, Frank suffered what doctors called a bout of hysterical amnesia, from which he was brought home delirious. The couple regretfully resigned. Frank suffered a deep depression, accompanied by vivid hallucinations, including ones that he was preaching in front of a huge congregation, as detailed in Hazel's biography of her husband, Being Frank.

" 'Hazel,' he'd say. 'Here are all these people waiting for the meeting to begin and we have no pianist. Will you get one?' I humoured him by saying I would. These were the only bright spots in the day."

When he was well, though, he was on fire. Then one day he received the baptism in the Holy Spirit at an Assemblies of God rally. From that time on, the couple knew that the stories about the Pentecostal experience were true.

Over the following years, Frank's reputation as a preacher in the charismatic movement grew. He became General Superintendent of the AoG in New Zealand. In 1977, when he and his family made their pilgrimage from New Zealand to Australia, his reputation for revival and the gifts of the Spirit was known throughout New Zealand. He had told everyone about the vision telling him to make the move.

It's unlikely that Frank mentioned to anyone in Australia the struggles he had with psychotic illnesses, physical sickness and psychosomatic combinations of the two. And it is completely unlikely that he had mentioned the sexual offence he had committed against a teenage boy. A New Zealand pastor who confronted him had received a clear denial, one that Frank maintained for over 20 years until, cornered by his son, he confessed.

In November 2002, Brian Houston stood on stage at the Baulkham Hills auditorium of Hillsong to describe his father's actions. He told the press later it was the hardest time of his life.

Telling the congregation that only those who felt close to the church should stay after a traditional morning service, Brian made a series of statements referring to allegations about his father, that he called a "serious moral failure".

He said that about two years previously, Hillsong's general manager, George Aghajanian, had informed him that complaints had been made. He said that he confronted his father about them, and that Frank had confessed that they were true. He said his father loved God and, while deeply repentant for the mistakes he had made, he loved God still.

Brian took [wife] Bobbie's hand and asked the church to pray for them and for their family, given the ordeal they had just been through. The entire congregation responded by giving Brian and Bobbie Houston a standing ovation.

For such a huge statement from the pulpit, this seemed tiny to me. There was no demand for righteousness. There was no plea for forgiveness from those wronged, no promise that the congregation would join together to prevent this from ever happening again.

There was simply an appeal for prayer for the Houstons.

I started noticing changes at Hillsong when Brian Houston got a mobile phone in the early '90s, when they were still rarely seen. Actually, it wasn't the phone that bothered me, per se. (I even remember thinking, maybe he got a mobile so distressed people can call him after hours or when he's away. He is the senior pastor, after all.) It was the change from the attitude of pastor to that of a chief executive officer. Then there was the look adopted by the pastors. I wondered why men in their 30s were growing their hair. Considering their new, serious ministerial status, it seemed a bit immature. One pastor later told me that he woke up one morning and said, "I'm 37 and I have a ponytail." He cut it off, but suffered a verbal warning for "attempting to change the church's image without permission".

Anyway, by the time that phone showed up, American pastor Butch and his wife Becky had come to town.

Butch and Becky were loaded. Australian AoG eyes and mouths widened with the understanding of the American way. Butch and Becky oozed celebrity appeal and ran a large church. Maybe that Salvation Army "church-mouse poor" model was too limited. Perhaps it did take money to reach souls. Perhaps souls brought money with them.

Brian and Bobbie flewto the US in the summer of 1989-1990 to stay with Butch and Becky. In the US the Houstons met [evangelical pastor] Casey Treat and his wife, Wendy, who were based in Seattle. Casey was a bike-riding ex-drug user. If Butch was rich, Casey was royal.

Casey and Brian and Wendy and Bobbie became close. Casey loved Brian, took him out and showed him what life could be like. Brian had left Australia in his grey suit with his pink tie, and the couple stepped off the plane from America looking like they had been shopping on Rodeo Drive.

Speaking at Hillsong in January 2003, Brian explained what happened: "See, about 1990, around 1989, 1990, 1991, I went, our church was a much younger church, six, seven, eight years old. It was growing, it was doing good, but really, there was so much more that we, and that I, as a leader, needed to take this church to where I believe God wanted it to go, and I remember specifically sitting in the back of a big pastors' conference in South Africa feeling anonymous and lost but so deeply impacted by what was happening there.

"And around that same time, as I remember, I was in South Africa getting impacted at a pastors' conference and Bobbie and I were, y'know, just absolutely mouths open at what God was doing, just so enlarged, and something happened on the inside and around the same time in Seattle I went to a pastors' conference there and it deeply affected and impacted my life in a way that I believe transformed my capacity as a leader; it's a supernatural thing, completely changed it. But you see, if you put no value in who God is then there's no real value in what God does. So you'd probably be more interested in which end of the aeroplane I was sitting in, and believe me, in those days it was that end whereas these days it's often nearer the middle toward the front, but do you hear what I'm saying?

"I really believe that one of the ways that you know that you know who God is, is that you put value on what God does, which is anything of spiritual significance."

Then there are the CDs. Bobbie Houston released a set of three CDs called Kingdom Women Love Sex, but renamed it She Loves and Values Her Sexuality. Bobbie created this series because she knows the topic is important, which is why she reports one newlywed listened to it 11 times. It's all about catching a man. If you don't look great, you won't get (as good) a husband and, if you already have one, to quote Bobbie, he'll leave you "should the world come knocking on your door".

Sex is never far away from this brand of Christianity. With stunning boldness, Bobbie says in her book on women and leadership I'll Have What She's Having: "In that movie I made reference to at the beginning [ When Harry Met Sally], Sally fakes an orgasm. I looked up orgasm in the dictionary. Now relax, I do know what an orgasm is. I just needed a dictionary definition. Interestingly, it means height, zenith, summit. Now, forget the bedroom for the moment. Shouldn't we who are 'in God' reach the summit, zenith, uttermost heights in life?? I think so! Shouldn't we who are 'in God' have the genuine experience? When it comes to life, let's not settle for a fake experience, let's go for the genuine article."

In tithes and offerings .You are under a curse - the whole nation of you - because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this, says the Lord Almighty, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have enough room for it. Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land, says the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 3:8-12)

Malachi, Malachi, Malachi. An international revolution based on five verses in Malachi.

To tithe literally means to give a tenth. This is a complicated Old Testament practice, relevant to certain tribes of Israel. It was never for every man, woman and child, despite being heralded as such by the prosperity proponents. The understanding at Hillsong and in churches like it around the world is that each person should tithe whatever they receive as income. Pocket money, babysitting earnings, wages, Christmas bonuses, all before tax. Tithing is not just for individuals. Ten per cent, pre-tax, of what every church makes in the weekly offering goes back to the head office of the Assemblies of God.

Offerings are money you want to give above and beyond your tithe. This may be a general offering, or for a specific purpose.

Sacrificial offerings occur when the pastor believes that it is appropriate for you to go without something to support a cause. It often comes across as a privilege to be involved in such a special project, such as a building or outreach, and people are willing to sacrifice "that trip to McDonald's", as it is often referred to, and give the money used for that to the church.

How does one pay tithes and offerings? At Hillsong it couldn't be easier. Not one service that I ever attended neglected to mention that the envelopes under your seat, labelled according to offering department, allow you to pay by cash, cheque (made out to "Hillsong Church"), or credit card details.

The offerings are taken upstairs and counted, then put into bags. On Monday the armoured truck comes and takes it away.

Where do the millions go? Hillsong publishes its accounts and says that its books are open. But people who have asked to see the books describe being looked at up and down, and being told they had an attitude problem. Brian told ABC-TV's Australian Story in 2005 that the annual revenue was close to $50m and that "60% of that goes to helping people directly through our programs and our ministries and so on, 28% to buildings and facilities and 12% to administration and running of the ministry".

This kind of money isn't a philosophical problem for the new fundamentalist Christian. God wants you to be rich. He called you to live in abundance. Why shouldn't Brian ride a Harley? It's the best way of demonstrating the blessing of God in his life.

Prosperity theology is very confusing for me. It seems a contradiction in terms, like military intelligence.

There used to be a time when Christian preachers used to yell out Jesus! to every question they asked the congregation. "What's the answer to heroin addiction? Jesus!"

Now "Jesus" has been replaced by "Money". I could be grateful and say at least they're being honest, about money being the real answer and Jesus being some kind of distraction for a good night out.

An inmate in a NSW jail was bailed to a Hillsong rehabilitation service. On the first day he was there, one of the young millionaire businessmen leaders took him out to show him his sports car. The idea was to get the client to realise that with a bit of elbow grease and some commitment to the Jesus program, he too could have a car like that one day.

"Tanya, he tried to impress me with money," the young man told me from jail, where he chose to return rather than continue under the Jesus program. "We're drug dealers, criminals, working girls. We've seen more money than most people. We know what money can do to people. We don't want to learn how to make money. We need to know how to handle what we've got."

Prosperity theology means God wants you rich. It's a case of "don't ask why I am wearing a Rolex. Ask why you're not." Of course God wants you to be rich. He loves you, doesn't He? And as all the evangelists will remind you constantly, the Lord loves a cheerful giver.

For now, we have Prosperity with Purpose. We're blessed to be a blessing. When you have a life of purpose, money is just a tool. So are big fancy houses. Just a tool for sharing the love. It would be selfish of us, Brian reminds us, not to share our salvation with the rest of the world.

Blessed to be a blessing can mean whatever you like, as long as you give a little away. As long as it's part of your vision, your dream, your God-ordained purpose, you can have all of the money you want, and bless other people at your discretion. It's sort of like a tax exemption. If my Mercedes means that you somehow get closer to God then I am doing a good thing. And I will make sure it somehow gets you closer to God, so that I can buy another one.

When the American-based Mercy Ministries was imported to Australia, a large house was bought in Glenhaven some kilometres from Hillsong HQ. Hillsong had a "Mercy Registry" where people who didn't have a wedding to go to could still go the registry section at Grace Bros and donate to the Mercy Girls. From dustpans to washing machines, Mercy Ministries got set up with the finest.

Brian and Bobbie had no idea when they moved out to the same Baulkham Hills I did that the area would undergo a massive property boom. Development estates sprang up like rabbits all over the suburbs around the Hills Christian Life Centre and many of Sydney's struggling families doubled their mortgages and left poorer suburbs to try to give their kids a classier upbringing. The concept of God's desire for them to be successful and rich must have seemed like an oasis in Sydney's vicious financial desert. For many it was no more than a mirage.

For the message about money never stops. You can't outgive God. You have to keep giving if you want to keep receiving, and if it's not working, you'd better give some more.

Read 2795 times Last modified on Tuesday, 03 February 2009 01:52

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