Selling God

Bringing in the sheaves: Young believers packed Auckland's Vector Arena to hear US pastor Greg Laurie, above, invite them to repent. Chartered buses delivered the congregation from 200 churches to the Harvest Church event.

Sunday Star-Times, New Zealand/July 3, 2011

Rock music, electric guitars and even moshpits are luring more young people to church - but away from traditional worship. Steve Kilgallon investigates the rise of religion as entertainment, and the changing face of Christianity in New Zealand.

There's pandemonium at Vector Arena. Hundreds have been turned away and inside every seat is taken. An unshaven singer, in regulation black, grabs the microphone and asks the audience to dance. Hundreds of kids race to the front, and begin to mosh. Then he begins to sing about Jesus.

This is the new way of selling religion. And that capacity crowd, gathered to see American revivalist preacher Greg Laurie tell them how they can be reborn, is remarkably fresh-faced.

Even Laurie's surprised. His offsider, Conrad Poe, has already observed there are more kids than usual in this eager crowd; when Laurie takes to the stage for his hour-long oration, he says happily: "Many of you are young, as I look out at you, and I hope you make a decision."

Laurie heavily mines popular culture, beginning with a riff on the weather and Crowded House, mentions his Twitter feed, throws in some jokes, then quotes Woody Allen, Keith Urban, George Clooney, Simon Cowell and Russell Brand. When we talk, he tells me how he went to see U2 recently, partly to learn from the best in the entertainment business.

Laurie has a 15,000-strong church in California, so it follows he must be a sharp operator. And he appears to have recognised one significant trend in how New Zealanders consume their religion: if young people are going to church, they're not going to the old, traditional branches like Catholicism, but the new - to groups operating from flash new buildings or in rented school halls, with electric guitars, youth groups and pastors in blue jeans.

Christianity in New Zealand, says Auckland University theology lecturer Stephen Garner, is "in a state of transitional flux". There are more churches, with fewer branches and smaller, less committed and transient congregations, often divided on racial lines and some may have lifespans as brief as two decades.

Outside the arena, some of the ticketless hover in the rain, hoping for a reprieve. Others file away past the ranks of chartered buses that have delivered believers from 200 churches around Auckland to Laurie's Harvest event, one saying disconsolately: "Same thing happened at Benny Hinn."

Inside, after an appeal for everyone to budge up and make room for more punters, there's absolute, entranced silence before a white boy with blond dreads steps up and declares: "The angels in Heaven gonna be rejoicing tonight", then churns out some turgid soft-rock, featuring the lyric "Jesus, you have changed the way I do everything". Then he adds: "If the Lord in Heaven can get hold of a skinny middle-class white boy from West Auckland like me, he can get hold of anyone." It brings to mind the old line about the Devil having the best tunes.

But then English singer Martin Smith, he of the chin fluff and monotone colour scheme, opens up the floor to some very polite moshers and bangs out his quite good dad-rock. The kids love it. After Smith comes American crooner Jeremy Camp, who declares: "God literally saved my life." It's also strange to hear the introduction: "This song is based on Mark 34."

Backstage, Laurie, pancaked in heavy orange makeup, suave in Converse All-Stars and black jacket, is rehearsing his lines ("How do you say Veuve?" he asks). When he bounds on stage, he softens up the crowd with his pop-culture intro, then steadily knocks down all the counter-arguments to his belief that you're either for or against Jesus, it's non-negotiable, and if you're not "reborn" right now, you're effectively doomed. He declares: "This is a yes or no decision, you are either for or against." Then he invites everyone on to the floor to repent.

Men with little green flags and radio mics patrol the aisles and soon floor capacity is reached, leaving some hopefuls unsaved (and tearful) in the aisles. But about one-third of the audience have made it. They repeat a short prayer after Laurie, are handed a free Bible, then are quickly collared by "decision follow-up" helpers wearing "Hi my name is ..." stickers, who ask them for email addresses and cellphone numbers.

It's a world away from my churchgoing experiences, raised in the Catholic tradition.

"Culture changes, we like different kinds of music, we like different kinds of structure to our service," is Laurie's explanation. "But the big thing is the content of the message and the integrity of what you're doing. We have tried to remain progressive: if you came to one of our events 20 years ago, it would be decidedly different. Some people see this as a rock concert - we don't deny that. We try to be as contemporary as we can - it's the generation we're trying to reach ... and we speak in their cultural language."

Kevin Ward, theology lecturer at Dunedin's Knox College and a Baptist preacher, says evangelical churches have always been aware of how to sell themselves. "They are very marketing savvy - it's always been a strength of the evangelical, pentecostal sector - they were the first to use radio, the first to use TV, the first to use rock music."

As a result, he says, many have managed to turn churchgoing into an adrenalin-laced experience akin to adventure sport. It's a line traditional churches have been unwilling to cross because they "often feel uncomfortable with expressions of feeling".

Ward recalls going to a Paul McCartney concert in Auckland in 1992 and thinking, "What's the difference between this and a pentecostal worship? The lyrics are perhaps the only difference. You're lifted out of yourself, you have a transcendental feeling, a feeling of bonding with the rest of the crowd."

ONE OF the bestickered helpers at Laurie's Auckland Harvest event, 20-year-old Michael Smart, who helps run a fledgling youth church from a Waiheke Island theatre, says it's such informality that attracts young people and allows them to get closer to God - "people talk about religion but it is more about a relationship".

But the flipside is that when leaders are stressing the experience and the entertainment, faith may weaken. Ward says US sociologist Christian Smith's studies suggested that many attending newer churches had a very loose understanding of the basics of the faith - leading to a much more feeble allegiance.

Garner says: "If you're providing religion as entertainment, the danger is you may fall out of favour if someone else is seen as more entertaining."

The new churches, of course, put it slightly differently. In black jeans and a hoodie, Dean Rush, pastor of the C3 church, which has grown from rented inner-city premises to five branches and their own converted warehouse complex in the Auckland suburb of Ellerslie, says his competition isn't the Catholics or the Anglicans but Mammon.

"We can't be arrogant and think everyone needs us - we need to get out and bring our message again: a lot of people didn't hear what we had to say so there is a shift in attitude," he explains.

Rush says he aims for "modern" people and concedes "super-traditional" Christians might not enjoy his services.

"It probably is a bit louder, we're using multi-media and everything we can to bring the message - because we're up against Nike and everyone else selling their product.

"We've got to get into the 21st century. We believe the message is so powerful but sometimes the communication has been a bit lacking. Or a bit old."

Rush has used concerts, guest speakers, dance groups and free food to build his congregation.

"It's quite fun thinking `what can you do to get people in?"' he says. "That's the exciting part of it if you're passionate about the message - we don't have unlimited resources but what can do we creatively to get people through the doors?"

There are no hard statistics to measure the trend, because churches don't capture detailed demographic figures and what numbers there are can be clouded by immigration patterns, the below-radar presence of some smaller start-up churches and inter-church migration. But it's definitely happening. Everyone I spoke to broadly agreed with Ward's summary - that there has been a general downward spiral in church attendance in western society, which only those churches with a "strong" faith have managed to buck.

Ward says those that have "engaged with cultural and social changes" rather than stick to their old culture have also done well and he says it's the ultra-conservative traditions, such as the Brethren, who have suffered most. In New Zealand, attendances at mass in rural areas are falling and the only upswing has been for "new" urban churches.

BUT THERE'S some interesting social phenomena going on beneath all that. The first is the rise of a flighty set of punters ready to vote with their feet if they don't like the message.

Research in Sydney and Los Angeles suggested a much higher percentage of "transients" in the congregations of new churches, while others may subscribe to several churches at once, or "pick and mix" their services. And there's anecdotal evidence to suggest congregations can become disillusioned when a church becomes too big and almost ostentatiously wealthy.

Also at play is what Ward calls the "herding instinct" of young people, where one influential figure in a social circle can drag an entire crowd in a new direction. Churches who already have a significant group of young people often gain more as a result, those with an older crowd will lose the few they have.

When Ward grew up, New Zealand had one Baptist church, with lots of parishes. But he did a quick Google search and found 23 different sects now laying claim to the word Baptist in their title. For Garner, that's because labels have become less important to this generation, the one he suggests could be called "post-denominational" - they see themselves as merely Christian, a view reflected by data from the last census, where many declined to tick more specific boxes and opted for the "Christian" label.

The new churches also often divide along racial lines: some traditional churches now hold their English language service, then turn the building over to an entirely different congregation to pray in Korean or Filipino, while Pacific Island denominations have been long established here.

Hanging around outside Laurie's gig, 16-year-old Cook Islander Teva Hosking is typical when he says he goes to the contemporary CCF church in Kelston, West Auckland, because a cousin took him along and because it was less strict than churches at home.

The big Polynesian interest in contemporary religion is, Ward suggests, part of the usual straining at the leash of second-generation immigrants. "They don't want to break away, so newer pentecostal churches become a way they can remain Christian but also engage with what they see as the modern Kiwi culture of the rest of their lives."

That indicates the next big wave could be a breakaway of Asian churches as the second generation of Korean, Chinese and Filipino Christians reach adulthood and rebellion in a decade's time - a movement already observed in those communities in the US.

All churches know that there's a big dropout rate from 16 onwards and a migration back around the age of 30. Helen O'Sullivan, project co-ordinator in the Catholic office for young people, says most lapsed Catholics return when they want their kids baptised and taught at a Catholic school. Garner says Pacific Island ministers have told him of the same experience, that people come back wanting their kids raised with the same values they learnt.

But Ward says what he's noticed is a shift in the age when people drop out. Whereas his Baby Boom generation might have walked away at 16, when church conflicted with the real world, he suggests the delayed youth of Gen X, who get real jobs, mortgages and kids much later, means some are quitting as late as 30, suggesting they may never return.

Whether the disillusioned are heading straight to the electric guitars and blue jeans of Rush's C3, or the giant evangelical institutions like City Impact, Life and Destiny, is also an unknown. O'Sullivan suspects not. Garner says he doubts it because "it's a significant theological jump".

O'Sullivan says the church is aware and "constantly thinking of new ways to engage young people ... there is always going to be a challenge to find new, dynamic ways - they are very discerning now and have a lot of choice".

But she says specifically tailored youth masses in Auckland can attract more than 1000 and there will be two million young Catholics at World Youth Day in Madrid later this year. And she suggests Catholicism's strength is its constancy and uniformity.

"The key thing we have to remember," she says, "is the Catholic Church has been around for more than 2000 years - it has a huge family history."

And Ward points to the slow decline of the 1980s' charismatic movement, who "got fixed in a form of the culture that was relevant then" and whose Baby Boomer congregations are ageing. He issues a warning for the new wave: stay with the zeitgeist or die. The old churches, he says, left behind some great architecture; the new may well leave big, obsolete barns as monuments to a short lifespan.

Friend in Jesus

"It doesn't say in the Bible, thou must speak in Latin or thou must sing hymns: there's nothing wrong with change," says Bodie Friend, a 28-year-old graphic designer, who attends a small, modernising Baptist church in Clendon, South Auckland.

Friend wasn't a churchgoer but, after finding himself "not in a good place in my life, to be honest", followed a high-school friend six years ago. He's thought deeply on the subject and has the same questions as the academics about the fickle nature and motives of some of those attending newer churches, but points out: "It's like anything - would you prefer a banged-up old car or the latest 2011 model?"

He says the real question is whether your church sticks true to the Bible, not whether it has electric guitars. "It's about what you're going for, is this because it's what you believe in, or are you going because it's what your mates want? Church is cool for some people, it's the in thing, but then there's no relationship [with God].

"People think churches should be traditional but there is nothing in the Bible that dictates that, it's about believing in Jesus ... being a Bible-based church is what matters, you could have three guys and a dog in a room and as long as they are focused on the right thing, it doesn't matter."

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