Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Lessons We Must Learn From the Aussie Church
Jack and Carol Hanes were forced to make lots of cultural adjustments when they arrived in Australia in 1987. The couple moved to the Sydney area from Arizona to start a church, knowing that the Christian population was tiny. They soon learned that if they were to be successful in this very secular society they would have to modify their American style and do things the Aussie way.
As it turned out, the Aussie way worked pretty well.
Today, Jack Hanes is the director of missions for the Assemblies of God (AOG) in Australia, and the group has become the largest Protestant denomination in the country. Currently the AOG is planting one new church every four days in the country—an impressive statistic when compared to the sluggish growth of churches in the United States.
Hanes' own congregation, Penrith Christian Life Centre, located 40 miles north of Sydney, has grown to 2,000 members since he and his wife started it 21 years ago with a handful of believers meeting in a hotel. Meanwhile, the massive Hillsong Church, also affiliated with the AOG and located in Sydney, has grown to 20,000 members and is one of the most influential churches in the world because of its popular worship recordings and TV broadcasts.
This week I asked Hanes, who is 55, what he believes American pastors could learn from the Aussies' out-of-the-box approach to church. He gave these seven reasons why churches are growing Down Under.
1. Christians aren't religious. The typical Australian is a lot more earthy and irreverent than his formal British counterpart. Because the country was started as a penal colony, it doesn't have a churchy culture. Hanes says this can be an advantage when you are trying to reach unbelievers with the gospel. People don't dress up, they don't wear hypocritical masks and they tend to be bluntly honest. "It's refreshing," Hanes says.
2. They have a wild, daring spirit. Americans fell in love with Aussie wildlife expert Steve Irwin, the infamous Crocodile Hunter who died in 2006, because of his playful and audacious taunting of dangerous reptiles. Hanes says a similar willingness to take risks characterizes the Australian church, which is less mired in tradition than American church groups. "Aussies don't have to be safe and secure. We know God wants us to risk everything. We could not do that if we weren't crazy," Hanes says.
3. They are aggressive about church planting. Several years ago AOG leaders in Australia began to focus on multiplying their movement rather than just maintaining churches. They did this by eliminating useless denominational bureaucracy. Today every major leader in their organizational structure in Australia is a working pastor who is involved in a hands-on way in church planting. There are no "fat guys sitting behind desks in denominational offices making $300,000," Hanes says with typical Aussie frankness.
Hanes makes a painful comparison between Australia's lean church-planting machine and the multilayered AOG hierarchy in the United States. He says one Aussie minister visited the AOG's headquarters in the U.S. four years ago and learned that leaders were celebrating the fact that they had millions of dollars in the bank—even though church planting was flat. "Can you imagine if Jesus came back and we had millions in the bank?" Hanes asks. "I'd rather we had no money in the bank because we had used all the money for missions."
4. Their worship is fresh and vibrant. Worship from Australia has dominated the Christian music scene since the mid-1990s, after Hillsong Church's band, led by Darlene Zschech, first released their popular chorus, "Shout to the Lord," in 1993. Today Hillsong music encircles the globe, its annual worship conference attracts 40,000 people and their youth band, Hillsong United, is setting trends for Christian teens. Hanes' wife, Carol, says she believes God's anointing has stayed on this Aussie music because it is based in a local church—not in a music industry that is driven by sales, profits and concert schedules.
5. They give sacrificially. Unlike those in the United States, contributions made to churches in Australia are not tax-deductible. Yet many Aussies give extravagantly to missions and church-planting ventures. In 2007 Hanes' church gave more than $1 million to missions and started more than 700 churches in India. "And church leaders here don't ask the people to give what they are not willing to give themselves. We lead by example," Hanes adds.
6. They focus on youth. Australia is a young nation, and Hanes' church mirrors the population: The average age in his congregation is 27. "I don't know of one church in Australia that is filled with old people," he says, "except some of the mainlines." Aussie Christians see the potential of giving young people ministry credentials so they can pioneer churches.
Hanes points out that in Iraq today, 19-year-old soldiers lead squads of 48 men. They are trusted to fight battles for us. "Yet we won't let people that age preach in our pulpits until they are 'proven.' Something is wrong with that," Hanes says.
7. They release their women. "There is a recognition here in Australia that if a woman has a gift, you make room for her in the church," Hanes says, noting that the AOG has many ordained female pastors. The growing list of prominent women ministers in Australia includes Margaret Court, a pastor in Perth; Christine Caine, a Bible teacher based in Sydney; Donna Crouch, a lead pastor at Hillsong; Royree Jensen, a pastor in Brisbane; and Zschech, the Hillsong vocalist who is arguably the most recognizable worship leader in the world.
Hanes dreams of a day when the same innovative approach to ministry that is transforming the churches of Australia will one day sweep across America. After spending this week in Sydney and seeing these innovations with my own eyes, I share his enthusiasm.