By: Laura Bennett
Sitting in what The Sydney Morning Herald described as “the season of the Hillsong documentary”, Christians looking on at accusations being made against the megachurch may feel a conflicting mix of wanting justice where it’s deserved and needing to defend the name of the faith the “scandal-plagued” church represents.
Ever since New York City campus pastor Carl Lentz admitted to extramarital affairs, claims have been made about volunteer exploitation, abuse, and dysfunctional leadership – to put it mildly.
Choosing how to engage with the conversation is difficult: there’s a fine line between media outlets capitalising on “the downfall” and having something genuine to contribute to what’s become a milestone moment not just for Hillsong, but for the Pentecostal movement at large.
Walkley award-winning journalist Marc Fennell (Mastermind, Stuff the British Stole) hosts the new SBS documentary The Kingdom.
Speaking with former members, current devotees and Christian representatives across academia, media and ministry, Marc investigates the aftermath of Hillsong’s changing status within the Australian Christian landscape, and which churches will pick up the pieces of this “crumbling kingdom”.
“[These churches] are inheriting people from Hillsong who’ve been hurt, or who at the very minimum are looking for something different,” Marc said in our interview.
“We’re living through an inflection point right now where something has shifted, and I think that’s why it’s important to look at because with new churches essentially having the potential to move into that space there’s an opportunity for change.”
Mark Fennell on Growing up Pentecostal
Being “born into” church himself and growing up in a Pentecostal household where “demons were being cast out in [his] loungeroom”, Marc is in a unique position to tell this story having left the church 17 years ago, seeing both the “insiders” point of view and that of the sceptic who chose to “quietly quit”.
“I remember you’d start to see the negative stories about Hillsong in the late 90s, early 2000s,” Marc said.
“What always struck me is that the thing you saw on TV – whilst legitimate with concerns about money and coercive behaviour [that] are important to talk about – the world that you saw on those news reports bore little resemblance to the thing that people rocked up to on a Sunday.
“On the other end, you’d go into [youth group] and there’d be conversations about things in this world that were not great but there was this vein of toxic positivity which prevents real change on issues that do need to be addressed.”
As questions started to stack up for Marc ranging from “why bad things happen” to “does God really think that about queer people?” and ultimately “why can’t I feel Him?” he made the choice to leave. But, he still wants Christian communities to be healthy, having also experienced the good they can do.
“Toward the end of high school my parents’ marriage disintegrated,” Marc said.
“I got myself pseudo-adopted into a bunch of church families from the youth group I was attending at the time, and I make no bones about this: they saved my life.
“I got myself pseudo-adopted into a bunch of church families from the youth group I was attending at the time, and I make no bones about this: they saved my life,” – Marc Fennell
“I don’t know if they knew what they were doing, but they represented the best of what this faith could be.
It’s Not Wrong to Ask Questions
“At the same time, I had all these lingering questions that were going unanswered.”
Marc’s hope is that The Kingdom will be a “tool for change”, saying “it’s more important for me that Christians watch The Kingdom than anyone else because it’s their lives that are affected by these issues”.
With all that’s happening at Hillsong, now’s the time to invite questions and deeply reflect on their answers.
“Questioning is not by its very nature an attack,” Marc said.
“Questioning when things hurt people, questioning whether the way you ask for an offering is coercive, questioning this unrelenting positivity around people volunteering their time without boundaries – that’s not ungodly.
“What would be ungodly is to [be asked] the questions and not give answers.”
“It’s more important for me that Christians watch The Kingdom than anyone else because it’s their lives that are affected by these issues,” – Marc Fennell
The Kingdom is now on SBS On Demand
Article supplied with thanks to Hope Media.
Feature image: SBS presenter Marc Fennell. Supplied.
About the Author: Laura Bennett is a media professional, broadcaster and writer from Sydney, Australia.