Beware of creepy, crooked, cash-flush Pentecostals

Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere quare;
Hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te.

I do not love you, Sabidius, and I cannot say why;
All I can say is this, that I do not love you.

Martial, Epigrams, I.32 (circa 86 A.D.)

The Australian, Australia’s largest circulation broadsheet, published a story this week about an Assemblies of God church that has taken a leap across the Pacific and planted a campus in the United States. The article entitled “Eyeing off God’s bounty” does not say that the Rev. Russell Evans is a fraud and a crook and that those who attend worship at Planetshakers City Church are ignorant rubes. However, you may well think so after reading this story.

The article opens on a self-consciously hip note.

JESUS is in the house!” roared pastor Neil Smith above the crash-boom of drums and the wail of electric guitars. You would have thought the Son of God was sitting right there in the packed auditorium, such was the excitement among the youthful crowd at the Rock Church in San Diego, California, in January.

This was a big moment in the history of Planetshakers City Church, once a small local church in Melbourne, now fast becoming an international Christian brand. As if Jesus wasn’t enough, Smith promised to “take it to a whole new level” as he introduced senior pastor Russell Evans, whom he called “the founder and visionary leader”.

Stylistically, this is grating and somewhat ugly in its diction, and derisive in tone. “[A]n international Christian brand”? It gets worse. After recounting Evans’ belief that some in the congregation should come forward for healing, the article states he appears to do quite well out of the business.

Soon Evans was calling out “healings” from the stage to his prospective followers. He announced that God wanted to heal people in the audience. “Wait a sec, wait a sec, God wants to heal some people in this room,” said Evans, as if the deity was whispering in his ear. “Someone’s back is being healed to my left, right there. There is someone here who has a knee injury and God is healing you right now; there is someone here with incredible sinus problems — you’re over in that section over there — God is healing you,” he crooned.

In any other forum, such a claim might spark derision, but in Evans’s world this is called carrying out his “pastoral duties.” His Planetshakers City Church and many of its staff receive generous tax concessions for these duties.

And at this point the article pivots and insinuates bad faith, stating:

 Until now, the government has shown only occasional interest in the activities of churches that receive tax exemptions. But from July 1 the newly formed Australian Charities and Not-For-Profit Commission will bring unprecedented scrutiny. ACNC advisory board member David Crosbie has said the changes would not restrict the activities of legitimate churches, but would help to weed out “fringe religions” that act more like cults. While Planetshakers is regarded as a mainstream church, it too will be subject to the ACNC’s scrutiny. There is no requirement under law that churches comply with specific Christian doctrine, but the ACNC is nominally interested in the form and content of worship, insiders say.

Setting aside the suggestion the government should decide the content of religious faith — what is this, the Church of England? — the snide and derisive comments continue – interspersed with the odd fact here and there.

And Evans, one of the new breed of “pastorpreneurs”, is spreading the word in the US market, where the church could make millions of dollars in tax-free revenue. …  As the Evans brothers build their international ministries, they crisscross the world on their church credit cards.  … He recently tweeted his “fav eating places in the world: 1. Shangri-la (Singapore) 2: (Five star hotel) Langham (Melbourne) 3. Little pasta place in Rome 4. Angelinas Paris 5: mi cocina Dallas (Texas).” …  Under present rules, pastors such as the Evans brothers get to keep all the frequent-flyer points they earn on their corporate credit cards, tax-free. And with almost all church expenses paid on credit cards, that could run to hundreds of thousands of points each year. …  Insiders say Russell and his wife are paid a cash salary of approximately $100,000 each, but that the true value of their total package is closer to $500,000 once all fringe benefits are included. Planetshakers denies this, but declines to provide accurate figures, citing confidentiality.

Which is followed by this gratuitous observation:

Churches have enjoyed a presumption that they are charities by right, courtesy of the Statute of Elizabeth, enacted in 1601. The estimated overall cost of this exemption to the economy was estimated by Treasury to be $85m in 2011-12.

But, heaven forfend if the article has given the wrong impression:

The Australian is not suggesting that Planetshakers or Influencers is under investigation.

It will be interesting to see how churches such as Planetshakers and their congregations respond to the kind of scrutiny the ACNC may bring. In the past, disgruntled followers simply found another church to go to; now they can seek change in their own church via a confidential complaints process provided by the ACNC.

This article is just mean. It treats Pentecostal Christianity as if it were some exotic species of religious belief, best observed by the anthropologist peering through the bushes at the natives caught up in their ecstatic frenzies while the witch doctor pockets the offerings (and frequent flier points).

The article is one-sided, incurious and dismissive. It also suffers from an overabundance of irony — “Can you believe these people?” —  and seeks not to inform its readers about one of the fastest-growing religious movements in the world but to reinforce anti-Christian prejudices. Now I enjoy being savagely unkind as the next reporter but this is a hit piece.

It does not live up to the code of decent reporting. However, aside from libel laws there is little agreement on what constitutes the “code”.

During the 2008 Lambeth Conference I took a house with a number of other reporters on the outskirts of Canterbury to save on hotel costs and to avoid having to stay in the rather dreary Soviet-style concrete student dormitories provided for the bishops, staff and press attending the 10-day gathering at the University of Kent. Over the course of the conference – a pan-Anglican jamboree for bishops held every 10 years — I renewed friendships and formed new relationships with members of the British press corps.

And they came to know me. At the end of the meeting one of my housemates, Ruth Gledhill of the Times, the doyenne of British religion writers, gave me a paperback copy of one of the “Just William” books by Richmal Crompton. Evidently my manner of dress, diet, intellectual interests, attainments and conversation reminded her of the perpetual schoolboy — a naïf. As did the suppositions I brought to the craft of reporting.

Setting aside the class and political overtones implied by the book – – think cold showers, push-ups, evangelical Christianity, conservative politics, and sport  — I guess she was not that far off the mark. I was a happy teenager, fortunate in my parents and my schooling. Latin was taught to me (it would be not quite true to say I studied the classics as that would imply effort on my part) but some of it did sink in. But what I did learn, and still believe, is in fair play. This article is unfair.

Hearing how a church grew from a few hundred to almost ten thousand over a decade in the hostile climate of Melbourne is a story worth telling — as is the move to Southern California. There is so much in this story waiting to be told, that it is a disappointment that suggestions of financial misconduct that appear to be based on nothing more than envy, dominate this story. If there is a Jim and Tammy Faye story here, tell it — don’t hint there might be one without some evidence.

The Seventeenth century satirist Thomas Brown updated Martial’s epigram, substituting his tutor at Oxford for Sabidius.

I do not love thee, Dr Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not love thee, Dr Fell.

Pentecostal Christians are bad and we should not love them, The Australian tells us – though it never quite gets round to saying why.

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  • Brad

    I find the typical response of my Christian brothers is very interesting. The media is not the devil on paper. The article raises a number of very important questions about the governance of the organisation. Many senior pastors are on the mission over growing large church congregations and internationals brands where music and events are the primary activities outside of the Sunday service which follows the format of a conference condensed down to 2 hours.

    I find it very worrying when scripture and Jesus warned continually to decern men of God based on the fruit they produce, alignment with scripture and accountability to Christians (not the current mantra of Pastors stating everyone is accountability to them and them to God). The idea of accountability only following upwards and pastors of churches having no accountability to the lay-Christian is unbiblical and a very dangerous governance structure.

    The article correctly points to irregulatities in regards to the use of church assets such as frequent flyer points. These are church assets and Russell’s use of these for personal holidays is correctly stated in the article as highly questionable.

    A larger concern is the AOG is structure produces these organizations and personalities as the state and national boards have little to no control over the individual church. The AOG being a loose connection of individual church’s is a poorly constructed governance structure and government bodies like the ACNC are most welcome to ensure if there is dubious activities these are identified and corrected.

    The church should be leading the way in governance, honesty and trust from the community. Clearly Planetshakers and many others have a lot of work to do.

    Please note, I was previously in senior leadership in Planetshakers and have specific knowledge of the structure and the article is spot on. I hope everyone examines their practices and improves them, and in doing so glorify God.

  • Steve and Debra int he same movie !! as informative as this article is i cant help but want to run out and get this movie right away. perhaps netflix has this..

  • Mathew Seawan

    I use to attend planetshakers but left after realising that they were never going to do anything in the community and just say that they are waiting to get a building. They have been saying this for years and all you have to look at is what they have done and achieved in the past.
    They will clean graffiti off commision housing or clean up a school but this is done with little money spent and by volunteers wanting to help people.
    But with the church collecting large amounts of money every week and then not supporting other not for profits is a disgrace.
    I remember when Black Saturday occurred the conregation raised $100,000 dollars in one weekend which was amazing.
    Then Russel stood on stage and said that he had given $20,000 to the appeal but was going to wait and be very strategic in where the remaining $80,000 was given.
    I never heard what happended to this money and I hope it was given but from past performance I suspect it was never given.
    I suppose these questions wouldn’t exists if the church was run and controlled by one person who doesn’t allow anyone in the conregation to know where money is spent and how much.
    If there is nothing to hide the. I don’t understand why they are so secretive and if they help so many people then in the community then this should be something they should be proud of.
    The sad truth is that there isn’t large amounts of people they have help and because of this they feel the need to attack people that ask questions or expect more.
    One final thought. Russel says that it is biblical to tithe 10% of pretax income, and even support pastors that speaking stage of titheing your expected income after God blesses you with a pay rise.
    So people give 10% that ends up equating to a large proportion of their wage after paying tax and living exspenses. The question is, does the church give 10% of its income to other non for profits in the community or does it spend it on running church culture courses and running church and claim it as helping the community.
    It’s funny how Russel says that it is helping but Jesus and the Apposels wouldn’t and always challenge the religious hierarchy who were more concerned about building there own kingdoms and influence than helping the needy.
    They wouldn’t want to do as Jesus asked and give their riches to the poor and follow him. That would be too much to ask I suspect.

    • geoconger

      From what you say there seems to be a story to be written. If the Australian had done its job and did some real reporting, rather than the wreck of a story they published, everyone would have been better served.

  • Jos

    I agree to a point re article . I thought it was a well written article . More questions need to be asked . I would rather put my money something like the NDIS which will help real people with genuine needs than a small group of people who say they are ” called to the city of Melbourne” clearly collect alot of tax free money from well intentioned Christians and deliver internal programs to reinforce why you should give more .
    Lets all ask ourselves Why? and. What for ?
    There is great need in our city and country.

  • Ignatz

    quote: Pentecostal Christians are bad and we should not love them, The Australian tells us

    It’s sad the Australian did a botched up job reporting the news. But the news media will seldom bother itself to make a minimal effort to understand charismatic xtians and what they believe, let alone that the movement is really quite variegated. But trashy news coverage has often been the case for a very long time. Just read some of the newspaper coverage way back during the original Azusa Street revival. I doubt if the reporters today would even know what I am talking about when I mention “Azusa Street”.
    Back then, however, news reporters at least had an some kind of excuse — the movement was new and very surprising. Today, there is less of an excuse because the movement has been around for more than a century, and is probably the largest xtian movement on the global scene.

  • Dear Patheos,
    I’d be more than happy to debate what you see as bias and poor reporting. But your critique is nothing more than a sneering disingenuous rant. Let’s have a two-sided discussion based on fact.
    Adam Shand

    • George Conger

      I re-read the original story and my post above and asked a few colleagues for their thoughts. One suggested it might be helpful to have mentioned what I liked in the story, so as to soften the blow of my criticism.

      It is my opinion that this was a good story that was poorly executed. The issues raised by the article — the unaccountability of some mega-church pastors and the popularity of charismatic congregations are good ones.

      My objections fell in three areas — aesthetic: the tone and style were amateurish and grating. Journalistic: no hard facts, no context, no substance, one sided. And lost opportunity — a good story can be told, but was not.

      What was sneering and what was disingenuous and where the rant occurred in my post, I do not know. As no substance is offered as to why my critique was wrong — I am unable to respond other than to say I am satisfied with my first impression that this story was junk journalism.

  • If Patheos meets to hash out a position agreeable to all its bloggers and writers in the debate the eagle-eyed Mr. Shand suggests, can you sort of make it a convention that others may also attend? I think it would be fun.

  • Jason

    I have a question for George Conger, If he believes their is a good story to be written and can also find the information and hard facts to back it from an organisation that is closed off and isolates people in the conregation who start to question, Back sliding as they like to label it.

    Then i would be very interested in the story he is going to write.

    I believe the story is written well and poses a lot of questions that people should ask themselves.

    Should they tithe 10% of their pre-tax income faithfully every week, so that the senior pastors that control all the money can live a very wealthy life style, with new cars and overseas holidays every year.
    Who fly in Buisness and First class when travelling and stay in five star hotels, eating out at fancy restaurants at the expense of the conregation.

    They justify their behaviour as God’s favour and blessing apon their lives but this dosen’t line up with the bible that they say states this.

    They ignore the poor and needy and horde the wealth for their own gain.

    I find it amazing that people are so eager to defend Christians that are questioned about their behaviour as they see it is an attack against God him self.

    Yet the Bible’s prophets all questioned the religious heirarcy to their own peril.

    If Christians actually lived the Bible and didn’t compromise their integrity, morales and turn a blind eye to manipulating behaviour. Then maybe the Church and Christians in leadership wouldn’t have to be so worried about their greed and selfishness being exposed.

    It appears the only mandate for this church is to win souls (build the conregation) which generates additional tithing and builds the brand around Australia and the world.

    The church claims it has 8600 members and one way that planetshakers achieves this is by taking over existing churches were pastors have left through church splits.

    It gives a false impression that the church is expanding but instead is aquiring other churches in its plan of expanding the Planetshakers brand around Melbourne and now the world.

    If all you do is help people then you have nothing to hide, If this is the case for planetshakers then theyshould respond to this article and give examples of all the good they do in the community and the money they have invested in to it on behalf of the conregation.

    • Rob Fox

      I cannot believe you didn’t get a reply to this. It’s said that people have most likely judged you, or in there words, ‘he’s wrong’. You’re onto something.

  • Cindy

    I have seen this church operate first hand and I can tell you the reporting done in the newspaper that was referenced in this article is biased and untruthful. Planetshakers church gives more than a million dollars each year to World Vision, specifically to helping the poor in Nkaya, Malwai. They do a number of other community projects including scrubbing graffiti off the houses of poor people in housing commission flats, blanket and food drives for refugees, and a number of other community projects (I know, because I’ve been a part of it). They also take up an offering to bless the single mothers who are struggling with the cost of Christmas. Last year they gave me a couple of hundred dollars on a Visa gift card. So the suggestion that they are selfishly sitting on a pile of cash is simply untrue. I read the news article in full and it is written by a reporter who admitted to bringing her two gay atheists friends along who scoffed at the church services. Hardly objective journalism. I wish that Christians would stop mudslinging at each other. Christ requires unity, not criticism based on limited evidence.

  • Janelle

    I attend Planetshakers Melbourne campus every Sunday and have been since i was a child (7 and a half years now), and for years God and the people in the church have been giving money out to pastor Sam & Russel to help make more conferences around the world (now known as awakening), help the poor in Africa and around the world (they recently helped a whole village be sponsored & get fresh water and also gotten 200 children sponsored in one night at their conference), to help clean buildings, visit schools, help the youth, Planetshakers college, women and men conference (beautiful woman & mighty men), PlanetKids,camps (youth, children and uni), help those who speak a different language (Spanish, Persian, Sri Lanka, Mandarin) and to most importantly help save up to build their first very own planet shakers building (then they would stop spending thousands of dollars to hire Dallas Brooks centre).
    As said in church buy Pastor Jentzen Franklin (13 April 2014), ‘Its only with the power of god through Pastor Sam and Russel Evans to transform a Mason lounge into a house of God’ (they literally have been hiring out a Freemason building to do church). On that Sunday they also announced that they got their building approval and they have enough money to build their very own Planetshakers for their largely growing church.
    Planetchakers also have 5 campus’, Melbourne campus, North East, South East, Geelong and Africa, Cape Town.
    It is a miracle that they could even get this far in a short 10 years, starting as a small church in Adelaide with only a few hundred people to a large church in Melbourne with over thousands of people (they just recently started packing up the third balcony in Dallas brooks woo)
    Yes, they go out over seas and go to famous restaurants.
    But they get invited over seas for god related things (pastors from other countries ask them to preach/sing) and they go dinner with those pastors. Yes, they might use some money that is given to them but everyone in our church are willing to give it knowing that they will be put to good use (to help those in the world and to teach them the word of the lord).
    There is so much more to speak about on the concept of this wonderful church but people don’t look into it or talk about. because they are afraid of the powerful work of god transforming inside it.
    i have so much respect for the church and everyone inside it; we all treat each other as family, and the senior pastor of the church does not go burge out his church money for himself.
    if he was to do so, then how has he come this far?