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Kingdom Coffee: (mega)church means business

When a fire tore through its headquarters of the Australian franchise coffee chain Gloria Jean’s in 2003 co-founder Nabi Saleh responded with confidence. “That is how life goes. You have to have a dream and it has to be bigger than yourself. When things look challenging, that is when you get help from above.”

The business recovered in fine form and last year Gloria Jean’s was named the Franchisor of the Year by Price Waterhouse Coopers and the Franchise Council of Australia.

At last count Gloria Jean’s had 342 stores around Australia, which is more than half of the number of McDonalds stores, and was still growing. Not a bad effort for a business chain that is less than a decade old in this country.

Gloria Jean’s: Business flavoured with religion

Gloria Jean’s is a business with a religious flavour. Nabi Saleh and Peter Irvine are both long-term members of Sydney’s Hillsong megachurch.

That is where the two men met and undoubtedly percolated their business ideas within the entrepreneurial Hillsong culture.

Nabi Saleh is an elder who sits on the Hillsong board of directors and has been described by the Business Review Weekly as the “business brains behind Hillsong.”

Gloria Jean’s has a training centre next door to Hillsong headquarters in Baulkham Hills though Peter Irvine is quick to draw a clear distinction between the church and the business: “[T]his is not a diversification for Hillsong… There is no financial link.”

Business Review Weekly made a different interpretation pointing to a network of commercial links that cross-pollinate the two entities.

“Although there is no legal connection between Hillsong and Gloria Jean’s Coffees, there is certainly a strong commercial connection.

“Some of the best Gloria Jean’s franchises are owned by Hillsong members, which helps Hillsong because they give 10% of their pre-tax dollars to the church.

“There are also Gloria Jean’s coffee stalls at the many Hillsong conferences held each year, along with Gloria Jean’s outlets at the Hillsong Church at Baulkham Hills.”

Gloria Jean’s is certainly a business with a strong flavour of religion, even if it drinks from the secular cup of business success.

Hillsong: Religion flavoured with business

The first thing that many people notice about Hillsong is that it operates within the framework of a business. It makes no secret of this and has adopted of large corporations governance structure with a board and a CEO.

Hillsong promotes a culture of financial entrepreneurialism and Senior Pastor Brian Houston release a book in 1999 entitled, You Need More Money: Discovering God’s Financial Plan for Your Life.

It has also borrowed heavily from the world of corporate management to promote models of success-based leadership.

What God has given us is great, and great means big, great is powerful. I tell you, the devil likes to contain and give the church a small mentality … I want you to buckle up your seat-belt and get ready for a big year.  (Hillsong Senior Pastor Brian Houston)

Typical of large corporations Hillsong has a marketing vision at its heart. When asked about the birth of the church in an interview on ABC’s Australian Story last year, Hillsong Senior Pastor Brian Houston reached for marketing imagery.

“[I]n those days there used to be a guy who was famous or infamous, whatever, on TV, who many people might remember who used to be on the TV and sell Holdens, sell General Motors, and apparently he was the biggest Holden dealer in Australia.

“And I thought to myself, if you can build a Holden dealer like that, the largest Holden dealership in Australia, surely it must be somewhere where you could build a church. Between those things and me sensing a spiritual pull, we went and started in a little school hall.”

Hillsong has been very successful in its endeavour. It is the biggest church in Australia, with over 20 000 people attending each weekend and its presence runs deeper than weekend congregations with a host of conferences, special events, school programs, business networks, welfare, and counselling services.

Financially it is also thriving, with a total annual income that has now reached $60 million, $16 million of which comes through sales of books, CDs, DVDs, t-shirts and other merchandise.

It has become part of the national psyche and, as one of the largest megachurches in the Western world, it has a big international profile that surpasses all but the top American megachurches.

Hillsong is not unique. Many other ‘megachurches’ around the country shares a similar business model – including the Christian Outreach Centre in Brisbane, Christian City Church in Sydney, Paradise in Adelaide, CityLife, Crossways and Careforce in Melbourne, and Christian Life Centre in Perth.

Although there are many differences between megachurches and traditional churches in terms of size, music, culture, theology, style and evangelical focus, the fundamental difference is that megachurches are built around a business model.

Moving beyond attacks on prosperity doctrine

In coming to terms with this new model of church-as-business, critics initially identified prosperity doctrine as the key problem – the idea that following God can help bring success in terms of money, health, and relationships (the so-called ‘gospel of health and wealth’).

Indeed some of Hillsong Pastor Brian Houston’s comments seem to suggest prosperity doctrine. In You Need More Money he says, “If you and I can change our thinking and develop a healthy attitude towards money, I believe we can all walk in the blessing and prosperity that God intends for us. We will never have a problem with money again.”

The most prominent critic at the time of the book’s release was Rev Tim Costello, then minister at Collins Street Baptist Church in Melbourne. Not mincing words, Costello went straight to the jugular of prosperity doctrine.

“The quickest way to degrade the gospel is to link it with money and the pursuit of money. It is the total opposite of what Jesus preached. These people have learnt nothing from the mistakes made by the American televangelists.

Most other church leaders seem reluctant to publicly criticise, perhaps for reasons of diplomacy (not wanting to offend people who support Hillsong), image (not wanting to be seen to be envious), conviction (they agree with Hillsong’s approach) or strategy (they feel that public criticism would be ineffective).

Tabor Bible College lecturer, Jim Reiher, is a key exception. His little known book, The Eye of the Needle, is a systematic refutation of prosperity doctrine from a biblical perspective.

A lot of sheep are wandering away from the flock when the simplistic promises of prosperity teachers are not fulfilled in their lives. They suffer unnecessary emotional, spiritual and economic hardship, because they try to implement the principles of prosperity and are disappointed. (Jim Reiher, The Eye of the Needle)

If we are to have a deep and ongoing prophetic impact we need to move beyond the critique of prosperity doctrine and into an analysis of the cultural forms that give rise to it. In order to do so we need to look at organisational foundation on which megachurches are based – the corporation.

Joel Bakan, in his excellent documentary, The Corporation, argues that the corporations are inherently amoral institutions which “by law are required to place financial interests of their owners above competing interests.”

Although there is great potential within the corporate structure for producing wealth, there are also great dangers of this blindspot to human reality. This amoral heart is, according to Bakan, a structural feature of the bottom-line driven corporation.

Missiologically speaking, then, the corporation is an odd foundation on which to build a church. Yet the megachurches have done precisely this and become the ecclesiological equivalent of today’s large corporation.

Whether or not Bakan tells the whole story, he raises important questions. Although the megachurches fall into the ‘not-for-profit’ category, they share much of the organisational forms, leadership styles and consumer marketing culture of the secular counterparts in whose image they are created.

In an interview with ABC Radio National last year Tim Costello said that the challenge for the larger Pentecostal churches in Australia was to “to stay truly prophetic, to not simply baptise the dominant culture.”

We also need to understand the forces that make this uncritical baptism so alluring and seductive.

To help frame these prophetic questions and to graciously engage the megachurches is the task of denominations with deep ecclesiological and biblical traditions.

David Collis is a researcher and theological writer with the Victorian Council of Christian Education (VCCE). He is currently researching Australia’s megachurches. Contact him HERE if you have any feedback or would like to receive monthly updates of latest news on the megachurches.