You may have heard in recent weeks of the implosion of Hillsong Church, a ‘community’ and ‘brand’ of mega-churches born in 1980s Australia under the leadership of Brian Houston and his wife. , Bobbie. It is an independent, charismatic, and fast-growing church that as of February 2022 had 150,000 participants worldwide in more than 30 countries, including the United States. Counting worldwide online attendance, they have nearly half a million attendees every Sunday. However, he is now mired in various scandals ranging from his finances and the marketing of religion to his global Christian music business and the questionable behavior of Brian Houston and other prominent church leaders.
What interests me here is not Hillsong specifically, but the larger problem of which Hillsong is a particularly nasty example. This problem was recently highlighted by Barry Bowen in his article in the April 5 issue of The Christian Post, “The Dangerous Legal Structure of the Hillsong Church.” Most people don’t give much thought to how a church fits into the legal system of American law. But the point is that a church must have internal governance statutes and articles of incorporation that establish themselves as a legal corporation, especially a nonprofit charitable or educational corporation.
Bowen points out a number of things, but the one that worries him the most is Hillsong’s statutes in the US state “the society shall have no members.” This is a common legal twist in corporate statutes that states that an organization must have “no voting members”; that is, affiliation, attendance, and donation does not mean that anyone has the right to vote on matters concerning Hillsong Church.
Also, it may come as a surprise to anyone who doesn’t deal with corporate law in the United States, but the board of directors (or board) of a corporation (for-profit or not-for-profit) can be very small. . Depending on the state where the company registered, the minimum number may be one person, although in most states the minimum number is three. This means that an independent, non-denominational, self-governing church can have an annual budget of $20,000 or $20,000,000 and have absolutely no control beyond one or three people who are the legally appointed members/leaders. and self-perpetuating from the board of directors of the company.
Another thing not necessarily well known is that almost all of the “mega-churches” in the United States are, in fact, independent, self-governing, non-denominational churches that answer to no one but their small board of trustees – and, at least in theory, to God and the Bible. However, their reliance on the Bible is simply consistent with their particular pastor’s idiosyncratic reading of the Bible. There is no overarching faith-based organization with ultimate superior authority. This means, for all intents and purposes, that there is no oversight for these “churches”. There is no one but the American legal system and the IRS who can hold these pastors and their leaders accountable for anything – and the separation of church and state under the law. American works to their advantage.
Many of these mega churches in America have modeled their mode of operation as a regular for-profit corporation. They see themselves as being “growth-oriented” and providing a recognizable “brand” that can be transplanted to more and more places, much like a for-profit franchise system – and the brand makes money. The founders and leaders of these churches see nothing to pause because their type of Christianity is, in one way or another, a form of the “prosperity gospel”: if you are in agreement with God, he will agree with you. and reward you with success in this world in addition to the world to come. Think of Trump favorite Paula White, for example.
I will never forget, once while visiting relatives in South Carolina several years ago, passing a huge billboard near Aiken that showed a handsome young man dressed in black leather leaning against his extremely expensive motorcycle – and there was mention of a church below the photo. Upon asking about it later, I learned that the billboard was an advertisement for a mega church nearby and the leather-clad macho man was the lead minister. “O tempora, o mores”, as Cicero said.
Call me a grumpy old New Englander, but I happen to think there’s times when a church isn’t a church anymore, when it’s become something very different. With the explosive growth of independent, self-governing, charismatic and evangelical churches over the past 40 years, we have come to a point where one of the most important influences in American society has found a way to place itself outside of everything. control. And American Christianity of the independent, non-denominational, evangelical/charismatic type is followed by 30-35% of our population. It’s laissez-faire Christianity that works much like laissez-faire capitalism. Neither is good for humanity.
Those familiar with the history of Christianity know that, very early on, a system of oversight and doctrine was carefully established. In AD 100 we know that there was an “episkopos” (the Greek word for overseer) in every region who oversaw house churches – the first Christian meetings were held in private homes. Christianity was not founded as a religion of independent followers free to go in opposite directions, following whoever had enough charisma to attract attention. The New Testament itself (for example, Paul’s Letters to Timothy and Titus) and the works of early church fathers like Ignatius of Antioch, make this abundantly clear.
The word “church” in English carries centuries of associations and weight. This is not to be thrown away lightly. And yet, today, we don’t care. As I have traveled the countryside (and this is especially the case in the Southern “Bible Belt”), I see non-denominational, independent, self-governing churches of all shapes and sizes everywhere. They range from one small room to much larger churches, hoping to be mega. Who knows what kind of messages are preached there? You can rest assured that the messages are all over the map.
I’ve heard people say, “Well, the more the merrier, the more religious choices, the better, competition brings out the best in everything.” I’m not sure that’s a valid assessment of what Christianity’s relationship with society should be.
The way it is now in the United States, just about any Tom, Dick, Harry and Sally can start a church. And they are. And it’s not good. Sometimes a church isn’t really a church. Be careful.
John Nassivera is a former professor who remains affiliated with the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University. He lives in Vermont and part-time in Mexico.