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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