October 2005

The Nation Reviewed

Sundays in paradise

By Kerryn Goldsworthy
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Paradise Community Church sits, appropriately enough, on acres of prime real estate. On a sunny Sunday morning it’s hard to find a space in their massive car park. For my first and only attendance at this Assemblies of God stronghold – Adelaide’s equivalent of Hillsong, and the cradle of the Family First Party – I’m wearing a wistful expression and a girlie skirt. If anybody asks I’m just another lonely pilgrim, looking to save my soul.

Assemblies of God – AOG according to their logo – is a Pentecostal religion whose beliefs include the literal truth of the Bible, the imminent return of Christ, the necessity of baptism by immersion, the desire of God “to heal and transform us so that we can live healthy and prosperous lives”, and something called “baptism in the Holy Spirit”, of which speaking in tongues is the proof. The official birthplace of the Pentecostal revival is given on an AOG website as Topeka, Kansas.

The handful of leaflets in the foyer includes a calendar for something called “Women Connect”, a monthly AOG get-together for ladies. Of the five meetings listed one’s about weight loss, one’s a fashion parade and one’s billed as “dress-up night”. Then there’s “Your Money Matters”, a seminar for “couples in their 20s, 30s and 40s” which includes “investment options”. Finally there’s a flyer showing the black silhouette, against a blood-red background, of a medievally clad hero with his sword raised over his head. This advertises four “sessions” with Pastor David McCracken – entitled “Overcomers: Born to Rule” – on “possessing your authority in Christ and learning how to rule on a daily basis”.

Today’s service features three well-dressed pastors who come on one at a time. The first one’s not much more than a warm-up act for the warm-up act. He introduces the band and the singers. He tells us “Jesus is in da house!” (“Hooray!” we all shout.) And he says that while we would all have been sitting in front of the TV the night before, watching the AFL elimination-final derby and yelling “Go the Crows” or “Go the Power”, well, that’s all over now, and what we should be shouting this morning is “Go Jesus!” (“Go Jesus!” we all shout.) Then there’s a lot of singing and clapping along with the band and singers onstage. The musicians are great but the songs are lame. And someone should tell the singers that “adore” doesn’t rhyme with “pure”.

Down each side wall of the auditorium are a couple of industrial-strength video cameras. On either side of the stage two huge screens are mounted up high; on them we can see ourselves getting geed up by the sight of ourselves getting geed up. Many people hold up their arms and stretch out their fingers in the classic revivalist gesture. More and more do this as they catch sight of themselves on the screen. The first and nameless frontman is succeeded by Pastor Matt, 2IC at Paradise and a hot contender to out-charisma his boss. He looks like a blonder but no less manic version of the actor Robert Carlyle, lit by inner fires. Pastor Matt’s patter is cheerful and upbeat but he would seem more at home preaching full-blooded hellfire and damnation. He warms the crowd up properly for the morning’s main event: the appearance of Pastor Ashley.

Pastor Ashley and his clothes have about them an oxymoronically matte glow, as though lightly dusted with icing sugar. He is the image of a healthy and prosperous life. He jokes and chats and introduces the 11 new babies and their proud parents, who each get a round of applause. “Isn’t it great that this is a generational church?” he enthuses, gesturing at the babies.

It’s not just generational, it’s dynastic: Pastor Ashley is Ashley Evans, son of the Hon. Andrew Evans OAM. Evans Snr is a member of the South Australian parliament and co-founder of Family First. He was senior pastor at this church for 30 years and national superintendent – a position now re-titled “national president” – of the Australian Assemblies of God for 20. He has held the one Family First seat in South Australia’s upper house since 2002.

His son Ashley’s topic today is “favour”, his text Luke 2:51. “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.” Pastor Ashley, his rhetoric studded with the words “acquire”, “possess” and “influence”, preaches on how to grow in favour with God and man. Not on how to give it, but how to get it: how to recognise favour in all its guises – spiritual, influential, material – and court it. By way of illustration he tells a story about receiving an unexpected gift of some footy-final tickets, then another about the free truckload of marble someone donated to the church to make “our awesome new toilets”. Pastor Ashley says awesome a lot, and in the case of toilets made out of a truckload of marble it’s probably no exaggeration. “If you’re going to grow in favour,” he instructs us, “then you need to respect favour. Say ‘respect favour’.” (“Respect favour!” we all shout.)

His final point is that it’s important to recognise an opportunity for “favour” and take it when it comes your way. The personal example he gives this time is of a recent visit by Prime Minister John Howard to Southside, another of Adelaide’s main AOG churches. He was very busy himself that day, says Pastor Ashley, but he made the time to get down to Southside and re-acquaint himself with the PM, lining up to shake his hand and remind him that they’d met before. And, yes, the PM remembered him well. That’s part of what favour is, he says: the taking of opportunities when they are offered to you. “It was just a brief encounter but it put me in his line of sight.”

Towards the end, Pastor Ashley mentions the imminent collection of “tithes and offerings”. He knows, he says, that it is often more convenient to give by credit card, and he reminds the congregation that the church has facilities for this. No fundraising lamingtons and beanies for the Assemblies of God; no shiny sixpences for the plate; no earnest, threadbare rector soliciting funds to repair the church roof. “I believe that Jesus can get into the lives of influential people and politicians,” says Pastor Ashley, “and I want you to think about that when you’re making your tithes and offerings today.”

There is no collection plate as such, rather a stack of small black plastic buckets like plant pots. As these are passed down each row, the auditorium lights gradually come up and up, brighter than they’ve been so far or will get again. One’s tithes and offerings are therefore sufficiently brightly lit to be clearly observable by one’s fellow worshippers, by the video cameras and by the people on the stage. As the overflowing bucket is passed to me I glance in and see nothing smaller than a $50 note. A quick, surreptitious estimate of seat numbers indicates that the auditorium must hold around 2,000 people. It’s almost full, and this is the second service of the morning. The Assemblies of God website lists 1,064 churches around Australia. I do the math.

Gee, Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

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