Each week, I would watch my mother withdraw our family’s spending budget from the ATM at the shopping centre. Hunched over her aged brown purse, its spongy stuffing bursting out of the seam, she would carefully portion out the amounts – groceries in the back notes section; spending in the front notes section; and rolled up in the side would be the tithes. It was usually a mix of a fifty, twenty and maybe a ten, depending on Mum and Dad’s gross income for the week – but always 10 per cent. Mum was strict about portioning off the tithes first, and calculating the leftover budget afterwards, relaxing only when her purse was tucked safely in her bag, under her shoulder.
Growing up, we didn’t have much. We had what we needed, but the church always received the benefits of our parents’ hard work – even their unpaid labour. Dad ran the Christian answer to the Scouts – the Royal Rangers – organising close to 100 children into camping-themed activities with a Biblical flavour. He spent many weekends either on camps, training other adult volunteers, or conducting repairs and preparations for the organisation, often with supplies purchased out of his own pocket.
The church thrives on this kind of unquestioning contribution by its followers. Despite the intrinsic rewards – my father enjoyed interacting with children, and was putting his love of the outdoors to good use – these volunteer babysitters believed they were saving children’s souls as was their moral responsibility.
The social services provided by the church are unquestionably valuable to our society. Across the country Hillsong Church, Australia’s most famous version of my own childhood church’s Pentecostal denomination, provides care services to the aged, homeless and indigenous populations, as well as programs for youth and families; and those transitioning from prison. These services can comprise a hot meal with a haircut and a shower; medical treatment; workshops for self-care and conflict resolution; or legal support – all from volunteers.
According to the Hillsong website, their volunteers are at hand to provide a supportive community for these individuals by building relationships, giving encouragement and alternative options and referrals for further support.
Funding for the services comes from church and community donations, which are tax deductible when the organisation is set up as a public benevolent institution (PBI) – that is, one that whose main purpose is to relieve poverty, sickness, suffering or disability according to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). Churches can register in this category due to their community work but also perhaps due to their own belief that they are providing ‘relief of suffering’- because they are saving us from the sin which has separated us from our place with God in the afterlife. However, according to the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission, [a]s long as a charity's main purpose is benevolent, it can also have other non-benevolent purposes that are incidental.
The ATO has an extensive list of ways PBIs can claim tax deductions through their operations, including GST credits on donated goods, GST-fundraising events, annual Fringe Benefits Tax caps up to $30,000 per employee, and other miscellaneous deductions. These are all quite straight-forward for your average medical charity or educational outreach and quite often vital to their functioning.
On Hillsong’s website the CEO of their Melbourne mobile shower unit One Voice, Josh Wilkins, says, “In 2014 One Voice launched a Mobile Shower Service for people who are homeless in Melbourne. In the first four months of operation we provided shower services for over 400 people, and gave out over 1400 hygiene items, which were donated through Kilo of Kindness. Hillsong CityCare also ran a clothing collection campaign in Melbourne and over 3,000 items were passed onto hundreds of patrons using the shower service.”
The north Queensland church my family attended grew on the hard work provided by people like our parents. The parents of all of our friends served the church community in one way or another through Royal Rangers, meals for the homeless, and health care for the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. All programs had a heavy serving of proselytising, and only participants who were receptive to the Gospel component were welcome to return.
The Pentecostal church thrives on the labour contributions of its members. Hillsong may be famous for its high production audio visual spectacular, but you will find most Pentecostal churches throughout Australia producing a similar worship service on any given weekend, albeit a scaled-down version. Musicians and technicians are happy to lend their skills and expensive equipment in the service of God and their internal church community, and have made meaningful relationships in the process.
Community service workers also lend their skills and knowledge to the church voluntarily in the service of their faith and like the aforementioned creative workers have been able to obtain employment as a result of their volunteer work. The underpinning reason for this church work with the greater community however, is the recruitment of new church members.
Every week in church I watched the collection bags get passed around. Tithes were collected and endless fundraising campaigns were held for building development, Bible College conferences and personal donations to parade after parade of guest preacher who visited with his (they were always male) vision for God’s message. Donations were never demanded on top of tithes, but the pressure to contribute to God’s work was immense. Pressure was also high on the recruitment front, or as the church calls it – witnessing. How many people did you witness to this week? Was a common question at church, and even Youth Group. Imagine a 15-year-old girl experiencing existential guilt over the fate of her soul because she was too scared to talk to strangers in public, let alone witness to them.
Meanwhile my siblings and I watched enviously as the Senior Pastor, Assistant Pastor and Bursar arrived for church one day with shiny new cars – acquired on lease, purportedly a smart fiscal move, the rumour went – but did they have to each receive a top-of-the-range Holden Statesman?
In this statement released by Senior Pastor Brian Houston of Hillsong Church writes, [p]eople give because they want to, not because they have to, and anyone has a right to support a church financially if they wish, just as they have a right to give to any other organisation. It is insulting to Christians across the world to suggest they cannot choose to give to their local church.
The church has a nice business model going there. By relying on its faithful followers to fund and recruit new members, it can take advantage of those convenient tax write-offs available to it as a certified charity, a designation afforded to it primarily because it is trying to promote its own agenda.
The labour relationship between the church and its followers isn’t all bad though; after all these people are receiving intrinsic rewards – psychological, social and even useful work experience that can lead to paid work in the future. Despite the economic and psychological trauma suffered at the hands of the church generation after generation of ‘worker bees’ keep carrying on the work and repeating the same mistakes because they don’t know any better.
The church may contribute necessary services to those needing help, and provide meaning in individual’s lives, but it is no longer a sacred and unquestionable cultural institution. How long will it remain a mainstay in Australian society?