According to the latest National Church Life Survey, the Pentecostals have overtaken Anglicans as Australia's second largest religious group by attendance, behind the Catholic Church.
Some Anglicans are even more surprised that the Pentecostals have not just overtaken them numerically but also in educational attainment (measured by proportion of degree holders among attendees).
The Pentecostals, by the way, are also our most racially diverse religious group.
In the light of the educational attainment data, it is difficult to sustain the comforting rationalisation (common enough among Anglican and other mainline denominational ministers as it is among the secular press) that Pentecostals just manipulate stupid people through the door of their churches with unfounded promises of health and wealth.
The other popular rationalisation is that Pentecostals, by unfortunate accident, just happen to have the best musicians (a variation of the oldie that "the devil has all the best tunes"). Across Sydney, one hears Anglican congregations singing Hillsong and C3 music (mostly badly) thinking this will pull the crowd, especially the young adult crowd that is particularly absent from their congregations. This is to miss the point that the music is part of culture of innovation and empowerment of gifted young people.
Their different fortunes are not explained by different attitudes to evangelism. Between Sydney Anglicans and Pentecostals, the commitment to evangelism is equally strong. What could be stronger than former Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen's commitment, displayed in word and resources, to push up the proportion of evangelical Christians to 10% of the population?
In Pentecostal ministry circles planting and growing churches is everything. Both the Sydney Anglicans and Pentecostals have armies of gifted and self-sacrificial young people to carry forward their mission.
Why then has the Sydney Anglican growth push had disappointing results (though it did save their congregations from the decline that other mainline denominations across the country have experienced)? The performance of other mainline denominations is not a high bar for success. Why have the Sydney Anglicans not seen the rapid growth the Pentecostal movement has experienced though this period?
My own context includes being part of a Sydney Anglican congregation, though our family has also been part of Uniting Church congregations in other cities for several years. I've also been blessed to spend quite a bit of time with Catholics recently, through university connections, and our family has seen a lot of churches through travel and university sabbaticals in Oxford, Vancouver and Princeton. Four years ago I left the university system to join friends at Alphacrucis College, the national college of the Australian Pentecostal movement, to be part of their vision to become Australia's next Christian university (joining the two existing Catholic universities). This has been my first experience with the Australian Pentecostal movement, and though the music is not to my taste and the eucharist not done well, it is something I have been blessed to have been part of over the last four years. I'm writing from my own experience and acknowledge that this is a small and non-random sample of the diversity of Anglican and Pentecostal churches in Sydney.
If greater Pentecostal growth cannot be explained by preying on the weak, by better music, or by greater commitment to evangelism, what might be some of the reasons for the difference between Sydney Anglican and Pentecostal church growth and the emergence of Pentecostalism as the "new normal" in Sydney church life in recent years?
Let me lay out a number of possibilities:
Sydney Anglicans are right that training matters a lot. Anglican ministers leave Moore College well versed in the Scriptures, equipped casually to drop references to the Greek and the right evangelical authors in their 40 minute sermons, and able to spot those who are not "our people" at 100 paces. Attitude to women's ministry serves as an easily administered test as to whether people are "our sort of people."
Pentecostal ministers don't compete in any of these dimensions. Some Pentecostal circles are boys clubs too. While the attention to the Scriptures at Moore is admirable, the rapid development of biblical scholarship at Alphacrucis in recent years has meant that this is not the distinguishing factor that it once was.
An important difference is that Pentecostal ministers are also taught the leadership skills needed to grow churches. The combined Bachelor of Ministry/Bachelor of Business at Alphacrucis is now the degree of choice for aspiring Pentecostal pastors. The Alphacrucis Master of Leadership and Doctor of Ministry allows experienced pastors with a passion to take their churches to the next level. The commitment to further develop their skills is a marker of the contemporary Pentecostal ministry - courses help them understand the distinction between ministry and leadership, how to motivate and manage volunteers, governance and about not-for-profit law so they avoid pitfalls which can derail church growth, how to understand strategy and finance, and more besides.
I've heard many times from Sydney Anglican ministers about the dangers of professionalising gospel ministry, and share their revulsion at the invasion of church leadership by sharp-suited MBA graduates sprouting the latest management theories. However, leadership (like all business subjects) at Alphacrucis is taught within a strong theological framework; students are trained to connect these subjects to the theology subjects in all our degrees.
The capstone subject in the Master of Leadership is devoted to integrating theology and their other subjects in the context of their vocation, whether to planting and growing a congregation, to educational leadership, not-for-profit leadership, a missional business startup, or something else. Integration is not just about ideas, but developing the individual and communal spiritual disciplines that are needed to sustain integration over the long run.
I don't want to claim that Alphacrucis leadership programs are responsible for Pentecostal growth; rather, they are an example of the mindset of the contemporary Pentecostal movement. It is worth thinking about what the "motivators" are in each movement. Anglican ministers are respected by their peers if they are considered "sound" (denouncing liberals outside or within their ranks always scores points here), are admired even more if they have planted a church, or if their church is growing a bit.
For Pentecostal ministers, much less energy is wasted on posturing before church authorities (who are, in any case, a relatively lean and culture driven group): instead, it is all about doubling then seeking to double again the size of their churches. Empowered, visionary leadership matched with the skills to achieve growth seems to me the biggest reason why the Pentecostal movement is growing more rapidly than Sydney Anglican attendance. This accords well with National Church Life Survey findings about the importance of leadership and structures which empower it.
The Sydney Anglican commitment to evangelism seems to me to be often undermined by an excessive and unhealthy need for church authorities to control the whole process. The concern for doctrinal purity at all stages, and among all involved in the process, seems to me more often about control and boundaries of the "in-group" than about faithfulness. There seems to be a lack of trust in the activity of the Holy Spirit in these matters. Pentecostals by and large are not hampered by these things. There are of course individuals with personality disorders in all human groups, but what I'm interested in is the cultures and general tendencies of Sydney Anglican and Pentecostal movements.
The thing that has struck me most about Pentecostal church meetings is that they are designed for attenders (including the leaders) to "do business with God." By contrast Sydney Anglican meetings are designed to transfer knowledge about God, which attendees will act upon later, perhaps in their daily quiet times. There seems little sense of immediacy or direct encounter with God in many Sydney Anglican church meetings. Engagement with God is to be restricted to one's mind, with insufficient recognition of our bodily and emotional dimensions.
Poor preaching often afflicts both Sydney Anglican and Pentecostal churches, but the Sydney Anglican attender sitting through a lengthy, scripturally dubious and pastorally barren sermon is more to be pitied than the Pentecostal attender for whom there are other possibilities in the meeting for engaging with God. Even the songs in Sydney Anglican churches seem often to be bad sermons put to music rather than an opportunity to respond to God.
What in the Scriptures suggests that our mental capacities are any less fallen than the other aspects of our humanity? Do the Scriptures anywhere suggest that the solution to our fallen state is restricting ourselves to a particular sort of propositional rationality which is more amenable to top down control than poetry or story? The emphasis on a particular sort of rationality in meetings again points to a fatal prioritising of control over evangelism by many Sydney Anglicans.
Pentecostal churches are full of wounded people, and churches are seen as hospitals for sinners. By contrast, to be comfortable in many Sydney Anglican church one needs to have it all together doctrinally and morally (according to a particular sort of morality that is really propriety) - or, at least, to be able to project an impression to other attenders of having it all together. How much greater an impediment to mission could there be?
Pentecostalism is much more culturally adaptable than Sydney Anglicanism, which for all the rhetoric of being gospel-focussed remains a wealthy private school-educated white male club nostalgic for the 1950s. Especially the leadership. Of course, there is the criticism that Pentecostal adaptability is really spineless and craven capitulation to the materialist degeneracy of Sydney culture in order to get paying customers through the door. No doubt there are cases, but I don't think it is the norm in Pentecostalism, at least from what I have seen. Pentecostalism flourishes among migrant and marginal groups in the Western Suburbs, as much as it does among the well-dressed surfing hipsters of the Northern Beaches and McMansions of the Hills District.
A way ahead?
The bigger picture here is not the Anglican versus Pentecostal numerical race, but all of us learning to offer the gospel more truly and effectively to the people of Sydney so the Holy Spirit can work to convict of sin, bring God's grace, and the fruits which follow. There are things that Pentecostals have learnt and can continue to learn from the Sydney Anglicans. Both the Principal of Alphacrucis and its senior biblical scholar, for example, are Moore College graduates. The seriousness about biblical training at Moore over many years has been a blessing and example to the wider church.
It seems to me that both Sydney Anglicans and Pentecostals need to "get out a bit more." Former Archbishop Peter Jensen was our inaugural Alphacrucis Research Roundtable speaker in 2014. As well as vigorously making the argument against Christian universities (as he was invited to do), he made the excellent suggestion that we send a busload of Alphacrucis ministry students to Moore each week and that Moore return the visits. Perhaps this could even be extended to Catholic seminaries in time - the Catholics being the other growing Christian movement in Sydney. If nothing else it would reduce prejudice on all sides, and students might learn things they would never get in their own colleges and churches.
Wouldn't it be good to have all the Christian churches in Sydney growing at the expense of the predominant cultural apathy, atheism and amorality? It seems from the attendance figures that the punters have been recognising things to which church authorities are blind. There is a "new normal" in Sydney church life.