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.
The Planetshakers Band, one the slickest Christian rock outfits going round, had set the scene for a night of “ecstatic worship” at the Rock Church in San Diego California. They had played the familiar set of “7-11” songs, hymns comprised of seven short phrases repeated 11 times. Critics of Christian rock say this repetition is designed to pummel the brain into submission, “turning the minds of the congregation to mush,” as one put it. What is billed as the Holy Spirit may in fact be nothing than a release of happy hormones into the brain.
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.”
In Christian tradition, Jesus Christ is the leader and founder of the church, but apparently in the Pentacostal world things are different.
Soon Evans was calling out “healings” from the stage to the adoring crowd. 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, including “healings.” I say why stop at tax deductions, why not a Medicare rebate?
I’m told that under scripture only a prophet can claim such supernatural powers. And the bar is set very high. If a prophet fails to perform a single healing or other miracle he or she is automatically regarded as a false prophet. And one might ask whether a false prophet should receive a tax deduction, if adherence to doctrine matters at all to the Australian Tax Office and the new Australian Charities and Not For Profit Commission.
Until now, the government has shown only occasional interest in the activities of churches that receive tax exemptions. But since July 1 the newly formed ACNC is bringing unprecedented scrutiny.
ACNC advisory board member David Crosbie says the changes will not restrict the activities of legitimate churches, but would help to weed out “fringe religions” that act more like cults.
Despite the wacky healing malarkey, 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.
Critics such as Chris Rosebrough, who broadcast excerpts of Evans’s San Diego healings on his US radio show Pirate Christian, believe Evans’s routine owes more to marketing than religion.
Rosebrough describes Evans as a “vision casting, seeker-driven, mega church pastor, mixed with a little televangelist.”
“This guy is whipping people into a frenzy so he can sell them little jars of potion that will heal whatever ails them, gout or maybe they have intestinal difficulties, who knows?”
But whatever its doctrinal shortcomings this is a fabulously successful formula for Evans.
From its modest beginnings in Adelaide as a youth conference within Paradise Church, Planetshakers is now a rising star in the Christian world. 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. Evans’s elder brother, Ashley, has already established a US branch of his Influencers Church (formerly Paradise Church) in Atlanta, Georgia.
The brothers were once at loggerheads when their father, Andrew, anointed Ashley to take over Paradise when, after 30 years in charge, he left to form the Family First Party. Evans Sr, a former chairman of the Assemblies of God movement in Australia, became a member of the South Australian upper house in 2002. It’s understood the brothers barely spoke for two years.
In October 2002, Russell Evans took his following to Melbourne and established Planetshakers City Church, which he claims now has 8600 members spread across four Melbourne campuses, and an affiliate church in South Africa.
Meanwhile, Paradise — which became Influencers Church last year — is now the second-largest Pentecostal church in Australia after the all-conquering Hillsong, which has revenues of $55m.
Insiders say Ashley and Russell are allied once more, and the family’s not-for-profit Christian empire now turns over $12m a year, largely tax-free. They are connected with the Family First Party and right-wing elements of the Liberal Party, and linked to a coterie of business figures with political connections. Nearly $200,000 goes into the collection plate each Sunday.
While most charities have seen earnings fall since the global financial crisis began, Planetshakers continues to grow strongly, posting a 32 per cent hike in revenue to $6.73m in 2011.
As the Evans brothers build their international ministries, they crisscross the world on their church credit cards. Russell has worked his way into the lucrative international speaking circuit, visiting churches, mainly in the US, to give sermons for cash payments of up to $30,000, which he hands over to Planetshakers. He in turn invites US pastors to visit Melbourne, on similar terms.
In 2011, Planetshakers paid out more than $440,000 to visiting pastors in honorariums and “love offerings” from the collection plate. Insiders says that, as a rule, Russell guarantees that no visiting pastor goes home with less than $10,000 in love offerings from the congregation.
Russell’s Twitter page reveals a hectic schedule of travel last year, including trips to Europe, the US and Asia, sometimes accompanied by his children. 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.
Ministers of religion carrying out their pastoral duties are tax-exempt. There is no cap on the tax-free fringe benefits pastors such as Russell and his wife, Sam (who is also a pastor), can claim. 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.
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.
There have been attempts by previous governments to apply more modern definitions of charity, but nothing has eventuated.
The ACNC promises to, at least, bring 21st-century governance to the area. Since July, the ACNC’s strategic intelligence and compliance team has been reviewing annual income statements to ensure compliance with a set of minimum standards. The team is already investigating 25 cases, mostly for fraud, where directors are gaining a private benefit from donated funds, or where the charity is not operating for its stated purpose.
By the way, I’m not suggesting that Planetshakers or Influencers is under investigation.
A director of Planetshakers, Graham Kirkwood, whose consultancy Global Church Solutions advises churches on tax and financial planning, has publicly opposed the changes to the charities regime, claiming that there “are measures contained within various proposals that specially will limit our ability to finance the cause of Christ and be flexible to meet community needs as they arise.”
He argues that Pentecostal churches deserve even more hand-outs from government, since they perform welfare functions, which otherwise would be a burden on society.
“Why aren’t they (government) giving the churches land, as they did at the turn of the century in the centre of town for the Wesleyans, Anglicans and Catholics? They were gifted the land for their cathedrals, which are mostly half-empty,” says Kirkwood.
He also defends the use of fringe-benefits tax exemptions. Most pastors take a maximum of 75 per cent of the package as tax-exempt fringe benefits, though they could take 100 per cent, he says.
“So we have provided some self-governance and self-limitation, which nobody is giving us any credit for,” he says. “I wish some reporter would have the balls to report that.”
Few in his flock would challenge Russell Evans on doctrine or the governance of the church, say insiders. The senior pastor exercises almost total control under the church’s constitution. Only governing board members are allowed to be voting members of the association that controls the church. Therefore, annual general meetings of the association consist solely of members essentially handpicked by the senior pastor, say insiders.
The Planetshakers constitution provides that “the senior pastor holds the power of veto over any appointment on the basis of confidential information obtained as a result of confessional privilege.” He also has the power to appoint or remove any employee and to fix powers or duties and-or remuneration in respect of such persons with reference to the governing board.
Kirkwood accepts that governance needs to be monitored.
“As organisations grow, their corporate governance understanding begins to develop and then they put other things in place. Society’s expectations over certain things have changed,” he says. He says new policies are being developed that have overridden the constitution.
Only worshippers who have undergone internal church training are permitted to see the books of the church. DNA and Inner Champion are internal church culture courses that are run one night a week over 10 weeks to train the congregation in “the call and culture of the church”. DNA culminates in a retreat where adherents fill out lengthy questionnaires confessing to all manner of sins, before they line up to shred the questionnaires in a highly theatrical ceremony, say insiders.
“One of the main themes of these courses is honour and respecting leadership, especially not questioning leadership, which means anyone who has gone through these courses would never ask for the financials, especially if they have to attend the office to do so,” claims a former Planetshakers insider.
Kirkwood denies this, saying the main theme of the courses is “the discouragement of behaviour that amounts to control and manipulation.”
“If there are questions raised where the board is asked to respond on issues of financial management this certainly would not be discouraged, and full disclosure would be forthcoming if the inquiry was genuine and in good faith,” he says.
It will be interesting to see how churches such as Planetshakers and their congregations respond to the kind of scrutiny the ACNC is bringing. 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. I’d be interested to hear from any one who has done so from Planetshakers or other churches. More importantly I would love to hear from anyone who has been healed in one of these Sunday sessions. There are plenty of people on social media who claim to have experienced or witnessed this fantastic phenomena yet none seem able to adduce compelling evidence. Far from being sceptical or resistant, I’d love to get in on the action. My private health insurance dues are killing me.