ABC's take on Hillsong and property means they don't understand churches

Imagine this: you are a pastor of a, let’s say, little church. And you decide that you want to join a network of churches.

If your church owns its building – joining the Anglicans, Presbyterians, or Uniting Church means that your property becomes the possession of a property trust run by those denominations. And that applies to Hillsong, which, while less endowed with property, owns it centrally.

Brian Houston

One of the chief criticisms of Hillsong raised in an ABC 7.30 report was that churches joining Hillsong were required to hand their property to the mother church.

It is probably unusual for independent churches to join the Anglicans, Presbyterians or Uniting churches, although it does happen. But a number have joined Hillsong.

But if our imaginary independent church joined the Baptists or the Australian Christian Churches, they would control their property.

(It’s actually a bit more complicated – where a church is unincorporated, state bodies might hold property on behalf of a local Church.)

Suppose our independent church was particularly desperate to be Presbyterian but wanted to own its property; they might not join the Presbyterian Church of Australia. Instead, they could join the very similar Westminster Presbyterian Church in Australia (WPC) – the main difference between the two is that in the WPC, local churches own their property.

Apply that principle to Pentecostals: if a local church wants to remain a property owner but join a church network, the Australian Christian Churches would be a good place to be. As the local church has incorporated (otherwise, the state government would not be able to recognise it as a property owner), it can simply keep its building.

Other Pentecostal or charismatic networks such as CRC or Crosslink allow local churches to retain the property.

There was no compulsion for any church to join Hillsong, which seeks to hold property centrally and have the campus ministers accountable to a leader who functions somewhat like a Bishop. It seems pretty Catholic to me.

The ABC report raised other issues, but we are concentrating on the property one.

One last point on property: if an independent church wanted to join Hillsong they might think about setting up a separate organisation to hold their property and rent it. But this raises the point of do you really wholeheartedly want to become part of that larger church?

Readers will all have their preferred church governance model. It can also be said that Hillsong grew fast and left its governance model behind. But the property model is not so different from churches that have been around for hundreds of years. Think of the leader as a bishop.

Having property owned by a central denomination simplifies other things for some churches. It means you don’t need a local formal membership roll at each branch of your network.

For now, I try to live out what my family told me. “Go to the nearest church which you can put up with that teaches the Bible.”