Opinion

Pentecostals join the middle class

Alphacrucis president Stephen Fogarty on apocalyptic change

He doesn’t look the part but Stephen Fogarty is a cultural revolutionary. Here’s his memory of the church he joined as a teenager. I’ll leave out the name for now.

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“The X church at that time – and well into the early ’70s – was sect-like. For many of the people [attending], this was the one true church and the other churches were lukewarm at best. They did not want to be very connected to society.

“… The impact upon our churches can’t be underestimated.” – Stephen Fogarty

“That notion of drawing apart from society was connected to a sense of the soon return of Christ that was being preached until well into the ’80s. So you have the heightened apocalyptic expectancy of the soon return of Christ – a notion that society was going down the tubes – so let’s just get ready for Christ’s return.”

Stephen is President of Alphacrucis College, which sits at the centre of Australian Pentecostalism, the movement he describes above.

Back then it was an inward-looking movement, “from the wrong side of the tracks,” as Fogarty puts it. It was largely working class, with ministers with tradie-level certificates from a vocational college. The older sort of Pentecostal could be legalistic and suspicious of “academics.”

Today that college now called Alphacrucis is accredited to teach Bachelor and Masters courses, and award research degrees to doctorate level.

The heightened eschatology (end times) focus has gone. Fogarty says it was unsustainable. “Mountain top” experiences, can never last forever. The idea that Pentecostals would soon be taken out of the world has gone. So the world had to be faced. But it was Christians from outside the traditional Pentecostal churches that become a catalyst for change in Pentecostalism and its college.

“The charismatic movement caused a lot of the shift because people came into Pentecostal churches from mainstream churches where they’ve been taught the value of education – they were socialised towards essentially middle-class Australian society – and the impact of them upon our churches can’t be underestimated.”

“I think Pentecostal churches are shifting from the wrong-side-of-the-tracks right into the middle of aspirational, middle-class societies.”

The “spiritual gifts” or “charismata” practised in the Pentecostal churches spread to historically mainstream churches from the 1960s. Many of the people in that movement eventually moved into the Pentecostal churches, especially when there was pushback by others opposed to the movement.

“Look at something like C3 Oxford Falls and Hillsong – fabulous churches right in the middle of aspirational, middle-class Australian society – and they reflect the values of that society as well, I think – yet still authentic in preaching Christ and maintaining a Christian sensibility. But, you know, it is a middle-class Christian stance, as opposed to Pentecostalism’s earlier sectarian and stalwart separatism.”

“It’s a little bit unique … somehow there has been a phenomenon in Australia,” – Stephen Fogarty

Australian Pentecostalism, transformed to be optimistic and ready to engage with society, is no longer the same as Pentecostalism around the world.

“It’s a little bit unique. Even though you can find Pentecostal/charismatic contemporary churches everywhere in the world that somehow resemble what C3, Hillsong and/or one of the other churches  in Australia represent, somehow there has been a phenomenon in Australia,” says Fogarty.

“A melting pot occurred in Australia that created a vision of a sort of Christianity that is not quite as prominent in other parts of the world. I know the Pentecostals in America were really suspicious of the charismatic movement – or basically could not accept they were Christian, particularly those with a Catholic background.

“But in Australia, I remember leaders strongly encouraging gospel churches and pastors to embrace outside people from other churches.”

For Fogarty, there is something like a chicken and egg conundrum in answering Eternity’s questions about whether his college has changed the denomination.

“That sociological shift has occurred, so is that calling for education, or is it going hand in hand with education? Probably the latter.”

Another way that Fogarty and his college interact with Pentecostalism is fostering a business culture. Uniquely – as far as Eternity is aware – the college offers double degrees in ministry and business. So someone can get a Bachelor of Business and Bachelor of Theology double degree, or a Bachelor of Business and Bachelor of Ministry double degree.

“The idea is that ‘ministry’ is not just professional church ministry.” – Stephen Fogarty

This bakes in a Pentecostal distinctive – a positive attitude towards entrepreneurialism. So much so that the college can place it alongside theology in training ministers.

“When I was a new Christian, the setting was definitely that you had to be a pastor,” Fogarty recalls. “You were either a pastor or only a half-committed church member. That’s changed.

“I think the big churches have been part of this change – they tried to raise up cohorts of business people within the churches that would provide financial support.

“The idea is that ‘ministry’ is not just professional church ministry, so that in any vocation, employment, or as an entrepreneur, my employment can be seen as God’s call and a way of contributing to God.

“The idea behind the double degrees was just as every Christian business person needs some Christian thinking – they really need to expose themselves to Christian theology to get a deeper, more holistic understanding of what business is – on the other side, every Christian minister gains from business training.

“Effectively, all of our ministers end up having their own small business.”

Forgarty means their church and goes on to refer to church growth. “Small businesses, and medium-sized businesses and large businesses.”

Learning to preach requires the acquiring of skills, and Alphacrucis puts these alongside the organisational leadership skills, finances, HR and strategic planning.

2020 has been creeping up rapidly for Alphacrucis. If they stick to their strategic plan, that’s when they will apply to become a “University College” – the first step towards becoming a full university.

“We want to apply in 2020,” says Fogarty. “We almost certainly will do that. I guess it will take the government the whole year to tell us if we are successful, so it will be 2021. Then we would have a five-year period to demonstrate that we could function as an Australian university.”

The Protestant half of Australian Christianity has been left behind by its Catholic sisters and brothers. One uncontroversial move George Pell made was to put together a bunch of small teachers’ colleges to form the Australian Catholic University, followed by Notre Dame Australia with its fully accredited law and medicine schools.

In Melbourne, the University of Divinity was formed from a coalition of denominational colleges. Its status is as a university of specialisation – a newish category of university with only one subject category or discipline. They could be joined by Sydney’s Moore College and some other Christian colleges.

Consolidation of Australian’s Christian colleges is needed, Michael Jensen wrote in Eternity. Fogarty agrees, but modestly expresses the hope that Alphacrucis will be one of the players. That is almost certainly going to happen.

Alphacrucis is heading for full university status, developing the required three disciplines – theology, business and education. It’s a move that could only have occurred within a changed Pentecostalism. One measure of the college’s confidence is that it hires well outside its tradition. Three relatively recent hires, two of them contributors to Eternity, are Anglicans – Associate Dean, Education Development, David Hastie, and Dean of Business, Professor Paul Oslington. The college’s new Director of Higher Education Research, Associate Professor Matthew Anstey, used to head Adelaide’s St Barnabas’ College.

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