Jake White's church is 'toxic Christianity'
By Craig McKune
Hillsong Church, Australia's charismatic religious movement, which established itself in Cape Town just six months ago, has been described as "toxic Christianity" by some, but as having a "vibrant and positive outlook on life" by others.
With the World Cup-winning former Springbok coach Jake White, as well as controversial Western Province flank Luke Watson, in its congregation, the church has said it wants to be "so large that the city and nation cannot ignore it".
According to media reports, the recently remarried and "reborn" White said his newfound religion had led him to reconcile with Watson, with whom he had several disputes.
"I feel sorry for Luke, and when I saw him the other day at church, I went to shake his hand," White was reported to have said, adding: "I am happy to have seen the light."
Hillsong, which also has branches in Sydney, London and Kiev in Ukraine, claims to draw 20 000 devotees a week in Australia. In Cape Town, the congregation meets at the International Convention Centre on Sundays.
According to Hillsong Cape Town's website, it aims to "champion the cause of the local church" and rely on "passionate and committed volunteers" to fund and run it.
Founding couple Brian and Bobby Houston wrote on the website: "The church that I see is a church of influence. A church so large in size that the city and nation cannot ignore it. I see a people so kingdom-minded that they will count whatever the cost and pay whatever the price to see revival sweep this land."
Grant Donald, who attends the church, said: "The heart of Hillsong Cape Town is to reach out into the local community and make a positive difference in people's lives.
"We care about the people in our city and we want to see change for the better and we are not afraid to partner with others in order to do as much as we possibly can."
In the aftermath of the xenophobia-related violence last year, Hillsong was involved in relief work and setting up a "refugee fund".
But such initiatives have been criticised by a former member, Australian Tanya Levin, author of the book People in Glass Houses: An insider's story of life in and out of Hillsong.
She criticised Hillsong's "prosperity theology", which she said means "God wants you to be rich. He wants you to have prosperity in every area of your life, particularly your finances."
Calling Hillsong's version of Pentecostal worship "toxic Christianity", she contrasted it to the "humble" Salvation Army.
In a 2007 article in The Australian, Levin wrote that while "most cannot identify what the business is or what exactly is being sold - it's clear that there is a frustratingly unmeasurable amount of money being handed over via cash, cheques and credit cards".
Noting her discomfort with the church's focus on fundraising, she quoted a church group email which read: "Through our ongoing sacrificial giving by our church family, our loan balance is now down to $5,8-million. Wouldn't it be a phenomenal miracle to see this fully paid off by the end of June 2005? We could then go into our next stage of building totally debt free."
Levin asked: "Since when did a miracle coincide with the end of the financial year?"
Of criticism such as this, Donald asked: "Should we spend our time knocking institutions that didn't live up to our personal expectations, or should we rather spend our valuable time making a positive difference in our community and in our circle of influence? I say the latter."