Rise of the ‘cool Christian’

It’s opening night. Flocks of young adults and families are eagerly waiting to go inside the doors of the newly rebuilt $13 million Riverview Church campus in Burswood.

Milk and Honey Kitchen, the church cafe, has multiple lines out the door. The smell of freshly ground coffee fills the air.

Teens raise their hands and yell out lyrics as the well-rehearsed band leads the congregation in worship. Advertisements for the band’s latest album light up the three cinema-sized screens around the auditorium.

The 2011 Census showed that young adults between the ages of 22 and 24 had the highest rates of saying they belonged to “no religion”yet churches of this style are attracting thousands of young people over a weekend. How are they attracting a generation seemingly so detached from religion?


Statistics from: Australian Bureau of Statistics and the National Church Life Survey

Hillsong Church led the way for other niche churches to reach out to young people. The Sydney-based, self proclaimed “mega church” has sold more than eight million albums and its modern sound is reproduced and sung at churches all around the world.

Attracting more than 4000 people over a weekend, Riverview runs five services from Friday to Sunday to cater for the busy social lives of its prominent young adult congregation.

Dave Hack, the young adults’ pastor at Riverview Church, credits the sense of community and belonging to the large numbers of young adults in the congregation.

When asked what attracts young people to the church Hack puts it simply: “Other young people.

“Every young adult is on that quest for finding something they connect with deeply; that sense of ‘yes I’ve found someone who gets me’.

“I think particularly in our current culture and climate, where we are de-Christian cultured, Christ followers that are young adults are even more keen to find those people because it is really hard to hold faith when you have friends who don’t hold faith.”

Riverview is described as a non-denominational church, open to differing opinions and interpretations of Christianity. Starting out as a Inner Faith Fellowship, the congregation has since dramatically grown from the handful attending the first service back in 1979.

The independently run church relied on donations from members of the church to fund the elaborate three-stage process to build the new Burswood premises.

Hack says many call the church a “Baptist church on steroids” but growing up in an outgoing Pentecostal church he personally sees Riverview as more conservative.

Over this same weekend thousands of people are meeting at Life City in Canning Vale, a church run in a very similar way. Concert-like atmospheres early on Sunday mornings are the norm while teenagers in surrounding suburbs are still in bed recovering from hangovers.

Ega Dowling first attended the youth program at Life City when he was 13, after being invited by friends. Now 19, Dowling is heavily involved in leading youth activities, music and preaching.

“I was actually one of the rowdy kids back then, always stuffing around,” he says.

“I knew about Jesus but didn’t want to show off in front of my friends.

“Now, a few years on I’m the only one of those friends back there.”

Hillsong has been a big influence on the leadership and music style of churches such as Life City and Riverview.

“The way the leadership style runs is that they rush younger people forward,” Dowling says.

“We follow the leadership of Brian Houston [Hillsong Pastor] and he states that he pushes the leaders forward while he steps back and watches them grow.

“It’s the exact same thing as us.”

At the time of the last census, 61.1 per cent of Australians classed themselves as Christians, but numbers attending churches are not reflecting that claim.


Praise and worship at Riverview. Photo: Eliza Wynn

Hack says there is a trend in Australia that sees Christian values as cultural identity compared to having faith.

“I would actually argue that more people today know Jesus than any other time in human history,” he says.

“There might be less people going to church in the western world but even in that, there’s more people who know Jesus.

“I think our problem is that we equate the Kingdom of Heaven with church attendance but it’s not about that.

“Sure we might not have the data or statistics but it’s about quality not quantity.”

Philip Bryant, a church pastor and chaplain for the Perth Wildcats, has witnessed a decrease of young people in more traditional churches but says those who are in churches are generally attracted to the ‘Hillsong’ style of church.

“I think that the start of young people being interested in the Christian faith and therefore moving into church life, is with them having some sort of purpose outside of themselves,” he says.

“Young people are looking for something.

“There is an attraction towards trying to make the world a better place, to get a sense of being able to contribute to something and they are attracted to that but in the process of doing that with Christians many of them see Christian faith in action.”

Bryant says the popularity of these larger, production style churches is not just down to the modern worship music.

“I think the popularity in these churches is most related to the music but I think if you also dig a little deeper, you’ll find that there is a tendency among many of these churches to allow young people to be involved at leadership levels and on music teams at a much earlier age than many of the more traditional churches,” he says.

David Shaw lectures in the New Testament at Perth Bible College, an interdenominational evangelical college in Perth’s northern suburbs.

Shaw witnessed the impact music has on people attending church services during his time living in South Korea leading churches and teaching English.

“In many of the charismatic churches, music is an important ministry and the reason is because music carries the emotion of the faith,” he says.

“I think those charismatic style churches are growing largely because they’re fulfilling an important emotional need.”

Hack believes it is important to keep our current culture in mind when connecting with youth and young adults.

“I think we’ve seen more growth and attraction in youth culture in churches like our church or Hillsong because it’s connecting with that developmental stage of a teenager that is more emotional and wired that way,” he says.

“When it comes to young people it’s understanding where they’re at; what does it mean to be a 14 year old in 2016?

“It’s definitely not the same as it was back in bible times.”

Dowling’s experience leading youth at Life City has shown him the power of music when it comes to faith.

“I think music is a gateway to a lot of things so I think without music we wouldn’t bring in a lot of kids,” he says.

“If we have lots of modern-day-vibed music they’ll be like ‘sweet – these guys are actually rocking music we can connect with’ compared to something from 10 years ago.”

Shaw notes the historical importance of music in Christianity but explains his fears of the possibility of potential false teaching.

“People would learn Christian faith and theology through the music and song, and I think charismatic churches have tapped into that, and as a result, they’re connecting well emotionally,” he says

“And while I think it is legitimate that the music meets an emotional need, one fear I have is that if they are not theologically sound, that they might actually do more harm than good.

“If the theology behind the lyrics is inadequate, it can actually be dangerous and has the potential to perpetuate, at best, questionable doctrine, and at worst, false teaching.”

Churches such as Riverview and Life City rely on their members to fund work within the church and surrounding community. Following the lead of Hillsong, these churches produce and sell their own music. Merchandise sporting the church logo or name is not uncommon.

Bryant is skeptical about these money making mechanisms.

“One of the questions that I always ask myself when I see those things [functioning as a business] happening in churches is, ‘is that what Jesus would do?’ he says.

“I see it as a commercialisation of the Christian faith and I do have questions about that especially if it’s for profit.”

But Hack says money is a necessity when it comes to running a church.

“I think when people get funny about money, it really comes back to a deep cultural distrust of organisations and the reality is, when it comes to the local church no one is going to pay for our bills apart from those in the church,” he says.

“Synergy isn’t going to call up and say, ‘hey church, we love what you’re doing so we’re just going to waive your electricity bill’.

“For a church of our size, to meet the needs of our community, both the church community and the external community, it requires finance and that’s the reality of it.”

As services end for another weekend teenagers, young adults and families head back to their busy lives, heads pounding and ears ringing.

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