holy resurrection 2.0
AS EUROPE’S DEMOCRACIES ARE SHIFTING TO THE RIGHT, NOTHING SEEMS FURTHER AWAY THAN CHRISTIAN VALUES. BUT THE POPULIST AND CHARISMATIC MOVEMENT SHARE ROOT AND FRUIT.
There is not much doubt in the air. The speaker, casually dressed Hillsong pastor Thomas Hansen, strives up and down the stage. Every time he finishes a sentence by mentioning «Jesus», the crowd bursts into applause and approving grunts swell up the walls. He mentions him a lot, as though he needs to fulfil some godly quota. The reaction never wanes, not for the next hour. Bright blue lights cover the floor and ceiling of the Remisen-hall at Godsbanen, paradoxically the alternative-leftist refuge in Denmark’s second biggest city Aarhus. «Welcome home», posters read. Home indeed this wants to be: The enthusiastic greeting at the entrance, the handshakes and hugs feel like cotton candy, soft and sweet, yet somewhat sticky.
This is early March 2017. Aarhus is still clinging on to winter, but everything feels in blossom, nonetheless. The city kicked off the year with celebrating itself the European Capital of Culture 2017, cherishing its diversity. Once positioned quaintly on the upper mainland's east coast, Aarhus has in recent decades witnessed one of the most exponential growths in Scandinavia. Home to a booming economy, to date it hosts the largest university of the Scandic region with a fifth of the city’s population being under eighteen. There are multi-ethnic shops scattered out to the suburbs. In summer, when Aarhus is not bound by freezing winds beating up its hills, the parks and beaches are filled with a growing international community.
Yet, the transition of this beacon of modernity is not exclusively a liberalising one, making Aarhus a prime example of the paradox found in religious transformation theory: While the secularisation of the west leaps on, largely decreasing the number of Christians year by year, its conservative branch is consolidating. Using Aarhus as a base for further expansion, not one, but two giants of the charismatic movement – Hillsong and Vineyard – are gaining ground on Danish mainland.
Hansen is joking a lot. Keeping the gospel light and mellow is a key ingredient for the approach of the charismatic movement. As he wanders the stage, he talks to the visitors on this information night directly, personally. The stage is not raised, but on the same level as the audience. This is a philosophy too: The charismatic movement is not top down as traditional churches; it is face to face. A philosophy even applied to the highest level – god is personal, something that you take home, caress and talk to like a stuffed animal.
«We only have a short time on this side of eternity and we're gonna use it to get as many people as possible». Hansen, smiling surgically, has a way of emphasising on the volume at the end of a sentence. A tiny shift in pitch, which creates great response from the mostly convinced audience. It makes his word sound like set in stone, especially when he talks of growth and missionary work, the room vibrates with overwhelming consent.
A NOT SO DYING RELIGION
The welcoming approval of the dozens of ecstatic worshippers in the room, however, seems difficult to extrapolate outside their tight-knit brotherhood and onto the wider community in Aarhus: Christianity in the west is undergoing a major shift.
While in the coming decades the absolute number of Christians is expected to increase in most regions of the world, Europe is the only place where this number will decline, according to projections from the Pew Forum, underscoring that religious centres are moving from north to the global south. Denmark is no exception. In fact, estimates show that by 2050 the Christian national population share will decrease by five per cent, one of the highest drops for a European country. On the other hand, the amount of religiously-unaffiliated – who are unquestionably Denmark's second largest «faith» group – will steadily increase. In 2010, author Paul Zuckerman went as far as to label Denmark a «Society without God», after spending fourteen months in both Denmark and Sweden studying religious and secular beliefs.
Religion is dying in Scandinavia, argues Zuckerman, because it has taken the form of a «lazy monopoly» in which the state-supported Lutheran churches have not needed to compete. Nonetheless, generalized welfare, the large number working women who are no longer devoted to fostering religion in their families, and the centrality of social-democratic parties also play an important role.
It is in this difficult context for Christianity that charismatic congregations such as Hillsong and Vineyard are stepping in with a determined effort to spread their message – as well as their membership. And against all odds, these churches have expanded so rapidly in the last decade that it would be difficult not to label them a success story.
Hillsong Church was founded in faraway Australia in 1983. The congregation, also considered as part of the «renewalist movement» in Pentecostalism, has now eight churches scattered around its country of birth and has set up branches in New York, London, Los Angeles, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France. Just last month it was announced that Hillsong would be adding churches in Israel, Portugal and San Francisco. According to Hillsong, over 35,000 people attend services each week. Vineyard – as numerous other smaller congregations, often secessions of larger parishes – also sees no halt to its growth, by own numbers currently counting over 2400 congregations worldwide.
A few minutes into the information night, Hansen asks the audience to stand up. This is not an order, Hansen's demand has nothing of the rigidness, the cold obedience of traditional church mass. To the allaying sound of a piano, the pastor eases the crowd into «Oceans», a mega pop-prayer hit within the Hillsong community and beyond, with a playcount of over 75 million on YouTube. Soon the air is filled with waving hands trying to grasp some of the superspirituality floating above heads: «Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders».
It is only one line in a ten minute, albeit repetitive piece of music, but a representative one. Trust can be seen as the key in finding the answer to the growth in popularity of the charismatic movement. It is the great absence of it that has not only turned western religions upside down, but also caused major shifts in societal worldviews, ultimately paving the way for right-wing populism to gain considerable ground in Europe and the US. This is where the two movements ultimately become parallels.
CUTTING ROPES TO THE ELITE
Among the most conservative branches of Catholicism, the dissatisfaction is evident. Members have expressed malaise with the critical discourse of Pope Francis towards wealth as well as his softening stance on LGBT and the divorced. In Protestantism, however, the loss of trust – or excitement – towards their established communities and their respective leaders is more complex due to the vast differences between the myriad of denominations and congregations that compose the milieu of mainline churches.
One theory attributes the exodus of young people to protest against the churches' supposed indifference to the sufferings and struggles of oppressed groups. The advocates of this notion argue that churches are losing their members because they are becoming irrelevant to daily life. Another theory, which bears resemblance to the case of the conservative Catholics, makes the opposite argument. It contends that people have left the mainline churches in protest against the support that leaders have given in recent decades to left-wing causes such as abortion rights and social equality.
For those who fall in these two hypotheses, the new charismatics are there to provide a fresh, modern, sweet dose of spiritual nourishment. Meanwhile, in the political arena, trust among those who identify as conservatives has plummeted for the leading democratic institutions and gatekeepers of the liberal order.
Confidence in western societies and specifically their democratic leaders has down-spiralled ever since the dawn of the new millennium, fuelled by the growing sentiment that the so-called elite, globalist players in politics and finance, shut their eyes before the interests of the common citizen. The financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, followed by the Great Recession and European Debt Crisis, was conceived as a further blow to this already feeble trust: The neo-aristocrats of finance and politics bail each other out, the common people take a beating. Finally, by the end of 2016, with Brexit and President Trump emerging as a surreal reality, the last shimmer of trust seems to have vanished into full obscurity.
In the eyes of many disillusioned westerners, the leaders of liberal values were fully gone. The European migrant crisis led to a belief that by allowing the common scapegoat Islam to spread in Europe in the form of refugees, the elite is only accelerating the dissolution of hard fought for occidental modernist values. This is not just media sensationalism: A 2016 study by social scientist Roberto Stefan Moa and political scientist and journalist Yascha Mounk has shown that public support for democracy has decreased with the US and the European youth. This is largely believed to be a direct result of the feeling that even democratically elected leaders are not to be trusted anymore.
However, modern populist movements across the west – even though taking advantage of immigration-scares for propaganda purposes – are not primarily anti-Islamic, while the charismatic movement isn't entirely against the liberal steps Christianity has taken. At their core, they are movements arisen from a feeling of being torn by a swirl of change that came too quick and values that got seemingly mixed up by globalisation.
BRINGING BACK THE COMMUNITY
Thomas Hansen does not intend to convince anyone in the audience, he says, suggesting that the conviction of becoming a member of his congregation will come automatically. He does not doubt that. In the end, following Jesus the charismatic way is a logical development – the only true outcome. A pathetic guitar accompanies his speech. The audience of which at least half came from Copenhagen in support, breathes every word he says. «You can be a pastor at your uni, you can be a pastor at your gymnasium, and you can be a pastor at your office.» For the charismatic movement, strength is people, strength is volunteers, strength is finances.
One cannot doubt that being part of such a construct is not enthralling. After all, the growth the charismatic movement has seen over the last decades is nothing but the result of providing its members with a sense of purpose, created by cherishing the community over the individual. In fact, the lack of community is a key point to the developments in western societies, causing not only the populists to emerge from the dry soil of European camaraderie. Providing Christians with a re-branding of «love thy neighbour», the charismatic movement has ingeniously grasped and filled that void.
Hansen and his wife, a broad-smiling blonde Australian, sit picture perfect in front of the eager audience. They tell the story of how they met while both serving Hillsong in Sydney (while she was working in a bar). Of course, the story includes the mandatory comic relief and the crowd laughs in unison. Along with the laughs, the echo of admiration resonates against the walls. Throughout the world, Hillsong's leaders are not these stern, out of place figures in odd clothing, they are like the rest of the people in the room – or at least how the latter wish they could be.
With inspiring music, attractive lighting and avant-garde style, the appeal of the community is palpable. The church not only provides a more fun way to approach God, but it also offers a road to personal fulfilment and perhaps even economic stability. Hansen himself is a graduate of Hillsong International Leadership College, where the church trains its future conquistadors. For those less ambitious but also talented souls, a career in music within Hillsong is also an option. Then there are live-translators, stage technicians, journalists, PR-managers, social-media managers. The church is there for everyone to help build it, for everyone to try to get a piece of the pie in this miniature cosmos. Self-sustainability, based on shared values and beliefs. Naturally, even finding a wife or husband within the congregation is quite common.
That notion of going back to a community of shared beliefs can be found today in the conservative churches as well as the populist movement. Abandon globalisation and reduce to the nation, to the local, to what is known to the westerner – a society consisting of and fighting for the values curated ever since Europe stopped being a warzone. This symbolic conversation on eye level seems, for the disillusioned Christian, for the disaffected citizen, like an incredible regain of power. Globalisation and its technological effects do enough to distance individuals through the means of social media and automatisation.
Societies and structures that change so quickly, that are being exposed to such a great impact within a short period of time, are easily overwhelmed. After all, it takes time for water to trickle down through the sand and reach the bottom of a glass. Pour in too much water at once and the top layers are being swept away, while the bottom ones stay dry, unaffected, wondering yet what it was that ripped their conceived unity apart.
GLOBALIST APPROACHES AGAINST GLOBALISM
The manifestos of the newly strengthened European populists thus are largely identical. Be it Trump’s US, AfD’s vision of Germany, Brexiter’s Britain or the Front National’s new France: Anti-EU, focusing on the local, cherish the family as the backbone of society, implementing strict law and order to punish anyone who does not abide by society’s rules, limit immigration so the already softened framework of society is not weakened further. They promote compactness and alienate anything that might further destabilise it – be it the family fleeing Syria or the robot taking jobs.
Addressing the right issue however is not nearly sufficient if not done the right way. After all, the internet, inarguably globalisation's greatest effect, has changed the way we read, communicate and being courted like nothing ever before.
As the information night draws to an end, Hansen points to the corners of the room where church volunteers are handing out booklets, sign-up forms and bibles – naturally in English and Danish. «Vision Weekend 2017» is an overemphasised brochure and yet simplistic in its style. Black and white pictures show beautiful and happy people from all over the Hillsong universe. The photography is highly professional and combined with the small serif captions the print looks like the annual review of a hipster New York art gallery.
Nothing in this booklet reminds of the image of an old bible lying on the wooden church bench, gathering away dust into eternity. The charismatic movement has perfectly analysed how to communicate church modernly. Its social media platforms are not only information tools, they actively serve in expanding and interconnecting the community. Even before a new city is being reached, there will be a Facebook group for it, strictly in the branding of all the Hillsong congregations worldwide. Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram – there are so many possibilities to fill the day with church content, it is hard not to bump into the charismatic movement by accident. YouTube-hits such as «Oceans» meanwhile, are hooks on Hillsong's missionary rod: Produce awesomeness possible members will develop a desire for – and eventually join.
The populist movement on the contrary takes a different, yet not less ingenious approach: direct emotional involvement. Right-wing propagandists use social media as recruitment platforms by easing in content slowly through newsfeeds. Even though Facebook is still in denial, «false» content is now widely acknowledged to have helped Donald Trump win a considerable number of voters prior to the US elections 2016. Months before that, the Brexit-campaign was discussed exorbitantly on Twitter, with the pro-camp greatly outnumbering the opposition: The Neuropolitics Research Lab at the University of Edinburgh found that out of 20 million tweets collected prior to the vote, 80 per cent featured hashtags supporting the leave-campaign.
Charismatic Christianity and populism are undeniably not the same, but they represent the picture of a western society growing in divide. Their success stems not from a desperate need for conservativism – ultimately, they will not succeed by undermining progress and ultimately, they can neither stop globalisation. The similarity in their rise however, especially considering they share little common ground, is a sign that something in the occident is off. A feeling of comfort and ambivalence gone. The traditional Christian shepherds can only try to implement some of these evidently attractive globalist approaches used by the charismatic movement to drive home their flock – without going too global once more. And populism needs to provide and sustain its utopian national enclosures. Come 2017 and the elections on mainland Europe, their communities will look to them for answers.