The Australian Christian Churches, formerly known as Assemblies of God, is Australia's oldest and largest Pentecostal group and have more than 1,000 churches around the country. They focus on rock music, divine healing, speaking in tongues and they embrace exorcism. And they are young - the average age is 25. That's great I hear you say, it's fantastic that our kids are praising God instead of getting hooked on drugs and alcohol - some parents can't believe their good luck - their child is now drug free and attending church every Sunday.
But what goes on in these churches? Sam Hey from Christian Heritage College has written a PhD on charismatic churches and said "With the rise of the youth generation and many of the changes that came about, people seem to be looking for different religious experiences and Pentecostalism stepped in" he said. "Many traditional churches found it hard to attract the younger generation and .... they filled a gap of young people and families seeking a more experimental form of religion."
Pattie Close 35, had never been to a Pentecostal church before. "I found the movement quite frightening at the start .... loud music, bright lights, I was freaked out because I was conservative and church had very strict rules for me. She joined the church in 2008 and has fallen in love with it. Hanh Ayoko, a 27 year old lawyer attends church with her engineer husband every week. "I would consider them family, not my immediately family, but they are close to me and we care about each other, so that's what keeps me coming back, it's the connection and the relationship" she said.
Speaking in tongues is difficult to understand. It's when a person seems to babble in a language that makes no sense and nobody understands. Pattie Close said "The holy spirit we believe is a person.... there are times in your life when you can't spit out a word, so when you pray, He is interceding on your behalf, saying how you can get through this and find wisdom and take the next step." I understand this "gift" is unusual and not shared by everyone and wonder about those who don't have it - do they think it's their fault for not believing enough?
But now it gets dangerous. Some Pentecostal churches run "supernatural schools" designed to teach members how to perform miracles. This is where common sense goes out the window and members actually believe that God can, and will heal them - no matter how serious their condition may be. Sadly, some people don't get any better and actually die because they refused traditional medical treatment. And this is the tragedy of the church - the person can't blame God for not getting better, so they blame themselves for not believing enough.
Another dangerous area is exorcism - when a bad temper is interpreted as an evil spirit that must be driven out of you. Again, this puts enormous pressure on the person seeking release, if they only believe enough, God will surely heal them. We can all recall horror stories of people dying in the throws of exorcism conducted by a group of people who were convinced they were right.
There is no denying that Pentecostal churches have done good work in the community and have changed the lives of many troubled young people, but there's a down side. When medical advice is deliberately discouraged, imagined "demons" need to be exorcised and there is talk about the devil and how he works in our everyday lives, alarm bells should start to ring. Surely this is religious extremism, and if I were a parent of a child involved in this church, I would be sitting in the audience next Sunday.