Kim Knight: Am I at a rock concert or religious gathering?

Kim Knight: Am I at a rock concert or religious gathering?

Rock concert or religious gathering? Kim Knight makes the pilgrimage to Henderson to experience Sistas - an evangelical Christian women's conference with an audience of 6000.

The traffic has stopped God.

The roads to Henderson are choked, the heavens have opened and, from the bathrooms, reports that an 87-year-old woman is soaked to the skin and having her own Mr Bean moment under a hand-dryer.

The rain is biblical. Perhaps God has stopped the traffic.

"Oh hey dream girls," says the sign held aloft by a young man on the asphalt causeway. Inside the Trusts Arena, an announcement - proceedings will be delayed 15 minutes.

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It's opening night of the Sistas Women's Conference. Hosting church Life is expecting 3800 women. On Saturday, the crowd will swell to 6000. Women in puffer jackets and white sneakers; women in ankle boots and skinny jeans; women with babies and umbrellas. The registration tables are swamped, the queue for hot coffee has no visible end, and still they come.

In the last Census, some 1.6 million New Zealanders claimed zero religious affiliations. Traditional faiths like Anglican and Presbytarian recorded decreases against the 2001 Census (down 21.4 per cent and 23 per cent respectively). Catholicism rose 1.3 per cent but the Christian denominations with the biggest percentage gains were Pentecostal (up 10.5 per cent) and a grouping Statistics NZ refers to as Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamental - up 39.6 per cent.

Tonight's crowd is here because of that statistic. The new face of female Christianity has downloaded the app, listened to the podcast and tuned in to the online television channel. This is church as spectacle, religion revolutionised and if you don't know the words to the live band's songs, there are six giant screens to help you.

What's the attraction? Academics have reported a youth-based religious "revival", speculating that, for young women in particular, it's a response to hyper-sexualised contemporary culture. In 2006, Victoria University lecturer in religious studies Dr Geoff Troughton told Salient magazine some churches were reconfiguring what religious community meant "in the light of what young people seek and are attracted to".

Life was founded 25 years ago by Paul and Maree de Jong. It was originally called the Christian Life Centre Auckland. Rebranded in 2007, it now operates three "campuses" in Botany, Mt Eden and Manukau, and a satellite in Melbourne. Its oversight team includes Brian Houston, the Australian founder of Pentecostal megachurch Hillsong.

Media have dubbed Life a "prosperity church", in the same vein as Bishop Brian Tamaki's Destiny Church (in 2005, members of both congregations marched with the City Impact church against the legalising of civil unions).

Life's most recent statement to the Charities Register shows that in 2016 it received $16.5m via "donations, fundraising and similar revenue". Total assets are listed at $98m. In March, Life commenced work on a new Mt Eden facility that will include a 1750-seat auditorium and 300 seat conference room. Current membership is about 10,000, approximately 60 per cent of whom are women.

I don't get it. In a modern, secular and equal society, why are so many women signing up to a belief system with its roots in a 2000-year-old patriarchy? In the guest lounge of the Trusts Arena, Henderson, Pastor Coral Bond snaps my three-day, all-access wristband shut. And I take a very deep breath.

Pastor Maree de Jong.

Canvas

made an upfront request to attend Sistas. Life has waived the $180 registration fee and assigned me a go-to person. I can sit in and report on any session, but formal interviews are limited to pre-selected women and their individual conference experiences: "Wider questions on theology or political views generally out of scope," instructs Phil Irons, communications manager.

Conference speakers include Australian clinical psychologist Dr Robi Sonderegger, a former celebrity snowboard instructor (clients include Prince Harry and his dad) who now combines the "best of science and scripture" in his messages.

Actor, author and evangelist Priscilla Shirer has flown in from the United States. "Have you seen her film?" whispers Coral. "It's great." I google War Room. It scored 33 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes but reportedly beat Straight Outta Compton at the American 2015 Labour Day weekend box office.

According to the programme notes, Scottish-born, Texas-based pastor Sheila Walsh has reached more than 5.5 million women with her ministry. Pastor Nadia Clark is Life's woman in Melbourne. Her bio says she loves Jesus, which seems a little obvious until I see her in full, unprompted, barely-drawing-breath ministry.

"Don't be overwhelmed by all the women," says Verity Thom, 33. "It's not really like a group of 50 women meeting in a little school hall!"

Thom, currently at home with three children aged 5, 2 and 7 months, has a background in human resources and recruitment. She was raised with religion, and has been with Life about 20 years. It's a few hours before the conference begins, and I'm on the phone asking her about Christianity's male-centric traditions.

"My understanding, growing up in the church, has never been about 'man' or 'woman'. I've never felt like a woman shouldn't get up and speak, nor a certain culture, nor a certain age. I have gifts and skills that are as equally valid as a male's," Thom says.

I suggest the church is ultimately dependent on women to produce new members.

"A bit Gloriavale-ish?! I don't think ever in my life have I thought whether I procreate or not makes me more of a valid member."

The essence of her faith, "has always been questions around what it means to be human, and what it means to truly live and to work out who we are".

"If an outsider was looking at it, they'd probably say 'Oh come on, it's 2017, we can learn about whatever we want, YouTube can basically teach us anything, like surely we would be strong enough and skilled enough and smart enough now to not actually need the help of a church or a faith?' Like, surely we have it all together. But I wonder if we do? Look at depression and anxiety rates, suicide rates, marriages and divorces. Do we actually have the fundamentals of life sorted?

"We're all asking the same questions deep down. Am I enough? Am I loved? Is this it? What's my purpose? Why do bad things happen? Why are some people's lives like this, and mine like that? These are the questions I feel like all of us probably ask at some point, and they've been asked throughout the history of the world, and the world isn't giving us the answers.

"To me," says Thom, "Those answers can be found in faith. I believe that we were created by God. Surely if the creation wants to know what it was made for, going to the Creator's probably the best way to do it."

When I was a 17-year-old exchange student in the Canadian wheatbelt, school started with the national anthem and the Lord's Prayer. I sat in church, hungover, alongside teenagers who did vodka and pot on Saturdays and redemption on a Sunday. I attended Bible camps run by poster kids for Clearasil and Colgate. After three days of exhausting, virtuous, indoctrinated fun, I briefly considered joining my peers, who were literally passing out from God's glory. Then I had a good night's sleep and that feeling went away.

Thirty years later and I'm at the Trusts Arena scanning the crowd and trying to figure out what's wrong with this picture. Slowly it dawns: the complete absence of men.

A young girl takes the stage. She falls asleep, then she appears to levitate, then her birthdays flash past and the smoke machine belches atmosphere and the girl who has now become a woman fights off demons we can't see. The band is stadium-slick, the lead vocalist music-video ready. "I see the world in light," she sings. "I see the world in wonder ..." Teenagers run to the front to dance, everyone stretches their arms skyward. There is a waterfall of tickertape and the conference theme is writ large: Dream.

Autumn Ingham, 22, Lily Sanford 22, and Verity Thom, 33.

Pastor Maree de Jong wears a denim-blue shirt buttoned to the neck, billowing behind her like choir robes. One manicured nail on each hand is painted silver. She was working out on a treadmill, she says, when a picture came into her head - the Holy Spirit, doing laps around this exact auditorium, creating a whirlpool for miracles to take place.

"I saw marriages being restored," says de Jong. "Wombs that were shut ... the breath of God coming in and opening those wombs ..."

Around me, women call out affirmations.

So good.

That's right.

Amen.

By Saturday night, I won't even notice these responses, they will have become a kind of spiritual "mind the gap" message, but right now they're disconcerting. Pastor Maree tells us she plans to expose the enemy. His mission is to kill, steal and destroy. To abort the God dream. To contain us in a tent (there is, literally, a tent on stage now). We have to get out of that tent.

So good.

That's right.

Pastor Maree is 57. She was born in Newcastle, Australia to devout Catholic parents. By the time she was 12, her beloved father and grandfather had died, and her mother had barely survived an overdose. At 16, she was suicidal and dealing drugs. Her brother took her to a Bible camp and she "radically fell in love with Jesus". She met New Zealand-born Paul de Jong through the choir. They were married seven months later and have three sons. Read her story in the book Diamond in the Dirt ($20). Order a CD of tonight's session for $5. Full conference proceedings are available on USB for $90.

At the end of each row, a helper passes out envelopes with pre-printed boxes for your credit card details.

"We've seen people discover salvation tonight," says an on-fire Pastor Nadia. "We get to give to that! Come on, what we build tonight gets to say to the generations that are coming 'Hey, look how amazing our God is, he wants his daughters to step into freedom, his amazing princesses to know the glory of who he is.' We get to be part of that."

Pastor Paul de Jong has a book for sale at the conference. It's called God, Money and Me: Creating a pathway to financial freedom. Later in the conference he will tell the assembly it's okay if they don't give, but the venue hire is $300,000.

Tonight, he says: "As a man speaking to women, I kind of feel sometimes, like if God's girls could just understand his heart towards them ... You don't have to fight, you don't have to prove, for his love to meet you and the tent that's around you to be torn apart. All Dad needs is an invitation."

My conference gift bag includes a bag of sour cream and chive cassava chips, two chocolate chip cookies, and a discount on a family faith box as promoted by broadcaster Simon Barnett ("watch your children's eyes light up as their faith comes alive"). I go home, pour a glass of wine, and eat the chips for dinner.

Organisers estimate 50 per cent of Sistas attendees are from out of Auckland and participants are likely to come from every Christian denomination.

Autumn Ingham, 22, grew up in Atlanta. She's been married six weeks to a Kiwi she met via Youth With a Mission. She lives in Mangawhai and attends Causeway Church. It was "a little bit of shock", she says, to understand just how secular this country is.

"I didn't realise how many people had never heard about Jesus here. I'm like really? Wow. That's crazy, but let me just tell you ...

"I love hanging out with people who don't believe in Jesus because I want them to know there is something worth waking up for, and they were made for a reason. Part of the reason I was created was to love on people like that."

She says, "There's always a point where you're like 'is this crazy? Am I crazy?' It's kind of hard to explain, because it's not a physical thing that you can watch with your eyes, but inside, I think something we all have in common is a peace that surpasses the questioning."

Once, on a mission to Guatemala: "I saw blind people see again, I saw people who rolled in wheelchairs walk out. And I was like, 'okay, you're real'."

On the receiving end of this sentence, I momentarily lose the power of speech.

Lunchtime, Friday. The venue's preferred caterers flog hot dogs, nachos and slow-roast pork belly wraps. Overheard in the paella line:

"... did I tell you my divorce comes through at the end of the month?"

"... not your vacuum cleaner? Mine just broke down too."

Two women debate the merits of last night's songs, including a catchy little number called "Let the devil know not today" (also available as an inspirational quote on a free postcard).

"What is that ridiculous sentence? It's never. I'm not giving so much emphasis to the devil ... today, tomorrow, never, ever."

So good. That's right. Etc.

I eat my rice and no one sits beside me. Then I follow the bubbles and the smell of candyfloss to Miss Sistas - a room of 300 teens, aged 13-19.

"Taylor Swift has a cat called Meredith. True or false?"

The winner of this icebreaker game gets earrings. Unfortunately, her ears aren't pierced. If this room was an adjective, it would be "wholesome". Its inhabitants wear minimal makeup but have the ubiquitously excellent eyebrows of the modern young woman.

Dr Robi takes the stage and, for the next 40 minutes or so, delivers a useful lecture on social media and self-worth, how to deal with bullies (keep asking them "why do you think that?") and issues a challenge to make like the Bible and love their enemies. Compliment that mean girl, says Dr Robi, and then walk away.

"Don't wait for a reaction. You are not after their friendship, you are conquering your fear of the bully."

On the screen, there's a photo of the good doctor with Prince Harry, a young man who Sonderegger says grew up stronger because he knew exactly who he was and who he represented.

"You might not belong to the royal family, but if you are a child of God ..."

I look around the room and remember it's a Friday. Why aren't these children at school?

Statistics NZ has generated an enormous spreadsheet for Canvas, breaking down every religious affiliation by gender and age. Comparing 2001 and 2013 Census figures for women who affiliate as Pentecostal or in the Evangelical grouping, numbers have risen by 1000 in the 15-24 age bracket, dropped away slightly for women in their 30s and picked up again substantially for women aged 45 and older (where an increase of 7167 respondents was noted).

Dr Caroline Blyth is a senior lecturer in religious studies at the University of Auckland. She says the popularity of conservative, evangelical churches with younger women is possibly a reaction to contemporary, post-feminist culture.

"There is pressure on young people, particularly young women, to embrace their sexuality ... they're constantly confronted with images of sexualised women - objectified, but also elevated as 'this is a powerful woman'."

Churches with strict guidelines around sex might create an oasis or retreat from that pressure, says Blyth.

"Purity becomes a symbol of their spiritual and personal self-worth and many young women embrace that. I think they genuinely see that as a choice ... it's an antidote to this hyper-sexualised popular culture."

Blyth says it's worth remembering that any given member of any given church is unlikely to practice their faith in exactly the same way - or even to the letter of their denomination's doctrine.

"The Roman Catholic doctrine, for example, says no artificial birth control. Many Catholics, most Catholics, I would say, use some sort of birth control.

"You accept what's important to you. There are certain things you may be less comfortable with and you deal with them and it's maybe not until something quite significant comes along that you would think 'do I belong here?'"

Elly Bray, 25, is a "newish" Christian. She describes her childhood as "very, very Kiwi. I thought church was for weirdos. Fully. Nice for them, but it's not for me.

"I didn't really know I was searching, but I just ... I never really found 'okay, that's where I belong' or 'that's my true happiness that's going to anchor me for the rest of my life'."

One night, a family friend started talking to her about Jesus.

"This sounds so crazy. I just felt this weird thing in my heart. I was like, 'man, I know what she's saying is true, but it doesn't make sense to my head'."

Bray joined Life three years ago. "I no longer long for this deep sense of who I am or where my truth is coming from."

Also: "Not every male in society is like this, but I was used to being, like, wolf-whistled at. When I came into church there was nothing but respect for me as a person ... just because you have a pretty face, I don't want to be known for that. I want to be seen for who I am, and what I can offer this world."

On Saturday morning, I sit in my allocated seat in the second row. Today's giving session is dedicated to Sistas Unite and its three key charities including A21, which rescues victims of human trafficking.

The testimony is bleak. Children are drugged and sent to the streets to beg; girls are sold for sex. It occurs to me perhaps humans need a god because we also need a devil because otherwise how can we explain our own potential for evil?

Life won't tell me how much money is raised during this session, but I feel my privilege. The day has started quietly, with acoustic guitars and sepia-tones on the big screen close-ups. Last night, reportedly, Pastor Sheila Walsh spoke about depression and scores of young women stood in response. Also on the screens: phone numbers for Lifeline, et al.

Lily Sanford, 22, works with Life's "Red Frogs" programme. To quote directly from the website, it recognises "the culture of young people is dominated by alcohol and that excessive consumption of alcohol and other substances can lead to dangerous and life altering behaviours". At university orientation week, Red Frogs staff hydration stations and cook pancakes. I ask Lily about all the young women who stood last night. Was she surprised?

"Some people think 'you have a god and that means you're perfect'. But the thing is, whether or not you have a god, you are human. We all have human nature, human tendencies to say things, to do things. The difference is, yes, there is a god that we can call on, and to me, that brings peace."

The tattoo on her wrist reads "Dia theos haris" - "by God's grace" in Greek.

"This is the reason why I am here. I have been saved. He's given me such incredible opportunities, he's put people around me ..."

My permapress smile is stretched tight, but then she makes me laugh out loud. "And I also just like the design!"

No creed is immune to Generation Me.

In just four hours, I can go home. In the conference marketplace I flick through a comic book Bible and search in vain for the sloganned tote bag I coveted on the Sistas website ("in all things at all times having all that you need"). It's raining again. At lunchtime, I had sheltered against the side of the building and listened to a woman yelling into the wind down her phone.

"You're doing everything perfectly. You're doing exactly what a normal labour would be
like ..."

In the outside word, life, literally, goes on.

I pen some questions for Pastor Maree. When her emailed replies arrive, post-conference, they're brief. The purpose of Sistas is "to encourage, inspire and value women".

On Christianity and the patriarchy: "We don't hold that view and value both male and female contributing to making up our Church family."

Also: "Any role or level of responsibility is not determined on being male or female, but based on a person's God-given skill set, ability and capacity."

And on tithing: "Our giving at Conference goes toward helping not for profit organisations and to cover logistical costs and is a freewill offering."

Earlier, I had asked Verity Thom what she was buying when she gave to the church: "There is something releasing about letting go of the power that money can have on you, and the control it can have on you and even more in our society today. We are consumers, that is almost our religion, and that's the way we're driven. In this day and age it's even more important for me to let go. To hold everything in open hands."

I'm upstairs in the second-to-last row when the production manager announces the doors are opening for the finale. "Smiles on, everyone."

Priscilla Shirer preaches righteousness. Pastor Maree holds a stack of prayer cards bigger than a Bible or a dictionary, depending on your point of reference. Pastor Paul says we are seeing the kingdom of God extended through women. They've run out of seats. The band sings "Holy, holy, the earth cries holy ..." The stadium is flooded with red love light. Priscilla Shirer lays down a challenge: "Do it, Jesus, give somebody supernatural insight."

Enormous blue and white balloons are released into the crowd, cellphones glow like a thousand stars and you can get a free Bible on your way out the door. In my notepad I mean every word when I write: "This is the greatest show on Earth."

Source : http://www.nzherald.co.nz/lifestyle/news/article.cfm?c_id=6&objectid=11926978

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