(Be aware there are some plot spoilers ahead)
So I decided to watch the new series ‘Prosper’ released on Stan streaming service with Richard Roxburgh and Rebecca Gibney in the lead roles as Australian Mega-Church Pastors launching a new Campus into Los Angeles.
If it sounds more like a documentary than a drama series that is because the intent is to shadow the story of Hillsong Australia. As a Baptist Pastor who has enjoyed and been enriched by Hillsong’s ministry over the past few decades I do not come into this without my own bias and thoughts. Of course the past few years have not been kind to Hillsong. I have many good friends who are part of that church and ministry. Indeed I have been up close and personal with some key leaders. They have shared my disappointment at the demise of their former Senior Pastor Brian Houston who in my view has made some serious mistakes, and presently does not appear to have reflected on them sufficiently and has instead retreated into denial.
I was trawling back through some old Hillsong United videos and felt quite sad. That was a pivotal time in my life where much of the music, worship and heart of Hillsong was deeply helpful. I can’t help but grieve. So that’s my bias.
Prosper gets quite a lot right, but not all right. My struggle with it is that so many will closely identify it with Hillsong that the facts about Brian and others will get muddled in the story they are presenting. In other words, it feels like a true narrative, but isn’t. When Pastor Richard Quinn is seen jubilant at the new screen working with his face in high quality the delight is palpable. Many Pastors can relate. Technology, having a good look for your church, communicating well is something many strive for. Of course the double meaning is that he is a bit of a narcissist and perhaps thinks more of his own importance than he should. Seeing his face up on a large crystal clear screen makes him happy. This struggle with something that you can clearly justify as being good, but you can also critique for being inauthentic, is at the heart of many of the plotlines. There is a moment when an incident occurs on stage that is presented as a healing miracle. The viewer is left to make up their own mind whether it is actually miraculous. Of course the show then makes it obvious the intent of showing the miracle as congregants use the strategically placed QR codes to make donations in response. The amounts are even shown, from small amounts to large donations. Most churches use QR codes these days, most Australian churches rely on their own people financially supporting the ministry of the church. That’s reality and Christians generally believe that is a good thing. Once again the hidden meaning is the oft spoken thought that Churches are just after your money.
The producers and researchers have done their homework but a keen church attendee will notice some obvious misinterpretations, even on a basic level. Any church with the building the size of the one presented would have had their screens sorted well before this. It is missteps like that which portray deeper problems. The narrative surrounding Pastor Quinn’s major moral failure echoes that of Brian Houstons. But are the facts the same? Certainly Brian would dispute them. Others would say Prosper embellishes them but they hold basically true. My concern is, as I stated previously, that Prosper feels like a docudrama, but they changed all the names. It might hold more integrity if they just made it as a docudrama and had a lawyer on retainer. The viewer is left confused or their preconceived notions reinforced. You can’t fact check Prosper because they would say, it is just a story.
How should a Christian respond?
Some mud sticks. As churches and pastors we must humbly admit sometimes we have made it about ourselves and not about Jesus and others. Hillsong have done so much right and so much good. Even in this latest season for them there was some attempt at reflection and lament. Some might say not nearly enough but I see and hear their heart. I would encourage us to not let us not let Brian’s unfortunate response to his discipline from Hillsong take away from what God did and is doing through that church and its many faithful and passionate members. In the end I am continually amazed at who God uses and how He works, despite my sin and the sin of others. That is my starting point, if God can use a sinner like me, who am I to say He can’t work powerfully through other sinners? God works in the most complicated scenarios and does not fit into my paradigm of how He should work, all glory to Him, His ways are indeed higher.
Did we really expect a streaming service chasing eyeballs to tell a realistic and fair tale? Should we be discouraged by their portrayal of the church? Well I don’t think it helps our cause. I wouldn’t recommend watching it, but neither would I say you shouldn’t.
Pray for your church, pray for your pastor. We need to be wise, strategic, authentic, passionate, humble, focused and even at times business like. Not everyone likes that, but it is true, indeed I see it in Jesus’ ministry. It is no easier leading a church now that what it was in Roman Empire times. But I am privileged and overjoyed I get to lead a church. What an incredible privilege.
In all things, Jesus will win and He doesn’t need me to defend Him or His Bride.
Thank God for that.