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The Kingdom on SBS review: a peek at Pentecostalism

The Kingdom is insightful and informative, but those expecting a gritty expose of 'Fennell’s shocking Pentecostal past' will probably be disappointed.

In recent years, the trashier side of Australian television has been packed with exposes on the flaws and excesses of this country’s Pentecostal churches. The Hillsong church spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of its parishioner’s money on travel and luxuries while its founder was a self-confessed paedophile whose son covered it up; if you’re looking for lurid television, it doesn’t get much better than that.

SBS documentary The Kingdom doesn’t go down that path, though it doesn’t ignore the dark side of the now crumbling Hillsong ministries either. It’s a compassionate and humane look at what drives these churches and the people who visit them – in large part because the big hook here is that host Marc Fennell grew up in the Pentecostal system himself.

Across the 90-odd minutes we meet a number of people still involved in Pentecostalism – somewhat tellingly, they’re mostly slickly relatable ministers hustling to establish or expand their churches in the wake of Hillsong’s collapse – alongside those who’ve walked away.

Their stories are informative, emotional, and sometimes grim tales of a religion built on other people’s toil where spiritual growth was directly linked to how much sweat and money you were willing to put in.

A radical faith

Born a century ago, the Pentecostal church was originally a radical faith, with congregations often led by POC or women and services built around speaking in tongues and physically casting out demons. But it was also an era of small business; as one expert points out, while traditional churches have kings and parliaments to reflect the times they were born in, Pentecostal beliefs reflect the go-getter, self-made values of the early 20th century.

Read: Marc Fennell on The Kingdom: ‘it was quite weird and uncomfortable’

Pentecostal churches are run like franchise stores, with an emphasis on ‘planting’ (opening new branches) and an obsession with growth – thanks to the concept of ‘tithing’, where parishioners give a portion of their income to the church, more members means more money.

Australia, being an equally young country with an equally business-orientated attitude, was an early adopter of these beliefs. None struck it rich like Hillsong.

Scott Morrison opening the Hillsong conference in 2019. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Hillsong’s rise is largely put down here to two factors: the personal charm of global leader Brian Houston (who resigned last year after an internal investigation found he had behaved inappropriately towards two women), and the music. One talking head points out that Hillsong is most likely Australia’s most successful musical export; it was such a driver of business early on that the Hills area church renamed itself after its musical brand – Hill Song.

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The picture that The Kingdom deftly paints is of a belief system based on growth that Hillsong took to extremes. The smaller churches may be driven by the same hustling mentality, but the rights and wrongs of this are largely left implied. Perhaps by staying at a human level they can avoid the same fate – not that any of them would turn their back on the chance to be ‘the next Hillsong’.

Insightful

The Kingdom is insightful and informative, but those expecting a gritty expose of ‘Fennell’s shocking Pentecostal past’ will probably be disappointed. His take on his upbringing is sadder, more reflective and more low-key than the stuff of special episodes of 60 Minutes.

An ‘uncomfortable’ and somewhat isolated home life made the services at the Pentecostal churches of his childhood a safe space where he felt loved unconditionally. But a shift away from the church as he entered adulthood – it’s not spelt out, but presumably his relationship with an extremely atheist girlfriend (now wife) was a big part of it – means that whatever he once found there he now gets elsewhere.

Towards the end, Fennell visits a church service for the first time in years, wondering if he can recapture what was once a central part of his life. It’s a powerful and quietly moving moment, even though we don’t get to see Fennell speaking in tongues, falling to the ground convulsing, or just getting his groove on to some classic Hillsong soft rock.

Australia’s Pentecostal Churches have let us down once again.

The Kingdom premieres Thursday 8 June on SBS On Demand and airs 7.30pm Sunday 11 June on SBS.

Anthony Morris is a freelance film and television writer. He’s been a regular contributor to The Big Issue, Empire Magazine, Junkee, Broadsheet, The Wheeler Centre and Forte Magazine, where he’s currently the film editor. Other publications he’s contributed to include Vice, The Vine, Kill Your Darlings (where he was their online film columnist), The Lifted Brow, Urban Walkabout and Spook Magazine. He’s the co-author of hit romantic comedy novel The Hot Guy, and he’s also written some short stories he’d rather you didn’t mention. You can follow him on Twitter @morrbeat and read some of his reviews on the blog It’s Better in the Dark.