As mental health professionals report young people are increasingly distressed by climate change, a new rural conference for evangelical Christians is encouraging children to attend amid “escalating signs” of the End Times. By Lyndal Rowlands.
Climate change fuels End Times evangelicalism
On an unusually warm Friday night in August, adults and children gather at the New Life Chapel in the Victorian town of Wodonga for the first night of the Oceania End Times Prophetic Conference.
Inside, the hall is dark but for a projected constellation of stars illuminating the stage, where a band is playing light rock.
Pastor Zoran Paunovich steps out in front of the tightly-packed front rows, a crisp T-shirt and sneakers giving off carefully crafted “cool dad” vibes. He welcomes the hundreds in the audience, including online viewers, with a shout-out to the youngest present. “I am so encouraged to see so many young people here tonight,” he says. “We desperately need your generation to understand these things.”
The music fades as he turns to the theme of the conference. His tone is confident and reassuring; his message anything but. “If there was ever a day, and ever an hour, and a moment, where we need to hear a message on End Times, it’s the day that we live in now,” he says.
This is the first such conference hosted by the New Life Chapel, an evangelical church among the more than 1000 Pentecostal members of the Australian Christian Churches network, formerly known as the Assemblies of God in Australia.
It’s a standout event in a calendar that also features steak nights and community fairs for Easter and Mother’s Day. It runs over two evenings, followed by Sunday morning church and a special youth-focused “night of fire”.
Young people were encouraged to attend the End Times conference. An Instagram post offered free registration for high schoolers, while the registration page described a program for children under 12. In another post, Paunovich explained the conference’s theme responds to a “revived interest in Bible prophecy” caused by “escalating signs” of the End Times.
But if there’s “revived interest” in Pentecostalism in Australia, it wasn’t reflected in the latest census. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports the number of respondents identifying as Pentecostal dropped by 4700, or 2 per cent, between 2016 and 2021. Research from Alphacrucis University College professor Philip Hughes referencing that data says the number of Pentecostals aged 15-34 shrank 13 per cent – while the 75-84 cohort grew 40 per cent. Similar drops among young white Evangelical churchgoers in the United States are partly explained by disillusion with churches that have embraced right-wing politics, according to Terry Shoemaker, a lecturer in religious studies at Arizona State University.
A recent series of appearances by another conference headliner, prominent Australian evangelist Tim Hall, suggests a focus in rural areas of Victoria and New South Wales – which Hughes reports as having the smallest Pentecostal populations. Hall’s itinerary over the last year has included revival events in stadiums in Traralgon and Werribee and a “tent crusade” at the Maitland showgrounds. The latter, billed as the Mighty Gospel Tent, was reminiscent of American tent revivals of early last century, when the likes of Billy Sunday and, later, Oral Roberts practised a new form of “fire and brimstone” preaching. These were among the early evangelists to popularise fear as a motivation to join their cause. Bart D. Ehrman, The New York Times bestselling author of Armageddon: What the Bible Really Says about the End, has explained that most biblical scholars do not understand the Book of Revelation to be a prediction of the immediate future, but rather a retelling of an ancient apocalypse.
While this conference’s End Times theme is not necessarily unusual for Australia, the New Life Chapel’s open approach to advertising it on social media is, says Troy Waller, a former youth pastor who left the church 25 years ago and now co-hosts the exvangelical podcast I Was a Teenage Fundamentalist.
Many Australian evangelical churches have adopted an “intentional marketing approach”, where End Times teachings are kept “behind closed doors, at least from an outsider’s perspective”, Waller tells The Saturday Paper. He adds that prophecies offering an explanation during times of unrest can seem “tantalising” since they suggest that “perhaps in the midst of all this chaos there is a divine plan, there is someone in control”.
Waller notes that in Australia in 1979, some interpreted the introduction of barcodes to supermarkets as the mark of the beast – one of the signs of the End Times.
“There have been people in every generation since the time of Jesus that have believed that they were living in the End Times and it’s just a constant reinvention of the story,” he says.
Over time he realised such predictions were becoming repetitive, as each year the apocalypse failed to arrive and the promised rapture was postponed.
Waller went to “End Times crusades” in the 1990s, where he says “people would be instructed to invite their friends and their families”. The anxiety those prophecies induced were hard for him to shake.
University of New South Wales lecturer and author of Leaving Christian Fundamentalism and the Reconstruction of Identity, Josie McSkimming, was converted at an Anglican church camp at the age of 10, and recalls singing “I Wish We’d All Been Ready”, the theme song of the 1972 Christian horror film, A Thief in the Night – one of the first major examples of End Times prophecies in popular culture. She was a missionary in her early 20s before leaving the church and says people who run youth groups can be “pretty good at making young people feel welcome”. In regional towns these churches may be some of the only social activities available to them, she adds.
McSkimming is now a clinical social worker providing counselling to people who have left high-control religious environments and, like many Australian mental health professionals, she says clients are increasingly focusing on fears of global heating. Mission Australia and Orygen suggest 10 per cent of young Australians aged 15-19 are experiencing “high psychological distress” due to climate change.
McSkimming advises the relevant clients that becoming involved in related causes can help.
“Social action, no matter how small, can give people a sense of empowerment, a sense of control and agency.”
While some evangelical Christians – such as Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, author of Following Jesus in a Warming World: A Christian Call to Climate Action – see their religious beliefs embracing climate change activism, McSkimming says it can be discouraged, even by churches that don’t teach End Times prophecies, as “social gospel”. She says it’s chilling to hear some people say “Bring it on, Lord” in response to signs they interpret as meaning “God is getting closer”.
Back in Wodonga, guest speaker Tim Hall addresses the second day of the Oceania End Times Conference, the international flavour of which is supplied by a speaker from Fiji. Tim Hall is well-travelled, though, claiming to have “harvested souls” around the world, including seven campaigns at Papua New Guinea’s National Football Stadium.
“This is the beginning of sorrows, the stuff we’re seeing,” Hall tells the assembled in Wodonga.
“The world is going to be cast into a cauldron of horror which is beyond description, and I want my kids in the kingdom,” he says. “I do believe that God is using End Time teaching to stir people about the urgency of the hour.”
Organisers are now talking about hosting an annual run for the Oceania End Times Prophetic Conference. The Wodonga New Life Chapel is already advertising earlybird tickets for another at the end of August 2024. Kids under 12 are still free.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 26, 2023 as "Apocalypse nigh".
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