Hayden Whitworth. Picture: Tertius Pickard
Hayden Whitworth. Picture: Tertius Pickard

Radio station CEO: ‘Religion is dead’

It was absurd.

My young children were outside playing when I heard snatches of their voices, singing a tune that was familiar … but with some surprising new words.

"There was a God who had a son and Jesus was his name-o … J! E! S! U! S! … J! E! S! U! S! … J! E! S! U! S! … and Jesus was his name-o."

For the love of, well, God.

They were happy. They were clapping. They were officially happy clappers.

My husband came running down the stairs … "Get them inside! Shut the doors! The neighbours might hear!"

Since Adam was a boy, Christianity has never been cool.

But right here, right now … it's having a moment.

Is religion popping up again on the Gold Coast?
Is religion popping up again on the Gold Coast?

From Prime Minister Scott Morrison to Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate, society's quest for faith has been literally born again.

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In Australia, Pentecostal church membership has increased from nearly 220,000 in 2006 to 260,500 in 2016. And while the Uniting Church experienced a steady decline from more than 160,000 weekly attendees in 1990 to 97,200 in 2013, the Gold Coast is home to the country's biggest and most popular Uniting parish - with New Life at Robina hosting more than 2500 worshippers every weekend.

It makes Hayden Whitworth's soul sing.

Which is only appropriate given the 40-year-old father of two is CEO of Gold Coast Christian community radio station Juice 107.3FM.

Not that you have to be a believer to be a listener.

In fact, almost 70 per cent of the station's sizeable audience don't attend church at all. And that's no surprise to Hayden, either.

Hayden Whitworth. Picture: Tertius Pickard
Hayden Whitworth. Picture: Tertius Pickard

"Religion is dead," he says.

Talk about a mic drop.

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I'll admit it, I'm almost as shocked as when the kids busted out their Jesus/Bingo song.

What about ScoMo? What about the Mayor? (Who, by the way, was publicly baptised just last year at an ecumenical Easter service organised by none other than Hayden himself.)

"I think we are going through a cultural moment right now where we are seeking deeper answers … but people's attitude towards religion in general is still the same - we hate it," he clarifies.

"Religion is dead and horrible and it put people in chains. It's yuck.

"But what people are encountering right now in churches across the Gold Coast isn't religion. They are finding faith. It surprises them. It gives them freedom and meaning and a compelling way to live and seek the truth.

More people are seeking faith — not religion, says Mt Whitford. (AAP Image / Angelo Velardo)
More people are seeking faith — not religion, says Mt Whitford. (AAP Image / Angelo Velardo)

"When you teach the example of Christ and strip away the religious guff you're left with the stuff that really resonates - love your neighbours and your enemies; commit to a deeper way of life; don't sell yourself to meaninglessness."

Hayden says it's an educational process he undertakes not just with Juice's audience but their employees as well.

He says 80 per cent of the team do not come from a church background, meaning they need to break down what being Christian means.

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"We want to be authentic about who we are. If you only know about Christianity from what you see on A Current Affair, you wouldn't want to be associated with that.

"Unfortunately, there are a lot of people speaking for Christians who don't understand what it means. If a gay person reads a 'Christian' comment and gets any sense other than 'God loves me just as I am', then that's incorrect. If anyone listens to our station and gets any impression other than God loves us, then it's wrong."

New Life Uniting Church, Robina. Christmas morning church service.
New Life Uniting Church, Robina. Christmas morning church service.

With the Gold Coast home to the strongest community radio market in the country, Hayden knows he holds a privileged position to wield the Christian message. And he admits it can make him nervous.

After all, he says, Christianity and power are not always a great mix.

"We're having a cultural moment with the church right now, with people like the Prime Minister, our Mayor, even a lot of our councillors practising Christians," he says.

"This is great in a lot of ways - it's really encouraging that we have these obviously intelligent people and good leaders who are willing to share that they have faith. As Christians we can often feel a little ridiculed or sidelined - it's nice to know not everyone thinks we're nuts.

"But it also creates some anxiety, Christians seem to operate at their best from the margins, as an underdog. It's not a warm or fuzzy feeling but it's very much following in the footsteps of Christ."

Good Friday Church service at New Life Uniting Church at Robina.
Good Friday Church service at New Life Uniting Church at Robina.

However, Hayden believes the faith of those in the political persuasion should not necessarily be questioned.

In fact, he says while Tom Tate's baptism might have made the front page, his continued work with local churches goes unnoticed.

"He's at church more than me … any key events that we have on, he always tries to come along. I'm amazed that for such a busy guy he gets there so often.

"It's certainly not for votes … you'd pick a bigger church for starters."

Hayden says the key to mixing faith with power is to focus on serving rather than preaching.

And he's certainly been practising what he preaches.

As well as co-ordinating last year's Easter United, a city-first service held at HOTA and involving clergy from Lutheran, Uniting, Anglican and Catholic churches, as well as a combined churches choir, indigenous elders and multicultural music, dance and drama, Juice presented the Gold Coast's first Q Commons event, a Christian-based social and cultural think-tank.

Hayden says the event aimed to unearth the issues facing Gold Coasters, and their talking has lead to groundbreaking action.

"It was a fantastic event. There were great moments like the principal of Emmanuel College Patrick Innes-Hill taking the stage with Imam Mohammed from Gold Coast Islamic College - it was a beautiful conversation of learning and understanding.

"But the big issue that just kept coming up as the roadblock for our city was domestic violence.

"We had a truly phenomenal conversation and ended up running a follow-up for people asking more questions … we really wanted to sit together and dig in to the issue.

"As a result, it's a huge 'watch this space'.

"For me, both personally and as Juice CEO, more and more I'm understanding one of the best ways to serve my community is to create a space to bring people together. With the issue of domestic violence, I want to bring a new level of collaboration and co-ordination to all of the different agencies coming at this issue separately.

"Like we did with Christian churches at Easter United, we want to do with our city leaders and community groups to tackle domestic violence.

"We want to create that mutual ground it's not about us, but how do we help our community. That, to me, is a truly Christian behaviour - seeking to serve others.

"We're aiming to create a wraparound service, to work behind the scenes to support better collaboration and communication and also to come full circle to run a campaign that we can launch through the station.

"There are so many people in our community doing good and we want to help them come together and achieve even more.

"We're talking to council, talking to churches, we've got Griffith University looking to come on board - it's early days but this city is a family and we want to protect its heart."

If this new brand of Christianity is making caring cool, there's nothing absurd about that.



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