Hillsong Isn’t the Only Abhorrent Megachurch
Meet Arise church. They’re rich, they’re powerful - and you’ve never heard of them
This story has been updated, as new allegations have come to light:
The Downward Spiral of Arise Church: Part I
How New Zealand’s largest megachurch lost its way
The Downward Spiral of Arise Church: Part 2
Assault and Abuse at Arise Church
Hillsong Church continues to crumble:
“Another Hillsong pastor has announced his resignation from the Hillsong Church, and this time he’s taking his entire congregation with him. Nine US-based Hillsong churches have reportedly left the global organization in just the past two weeks as the movement shrinks dramatically.
This has happened quickly — it was only on March 20 Brian Houston finally decided to call it quits.
Hillsong’s troubles are hardly surprising when you consider its founder and global leader is under investigation for covering up his father’s sexual abuse of children.
And by now, many have gotten to see Discovery’s documentary series about Hillsong — Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed — in which its culture is exposed. That has also left viewers shocked about the church Justin Bieber once called home.
Part of that documentary focussed on Hillsong’s leadership gaining wealth, while exploiting unpaid interns:
“A Megachurch Exposed” aims to spotlight the many alleged wrongdoings of Hillsong, which now has locations in 30 countries. It airs allegations that Hillsong’s leadership got rich off donations while heavily exploiting volunteer labor.”
But… Hillsong Church doesn’t have dibs on this abhorrent behaviour.
Plenty of other megachurches are also raking in huge donations while exploiting unpaid labour — including one of New Zealand’s biggest and most powerful churches.
It’s never written about, because its leader keeps out of the press. He’s no Brian Tamaki.
But this church is a lot richer than Destiny, despite having a leader you’ve never heard of.
It’s time to meet Arise Church and its leader John Cameron.
This story has been researched and written over the last six months. A giant thankyou to those who shared their very personal stories, and to Webworm’s paying supporters who allowed me the time to work on this piece.
If you have anything to add about Arise Church, I am reachable — in confidence — at email@example.com.
All names in this piece have been changed to protect the identities of those who spoke to me.
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Arise, Arise Church!
Arise Church is big.
Founded in 2002, it now has 12 locations around New Zealand. Last year their income was just under $13 million, and Webworm understands their membership sits at around 10,000 people.
It has “campus pastors” at each location — but John Cameron is the nationwide Senior Pastor. He’s the boss. He is to Arise what Brian Houston was to Hillsong.
It’s an interesting setup, in that on Sunday each campus does its own singing and local announcements, before the main sermon is streamed on a huge screen in each campus, usually from Wellington.
As far as size, they are incredibly close to New Zealand’s other biggest church, Paul de Jong’s LIFE Church. If Arise is not the biggest church franchise in New Zealand, it is a close second.
They are yet to open in Auckland, probably because of their very close relationship with LIFE.
New Zealand’s two biggest megachurches often talk about each other on social media.
“That’s a wrap on ARISE Conference 2021!! We had the best final session with @pauldejongnz and a perfect way to end #ARISEConf praising God — I THANK GOD”
That’s Arise’s John Cameron tweeting praise to LIFE’s Paul de Jong.
I’d note that like Cameron, de Jong also has close ties to Brian Houston of Hillsong Church. Here is de Jong on Hillsong’s website.
They’re all operating off the same playbook — so of course they’re all in contact.
That’s the context.
Now I want to look at how Arise got so big.
Filling Up Your Spiritual Tank: “The parallels between Hillsong and Arise are… scary.”
For the last few weeks, I’ve been talking to Sarah. She started attending New Zealand’s Arise Church in her early teens, and stayed for 10 years.
She left last year, because she’d had enough.
“I’d pretty much describe it as the Hillsong of New Zealand.
Carl Lentz and Brian Houston were guests of the conferences and friends of the lead pastor John Cameron.
I started going when I was in my early teens and attended for about 10 years, and even did a year of their Ministry School slash “internship”, which is similar to Hillsong College.”
She’d written to me, because she’d read the newsletter in which I talked to former Hillsong member Christina. Sarah was angry, because she felt deja vu:
“The parallels between what Christina described of Hillsong and Arise are… scary.”
She went on, explaining how Arise Church siphons money out of its adherents.
“Similar to Hillsong’s ‘Heart for the House’, at Arise there is an annual ‘Expansion Offering’, at which every member is pressured to make a significant donation. Multiple times I heard John Cameron, verbatim, shout from the stage “I believe God is telling 10 people here to give $10,000”.
I have to say, it doesn’t feel that God-inspired when John says it literally every year.
A few weeks after this event, they’ll reveal how much money they made to the whole church. It’s usually just over $1 million, but I remember the year they were building the Arise Centre in Petone, it was $4 million.
Members are encouraged to give 10% of their ‘increase’, and this manifests in the form of tithing on every paycheck, every monetary gift, every Studylink Student Allowance payment, and — maybe most outrageously — any money which you make on the sale of your house.
Last year the amount of tithes that were coming in had gone down significantly — or so I heard from friends on their staff, anyway. Their solution to this was to run a two-month long series which ran in all Sunday services, as well as midweek gatherings, on managing your finances, and why tithing should be your number one priority.
This was what they decided was worth spending over two months on, in the midst of a pandemic in which people were suffering financially and mentally.
Once they’ve got the money in the bank, the pastors regularly have dinners out paid for by church credit cards. John Cameron is regularly on stage in clothing worthy of the Preachers’n’Sneakers instagram, and the guest pastors who visit for the annual conference stay in the presidential suite at the Intercontinental.”
Sarah also said Arise exploits interns in the same way Hillsong does — getting free labour by saying it’s God’s will.
“I just want to also quickly share about the Ministry School/internship program, because I did it for a year.
Hundreds of people have done it across all the campuses, and probably around half the people end up leaving the church entirely pretty soon after, if that says anything.
As an intern you come into the office four days a week, and work within a specific area of the church, like youth services or conference planning.
You’re also expected to lead a ‘lifegroup’ — running a small group gathering each week, and carrying the emotional load of about 10 people — as well as attending a different lifegroup for your own “spiritual health”.
These usually go until about 9pm, so by the end of them you’ve had a 12+ hour work day. Another night of the week will often be some kind of team meeting, which you’ll be helping to set up and pack down, again finishing around 9pm.
So that leaves you with one or two weeknights free. But you’ll probably be working, because you’re doing all that internship stuff unpaid. Well actually, you pay to be a part of the program.
Yes, you heard that right. Interns pay for the privilege.
“Then there’s game day: Sunday. Normally your call time is before the morning service, around 7.30am, but every two to three weeks you’ll have to go in at 4.30am to unload the trucks, and do the commercial event level set up. The day’s non-stop after that until the end of the evening service, unless it’s your turn to pack down, in which case you’ll be there until midnight.
Pretty often by this point I’d have to have a cry in the bathroom, because I was so exhausted.
So you’re working four days in the office, plus evening events most nights, working a huge day on Sunday, and then working somewhere for actual money on your “days off”.
But if you’re struggling to cope with all of this, bad news buddy — that’s your own fault! You’ll get told that you’re “working out of your own strength” instead of leaning on God, and you’re not spending enough time with God to “fill your spiritual tank”.
It’s not that you’re being pushed to your physical and emotional limits, it’s that you simply aren’t trying hard enough.
And if in the end you can’t handle it, that’s okay, because they’ll have another lot of a hundred 18-25 year olds joining the next year.
I like to think I’m generally pretty clued up, but honestly I feel like a fucking idiot for believing that all of that was normal.”
I think of what Sarah just said: “If in the end you can’t handle it, that’s okay, because they’ll have another lot of a hundred 18-25 year olds joining the next year.”
Arise has focused on opening primarily in university cities, where there are a lot of students.
A lot of workers.
“I was paying the church to be an intern, and working two jobs at the same time to keep myself afloat.”
Sarah said she “felt like a fucking idiot for believing that all of that was normal.” And she wasn’t the only one.
Lisa also paid to be an intern. She started going to Arise in 2011.
“I was an intern in their young adults ministry, a kids leader, a life group leader, and a zone pastor.
I paused my university degree to be an Arise intern but also carried on leading after this. The marketing of their internship school — or ministry school, as they now call it — is really interesting. It’s sort of sold as this gold standard of serving and if you’re an intern, that is supposed to somehow speak to the greatness of your character.
I was paying the church to be an intern and working two jobs at the same time to keep myself afloat. The hours were brutal.
Some days, I would be up as early as 5am, and wouldn’t be home until past midnight. We had to attend every meeting relevant to our ministry area and other general meetings, set up venues, pack down venues, integrate new people into the church, serve on our teams, attend church twice on Sunday, and know the status of the spiritual wellness of each individual in our lifegroup — which included multiple catch-ups within the week without being paid for any of it.
A few of my personal experiences have stuck with me.
There was one instance where I said I had completed my work — and I had, I was a hard worker. I ended up having to have a meeting with the pastors I was working with. They called me a liar, gaslit me. I feel like this term is thrown around incorrectly, but in this instance it was the very definition. The irony is the work I had completed had been presented to them earlier that day. I sat there and took it, crying because I felt so bullied.
I mentioned I was feeling lethargic one day to my pastor and he said “What’s new?” and then laughed and said it was a joke. Further to this, on a separate occasion, I had mentioned to my pastor that I was feeling burnt out and he said “When you're happy, you’re a force to be reckoned with but when you’re not... you’re not.”
When I told my pastor that I didn’t want to do the second year of internship because I wanted to go back to university to finish my degree, he said “We were just getting somewhere with you.” This was one of the more damaging things said, as I took this to mean that I was a broken project that needed fixing, so I could be just like them.
I would look after the pastor’s children for free, having to find my own way to and from their home — which was sometimes 30-40 min away from where I lived.”
Lisa was in her early twenties when she started going to Arise. She told me she came from a background of trauma, and wasn’t able to recognise how poorly she was being treated. “I don’t say this to try and justify anything but to give you a bit of context as to why I didn’t leave sooner.”
But she did leave, disturbed at what she’d been through and how the church operated. The way it treated interns, and the way it kept them in line.
“There is a massive culture of uplining. I guess you could liken this to an MLM, where you have people down the bottom who report to middle management who report to the top. Most of the information that is uplined is private and personal information — and the person who it concerns is often not aware that it has been shared.
I was burnt out in every sense of the word after quite a few years of this, and I had to seek my pastor’s blessing to move to another city.
He gave me this reluctantly, and I moved so that I could get out of it — and the insurmountable pressure they put on me.”
Some of the interns that have left have started a meme page about their experiences at Arise. Using humour to process what they went through.
@arisealumni has 207 followers, and describes itself as “The meme community of Arisen Church”.
Looking at their annual returns last year, Arise Church employed 67 people full-time.
They had 2529 volunteers.
Those volunteers worked 16,439 hours every week.
That’s the equivalent of 411 full-time employees.
An MLM, a cult and a megachurch walk into a bar
Exploiting volunteers while extracting large amounts of money seems to be acceptable to the likes of Hillsong, and those that idolise it.
Leaders like Arise’s John Cameron.
And I was reminded of another organisation that also pressured members to give large amount of money, whilst also working them to the point of physical and mental exhaustion: The American NXIVM sex cult, lead by conman and nighttime volleyball fan Keith Raniere.
No, Arise Church is not a sex cult.
I don’t imagine church leadership is branding Lifegroup members with John Cameron’s initials (if none of this is landing, I encourage you to watch The Vow documentary on HBOMax — it’s an incredible education on cults and MLMs).
The NXIVM cult and MLM functioned because — like any cult — its members were isolated, and told not to trust the outside world. Just like other cults, like Scientology. I couldn’t help thinking about that when talking to Sarah about her experience at Arise:
“They tell the congregation not to read the bad press because it’s ‘an attack of the devil’, and people who complain or speak out about their treatment are just ‘bitter and exaggerating’.”
I guess according to Arise Church, I’ve spent the last six months talking to a lot of bitter people who are exaggerating.
But in hearing how all their stories play out, I’m not sure they need to exaggerate. I’m talking to Elouise, who says the worst of her experiences were during her three year internship.
“Unpaid interns — who actually pay the church to do the internship — are used to do staff member roles.
They were called “stinterns” — as in, staff-interns — paid to do two days a week, but expected to work full time. My understanding is that’s illegal?
The funny thing is, that at the time we were all striving to become a stintern. It was the epitome of intern success.
Unpaid interns were also used by staff as free babysitters, nannies, drivers, cleaners. I would babysit for free at least once a week for various staff. I was told that I was “serving the church” so they could have a night out.
I remember uni students being told to use their course related costs to pay for conference tickets. One thing I was proud of is that I refused to ask students to do this — and got in trouble for not doing what I was told.
There were big attempts and huge pressure to get people to sign up for the annual event. I remember being involved in cold calling campaigns and these huge spreadsheets of members, seeing who was signed up and who wasn’t, and having to have a solid reason why they weren’t.
There is something so wrong about pressuring uni students and young families to pay hundreds of dollars to attend a weekend event. Most of that going towards a stage set and green rooms and paying big “honorariums” to guest speakers. And also paying for all the staff to spend the weekend at the Intercontinental — with all expenses paid.”
It’s a lot to take in. I keep thinking of Hillsong. And, again — NXIVM. Cults that tell their adherents what to think. Elouise ended by telling me this:
“John and Gillian used their platform to push their political beliefs. We were told from the stage pre-election to vote National because that was a good Christian vote.
A lot of people in the congregation would vote for whoever they were told to vote for, without doing their own research.
I remember also being told from stage to oppose the Marriage Equality Bill. And feeling like if I didn’t, then I was doing something wrong.”
I have spoken to a lot of ex-Arise members over the last six months. A new series of contacts have been made since the Hillsong story broke. Perhaps Hillsong was a sign to some that they could speak out about church culture.
As well as speaking to ex-members, I have also spoken to former leaders and pastors from Arise.
I can’t share all their stories.
Some of them didn’t want me to; scared of repercussions. Real or perceived, I have no idea. But both are sane reactions to have. Arise has lot of money. Who knows how their damage control strategy plays out.
I have shared the stories that painted a clear picture, and could validate each other.
“Slimy as Shit”
But before wrapping this thing up, I wanted to share Amy’s story.
Her story isn’t new by now — we know how this plays out. But that’s the point. This is the experience so many people have with this church; this megachurch.
She takes us through her experience, beginning to end — an experience familiar to many. An experience countless others are yet to experience, but will.
“I first encountered Arise in 2017, which was my first year at university.
I arrived at Otago, pretty happy to get away from home — but had come from a really tiny Pentecostal church. It was quite progressive, and I didn’t really see an equivalent here.
I went along after being offered a ride there.
An R/A at the hall I was in went, so she shuttled us all in the hall van to Glenroy. It felt like some sort of massive high school concert. The people on stage were all wearing skinny jeans and tops from Glassons or something. All of them were also very slim and attractive.
We were ushered to a seat, where they ask you to sit so they can fit the most possible people. Which means being kind of uncomfortably close, because they were those weird chairs that join together. I sat near the front because I wanted to watch how it all works.
They have a welcome team who seats everyone, and then there is a countdown on the wall indicating when church will begin. As it gets closer to the time, the music team comes out and tries to amp everyone up by clapping or playing the intro to their first song.
In the front row there is a stage manager, although I’m sure they call it something more spiritual. They have on a whole head set — like, over-ear headphones and a mic.
In the Dunedin church, it was a woman in her late twenties. In that front row there was also an iPad that had a set of timers on it. It only faced the stage, and was there so that every single element ran for only a specific amount of time.
Their music is weird because they try to do only their own originals — which is strange because I’d never even heard of Arise before this experience. They did maybe one song by Bethel, and the rest were their own. Each song was counted down on the timer, and the production woman spoke to another production person on stage.
Once every song has been sung for the correct amount of minutes, they would then beam in John Cameron from the Kapiti campus. This kind of bugged me from the beginning, because they had campus pastors in Dunedin, but they seldom actually delivered messages. I just found it odd to go to a church full of people to watch a video from Arise headquarters.
The next issue is data entry. If you pop over to their website, then “data entry” is one of the serving teams you can volunteer for. This made sense to me at first — until I got endless messages and calls, and Facebook messages.
A girl I knew ended up being a small group leader. They actually sent her a schedule with how often she should catch up from members of the small group, for coffee or via text. And there were scripted messages available to use if someone said, ‘Hey, I’m not coming to church this week’.
Essentially, when you visit, they give you info cards: You fill them out, and then they have all your information, and it seems harmless enough at the time. It’s not.
Aside from this, they have the classic prosperity gospel nonsense. They make millions of dollars. And the people at the Dunedin Campus were students. They encouraged you to give by EFTPOS, or to pull out your banking app on your phone.
If you attend church long enough you get a lot of strong encouragement to do the ‘Pathways’ programme. In essence, it’s around four hours over a month after the morning service. Here you watch more John Cameron videos. The campus pastor sat in on my group, and he just sat there on Facebook the whole time.
In Pathways, they basically give you a tick list of how to be a good Christian — by tithing — and explain their church leadership and set-up.
You then do some sort of shitty personality quiz. This quiz will recommend which part of church you should serve in, and you are then heavily encouraged to sign up on that day. It goes from teams that set up and pack down chairs, all the way to production assistant, who quickly grabs the perspex podium for whoever is talking to rest their iPad on.
John Cameron never stops talking about being a poor church intern, and working his way up to a pastor of a national church. Aside from promoting their own music and tithing, they have conferences.
They have a women’s conference, and then just a normal conference. They are both super-expensive, and if you want to be anything more than someone who turns up for church, you are constantly told you should go. They spend all year running promo videos of previous conferences and having ‘early bird’ specials.
They show you clips of crying people and a few famous Christians, alongside the free gifts and the selling of the experience itself. They even have merch now. It’s bordering on ridiculous.
It’s slimy as shit.”
I don’t know what John Cameron thinks of this. He’s been at the head of Arise since 2002, and he’s built an empire.
I have reached out for comment from Cameron and Arise Church about the allegations in this piece:
That Arise Church used unpaid volunteer labour excessively; That some interns have had to pay Arise Church in order to take part in internships; That unpaid interns have been used by staff as babysitters, nannies, drivers and cleaners; That university students have been told to use their course related costs to pay for Arise Church conference tickets; That Arise Church has encouraged people to donate their student allowances to the church; That Arise Church encouraged people to donate house sale proceeds to the church; That interns were paid to do two days work a week, but were expected to work full time.
No representatives for Arise — or John Cameron — ever replied to me.
As for Arise Church’s next steps? At the start of this piece I mentioned they’re not in New Zealand’s biggest city yet, Auckland.
According to their website, that’s about to change:
“2022 is the year we launch ARISE Church in Auckland! We are expectant and excited to establish a new campus of our church in New Zealand’s largest city. We are believing that many people will be saved, set free and find purpose in these coming days and years.”
“Find purpose”. But at what expense? At whose expense? Their announcement about their upcoming Auckland church ends with this:
“If you are reading this, we would love you to be part of it! Put simply, we need you!”
“We need you.”
That says it all.
Because Arise Church does need you. Why? I think the answer to that is pretty clear at this point.
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Hi all - just wanted to say that I am so appreciative of all your comments.
I have just been mulling things over, and will hop in when I have a clear head. I have gotten *so* many emails from other former interns who have stuff to say - so have been lost in that and processing it, as well.
I feel there will be more to say about Arise - and it's interesting to see their leader has left a rambling message on Instagram, talking a lot about "doing better" - and yet they still can't be bothered getting back to me or actually addressing anything.
In other words... it's a Hillsong response:
John Cameron's post: https://www.instagram.com/p/Cb6-lv6v303/
"The most painful thing about leadership I’ve experienced is that todays personal growth and maturity enables you to see yesterday’s immaturity. And the impact that yesterday’s immaturity (a bit dysfunction too I reckon) had in the way you led and on those you lead.
“You don’t know what you don’t know”. It’s a phrase I use a lot. To describe the need for constant growth. The need for humility, without which we are all blind to our faults and flaws. It’s why I read books, listen to podcasts, ask a ton of questions. I am searching for what I don’t know.
I’ve had to find peace in the knowledge that there will never be a moment when I’m a perfect leader. Maybe no one else finds that a tension. But because I truly do love people I need to know that I can leads others, even if that’s potentially imperfectly.
I’ll tell you what I can also do: I can grow. I can learn. I can own my mistakes and apologise if I need to. Just two days ago I did just that to someone I used to lead. I said I’m sorry. And it brought healing I think. To them but also to me. It brought us closer & it helped make me better.
There’s one thing I am so grateful for: I’m a way better leader now that I was even five years ago. By better I mean kinder, more empathetic, secure, more encouraging & for sure a lot more emotionally consistent. There’s nothing like the fire to either destroy you or refine you. I hope I’m choosing the refiners fire. I believe I am.
To every other leader our there: here’s to growth. Here’s to pain. Here’s to keeping our dreams alive & our hearts encouraged.
Much love, John"
I am not surprised, but it's still frustrating to see. Accountability seems impossible for these people, who are obsessed with "Kingdom building". More money, more churches, more churn.
It's.... fucking insane.
Hey David, thank you for this. I’ve sent it to a couple of ex-Penti church friends and I think, like I have, found it to be strangely therapeutic. It brings back so many memories, most of which are pretty dark. My (now) wife and I were DEEP into a Pentecostal church in Dunedin, which isn’t Arise but they operate from an almost identical playbook. My wife “served” as an intern for a good 2 or so years before burning out. I drank the koolaid and did overseas missions, donated a lot of student loan money, and served to the extent that I only had one evening off each week. Yep, ONE evening OFF. It was all consuming and incredibly intense. It’s just odd how when you’re surrounded by people who think and believe the same way, you loose perspective. It all seems to normal - but it’s not. Odd behaviour or requests are quickly justified by it “being God” or “the need to have a servant heart”. Any critical thinking or questioning would immediately leave you feeling guilty as it was a sure sign you were under spiritual attack, Satan was really having a dig at you. True faith filled believers wouldn’t question things, they’d just believe. This thinking compounds to cause an enormous psychological toll on many people in these churches. It inevitably affects them for years to come, I know of many who still carry the scars and pain. Thanks for shining a light on this.