The Downward Spiral of Arise Church: Part 2
Assault and Abuse at Arise Church
A lot has happened over the last 24 hours.
Kingdom PR — the public relations agency retained by Arise Church — stopped returning my emails.
They also removed all their staff bios from their website and set their Instagram account to private.
Pretty strange for a PR company, whose sole reason to exist is to communicate.
I called Kingdom PR, asking if they were still working with Arise. They refused to tell me, instead telling me to email email@example.com. I asked who I would be communicating with there, and they told me it would be the Arise Board.
I’ve continued to receive a torrent of new emails with more horrific stories from within Arise Church, as well as some of the other big Pentecostal churches in New Zealand. The stories are mounting at an alarming rate.
There’s a word that keeps coming up when people message me, and it’s “trauma”. Because when people are spat out of Arise — that is what they’re left with.
This is Part II of the story I started telling yesterday. Its aim is to give a voice to those who have felt confused, ignored and damaged by this megachurch.
Thanks to all those who spoke to me. I know it wasn’t an easy thing to do, and I appreciate that you trusted me with your stories.
Uplining Things Until They Disappear
The names in this story have been changed to protect the identities of those speaking. Many are speaking about incredibly sensitive issues, and some have friends or family still in the church.
This feature contains distressing descriptions of sexual and emotional abuse. Please take care when reading this.
Stephanie started attending one of Arise’s 12 campuses about two years ago. She ended up serving on various teams at the church, alongside her boyfriend, Ryan.
Arise is the first and only church Stephanie has ever attended. It’s all she knows as far as Christianity goes.
She joined the church over a boy, Nathan. He was a member, and Stephanie liked him. She joined up so she could spend more time with him. They eventually dated but broke up after what Stephanie would later come to realise was a sexual assault. A few months ago she decided to report that assault to a person she trusted at Arise after hearing other youth at the church gossiping about her relationship with Nathan.
“I caught up with my lifegroup leader to talk about life in general, but specifically on my agenda I wanted to speak to her about the other young adults at Arise, the gossiping they had been doing.
And how I had realised I’d been raped by Nathan, and that’s how I lost my virginity.”
I should mention Stephanie is still with Arise Church. She hasn’t left yet.
However, she feels upset and betrayed over how the church responded when confronted with information about Nathan’s actions.
“The conversation lasted hours. I thought it was good.
I revealed to her that [my now boyfriend] Ryan and I have consensual sex, and how it differs so drastically from my previous relationship. We left the conversation with her being outraged on my behalf, promising to do something about Nathan, and the other young adults.
A few days later, Ryan sees the youth and young adults pastor of the campus. The point of their chat was to talk about Nathan and the young adults issue once again.
They did not talk about that. In fact, all they really focused on was how Ryan and I having consensual sex is bad.
Not only that, [the young adults pastor] threatened Ryan — telling him he would be kicked off the kids team and intermediates team if we did not stop having sex, because it makes him an ineffective leader.
[That pastor] managed to convince him he was dirty and made him feel terrible for everything. Ryan ended up agreeing with him, and told me we could not have sex anymore until he finished up for good on the kids teams.”
Stephanie messaged the lifegroup leader, asking what was going on. By this point, she was so stressed she was losing hair.
She wanted to know why her initial concerns had been tossed to the side, including her allegation she was raped by a current congregation member.
“I was met with ‘it had to be uplined and dealt with properly, [the pastor] and I want to walk this journey with you and Ryan to ensure we both have support and accountability’.”
‘Uplining’ is a word seemingly invented by Arise Church, which essentially means telling a superior about information. It’s taking things higher in the pecking order of church management.
I heard it again and again, dropped casually into conversations I was having with former and current members of the church. They would drop it without realising they needed to explain it. ‘Uplining’ would see incredibly private information shared with multiple other people.
‘Grace-growing’ was another term I kept hearing. I asked a former Arise member what it meant. They said it was used for people that were deemed to be difficult, complicated or challenging. “They would say ‘she’s your grace-grower’ — implying that big levels of grace were needed to deal with said person.”
Okay. Back to Stephanie’s ‘uplining’:
“We went back and forth. Every ounce of personal information I had shared was uplined. I felt so betrayed and uncomfortable with [the young adults pastor] knowing such personal things about me.
Ryan and I didn’t go to church for a few months, and I took myself off the kids team since I would also technically be an ineffective leader.
We went back for the first time yesterday and it almost felt like we were targeted. People who don’t usually talk to us and are definitely more respected in the church came up to us, tried to make it feel like they missed us, in what I believe was a desperate bid to keep two young and attractive valuable members that serve regularly and look decent as some of the young representatives of Arise.”
Stephanie wants her story shared. But she’s aware it will get back to the Arise Church campus she still attends, and has asked that I give her a heads up before publishing.
“I know it’ll be immediately traced back to me by the people at the campus”.
After all of this, Stephanie wants to make it clear that not everyone at Arise is like this. She says the church is full of “lovely” people.
“I personally believe the main reason for the shortcomings of Arise are the broad range of imperfect people with subpar decision making skills in positions of power that have ironically made a very perfect storm.
They’re human and they’ve all made mistakes.
In saying that — how could such huge mistakes like my case be made? How could they be made over and over again? How can a pastor think the appropriate response to a rape allegation would be to literally bully a young adult into thinking he’s dirty for having consensual sex?
To threaten him with not being able to volunteer? Is it the pastor, or is it the way he was lead to deal with things?”
Stephanie emails me a few days later.
“I realise it sounds like I was trying to defend them all.
What happened to me is completely fucked up.
What they said to my boyfriend is completely fucked up.
Everything is fucked, to be dead clear.”
Stephanie says Nathan remains a leader at the church. He hasn’t faced any consequences that she knows of.
A Pattern of Suppression
Then there’s what happened to Amanda at the end of 2018:
“I was sexually assaulted by another member of the church, and the campus pastor didn’t believe me — and did not mention anything to [the perpetrator’s] family who attended the church — until I reached out to them, thinking they knew.
His family had no idea, and 100% supported me and encouraged me to go to the police.
I talk to another woman, Isabella:
“When I was 14, I was sexually assaulted by a 17-year-old member of the church. I was shaken by the experience, and it took me three months to open up to my lifegroup leader about this.
When I told her, she asked me to use the “actual words” of things I was talking about, and told me to describe the event in graphic detail. I did, which was really difficult for me, and when I was finished, she said she was unsure if she believed me because an event like that was really traumatic, and I didn’t sound that traumatised.”
Victoria joined Arise when she was a teenager. At first her experiences were positive — leaders cared and kept in touch. But as time went on her experience got worse, and that support from the church ebbed away.
“I was regularly sexually assaulted by my ‘boyfriend’ in the church who would assault me and then pray for forgiveness while I cried.
He also had a chart on the back of his door that he ticked off every day he didn’t masturbate. He was told to do this by [the youth pastor].
While I will never forgive him for what he did to me, I do think the way he sexually expressed himself as a 17-year-old was because of what he had been told by the church from a young age.
You are not even allowed to hold hands with someone even if you are in a relationship with them, and masturbation is strictly prohibited.”
Victoria told the youth pastor’s wife about what was happening. Like her husband, she was a leader in the church.
“She effectively said it was my fault and I shouldn’t lead him on.”
These weren’t the only stories of abuse at Arise I received. Others can’t be reported because victims fear they’ll be identified, or because they’re weighing up legal action.
All this was taking place in what former and current Arise members describe as an atmosphere of sexual repression and shame at the church.
Multiple interns told me they were banned from dating during the first year of their internship — unless they were already together, or had the explicit permission of a supervisor.
Manipulation, Burnout, and Emotional Abuse at Arise Church
I’ve heard from many people who talk of a culture of emotional abuse at Arise. Over the last few weeks, emails have flooded my inbox. I now have a Google Doc with over 250 pages of stories from those who’ve left Arise.
Many of them were recruited from university campuses. Some were recruited to the church even younger.
I’ve followed up many of those stories, speaking further with those involved. Many I can’t share, but those I can paint a picture of a church that has grown in size on the back of promises to change and enhance its members’ lives, while being utterly incapable of doing that for many. In some cases, it’s made those lives much worse.
Zoe started attending Arise church because its youth group came to her high school.
“It looked fun so I decided to go that Friday. I quickly started making friends. I adored going as I felt at home, the promise of love and family is what drew me in the most as I came from a broken home and didn’t always see eye to eye with my family.”
But she says everything changed after she was diagnosed with mental health issues.
“I was made to feel I wasn’t enough after I was diagnosed.
Not only did my mental health problems get shared with the church without my knowledge, but at the time I was serving on multiple different teams within the church and was made to stop serving because they “didn’t want me to be seen”.
That has stuck with me, along with being told I wasn’t allowed to attend certain “hangouts” that the youth group had organised because they believed I would attempt to end my life on a playground in front of all of my close friends at the time.
I was told by someone else that the church had called on her to “deal with me” because I was “too much” and they “couldn’t handle” me anymore.
I had close friends tell me they couldn’t hang out with me anymore because the pastors had told their parents I was a “negative influence” on their kids. With all of that and more, I had never felt more worthless in my entire life.
Arise church made my mental health worse to every degree possible. The way I was treated made me want to end my life because my self worth was at an all time low.”
Other young people had a similar experience. This is what Todd told me:
“My friend was involved in the Whangarei campus ‘interning’ up to 80 hours a week.
After around two years of this he snapped and had a major mental breakdown.
He had to go on medication, couldn’t leave the house, couldn’t even talk on the phone without having major anxiety attacks.”
Todd said after his friend spent three months at home, someone from Arise came to visit, not to check in or help, but to make sure he was good to go back to his internship.
“A few months after that I checked up on him, and he was back at Arise, claiming that the lead pastor said they would help him out and take stuff off his plate.
He was still doing 40 hour weeks, and he hasn’t been the same since.”
Then there’s Everly:
“I attended Arise in Wellington from 2007 before signing up for their internship in 2012. I spent the next five years as an intern slash staff member in the creative team before physically burning out in my twenties. It took me two years to recover.”
This is what Trent had to say:
“There was also emotional abuse that led two friends of mine ending up in hospital because of being burnt out. There is an ex-intern who, because of the abuse she received, is now homeless and was in-and-out of a mental health hospital.”
This is intern Willow:
“We did our internship in 2015 and I felt suicidal just five months into the 12 month process. I was left for dead — no calls from pastors, co-workers or friends.
I feel I was seen as a broken machine cog and therefore not worth the time it would take to help me heal. This is ignoring that the ultimate trigger for the mental health decline was in fact the church.
Two of the pastors did apologise for their role… although interestingly enough they didn’t apologise till after they themselves left Arise.”
Maya was part of Arise in a pastoral sense for 10 years.
She started by leading groups of 50 odd people, and ended up leading the biggest campus of Arise in Wellington alongside her husband. They were campus pastors there for two years.
“Before we left, I was holding down three jobs so that we could afford to live — I burnt out from this and then was on the sickness benefit for 18 months.
I had been diagnosed with burn out and depression and had [John Cameron’s wife] Gillian Cameron come over to my house, sit at my dining room table and ask me if “I was willing to let my husband give up his career for me?”, with no recognition of the fact that it was the church that had burnt me out and spat me out.”
Getting out wasn’t easy for Maya, either:
“We handed in our resignation which was not accepted for some time from John and Gillian, because they questioned our mental ability to make such a decision.
They told us a few times we needed psychological help as we were incapable of making decisions.”
This is what Monica told me:
“I lost two family members and had a mental breakdown, so asked to stop serving and attending church to reset myself just for a couple of months. They said no, as “church is the team you serve in” and “you’d stop coming if you weren’t serving”. They were so concerned that I’d leave the teams I served in, as they had a shortage in them.
I ended up seeing an out when we went into the first [Covid] lockdown. I simply stopped going without saying anything. I didn’t hear from anyone till 18 months later when I had a car crash.”
Many I spoke to, like Britney, are still recovering. Like everyone in my story, her name has been changed: “Just change my name so I don’t have John and his minions in my DMs”.
“For years I have been processing the trauma that was Arise, even seven years later I am still mentally impacted by the guilt and shame of my actions when I was a part of the church, the things I said to my family and friends, and the people I influenced over the years.
The church runs on a sick but never-ending cycle, enticing and targeting those at their most vulnerable.
There will always be vulnerable teenagers; there will always be university students looking for more support; there will always be people and families looking for a caring community to be a part of.
I am horrified to think of this cult impacting more people, who are just looking for a place to belong.”
The “never-ending cycle” Britney talked about reminded me of something else a former Arise member had told me:
“It says a lot that after eight years since I left, despite having new members sign up in droves each week, the church is still hovering around the same 10,000 members mark.
Arise famously says that the church is the only organisation that doesn't exist for you once you join it. I think this sums up a lot of the hurt that has been shared with you pretty well.
We don’t matter.”
The Arise Board, Pathfinding, and The Review
Webworm put a series of questions to John Cameron and Arise Church several days ago — including nine specific allegations.
They would not answer eight of those allegations directly, citing their upcoming internal investigation.
They did respond to one allegation — that church members accused of sexual assault and rape were not removed from attending church.
To that allegation, the Arise Board answered:
“Our policy is to refer the matter to police and to stand down and possibly remove anyone from our church to ensure the safety of our people."
“Possibly remove” isn’t something any victim of a sexual assault wants to hear. Going on the stories Webworm has heard over the last six months, “possibly” seems the key word.
Arise has engaged independent reviewers Pathfinding to help with their investigation. Pathfinding consists of Charlotte Cummings and Greg Fleming. They registered a new Pathfinding website three days ago to help with the review.
Pathfinding’s Charlotte Cummings and Arise’s Gillian Cameron follow each other on Instagram.
I asked Charlotte Cummings about this: “I have never had any prior connection with John and Gillian, and have never been part of Arise. I followed their social media only over the last few days, as part of informing my review.”
If Cummings does find evidence of wrongdoing at Arise, it’s unclear whether she’ll be able to enact real change. The charities register for Arise lists four people as officers: John Cameron, Brent Cameron, Israel Cooper and Graeme Kirkwood.
There was a fifth, but Andrew Simkin stepped down in November last year.
We know who John and Brent are.
Israel Cooper is the grandson of Neville Cooper, who founded the Gloriavale religious sect. His father is Phil Cooper, who fled the sect.
Graeme Kirkwood is a professional church advisor.
If these are the people running Arise, John and Brent Cameron remain powerful figures in the church. It seems unlikely that anyone has the power and authority to stand them down.
Leaving Arise & “Praying the Gay Away”
The more I’ve spoken to people who have left Arise, the more I’ve realised it’s a place where you fit in and are made to feel welcome… until you’re not.
If you are on the inside and having a good time, you don’t experience any of the problems personally. If a problem doesn’t affect you, then the horror stories from those on the outside simply don’t make sense.
But there is a pattern where people enter Arise, and are made to feel that their entire life and self-worth is tied up in the church.
I spoke to many young people who’d left, and had found the process incredibly difficult. Kennedy joined in 2007, when she was 15. She left four years later — but it was hard:
“When I left Arise, I lost literally all but two of my friends overnight, and I was ostracised. It was heartbreaking as for a few years I had dedicated nearly all my free time to those I thought cared about me, like I did them.”
When that church then turns on you, it’s all the more traumatic.
I talked with someone outside of the church who witnessed what happened when Arise members were spat out the other side. He worked for a prominent Aotearoa youth charity for four years, working with a variety of centres across the North Island.
“We shared a building with another regional queer youth charity, and I remember an occasion where one of our young people came to our centre in distress and told us that they had been effectively kicked out of Arise — alongside a few of their friends — because one of them was gay.”
It should come as no shock that “being gay” is an issue for some Christian churches. Google “LGBTQI+” and “churches” and you’re presented with an array of articles around the world on the relationship between some forms of Christianity and those with certain sexual orientations.
As New Zealand politicians debated whether Aotearoa should ban conversion therapy (which it did), a number of churches — including Webworm regulars Arise, City Impact and LIFE — entered the debate, arguing the bill should not be passed in its current form.
“When the bill that would legalise same sex marriage was going through Parliament, John Cameron urged the congregation from the pulpit to oppose this and stand up for family values”, says Rose. “I vocalised some pro-choice views to other congregation members at one point and was firmly told to keep those to myself.”
Publicly, churches like Arise remain murky on the topic. Webworm obtained this email sent from Arise in 2014, to someone enquiring about the church’s stance on sexual orientation:
“It is not our practice to teach against any particular form of sexual orientation,” wrote Arise’s Wellington Campus Manager eight years ago.
That kind of framing of the issue is Arise’s typical response.
Then there’s what they actually did.
I spoke to Oliver who was heavily involved in Arise in 2016.
“During the year as interns, we were all made to do a devotional series, a course called Freedom in Christ. We were made to feel worthless and broken; God being our only source of hope — a recurring theme throughout internship and the church in general.”
Included in the course literature was a list of things to “renounce” if they’d become more important than God: Ambition, computer games, food.
Your friends, your parents, and your children.
Later in the guidebook, things got more personal. One section guided the interns through their “fears”. One of those fears — “Fear of becoming/being homosexual”:
Oliver told me what happened if “being homosexual” was ticked as a fear: “If you selected this, you were literally told to pray the gay away.”
This is the prayer Arise church provided to those who were scared they might be gay:
Imagine being told what you’re feeling is a lie. That you are a lie.
I look back at Arise’s statement two years earlier: “It is not our practice to teach against any particular form of sexual orientation.”
You fit in at Arise. Until you don’t.
I recall a story I heard earlier on in my investigation. It seemed humorous at the time, but in light of these stories it seems to be a story that reflects something darker:
“I served on the worship team for years, but constantly got left out of everything.
I remember being in the choir and someone got told off for wearing off-white, not white.
Moments later a message was preached of ‘come as you are’.”
Arise boasts at least 10,000 members across New Zealand. People go there to find belonging, fellowship, and — ultimately — salvation.
For many, it is a place full of positive emotions and actions.
But for others, Arise is a place where they find abuse and shame.
The press release from Arise and John Cameron makes it sound like most of the church’s problems are in the past; that the culture has already shifted in a more positive direction.
Hearing the horrific stories over the last few weeks, I’m not sure that’s true. Some of those I spoke to left recently, or are still in the church.
Arise is an institution tightly controlled from the top. Every major decision and event is run through John Cameron.
I remember Rachel’s words from Part I:
“I think it is the glory, the power, the control that drives him. And as long as his shadow side and narcissism aren’t acknowledged and dealt with, people will only continue to be sucked in by the Arise machine and spat out the other side.”
Pentecostal church systems like Arise choose to focus on flashy lights, moral purity, and perfection in the eyes of God. For those who are doing well, that message from the pulpit rings true: “come as you are”.
A different message appears to emerge for those who struggle; whose experience is coloured by burnout, workplace bullying, or the trauma and lingering pain of abuse. For them, the call is to suppress, to swallow the hurt, to stop wearing off-white.
Those people haven’t found salvation at Arise. Instead what they found looks a lot more like hell.
-Additional reporting by Hayden Donnell
What happened next? The Downward Spiral of Arise Church: Part 3.
Thanks for reading this series on Arise Church. You can share this piece using this link: www.webworm.co/p/downwardspiral2 — please do.
Again — thank you to those who spoke to me.
You are brave, you are bold.
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