The Downward Spiral of Arise Church: Part I
How New Zealand’s largest megachurch lost its way
As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been writing a lot about megachurches lately. This has always been an element to Webworm, as the relationship between megachurches and conspiracy theory culture fascinates me.
That said, when I started writing about Arise — New Zealand’s biggest megachurch — I didn’t intend to do three pieces about it.
I’d like to thank those who had the courage to reach out to me.
I’ve spent the last week or so mostly just reading new emails, and talking to former and current members of Arise Church. If you messaged me, I hope my replies were sensitive. I’ve never felt like such a bungling idiot behind my keyboard or on a Zoom screen. Your letters were eloquent and expressive. My replies to you felt weak in comparison.
I’d also like to express my deep admiration for your actions. When your entire life and self-worth has been wrapped up in an institution — getting out is hard, as is talking about what happened to you. Especially when people you care about are still in the system. I’m grateful you’ve trusted me with your stories.
An important note: This piece discusses emotional and physical abuse that may be distressing for some people. Take care.
For anyone that wants to contact me in confidence, I am always firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally — this Webworm isn’t behind a paywall and is sharable. Please share it: www.webworm.co/p/downwardspiral
Inside a Sick Culture at Arise Church
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.
In October last year I got an email from Daniel:
“John [Cameron] and Arise leadership goes to great lengths to stop things publicly coming to light, especially things that would inhibit people’s giving. He’s very conscious about what draws attention from the media and is smart about avoiding the limelight.”
That was six months ago. Since then I’ve kept in touch with Dan, who was incredibly cagey about talking. There was a lot of WhatsApp and a lot of fear. Dan told me that NDAs had been signed by various church members. Money had been paid out in settlements.
Dan had been quiet for some time, but when I published “Hillsong Isn’t the Only Abhorrent Megachurch” last week, he got back in touch.
“After reading the stories of other ex-interns who have come forward, I’ve found the courage to speak about my personal experience of Arise.”
We exchanged more WhatsApp messages, emails and calls. And then Dan started to tell his story.
“As I write this letter, I fight back tears having to revisit the traumatic three years of my life as a part of the Arise internship slash ministry school. The impact of being in this dysfunctional and highly manipulative environment has been devastating to my mental health and identity. The memories I have are very traumatic. I have spent tens of thousands on counselling and been diagnosed with depression which is undoubtedly attributed to the years as a part of this environment.
My goal with this is nothing more than to give a transparent account of what the experience of an intern can be. I hope that young people who were once in my place will be able to make a more educated decision and see things for what they truly are.”
Dan tells me he started attending Arise when he was 17. He describes himself as an ordinary teenager with various insecurities. He says he was attracted to Arise’s youth ministry by the loud music, big crowds and those he perceived at the time as “cool” people. They put on big concert-like events, had international speakers, and had giveaways and prizes.
He attended Friday night events for about six months before getting more involved. A youth pastor suggested he should get involved in leadership.
“I was told I had ‘lots of potential’, that ‘I was the future of the church’ and ‘I had a real gift of leadership’. Looking back on this I can see how easily manipulated I was.”
As he began to get involved in youth leadership, he was shoulder-tapped for the internship programme.
“This was made out to be this amazing opportunity that only a handful of people get selected for. There is a big application process, interviews and ‘only the best make it through’. They showed videos of the interns having so much fun serving God, growing their leadership skills and spending lots of time with the pastors. As a young 18-year-old, this was really appealing.”
Dan says he spoke with his parents about this opportunity. They had reservations, and told him as much.
“The youth pastor told me that my parents wouldn’t understand because they’re not Christians and he could now take the role of the father figure in my life. Arise intentionally tries to limit the influence people outside of church have on you.”
Dan started his internship.
“For context, you agree to pay the church around $2500 per year to volunteer four days a week, and work a separate job to afford to live two days a week. At the time I was making $250 a week — $225 after the tithe — before tax, working at a cafe.
These four days of voluntary work are spent serving in an area of church under a paid pastor. The pastor will oversee your workload. Roles that you are assigned will be anything from cleaning the toilets, washing John Cameron’s car, buying the pastors coffees, right through to calling people who attended church for the first time and helping set up church venues.
These jobs are all justified because it’s “making a difference in people’s lives”. You are encouraged if you complete these jobs with “a spirit of excellence” ; however you are publicly grilled and embarrassed if you don’t meet the pastors’ expectations.”
Sunday was the main work day for paying volunteers. Dan’s story echoes many of those told in my last piece. His day would begin at 4am setting up the church venue (these things are like full concerts, more akin to a touring band coming to town than your typical church service).
The final service would end at 7:30pm and then packdown would begin. This would finish around midnight.
“The longer you are in this environment the more the pastors attempt to manipulate you and exploit your time and free labor. They use biblical reasoning to justify you doing the most obscure things.
It is common for the pastors — especially John Cameron — to expect you to give up your days off each week to help them on their property.
I would often be expected to go to a pastor’s house to help them with painting and renovating or moving house. You would be one of 10 to 15 church volunteers working all day.
I worked on John Cameron’s garden on several occasions, trimming his hedges, digging holes, seeding his grass and mowing his lawns, all while he was inside the house “working on his Sunday message”. Obviously this was all done without pay because “God would see the sacrifice I was making”.
The pastors created a culture where it was seen as an incredible privilege to get to do personal work for them. Never once did I question doing work for John — or the other pastors — because I was gaining so much favor with them and as an 18 year old, this was what I wanted.
I’ve heard this from other interns that contacted Webworm. They were asked to help out in John’s garden, or clean indoors. Some helped when John moved house.
Dan said he would also be expected to act as chauffeur and babysitter to John and Gillian’s children.
“Throughout these three years there were a few massive red flags that I wish I had spoken about at the time.”
Okay, here things escalate a little.
Emotional and physical abuse at Arise Church
John Cameron is the leader of Arise Church. But the church is also a family affair, as his wife Gillian is deeply involved, as is his brother Brent.
Dan goes on:
“John and his brother Brent would often very aggressively punch or dead leg you, for no other reason than it being funny. This was normalised because it was done in good faith and was a sign that they liked you.
I remember one specific time Brent punched me in the ribs so hard that I thought I had broken my ribs for the days that followed. Brent was also notorious for farting in his hand and putting it in your face.”
I imagine in John and Brent’s minds, it would have just been schoolboy shit; guys joshing around, having a good time. A fart here, a dead leg there.
But these are adults running one of New Zealand’s largest megachurches, and one that appears to aggressively target youth for membership, money and time. The people on the receiving end of those dead legs and farts looked up to them, and didn’t always see what was happening as just harmless fun.
Even if some exchanges were seen as juvenile, others clearly strayed beyond that, and into what several current and former Arise members see as emotional and physical abuse.
“I personally witnessed John very aggressively grab another staff member by the collar. John is a very aggressive leader who has a temper… it doesn’t take much for him to absolutely blow up at you and make you feel like shit, not to mention completely embarrassed. People overlooked this behavior because ‘it’s a righteous anger’.”
I talked to other former members — including those in leadership roles — that witnessed various outbursts from John Cameron behind the scenes.
Elijah would often work alongside John, producing the service on Sundays. He was a “point-man”, compiling the run sheets, facilitating communication between the production team, creative team and people on stage.
“Once, while producing at a conference, I gave the five minute cue on John’s morning session ten minutes early. This came about because of a discrepancy between the conference programme and the runsheet we were working from. John had a grand vision of a big altar call, where the house lights would be turned off and everyone would raise their glowing phones; a climactic moment I unwittingly sabotaged by signalling early.
Afterwards, backstage, he grabbed me by the collar, aggressive and angry, and told me I had prevented a move of God in Wellington. His nickname for me throughout the following month was the time I had made the signal. Something like ‘10:52’. That was his name for me.”
Elijah later left the church and feels his experience has permanently affected his quality of life.
“I’m now in my mid-thirties, very poor, single, with messed up ideas of what it means to be part of a community, to work under authority and leadership, or have true friends.
I live alone in substandard illegal housing, and fear running into old acquaintances who all once had high expectations of what I would achieve in life.
How did I end up like this? I often wonder what went wrong, and I believe the warped theology I received during five pivotal years at Arise put me on an unproductive and unfruitful path. I was destabilised, brainwashed into being foolishly loyal, and I made life-altering decisions that I have not been able to recover from.”
Like Elijah, Dan also ended up walking away.
“After finishing my three years of internship I slowly drifted from Arise and began to see things for what they truly were. As I began to speak with close friends about my concerns about the environment, I was shunned from Arise pretty instantaneously.
People were told not to spend time with me because I was “leading them away from the church” and I was told I could no longer attend events. In short, I was used for what I could offer and the moment I had no more value to add, I joined the long list of interns and staff members who ‘needed to get over their hurt’.”
Dan left in 2018.
“Looking back on my time at Arise I can’t understand how much of this behavior is normalised. If I could go back in time, there is so much I wish I could have changed.”
He thinks back to how he got involved in the church: those flashy lights and giveaways. He thinks back to how he started running those events himself. From the outside, he looks back with remorse.
“The core reason for all these things is to lure young, vulnerable people along and to get them involved. When a person is young and hasn’t fully developed their values, they are easily influenced and can be hooked for life.”
A Family Affair: Webworm reaches out to John and Brent Cameron
Webworm talked to a number of former Arise members who raised concerns about the behaviour of John Cameron and his brother Brent.
Webworm understands at least two church members have signed NDAs and been paid out to resolve disputes.
Webworm reached out to John and Brent individually about the allegations in this story. John never replied, and Brent said “At present the Arise Board are working towards providing a response”.
That response arrived at 5.20pm yesterday, via Kingdom PR:
“Your email on the 12th April 2022 outlined a number of historical allegations and grievances made against Arise Church as an organisation, its culture and its staff. We also are aware that there are others that you have accumulated and have not communicated to us.
As a Governing Board we are deeply saddened by the width and depth of these statements and are taking the matter seriously. The truth is some people have been left hurt and disillusioned, and that is not acceptable and contrary to the Christian message we believe in.
We apologise unreservedly for the pain and suffering some staff and volunteers have encountered at Arise Church in the past, as it has pursued its calling and its goals.
In retrospect, it is sadly acknowledged that at times the pace, the culture and the expectations have been unnecessarily demanding or aggressive.
In the past few years there has been significant reflection on and changes made to the Leadership expectation on staff, ministry school attendees and volunteers.
Last year the Board was made aware of some non-verifiable allegations. In December 2021, the Arise Board approached a New Zealand law firm to conduct an independent HR review, including the Executive and Board practices for dealing with complaints. The Terms of Reference and Engagement was agreed on March 16 2022.
The review will start after Easter. The Board welcomes a full enquiry and is asking those who have been affected negatively by Arise, staff, or its members to approach the independent reviewer as the correct channel for making a complaint.”
The independent reviewer is Pathfinding, a company that provides services to charitable organisations including strategic planning, and critical response management.
“In relation to the specific allegations you have raised, we are unable to comment further at this time except to say the process of investigation has begun using the required principles of natural justice and employment law compliance, and for privacy obligations we cannot comment further.”
Essentially, they didn’t answer any of Webworm’s questions about this piece — citing their ongoing review as a reason not to comment on anything specific. Following their reply to Webworm they also put out a press release, saying: “Due to these allegations, Arise is undertaking a full and complete response.”
Earlier in the day, Brent Cameron set his Instagram account to private.
His email now returns an out-of-office response:
Thank you for your email. I am currently on annual leave until April 29.
I will not be accessing email during this time. For urgent assistance please contact email@example.com. I will reply to all other emails on my return.
Come As You Are
As I wrote earlier this week, John Cameron and Arise church engaged public relations firm Kingdom PR approximately nine days after I sent my first Arise newsletter out.
Kingdom PR wrote to me on April 10:
“My name is Hannah — I have been asked to help with ARISE's media relations (as of last night). I want to assure you that I now have your original email and am currently coordinating an urgent response for you — it will be with you tomorrow.”
That response arrived on April 11, which you can read in full here.
John told me that “to hear experiences where people have felt negatively impacted by Arise is devastating.”
“As a leadership we have been working to understand these stories and what has led to this hurt.
We can now say people have stories that are real and authentic, and there are people hurting because of the actions and culture that was a part of Arise.
As the leader of Arise, I am personally broken by the stories and I want to say I am deeply sorry.
We are going to listen and learn. Since your article myself and the leadership team have been reviewing the information.
We have sought advice from an independent body to guide the church on next steps and have appointed an independent reviewer to confidentially hear people’s stories, and to make recommendations to our Board and leadership team for the purpose of organisational change.
Separate from an independent reviewer, Arise has engaged an HR review by an external party to review the Arise Ministry School, which will commence after Easter.”
Webworm has asked Kingdom PR for further details on the “external party” carrying out the HR review, but they did not supply this information.
Arise also issued a public press release on their website: “Arise appoints independent review in response to students’ ministry school experiences” — leaving an Arise Church email address to contact if anyone wanted to talk to them. They posted the statement on their Instagram and Facebook, but locked the comments.
I would note that while the press release refers to the Ministry School, my piece was not focussed on the Ministry School — prior pieces and today’s story involve volunteers, staff, and congregation members, too.
Webworm has also viewed emails from interns to John and Gillian Cameron expressing concerns about burnout and exhaustion as far back as 2016. This is not new information for them.
While reading these statements from John and the Arise board, my mind turned to another ex-Arise member I’d been speaking to.
Rachel started volunteering at Arise as an 18 year old in 2003, just after beginning university in a new town. By 2007 she had done an internship program, and was employed the following year.
Rachel filled a variety of positions at the Church. “I have witnessed its growth, its cultural shifts. I have seen people come and go. I have worked closely with John & Gillian, and all the other people closely associated with them,” she told me.
She resigned in 2015, following a mental breakdown.
It was her first time away from the church in 12 years.
She returned to volunteering four months later — and remained: Until she left for good in June last year.
Rachel says at Arise, image is everything.
“John cares very much about image. Clothes, body shape, youth. He wants people on stage or featured in marketing material to be trendy, young, good looking.
About 10 years ago John met with me to speak to me about my clothing style and weight — which was healthy, by the way.
As I was the “lead worship leader” at Arise, John felt I would have more influence and make a greater impact for God if I lost some weight and dressed better. He even said he felt like he and Gillian should pay for me to embark on a shakes diet.
A couple of years after this, John said he felt God told him the church should pay for a gym membership for me.
I met with John in 2016 to let him know the emotional damage that had been done from his asking and implying I lose weight and shrink my — already healthy — body.
I mentioned I had, like many women, struggled with body image and disordered eating throughout my teens and twenties. He offered no apology, and just said if he had known of my struggles with body image he wouldn’t have said anything in the first place.
On three separate occasions, right before the annual Arise Conference, John gave me money — from Arise — to purchase new clothes so I “looked the part” on stage.
I undertook my first shopping spree alone, and I can only guess John wasn’t too impressed by my wardrobe choices, because the second occasion I was given clothes money, he suggested I take someone with me.
I think he probably still wasn’t happy with my choices after this, because on the third occasion he met with my best friend — who has also since left Arise — and told her she needed to go shopping with me and “sign off” on everything I bought.”
Rachel says that 18 years in the church, largely under the control and pressure of its leadership, left her a different person.
“What I wish I could convey — which a few stories can’t do — is how John managed to dismantle my personhood, and the personhood of many others.
To this day I feel myself kick into fight or flight mode just at the thought of seeing him. I felt unable to think for myself in his presence, going along with whatever he said whether or not it aligned with what I truly valued.
I don’t trust myself — even now, as a 37-year-old woman — to be able to think for myself should I find myself in a room with him.”
Rachel takes a moment.
“I am not here to tear John down. I don’t believe he started Arise to exploit or wound people, or even to create an empire for himself. I don’t even think he is in this for the money specifically.
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.
In Rachel’s eyes, John Cameron’s first concern is keeping up appearances, and that means keeping a lid on the trouble bubbling away inside his leadership team, and his congregation.
It means ignoring the people getting hurt, or even actively suppressing their stories.
That tendency to ignore the bad and focus on the good was evident in how Cameron initially reacted to my reporting.
Before he hired Kingdom PR, or sent out any media responses, his only response was a vague Instagram post:
And so a story about his Instagram seemed a fitting way to end this piece. It’s something Trent observed after one of John Cameron’s sermons.
“John preached for about 40 minutes on the peril of social media, how it’s distorting young people’s sense of self-worth, driving a vain hopelessness as we all try to live up to this impossibly filtered version of reality — instead of just being who God commanded us to be.
It seemed to resonate with a lot of the crowd, with an altar-call at the end resulting in hundreds of teary-eyed teens rushing to the front in response to a call for prayer.
I stood off to the side of the stage, watching this happen. John finished his talk, walked off the platform, and stopped to pull out his phone and open Instagram. He quickly tapped on the ‘photos you’re tagged in’ tab, and scrolled through dozens of photos others had uploaded of him giving his talk just moments before.
He hurriedly checked each of the relevant hashtags, scrolling vigorously past anything that wasn't a photo of himself, pinching, and zooming, and squinting for a better view of how he looked in any of the images captured. He tapped and scrolled and approvingly ‘liked’ a few, wincing at the less flattering angles some of the attendees had captured of an impassioned speaker mid-flight.
After several minutes passed, he soon realised he was standing amongst the growing crowd of young people who had rushed to the front for prayer. Without putting his phone away, he laid one hand on the shoulders of a few people in prayer, as he continued to vapidly scroll the endless stream of his own reflection in the other.
The hypocrisy of that moment has never left me.”
At the end of it all, there’s John, looking through his personal social media, checking how many people are following and liking him, neglecting the needs of the young people that are supposed to be in his care.
-Additional reporting by Hayden Donnell
You can read the second part to this story here: The Downward Spiral of Arise Church: Part II — Assault and Abuse at Arise Church.
As always — thanks for reading, and thankyou for your support.