Webworm Goes Behind the Scenes as John Cameron Attempts a Comeback
Inside the "revival" of former Arise leader John Cameron.
While I wait for my spine to magically heal (and encounter the fucked up American healthcare system firsthand) I had some extra time up my sleeve, so recorded today’s newsletter as a podcast. So you can listen, or read.
If you didn’t get the memo, I’m pretty fascinated by how modern Christianity works — especially the pentecostal and evangelical side of things. I think you are, too, going on the discussion under ‘Why Are So Many “Christians” Hellbent on Being Horrible?’ (Thanks by the way, I love reading your insights).
Why do I keep being sucked down this wormhole?
I grew up experiencing parts of this world, so I identify with it. I understand it, and feel it gives me a better ability to write about it.
During the pandemic, as I wrote at length about conspiracy theory culture, I saw it fuse with pentecostal and evangelical messaging — and this fascinated me also.
Being in the United States at the moment — I can see the power that 25% evangelical/pentecostal base has here. It’s crazy to watch unfold.
And yeah, point number four:
Arise Church came blasting into my life — the antics of New Zealand’s biggest megachurch (at the time) taking up a lot of my headspace. Webworm documented John Cameron’s ego project — which eventually came crumbling down as John Cameron resigned, disgraced — and moved to Australia.
Of course — it was never going to be over for him.
And so myself and co-writer Hayden Donnell have been keeping an eye on John Cameron. We’ve been doing this because like the Arise reporting, he’s a perfect case study in how these churches, and their leaders, work.
While the story of Arise and John Cameron is a very specific New Zealand story — it’s also the story of all big megachurches and what we can expect.
So today, from Hayden, an update on John Cameron.
In the name of journalism, Hayden sacrificed his time and sanity by attending a meeting of around 40 to 50 youth leaders and pastors gathered to listen to the comeback of one John Cameron. Who is now ‘Apostle’ John Cameron, by the way.
Pour yourself a cup of tea, a can of Monster Energy, or a glass of warm milk — whatever helps you cope with stepping back into this world.
A night of vision and ministry with Apostle John Cameron
by Hayden Donnell.
John Cameron is fiddling with his phone as shouts emanate from the stage at Encounter Church. Only minutes ago he was prophesying. Now he’s texting.
“Release it right now”, comes the cry from the church’s host pastor pacing above him. The yelling gets louder as John hits send. “In Jesus name, God let there be an unlocking around the prophetic anointing.” John doesn’t look up. His wife Gillian moves over and puts an arm around him, as if to remind him to pay more attention to the sovereign movement of the Holy Spirit supposedly playing out metres away. He puts the phone back in his pocket and stares ahead as the service comes to a close.
The last time Cameron spoke at a New Zealand church, he blubbed his way through a defence of the culture of abuse and exploitation he allowed to fester at the church he founded, Arise. “We have clarified many systems, and improved significantly,” he stammered as emotional keyboard music played in the background.
A damning report and a resulting employment dispute later, he jetted off to Australia in search of people who hadn’t seen him on the news.
Cameron may have been wounded by the combustion of Arise, but Pentecostal pastors are a fraternity, and it’s hard to keep them down for long.
Tasmanian Senator Andrew Wilkie recently tabled 18 folders of leaked Hillsong financial documents in the Australian Parliament. They show Hillsong’s Brian Houston engaging in a kind of money-go-round with pastors like Cameron and Life Church’s Paul de Jong, where they speak at each others’ churches in exchange for “honorariums”.
One year, Cameron is paid $10,000 for speaking at Hillsong. A few years later, he returns the favour, with Arise delivering a $25,000 honorarium to Houston. The money goes into these pastors’ “ministerial funds”, or as they’re sometimes known, personal bank accounts.
It’s easy to see how this kind of lucrative favours system could be a lifeline for a disgraced pastor. Since leaving the country, Cameron seems to have grabbed hold of that line, adopting the new title ‘apostle’, and giving sermons at charismatic churches across Australia and the United States.
Encounter Church is his first New Zealand appearance since his induction into the apostolic order. He’s meant to be speaking to an audience of youth pastors and leaders, though Webworm is also in the audience, disguised under the name Benny Radich*.
It’s billed as a night of “breakthrough”, where attendees will receive a message from God. Despite the big promises, Cameron’s a little bashful. “Just call me John by the way. I’m a bit freaked out by the whole apostle thing,” he tells the assembled leaders and Webworm writers. “I’m not looking for new things for people to have fodder with. So just keeping it plain and vanilla is good with me.”
So far, so futile. But Cameron didn’t get this far by being bad at his job. His message is on Genesis 28, where Jacob meets with God in the perfect location for a meeting with God — a dream — and it’s slick.
He oscillates between loud vocal dramatics and soft-spoken faux-profundity. Most of it sounds anodyne. But if you read between the lines, you see hints of why Arise got as bad as it did; why so much pain was inflicted in the name of Jesus.
The first clues come as Cameron speaks on “encounters” with God. “When you’ve been in an encounter it literally will change everything about your life. You'll never be the same again,” he says. One encounter may change your life, but confusingly Cameron says you also need to have another every few weeks or so.
He’s relentlessly devoted to facilitating encounters, and he can’t hide his frustration with the people who stand in the way of his mission. “The greatest tension of my years of ministry has been to wrestle for an appropriate level of condemnation in environments where people have no desire, no hunger, for God to lead them,” he says. “To find a way to challenge that without becoming so – out of desperation – perhaps angered by that.”
In reality, encounters with God are a human endeavour, built on a perfectly calibrated concoction of music, preaching, and lighting. They’re dozens of moving parts working to manipulate a congregation into a peak emotional experience. God demands perfection, or he doesn’t show. In those conditions, mistakes take on divine significance, and are punishable by holy wrath.
Elijah** was producing an Arise conference when he made one of those mistakes, and came face to face with Cameron as he wrestled for that elusive “appropriate level of condemnation”, and became “perhaps angered”. This is how he described the experience to Webworm last year:
“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.”
One of the most pernicious things about megachurches, and one reason why they’re such a fruitful hunting ground for abusers, is that bullies and frauds can palm off their greed, manipulation and abusive behaviour onto Jesus.
If you screw up, you’re not letting down a small man with a God complex, you’re letting down God himself. If you have doubts, you’re not seeing through a barely papered over slime pit of corruption, you’re insufficiently filled with the Spirit.
Or as Cameron tells the youth leaders: “When you're in the presence of God, nothing else matters. You can’t hang on to hurts and offences if you’re in a real move of God.”
The things that don’t matter include “fun, travel, experiences, and lifestyle”. They include anything apart from the work people are doing for “eternity”, which in the case of Cameron’s former congregation often meant cleaning his house, or chauffeuring his car around town.
“Do you want to arrive to the gates of heaven saying ‘I'm so glad I got to go to Paris before I made it here? I'm so grateful that I got to reduce my work hours, all the way down to 40 or 30, I'm ready to enter into heaven now’,” he says. “None of these things will matter in the light of eternity.”
Arise’s victims couldn’t raise their hurts or offences. There was no room for them. Its interns couldn’t complain about their work exceeding 30, 40 or 80 hours a week. They were doing it all for God.
Recovering Pentecostals have a term for this: toxic positivity. Theirs is a movement built on encounter after breakthrough after anointing; one constitutionally incapable of dealing with the kind of brokenness that doesn’t get fixed in the course of one well-played worship song.
So it’s a little jarring to hear negativity creeping into Cameron’s night of vision and ministry. The gloom is subtle, always raised in euphemism, but it’s unmistakable. Before the service even begins, some people mill around outside. “The whole ride over here I was like ‘I dunno, shall we just go home?’,” one says.
As the sermon gets underway, Cameron reminisces nostalgically about a time 30 years ago when a camp speaker was “slain in the Spirit” during a pre-service prayer. He’s desperate for a “revival”. He’s worried about people being fearful in “the culture”.
Later, Gillian will turn to the parable of the sower as she imparts a word “from the Holy Spirit” to a pastor, aligning him with the farmer throwing seeds into what the Bible calls “rocky places”. “You’ve been planting seeds, you’ve been saying words, but the ground's been hard,” she says.
There’s a whiff of failure in the air.
If the Pentecostal church isn’t yet in terminal decline, it’s certainly not reaching the heights it once did. Heaven is getting further and further away.
Perhaps that’s because so much of its core product is total bullshit.
Pentecostalism’s unique selling proposition is miracles, and Cameron is nothing if not a salesman. When he’s finished preaching, he tells the crowd to speak in tongues. “We’re all leaders here, we all know how to pray,” he says.
The room erupts in unintelligible gibberish. Tongues are meant to be the language of angels. Either angels don’t know many words, or they repeat themselves often. People are saying the same phrases over and over again. Most of them sound like they’ve instructed an AI to invent a language that’s both utterly nonsensical and vaguely Arabic.
Cameron says ‘ba’ and ‘ma’ a lot. “Oooh ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma baila bailability,” he says. “Yaba baba ba ba ba ba ba.”
Tongues give way to prophecy. Again it’s cheap tricks and delusion. Cameron plays the mid-level hypnotist. He keeps his eyes open as he prays over people, scanning them for signs of emotion and pressing on if he sees a response.
Sometimes the cold reads are a bit offensive. When a young Pasifika man comes up, it sounds like Cameron is grasping for stereotypes as he describes the areas where the man might be influential. “I feel like God said to me the field of sport, and the field of, um, kind of like culture and entertainment,” he says, uncertainly.
It doesn’t feel like that room 30 years ago, when the Holy Spirit knocked a camp speaker straight on his back. Cameron’s still trying to slay people in the Spirit, but it feels forced.
He blows into his microphone like Benny Hinn to give them a cue to collapse into the waiting arms of specially assigned catchers.
Before he finally gives up and goes on his phone, he rests against the stage as his wife takes over. Gillian prays passionately over a youth leader, trying to command a response.
“Let faith arise. Let faith arise. Let faith arise” she cries.
The leader is supposed to fall backwards. But he can’t quite summon the emotion. He stumbles politely and resumes his footing. Gillian moves on. The Camerons are still here, but their seeds seem to be falling on hard ground. The magic, or as they would put it, the Spirit, is almost gone.
*Named after my dead cat and the first vegetable I thought of. I panicked okay.
David here again.
I can’t say I’m entirely sad that John’s comeback tour in New Zealand is limping. I find it heartening that the environment that made him thrive is not as strong as it once was.
People are sort of catching on.
My friend across the ditch Marc Fennell released a documentary about Hillsong last week called The Kingdom. A lot of people watched it. People are increasingly sensing the bullshit.
“Oooh ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma baila bailability” ain’t cutting it as easily as it once did.
Perhaps young people are not being trapped as easily. Perhaps, one day, this world of Pentecostal smoke and mirrors will just end. That will be a good day.
See you in the comments,