Discover more from Webworm with David Farrier
Tracking Your Soul To Heaven
Arise Church boasts 10,000 members. Most of them don't know their personal details are being kept in a database and used to keep them in line
It appears we’ve survived another week. Congratulations. I’m glad you liked my conversation with Louis Theroux about his “jiggle jiggle” rap — I think we can all agree Louis gets better and better with age.
I’m still partly in disbelief at the internal FAQ document distributed to Arise Church staff, making it clear that founder John Cameron intends to come back and return to leading the church — despite it being clear he’s been well aware of the various abuses taking part under his watch.
(The Arise Board still refuses to acknowledge the existence of that document, or tell Webworm who was behind it. Their official line on John’s future is much more vague).
Most leaders in John’s position would have resigned right now — but John is in an interesting position, as he’s the founder of a megachurch. He’s in the business of making money and saving souls — and that means that all kinds of behaviour can be justified for the greater good.
And for Arise, the greater good is quite literally making sure humans’ souls get to heaven for all eternity. Which brings us to today’s newsletter.
I think a lot of people look at the size of a megachurch like Arise — with 10,000 members spread out across 12 churches — and assume it’s purely a money grab, or some kind of grift.
While I have very little doubt money is a giant motivator (who doesn’t like living in a nice house and driving a nice car?) I also think people like John Cameron — and his brother Brent — genuinely believe they are saving souls.
When they get a new university student coming up to the front to dedicate their lives to Jesus at the “altar call” (as dramatic music swells from the band on stage), it’s one more person not destined for the fiery pits of hell.
The constant need for more money — coupled with an urgency to save souls from eternal damnation — motivates the massive growth and “anything it takes” attitude of church’s like Arise. It helps explain why so much abhorrent behaviour has been allowed to take place, often in plain sight. Why it’s been treated as a kind of normal.
But saving a soul comes with a problem, too. Once a soul is saved, you have to keep it saved. For every new member that signs up to Arise’s form of Christianity, you have to make sure they stay on the straight and narrow. You have to keep them saved.
How does one track the status of 10,000 souls?
When you’re Arise, you track their every move on a giant database called Flocks.
Herding the Sheep
“Until recently, I was a member of Arise Church and I was in a couple of low level leadership positions in the church,” says Tom. “We were already considering leaving, but your reporting of the heartbreaking stories and the toxic culture that we had only seen glimpses of tipped us over the edge and we left.”
One of the elements they’d been uncomfortable with was Arise’s Church database, “Flocks”.
Whenever a new person comes to an Arise service, they are invited to fill out a hard copy or online “new person form”, with the stated intent that a pastor or leader can be in touch.
From there, they’re told about activities and guided on a journey into the church. But the details they filled out on that form get entered into a centralised database called Flocks.
“Most members are completely unaware of the existence of [Flocks] and certainly haven’t consented to being entered into it.
Flocks records everything. Contact details, familial relationships with links to other database records, friends, life groups attended — with session by session with dates — courses attended and teams served on with dates, conversation dates with pastors, group membership, and services attended.”
The stated aim of Flocks is to make sure everyone is linked in, no one is lost or drifts away without feeling noticed or wanted.
What Flocks is actually used for is to generate numbers and data which is then broadcasted in services: how many people in life groups, how many volunteers serve on teams.”
Church members are tracked and monitored, so that if they begin to exhibit signs they might be leaving — they can be stopped.
“There was an incident where I saw a spreadsheet of people in Flocks for the whole city who had not attended a life group for the month.
It was posted to all life group leaders and included names, contact details and which life groups they had missed — including personal challenges like addiction support.”
Tom says all this information is used to keep members in line, and that practice is broadly accepted by senior church leadership. He recalls that someone questioned the amount of information on Flocks, and how it was being used. They were quickly shut down.
“It was pointed out by someone that Flocks contained huge amounts of information being used and shared in a way that was not consistent with the reason it was collected, without the knowledge or consent of those on the list.
It was discussed that if people knew their data was being used in this way they might be shocked and hurt. It appeared to be an enormous breach of privacy.
This was disregarded.”
Tom says in the church’s eyes, members’ “consent” is first gained when they enter their contact details, even if that’s done for the express purpose of being contacted by someone in the church.
The Spam List From Hell
Lucy is another church member who had access to Flocks — and says she felt the system extended far beyond anything churchgoers would ever assume it was used for.
“The Flocks system is more creepy than it sounds: every person is categorised by their ‘status’ relative to the church — are they currently attending, a ‘potential’ member, or are the on the ‘fringe’ — a metric of their involvement.
Every Arise staff member and intern has access to this massive database, which never gets purged.
If you attended Arise and filled out a ‘get to know you’ card for visitors to “help connect you”, or if you just met a leader and gave them your number — you’re in the Flocks system forever.”
“Forever” may not be entirely accurate — but the sentiment is. I talked to another former church member familiar with the system, who told me removing people from the system is not a priority. Getting them to stay at Arise is.
“When people would leave the church their details are not immediately deleted, but rather go into a list where a pastor or leader of some sort — usually an intern — would have to call them and to try to get you to stay.
The only way to get your details off the database is if the pastor removes them.”
Lucy says the database is used constantly.
“Interns and staff members use the database to essentially stalk their prey.
Anyone on the fringe — or seen as not committing enough time — gets a phone call from a pastor, essentially trying to get them to get involved in volunteering or life group leading.
You have to say no a hundred times for them to stop calling.”
It’s like being on the spam call list from hell — something Lucy herself only realised when she found herself on the receiving end of the Flocks system.
“For months and months after I had suffered a serious concussion — which took 11 months to resolve — I was called asking if I could volunteer, despite me explaining multiple times to people why my involvement had dropped.”
Trent was a life group leader at Arise — looking after a small group of church members — and told me Flocks used a traffic light system.
“If the congregant was in red, they hadn’t attended church for a while, if they were orange they were not attending regularly and if they were green they were regularly attending and participating in church.
The insinuation was that leaders should try and move their reds and oranges to green. This could be through texting, coffee catch-ups, conversations and phone calls.
Information was also used in other ways. Leaders were aware of who had signed up to conferences - this allowed leaders to encourage those who were not signed up to sign up. [Conferences were a] massive time commitment and pretty expensive.”
I reached out to Gehan Gunasekara, an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland and head of the New Zealand Privacy Foundation. I asked what he made of all this.
“My main concern is lack of transparency and potential for inappropriate access or use. Aggregated data is okay — and not covered by privacy law — however, what troubles me is that purposes for which information is collected may not be being made clear.
My main concern is potential for secondary use — innocent information [...] used to exert inappropriate pressure.”
Throughout my reporting on Arise it’s struck me that privacy isn’t exactly this church’s main priority.
I think of all the stories I’ve heard now about “uplining” — where intensely personal information like a sexual assault or rape is shared with other Arise staff up the pecking order, with no permission from the victims required, or even cared for.
When your priority is making a lot of money and saving souls, then maybe privacy is merely a fleeting thought in the grand scale of things. The logic must go: “So what if revealing information is shared, if it means that person keeps tithing to us, and as a bonus gets to spend an eternity in heaven?”
It’s all for the greater good: Keeping people’s moral life in order, so they can retain that place in heaven (while you retain plenty of money on earth, of course).
I think Arise Church has a similar attitude to the information found in Flocks.
As long as people keep coming back to Arise, and that income keeps flowing in, privacy be damned.
It’s all in the name: Flocks is a reminder that to Arise, members are merely sheep; and to be treated as such. They’re there to be herded by ‘shepherds’ like pastor John Cameron and his team, unaware of the larger systems at work keeping them fenced in.
PS: I reached out to the New Zealand Privacy Commission — Acting Privacy Commissioner Liz MacPherson got back in touch with this:
The Privacy Act applies to Arise Church as it does to any organisation holding people’s personal information.
The key thing is that Arise Church should ensure that people are aware of what personal information they are collecting about them and what it is being used for. They should only use it for the purpose they have collected it.
People have the right to access the personal information Arise Church — or any organisation — holds about them, and to correct anything when necessary. If people are not provided with this information within 20 working days or are not confident that what they are provided with is complete, they can make a complaint to us.
The easiest way for people to contact us is via our website.
You can read all my Arise Church coverage here. It’s all kept free, thanks to paying subscribers who support this work. If you haven’t signed up already and want to (and it doesn’t cause you any financial hardship, you can do so here. Thanks!