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The Holy Hell of New Zealand’s Biggest Pentecostal Megachurches
When it comes to Aotearoa’s biggest churches, Arise wasn’t an aberration: it was the norm.
After writing about the hideous cesspit that was Arise Church, I also found myself sitting on about 300 pages of emails sent to me from victims of New Zealand’s other big megachurches. My aim was to dive into those as soon as possible.
Months went by, and I couldn’t really muster up the the energy and resources I needed to do the story justice.
But then I saw a photo on Instagram, and it all flooded back, and I realised that this needed action.
So here we go.
Certain names have been changed to protect people’s privacy.
Some of their stories may be distressing.
A few weeks ago, City Impact founder Peter Mortlock posted this picture to Instagram:
That’s Destiny Church founder Brian Tamaki, Mortlock, and Life Church founder Paul De Jong mugging for the camera on January 25 at an event called “Open Heaven” held at Spark Arena, a place often occupied by sinners like Taylor Swift, Guns N’ Roses and Rihanna.
Disappointingly, Heaven was not opened, but a bunch of New Zealand’s biggest pentecostal pastors gathered to talk about Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit.
You have probably already heard all you need to hear about Destiny Church — Tamaki has been covered extensively in the New Zealand press, most recently for doing online “research” which led him to blame porn use for the destruction and deaths caused by Cyclone Gabrielle.
But much like Arise, City Impact and Life church aren’t particularly well known outside of Christian circles, even though they’re bigger — with more members and locations than Destiny.
City Impact was founded in 1982 by Peter and Bev Mortlock. Their key North Shore campus seats 2000, and also features two childcare centres and a school. They have churches in Mt Wellington, Westgate, Botany, Hamilton, Christchurch, Queenstown, Invercargill and Balclutha.
They also claim to have 39 churches in India, four in Mexico, six in the Philippines, two in Tonga and one in Fiji. Their success is no coincidence: Mortlock says he has the gift of prophecy and predicting the future, though it seems like lately his forecasts have aligned closely with what every climate scientist in the world has been saying for decades.
Life Church was founded 32 years ago by Paul and Maree de Jong. They too claim a “prophetic edge” on their website, and their churches in Albany, Mt Eden, Westgate, Manukau, and Tauranga have a current weekend in-person attendance of around 7000. They also have churches in Melbourne and Adelaide.
I looked at these grinning old men and thought back more than a year ago, to when I first started reporting on megachurches.
After I published a series of stories about Brian Houston and Hillsong, people started messaging me about abuse they’d suffered at what they thought were houses of God. Many emails were about Arise, which emerged as a particularly dank cesspool of abuse and exploitation ruled by an egomaniac and his dead leg-dealing brother.
I spent most of the last year focused on those emails, but the messages weren’t all about John Cameron and his band of cackling goons. Others talked about stuff that happened to them at places like Life, City Impact, and other large pentecostal congregations. Many of their stories echoed those told by the members at Arise. It may have had a particularly bad case of the disease afflicting megachurches, but I never meant to say it was the only place infected.
These days John Cameron is over in Australia, trying to find a group of people who haven’t Googled his name, or at least don’t care what the search result throws up. Brent Cameron appears to have retreated to his $1.7 million Christchurch house or his $1.5 million Queenstown getaway.
But the leaders of those other churches are still here, posting cryptic tweets, selling their $10 million Coatesville mansions, and making scaremongering videos about trans people. But are their empires so different from those of the guys who’ve been forced out of their jobs in disgrace?
Soul Ties, Forever.
Webworm heard stories of sexual assault at multiple megachurches, not just Arise.
These assaults were allowed to take place in some cases because troubling power dynamics and even abuse was normalised. Several of the victims weren’t really aware that what they went through was wrong.
“Now that I look back, the input that church leadership have over the sex lives of young people is so strange. You can expect regular questioning about the intimate details of any physical contact. Shame is piled on in return for any answers. The culture of sex and shame within Christianity is a whole other thing,” one former member says.
Megan knows this all too well from her time attending Life church. When she first encountered Life she was 18 and a sex worker.
“They marketed themselves as a place of healing for the broken. They ran an outreach programme called Street Reach which, through websites and brochures and presentations, claimed to have changed the lives of dozens of prostituted women. They worked with drug addicts and the homeless. I felt hope. Maybe God could change my life.”
She goes on.
I was highly motivated to change my lifestyle, but the only support I knew how to reach out to was the church. The Christian community I was part of gave free weekly counselling via a church member with minimal training, where I disclosed that I had been a recent victim of a violent criminal sexual assault.
It felt vulnerable and frightening to share that. The church responded by standing me down from my volunteer role and advising me not to talk about the assault again, because it had occurred as a result of prostitution.
I now know that this silencing and victim-blaming response was an appalling failure for an organisation that claims to care for people, however at the time I felt that I deserved their blame. It would be another decade before I would find courage to speak of that assault again, realise that it wasn’t my fault, and finally engage the police.
The church’s next response was to put me through a programme called Cleansing Stream, designed to “disciple participants to receive healing and deliverance.” And when that didn’t work, they referred me to a residential girls’ home in Sydney which claimed to “change lives through the experience of God’s unconditional love, forgiveness, and life-transforming power.”
The girls’ home was later closed by the Australian Government for “misrepresenting that it offered professional support” and financial compensation was awarded to all residents. I gave all I had to these programmes, desperate to find a way out of the lifestyle I was trapped in.
Despite the church’s good intentions, their solutions lacked the professional and clinical support and insight that were needed to fix underlying childhood trauma. My life could have taken a very different trajectory if the church had simply recognised their own limitations and referred me to appropriate professional support. Instead, for me, their programmes did more harm than good.
Year after year I went into deliverance meetings desperate to be ‘transformed’, but when I failed to experience a ‘faith healing’ it was implied that my heart wasn’t in the right place – I hadn’t spent enough time in prayer or done the necessary preparation for God to heal me.
Year after year, I was left feeling shamed, inadequate, hopeless, and beyond help.
My church context also put a high emphasis on moral ‘purity’, especially in regard to girls’ clothing and body language, and elicited vows to avoid any kind of sexual exploration outside marriage. My entire worldview was tied to the religious belief that sexual purity correlates with worthiness and value.
The church also taught that I would be physically, emotionally and spiritually bound to anyone I had sex with — a construct known as ‘soul ties’.
As someone who had suffered sexual abuse and been forced into the unwanted sexual contact of prostitution, this culture was dangerous, harmful and stigmatising.
Sexual purity and purity culture is a huge part of these churches. Marriage is the only option, and in a marriage the man is in charge.
But that purity culture seems to bind women far more than men — particularly if the man in question is in a leadership position.
Tanya, a former City Impact member, also remembers what she now sees as a toxic kind of culture around dating, purity and marriage. Her relationship status was brought up several times from the pulpit.
I was part of the welcome team. One of the duties was standing at various points at the church with welcome packs and we would then hand them out to visitors. For some reason I was usually put at the front.
Peter [Mortlock] would always highlight me and say I was single and available. This would be in front of a congregation of between 500 to 1000 people. I would feel both utter embarrassment and frustration but also thrilled to be noticed by the senior pastor.
I look back now and I can see how out of order this is. But as an 18 year-old who had only grown up in this environment I didn’t understand how toxic this was. I was incredibly frustrated that worth was defined by my relationship status.
Also the assumption that my relationship status was out of my control. What Peter didn’t know was I was choosing not to date guys from City Impact – for obvious reasons. But more importantly why was a senior pastor objectifying a teenager in front of a congregation.
Though Destiny, with its mostly Māori and Pasifika congregation, gets a lot of the media attention, many of New Zealand’s megachurches are in rich suburbs and made up primarily of Pākehā worshippers. Non-white people who have tried to join them have described experiences ranging from insensitivity to flat-out racism.
Elizabeth started going to Life when she was seven years old. But an experience when she was a teenager in its youth group made her feel like she didn’t belong there, and that her culture was seen as little more than a punchline.
The youth decided to host a Bollywood vs Hollywood Ball. I was thrilled about this as it was an opportunity to wear a sari - something that felt familiar to me - and share this experience with my friends. My mother was also thrilled. She took the day off work, cooked some eggplant and beef curry and spent the afternoon dressing 12 of the friends I had invited in her beautiful saris. Morale was high – it finally felt like my diversity was being embraced.
As we pulled into the driveway of the megachurch, I quickly felt the morale and all my mother’s efforts unravel. The (white) youth pastor had painted his face, arms and feet brown. He was wearing a turban and saying “namaste.”
On the inside, I was gobsmacked. On the outside, I just laughed it off like every other person did, along with a sideways “thank you, come again” head nod. How could this youth pastor, someone I looked up to so much, take my culture, paint it on his face and then wash it off again in the shower? This blatant act of cultural (mis)appropriation confused me. I knew my place. To him, and to the church, my culture was not permanent. It was a gimmick, a joke.
The ball even had a Bollywood vs Hollywood dance off putting white and brown people against each other, and there was even some watered down butter chicken to cry over for dinner. The whole event was embarrassing, especially as I’d invited my school friends. As I sat there listening to white people dancing to Jai-Ho I wondered – why was the only person with South Asian heritage active in the youth group not consulted?
Elizabeth wrote a blog post about her memories of Life, and says she was blocked by the youth pastor on Instagram and unfriended on Facebook.
Webworm has viewed now deleted Instagram posts from Life’s youth branch, Epic Youth. The brownface incident appeared, as well as a “cross the border” game as part of a “Mexican Fiesta” event.
On these nights, youth were asked to dress up as Mexicans and leaders would be dressed as police officers. The game at this event involved youth climbing over palette walls, while the leaders would try to shoot them down with rubber guns. Webworm understands these ‘cross the border nights’ happened on several occasions.
While these churches preach inclusion, Māori culture can be the target of semi-conspiratorial rants from the stage. Over at City Impact, Peter Mortock regularly posts to his Instagram account rallying against what he sees as political correctness. “Let me speak on the thorny issue of language, and please don’t start throwing stones and calling me racist” he began on March 2.
In front of a sky-blue background, he speaks at length about the joys of preaching to those who don’t speak English (via a translator). He goes on to say, word-for-word, “some of my best friends are Māori” before rallying against the use of te reo Māori on New Zealand TV. “I think there is a political agenda to push the Māori language on the population,” Mortlock says.
“Take for example on the news, every segment on TV one they open with a Māori phrase, and then throw in this word and that word, and 90% of us are sitting there watching and don't know what they are saying.
“I am hearing in some places they are wanting white people to apologise for being white,” he says.
The first section of the Pathfinding report on Arise Church highlights racism. It says former staff were instructed to focus on “white kids” in their outreach. Māori people who came into the church felt they had to leave their culture at the door. Few non-Pākehā people were employed in prominent roles inside the church.
The ones that did make it on stage were sometimes belittled. Webworm heard from multiple people that John Cameron would repeatedly refer to a Sri Lankan member of staff as “our terrorist”. We understand several of those people spoke to Pathfinding.
At Life or City Impact, the racism may have taken different forms, but it communicated the same dehumanising message. Non-white congregation members watched as their language was derided as an unnecessary addition to news bulletins, their ethnicity was portrayed in crude, insulting stereotypes, and their culture was played for laughs by their predominantly Pākehā leaders, who were generally not held accountable or admonished for any hurt they caused.
“Expose Down, Protect Up”
Life, City Impact and Arise all have a culture of leader worship — of allowing people in positions of authority to act with impunity, and protecting them at the expense of congregation members who are often left to deal with the damage.
Lena’s husband left Life church five years ago, and says she still spends her days “trying to figure out which way is up.”
She attended the church herself for close to a decade, interning for one of those years. She says she doesn’t know exactly what drew her in, but suspects the Christian families she observed appeared stable and happy to her younger self.
“I have often thought that my experience with Evangelical Christianity was ‘not that bad’. It dawned on me recently that during my internship year, I made three serious attempts to take my own life before ending up in a psychiatric respite care facility. ‘If that is my idea of ‘not that bad’ I’m not sure what would qualify as bad,” she says.
She describes a perfectionistic, demanding, and emotionally manipulative work culture which pushed her to the point of burnout and beyond.
Those of us who needed medication for mental illness, knew to keep it to ourselves. If you suffer with anxiety or depression, your faith mustn’t be quite deep enough, you must still be relying on your own strength rather than leaning on God. That is an idea that I am still trying to rewire. Once you run out of your own strength, you’re supposed to ‘continue in God’s’ - which in reality looks like consistently ignoring all of the signals you should slow down, purposely pushing past them, to the point of illness.
During non-internship years, I would often use annual leave in order to volunteer at the week-long conferences. Or, if I couldn’t take annual leave, I would work a full day in my normal job, then serve until late at night, then repeat for the week. The type of roles I had were in areas where invited conference guests were looked after. Even when I was in the thick of the mind fuckery, it didn’t sit right with me. The guests were held in such high regard, and had beautiful lounges to sit in, were played live music by highly skilled, unpaid volunteers, ate luxurious food, while the rest of us ran around all night, not even allowed to pop in and listen to the conference sessions.
A lot of us would be sick or run down by conference preparations, and struggling by the time it came to running the conferences. I remember calling a leader of mine from an after-hours doctors’ clinic one evening, saying I really thought I should pull out of the rest of my conference duties and rest. This wasn’t accepted.
Church events are where God wants people, and any kind of illness or anything else that would prevent someone serving, is just the devil trying to keep you from your purpose. After conferences, volunteers and staff members would pack down the entire stadium. This would usually take all night.
After conferences, Paul and his family would often take a vacation to recuperate.
Life got a lot of our money. You wouldn’t be given any kind of leadership role unless you were paying the standard tithe (10% of any financial increase, before tax). It’s like paying to be exploited.
One of Life’s biggest cash-generating events was a yearly offering called Heart For The House, where congregants were asked to give a lump sum or further commit to regular payments for the year. This echoed Arise conferences where John Cameron told congregants God was telling him that five people in the room would be giving $10,000.
Lena says Heart For The House also had elements of manipulation, with Paul de Jong fronting sermons and videos centred on money in the weeks leading up to the event. People were encouraged to push the boundaries of what they could afford, and trust God to provide. She and her peers would give hundreds each month on top of their tithes.
As a leader, if you didn’t give to this offering, you would be personally followed up. The sermons Paul would give in the lead up to the Heart for the House offering were all about how we shouldn’t serve money, that it isn’t possible to serve both God and money.
We were encouraged to loosen the grip money had over us by giving more to the church. But it dawned on me today that Paul was giving us these sermons, while setting a very specific financial target, with a well-formulated plan as to how we were going to reach it. These offerings brought in millions of dollars every year. A lot of it went on buying Auckland property. I’m no longer convinced I was the one serving money before God.
There’s a philosophy within staff and leadership at life, which they don’t hide and which I somehow had no issue with at the time.
“Expose down, protect up”. That’s what they say. Meaning that anything a volunteer shares, will be freely shared with anyone “above”. But the personal lives of those in higher positions are protected above all else. The longer I was there, the more I realised that the people in leadership were usually more screwed up than the rest of us, they just hide it, and their friends all hide it with them.
Leaving a megachurch is difficult. After nine years of spending most of my time in the church, I didn’t know much else.
I still feel huge guilt about writing this, that the bad experiences were probably somehow my fault. Life was my reality, my purpose. Leaving that is disorientating. Religion provides a very safe box in which to live, set rules, a right and wrong, a narrow pathway. I understand why people never manage to leave that. There are many very good people left in that church. Friendships I cherished that just don’t work without mutual religion. I’m not sure if that makes them friendships or not. There’s a lot I’m still working out.
I know that people will say those of us who left the church can’t have taken our faith very seriously. But I have come to realise that often it is the very opposite of that. It is those of us who took our faith seriously who cannot reconcile the hypocrisy that actually goes on in these places. They don’t have much to do with Christianity at all.
There are a lot of stories about Life Church. Justine worked as Maree de Jong’s personal assistant from 2005 to 2007.
Employed by the church, part of her role was to be in the home of Paul and Maree de Jong, doing domestic duties such as laundry, babysitting, cleaning, walking their dog, and teaching their son to drive.
While her employment contract stated 40 hours per week, she says the very clear expectations were for close to double that.
Justine outlined some of her key memories to Webworm.
After the de Jong family returned from a trip overseas, I was at their home late one weekend night doing washing and cleaning for them. When I arrived at work on Monday, there was a tense and hushed atmosphere when I walked in. It turns out that Luke de Jong [Paul and Maree’s son, now the senior pastor at Life] had left his passport in the pocket of his jeans which I had picked up off the floor and thrown into the wash. The passport was destroyed.
He was due to fly over to Sydney for the Hillsong Conference the following week so I was the subject of much dissatisfaction and Luke’s passport was the subject of church-wide prayer requests to rush through the emergency passport. I was made to pay for this, and it was around $160 - which on my salary of $28,000 was a huge hit. I had a disciplinary meeting with several pastors about this and was made to feel terrible about it.
The culture was so toxic, that as a young woman trying to fit in, I developed a severe eating disorder. I was able to hide it for a year, but when I did eventually disclose to one of the pastors that I had been unwell after passing out at work, I was removed from any privileges associated with the upcoming women’s conference and had my access to the backstage area revoked.
Maree said she thought that evil was coming out because I was close to her, and she was holy, so it showed that I wasn’t holy enough to be around her. I was immediately demoted to a different job with no consultation and I was told that if I didn’t accept it, then I could resign. I was offered no support, and Maree told every other person on staff as soon as she could, making me the subject of a lot of gossip. I was no longer invited to staff meetings despite still being on staff, and many friends shunned me as an example of someone who was not good enough to be in a position so close to the de Jong family.
I was expected to work 40 hours per week in the office, but a lot of hours were also expected outside of that at evening meetings or running errands for Maree. One of these jobs was to collect her from the airport - in her own vehicle - after any trip overseas. This meant me driving from my Mt Eden flat out to the de Jong residence in Half Moon Bay to collect her car, then head to the airport to pick her up. One Saturday afternoon, her middle son Nathan had borrowed her car which I did not discover until arriving at their home, so I had to pick her up in my 15 year old Toyota Curren.
I was invited to a formal meeting the next week about how unacceptable it was, and then Paul made my car the subject of a sermon about how we should all try to have excellence all the time - even with our vehicles.
Mystical Manipulation and Intern Hell
Justine was employed by Life, paid a small wage. Many of those who have been worked to the bone at these megachurches are not even granted that dignity.
Webworm kicked off its reporting on Arise by looking at the way the church treated interns — young people or students who would work ridiculous hours under difficult conditions.
The types of stories told to us by current and former members of Arise are echoed by the other big pentecostal churches, including Life. They usually describe long hours, impossible asks, and no end in sight, leading some to breakdowns, burnout and fatigue.
Interns were expected to put church before nearly everything else, including family. More than one church member told Webworm weddings were missed if they got in the way of church.
Things told in confidence would be relayed to those higher up the pecking order (something Arise called “uplining”) — fed towards leaders like Peter Mortlock, who our sources say would sometimes reference these stories from the pulpit, referring to it as an act of divine prophecy.
Tanya recalls her time at City Impact when she did a year’s internship in 2005.
We were told the intention was to put us through the fire so they could re-mould us. So if it was hard, painful, breaking us that was a good thing because that was the point.
As with Arise the hours were excessive and the goal posts frequently changed in terms of what was expected from us. Some of the similar tasks we did: Cleaning church weekly, helping pastors move house, babysitting for pastors, gardening for pastors and cleaning cars for pastors
In addition to working minimum forty hour weeks we were expected to do four evenings a week of serving and training. Many of the interns needed to work in addition to this to earn money to survive. You can probably tell that there weren’t enough hours in the week to manage this.
As a direct result of the internship I ended up developing chronic fatigue syndrome. My doctor said this was because I hadn’t allowed myself to recover completely from glandular fever.
Webworm has read so many similar accounts from former staff and interns, they’ve started to bleed into one another. Edith attended Life Leadership College, and worked as an intern.
“My year as an Intern with Life, I have nothing good to say about it. By the end of my course I was left with more than $3000 debt, no support, depression, anxiety, a borderline drinking problem and a certificate with no practical use in the real world.”
Alex left Life in 2020:
I ran a small group, I worked in the office six days per week, I gave up my evenings, my weekends, all of the above, and everyone I knew in Auckland was from Life. I moved to Auckland for the job.
Life was so consuming, that I remember one night, on a drive after youth for a fun trip to Taupo with some friends (because I couldn’t get the night off youth to get to Taupo in a reasonable time), saying that I couldn’t see myself ever being in a romantic relationship with somebody outside of Life, because they wouldn’t understand my life.
Life was isolating, to the extent that people outside this “bubble” barely recognised me.
Communion With The Churches
Last week, Webworm reached out to Life and City Impact churches with basic questions about church locations and membership numbers. Both churches responded.
Peter Mortlock added additional comments about City Impact’s good deeds, which is worth reading in its entirety here.
When asked further questions about specific allegations on intern working hours and conditions, City Impact responded with a fairly vague email (which can be found in its entirety here). It alludes to an “evolution” in the church’s internship programme over the years, in response to changing cultural norms.
Over the years like everything, including our internship program evolves, changes and hopefully improves.
Forty years is a long time, and times have changed and are changing and as a church we embrace change when it comes to culture etc, to continue to be a [relational], healthy effective church in our community.
Mortlock does address some specific allegations relating to interns being expected to work multiple evenings per week on top of their regular work hours. He says that would only have happened during the church’s annual conference, which is so good that no-one would want to miss the extra events anyway.
In our internship we now offer a now great deal of flexibility, where it maybe a 3 / 4 or 5 day week internship pending on their needs and personal situation.
There are no current internship fees, and they are all treated well, with respect and are given a lot of support, in a very loving and accepting environment throughout the year.
We do endeavour to take good care of all people doing the best we can.
In relation to your comment to being out four evenings a week, this would normally only be at our (one only) annual conference where every one comes out for three or four night meetings, but obviously this is such a great time, everyone wants to be there.
After reading through hundreds of pages of stories from former interns and staff, reading Mortlock’s incredibly positive responses is a strange experience. They could be summarised by saying “everything is fine here.”
While I have no doubt many have a great time at City Impact church, the image he paints is in stark contrast to many of the stories Webworm has heard during its reporting.
Webworm also sent a list of specific allegations to Life Church concerning how some of its interns, congregation members, and staff were treated.
Its response details a list of concerns about Webworm. For full transparency, Life’s full email response can be read here.
Chief among them is that as a blog, Webworm is apparently not beholden to “any code of ethics or journalistic standards, nor accountable to New Zealand media law”.
The church also appears to be worried about potential “religious intolerance and bigotry” among Webworm’s financial backers.
“Can you please also disclose how many of Webworm’s financial backers are linked to groups with religious intolerance and bigotry, and also please fully disclose any conflicts of interest around this?” the statement says. “We know only too well how real the threat is of intolerance and hatred towards minority religious communities in Aotearoa and so we would appreciate full disclosure around this.”
Life goes on to say that it’s concerned about how “healthy and safe it is for grievances to be publicly litigated in this way”.
“Because it could be actively harmful for some, especially those vulnerable to experiencing mental health challenges.”
Its statement links to the NZ Mental Health Foundation media guidelines for reporting, before asking Webworm to guide people who have problems with the church to make a submission on the feedback and complaints page of its website.
We are most concerned that people who may have shared stories some time ago with this blog have not been able to resolve them because they haven’t engaged with our process.
Webworm notes that the “feedback and complaints” section only appeared on Life’s website in 2022, after we started reporting on issues at Arise church.
The email concludes with a statement from Life’s pastor Luke de Jong, who acknowledges the possibility that Webworm might publish his church’s email in full.
While our preference is to resolve the matters above with you in good faith, I understand, based on what I have previously read on your blog, that you may choose to publish this email in full in your blog.
We take allegations of this nature very seriously and are committed to addressing them with the care and weight they deserve.
Our heart as a church is to see people helped, healed and restored into a supportive community of faith, wherever and whatever that might look like for them. We’ve understood for many years as a church that our style, values and beliefs may not suit everyone, and we’ve supported many people to find alternative communities of faith that are the right fit for them.
De Jong reiterates his concern that people with grievances against the church might simply have failed to navigate its official complaints process.
He acknowledges that “only Jesus is perfect”, but says Life has tried to establish a robust process for dealing with congregants’ issues.
Since our church began in 1991, we’ve sought to continuously develop and improve how we do things to ensure they are best practice for an organisation of our nature.
We regularly review our policies and processes and are satisfied they ensure a positive and caring environment where people can thrive and grow.
We are fully committed to people being our priority and being a healthy, open community of faith. We’ve long acknowledged that only Jesus is perfect, and that is why we have a robust and professional process for dealing with issues, concerns and complaints.
Many of the people who came to Webworm did so because they felt afraid or judged coming forward to their church. They spoke to a “blog” because either they didn’t feel like they could speak to their pastors or leaders, or because when they did, they were shunned.
Both Life and City Impact highlight the positive in their statements. They speak of lives changed and people nurtured in loving, welcoming communities. It’s true many people will have had great experiences with these churches — and others that operate from the same playbook. Arise, Life, City Impact and Hillsong all have their fans — those people that have felt included and blessed.
But that doesn’t negate how they make many other members, staff and interns feel.
They have a dark underbelly that often goes unaddressed in a culture that values the appearance of perfection above all else. Michael Frost, a megachurch survivor who hosts the podcast In The Shift, says Arise is an exemplar of the megachurch model, not an anomaly.
It’s almost impossible for megachurches to be healthy communities. In order for the church to have the kind of momentum and visionary drive that is required to build and maintain a voluntary organisation of this size, there is little to no room for diversity of life experience, of thinking or of different cultural ways of being.
They are invariably built on a charismatic authoritative figurehead whose voice and vision have become supreme, and to whom ‘honour’ must be given. This kind of power imbalance inevitably leads to abuse of that power and the exclusion of marginal voices. The result is the stifling of diversity, a crushing of those with questions, a tendency toward racism and white supremacy, and so on.
Frost says megachurch success also relies on the slickness of the product, and the cost of maintaining that level of quality is borne by a volunteer brigade who have to sacrifice their own wellbeing for the sake of ensuring their leaders are happy and their Sunday services are glitzy.
Ultimately, the brand becomes paramount (all for the sake of Jesus, of course). And so anything that threatens the stability or progress of this brand is seen as an enemy of what ‘God is doing’. This is why these megachurches so often fail to adequately address abuse and harm within their own spaces. There is an inbuilt assumption that they are good places doing good (and groundbreaking) things for God, and so any damage to that narrative could bring down the entire house of cards.
Sometimes I wonder what all these churches were thinking after the revelations about Arise last year.
They all preach the same gospel of impossible standards, prosperity and power. They are all guilty of the same sins — taking advantage of interns, staff and church members with promises of earthly wonders and heavenly salvation.
It’s hard not to be cynical when you consider that Life recently added Strahan Wallis to its advisory board. Wallis is a PR heavyweight, CEO of the Clemenger Group and former head of Porter Novelli in the United States.
As with Arise, change seems difficult given the leadership structures in place. Life church is a family affair. Paul and Maree de Jong recently passed the senior pastor role to their son Luke de Jong (passport now firmly in hand) and his wife Melissa. Over at City Impact, Peter and Bev Mortlock’s roles have been taken over by Joe and Racquel Manase, who’ve been City Impact members for 20 years.
All these churches are aware that current and former members are now talking. People are figuring out their flaws. We’ve heard reports about churches going through people’s phones to check who they’re interacting with.
While writing this piece, I talked to someone who’s been supporting some of those who have left the likes of Arise, Life and City Impact. She described them as “pentecostal refugees”, suffering from burnout and the fallout from spiritual abuse and toxic theology.
“Those churches have as massive a back door as they do an enticing front door, but unfortunately those leaving are often so devastated that they never find a place to make sense of what happened to them.”
I hope these stories help some people figure out what happened to them. Often it was abuse or exploitation. Even if they were told the pain was part of following Jesus, it was almost certainly part of a far more earthly story: one about men with power and money wanting to protect a kingdom — not the one of God, but rather their own.
Additional reporting by Hayden Donnell.
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