It’s Sunday morning here in Los Angeles as I write this. It’ll be the very early hours of Monday morning in New Zealand.
I had a newsletter ready to send out to you — it was a funny one. I will still send it out, but not today.
Let me explain why.
Since I sent out “Hillsong Isn’t the Only Abhorrent Megachurch”, I’ve received hundreds of pages of emails. They contain stories from former and current members of Arise megachurch — and other megachurches in New Zealand, and overseas. All these Pentecostal churches work from the same playbook, so crossover is to be entirely expected.
I knew I’d be getting emails, but I didn’t know I’d be getting emails like this. They make for heavy, sober reading. People wrote eloquently and beautifully — about some incredibly bleak experiences. And they continue to write: Another five in my Inbox this morning.
A lot of my last week has been writing back to everyone. I owed them that much. I admired the fact they’d written. They were brave and bold. And deeply personal. And as tough as it was reading them, I realise each email would have been so, so much tougher to write.
This is the first Webworm story where I’ve had to seek support for myself. I wanted to keep my head in gear while I had the responsibility of dealing with stories I felt, at times, ill-equipped to deal with.
I am working with many of the people who wrote to me, to do their stories justice. That’s where my head has been — working.
So as I said, sending out a humorous Webworm today (I like to think this newsletter can make you laugh sometimes!) felt like the entirely wrong thing to do.
With all that in mind, a very brief update.
10 Days of Silence from Arise Church, and Counting
I first reached out to Arise Church asking for clarity 10 days ago, on the morning of March 31.
I used their e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.
I didn’t hear back, so I looked for John Cameron’s main email address. It’s not listed publicly, but I found it — and emailed him directly. That was on the evening of March 31.
I didn’t hear a thing from Arise, or John Cameron. I still haven’t.
(I have received a lot of critical responses online from Arise Church members that my story was “one-sided”. To them I’d say: I reached out to your leader — the very top of your church — for “the other side”. And I haven’t heard a thing. I’d also say that if you think giving a voice to victims is “one-sided” then… you don’t understand what journalism is).
So at some point during those 10 days, Arise church hired a public relations agency called Kingdom PR. As you can guess from the name, they specialise in doing PR for churches.
I found out about Kingdom PR not because they’d reached out to me, but because student magazine Critic Te Arohi told me they’d heard from a PR agency.
Being a University newspaper, they’d published a piece about my Webworm story — specifically the bit about some students being encouraged to donate their course-related costs to the church. Critic put a series of questions to Arise, and got a response back from Kingdom PR yesterday.
I still hadn’t heard a thing.
At 8.30pm NZ time, I tweeted my frustration:
I went to bed, because 8.30pm in New Zealand is 1.30am in Los Angeles.
This morning I woke up, and there was an email in my inbox from the PR firm.
They’d sent it three hours after my tweet. I guess it got their attention.
I am not sure how urgent their response is, considering they’d already sent a very long email to Critic — whilst still ignoring my original questions I’d posed 10 days ago.
Hannah’s email went on:
“I thoroughly apologise on behalf of ARISE that there has been no response to you so far, and am doing my best to get up to speed and coordinate any information that is needed for you.
Please note, that once we have responded to your original email tomorrow, there will also be a wider statement released.”
That last sentence explained things a little more: They didn’t want to reply to me before they’d also prepared some kind of wider statement.
“If you have any questions in the meantime, please do not hesitate to contact me. I am not a spokesperson for Arise, so am not able to be quoted or speak on behalf of the church, but I can and am happy to coordinate any information needed for you, and will do my best to meet your deadlines.”
My deadline was 10 days ago, but okay.
“I am sure we will be talking soon.”
I guess we will, Hannah. But you know who I’d like to talk to? Arise’s leader, John Cameron. He’s been running this church for 20 years — growing it into a megachurch with 10,000 members in 12 New Zealand cities.
He’s the one with the answers.
He’s the one responsible for those in my piece. He runs the church that’s generated hundreds of pages of emails to me.
But now I guess if I do talk to him, it’ll be via the filter and spin of a PR agency: “I am not a spokesperson for Arise, so am not able to be quoted or speak on behalf of the church, but I can and am happy to coordinate any information needed for you.”
Arise Church is big. They have a lot of money. It’s no surprise they have a PR Agency on board. They rely on their image to get new adherents in the door. Image is everything.
And until now, it’s mostly been good PR.
This piece from 2014 is typical of the type of coverage they’re used to:
Cameron’s upfront about it being a bid to make the Christian faith relevant and accessible to younger generations, but says it’s not the show that resonates with Arise’s 10,000-strong congregation, many of whom are under 35. There are plenty of places young people can go to listen to loud music with their friends that aren’t church.
“If you feel a connection to God, or you don’t and you feel like He could be an important part of your life, I guess that’s the number-one reason anyone would attend a church,” says Anna Chisholm, 26, who has been a part of the church for close to a decade. A blunt-bob-era Jessie J-lookalike, wearing fuchsia lipstick and a leather jacket, she met her now-husband at Arise.
“Arise is just packaged really well. It’s honest; if people say something, they really mean it. What John’s saying on stage, that’s how he lives his life. And for me personally, it’s just fun. … Arise is part of a solution that’s making church accessible and fun and relevant…”
Those emailing me do not have a PR agency or the resources that John Cameron has at his fingertips.
I guess what we have in front of us now is a perfect case study in how a Megachurch reacts to scrutiny. How they react to victims’ stories.
So — I will keep working on this story — and hope that maybe one day the leader of this Megachurch decides he’s willing to talk to me.
PS: All my coverage of megachurch culture — including Arise — can be found here. Subscribe to be the first to get future updates in your inbox, or on the App. Yes — there is a free version. Tithes are not a prerequisite for getting key Webworm pieces.