Arise Church Responds by... Not Responding
Arise Church does the completely expected thing and ignores reality
First up — thanks to all of you that grabbed a Webworm “Animals” tee.
Apart from a couple of kid’s sizes, they sold out — and thanks to you, $1999 New Zealand dollars (that’s $1842 in Australia, or $1389 US dollars) has gone to Dr Andriy Boyko’s Ukrainian Relief Fund:
Thank you — we did good!
The plan for the next Webworm tee later this year is a “Deranged Bitch” shirt. This of course is based on Bev’s feedback to my coverage of Hillsong Church:
What exactly is my problem? Great question, Bev.
Last week I wrote about New Zealand’s largest megachurch, Arise, and its leader John Cameron.
I’d spent the last six months talking to former interns and staff who spoke of a culture that exploited unpaid interns, while extracting huge amounts of cash from adherents (including interns, who would often pay the church for the privilege).
Before I published that piece, I sent an email to Arise’s leader John Cameron, so he had a chance to respond to the allegations made about him and his church before I hit “send”.
John chose to completely ignore my email. Three days later, I published my newsletter.
With that in mind, I thought I’d share the email I sent him:
I am a journalist and documentary maker who writes for Webworm. I have been working on a story about New Zealand’s Arise Church, talking to a variety of current and former members.
I will soon be publishing a piece about Arise Church, and wanted to run a few key points past you, so you have a chance to comment. My deadline is 6pm tomorrow (Friday NZ time):
1) That Arise Church used unpaid volunteer labour excessively — specifically:
-Some interns came into the office four days a week
-Some interns were expected to lead a ‘lifegroup’: these could go until approximately 9pm, making for a 12+ hour work day.
-One night of the week could include a team meeting, which wraps at 9pm.
-Sunday call time is around 7.30am (except for 2-3 weeks cycles which are 4.30am starts to unload trucks for service). Sunday work wraps after the evening service, or if interns pack down: midnight.
-In summary, some interns have been working four days in the office, plus evening events, most nights, plus the Sunday
2) That some interns have had to pay Arise Church in order to take part in internships
3) That unpaid interns have also used by staff as babysitters, nannies, drivers and cleaners
4) That university students have been told, on occasion, to use their course related costs to pay for Arise Church conference tickets
4) That Arise Church did, on occasion, encourage people to donate their student allowances to the church
5) That Arise Church did, on occasion, encourage people to donate house sale proceeds to the church
6) That, on occasion, interns were paid to do two days work a week, but were expected to work full time — a practice that is illegal in New Zealand
7) That Carl Lentz and Brian Houston were guests of past Arise Church conferences
8) That Carl Lentz and Brian Houston have been friends of Arise Church’s lead pastor, John Cameron.
As I said, John Cameron never replied to that. He did post a vague and rambling message to his Instagram after I published my story:
It was empty and meaningless, talking about my piece without talking about it at all. At one point he notes he’s been reading books and listening to podcasts.
John chose to simply ignore the victims in my piece, instead centering the dialogue around — surprise, surprise — himself:
“There’s one thing I am so grateful for: I’m a way better leader now that I was even five years ago.”
What he fails to acknowledge is that some of the people I spoke to attended Arise within the last five years. But details, details.
Underneath, adherents gushed at their pastor’s wise words: “World class leaders”. “Great word.” “Love this.”
John’s wife and fellow pastor Gillian Cameron replied to the outpouring of compliments with an outpouring of emojis. It was a triple threat: Loudly crying face emoji. Red heart emoji. Fire emoji.
I read on: “Such wise words.” “I love your humility.” “So profound.” “Wow, incredible.” “Brilliant thoughts.” “Best post I’ve read in ages.” “You’re an inspiration.”
“This is so great.”
I felt like I’d slipped into a parallel dimension. It’s as if those who spoke out didn’t exist. But then I realised that made perfect sense, because to these people — this church — these victims really don’t exist.
So that’s been Arise’s official response, I suppose. Or as official as we’ve gotten so far.
I’ve also heard from plenty of people who took exception to my reporting of the story. Here’s a tiny example of the types of messages I’ve been getting in my DMs and on Facebook threads:
I also noticed that some people who’d shared my newsletter were getting comments from their friends: “This article is a smokescreen” wrote Kyran — “filled with emotional critiques and anecdotal evidence.”
God forbid anyone dare share their story, Kyran. Try grasping the concept of multiple sources, Kyran.
I also got emails from Arise Church members defending their church.
Most of them used language that basically ignored the experiences victims had shared, putting all those stories down to interns who simply “felt disenfranchised”.
This is a typical email:
“I’m glad you are telling the story of those who have felt disenfranchised from Arise. However you can tell one side without bringing the other side down.
I choose to be a agent for change on the inside where appropriate. I also choose to act as Christ would and lift people up in public while bringing concerns in private.”
These megachurches all desperately want concerns raised in private. They’re banking on it.
“You achieve nothing good by only focusing on the negative.”
That’s true I suppose if “good” is from the perspective of a very powerful, very wealthy church. Not so much so if you’re one of the young interns that’s been sucked in and spat out.
For the record: Here on Webworm I am proud to offer a platform to those that need a voice. If that is “focussing on the negative” then yes… I will focus on the negative.
“Certainly like anyone, church leadership doesn’t get everything right. What I love about our leaders is that they often admit when they have made mistakes. They are open to constructive criticism but possibly rightly, closed to a witch hunt.”
“You will have hundreds of emails that say otherwise because your initial readership have preconceived notions not based on facts but based on an ingrained bias.”
“I think you need to concede that you yourself could put a lot more journalistic integrity into your own research.”
Little digs at “journalistic integrity” came up again and again.
It’s the most common insult I get from conspiracy theory adherents — and it comes as no surprise I get it in response to my stories about Hillsong and Arise, as well.
Because to them — I am quite literally doing the devil’s work.
As someone mentioned to me this week — pastors like John Cameron are like teflon — everything slides off. By design.
That thin, synthetic exterior is what people love about it: only it’s not “thin” to them, because it’s underpinned by very well crafted communication techniques. Techniques that’ve been honed over the last 20 years to the best working formula.
I mean, there’s a reason New Zealand megachurch pastors visit their US counterparts: It’s to hone their craft; their MLM for God. This style of Christianity is a direct import from the United States.
Part of that formula sees Cameron standing on stage asking for money — at length.
I mean — take this video. Watching it objectively, it makes you want to vom a little bit in your mouth. But for those at Arise — and all the cookie-cutter megachurches like it — this is not only expected, it’s celebrated. It’s all for God. It’s all for The Kingdom.
I find watching more than five minutes of that video nearly impossible, after the stories I shared earlier this week.
His opening prayer to God is a stunning insight into his brain:
“Father, in the name of Jesus
Bless this world, bless me!
May I preach well
May I not lose my voice for the first time in a millennium
Lord, may I look attractive to people who listen
In Jesus’ name
There’s one final thing I wanted to say. Many of those who talked to me — including many behind the scenes who wanted to keep their stories private — blamed themselves. I didn’t fully clock this at the time, despite working on this story for a very long time. Comments like this:
“Honestly, I feel like a fucking idiot for believing that all of that was normal.”
The thing is… none of these interns were idiots. Far from it. Webworm reader Karen had this to say, and I agree:
“The one thing that strikes me is how the victims of this seem to feel like they should have known better somehow and feel stupid (read: blame themselves) for what happened to them.
This is in no way their fault at all and could happen to anyone.
When things happen gradually and your whole life is tied up in it and everyone around you is acting that same way it is normalised.
It’s no different to being in a bad relationship that you don’t realise how bad it is until you break up with the person — I know we’ve all been there — and then you can’t work out why you didn't see what that person was really like sooner.
Well you didn’t, because you were emotionally involved, it happened over time and by then it was ‘normal’ for you. I just hope these victims find full recovery and movements like this continue to be exposed for what they really are.”
Are there more to say about this? Yes. My Instagram post about this story is littered with more stories. I’ve also received hundreds of emails, which I’m compiling into a Google Doc so I can begin to make sense of it all in my own head.
It’s a big document — I mean, we’re almost at 100 pages and it’s only a size 10 font.
As usual, anyone with a story can reach me confidentially at email@example.com.
And as always — thanks for reading.
PS: This newsletter is sharable: www.webworm.co/p/silentarise
I watched the video....well, some of the video and felt so motivated to tithe that I subscribed to webworm! I feel more virtuous now! You will all now be blessed in the future by my comments.
Regarding those who blamed themselves: Dr Hillary McBride (@hillarylmcbride on Twitter) summed up a lot for me the other day when she wrote "Spiritual trauma is someone handing you an inner critic and telling you it’s the voice of God." That speaks to what happens in the theology and culture of these places and why it gets so complicated. And why many people who leave church have to go to therapy.
I've also had a few people responding defensively after sharing this article, most of it boils down to "but they do so much good, it surely outweighs this"; "no church is perfect"; and of course attacking you, David, for the way you reported it. But thank you for giving voice to the victims and bringing this to light.
I do feel sad for those defending Arise/churches in general because when I was younger I would have been one of them, and I understand how difficult the cognitive dissonance can be when you are confronted with something that doesn't line up with what you believe so deeply (i.e. that Arise/the church is making the world a better place). I personally think that some people know unconsciously that if they start to "pull out one brick in the wall" (for example, accepting that Arise church has done some terrible damage to a lot of people) then further bricks will follow (i.e. what contributed to this happening and am I complicit on some of these contributing factors in church/christian culture) then the whole wall will come tumbling down. So for so many, it's easier not to pull the brick.