The media and the megachurch


It was early May and Pastor Peter Mortlock​ was preaching to the converted.

There had been trials and tribulations, highs and lows, but Mortlock had much to be pleased about. He founded Bays Christian Fellowship on Auckland’s North Shore in July 1982 and watched it grow and grow.

In the early 2000s, the church, now known as City Impact, built a large facility complete with a state-of-the-art 2100-seat auditorium. Along with 10 campuses in New Zealand, there are 48 mission campuses in India, plus others in the Philippines, Mexico and Tonga.

On this particular Sunday, nearly 40 years after the start of the City Impact story, Mortlock had good news and bad news.

“Since we got back together [after Covid], which has only been a month, we’ve had just over 500 people decide for Jesus across the Auckland campuses,” he said, proudly. “That’s like a statistic, but it’s people. The Devil doesn’t like it when you’re fruitful.”

Then he segued into the bad news.

“The church in New Zealand is coming under attack like never before,” he declared. “Things are being said and, to be honest, unless you are a little church on the corner and not a threat to anybody, churches who are fruitful are not very popular out there in society. Neither, of course, are committed Christians.

“Nobody has the authority to pull down the church,” he stated. “It’s easy to find fault. The Devil is a fault-finder.”

Many of those in the room and watching online knew exactly what he meant. Or rather, who he meant.

A feeling of us against the world is a persistent theme of Pentecostal Christianity. There is a sense that the Devil is an active opponent. But this was different. Who was attacking the church in New Zealand like never before?

It turned out the enemy was an individual blogger and podcaster, living in California.

The floodgates opened

David Farrier​, a New Zealander based in Los Angeles, started his Webworm newsletter two years ago. As a TV journalist and documentary maker, Farrier has sought out the weird. He likes cults, conspiracy theories and odd belief systems.

And at this point in history, there is no shortage of weirdness.

Farrier says he started getting emails about Arise Church in late 2021. They came out of the blue. He also heard from former members of Life, a large Auckland-based church, “but for whatever reason, a few people from Arise wrote these really compelling, honest emails to me”.

They were stories of damage and psychological abuse. They were stories about young people who felt burnt-out and manipulated by Arise, which was founded by charismatic senior pastor John Cameron​ in Wellington in 2002 and had, like City Impact and Life, grown quickly by following what some call “the megachurch playbook”. It now has churches in 12 locations in New Zealand.

Cameron had a hipper affectation and was a generation younger than the likes of Mortlock, Destiny Church’s Brian Tamaki​ and Life’s Paul de Jong​. They were boomers but he was Gen-X. And Arise particularly appealed to university students, who became a reliable source of labour.

Cameron told US Christian magazine Outreach in 2016 that “outreach to the universities is our number one trait. Youth and young adults are a key driving force; the engine room behind the success of the church, with many Arise Church volunteers and interns being of this age group.”

He told Outreach he “aggressively marketed” the church at Wellington universities when he started. The magazine was impressed and saw it as a pathway US churches could take.

Farrier heard about what happened to interns who worked hard for the church and sometimes paid for the privilege. By late May, he had published 16 blogs about Arise, which did its best to ignore him until it couldn’t.

Other media, including Stuff, RNZ and TVNZ, followed up his stories.

RNZ repeated lurid allegations that John Cameron’s brother, Brent, also a pastor, would get naked in front of interns, call them derogatory names and boast to colleagues about it.

Stuff ran a story about Darshini, whose mental health deteriorated after she worked 70 hours a week while paying to be an Arise intern. She was told she was choosing to be depressed and, after suffering a psychotic episode, was told she could no longer attend church or contact pastors and staff.

An Arise Church spokesperson said her claims were “inaccurate”.

It was not just Arise. A TVNZ story about C3, a global church with campuses in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and other centres, said interns were driven so hard they were “on the brink of a mental breakdown”.

After staying quiet, Cameron finally admitted he was “broken and devastated by these stories” and launched a review of the experiences of interns. Christchurch counsellor Charlotte Cummings​, who is leading the review, says more than 500 people made submissions.

Cameron temporarily stepped down from his pastoral duties and both he and Brent resigned from the board. The law firm Duncan Cotterill was called in to review management and employment matters, and Cameron and his wife Gillian​, who is also a pastor, went on extended leave.

City Impact was not the only church paying attention to the case of the media and the megachurch. Continue reading

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