In the face of building pressure, and in light of allegations of abuse and exploitation of students and worshipers at Arise Church, John and Brent Cameron have both offered their resignations and stepped down from leadership.
The continued pressure and attention on mega churches has also arisen to a situation where others are now reflecting on their experiences within Mega Church environments. Murray Watkinson of Celebration Church was also the centre of conversation this week after allegations of hate speech and exploitation, and in the online world Insta accounts such as Arise Alumni and City Impact Alumni are gaining traction with people finding space to process and share their shared experience.
At least in relation to the allegations revolving around the Arise Leadership, what isn’t in question is that people were hurt and suffered harm due to Arises culture. For those who live through these experiences there can be this weird mix of emotion in the face of it all. On one hand there is good mixed into it all, people we love, memories we cherish, moments that shaped and moulded us into who we are today.
And yet, on the other is the pain, the scars, and for some, the real trauma of what they went through. The bro Michael Frost has been recounting his own, sharing with courage and conviction his experience and helping others to process theirs further through his podcast In The Shift. This is important, it’s a moment for courage, a moment for us – who consider ourselves as belonging to this movement we call the church – to look at ourselves, to see ourselves warts and all, and to hear the voices of those who have been harmed in pursuit of the vision “of god”.
And yet yesterday, in light of all this, Peter Mortlock, founder of City Impact Church, one of the largest mega churches in Aotearoa, released a video (now deleted) on his socials where he named the accountability demanded of pastors such as Arises’ John Cameron and Celebration Churche’s Murray Watkinson, as Tall Poppy Syndrome. In defence of both he spoke of the thousands of souls that had been saved in the development of the dream and vision these men hold. And he condemned those who were either a part of the movement that led to John Cameron’s resignation warning them that they were placing themselves against god, and that they would bear his wrath as a consequence of such infidelity.
And those who have suffered? Those who have been crushed? Those who have been burnt out and abused? What of them?
They were nothing but collateral damage on the path to building Arises vision. In his video Peter spoke of how it was a shame that some had been hurt and harmed, but this was the reality of progressing such a vision as the one god had given Arise. In balance, Arise and John had done far more good than harm, and that is what should be focused on. Not the suffering, exploitation and abuse of a few.
For those who have followed the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast, Peter’s kōrero would have seemed eerily familiar. It had similar overtones to Mark Driscoll’s own analogy of the church as a bus. Moving forward, making progress. Those who were on the bus, were on board with god’s plan. Those who weren’t, who either got off or didn’t get out of the way, were crushed under the bus, left broken and bruised as Mark and his god pursuit their grand vision.
This kōrero highlights another level of toxicity within some of our faith communities. That of Christian exceptionalism, this idea that the Church, Christianity, is right and just, that what we are doing, our vision, our work, will bring, is bringing, about the salvation of the world. In this sort of thinking individuals become superfluous to the goal. The goal is growing the vision, building the brand, expanding the church. The goal is saved souls, increased tithes, more bums on seats.
It is sad that people get hurt on the way, but isn’t god’s vision more important than the feelings and pain of a few?
When you think your vision is god’s, when you think what you’re doing is the world’s salvation, then it becomes easy to justify the hurt and harm that is inflicted on the way. And yet, the fruit of the outcome is revealed in the journey. And if people are getting crushed, abused, and exploited in the pursuit of your faith communities’ journey, how can you say that the vision you’re following is from the Divine?
Exploited and abused people are not an acceptable price to pay in pursuit of “god’s vision”. If the cost of your faith communities vision is hurt and exploited whānau, then the Divine ain’t on that journey with you. Jesus always stands in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. Christ will always be found in the gutter with those who have been hurt and exploited. The Divine Mother has no vision greater than to embrace the hurting, to wipe the tears of those who weep, to stop progress for the sake of protecting the few.
And if you wish to follow Jesus, it is here, on the margins, with the neglected and exploited, with those who have been crushed in pursuit of progress, here with those who weep, who suffer, who are burnt out, angry and confused, here with those who doubt, who’ve renounced their faith, with those who just can’t stand church any more, it’s here, that you belong.
A.J. Hendry is a Laidlaw College graduate, and now a Youth Development Worker and housing advocate, working in the Youth Housing and Homelessness space. He leads a service supporting rangatahi experiencing homelessness and is also an advocate working collectively to end youth homelessness in Aotearoa. He is also the curator and creator of When Lambs Are Silent.
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