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Episode 208: David Farrier – What’s Going On With Megachurches?

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, David Farrier joins Pete and Jared to discuss what he has uncovered while researching the downward spiral of megachurches. Together, they explore the following questions: 

  • No, seriously. What’s going on with megachurches? 
  • Why do a lot of megachurches seem to have a cookie cutter approach that they’re modeled after? 
  • What components are behind the success of a megachurch? 
  • How do young adults factor into the megachurch formula? 
  • No, seriously. What’s going on with megachurches? 
  • Why do a lot of megachurch models seem to have a cookie-cutter approach? 
  • How do megachurches become so successful?
  • How are megachurches able to appeal to and target young adults?
  • How does the initial “good message” of a megachurch get so twisted around? 
  • Why is the churn rate seen at a lot of megachurches a red flag? 
  • What do people think they’re doing for God when they’re volunteering in megachurch systems? 
  • Are there any solutions for large churches to create better systems? 
  • How do we go from the Jesus we find in the Bible to the systems of megachurches we have now? 
  • Are certain demographics more prone or susceptible to a celebrity-type culture? Why?

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from David Farrier you can share: 

  • “If you go along to a church and you sign up to God’s path and you choose to be a certain type of Christian—if  you fall in line—it’s great. It works until it doesn’t.” @davidfarrier
  • “When you’re a young person who is figuring out the world and trying to figure out who you are, these places [megachurches], I could not think of a worse place to be to make you feel mentally unwell.” @davidfarrier
  • “Whoever you think and believe Jesus was—he was like a revolutionary, he had incredible ideas, he was kind, he was great. And when I look at what these megachurches are, they’re not that.” @davidfarrier
  • “I have very little beef with Christianity, I certainly don’t have any beef with Jesus. It’s what the systems have become—it’s something else entirely.” @davidfarrier
  • “People getting into these positions of power leading these churches who are literally narcissists. When you have people driven by their image and their ego and their possessions, I just think that’s an incredibly dangerous combo.” @davidfarrier
  • “I don’t know whether these megachurches can survive in their current state and not have casualties. With their current makeup, they would not exist without creating trauma.” @davidfarrier
  • “These megachurches…[are] another example of colonialism and the white man coming in to another culture and going, ‘Hey, this is the truth. Come to us.’ It’s very complex, obviously, but the leaders are generally white and wealthy.” @davidfarrier
  • “The second you’ve got a man saying, ‘we have the answer,’ and it’s removed from Jesus, or any religious leader, it’s like, just step away. Don’t go there. It’s not going to be good.” @davidfarrier

Mentioned in This Episode

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Read the transcript

Pete 

You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared 

And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty intro music]

Pete 

Hey, everybody, welcome to this episode. Our topic today is a deep dive in the megachurch and our guest is David Farrier.

Jared 

David is a journalist and producer from New Zealand. He co-hosts Armchaired and Dangerous, a monthly podcast with Dax Shepard and Monica Padman, about conspiracy theories. He has a newsletter named Webworm that you can subscribe to at webworm.co.

Pete 

.co Yeah. He’s very careful. He couldn’t afford the “m.”

Jared 

He said he couldn’t afford the “m.”  .co, webworm.co.

Pete

[Mildly amused chuckle]

Jared 

But I was really excited to have David on. I’ve been just following what he does with Armchaired and Dangerous and recognize that he started writing about megachurches, and I thought it would be a really good guest to talk about some of the scandals. There’s been a lot of things in the news. We often have, I don’t know if everybody knows this, but we usually have really nerdy guests who maybe not, you wouldn’t equate with like pop culture.

Pete

Right.

Pete

But sometimes, we have people like David on because they’re, this is in the news. These are things that are coming up, whether it’s Hillsong, that new documentary on Discovery+ or other…

Pete 

NXIVM on HBO

Jared 

Right, yeah.

Pete

There’s an old good one, too, on Scientology, which is also an HBO, which is an amazing, and they’re all so connected, but…

Jared 

Right, exactly.

Pete

Now, those are cultish things. But we’re also talking about the megachurch, which gets a little bit sort of touching

Jared 

It can be a little culty.

Pete

We’ll let David explain that.

Jared 

Yeah. Excellent. All right. Well, let’s get into it.

[Music begins, plays in background]

David 

When you’re a young person who is figuring out the world, and you’re experimenting, and you’re trying to figure out who you are, I could not think of a worse place to be to make you feel mentally unwell. I keep questioning their motives. Is his motivation saving people from the eternal pits of hell or is his motivation to feel really good about himself and to have a nice house and a nice car and to sort of see this the Empire he’s running?

[Music ends]

Jared 

Well, welcome, David to the podcast. It’s great to have you.

David 

Thanks for having me.

Jared 

Yeah, absolutely. So, we’re really excited to hear about the work you’ve been doing on megachurches. They’re just, this is in the zeitgeist in a lot of the conversations that we’ve been having. And so, it’s great to have someone who is an expert journalist who can give us some of the scoop on what’s going on what you’ve been learning about. But before we do that, maybe you can say a little of your experience with the church and Christianity before you even got into writing about megachurches.

David 

Yeah, I guess, like putting it really simply, I grew up in a Christian home, pretty, in New Zealand, pretty bog standard Christianity, I suppose. I think we sort of, it’s funny, my memories aren’t great when I was a kid, like they’re kind of faded. Like they’re positive memories, but they’re hard to access. But we were sort of involved mostly in like, I guess, the Baptist kind of tradition, so not too intense, but also those classic kind of Christian ideas of Heaven and Hell and leading a moral life and a personal relationship with Jesus and that kind of thing. Anyway, I was pretty into it. And I ended up comically, I mean, I was born on Christmas Day, which is quite funny, and ended up living in a town in New Zealand called Bethlehem, which is also quite funny.

Pete

[Laughter]

David 

I wish I could say I was born in Bethlehem, but I moved there later in life. But I ended up attending private Christian school in Bethlehem in a town called Tauranga in New Zealand, and I really enjoyed it there, like I really fit in.

4:55

David 

I, in a large part sort of liked knowing the answers to everything and I ended up being a prefect at that school. So, you know, rewind to when I was 17, you know, opened assemblies by praying and that kind of thing. So, I was super into that kind of world. But I also drifted out of it fairly quickly once I left for university and experienced a few other kinds of life things that came into conflict, I guess, with my faith, which sort of made me walk away to the point where, yeah, all cards on the table, I describe myself now as a happy agnostic.

Jared 

So, I’m curious, as you were telling me about that, did you have any experiences with megachurches growing up in your experience with the church? Like, I would have gone to a megachurch at a young age. And so that would have been more of normal for me, but I’m curious if you if that would have been a normal experience for you?

David 

No, not really. Like, I have certainly been to a megachurch service, probably in my late sort of late teens, I’d say, but it was never the norm. So like, I was more of a small Baptist Church, kind of a guy, smaller congregations, you know, not this emphasis on, you know, amazing musical performances and giving money endlessly. It was much more low key. And I think that’s why when I’ve come to look at megachurches later in life, they’ve kind, of it’s been a very novel thing to me. Like, I kind of look at them as a bit of an outsider, in a way, and I understand sort of the tenants of how they work, but it’s not something that I was immersed in. So, I still find it really kind of shocking and interesting and amazing. And, you know, Hillsong is something I started observing, sort of, from a journalistic sense a while ago, and, you know, then sort of realizing that in New Zealand, where I, I spend a lot of my time, there are a lot of versions of Hillsong. And they’re all literally cookie-cutter versions of that model, to the point where the pastor’s at those churches talk in the same way that Brian Houston talks, you know, they’re the same delivery, exactly the same. And I got really fascinated with that as well, because they are just cookie cutters of each other.

Jared 

Can you say a little more about that? What, why do you think that? Why do you think that is? What is it about? The “we have to do it this way,” it has to be a cookie-cutter approach to be successful.

David 

It works! I think it just works so well. I mean, you look at how big Hillsong got, this huge success story. And you know, the money’s flowing in and there’s so many bums on seats, and there’s so many souls being saved. That model clearly works, so why not emulate it? And in New Zealand, you’ve got these megachurches like Life and City Impact and Arise that I’ve been writing about a lot. And they all, you know, they’re all essentially endorsed by Brian Houston. They’ve all had interactions with Brian Houston over the years. He is their hero, he is their success story. And you know, those churches have largely been really successful in New Zealand. They, they’re big, they work, they have members coming in. And it’s yeah, it’s you know, Brian Houston. He got that formula right. So why wouldn’t you copy it?

Pete 

Yeah. Well, that brings up a question for me that I’ve been thinking about. You say that, you know, they work. That model works. Why do you think it works so well?

David 

Well, I think for a church like Arise, which is the church I’ve been writing a lot about on my newsletter, Webworm. They are in a lot of university towns, and they are primarily recruiting young people into their church. And I think the megachurch system, and that sort of certain form of Pentecostal Christianity, it’s just really appealing to a certain teenager who is maybe feeling a bit lost in life, doesn’t have friends. They’re potentially in a new university city. And, you know, these churches actively recruit on campus, they go into hostels, they go into, you know, their dormitories, they go into the actual university grounds. And they say, “Hey, we’re having a gathering tonight. Why don’t you come and do this fun thing? We’ve got food, or we’ve got movies or whatever.” And people go along, and they find, “Oh, my goodness, I here’s this really super positive message. This is sort of a direction for how to live my life,” and, “Oh, my goodness, this music is amazing and slick, and this isn’t what I thought church was at all. And, you know, Arise Church in New Zealand, it sits at about 10,000 members, which is big for New Zealand. You know, we’ve only got 6 million people that live in the whole of the country. So, 10,000 is a big membership. And, you know, the membership generally stays at about 10,000. It’s not rocketing up. And that’s just because the churn rate is so high that they’re spitting people out the other side, but they’re also getting new university students and young people in immediately. So, I think the appeal is like, wow, this is family and community and excitement while I’m sort of scared in my first year at university. That might not last my homeliness here, but right now, it’s amazing. And you know, let’s get involved.

10:10

Jared 

So, what are the things? Because when you describe it like that, from an outside perspective, I think people might say, Well, what’s wrong with that? Like, oh, that’s great. Offering a meal, you offering community, you’re offering a sense of purpose.

David

Totally.

Jared 

So, what gets turned around in that? What have you uncovered?

David 

Yeah, well, I mean, what I’ve uncovered is that it works until it doesn’t. So, if you go along to a church, like Arise, and you, you know, sign up to God’s path, and you choose to be a certain type of Christian, if you fall in line, it’s great. You’ve got instant family, you’ve got friends, you’ve got positivity, you’ve got all that stuff around you. I think the problems begin for people, and what I certainly found, is when it doesn’t work.

So, you know, one super clear example is if you’re gay, for example, or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community that doesn’t fit in immediately—uh-oh, you’re sinning, this is a problem. And certainly, Arise does the “pray the gay away” thing we are very specifically told that your sexual orientation is a lie from Satan, and you must change. So that’s a really simple example of how—uh-oh, I’m not feeling great about myself now. I now feel terrible, and I’m going to be made to feel terrible as long as I exist in the system being myself.

Pete 

Yeah.

David 

Another really clear thing I found early on is that these internship systems where they’ll bring people in, and they’ll use them as interns and volunteers, and just really work them to the bone, because you know, they’re big productions, these services, you know, a huge visual component. It’s like sitting up for a band to play a gig, it’s a huge production, and they use interns to run everything. And then that becomes problematic as well.

Jared 

Well, and maybe I’ll jump in here with a little bit of my story, too, because I was actually a pastor at, I don’t know if you’d call it a megachurch, we had 3500 members.

Pete

Well, not by New Zealand standards, that’s for sure.

David 

[Laughter]

Jared 

Of course. We had about we had 3500 members.

David

That’s big. It’s a big population.

Jared

Yeah, and I was the pastor of serve, which meant I oversaw all of our volunteer opportunities. And there were two parts of that. There was volunteerism within the church, and then there was volunteering with, you know, outside the church in terms of outreach and things like that. And one of the reasons that we ended up leaving and my wife was very critical of this was the observation that it’s all about getting new people in the door. So, everything is about new people, and recruiting. And then once you’re in, everything falls on you, and everyone gets burned out, they don’t ever have any, like childcare workers because they don’t want, they don’t want to expect any new people to serve. It’s only if you’ve been there for a while. And it became that’s that churn rate you talked about earlier is like, we get you in with all the free gifts, and it’s a bait and switch, once you sign on the dotted line as a member, now you’re expected to give your whole life a way to get new people in. And it almost feels a little bit like a pyramid scheme of sorts.

David 

It very much feels like a pyramid scheme. And, you know, you look at how, you know, something I found fascinating about Arise is this honor culture, and a lot of these megachurches, and everyone is taught to just endlessly honor their leaders. And you’ve got, at Arise, you’ve got John Cameron, the lead pastor, he’s, you know, he walks in there, and he’s a celebrity. People will turn to Him, they admire him. Beautiful green rooms before gigs, only certain people can go in to meet with him. He’s a celebrity in there. And then you’ve got these university students who have a student loan, who have been told to, you know, to do good work and in God’s eyes, you have to, you know, work your ass off and set this service up. And the burnout rate is just incredible in there and there’s such a hierarchy and such a structure that, you know, you get, you know, I’ve talked to, you know, I’ve been reporting on this now for about one and a half months. And, you know, I have literally been out about 600 pages of emails of former interns who are just telling these stories. Because you know, Arise has been around for 20 years now. There’s a lot of them, especially when you consider the churn rate, and they’ve just been ruined. And they just, they didn’t know what happened to them. They just experienced this place that sucked them in, that took everything from them, at some point, actively encouraged them not to pursue further study, and to come and just be involved in church life. Suddenly, you’re cut off from the rest of the world completely, and your other friends and everything, your whole life just is the church. And it’s incredibly hard to leave, you’re incredibly stressed out. And when you ask about the other side, you kind of look around not knowing what the hell happened.

14:45

Jared 

It’s funny that you say that because the things that you’ve been describing: don’t question leaders, you belong until you don’t, isolate you from the rest of the world. You’re just describing cult behavior.

Pete 

Yeah, that was the question I was gonna ask. Yeah.

David 

Yeah, I mean, it’s funny throughout all my writing, I haven’t said cult, because I’m also aware that these churches have a lot of money and I don’t particularly want to get done for defamation. So, I always go with cult-like, because there are some minor differences to an actual cult. But the, you know, it’s all pretty questionable. Like all the things are pointing in that direction. And, you know, when I first started writing about this stuff, I just watched an amazing documentary called The Vow, which is about the NXIVM.

Pete

Oh, gosh, yes.

David 

Sex cults, and I was watching this thing. And it’s I was just thinking, this is the same thing, minus like, the branding and the rampant sex. It’s the same thing of this power structure, this leadership structure, working interns to the bone, giving financially giving everything to this church, and you get trapped in this space. And so the, I was just watching this NXIVM thing going on. No, this is, this is like megachurch. Like, this is what we’re dealing with here. And, you know, it’s what, and like NXIVM, you know, as people tried to get out of that cult, the people left on the inside were just so tied to it, they wouldn’t see how bad it was, you only saw it once you got out the other side, which is what I’ve been trying to do with my reporting is just give voice to those people that have been through it, and are on the other side, and can now speak about what that experience was like.

Pete 

Right. You know, what I have picked up on too is, and you look at these people who are a part of these movements, let’s just call them movements. And how could they be so dumb? But they’re not dumb people.

David  

No.

Pete

They’re actually, many of them are very educated, but they’re looking for someone to give them the answers to tying the complexities of life together, they offer that in some sort of a package. And once you’re in, it’s really hard to let go of that. And you might be more prone to put up with various forms of abuse.

David

I could not agree more with all of that. And you know, the people in these systems aren’t stupid. There’s some incredibly smart people in there. Again, I don’t mean to keep going on about NXIVM, but a lot of people in NXIVM were like really smart, creative, amazing people. And it’s, it’s amazing what they got drawn into.

But, you know, the, you’ve got the leaders in these spaces, they’re all, like to be frank, they’re all extreme narcissists. And that comes with a certain type of behavior and a certain type of being. And when you’ve got these narcissistic leaders leading these places, they’re really good at gaining your favor and your trust, and that’s all they do. And I think it’s really hard. If you’ve never been involved in church at all, or in a religious structure, the idea of how much your whole life and your whole self-worth gets wrapped up in the space. And certainly, with a church like Arise, they’re very cynical about how they worm their way into every aspect of your life, including the database they use to sort of track whether you’re attending services and what you’re doing and what life groups you’ve attended.

Pete 

Really?

David

Oh, yeah. I’ve just written today on Webworm about the system they use called Flocks, which is a very funny name for their database,

Pete

[Uproarious laughter]

David

But they track your attendance.

Pete 

No, it’s okay. Because it’s a Christian name.

David 

Yeah. Because it’s a Christian thing.

Pete

Yeah, You can do whatever you want, you know.

David

For how close you are to God, you know, green through to red.

Pete

[Light laughter]

David

And it’s, I mean, you can’t make some of the stuff up. But yeah, once you’re in, it’s just it’s so hard to leave.

Jared 

Well, I have some thoughts on that. I’m trying to figure out how to get there. But because I think I want to ask the question first, but I do have some thoughts around it. And I want to tie it into this system like Flocks, because again, I can provide some insight because I had a system like that.

David

Yeah, you did it.

Jared 

Of course, it was like, 20 years ago. So, it was a very different system.

Pete 

[In a super incredulous tone] You did that?  Why are we even working together? Jared, you’re crazy.

David

[Light laughter]

Jared 

Everyone deserves a second chance, Pete.

Pete 

Whatever.

Jared 

So, my question is, what do people think they’re doing for God, when they’re in these systems? It’s clear that they’re not, they don’t think that they’re just supporting these narcissistic pastors for their own good. And like, with these pyramid schemes, you think you’re selling a product that you believe in or things. What? What are these? What do people think that they’re doing for God? Like, how do they sell this to people?

David 

Alright, it’s a good question. I mean, you may know the answer far better than I do. But I mean, in my mind, for one thing, they think they are there to honor God. And that is like a ticket to heaven and a ticket to a good life. And they also think that they invest heavily in the church because they all preach prosperity doctrine, that if they give their money to the church, then essentially, God will give back to them. Right? So, just being in there and being present and worshiping. They think they’re given a life in heaven and that their life on earth is going to be like, quite good until they get there.

I think they also see their outreach as being incredibly important, saving other souls.

20:00

David 

Like, a lot of those members, they see new people coming in the door signing up. Holy shit, they’ve just literally rescued them from an infinity in the fiery pits of hell. And they’ve inserted them into, you know, a golden ticket to heaven. That’s, they believe that that’s like genuinely the best thing you could ever do for someone. So, getting new people in the door, and putting on the best musical performance they can so that they come up to the front of the end and give their lives over to God, and feel welcome. That’s a huge motivator, I think. And the idea that, you know, potentially all they’re doing is being fleeced and being sucked into a system won’t even cross their minds. Right?

Jared 

Right. Right. Well, that’s and that’s what I had been thinking is I’ve been trying to think through this week, as we were getting ready to talk to you of what, what is it that people think that they’re doing? And because I was wondering is like, there’s certain verses from the Bible that keeps coming up that you use and utilize, but I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s actually deeper, where the entire system, so the brand is equated with the gospel, or the brand is equated with God/Jesus. And then you can just do whatever you want.

David 

Yeah, it’s all the brand. And I mean, I’m not a scholar by any…a lot of your guests know so much. But just looking at some of the sermons on YouTube that John Cameron and other pastors are, it’s just they’re in loops. Like this, they cherry-pick certain verses out of nowhere. And the messaging over the years is just the same stuff. Like it’s so the idea that it’s sort of biblical is just so farcical because they’re just picking like a few Greatest Hits.

Jared 

So, they have like, three themes that reinforce the system, and then they just find different ways to package that.

Pete 

Right.

David 

Oh, completely. And it’s, I mean, it’s this place. I mean, we haven’t even gotten to the really insidious stuff. Like this word I kept coming across when I was talking to former members and interns and volunteers and staff is this idea of uplining. And you know, what happens is, if you’re a young person who realizes their whole, you know, their whole ticket to Heaven is sort of based around their moral purity and how good they are, then, you know, if something bad happens to them, or they’re ill, they feel they’ve sinned, then they’ll go to their life group leader, and they’ll tell them. What they don’t realize is that that information is uplined. So, it goes to the leader on top of them, the leader on top of them, suddenly, a lot of people know about this deeply personal thing you’ve told to one person at that church who you admire.

So, I heard stories of people that had been sexually assaulted and raped, they would go and tell this incredibly, sometimes criminal information to a leader. Suddenly, a lot of people know about the information. And they immediately, often made to feel incredibly guilty about that thing that had nothing to do with them. And suddenly, the only way that they can morally get back on track is to repent and to get deeper into the church and the level of guilt they feel in judgment from people because of this process of uplining. I mean, privacy be damned, that, you know, the church could not care less. But that’s just an example of a system they have in place this idea called uplining, that does keep people in line and trapped in the system for years.

You know, I spoke to one woman who had spent, she had been there since the church was formed. She’d been there nearly two decades, and she sees those two decades as being time in a vortex of just…and she just can’t believe it happened to her. You know, it’s not people being sucked into this thing for six months, you’ve got people emerging, you know, from decades in the place.

Pete 

Yeah, I mean, it’s like, you come in the door, because they’ve, you’ve been sold something. You’re in deep, deep, deep trouble with God. And we have the solution to that. And plus, we’re fun to be around. We’ve got great music, we’ve got light shows. I actually spoke in a place once where they had like a fog machine, which was really cool. I could get used to that, Jared.

Jared 

Do you want one here in the studio?

Pete

[Laughter] Yeah, just do it now.

But the thing is that, you know, that perpetuates itself. Because as you go through and real life hits you, and you maybe think things are not part of the system, or you are something that’s not part of the system, and you sort of tell that to people. That’s just another thing to use to say that’s the problem, and we still have the solution to that. You can never get out. I mean, that’s why I think for people who actually leave that, I know people who have left conservative churches that are not cultish. And it takes them years and years and years to get those voices out of their heads. Something like this, where… I mean, I don’t know what the people’s motives are who run this. I really don’t.

25:00

David 

I keep questioning that. I mean, I keep questioning their motives, you know, I look at John Cameron and I go, look, is his motivation saving people from the eternal pits of hell or is his motivation to feel really good about himself and to have a nice house and a nice car and to sort of see this empire he’s running?

Jared 

I wonder if it evolves over time, too, where it begins in a good place. And then as it snowballs, you lose sight.

Pete 

Because you have so many fringe benefits there. You got a lot of nice stuff, you know?

David 

Completely. And I mean, I when I left, you know, as I said, I’m agnostic now. When I left my belief system, I mean, I left because I found out I was bisexual, right? So that, for me, was a soul crushing moment, where everyone around me was suddenly saying essentially, you, sinner, you’re evil… My whole life change very quickly. And when that system, when I realized that—uh-oh, I don’t fit in the system anymore. And you think, oh, I want to leave, I just remember years of trying to come up with like little hacks where I could keep my faith and keep my place in heaven, but still kind of be myself, but maybe not be a sinner. And yet, when you extract yourself, it’s really fucking hard to do. And it’s, an issue being in that system, it’s really hard to explain to someone. And you know, I still to this day, I’m 39. And it’s still a little part in my brain that is worried that maybe Hell’s real and I’m going there. That will never leave because it was drilled into me when I was, before I could think, literally. So yeah, leaving these places, and I was in a very loose form of Christianity. So, if you’re, if you’re in a really intense form of Christianity, plus you’re financially tied up to it, because you’ve given so much of your money there. It’s just I have huge admiration for anyone that manages to get out.

Jared 

Yeah. One thing else I was just thinking of too, as I wonder, and this is an unformed thought, so it may not hold water. But I know, in my experience, in a lot of these places, it also could, it’s simply lack of best practices and figuring out how to do things right. So, for instance, like leadership, it’s this whole cottage industry, within larger churches of like Christian leadership, where they have conferences and have a lot of books and things like that. But they’re not getting that information necessarily from researchers in management schools. They’re getting it from other Christians who have led large churches. And so, you end up with these somewhat toxic, like toxic practices. Because, and I think it is coming to, Pete, what made me think of it was what you said earlier. It comes from this biblicistic idea where everything we need to do to lead organizations or to do anything well is already in our hands in the Bible. So, if it’s in, like, we just need the Bible. If we just read the Bible, well, we would be great, you know, lead pastors of 10,000 people. And that just I think, is toxic, because it actually doesn’t work. And then you end up with things like uplining, which might feel like a good practice in an organization if you don’t, if you’re not trained.

David 

It’s the governance that or lack thereof is problematic. I mean, the main problem at all these megachurches is you’ve got these narcissists at the top that rule everything. And just looking at John Cameron, that the pastor I’ve been talking about, if it was, if he was leading any business, he would have resigned, like, but he’s sticking in there. And there was an internal memo circulated amongst leaders in this church saying, “Oh, no, once this external review is complete, which is the church’s carrying out, John will be back to lead. He’s the one that needs to carry out all these changes.” And when clearly, he’s the last person imaginable that needs to carry out all these changes.

Pete 

Where do you get this idea from? He’s the one to do this. Anyway. Yeah.

David 

It’s mad. Because he’s been successful! He took this model that Brian Houston set up and he’s grown a church to 10,000. It’s the biggest church in New Zealand. For him, that is success. Who else could do that? You know, who else would be capable of such a feat? That’s what he’ll be thinking.

Pete 

And of course, we’re defining success in certain ways. But you know, before earlier, David, you use the word, we haven’t even gotten to like some of the insidious stuff.

David 

We haven’t.

Pete 

Well, we have a few minutes left. I would like to do this and here’s why. Because I think there are people listening to this, who might need their experiences validated somehow.

David

Yeah.

Pete 

So, I think, you know, people have lived through a lot of things. And we have a very, I think, a diverse listening audience. And it’s not about dirt and you know, say what you want to say about whatever. But what are some of those more insidious places? Where’s the deep, dark underbelly where this sort of thing goes?

29:55

David 

Oh, I mean, the things that really stood out to me in my reporting of this church were young people coming to their leaders with stories of sexual assault and rape, and essentially being told those allegations being swept under the rug, and then them being made to feel incredibly guilty about that. So certain situations where I believe things should have been taken to the police, they were literally hashed up. And you know, some of the people involved in the assaults were church members. So that’s highly problematic. But the other thing that I found really troubling was that we had stories of, you know, the leader John Cameron, you know, verbally and physically. Have to couch my language carefully, again, because of the litigious nature these places. You know, John Cameron would physically grab people by the collar and scream at them if they missed a cue. So, there was physical connections there, which were troubling in a workplace. And then, you know, I would describe it and it doesn’t do it credit, but it’s this lad culture, which is, I think, a very Australian and New Zealand way of terming things where it’s like laddish, like boys will be boys. And what that led to was some of these church tours which Arise will take around the country, you know, there would be punching and dead legs. And at one point, Brent who is Cameron, John Cameron’s brother, who was high up in the hierarchy, would show his genitals and chase after other staff at the church.

You know, that that sort of stuff led to one person having a mental breakdown. You know, his genitals are exposed to him, and that was now a running joke for years, you know, we’ll always have that city so and so was the catchphrase that would always be repeated in public. And it’s this laddish bullying culture that is so deeply embedded in this church that I found really all fall in, it was just a really physical manifestation of the power structures that are deeply at play in these places. And you know, when you’re a young person who is figuring out the world, and you know, you’re young, and you’re experimenting, and you’re trying to figure out who you are, these places, I could not think of a worse place to be to make you feel mentally unwell. It’s, you know, they promised the answers, but all they give you is like guilt and a dead leg and sometimes flashing of someone’s genitals. It’s pretty weird.

Jared 

Yeah, it’s the sense that you have the sense again, that you have the answer. And so you must be mature and wise and have all this experience. And you’re seen in that way, when in fact, it’s not the case.

Pete 

They’re 14 years old, right?

Jared 

Pretty much, yeah. But can I ask about, as we as we get to the end, I did want to talk a little bit about maybe some solutions for how we can create better systems and you talked about this earlier. And it’s true in my experiences over the years as well, in churches like this, where there’s this fake governance. So again, we want to pair it the real world. So, we have a board, but it’s really just church members who give a lot of money or have said really nice things about the pastor.

David 

Oh, I mean, the structure, Arise was mad. I mean, when I started reporting this, there was a huge deal that John Cameron, the pastor had, you know, left the board and resigned or stepped down. What I found out was that he hadn’t resigned from the church, stepping, it wasn’t stepping down, he had stepped aside. And then as far as the board went, the way that the rules were set up, even though he wasn’t on the board anymore, he still had full approval, as John Cameron, about who got on the board. So, it’s so intrinsically cooked, that the idea of the board being somehow… And they’ve since, since I reported that, have been, changed that rule again. So, they are making changes, which is what needs to happen. There needs to be outside minds involved that can like look at the stuff objectively. When you’ve got 10,000 people under your control of essentially one person and his wife, then that’s a lot of people and a lot of young people to look out for. It’s a lot of responsibility. And, and one person can’t do that. John Cameron can’t do that. There needs to be objective other players involved, that understand how Christianity works, and how this works as a business, who can keep an eye on things and call people out.

And again, like as long as John Cameron stays in control of the space, I would argue very little will change because it’s all about him. And it’s not about the members, he could not care less about them. So, I, look, I again, this isn’t my area of expertise. I don’t know what that looks like what that governance structure looks like. But it needs to be much more transparent and much clearer and everything about this church needs to be really pulled apart and put together again.

Pete 

And maybe we don’t need 10,000-member churches.

34:53

David 

Maybe not! And I should say this, because a lot of people in my reporting have accused me of sort of being anti-Christian and, and all sorts and I’m really not. Like, if anything, reporting on this has made me remember, like, whoever you think and believe Jesus was like, he was like a revolutionary, he had incredible ideas. He was kind, he was great. And when I look at what these megachurches are, they’re not that, like they’re not, in my opinion, biblical, it’s a different thing. So, yeah, I have very little beef with Christianity, I certainly don’t have any beef with Jesus. It’s what the systems have become that something else, in my opinion, it’s something else entirely.

Jared 

Maybe this is an unanswerable question. But I’m curious, how do we go from the Jesus we find and in the Bible, or even other these other iterations of Christianity throughout history, and then get to, because in my experience, these churches not only do find themselves being, they think they are biblical, they think they are following after Jesus, then not only that, but then in one of the most developed ways, like they’re not even just doing it, they’re doing it the best that you could do it? How? Like, I don’t know, do you have any, if you run across anyone who could explain how they got there?

David 

How we got to that point?

Jared 

Yeah, just how you get to this system? And someone being like, yeah, when I look at the Jesus of the Bible, like, this is exactly what I see.

David 

Oh look, I don’t know. I think you have some very people getting into these positions of power leading these churches who are literally they are narcissists. It’s a condition of their brain, they’re wired in a certain way. And I think when you have those people that cottoned on to these religious beliefs, and they also have, they’re driven by their image and their ego and their possessions, I just think that’s an incredibly dangerous… It’s an incredibly dangerous combo. And it’s how we’ve gotten to this point.

You know, as I say, Brian Houston has a lot to answer for, I think that Hillsong model proved to a place like New Zealand because Brian was spent a lot of time in New Zealand. They all copy that model. And it’s a model that again, it works. It’s a business, it’s much more business then Christian. And I don’t know where we go from here. I don’t know whether these churches can survive in their current state and be and not have casualties because I almost think that their current makeup, they would not exist without creating trauma and people. And sure, somebody will have a great time. But I think what, as long as they exist in the structure, there’s people that are going to be utterly messed up by the system.

Jared 

Is there a cultural component to this as well, where I think, I can, I’m just thinking we have a lot of maybe, say, Jewish guests, and I think of, you know, I don’t remember what like the culture map of different cultures that are more…

Pete 

I don’t think that there are Jewish mega-synagogues.

Jared 

Yeah, exactly. Where there’s this like sense of like, you’re not gonna probably convince a bunch of like, yeah, you’re just, there’s a sense in which are certain cultures might be more prone to or susceptible to like a celebrity type culture.

David 

Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, all the, I don’t know, I don’t, again, I’m not an expert on this. I mean, all the leaders I’ve written about it, these megachurches, drawing people in, fairly affluent white people, you know, this like, and they are seen as being, you know, I think it’s another example of colonialism and the white man coming into another culture and going, “Hey, this is what we’re, this is the truth. This is how you get to heaven come to us.” And, you know, it’s very complex, obviously, but I think there is something in that, that the leaders are generally white and wealthy. And yeah, I mean, there’s much bigger conversations, obviously, around colonization and Christianity and bringing that particular religion to whoever the original custodians of the land were, you know, that’s a whole other conversation.

Pete 

Right, right. You know, and the thing about you mentioned about narcissism, I do think that’s a component of this. And maybe another rule is don’t have a narcissist as a leader, but you know, they tend to be in positions of leadership, because they’re good at it. Right?

But, you know, and then you develop this church model, which is pretty much who you are, is what everybody needs. And so, it would breed maybe these larger churches, rather than… I mean, I, someone I know who’s a spiritual mentor of sorts. His name is David Benner, but he was once asked to come to a megachurch. He didn’t tell anybody what the name of the church was, but they said, “Hey, listen, a lot of our people are into contemplative stuff. Can you help us develop like a contemplative wing of our church, so we can do that too?” And he says, because a lot of people are leaving our church and David says, “Well, why don’t you just let them leave? Maybe your church does something good for some people, but maybe it doesn’t have to do everything good for everybody.”

40:00

Pete

It’s like, they didn’t even know what to do with that. That was inconceivable to them that we’re not the eschaton here. We haven’t reached this eschatological moment where our church is the one that has the answer.

David 

That’s the dream, right? I think in these megachurches minds, they are their church. And ideally, they want the entirety of their country to be a member and for other churches to not exist, I think that is their happy place. And some of the recruitment, you know, I’ve heard stories and with other megachurches in New Zealand, you know, church members go into university campuses and say, you know, “Do you want to come on to this event?” Or you know, “ Are you a Christian?” And they’re not just looking for people that say, we’re not a Christian, come to this thing. They’re targeting people who say, we are a Christian, but they’re the wrong type of Christian. And they will tell them why they’re wrong. And they’ll say, “No, come to us. We’ve got the answers.” And I think the second you’ve got a man saying, we have the answer, and it’s removed from even, you know, Jesus, or any religious leader, it’s like, just step away. Like, don’t go there. It’s not going to be good.

Pete

Yeah.

Jared 

One of my favorite stories when I was a pastor was, we had a gay couple, and they wanted to be baptized first. And so, and actually, we all got together and decided, yeah, that we can baptize them. That’s fine. And then they said, well, now they want to be members of our church. And in my mind, like, that’s a no brainer, like, of course, if you baptize them. So, but everyone said, “No, they can’t be members.” And I’m like, so wait. They can be a part of God’s family, but not ours?!

Pete

Exactly. [Laughter]

Jared

So then, the best part was, we’re sitting around like a leadership team and our technical director is not actually a pastor, but he was high up in the organization, so he was in this meeting. He just had this like, flash of brilliance. And he was like, “Oh, my gosh, lightbulb moment. There’s a church right down the road that’s affirming. Why don’t we establish a partnership with them? And whenever gay people come to our church, we send them there to be members there. Because then they can be affirming, they can be a part, we just have this joint partnership.” And you would have thought he had grown like a second head the way everyone just stared at him, like, why would we? And it just brought out the prejudice and the bias, which is what you’re saying. Like, well, actually, when we’re actually honest and upfront about it, we actually think they’re just as wrong probably as atheists about this thing.

David

Completely.


Jared

And so, I just felt so bad for him.

David 

I mean, I love and I hate that story and its various elements. But you what you just said, I mean, that’s the other thing about these institutions. They’re incredibly dishonest. I mean, a very small part of this bigger story that I was just personally interested in was their attitudes towards gay conversion therapy, which was something that has been banned in New Zealand recently through Parliament. And, you know, I got emails, internal email sent between the church that, you know, sorry, it’s being sent externally saying, “No, we do not practice gay conversion therapy. It’s not a thing. It’s not something we’re worried about.” So that’s their public image. But internally, what they will be doing to young people is literally handing them a little prayer tract, and getting them to pray the gay away and telling them that this is absolutely sinful and awful. This is gay conversion therapy, you know. And so, there’s this incredible dishonesty with what they’re putting out into the world and what they’re actually doing to young people. And I find that pretty abhorrent. And just to be honest, like just pretty unchristian. That’s kind of what it comes down to.

Pete

Yeah.

Jared 

Yeah. Well, David, thank you so much for sharing the work that you’ve been doing, and what can, where can people find, if they want to follow your writings on this? Because I know you’re coming out with new stuff all the time around these churches. Where can people find that?

David 

Yeah, look, best place is webworm.co. Not .com, I couldn’t afford to get a.com. So, it’s web worm.co. And it’s a subscription service. But all my coverage of megachurches and other things I write about that I deem important. It’s all free to read. There’s nothing behind a paywall. So, you’re welcome to jump in there and have a look.

Jared 

Excellent. Thanks so much, David, for jumping on. Appreciate it.

Pete

Thank you.

David 

No, thanks for having me.

[Music begins, plays in background]

Stephanie

Well, that’s it for this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Before you go, we want to give a huge shout-out to our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you’d like to help support the podcast, you can leave us a review or just tell others about our show. You can also head over to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, where for as little as $3 a month, you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.

45:04

Dave

Our show was produced by Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marketing Director, Savannah Locke; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared and the entire Bible for Normal People team—thanks for listening.

[Music ends]

[End of recorded material]

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