I Can’t Call it a Cult.
Welcome to the megachurch. No frescoes, but bold infographics on an Instagram page. No stained glass windows but concrete auditoriums, filled with trusses and light shows more reminiscent of a rave. No holy leader, just two “regular” pastors—Benjamin and Anna Caroll who post poorly focused reels on Instagram. Oh and who used to manage a church that brought in fifteen million in donations a year. Welcome to Passion AKL.
But actually, welcome to Arise. You may remember over the course of last year a series of stories broke about Arise, particularly after an investigation by David Farrier. Concerning intern exploitation—how they worked long hours while paying to be there, how they were bullied and about how one of the lead pastors at the time, Brent Cameron, stripped naked in front of them. I know this seems like a normal summer internship for the average University student, but it should not have to be.
At the top of Passion AKL’s leadership is Benjamin Carroll, Abigail Ayling, and Alistair Hill as trustees. Ayling owns a third of the shares in Arise Productions. Benjamin Carroll was a leader with Arise for seventeen years, and his wife for thirteen. The church officially split from Arise in October last year, but according to our informant, it is “the same people, the same coercive theology, and the same systems and culture of Arise.”
Consider the split simply PR. They were under investigation by the IRD and could have been deregistered as a charity. Paying taxes on their millions in donations is not exactly what they wanted. Thus, a whole new church was created—to remove the problems from the central leadership and bring in money from the biggest centre in New Zealand, again.
Know that Passion AKL want your money. These are never regular pastors, Peter and Bev Mortlock of the City Impact church sold their Coatesville Mansion for 10 Million dollars. It would take over 150 years for someone on the median wage in this country to make that amount of money. Make no mistake, the Church has always been lucrative, since its position as a charity allows them to be exempt from business, income, and capital gains taxes. Carroll, manager of the church’s assets and effective employee of the church too, is primely positioned to take advantage of this extra wealth.
They are adherent to pentecostalism, which is to say, they emphasise the Holy Spirit and a direct relationship with God. They preach a very established doctrine: Prosperity. The more you give to the Church, the more the Church, and thus God will give to you. But this is not some mystical Ponzi scheme, if you get satisfaction from giving them money, that is all you receive in return. Maybe an invitation to a class on being a better Christian, but never more than that.
Arise, and thus Passion, has always been associated with a younger demographic. They are not the older generation of churchgoers we might expect. They’ve been known to target high schools and attract University students into their prayer services through well-executed light shows and musical performances. According to Josh, an ex-Arise member, there are “ministries for intermediate, high school, and university-aged people” all designed specifically to target the most vulnerable in the demographic.
But why is this important now? Why should you care? Because they want you! Or more specifically, they want your money and your time. According to our informant, they will be out there, O-Week and beyond, looking for you. They will be on campus. They will seize on your weakness, find the small insecurity that you forgot about, and fill it with positivity. So much positivity. Jesus, the Holy Spirit, all the good and none of the bad. Toxic positivity, dysfunctional emotional management until you rely on them and their system for validation.
And it is so valid to be lonely, whether you’re new or returning, to be stressed, to be sad, to be under a pressure with which you can not cope. AUSA, that’s the Auckland University Students’ Association for those of you who are new, has information about how to identify these groups. Often they will be aggressive, not hostile, but pushy. They will pile on pressure and guilt until you feel compelled. But you always have a choice. They will try to isolate you from people outside their group. It makes you more dependent on them. And they will often claim to have the “right way” about themselves. There is no universal way, there is only your way.
So find support, even if you want to join, find support. Friends, family, the Dessert Society, or the UoA Maths club for all that it matters. Travel in groups and they’ll be less likely to approach you. If you want to give money to a good cause, remember you are a student in the middle of a cost of living crisis in Tāmaki Makarau, which is not known for being cheap.
Benjamin Carroll has been approached for comment, and he has claimed that there are no plans for individuals to come onto campus. He claims they are “focussed on getting going,” and is it petty to point out that he made a typo? I care not. Should you see them and feel threatened or bullied, the University encourages you to report it.
Look after yourself foremost and stay vigilant.