Josh Barley was raised in a devout Christian family. He eventually left the faith and became an atheist. He felt so strongly about how his former church, “Arise Church” targeted young people was wrong, that he created a blog about them to expose their agenda, methods and goals.
Were you you raised in a religious family?
Both of my parents are committed Christians so this had a substantial effect on the way in which they raised myself and my two siblings. Many of the ways in which our family functioned were driven by Christian principles. Ever since I can remember our family attended church most Sundays, typically Pentecostal type ones, and usually mornings but sometimes evenings. I think my parents were attracted to the charismatic personalities that often grace the pulpits of these churches. For our family, going to church was a priority and considered a necessary commitment to God as well as an opportunity to socialize. We prayed over our meal during every dinner time and sometimes one of us kids was asked to take the prayer. The “rod” was not spared and was used quite liberally for disciplinary actions. Watching PG rated TV programs was generally permitted, but AO programs and “M” rated movies were prohibited even during our teen years. On some Sunday evenings we would be instructed in a Bible study by Dad. This consisted of reading a passage and then asking us questions or listening to him talk about some theological aspect of the Christian faith. I had my own Bible to read and my parents provided a steady supply of Christian literature. I was brought up to believe in a literal six-day creation and a six-thousand year old earth (my Dad, however, was trained in geology at university so I think he has an interpretation of Genesis that allows for billions of years). I can remember the Creation: Ex Nihilo magazine (Ken Ham‘s Creationist propaganda) my parents got my subscription, which I read intently as a curious child does. One time my mum thought it would be instructive for her to give my Year 6 primary school teacher some copies, which my teacher politely accepted. Swearing was prohibited and Christian morality, especially regarding sex, was inculcated in all of us when we were teens. My Nana on my Dad’s side of the family is also extremely religious and so most of my extended family on his side are deeply Christian as well.
Did you go to a Christian Primary School or a State Primary School?
I attended state primary schools throughout my childhood, both in Australia and New Zealand. The most religious school that I went to was actually Wellington College. There we had assemblies where, usually, all the pupils and teachers recited The Lord’s Prayer and sung a hymn which often was one with a Christian theme.
Did you have non-Christian friends as a kid?
I had friends who were raised in Christian families and were part of the local church community (whether they genuinely considered themselves to be Christian or not I’m not sure. If a kid genuinely considers themselves to be a Christian before the age of ten, then that isn’t something that they deliberately determined for themselves but rather it’s an indication of indoctrination). I also had some friends I made through playing sports (cricket, soccer, touch rugby). I was also friends with the neighbours kids, although I can remember my parents slight disapproval of us hanging out. After moving to New Zealand when I was eight, most of my friends were made through sport. When I got to the age of about eleven, I remember being aware that I had my friends from school and sport and I had some church friends and that they were distinct non-overlapping groups.
How did you and your Christian friends view other non-Christian kids?
I would like to think that I was impartial in how I viewed other kids in regards to whether they were Christian or not. I definitely don’t remember being discriminatory just because a kid didn’t come from a Christian family. My whole upbringing, I remember my parents being a touch averse to me hanging out with “rougher” kids who might have picked up certain behaviours which my parents disapproved of, e.g. a propensity to swear or to act aggressively. I think this dim view that my parents held of these kids was passed somewhat on to me. Up until the age of eight or so, I think that if I did have a negative view of particular kids, it wasn’t because it was what I thought it but because it was what my parents thought. After this age I think I started to make judgements of the character of kids to discern whether or not they were someone that I should be friends with. By the time I was eleven, most, if not all of the friends who attended my birthdays were from non-Christian families.
As for how my Christian friends viewed non-Christian kids, I don’t recall any instances of there being any bullying or picking on someone or teasing because they were non-Christian. I vaguely remember having an awareness since I was young that being a Christian kid in a public school meant that you were in the minority and what one did when in this situation was not piss off anyone in the majority. I wouldn’t be surprised if my Christian peers at the time had a similar awareness.
In regards to how I was viewed by other kids: I was sometimes bullied at school for being boastful and my inclination is that my Christian upbringing instilled a certain self-importance in me and that this was exuded at school. This is probably what made me a target for teasing at a young age.
In your “Arise Church Notice” blog, you talk about being a former attendee.
How long were you a member and what made you decide to leave?
In 2004 when I was eighteen and at uni (in Christchurch) for the first time, my parents changed churches, from The Rock Church to ARISE Church (which was called City Church Wellington prior to 2008). Between 2004 and 2006 I attended ARISE Church only when I was visiting my parents while I lived in Christchurch. I moved home at the end of 2006 and in 2007 through to 2009, I attended ARISE Church on a semi-regular basis, although my interest was rather dwindling during this period and I would often excuse myself during a service pretending to need a comfort break and just leave entirely; or sometimes I would pretend to be asleep during the sermon. It was during this period that I read “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins and this significantly shifted my position regarding religion. After reading it, my recollection is that I rejected Christianity but I still couldn’t shake the belief in some sort of divine designer due to finding certain aspects of nature to be rather persuasive arguments in favour of it’s existence, i.e. the apparent complexity of life, the improbability of the existence of Earth as a life-bearing planet, and the immensity of the universe being some. At this point I guess I subscribed to some sort of deistic world view in which life was intelligently designed and not evolved.
A few things during this period also happened in the church which started to turn me away from Christianity. I started to notice some of the rhetoric coming from the pulpit was rather disturbing in nature. I remember Gillian Cameron (pastor and wife of John Cameron) talking about buying a nice new flat screen TV and proclaiming that it’s OK to want nice things and also that it’s OK to pray to God and ask God for nice things because God actually wants to bless you and prosper you if you subordinate yourself sufficiently to his “will” (which is a convenient reason one can use to justify one’s materialistic disposition). And when God metaphorically “gives” one something, it’s also OK to revel in feelings of being blessed and favoured by God. I remember finding this unsettling as well as simultaneously being amazed that this kind of rhetoric received positive feedback from the congregation. This showed me that one can use Christianity to support ones own narcissism and desire for material gain as opposed to striving for modesty and humility akin to the example that Jesus set. One other incident was when I attended a boys night and we watched the Jason Stratham movie “Crank” which has quite a bit of violence, sexual references, and a ridiculous story line. This made me realise the moral hypocrisy that existed in other church members; that they only subscribed to Christian morality when it was convenient; that their piety exhibited during church services and other meet-ups was phony, and in some cases, deliberately put on so as to ideally position themselves within the existing social dynamics in their desire to appear favourable to certain members of the opposite sex.
I went back to live in Christchurch between 2010 to 2014 and so during this time my attendance at ARISE was just when I was visiting my parents and only as a courtesy to them.
Over the summer of 2014 to 2015, I did some serious investigation into evolution vs intelligent design and this period also exposed me to the devastating critiques of Christianity made by two other prominent atheists, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. I must also credit the website ex-christian.net for helping me to completely shift my beliefs. I remember Google searching “ex Christians”, finding this website, and reading testimonial after testimonial of people who had had similar experiences to what I had, who had also had an internal struggle in their minds trying to make the Christian world view coherent and rational. These testimonials told of things like trying to resolve logical inconsistencies, grappling with moral and ethical dilemmas, struggling with having many unanswered questions, and being plagued by cognitive dissonance. Reading these testimonials triggered something in me where I realized that it was normal to be a non-believer and that many people had exactly the same issues with Christianity that I had. After this period I considered myself an atheist but I still hadn’t admitted this to my parents. That all changed when I reluctantly went to the Easter Sunday service at ARISE Church in 2015. I walked out after about ten minutes and later that night I told my parents exactly what I believed. I have never attended a service since (although I have been recording their online services so as to compile some of the disturbing rhetoric for my blog)
If your parents are still religious, have you been able to maintain a relationship with them?
My parent’s are still very much religious. After my admission to them of my true beliefs, my parents were supportive and they said that they would love me no matter what. This didn’t stop us having a few arguments though. Once, my dad objected to me reading atheist literature in his home and things got a bit heated for an hour or so. When I provided an unfavourable opinion to Stuff regarding the Reggie Dabbs tour in 2016, my parents weren’t too happy although they conceded that I have a right to my own opinions and my ability to express them. Today we remain on good terms and have a mutual respect for each others beliefs. However, I sometimes get emails from my Dad with links to Christian/intelligent design internet articles or videos, so I don’t think he will give up on me so easily.
How do you feel about Arise Church’s approach to recruitment of young people?
Young people are impressionable, emotionally vulnerable, have an innate desire for community and fellowship, and often have internal questioning about purpose and existence. ARISE exploits these traits of young people to rather lucrative effect. They deliberately target youth because they know that is the best opportunity they will have to reach people, when their minds are more open and aren’t sufficiently developed to guard against specious teachings. To this end much of their recruitment efforts are directed at high schools and universities, but they also target primary schools. ARISE Church makes no secret of their intentions to infiltrate educational establishments. In fact, John Cameron has explicitly stated his desire for ARISE Church to win entire high-schools and universities to Jesus Christ. Whatever that means in practice however is not stated.
ARISE Church have done their research and know how to get access to young people at all levels of education. In regards to primary schools, ARISE Church helps provide the “Champions” Christian Religious Education programme in partnership with the Churches Education Commission in schools throughout Christchurch, Wellington and Hamilton. They also run “breakfast clubs” in some primary schools around Wellington. The motivation to provide food for hungry kids is a laudable one but they use this opportunity to evangelize to young children, tell them about the “love of God” and encourage them to attend church. This evangelism gets a free pass by school staff because it is smuggled in under the guise of charity. This kind of behaviour undermines the requirement of state primary schools to be secular but also demonstrates something more sinister, which is the lengths that ARISE Church will go to for evangelism; that they are willing to exploit the most vulnerable of society (hungry children) so as to inculcate them in to a belief in ARISE Church’s flavour of Christianity.
ARISE Church has a particular message which they have crafted to be appealing to young people. It could best be described as positive self-help through Jesus. They focus on positive thinking and deliberately emphasize certain ideas meant to take advantage of one’s own perceived flaws, deficiencies, and failures. Some of these ideas are:
- All humans including oneself have been deliberately made by God. You are special and unique because God made you that way.
- There exists a God-given purpose inherent within everyone which is discoverable through a relationship with Jesus.
- God doesn’t see your flaws but sees your potential.
- Faith in Jesus will prosper you in every facet of ones life. This includes health, finances, employment, marriage, relationships, and personal goals.
- If one has faith in Jesus, then one will triumph over any adversity, which will provide a demonstration to others of the “truth” of Jesus and the benefits being a Christian.
ARISE Church endeavours to provide an upbeat, vibrant atmosphere in the public sphere and at it’s services. They want to be viewed as a place that is fun and exciting because this appeals more to young people. Everyone is happy and smiling; everyone is pleased to see you, and to an impartial observer this behaviour is uncanny as it feels like a superficial veneer put on for purely appearance purposes.
The ARISE church services follow a particular recipe that has been refined and employed to great effect by other churches (I’m talking about mega-Churches like Hillsong in Australia). Services are manufactured to give the illusion of a legitimate divine encounter. That’s the hook. What you are required to believe regarding the beliefs and doctrines of Christianity and various events in the Bible is only partially revealed this point. It’s all about a personal relationship with Jesus.
The service begins with a “praise and worship” session which is crafted to invoke feelings of euphoria and transcendence. The use of suggestion is employed here, with a pastor pronouncing during the music a phrase like “God’s presence is here in this room right now” or something similar. The praise and worship prepares the emotional ground and puts one in a receptive mood. Then there is the sermon where the congregation is given a rhetorical masterclass expounding the ideas and themes mentioned in the bullet points above. The use of seeking the affirmations of the congregation is liberally employed (e.g. the phrase “and if you believe it then give me an ‘amen'”). At the end of the service, the congregation is subjected to an emotional appeal to non-Christians to receive Christ as the greatest gift they will ever receive. The combination of the three sections of the service has a powerful and profound effect on some people, especially young people. They are helplessly tethered to their emotions and any cognitive barriers which are in place are effectively overcome. This leads to the forfeit of the intellect and the surrender of the self to allow Jesus into their heart. ARISE Church has explicitly stated that their primary motivator is persuading as many people as possible to come to faith in Jesus. (Other phrases that are used in place of “come to faith in Jesus” are “have a relationship with Jesus” or “follow Jesus”)
For new converts, ones perception of Christianity is based on the initial emotional experience. This experience is what gives the belief in Christianity validation and reinforces the truth of its claims. After that, ARISE progressively introduce you to the Bible. You are told about sin being the reason Jesus died so that he could redeem mankind; about heaven, hell, prayer, miracles, and God’s will. Gradually you are introduced to weirder parts like baptism, Adam and Eve, talking snakes, talking donkeys, angels, demons, and Noah Ark, just to name a few.
ARISE Church runs a youth service on a Friday night called “Elevate” and they have tailored it so that it is more appealing to young people. The music is more upbeat and the atmosphere is cultivated so that it feels like a “party”. The design and format of the service is similar to the one as described above including at the end, an appeal being made to a captive audience of young people to give their hearts to Jesus.
I think the methods that ARISE Church uses for outreaching to and engaging young people are clever, creative, but also sneaky, and at times dishonest and deceptive. They employ emotional manipulation as a way to accomplish the recruitment of new members. They deliberately exploit young peoples innocence and credulity, take advantage of their other cognitive traits already mentioned, with the goal to foist upon their impressionable minds a biblical worldview of sin and salvation by Jesus as well as give them a spiritual self-help toolkit that ultimately delivers false hope and false promises.
Have you had experience of Arise Church? Has your school been targeted by them? Please comment below. Do you have a story to tell? please get in touch.