If you love free food, you’ve probably run into Huge! From free waffles at your hostel, ice-cream and candy-floss at clubs week, or real coffee near exams: Huge! provide a lot of free stuff, including hear and makeup “for the girls” and Xbox “for the boys.” They’re also the young adults of Arise church.
There are many Christian groups on campus. You’re innocently eating your Krishna when Student Life asks if you have time to talk about Jesus. You’re trying to steal their lollies when the Christian Club hands you a bible. On their websites, they say they exist to live out and share the gospel of Christ on campus.
Huge! are Christians too. But they don’t hand out tracts like the more evangelical groups.
A SUNDAY NIGHT TRIP
It’s Sunday night at Arise church and the Michael Fowler Centre is packed with young people. The auditorium is dark except for sweeping coloured spotlights and a band on stage. As the drums build momentum and the flashing lights swirl, arms raise and people start ‘moshing’ down the front.
“Today no one can stop us, we’re ready, we’re fired up to take back what is yours today! Let freedom ring!”
Arise are a Pentecostal Church, a subset of Christianity that emphasizes the direct experience of the presence of God. It’s not just believing that Jesus died on the cross. Pentecostals believe they are driven by the power of God that lives within them when they are “baptized in the Holy Spirit.”
The pastor motions everyone to follow his actions, and everybody plunges low from side to side, knees bending right, arms going right, left, right.
After the worship, Pastor John Cameron introduces tonight’s speaker, his “new best friend”—Obed Martinez, a megachurch pastor from California—who launches straight into God’s approval of Arise’s leadership.
“Your pastor carries the prophetic anointing… the mandate of God. He’s a man ahead of his time. You’re not a church but a movement—never look back.”
The older folk are the next to be told they have ‘prophetic insight and carry the spirit of Elijah’. He encourages them to give money to fund the youth ministries.
“When you give money you help win the university for God.”
Men’s voices yell from the crowd. It doesn’t stop. He then confronts those who don’t ‘feel like worshipping’ or want to hold back giving tithes because they’re struggling financially.
“You need to change the way you think. Stop acting on what you see. You were created to worship God.”
Salient called Arise Church to ask for a statement of their beliefs. Huge! leader Brad Page hesitated, saying they weren’t really “based on doctrine” and he needed higher authority to send me anything. This is worrying—doctrines are just the articulation of what is taught—no religious group should ever hide what they believe. Although clearance was given to receive their statement, it was never sent.
According to Obed Martinez’ website, his church’s youth ministry aims to “summon the youth of the nations to their individual purpose and corporate responsibility as a movement of revolutionaries imposing the Kingdom of God.”
Arise Church clearly supports Martinez: they are flying him over from the States again in August for ‘Appointed’, their annual conference.
So think a moment. Revolutionaries imposing a kingdom? The songs that declare no one can stop them taking back what is God’s? This is a long way from candy floss and ice cream, ‘Life is Good!’ t-shirts and a waffle machine. This is young people being recruited en masse by leaders who believe God is literally speaking through them to change the world.
EVERYTHING IS (NOT) SPIRITUAL
Religious Studies Professor Paul Morris says there is a danger in the connection between the emotional ‘buzz’ that people feel in the service then being used to justify the accuracy of what is being spoken from the front.
‘‘It’s a carefully orchestrated experience, and we’re designed to feel emotions collectively. Collective effervescence is when you’re most open… you’re high. And then someone explains the buzz to you. The problem is when the emotions, which are real, become the sole validation for theological claims.”
Young Adults Pastor Ben Carroll says it’s not emotional manipulation: “It could have been God touching them. You can’t judge what people say they feel.”
But what happens when what people ‘feel’ in a service leads to them taking on ‘truths’ in the moment that can have serious consequences for their health or wellbeing?
Along with his messages to give money to fund Huge! at University, most shocking were Martinez’ assertions about mental health, which were greeted with more applause.
The girl who commits suicide because she doesn’t think she’s beautiful—it’s because she’s “lost her dominion.” The depressed who have lost their power—they’re “unaware of how God sees them.”
Professor Morris describes it as “spiritualising” things that really aren’t spiritual. He offers an example where a girl from another Pentecostal church stopped taking her medication because she was led to believe she needed spiritual healing.
It’s not intentional, but the conclusions taken from the message above—that when you become aware of how God loves you, you won’t be depressed anymore—can be harmful to those with depression and other mental health issues.
“It’s not that people were lying to her,” Morris emphasises, but it was a “misdiagnosis”—one which led to a mental breakdown.
Arise believe they’re bringing freedom to people “in chains.” When asked about homosexuality, Pastor Ben Carroll responded: “What would Jesus do? We’d open our arms to anyone, but no, someone living that lifestyle couldn’t lead in the church. We’re working through with some students at the moment who are struggling with that issue.”
His suggestion that one’s sexuality can be “worked through” is hugely problematic. Any suggestion that sexuality can be altered is very worrying: it’s simply not grounded in any evidence. Yet it’s advice that students at Arise will hear when they talk to their Youth Pastor, if they seek his help after another emotionally charged Sunday evening.
On Saturday, they did your hair and gave you coffee. On Sunday, thousands sing that no one can stop them taking ground for God.
By working their way into places like hostels–in a process Professor Morris refers to as “Stealth Christianity”—they’re putting vulnerable students, those who are maybe just after a coffee and someone to chat to, at risk.
So go along to Huge! and see for yourself Feel the music and watch how people respond to what’s being said. Take a friend for support and ask questions about what people believe about the things that matter to you. Go along. Just don’t leave your brains at the door.