1 Jun 2022

Ex-church members want Celebration Centre charity deregistered

12:27 pm on 1 June 2022

Some Christians who donated thousands of dollars to the Celebration Centre church want its charitable status removed.

Celebration Centre Church

Celebration Centre Church. Photo: RNZ / Belinda McCammon

They also want an independent investigation into exploitation allegations.

Charities Services have confirmed more complaints have been laid about the Celebration Centre Group than any other charity in the past five years.

The services received 203 complaints about Celebration - mostly about hate speech in one of pastor Murray Watkinson's sermons in June 2020.

Videos on social media appeared to show him mocking mixed-race, bisexual and transgender people.

Gloriavale had 76 complaints, the second-largest tally.

Former Celebration members have now provided RNZ new recordings of racist comments Watkinson made in sermons last year, criticising the widespread use of te reo Māori.

"Here's a rhyme the Lord said [to me] - this is controversial which is why I love it so much," he told a congregation last June, and then preached: "The Lord said we've 'replaced te-pray-oh with te reo'."

"Wow let that go out in the airways, bam," he said.

Watkinson then said there was no culture in heaven.

"Tell me anything from any of our cultures, bam, bam, bam [sic], that is going to be part of the Kingdom of God. Scripturally prove it to me, anything. I challenge, I'm challenging the demonic powers. Anything, you show me anything."

Celebration Centre Church.

Celebration Centre Church. Photo: RNZ / Belinda McCammon

Former Celebration Centre Group members have revealed to RNZ that they felt pressured to give, each month, hundreds of dollars in tithes and dozens of hours of voluntary work in the church's businesses, to help it make money tax-free.

They were part of the church for years, fearing they would lose their entire support network of friends, as members are allegedly told to shun anyone who leaves the church.

The Celebration Centre Group had $10.8 million in equity in 2020.

It has seven subsidiaries and pastor Watkinson is a listed trustee for all of them.

The church's audited financial statements for 2020 reveal it paid $442,000 in total remuneration to the governing group of five people, including Murray Watkinson and two close family members.

Close family members of that group were paid another $293,000.

The financial statements also reveal the church paid over $110,000 in rent to a family trust of Murray Watkinson, and that the church owns 13 properties having a value of almost $18.2 million.

Outside of the church, Murray Watkinson is listed as an owner of seven properties on New Zealand land records, and council valuations show they, in total, are worth more than $3.7 million.

Former Celebration members RNZ spoke to said the church needed to be independently investigated for exploitation, like the mega-church Arise is, and some wanted Celebration stripped of its charity status.

"As I see it, there is no transparency [telling members how tithes are spent] so they shouldn't be able to remain a charity," one member said.

"If they were open and happy to having a review, and it proved otherwise, then go ahead. But, I would say at this point, no, not a charity."

In her opinion, the church wasn't giving back to its community in Christchurch, only taking from it.

"They would share testimonies and stories like: 'This person gave this amount of money and then they were blessed by God and now they have a house.' And so they would show these grand examples of how the ones who give more are blessed more."

The woman estimates she gave 40 percent of her income from a part-time job to the church, during high school and university.

She wasn't surprised to see the extent of Charities Services complaints - "quite hurtful" race-based comments in sermons were one of the reasons she left.

"It did get progressively worse over the years."

Photo: Unsplash / Edwin Andrade

One woman who was in the church for eight years has said she volunteered for an average of 50 hours a month, mostly in Celebration's hospitality business Cafe Jireh.

She also wanted an independent review of long voluntary hours and huge donations supporting the church, and alleged exploitation.

"To have a have a wealthy, Caucasian man ... who has millions of dollars wrapped up in property, preaching about tithing to a predominantly lower socio-economic congregation - who have not had the same opportunities [and] are not of the same generation - there's something wrong there."

"It's just so jarring," she said.

She was relieved to hear about the Charities Services complaints but was concerned racist commentary hadn't stopped.

"Murray doesn't have any kind of cultural competency, any understanding of multiculturalism, any understanding of matauranga Māori, you know, he mocks te reo. I know people who have left the church because they're te reo teachers and they just couldn't stomach it anymore after like, 10 years."

"It's so culturally regressive," she said.

The former member called on current members to leave the church.

"The messaging is now so extreme, that I would encourage people, and I know that there are a lot of people on the fence too, to really think about finding another community that is actually going to uplift them, and support them. Because that will not happen in Celebration. They do not care about you. They just don't. As much as they say they do, I can say from the other side of it, they don't."

A former member of a pentecostal church Murray Watkinson led in the 1980s said there was similar pressure put on that congregation to donate large amounts of money.

When he left the church in the early 1990s, he and his ex-wife were giving a combined donation of $540 per month.

He said when Watkinson decided members were not giving enough, one day, he sent out direct debit forms to their letterboxes: "With a letter from Murray, saying that the Lord had laid upon him that as a church that to receive the blessing, we all had to move into corporate obedience, as a church."

The man suspected many of the complaints laid to Charities Services were from former Celebration members.

"Murray has a lot of ideas, and then Murray spiritualises it and says that the ideas are from God. And, basically, if you don't agree with Murray, 'you're in rebellion to the Holy Spirit'."

The man did not believe the Celebration Group should keep its charitable status, but he was concerned church leadership "would put the hard word" on members to give more money and voluntary work, "to make up the shortfall to the taxman".

"The congregation would be the ones picking up the tab for loss of income."

He wanted to tell current members: "They are not alone. And it doesn't make them 'not a Christian', if they don't agree with what the Celebration Church preaches."

Charity law specialist Susan Barker told RNZ the Charities Registration Board could deregister organisations if their purposes weren't charitable, but that was difficult to prove in New Zealand.

"We really need to clarify the parameters of that," she said.

"I would argue that there are a lot of interpretations of what constitutes a charitable purpose."

Watkinson and the group have not responded to RNZ's repeated requests for an interview or comment, about the church's finances, volunteering, complaints, and the content of sermons.

Celebration Centre Group subsidiaries have received more than $410,000 in Covid-19 wage subsidies in the pandemic.

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