One of Glen Ellyn's newest churches is soft-pedaling its ties to an evangelical movement that some critics label a cult.
Grace Community Church, which held its first services Oct. 5, is affiliated with Great Commission International (GCI), a 60-church evangelical network whose 19-year history is steeped in controversy.
Local and national GCI leaders deny the cult charge. They also reject claims of thought control and manipulation leveled by former church members.
"Everything I see says we're just New Testament Christians," said Chris Biang, one of two GCI pastors who moved to this area to start the Grace Community Church.
But outside observers, both secular and Christian, question GCI's approach to evangelism.
- The Chicago-based National Cult Awareness Network (CAN) labels GCI a "Bible-based cult" that deceives its members and exercises tight control over members' lives without their clear consent:
- Christian cult-watchers stop short of calling GCI a cult because of its apparent doctrinal orthodoxy. But they do describe GCI in terms such as aberrant and quasi-cultic.
- The National Association of Evangelicals, based in Carol Stream, recently postponed renewal of GCI's membership in its national register of churches to further examine the group, said the Rev. Dr. Billy Melvin, NAE's executive director.
- Former members of GCI churches from different parts of the country describe GCI as subtle and dangerous. They tell of being manipulated into a deepening commitment to the church and of turning control of their lives over to church leaders.
"We feel there's been sufficient complaints about the group," said CAN Executive Director Cynthia Kisser. "We feel that it meets our criteria."
Melvin said such a reassessment is uncommon. "It was prompted by complaints we received regarding the group."
GCI will have an opportunity to respond to those complaints before the NAE board takes further action, Melvin said.
"Basic everyday decisions of your life are pretty much dictated by the leadership," said Larry Pile, a graduate of Wheaton College, who belonged to GCI for 5½ years and now helps counsel former GCI members.
"There's a subtle danger that's not evident from the outside," said Keesey Hayward of Wheaton, another former GCI church member. "When you're in, you're trapped."
Hayward and other former members critical of GCI are reluctant to brand it a cult.
"At the same time, don't minimize the danger and destructivity of this group," said another former GCI member, a Wheaton College senior who asked that his name be withheld. In its zeal, idealism and blind devotion to its leaders, GCI is more comparable to the Hitler Youth than to the Moonies, he said.
Pastor Biang downplays Grace Community Church's ties to GCI, but they exist.
- His church sends 10 percent of its income to GCI. The money helps support the national organization and buys literature and educational materials, he said.
- A recent article in GCI's The Christian Cause identified the new Glen Ellyn church as part of a national strategy to establish GCI footholds in metropolitan areas.
- And, questions asked Biang drew a response the next day from GCI's lawyers at its headquarters in Maryland.
Great Commission International has been known by various names in the past - among them, Solid Rock Fellowship and New Covenant Christian Church.
GCI has its roots in the campus evangelical movement that began in the early 1970s. In the mid-1980s, GCI shifted toward launching churches in non-college towns.
"There is a national structure in a sense, but there's also local autonomy," Biang said.
"As far as authority lines or structure, Daniel and I are it," he said, referring to co-pastor Daniel Goering.
Biang, a native of Downers Grove who grew up in St. Charles, said he has long desired to return to the Chicago area.
While a student at Iowa State University in 1972, Blang converted to Christianity. He subsequently became involved with ISU Bible Studies, a campus evangelical group launched by GCI founder James McCotter.
In 1977, Biang moved to East Lansing, Mich., where he helped start a similar group on the campus of Michigan State University.
In 1982, he was ordained an elder of GCI's Riverview Community Church in East Lansing. This year Biang returned to DuPage County to start a new church.
His move to DuPage was accompanied by 14 members of his East Lansing congregation.
Co-pastor Goering, an elder at Great Commission's church in Champaign, also moved here this summer, along with about 15 members of his congregation.
Biang said church members were asked if they were interested in coming to the DuPage area to "plant" the new church, but no one was coerced in any way. "This is just part of their commitment and growing," he said, "another stepping stone in their walk with Jesus."
"Chris made it real clear," said Aaron Vigil, a member of the East Lansing congregation who moved here with his wife. "If we had doubts about it, he didn't want us to come.
"That's a difference between a cult and somebody who really cares for you," Vigil added.
The core group of transplanted church members conducted a massive telemarketing campaign to attract new members to the Glen Ellyn church. They made 20,000 phone calls to homes throughout the central DuPage area, Biang said.
The telephone campaign produced 1,900 respondents who received a mailing of church literature and follow-up phone calls.
About 65 adult newcomers and their children attended Grace Community Church's initial worship service, he said.
One person attending described the service as conventional, consisting of hymns and a sermon. First-time visitors were told not to feel obliged to contribute when the collection was taken up.
About 45 of the newcomers returned the following week, Biang said.
"It's been exciting," said Biang. "We've already met a lot of real fun people."
Encouraged by the response, his congregation is already considering starting other churches in the Chicago area, Biang said.
GCI watchers say the evangelical group is not what it appears.
"What it looks like on the outside is just a really neat Bible-based group that's going to get the job done," said a woman who counsels recent ex-members of GCI who are having trouble making a transition from the group. The woman, who describes herself as a Bible-believing Christian, also requested that her name be withheld.
"I know it to be a very destructive, totalistic group," she added. "What they say and what is really happening are two different things."
GCI causes psychological harm to its members by making them dependent on church elders, she said. Former members tell of feeling obliged to follow their elders' advice on who to date, what job to take, what to study, where to live and with whom.
"One girl told me she had to ask her elder when she wanted to buy a shower curtain," the counselor said.
"It gets to the point where the basic church member has difficulty making decisions on his own," echoed Larry Pile, the Wheaton graduate who was once a GCI member.
Dependency is also fostered by what GCI calls "the sin of listening." The teaching admonishes members against hearing criticism of their leaders or their church.
"If we listen to a malicious, destructive tongue, the Bible says that we are wicked and we are liars," wrote a GCI pastor in an article entitled "The Sin of Listening," published in the June 1985 issue of GCI's The Christian Cause.
Church elders place a similar burden of guilt on anyone who questions their decisions, former members say.
By preaching a doctrine of guilt, submission and unity, elders gain and maintain control over members' lives, according to GCI watchers.
Pastor Biang said he was aware that GCI was the subject of controversy, but he did not know the details.
"I hear rumors about what we're like," he said. "If people come around, they'll see we're just Christians trying to follow Christ."
"All I know is that the people I've been around ... are godly men," he said. "Every movement of God in history has undergone persecution."
He does not exercise controlling authority over the lives of the members of his congregation, he said.
It's not unusual for church members to seek his advice on whether to marry or what job to take, he said. But they are free to accept his advice or reject it. "As far as dictating what people do, or don't do, that's not my job," he said.
Members of GCI churches also dismiss the claim that the church elders exercise excessive control over them.
Aaron Vigil, who followed Biang here from East Lansing, said he had heard and investigated the allegations against GCI. "Trying to be as objective as possible, I've never seen any of these accusations as being close to true," he said.
He has sought guidance from Biang when faced with decisions, he said. "He's not infallible," Vigil added. "I've told him where I thought he was wrong in certain areas."
"I don't believe it's ever been taught by GCI or any affiliated churches that members must consult with their elders before making any decisions," said John Toner an attorney for GCI and a GCI church member for 11 years.
"I've changed jobs several times and I've never changed jobs without talking to my elders, because I consider them some of my best friends," he said.
"It is taught that it's good to consult with a number of people."
Contributing to this report was Journal correspondent Joe Maxwell.