If Great Commission International were a cult, then Steve Hellstrom says he wouldn't belong to one of its churches.
But Hellstrom, a seven-year GCI member, is not surprised that critics have branded the evangelical network a cult.
"The Bible says basically, if you go out and are zealous, people are going to be against you," he said.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's a good church," added the Melrose Park native, who moved here from East Lansing, Mich., to help launch the Grace Community Church in Glen Ellyn, a new church affiliated with GCI.
"A LOT OF people see that as fanatical, that I would move because of my church," said Aaron Vigil, another GCI member who came here from East Lansing.
"A lot of Christians will move out to Africa or some foreign country and no one seems to think twice about it," he countered.
They and other members say the criticism of GCI is based solely on statements by dissident and dissatisfied former members.
"Some people leave because it's a difficult life," Hellstrom said. "It's a high-standard life. It's not easy."
The practices of discipleship that disturb cult watchers are actually a matter of "getting to know someone you might want to hang out with, whom you might consider more spiritually mature," Vigil said.
"SOME OTHER people would call it just being a good friend."
Vigil, Hellstrom and others also dispute the claim that church elders control members' day-to-day lives, telling them who to date and what jobs to take.
He noted that he dated his wife for about three years before they married, "and nobody said anything."
"Nobody seemed to care," he said.
It was the zeal, commitment and upbeat attitude of GCI church members that first attracted him to the group, Vigil said.
"I just kind of liked what they were about, and what they were doing," he said. "The people were friendly and outgoing and just seemed to care more than people in other churches I'd been involved in."
Hellstrom also said the people attracted him to GCI. "I'd never met Christians who were this committed before."
Hellstrom refused to hear any specific criticism of GCI. He said he considers anything negative about the church slander.
WHAT IS and isn't considered a cult, of course, depends on the criteria used to judge it, said Phil Kushin, editor of GCI's magazine, The Christian Cause. "If you look at them differently, you could almost call a football team a cult," he said.
In the past, GCI has turned the other cheek to the cult charge, said GCI attorney John Toner. "We knew the charges were false. We didn't think there'd be much damage."
But the church is now confronting the charge head on, he said.
GCI's ultimate goal is to spread the gospel worldwide, said Toner, a GCI church member for 11 years.
"Our goal is to see that everyone has the opportunity to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ."