Campus religious leaders and former members of Towson State's New Life Christians recently have questioned some of New Life's practices in recruiting and maintaining members. Their concerns are related to the group's use of behavior modification and "mind control" techniques and to ties to authoritative fundamentalist leaders not connected with Towson State.
New Life Christian Students, a fundamentalist Christian group, has been an SGA affiliate since December 1982.
Bobby Waddail, University Baptist Campus Minister, said he was concerned about New Life's methods and theology from the start. Last summer he became more concerned after talking to students who questioned New Life's shepherding structure, where each member has a disciple and is another member's disciple, in terms of how strongly members' lives were controlled.
Leaders of New Life have "too strong a concern for authority that for me is unhealthy," Waddail said.
Ellen [not her real name], a former New Life member, said "I was encouraged to talk to [my advisor] about my every thought and action. 'Being fruitful' in the church meant that you had people under you that you were disciplining. Strong personal relationships between [my advisor] and I allowed for extensive control."
Father Bob Albright, University Catholic Campus minister, said he questions whether New Life exists as a response to a need expressed by students.
"All religious groups are set up to minister to humanity and not the other way around. Yet from our observations about New Life, they came to this campus seeking people to fill their ranks," he said. Albright also said he questioned the previous on-campus preaching of New Life leader Tom Short, who established the Towson State Chapter in 1982.
"He was referring to girls as sluts and whores and he presumed every guy to be drinking and sleeping around ... We've invited New Life to meet with the campus ministry staff and they've never accepted. If someone is Christian and they don't want to be involved, that leaves a question in your mind."
But George Reagan, the University's New Life President, said the purpose of New Life is to provide a Christian atmosphere for its members. Towson Newlife Vice President Gennie Kawahara compared the difference between New Life and other Christian groups as slight as the difference between two fraternities.
The group's main purpose at the University is to "tell the whole world about Jesus Christ and to build up other believers," he said.
The New Life Christians are part of the National Movement of Jim McCotter, who heads the Great Commission Church according to a paper published by a former member. The movement consists of some 35 "churches" in some 18 states with approximately 5,000 members, who all contribute financially up the ladder to McCotter and the group's leaders. The various churches have different names, but some have changed their names to the Great Commission Church. McCotter established a bible study group at Iowa State University in 1972 and later, the Solid Rock Fellowship of Columbus, Ohio on the Ohio State University campus.
Reagan denies any ties to the National Movement.
One former University student and ex-New Life member said she was counseled out from the Towson State New Life Christians last Summer. Patti, [not her real name], was attending a community college in the Spring 1982 and was looking for a Christian fellowship or bible study group when she heard New Life members preaching. After listening to them for two weeks, she attended University of Maryland bible studies. In Fall 1982, she attended a weekend retreat with Towson State and University of Maryland New Life members and elder Mike Kaeter. Patti was attracted to the group's open style of preaching and goal of telling the world about Jesus Christ. Finding group members friendly and highly dedicated to following Jesus Christ, she became more involved in New Life.
During this period, Patti felt frustrated with school and by her parents, who were encouraging her to go away to school. Deciding to go where the church was, she enrolled at Towson State, immediately joining New Life and handing out questionaires outside the dining halls. She approached students who responded favorably to the questionaire with follow-up interviews.
Patti's father said he saw her undergo a complete personality change during the time she was a New Life Member.
"She used to be ... always laughing. She became absolutely blah," he said.
He said she developed an extremely abnormal concern for spiritual matters and then lost interest in family and friends. "She became like all the other members, who spoke in squeaky voices, were unable to carry on intelligent conversations, criticised others' religious beliefs, and were oblivious to the world round them," he said. At first when Patti would go home for visits she would be alone, but after a few months, she was always accompanied by up to five New Life girls. Sometimes Patti wouldn't return her parents' phone calls for days. Her parents were disturbed that Patti and the others depended heavily on the elders for guidance about school, jobs and dating, which was discouraged by the group. Her parents were also disturbed by women's low status in the group.
In November 1982, Patti went to an Ohio New Life conference, where she became disturbed about some of the teachings, but brushed the concerns aside, thinking she was only confused.
"Everytime you had a contradiction to what was important in the church, you were told 'You can't trust your heart because it is possible to be deceived,' " Patti said.
She also questioned the groups' belief that they are superior to other Christian groups.
"Any Christians that aren't in New Life aren't the best, but they are good." Patti said. She was told she couldn't "trust Christians that weren't carying out the gospel in New Life's way."
She said members encouraged other members to conform and a strong emotional attachment allowed for the conformity.
"Members conform to be accepted. If you don't conform you are considered 'unteachable', meaning not accepting what you are told and not imitating those who are spiritually older," she said.
"There are good things in the group, but when compared with the damage it causes, there isn't much good. The best thing is the dedication to God," Patti said.
As Patti became more involved in the group, her grades suffered and she began to ignore old friends. When she spent time with outsiders, they were people she was trying to recruit into New Life.
"I definitely became obsessed with converting the world," Patti said.
Her grades continued to decline although she wanted to do well for her parents' sake and for God. When her parents received her grades for the Fall semester they were shocked.
New Life members encouraged her to stay in the group home for the Summer, pressuring her by asking "Where are you going to grow the most" meaning how would she be closer with God.
Finally, one of Patti's friends, who had recently been counseled out from the University New Life Chapter alerted Patti's parents. They began to visit her on weekends. During one visit, they took her to a museum and were amazed at how she devoured every bit of written information, an indication to them that she was being starved intellectually. They made the decision to have Patti forcibly counseled. Patti felt angry when her parents pulled her out of New Life. But during counseling she was shown how leaders had used scripture out of context to serve their own purpose.
"Deprogramming makes you evaluate and reevaluate what you were told," she said.
Cheryl, a woman who helps former New Life members make the transition out of the group, said when people leave New Life and are informed about mind control techniques, "it is automatically apparent to them that they indeed have had these same techniques used on them."
Although Patti is glad to be out of New Life, she does not regret her involvement, nor is she vengeful toward members. However, she is concerned about the New Life members being mentally harmed.
"There is little room for individuality" and there is no room to listen to opinions about scriptures other than those of the leaders, she said.
Patti also questioned Jim McCotter's reference to himself as an Apostle, an example of New Life redefining or twisting scripture.
"Leaders are uneducated in scripture and they don't know the Christian Orthodox standard for interpretation," Patti said. She was upset that members were expected to follow what Jim McCotter and other leaders said without question.
Jim's goals become your goals because you believe they are God's. Those goals become more important than anything else, Patti said.
Cheryl said, "the group trains members to keep suppressing their doubts, using phrases like 'don't lean on your own understanding.' "
She said advice is given subtlely. One man in New Life who wanted to go to a movie was given disapproving looks and after asking whether he should go was told "you could make better use of your time for God."
"Mind control techniques are done in that manner, a very kind, gentle manner," Cheryl said. "What's worse than not having the freedom of your own decision making? If you are in mental bondage, you don't even know it."
She said the elders are aware they're using authority and control and feel they have the right to do it in order to evangelize the world.
"These are not evil people. They feel that what they're doing is the best thing for the people under them," Cheryl said.
The group control also extends to marriage and dating. "It was almost taboo to go out with another Christian that wasn't in New Life," Patti said.
"Relationships of any kind with members of the opposite sex were controlled," former member Ellen said. "Members were urged to repent of their fleshly desires and cut off their relationships with boyfriends or girlfriends. Members repented even their desires for such relationships: if you weren't content being single, how could you know you'd be content being married.?"
On one occasion Patti visited some New Life male friends. Another member found out about the visit and reprimanded Patti, accusing her of having alterior motives.
If a man is interested in a girl in New Life, he consults with the church elders for their consent. If elders approve of the match, they approach the woman, who usually agrees with the decision. Patti said most relationships result in marriage after a short engagement.
Another area of a member's life in which leaders assume control is career decisions. New Life men are encouraged to stay away from career oriented majors so that they may become church elders, while "women's education is seen as something to enable them to get good jobs to help them give more to the group financially," Patti said. Women are told to imitate the elders' wives who are "always entertaining, and cooking for group activities," she said. Most elders don't work, but devote their time to counseling, and acting as role models by spending time with their families. Members give up to 30 percent of their gross income to support New Life, including the elders and Jim McCotter.
Cheryl said most people who join New Life, like Patti, have undergone a "Christian experience, want to make a personal commitment to Christ" and are characterized by a willingness to sacrifice themselves. Others see the group as caring people, especially those going through a stressful situation, such as the breakup of a romance, loneliness of a new school, or a family problem.
Strong association with the group typically begins when members move into one of the households or attend out of state conferences, she said. Even if members do not live in one of the houses, leaders are able to control their members' environments by legitimizing only those things associated with the group and discounting anything else.
Patti said the group "turns off the outside" so members who "listen to something outside of the group or in contradiction to the group" feel guilty.
Group leaders also use guilt to manipulate people who consider leaving New Life. Cheryl said one girl felt like God was going to snuff out her life for two years after leaving the group. One man had a tire blow out after leaving the group frightening him so badly he considered it a warning from God to return to New Life.
Patti said she now feels useless to God and society because she believed that New Life's work was God's best. Since she left, her friends in New Life have cut off all contact with her. When she tries to talk to them, they act "coldly towards me." Members who leave are considered to have a "wicked heart," she said, so New Lifers reject ex-members attempts to retain contact.
"The people who leave the group are fair in their appraisal of it. They love and care about the people left behind them and would love to see the group operate without the control and authority," Cheryl said.
She said like Patti, many who leave the group feel hurt, then, angry and afraid to trust. Many feel they were gullible, naive, and idealistic. They feel they were let down by God. Many need counseling to deal with the problems that first lead [sic] them to join, problems that were not solved while they were in the group. Some return to their original churches, depending on the degree to which they were turned against the church by the elders.