'Cult-like' church sparks concern in Palmerston North

Manawatu Standard, New Zealand/March 13, 2015

By Lucy Townend

An offshoot of a "cult-like" American church present in Palmerston North has former members fearing for those still involved.

Palmerston North's Victory Christian Church is one of seven international branches of the Faith Christian Church in Tucson, Arizona, which former parishioners have raised concerns about.

The University of Arizona is investigating the church's on-campus dealings after more than 20 people, including past members, parents and staff, spoke out about what they called the group's excessive control over student members, manipulation, spiritual abuse and "cult-like" behaviours.

Sources connected to the New Zealand arm of the religious group say they have concerns about the Palmerston North church, but the pentecostal organisation that provides oversight says the congregation is a devoted group dedicated to "living right".

The Arizona Daily Star said in the United States there were "reports of hitting infants with cardboard tubes to encourage submission, financial coercion, alienation from parents, public shaming of members and shunning of those who leave the church or question its leaders. Some say that since leaving, they've spent years in therapy for panic attacks, depression, flashbacks and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder."

A former Massey student who attended Victory Church said students were being approached by teams of ministers who appeared friendly and welcoming. However, a control-oriented style of leadership that used manipulation to gain submission from members became evident, and it was difficult to leave because of fear and anxiety.

"Vulnerable people often end up in these groups due to a need to be accepted and belong and to be right with God," he said.

"It's like a trade takes place - they give you your salvation with God but you give them all your power to rule your life, a very co-dependent relationship."

Victory has connections at Massey's three campuses, with most of its pastoral leaders based in Palmerston North.

Massey University spokesman James Gardiner said there had been no formal complaints about the campus ministries and the group was independent of the university's contracted chaplaincy and pastoral services.

Victory Church was established in New Zealand about a decade ago and has a subsidiary branch called New Zealand Campus Ministries Trust. Victory receives support from New Life Churches International, an organisation that cares for more than 90 churches in New Zealand.

A public Facebook page called "Former Members of Faith Christian Church Tucson and its OffShoots" and a supporting website were launched a few years ago.

The site contains dozens of personal accounts from former members, including a handful connected to the Palmerston North church.

Palmerston North Victory Christian Church senior pastor Joel Miller referred questions to New Life's head office.

New Life Churches International leader Adam White said there was no "cult-like" behaviour or anything out of the ordinary for a Christian congregation.

"There's probably a strong discipleship model, and they try the best they can to live by the word . . . but there's nothing that says you have to stay here."

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