Peddling Salvation: Chicago Church of Christ high-pressure tactics spark criticism

"The biggest tradition and sin of all is accepting lukewarm members... That is a tradition that has got to be crushed, slam, smash! That's a sinful tradition."
- Tom Brown, Boston Church of Christ elder.

The Daily Northwestern/March 4, 1992
By Margery Conklin and Shana Gruskin

"It's an awesome day today!" A young man called M.J announced from the podium turned pulpit in Room 107 of Harris Hall. He then enthusiastically thanked the Lord for the beautiful Sunday morning. Joyous "Amens" erupted from the smiling congregation of almost 40 Northwestern students.

M.J welcomed newcomers to the Sunday service for the Chicago Church of Christ and led the entire group in song. The melodious voices of men and women filled the room...

"There's not a friend like the lowly Jesus/No, not one!/No one else could heal our soul's diseases/No, not one!"

This happy congregation seems removed from any controversy or conflict. But theologians and detractors from the Chicago Church of Christ nationwide have made heavy claims against the leaders and their motives. According to these critics, the church uses abusive authority to demand time and devotion from its members and the lower echelon of leaders.

Ebu Sebo, NU's campus minister for the Chicago Church of Christ, has heard all the accusations, but he says outsiders cannot understand the goals or techniques of his religion.

"We're here to try to help people who want to learn about God, who want to improve their relationship with God," he said. "It's not a matter of going out and trying to pressure people into doing something they don't want to do."

Robert Thornburg, Boston University's chaplain, argues that leaders like Sebo aren't aware of the destruction they are causing. Thornburg banned non-student Boston Church of Christ members from BU's campus in 1987, after student complaints of high-pressure proselytizing became excessive.

"These people are so nice and sweet until you cross them," he said. "This group is so devious and so destructive, and your university will find this out soon."

"Some exciting things are happening all over the world in the different churches that we have planted from Boston. I think there is going to be a movement that is even greater than the Reformation Movement"

- Kip McKean, founder of the Boston Church of Christ.

Evangelsit Kip McKean established the church 13 years ago in Boston, after religiouys officials fired him from the original Church of Christ. Within eight years, membership multiplied into thousands, rooting itself on five different continents. Each new church takes the name of its city location; the Chicago Church of Christ is one of the largest with about 1900 members - 22 of them NU students.

McKean's doctrine is straightforward. His fundamentalist acceptance of the Bible attempts to justify every aspect of the church. Homosexuality is considered evil; women are excluded from high leadership. As Sebo states, only a strong commitment to Jesus will lead to salvation. Because of this, church members dedicate their time to the recruitment of outsiders.

"People come here and they are not sure about their own beliefs. They're trying to think through the convictions that have been handed to them. This makes them susceptible to the approach of (high-pressure) religious groups."

- Timothy Stevens, University Chaplain.

Jeff Kazee, a CAS senior and church member, said he invites about four students a day to a service or Bible study. He admits that people aren't always receptive to his offers. "It depends on whether or not a person wants to know God... it's by chance," explained Kazee, and Allison Hall resident assistant.

But sometimes students perceive their persistence as harassment. Although the church has existed for six years at NU, student complaints have increased in the past few months, University Chaplain Tim Stevens said. Concerned friends have reported that church members withdraw from family, social activities and school; other students have expressed irritation with the group's pushy tactics.

"Sue", a Music senior who wished to withhold her name, said she experienced pressures from the Church of Christ during NU summer school two years ago. Church members invited Sue to services; after two weeks she was asked to recruit on her own.

"I said 'I'm not the kind of person who would go out and recruit,'" she recalled. "They said, 'Oh, but you'll become that kind of person.'"

In addition, church members demanded more time from Sue. They told her to sacrifice her instrument practice for services and insisted she wake up at 6am to pray in public. Sue immediately lost interest in the church. "They said church services come before anything else," she commented. "It didn't make any sense."

"They must believe emphatically that your judgment is better than theirs... Friendship which builds trust which allows you to be able to guide them and to mold their lives."

- Kip McKean at a 1988 Leadership Conference in Boston.

Medill sophomore Peter Baniak had problems making friends during his first quarter at NU. He was overjoyed when a few people at the lunch table invited him to a game of volleyball. Soon, his newfound friends asked him to attend a service for the Chicago Church of Christ, and Baniak, who admired their friendliness and athleticism, eagerly agreed.

The magnetism of the church members wasn't completely unstudied, Baniak said. "The members make themselves attractive to others so they can bring them to God."

Many of the church participants work out regularly at Patten Gym and the Sports and Aquatics Center; some are also memebrs of fraternities and sororities. When Baniak joined the staff of The Daily Northwestern, church officials were excited that he could spread the religion to a whole new group of people.

Father Nelson Belizario, a Sheil Center priest, says this type of outreach is characteristic to many destructive religious groups. "There's a great deal of fellowship involved," he explains. "There's a welcoming and hospitality, so it can masquerade very easily."

"Jesus after calling (James and John) to him, said to them: 'You know that those who appear to be ruling the nations lord it over them and their great ones wield authority over them... This is not the way among you."

- Mark 10:42-43

Once members develop friendships with outsiders, they start teaching them about their interpretation of salvation. Indoctrination into the Chicago Church of Christ entails a series of studies, which primarily discuss Jesus and the Bible. Usually, a recruiter trains a novice while another member takes notes. Baniak said a crucial step in clinching a new member is called "Light and Darkness Study".

In this, the recruiterr confesses all his sins and the novice feels obligated to share his own. After revealing every sin he has committed throughout his life, the novice becomes more vulnerable to manipulation. The recruiter assumes the role of "discipler" who trains the new member to accept the doctrines and rituals of the religion.

The final study is baptism. Every member is baptized into the church because members believe their religion offers the only path to salvation. Even though Baniak was christened as a Catholic, church officials give him a second baptism in Lake Michigan.

Four months later, Baniak decided to leave the church. He said his heart was never in it, but his "discipler" could not accept this. Steven Hassan, author of "Combatting Cult Mind Control" said the church uses the "discipling" system to watch over and control their members. "They are victims of a process in which they think the influencer is a friend, giving the illusion of free choice," Hassan said.

Every member in the city Church of Christ system has a disciplerl even the disciplers attain religious advice from their own disciplers. A pyramidic heirarchy is formed with Kip McKean and his headquarters, now in Los Angeles, at the top.

Disciplers recommend certain lifestyles, including what to drink and who to kiss.

Sebo said members are advised to take partners within the Church who share their beliefs. "That's very specific and direct from the Bible," Sebo said. "What does oil and water have in common? What does Satan and God have in common? If we're not on the same commitment level obviously the relationship is going to dissolve."

A spokesperson for the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network said this type of regulation is an ominous sign. "(The city Church of Christ system) controls such things as who you date and how long a kiss can last. That's a very intimate thing. And when any organization has that kind of control over you, it's very dangerous."

[Warning--Since the publication of this article the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was bankrupted by Scientology sponsored litigation. Subsequently its name, phone number and mailing address were purchased by a Scientologist. The current CAN now seems to be largely run by that organization.]

Kazee argues that no one in the church controls his thoughts or actions. "You know, I choose what I do," he said. "I will be perfectly honest and say that the leaders do advise things to do, but it's all scriptural. If it's not, or if I disagree, I choose."

"I think cults wish to withdraw its members from the world more than have them involved in the world or decisions in the world. The outside world is more threatening and demonic than is grateful or gracious"

- Father Nelson Belizario.

CAS junior Ryan Andrews lived by the Bible at home in Indiana. His parents encouraged him to find a church before he came to Northwestern more than two years ago. When he joined the Chicago Church of Christ, they weren't convinced it was the best thing for their son. But Andrews thought his parents didn't understand. Church officials had warned him about criticism from outsiders who did not understand true belief.

During a week's vacation in early June, Andrews was greeted by two more "outsiders" in his home - his parents had hired agents from the Cult Awareness Network to pull him away from the Chicago Church of Christ.

"I thought (the agents) were from the Devil," he said. "They talked to me for more than two days. It took more facts than it should have before I could see what was wrong."

"(High-pressure religious groups) challenge the whole notion of academia. If one has all the answers, one doesn't need to learn anymore."

- Nelson Belizario, Sheil Center Priest.

Peter Reuss, an ex-member of the Chicago Church of Christ, said that exit-counselling isn't always necessary when leaving a high-pressure group.

"I was okay just by getting away and having someone speak rationally to me," said Reuss, a CAS junior. "I think if you make people explain things to you in their own words it will help."

"Make sure of all things; hold fast to what is fine."

- Thessalonians 5:21

Dwana Curlas looks vibrant and healthy after church in Harris Hall this Sunday morning. Her dark brown eyes dance as she describes the changes God has made in her life. Before she started studying the Bible, Curls, a CAS senior, thought religious people were weak.

"Life's greater now," she smiles. "I still don't think of myself as religious. It's having a relationship with God."

Because the members of the Chicago Church of Christ seem peaceful and well-meaning, NU's religious administration has decided not to follow other colleges' examples and ban the group from campus. Instead, officials compiled a brochure that warns against high=pressure religion in general. They distributed copies during Fall Quarter.

"The brochure is a good piece of advice," Stevens said. "When this group goes away, there will be another group."

But Michael Ballinsky, director of the B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundation, asserts that the university should take a specific stand on the Church of Christ. "You can define who you want to include and exclude," he said. "Just because a church has the name 'Christ' in it doesn't mean it's a healthy group."

After escaping the pressures they felt within the city Church of Christ system, ex-members want to get the word out to others as soon as possible. With a serious tone, Andrews voices it best.

"I didn't want to talk about this at first," he said. "But now I feel like I have to."

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