Recruiting tactics of a religious group stir campus concerns

Some educators warn that it acts like a cult; others say students can make up their own minds

The Chronicle of Higher Education/December 13, 1996
By Mary Geraghty

Pittsburgh -- A lonely student would quickly feel welcome at a Greater Pittsburgh Church of Christ service.

On a recent Sunday, a stranger was immediately greeted by a member with a warm smile. As other members arrived at the hotel meeting room where the church holds its services, they made a point of introducing themselves and finding out who the visitor was and how she had heard about their group.

Of the 60 or so people in attendance, most appeared to be of college age. The service began with lively singing and hand-clapping and continued with two hymns -- nothing out of the ordinary for church services.

What was unusual took place during the hour-long sermon. All of the participants diligently took notes on everything that Jack Armstrong, the church's evangelist, said. His topic was the conversion of Saul, as described in the Acts of the Apostles, and the importance of encouraging conversion today. Conversion is a key element of this group's faith, as well as what gets it into trouble on many campuses.

The Pittsburgh church is part of the International Churches of Christ, which is not affiliated with the mainline Church of Christ. The international group is known for recruiting drives aimed at students and for heavy proselytizing -- which critics say amounts to harassment and intimidation. At least 20 colleges have banned it from their campuses, according to the American Family Foundation, which describes itself as a cult-education organization.

The Rev. Robert Watts Thornburg, dean of Boston University's Marsh Chapel, calls the church "the most destructive religious group I've ever seen." Boston stopped allowing members on its campus in 1987, when they refused to stop proselytizing students door-to-door in the dormitories, he says.

Other colleges that have banned the group include American University, Boston College, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Marquette University, Smith College, and the University of Southern California.

As branches of the church have popped up across the country, mainly in large cities with several campuses, college officials have had to decide what, if anything, to do. Some clerics and administrators say they have an obligation to warn students away from the group, while others say their job is only to provide students with information and let them make their own religious decisions.

The church arrived here two years ago, but students have reported heavy recruiting only in the past year. As their complaints have increased, so has the debate over what to do.

The group was started in Boston in 1979, when about 30 people broke away from the mainline Church of Christ. Members of the new church were determined to go back to the roots of Christianity, practicing the kind of "discipling" described in New Testament passages about first-century Christians. They believe that to be true disciples, they must bring the word of God to those they encounter in their daily lives. The group now claims to have more than 120,000 members around the world.

Those who call the group a cult say their objections have nothing to do with theology. They say they are opposed to the way it pursues students -- calling them constantly and waiting for them outside their classes -- even after the students have said they are not interested.

"The group cuts across the very core of what higher education is about," Boston University's Dr. Thornburg says. "It refuses to receive questions or have any kind of discussion of an idea. It simply says `Believe and obey,' and if you do anything else you are hard of heart."

Dawn Lynn Check, acting director of United Campus Ministry of Pittsburgh, which serves students at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, says members of the group deceive students whom they are recruiting by pretending simply to befriend them and by not mentioning the church specifically. She started holding meetings to warn students about the group after several students complained to her about being approached by members of the church.

Since she began speaking out against the church, Ms. Check says, she has received a few anonymous telephone calls "telling me to keep my mouth shut."

"I'm not going to back down from this," she adds, "because it's wrong."

Mr. Armstrong, evangelist for the Pittsburgh church, says he is not surprised that some people would label the church a cult. He points out that first-century Christians were a persecuted sect.

"We are a very, very different church from what's already established that's out there," he says. "Whenever you see something radical or different, of course you're going to get that label that it's a cult. I wish these campus people who put this label on us would take the time to understand us."

Mr. Armstrong, who joined the church 10 years ago as a freshman at the University of Georgia, says campuses are a natural place to look for new members.

"If I.B.M. wanted to recruit, they would go to a college campus, because that's where new, idealistic, educated people are going to come from, and you can take those people and implement their talents," he says. "We reach out to students because that's when people have been most prone to be open to new ideas, because they're young and idealistic."

Michael C. Murphy, dean of student affairs at Carnegie Mellon, says that as far as he knows, the church has had a "very limited" impact on campus. But he says he is bothered by the church's refusal to join the Interfaith Council, the umbrella organization for religious groups with recognized status at Carnegie Mellon and Pitt. Ms. Check also points to that refusal.

"If you're legit, why not join the Interfaith Council?" she asks. "Why are you going around campus in this anonymous fashion?"

In order to be accepted on the council, campus ministers must sign a statement that they will not proselytize on the campuses. Church leaders may not recruit students individually -- a common tactic of the International Churches of Christ.

Tamara Mhone, a graduate student in public policy at Carnegie Mellon and a member of the church, denies that she forces her beliefs on other students. But she makes no apologies for trying "to find people who want to know the truth." And to do that, she says, she has to ask students directly.

She joined the Philadelphia branch of the group in 1993, while pursuing her first graduate degree, in communications, at the University of Pennsylvania. A woman approached her on the street and asked her the same question Ms. Mhone says she now asks students at Carnegie Mellon: "Are you interested in studying the Bible?"

At the time, she says, she felt that there was something missing in her life. She says she accepted the invitation hoping to find a new spiritual dimension. Less than a month later, she was baptized into the church. She broke up with her boyfriend "to focus on my relationship with God," and started associating almost exclusively with other members of the church.

It is this type of major life change, along with the zealous recruiting that leads Ms. Check and some other members of the Interfaith Council t refer to the group as a cult. They also question a requirement that members tithe -- give 10 per cent of their income to the church -- without knowing specifically where the money goes.

Marcia Rudin, a spokeswoman for the American Family Foundation, says her group receives more complaints about the International Churches of Christ than about any other group. The church "fits the profile of a cult in every way you define them," she says.

According to the reports she has heard, she says, the church disrupts students' career plans, isolates them from their families, and tells them whom to befriend, whom to date, and, in some cases, whom to marry. Many other colleges report getting such complaints. The church denies the allegations.

Despite such reports, some members of the Interfaith Council hesitate to label the International Churches of Christ as a cult. Tom Stoddard, campus minister for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says college students are old enough to make decisions about religion as long as they have all of the information available about a given church.

"We need to let students know that there is a group on campus and they will approach you in these ways," he says. "At that point we should drop it without making any judgments. I would say, Be aware. I wouldn't say, Beware. That would be pejorative."

"Since my religion has been called a cult in the past," he adds, "it's hard for me to generate the kind of fervor" that is shared by others on the council.

Many students who have been approached by members of the church in Pittsburgh say they don't realize until later that they've been talked into attending a church service or Bible study.

Erin, a freshman at Carnegie Mellon who asked that her last name not be given, says two women came up to her while she was studying outside the cafeteria early this semester. She says they did not identify themselves as members of the Greater Pittsburgh Church of Christ. When they asked her if she would be interested in talking about the Bible, she agreed. Later that day, though, she felt uncomfortable about the meeting.

In high school in Nashville, Erin had been active in a United Methodist youth group and had considered others in the group her closest friends. "I had been here long enough to start missing aspects of my spiritual life," she says. "I thought I was feeling uneasy because they were confronting me with something that I knew I needed to address but hadn't the whole time I was in Pittsburgh."

So when the two women approached her, Erin says, she was vulnerable to their friendly invitation. When she decided against joining the Bible study, they tried harder to bring her in, she says. "One of them would just randomly show up outside my classes, because in our little small talk, I'd basically told her my class schedule. I was kind of intimidated. I felt like I was making her feel bad by saying I wasn't going to go."

Sister Bernadette Young, a campus minister at Carnegie Mellon's Ryan Catholic Newman Center, says students like Erin are the most susceptible to the proselytizing of the church. "College-age students are vulnerable because they're facing critical issues when they have the least support in life. Members of the group are pleasant, enthusiastic, and outgoing. Who wouldn't fall for it unless you have strong support somewhere else?"

Ms. Mhone, the church member, says it is like a family to her. She says she will finish her master's degree in the spring but plans to stay in Pittsburgh to continue helping the church to grow.

Before she joined, she says, she was interested only in achieving for herself. Now, she says, "planting the church is my first priority."

As for Ms. Check, of United Campus Ministry, her first priority is making sure that students here learn about the Greater Pittsburgh Church of Christ from her organization before a member of the church approaches them.

"I am concerned with protecting the integrity of students' right to explore their spirituality in a safe way, whether they are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or whatever," she says. "This is a church that takes away your choice."

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