International Church of Christ celebrates despite criticism

Dallas Morning News, May 5, 2000
Edited By Kim Horner

By Kim Horner

Irving - The roar of applause at Texas Stadium had nothing to do with the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday morning. Instead, the cheers came from a crowd of 10,000 celebrating the 10th anniversary of a local congregation of the International Church of Christ - a church that also has its critics.

With most of the AstroTurf filled and some of the stands, church members raised their hands to hymns and sermons given from a stage on the field. Ushers brought communion to the congregation at their seats.

And in the end, about 80 people lined up to be baptized in a dozen tubs near the 50-yard line.

Church members, called disciples, said they've never experienced a congregation with such a family feeling.

"For me, it's been a salvation," said Pilar Otoya of Plano. "In the worst of times, you're not alone."

The fast-growing church, which has members worldwide, started meeting in the area with about 100 members. Now the Dallas-Fort Worth International Church of Christ says it has about 2,500 attending church locally and nearly 200,000 worldwide every Sunday. The stadium service included many visitors from across Texas and nearby states.

The International Church of Christ, not affiliated with the Church of Christ, has faced questions about its recruiting practices nationwide from ex-members and on some college campuses.

Strong belief

Nick Young, the church's lead evangelist, said during the 2 1/2-hour service that members can expect persecution for their strong belief in being disciples of Jesus.

"We have one choice, that's to be all-out committed disciples of Jesus Christ," Mr. Young said. "You will be persecuted. You will be opposed. You may find people who have fallen away from God . . . who try to talk you out of your faith."

But while church members rejoiced, three ex-members protested outside Sunday's service with signs warning about what they call a religious cult. Critics liken the church to a cult for its strong recruiting efforts and the belief that only the church's members will achieve salvation.

Detractors also say a one-on-one mentoring program goes too far and interferes with people's personal lives. They also take issue with members being required to give part of their salaries and being set up with dating and marriage partners within the church.

Amelia Kleymann, an Arlington woman who helps run a support group for ex-members, carried signs outside the protest with her husband, Mike, another former member.

Mrs. Kleymann, who joined the church for nine months in the Kansas City area, said she's most concerned about the church's recruiting techniques, which start with friendly conversations at college dorms, restaurants or stores.

"They'll invite you to a volleyball tournament," Mrs. Kleymann said, giving one example. "Then later, they'll say if you're not going to their church, you're going to hell."

Church elder Bill Hooper responds by saying the religion is far from being a cult.

"We're a church that teaches the Bible and calls people to live their lives in the example of Jesus," Mr. Hooper said. "Just like they [members] made a decision to follow it, they can make the decision not to."

Out of context

Jessica Ruch, a junior at the University of North Texas, said she has seen the Web sites dedicated to ex-members of the church but said their claims are wrong.

"They took things out of context," Ms. Ruch said. She added that she was leery of the church at first when a friend joined. But then she saw her friend change for the better and got involved two years ago.

"What inspired me was the studies, having people point out the truth of Christ," Ms. Ruch said.

Ms. Ruch and fellow member Lela Phillips, a freshman at West Texas A&M University, said their lives had improved since becoming disciples. "My grade shot up after I joined," Ms. Phillips said.

The church, which has generated questions at some colleges, has a presence at local campuses.

Some concerns

At the University of Texas at Arlington, about a dozen students are involved with the International Church of Christ, said Jeff Sorensen, director of student governance.

And each year, about a handful of students have expressed concerns about the church, Mr. Sorensen said.

"We have worked with a number of students to help them be able to disassociate with the organization," Mr. Sorensen said.

Students involved in the church have found themselves dropping down to only one or two classes a semester to meet the demands the church places on their time for recruiting and Bible study and other activities, he said.

The university has a program to teach new students things to consider before joining any organization, including religious groups that recruit on campuses, he said.

"College students are in a huge transitional period in life," Mr. Sorensen said. "That's why you find a lot of those organizations are heavily involved in college campuses across the country."

Some experts cautioned against using the word cult. Instead, University of North Texas religion professor Dr. Joe Barnhart prefers the term ``new religious movement.''

"Otherwise, a cult is someone's religion you don't like," Dr. Barnhart said. Many religious groups recruit new members and require members to contribute money, he said. And there's no clear line to define when a church goes too far, he said.

"It's a matter of degree," said Dr. Barnhart, who advocates teaching young adults how to make good decisions. "You try to teach your children and students to think critically and apply it in every field."


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