A Church of Christ or Cult of Cash

Critics slam group as manipulative

New York Daily News Online/October 22, 2000
By Dave Saltonstall

The International Church of Christ calls itself "the largest church of any kind in the New York metro area," and while that may be grandiose, there can be no doubting its size. Last Sunday, the evangelical group packed Madison Square Garden with 10,000 hugging, hallelujah-calling female members and their guests. Later this month, the men will follow with an equally mammoth gathering at the Jacob Javits Convention Center.

But dozens of former church members in New York and elsewhere say the church is not the kind, loving institution it says it is. They call it a destructive sect that is more concerned with drawing in new members and draining their money than in matters of faith. They say the group uses high-pressure recruiting tactics and mind-control games to dictate how members live, dress, work, even date all the while bleeding members of their money and often their faith.

Are these women merely innocent church-goers...or victims of a cult?

The church "puts up a great front, but you step into it and the rules change," said Eugenia McGovern, 31, of Yonkers, an events coordinator who left the group in 1998 after three years.

"There's like this honeymoon period for a while when everyone loves you," said McGovern. "But after six months, they are all over you it's, Who are you reaching out to? Are you having your daily devotionals? How many new contacts have you made today?"

It is a level of intensity that has clearly produced mixed results for the 21-year-old church, which is founded on the belief that only those who live in strict accordance with Jesus teachings as interpreted by the organization can be saved from hell.

Worldwide, the church which is unaffiliated with the traditional Church of Christ now claims some 130,000 full-fledged members. Sunday attendance tops 200,000.

"It's one of the fastest-growing Christian movements in the nation today," said John Vaughn, head of the independent Church Growth Today, a Missouri-based group that tracks religious growth around the country.

But the group also has been banned from dozens of U.S. college campuses after allegations that it harassed or intimidated students. Web sites devoted to helping members leave the church are continually cropping up.

And experts on cults say that they are increasingly being contacted by friends or family members concerned about loved ones in the church.

The International Church of Christ "is keeping me in business," said Connecticut-based cult expert Ronald Loomis, who has lectured at some 50 college campuses on cults in general and the church in particular. "I know of no group like it."

Church leaders agree that they are unique and, yes, very zealous in their search for new members a mission they believe is dictated by Jesus in the Bible. But they categorically deny charges that they force members into submission or mislead them in any way.

Some of the 10,000 women who packed Madison Square Garden last week.

"I know that some people call us a cult, but in this day and age, people can say almost anything," said Steve Johnson, a so-called world sector leader in the church and head of New York's congregation. "We are a Bible-based church that is trying to follow Jesus Christ, and every Sunday when I preach, we talk about the commitments out loud and in public."

Former members, however, say the church is less than forthright about its practices and the full scope of its expectations, especially when trying to impress new recruits.

Members are allowed to date only within the church, for instance, and only after matchups have been sanctioned by church elders, or "disciplers" as they are called. Sex is strictly forbidden between unmarried people, as are many other forms of intimacy.

"Singles can hold hands but you can't kiss," said one former female member. "And if you do kiss, you can only do it the number of times that your discipler says is okay."

Disciplers can advise their minions on just about everything, from where they live and work to how they dress, even to how close they should remain with family members outside the church.

Others familiar with the church say that members are often told to target college students or anyone who looks depressed or lonely.

"They tend to go after students or people who are in transition, whether from divorce or maybe a new job," said Steve Hassan [Warning: Steve Hassan is not recommended by this Web site. Read the detailed disclaimer to understand why.], an exit counselor and author of "Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves."

"And," Hassan added, "they have a very friendly, love-bombing approach."

At first it may just be an invitation to a dinner or some group activity like volleyball. Followup calls are made and more outings planned. All of a sudden, people find themselves with a whole new circle of friends.

Talk of a Bible discussion group soon follows, and once there, Lesson No. 1 is always that only followers of the church will be "saved." All others are doomed to hell.

Newcomers are encouraged to confess their sins to their discipler. What few realize is that these "sin lists" are then written out and often shared with others as a way of keeping people in the group.

"I have had former members tell me that they shared things with their discipler that they never shared with another human being terrible things that maybe they did to a sibling or parent," said Loomis. "But they use that confession as a method of control."

Once "baptized" into the group, members are also expected to donate 10% of their gross earnings every week. Once a year, they are also pressed to donate a sum that is 15 to 20 times their weekly tithe.

And always, they are expected to find new recruits, a pressure that many described as almost a quota system. One woman recalled being told to bring at least eight friends to a past Women's Day.

"And if you didn't have eight, you better have a darn good reason," she said. Al Baird, a church elder and spokesman based in Los Angeles, makes no apologies for these aggressive efforts.

"We do not believe in going to the church of your choice," he said. "We believe you are either doing it the way the Bible teaches, or not. And we want to reach everyone." Alva Burton of Queens was riding the subway to work when the church found her. She was alone, single, looking a bit tired.

"A woman approached me and just started talking, and eventually she told me about this great Bible group," recalled Burton, a government budget analyst. That was 10 years ago. Now Burton and her husband, Dennis, whom she met through the church, help to lead a support group for former members at a traditional Church of Christ on E. 81st St. in Manhattan.

"I felt like we were trying to make a difference," said Burton, 36, of her early days in the church. "But the whole key ends up being bringing in more people and more money. Everything else takes a backseat.

"I eventually had to ask myself, Do I want my kids to grow up and believe that God is this controlling?"

At last Sunday's Women's Day gathering in Madison Square Garden, new recruits were ushered inside by the thousands for a day of uplifting sermons and music.

"Most of the people who've banned us maybe haven't read the Bible," said Julia Fields, 26, a nine-year church member from Long Island who was in attendance. "I'm trying to live my life just like Jesus."

But far from the arena, McGovern could think only of the newcomers that day, the ones who might be bedazzled by the show but only dimly aware of what was ahead.

"I am sure they were all thinking, I met a new friend and learned a little about God," said McGovern. "What they don't probably know is that their name and phone number are now on a piece of paper, and they will be tracked."

In the church, much of the structure flows not from God but from one man: Kip McKean, an evangelist who, according to church legend, started the church on June 1, 1979, in a Lexington, Mass., living room with 30 would-be disciples.

Today, McKean lives in a $480,000 condo bought for him by the church in 1998 in Pacific Palisades, a rich, celebrity-packed neighborhood in West Los Angeles. His three children all attend or attended Brentwood Academy, an exclusive private school where tuition tops $13,000 a year.

Efforts to reach McKean were unsuccessful, but Baird defended McKean's lifestyle as in keeping with the church's call for sacrifice by its members.

"He's got a three-bedroom condo with three teenaged kids that's hardly exorbitant," said Baird. "It happened to cost $480,000, but it's totally in line with real estate on the west side of Los Angeles. No one would go there and say, Hey, why are you living this lifestyle?"

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