The Church of the Poison Mind

Lonely freshmen looking for friends and God find the International Church of Christ instead.

PitchWeekly/November 23, 2000
By Deb Hipp

A thousand disciples attended the final service of the Evangelizing the Heartland conference at Bartle Hall over Labor Day weekend. Members of the International Church of Christ had traveled from their churches in Lawrence, Wichita, Columbia, St. Louis, and Manhattan to join the Kansas City Church of Christ in advancing the Great Commission -- the evangelization of the world.

The overhead lights dimmed, and the stage filled with beaming men and women who began to sing and sway to a bouncy rendition of "I'm on the Gloryland Way." Richard Dixson, lead evangelist for the Kansas City Church of Christ, sang along as he marched from one side of the stage to the other, pumping his arms and clapping his hands. The disciples knew all the words by heart. Excitement mounted with each rousing song. Soon, however, it was time for a moment of prayer. "God, we want to see the whole heartland evangelized so you can have more children in your kingdom," Dixson prayed.

After the prayer, he gave an account of his own introduction to the church years ago. Three disciples in the campus ministry had approached him while he was a senior at the University of Kansas, he told the worshipers, and eventually one of them got through. When he finished his story, two huge screens on stage displayed a video about the International Church of Christ's campus ministries.

"I want to fill this stadium with disciples," shouted a Kansas State University student as he stood in an empty stadium in the video. "I was met at the UMKC campus and baptized seven months ago," a young woman declared as the waters of the J.C. Nichols fountain gushed behind her. A KU student perched atop a statue in front of Strong Hall held up his arms and exclaimed that he couldn't wait to bring more disciples into the kingdom.

He won't have to wait long. Campus ministries were on the minds of nearly every speaker at the convention.

"For every thousand students at local universities, there will be a hundred disciples," Curt Simmons from the St. Louis church predicted when it was his turn to speak. "We'll saturate the campuses and aim for valedictorians, top recruits, and athletes."

Even so, Simmons warned the people spread out before him, making disciples of college students won't be easy. There will be persecutors. Successful college ministries will require the greatest faith.

"There have got to be more prayer nights, more all-night prayer sessions, more Bible talks," he proclaimed. In his years with the International Church of Christ, Simmons said, he has seen the power of faith more than once.

"I remember a young Christian man who in his first months as a disciple only came to church on Sundays and had a non-Christian girlfriend," Simmons recalled. But even that man changed his ways and went on to become a ministry leader. And Simmons would never forget the young couple who "blew off special contribution and instead used the money for a family vacation." They too mended their ways.

"Are you sold out to the kingdom of yourself?" another speaker asked. "Even as disciples, we sometimes sell out to our selfish goals and ambitions." He tells the biblical story of Ananias, who fell down and died after holding back part of the money he was supposed to give to the apostles. Disciples of the International Church of Christ, however, know better than to hold anything back.

"I remember when I was a young campus student, and I cleaned out my wallet to send someone to the India ministry," the speaker reminisced. Soon he moved on to the matter at hand.

"Now we're going to take a special contribution." As he spoke, a young man sitting toward the back of the room took a $10 bill out of his wallet and folded it in his hand.

"The need I'm going to ask you for this morning is $40,000," the speaker continued. "There are about a thousand people here today -- that's $40 per person." The longer he spoke, the more tentative the young man with the $10 became. Soon the bill was folded up out of sight in his palm.

"But I'm not asking you to just give $40," the speaker went on. "Some of you have been blessed this year. You can give more. What I'm asking for today is that you give all that you can." But in the International Church of Christ, "giving all that you can" is rarely enough.

On a Tuesday morning in October, Jessie, A senior at KU, strolled the Kansas Union with a stack of books and a Bible in hand. "We're having a Bible talk in 10 minutes," she told student after student. None of them could make it, but Jessie wasn't discouraged. She invited others who studied at tables in the dining area.

Soon her friend Nikki arrived with another girl, Jessica, and the three slipped into Alcove D, a conference room adjacent to the dining room. Before long, two more students and the leader of the Bible talk, Josh Mitchell, joined them. His campus ministry, Jayrock, is part of the Lawrence Church of Christ. Jayrock holds Bible talks every Tuesday morning in Alcove D and every Tuesday night at Nikki's apartment at Jayhawk Towers. Nikki shares the apartment with two other Jayrock members, and Jessie lives just down the hall with two other disciples.

Jessica, a freshman, had been searching for a church since she arrived at KU this fall from Goodland, Kansas. She listened closely as Josh asked the members of the group to name things that people put before God. School, the opposite sex, ourselves, they answered. They all turned to the book of Luke and read about giving up worldly possessions. If they were willing to give up obsessing about material things, Josh said, God would make sure they were satisfied. Jessica followed along in Nikki's Bible.

Just a few weeks ago, two girls invited her to a Bible talk as she studied in the student union, Jessica tells Pitch Weekly. She was touched by their gesture of friendship and was quick to attribute their meeting to fate. "I thought it was kind of amazing, the chance they took to talk with someone they didn't even know," says Jessica. "It really touched my heart. It was like, 'That's God telling me that I need to go to church.' I'm a believer that God leads people in the right direction."

Jessica, who was baptized into the mainline Church of Christ years ago, says her parents know she attends this new church, although "they aren't familiar with this particular section."

Jessie hasn't told her yet that the Lawrence Church of Christ isn't exactly a "section" of the church that Jessica attended as a child or that Jayrock has a controversial history at KU.

Three years ago, campus ministries at the University of Kansas held a forum after a student complained that she had unwittingly joined a "cult" that called itself the Kansas City Church of Christ. The girl and two other students scheduled the forum to make other students aware of the group. "She got very involved with the church and saw her life was being controlled," says the Reverend Thad Holcombe of Ecumenical Christian Ministries on the KU campus. "She said, 'I want to warn other people.' She was adamant." But this was only Jessica's third Bible talk, and she'd been to only one church service so far.

Jessie and Nikki were eager to guide Jessica in her religious quest. They had already scheduled her for an off-campus Bible study on Thursday at another member's home. If everything went as planned, within a matter of weeks Jessica would join Jessie and Nikki -- who sat on either side of her sharing their Bibles -- as a disciple.

"There is not a set rule or law or way of doing things that make a religious person," Jessica said after the Bible talk. "I don't believe there is only one church and you have to belong to that church to go to heaven." But the members of Jayrock and the Lawrence Church of Christ still have plenty of time to convince Jessica otherwise.

Kim Krecek didn't know much about the Denver Church of Christ in 1987, but she was impressed immediately by its members' enthusiasm. At 22, she felt at home with so many people her own age. She once had been a member of the mainline Church of Christ, but this church was nothing like the one she had known.

The singing wasn't stoic, and the members seemed filled with the light of God even when they weren't in church. She soon got involved with three women who guided her through a series of Bible studies in which she learned that everything she had once believed about being a Christian was wrong.

The word "Christian" was used only three times in the New Testament, they told her, but "disciple" was used 270 times. Jesus intended for his followers to be disciples, they said, and because this church expected its members to emulate the lives of Jesus' disciples -- by totally committing their lives to God -- the International Church of Christ (then known as the Boston Movement) was in fact the one true church.

At one of the Bible studies, members asked Krecek to write down all of her sins and read them to the other three women. She spoke of the pain she had carried for years because her older brother had sexually abused her.

Church leaders later introduced her to a group of women members who also had suffered sexual abuse, and they encouraged the women to talk openly about how the abuse had affected their lives. For the first time, Krecek felt accepted. However, to be a part of the group, she had to be a member of the church. After a few weeks of Bible studies, Krecek was baptized into the Denver Church.

Baptism is an important ritual that symbolizes the cleansing of past sins, the death of an old life, and the resurrection of a new life with God. The International Church of Christ teaches that a person cannot enter heaven without being baptized and that God himself adds baptized disciples to the church.

"It went very quickly, and that's the way they do it," says Krecek. "They don't give you time to think, do research, or talk to anyone." The International Church of Christ has a habit of "shotgunning" scripture by taking it out of context to back up its practices, she says. One such practice is assigning each member a "discipler."

Krecek was immediately given a discipler to guide her in her new life. Church members say the discipling relationship is one of equality, in which both disciples have the responsibility of keeping the other's life free from sin. However, Krecek soon found out that no "sin" escaped the scrutiny of her discipler.

If Krecek chose not to attend one of the numerous church activities, her discipler demanded to know why. There must be some hidden sin in her life that she wasn't talking about, her discipler told her, some reason she avoided her fellow disciples. Even when Krecek attended every church service and Bible study and read her Bible daily, her discipler determined that if Krecek had nothing to confess, she must then be guilty of "the sin of pride."

Two months after she became a member, Krecek went out of town for a two-week training period in the National Guard Reserves. Her roommates -- she was now living in a two-bedroom apartment with four other disciples -- made up flash cards with Bible verses so she could study while she was away. Each night during Guard training, Krecek sat alone on her cot and flipped through the flash cards, studying her Bible until it was time to sleep. By the time she returned home, she was troubled by how much she had changed in just two months.

"I realized how self-righteous I had become and how my life revolved around the church," she says. The Bible was the only book she read, and she spent hours copying down select scriptures that church leaders had insisted she memorize. She lived with disciples, socialized only with disciples, and reported her every thought to her discipler. As Krecek's doubts grew, her discipler became even more controlling.

One time Krecek got "rebuked" for getting a haircut without first seeking the advice of her discipler. Disturbed by the growing role of the church in her life, she called a friend, Dave, a police officer, and scheduled a ride-along with him so they could talk. But because Krecek had a pre-church history of promiscuity (which she had confessed in the Bible studies leading to her baptism), her discipler objected.

"My discipler had a total freak attack because I was going to be alone with a man in a car for eight hours in broad daylight," recalls Krecek. She had already been rebuked a few weeks earlier when a male disciple had noticed her playing on the floor with toddlers in the church nursery. Because she had been down on all fours, her discipler told her, she had stirred lust in his heart and must learn to act more like a good sister in Christ.

Krecek went on the ride-along anyway. As she told Dave about her new life in the church, he listened in disbelief. A church that told its members where to live, where to work, what to study, who they could date, and how to cut their hair, he told Krecek, wasn't a church -- it was a cult. The more they talked, the more Krecek decided it was time to tell the Denver Church of Christ -- and the members who had become her entire social circle -- goodbye. She could stay with her mom in Tucson for a while and regain control of her life.

She returned to her apartment and started packing, but because Krecek lived with four other church members, it took only a few minutes for word to get out that she was soon to be a "fallaway." The phone rang all afternoon as leaders desperately tried to convince her to change her mind. Her roommates formed a prayer circle in the living room.

"I wasn't allowed in the prayer circle," says Krecek. Instead, she was its focus as her fellow disciples conspicuously prayed that she would make the right decision. Krecek left and headed toward Tucson. The farther she got from Denver, the clearer her head became. But she soon realized that the church was never far behind. Within a year, Krecek joined the Army and was stationed in Germany. Even as she began a new life, however, she was haunted by thoughts of the sexual abuse she had only begun to explore with the other women in her group.

"The Church of Christ had opened a door that had been shut for a long time, and I didn't know what to do with all that baggage that came up," Krecek says. For months, she drank heavily and was tormented by nightmares. One night during her guard duty as an MP, she looked at the rifle she held in her hands and considered ending her life. Instead, she turned to an Army chaplain, who removed her from MP duty while she worked through her abuse issues in counseling. When she was 28, she left the Army and moved to Kansas City, where for the first time in her life, she lived on her own.

Although she didn't attend church, Krecek spent the next three years studying a number of religions in hopes of someday reestablishing a spiritual connection. One day, while she was having dinner at a Westport restaurant, a man named Rex introduced himself and invited her to a '70s dance with his church group, the Kansas City Church of Christ. Krecek accepted the invitation but didn't tell him that she once had been involved with the church in Colorado.

"I was curious," she says. "I wanted to see if anything had changed." Also, she found the church's reappearance in her life significant. "I kept thinking, 'I'm searching for something spiritually fulfilling. Is it just coincidence that at this point in my life, this church re-enters my life?'" Maybe it was the one true church, she thought, and this was her final chance to make things right. "They really hammer in that they are the only true church and if you leave, you are going to hell," says Krecek. "It's literally pounded into you."

After several weeks of church services, Krecek was again interested in the church and agreed to go to some Bible studies. She also admitted to Rex that she had once been a member of the Denver church. Kansas City leaders called the church in Denver to get the details of her original baptism, but they deemed it invalid since the evangelist who performed it had since become a fallaway himself.

Krecek's Bible study leader, Kathy, was determined to get her to confess all the sins she had committed since leaving her life as a disciple.

"The analogy she used was to picture Jesus as a baby, and every sin I'd ever committed was like taking a brick and crushing his head," says Krecek. "At that point, a wall went up. I didn't start to cry or break down, and they said, 'Okay, let's end this for tonight.' They knew they'd gone too far." Within a few weeks, though, Krecek was back at a special Friday night church service called a "chariot ride." Out of the 30 or so people attending, all but six were International Church of Christ members.

"They served punch and cookies and it was all very innocuous," says Krecek, "but the name 'chariot ride' is very apt because it takes you on a roller coaster ride of emotion."

First, potential disciples watched The Big Splash, a funny movie about baptism, to lighten things up. Speakers then got up and explained why the newcomers needed someone to guide them. But Krecek was unmoved until the next part of the chariot ride -- a music video of the crucifixion.

"It was very graphic, the whole crucifixion scene, with blood dripping down Jesus' face, the thorns digging into his head, and bloody flesh dropping into the dirt. Afterward, I was so psyched and awed and in a completely altered state of consciousness by what I'd just seen." By the time it was finished, Krecek had made up her mind. She wanted to be restored.

The next day, during a freak snowstorm in October, she studied with Kathy over the phone. Kathy was adamant: For Krecek to be saved, she must be rebaptized by members of the Kansas City Church of Christ. Her baptism by the fallaway evangelist in Denver was invalid. Krecek disagreed, but Kathy insisted.

"The issue she kept hammering on was whether I truly forgave my brother for the sexual abuse. If not, my baptism was invalid," says Krecek. They talked for four hours, and Kathy always returned to the same issue of the abuse. "Eventually, I was crying and just agreeing with everything she said," says Krecek. "It was like she inserted a crowbar and opened everything back up." That night, Krecek lay in bed unable to sleep. When she finally dozed off, her brother's face haunted her dreams.

The next day, Krecek decided that even though the Kansas City church was in a different city, its leaders were no less manipulative than the ones she had known in Denver. The night before, they had made plans for her to come over to Kathy's house after work, but Krecek called and left a message canceling the Bible study. She knew that if she went over there, the other disciples would have her baptized by the time she left.

"They would do it in the bathtub if they had to," says Krecek, who received at least a dozen phone messages the next day from church members trying to convince her to return. She never called them back. "I knew I was vulnerable. I just said, 'No more of this.'"

For many former members of the International Church of Christ, however, leaving the church they once believed to be their one chance at salvation is not that simple.

Todd Masters, who was a Bible talk leader at the International Church of Christ's KU ministry until three years ago, has counseled a dozen or so former members in Kansas City and Lawrence. He says he's the only former member he knows of who still faithfully reveres God.

"Most need extensive counseling and are in pretty bad shape when they get out," says Masters. The church preys on troubled individuals, he says, and for those people, "it seems a relationship with the church only made matters worse."

Leaders of the International Church of Christ insist that their church, like Jesus' church in the book of Acts, demands total commitment from its members, and these fallaways simply weren't up to the task. They're now considered "persecutors" lured away by Satan from the one true church.

Many of those former members post their stories on Web sites devoted to warning others about the manipulative tactics of the International Church of Christ. No matter what city in which the former members were involved with the church, their stories are remarkably similar. They were controlled by overbearing disciplers who threw their confessed "sins" back at them when they questioned the discipler's advice. They were pressured to give large amounts of money to the church, and those who refused were rebuked for being rebellious. Most believed that once they left, they would surely go to hell.

Amelia Kleyman, a former member of the Kansas City Church of Christ, was asked to read a letter, or "sin list," to women in her Bible study group during the "light and darkness study," one of 12 studies leading to baptism. "They stressed that any sin I had ever done had built a huge wall between me and God, and to take down that wall I had to confess all of my sins by writing a letter to God." Kleyman says church members used the list against her later, when they wanted to argue that her actions were linked to her sinful nature. Her fellow church members used the letter in a "breaking session," designed to convince her that, in rebelling against the opinions and suggestions of her discipler, she was living in sin.

"I rarely went to bed before 1:30 a.m.," says another former member. "I tried hard to balance my life toward the end of my time in the church, but as a result I was often accused of not doing enough and being lazy, among other things."

According to their Web sites, there are thousands of such former members. Still, the church continues to grow at a fast pace. The International Church of Christ claims to have recently achieved its goal of planting a church in every United States city with a population of 100,000 or more. It has 393 churches in 170 countries. "A disciple is baptized every 25 minutes somewhere around the world," Kip McKean, the leader of the International Church of Christ (although the church insists Jesus is its true leader), has claimed. The church recruits primarily on college campuses.

At nearly every university where it operates, the International Church of Christ's campus ministries have stirred controversy for their aggressive recruiting techniques. At some colleges, family members have grown concerned that their children have joined a cult and yanked them off campus. Other parents found themselves distanced from their kids, who became so involved with the church that they rarely visited home. The University of Cincinnati kicked the church group off its campus, only to have it return later under the name Campus Advance. Several universities nationwide have banned the groups from using school facilities for their meetings.

The Kansas City Church of Christ is listed as a student organization at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. At Kansas State University, the campus group is listed under the name Cats for Christ. Although Jayrock has not drawn criticism, it is definitely active, says Jim Musser of Campus Christians at KU. Musser participated in the 1997 forum, and just a few weeks ago, he says, a couple of students contacted him with concerns about the Lawrence church. "They felt it was a great group at the start," says Musser. "Then they started getting all sorts of pressure, with people calling them all the time and telling them they weren't Christians if they weren't baptized into the Lawrence Church of Christ." The students who called him were not too traumatized, Musser says, but "it's like when you run out of a burning house. You're just relieved that you're safe. They were just glad they saw through it before they got deeply involved."

Recruiting college students into the International Church of Christ is an organized process that campus ministry leaders have perfected over the course of 20 years, since the church's beginnings as the Crossroads Movement. Later, the church changed its name to the Boston Movement because its church in Boston, which still attracts thousands to its services, served as the mother church. In 1992, the church changed its name to the International Church of Christ. Its local Churches of Christ are always preceded by the name of the city in which they are located; it is unaffiliated with the mainline Churches of Christ.

McKean himself was baptized while he was a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Florida in 1972. He remains in control of the church's operations, and all leaders ultimately report to him. He has since moved the church's headquarters from Boston to Los Angeles, where he and his family reside in a condo in Pacific Palisades.

Church leaders urge members to live sacrificially, especially when it comes to the church's "special contributions," two or three times per year. Krecek, who nearly sold her television once to attend a church conference in Boston, has known members who sold plasma and even their wedding rings because of pressure to contribute. "I've heard of some of the churches asking for 12 times the member's normal weekly contribution," Krecek says.

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