Part 2: Church or Cult?

Channel 2 Action News/April 27, 2001
By Pam Martin

A dynamic and diverse church in metro Atlanta is spending a lot of time trying to recruit young people.

It's the International Church of Christ, and it's the subject of controversy on college campuses in Georgia and around the country.

We first brought you this story a decade ago when the church began to be popular in metro Atlanta. It was generating controversy then and the same questions surround the church tonight.

We begin with a Peachtree City man's story of his relative's encounter with the church. Lawrence Demarino went to Valdosta to witness a relative's baptism into the International Church of Christ. Instead, he says it turned into a rescue misson.

"I think I arrived in the nick of time," said Demarino. "If I had waited or made a wrong move, they would have had her. He says he completely disrupted his own life to try to protect his relative.

"I went to class to make sure they did not accost her in the hallways."

The church describes their recruitment practices as aggressive, and the church is banned on dozens of campuses across the country, including Georgia Tech.

At Georgia State, in 1997, complaints about student harassment were part of the reason why the school temporarily revoked the church's charter. "They look for students who are relatively vulnerable students who are sitting alone in the cafeteria, students who might be studying by themselves and they'll simply ask them to go to church," said Dr. Kurt Keppler, dean of students. "So, our office was getting complaints basically that this group wouldn't take no for an answer."

But the Rev. Ben Barnett says he goes out "and invite people to church and worship with me because I want people to have what I have." He said the church will take no for an answer.

"If they don't want to come, then you know our attitude is there are a lot of other people out there that probably do."

People who do come to their church will discover there is no church building, just rented halls. They declined to let Channel 2 videotape their service.

So, what defines this church? "Believing that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that if God says it. God wants us to do it," Rev, Barnett said.

Demarino said the church also insists that nobody, but a member of the International Church of Christ will go to heaven -- not the pope, not Billy Graham, not Mother Teresa not you, not your family members.

Rev. Barnett says, "I know we're not going out actually saying the pope is going to hell or Billy Graham is going to hell. We believe there is a very narrow way to have a relationship with God and that if people do it, no matter what their denomination they are a part of, they will become a part of God's one true church.

Dr. Lawrence Foster, who teaches religion at Georgia Tech, believes that the issue is not so much whether this is a cult or not. The issue is, are there excessive demands being placed on the people who join the group?

And that is one of the chief controversies surrounding this church. Dr. Foster says the church could be helpful for some, damaging to others.

The church tells us they only want to help other people experience what they have. And by the way, Demarino's relative left school. She now has a job and is back in a mainline church.

See Part 1 of this story

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