A look back at the Boston Church of Christ during its heyday in the 1980s

A news summary/January 31, 2006
By Rick Ross

At the close of the 1970s the Boston Church of Christ (BCC) had 30 members, but by 1988 the group held services with 2,200 in attendance at the Boston Garden.

During 1987 the BCC conducted its services within the Boston Opera House. Before that in the early 1980s the BCC met in a Baptist church in Arlington, but it all began in Massachusetts at Lexington.

The man responsible and the leader of the BCC for much of its history was Kip McKean. He organized an aggressive recruiting strategy focused on college campuses and also pulled in young professionals in metro Boston.

The BCC says it's "laying aside the traditions of men" and "restoring New Testament Christianity" and it is known by its required program of "discipleship."

But former BCC members told the Boston Globe that the church demands total commitment and obedience and fosters an abject dependence.

"What they say is that if you're not converting people, there must be sin in your life," said Robert Ludlum of Boston, a member for four years. "It got to the point in my life that I felt guilty for everything that I did."

Robert Thornburg, the university chaplain at Marsh Chapel at Boston University, called the Boston Church of Christ a "destructive religious group" and told the Globe that "the church seems to have concern only for reduplication of its own kind."

A 1988 church bulletin stated that one weekly collection from the membership in Boston was more than $35,000.

McKean is a charismatic leader and could be mesmerizing. He often came up with various pitches such as "Bring Your Neighbor Day" to bring in more people.

A Globe reporter attended one of his gatherings and quoted him.

"We like to think our congregation is big," McKean proclaimed. "We had 3,000 people here on Bring-a Neighbor Day, and we thought that was great. But 3,000 was the smallest gathering that the Jerusalem church ever saw. Peter and the apostles converted 3,000 people in one day." "Three thousand people," McKean reiterated. "Wouldn't it have been great to be in

Jerusalem on that day?"

The historic Church of Christ began during the 19th Century and has no denominational hierarchy, nor any connection to the BCC. It includes more than million people mostly in the Southern United States. Each individual church is entirely independent.

The Church of Christ should not be confused with the United Church of Christ, which also has a different tradition and history.

Kip McKean once attended the University of Florida in Gainesville in the early 1970s where Chuck Lucas the minister of The Crossroads Church of Christ recruited him. Lucas taught McKean through what he called "discipleship," a controversial one-on-one process. He drew on such texts as Robert Coleman's Master Plan of Evangelism, which teaches that Jesus controlled the lives of the apostles to "disciple" by controlling the lives of others, and that Christians should imitate this process when bringing people to Christ.

More than 30 of Lucas' disciples then fanned out across the US in the 1970s, working through established Church of Christ congregations typically near a college campus. They became known as the "Crossroads Movement." The historic Church of Christ attacked Crossroads regarding its practices.

Organizations known to monitor "destructive religious groups" also began keeping files on Crossroads.

In 1976 McKean was the campus minister for the Heritage Chapel Church of Christ near Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. Within three years his group included 180 students.

However, by April 1979 the local press reported that "tactics of manipulation and control were being used in the church program."

After that bad press McKean lost funding for his position and moved to Lexington, Massachusetts.

Boston's many colleges were ripe for recruitment, in just three years McKean had 750 disciples. By 1983, the Lexington Church of Christ had more than 1,000. In 1986 the BCC reached 1,800 and the church has sixty full-time staff.

McKean fashioned the BCC using the same methods taught to him by Lucas and during the 1980s his church was one of the fastest growing in the country.

But the BCC was dependent upon a very specific pattern of leadership.

Older members served as one-over-one instructors to newer members and everyone had a place in what could be seen as a pyramid scheme of authority.

There were so-called "Bible-talk leaders" heading a small cell group. Then "Zone leaders" over a section of "bible talk" groups and so on. The church required no formal education, seminary or ordination for its ministers. Every leader except McKean essentially served by appointment.

As time passed the BCC planted more churches internationally in Toronto, London, Johannesburg, Stockholm, Paris and Bombay. BCC eventually became the International Church of Christ (ICC).

Gerry Hernandez a former member told the Globe "Why do you think they started their work on college campuses?" "People are away from their families, and the younger generation is the most susceptible. We have that trend toward finding the truth, so we're the most susceptible to mind control and behavior modification."

Hernandez also remembered how the group "smothered" him with "love."

He recalled how on one day another member named Jim gave him a big hug and made a big deal about calling him "brother" in front of other members. Then he stopped and said, 'I'm sorry...I forgot you're not a brother. You've been around for so long that I forgot that you have not been baptized yet."

Hernandez then felt obligated to join. "They were so nice all the time and never seemed to have any problems. After a while you feel like if you're not involved in this kind of thing, you're no good," the former member later said.

At the end of one of his bible studies he explained that he was very depressed.

"I was so sad and depressed I started to cry. I didn't have my mother to talk to. I didn't have my father to talk to. And religion - you want to talk about that kind of thing with your family," Hernandez said.

Within six months he was, "eating, sleeping, and living" with other members of the BCC.

Hernandez was then briefed to become a recruiter for the group, how to strike up a conversation with a potential recruit and different approaches for different people.

BCC protocol required that every member receive permission from leadership to date someone a second time. And once someone left the church they were not to be spoken to, Hernandez told the Globe.

A Boston-based cult deprogrammer called the BCC discipleship methodology a form of "mind control." And he labeled its recruitment techniques "love-bombing." Other churches such as Maranantha Campus Ministries and The Way, also drew his concern.

Other former members of the Boston Church of Christ recalled the all-consuming nature of BCC activities. "I don't remember having a good nourishing meal," one said. "We weren't supposed to be spending enough time in the apartment to fix a full dinner," Kecia Henderson said.

"They watched us very closely," she says of the church members. "When they didn't know where I was, they'd ask other people to check up on me."

After Henderson left she remembered "waking up in a cold sweat and thinking I have to go back." It took a year to sort through her involvement and she sought professional help.

Henderson told the Globe that she dropped college courses and then contributed tuition refunds to the BCC. And when she was a bible-talk leader "sisters" reported each other's "sinful activities" to her.

When Henderson other members were shocked that a leader could "fall away."

Robert Ludlum says he decided to leave after learning that the BCC condemned homosexuality and that meant leaving his lover. When Ludlum left it was quite difficult. "I had to start my life all over again. My whole life revolved around the church. There was a big void," he said.

Interestingly, Bob Tranchell a campus minister for the BCC in Boston, despite being raised in Buffalo, New York had the hint of a Southern accent, and had adopted Kip McKean's manner of speaking. Critics have said that the BCC process of discipleship largely cloned its leader's personality.

A Globe reporter attended BCC bible talks and found them rigidly orchestrated. The talks did not include disagreements on any of the interpretations offered from the bible. "If I find a gray area, a lot of times it's just my own ignorance. It just takes more study or talk with people who know the Scriptures a lot better than I do," one member said.

BCC-involved students generally four church activities each week: Sunday services, Wednesday-night house churches, a Friday-night college student "devotional," and at least one bible talk. Most lived with other members.

Gerry Fernandez and a cult deprogrammer quoted by the Globe said that the controls on members' environments was so strong that members could no longer separate internal pressures from those of the group.

An active member told the Globe, "As a Christian, you must have this mental attitude. God allows Satan to cause you pain because He is testing your faith and dependence on him. Adversity often makes you want to quit. You must resist this discouragement by having the attitude that there is no pain you will not endure for spiritual victory. No pain!"

Rev. Frank Fairbairn of St. Ann's University Parish in Fenway, a Catholic parish in Boston that serves several colleges and universities expressed concerns about BCC to the Globe. "The Boston Church of Christ's system is intolerant."

Many campus ministers likewise were critical of the BCC and its practices. "Their campus procedures follow almost identically the techniques of other destructive religious groups," said Robert Thornburg, the dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. He compared the BCC to the followers of Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.

"Cult-like groups tend to be deceptive and manipulative, whereas we're up front with people," Al Baird told the Globe.

Baird asked his leaders to have students report their grades to the BCC and then Kip McKean preached about the importance of academic achievement, a tape of that sermon was then sent to Dean Thornburg.

BCC leadership told the Globe that mistakes made are due to "overzealous members." "Some idealistic youth try to ram ideas down people's throats," Baird said.

However, in one of fiery revival sermons McKean accused his disciples of lacking intensity because the rate of baptisms had not risen. "As we get older, we should, like Paul, be getting more and more and more intense," he admonished.

Former members like Susan Grundy claimed that there is pressure to recruit new members.

Flavil Yeakley, director of the Church Growth Institute at Abilene Christian University a historic Church of Christ affiliated school in Texas psychologically tested recent recruits from the BCC in 1985. He concluded that there was an alarming movement among these members toward a similar personality type. That preferred personality type placed an emphasis on extroversion, judgment, and sensory rather than intuitive perception. This type mirrored in many respects the profiles of the church leaders, to whom Yeakley also administered the tests. Yeakley told BCC leaders that this indicated a dangerous emphasis on conformity, which could potentially lead to severe psychological damage.

BCC leaders dismissed Yeakley's findings. They told him that the personality profile he was finding was a byproduct of their conversion experience. But Yeakley could not find an identical result in other Christian churches he tested.

Jim Woodroof, a minister at a historic Church of Christ in Burlington and author of a book about the Crossroads Movement, agreed with Yeakley. He called the BCC "machinery-heavy" and said it is "a step away from the rigidness of Gainesville."

Shaun Casey, a historic Church of Christ minister at Brookline devoted "a tremendous amount of time and energy" as a pastor those who left the BCC. "I have seen the human wreckage," he says. "The pressure that is brought to bear is true."

"I worry about the tremendous number of refuges who seemingly reject religion out of hand, people who are walking the streets saying, 'If that is the church, if that is Christ, if that is God, then I don't want any part of it,'" Casey told the Globe.

BCC leaders maintained a "bare minimum of contact with other campus ministers" reported the Globe.

"The only way ultimately to help people is to help them become Christians," says church member Donna M, which essentially means making them disciples within BCC. "What good will it do to patch people up but not help them spiritually," asked another active member Kevin Vance. "What good does it do to give food to a starving man and not say anything, thinking, 'I know I'm going to heaven, but this guy over here will use up the food and money I give him and still be lost'" he asked?

BCC constantly reports its numbers and published counts regarding attendance. This included weekly services, house churches, baptisms and new church plantings.

Former members Gerry Fernandez and Susan Grundy said this counting is present in everything members do through daily life, which includes church functions attended, hours of bible study, people brought to bible talks, people led to baptism and money given.

But despite all this effort the BCC estimated that one-fifth of its baptized members leave.

Minister Shaun Casey of Brookline said that the BCC approach was "a thinly veiled form of a business motif. The best corporation is fastly stripped away, the ideology of the Boston Church of Christ would pass for Amway or Mary Kay."

The BCC flourished during the 1980s and well into the 1990s before it began to crumble. Some believed it was because it offered simple answers to complex problems.

However, may came to see it as a personality-driven "cult" using methods of "mind control" to recruit and retain its members.

Note: This news summary was largely based upon an article previously published in the Boston Globe March 20, 1988 titled "Come, all Ye Faithful" by Daniel Terris

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