What led to the decline of the International Church of Christ?

A News Summary based upon the article "A Christian community falters" by Farah Stockman published by the Boston Globe May 17, 2003

March 25, 2006

By Rick Ross

At one time the International Church of Christ (ICC) boasted that it "was one of the fastest-growing churches in America," but it is also is one of the most controversial, banned by colleges and universities across the US. The ICC was first known as the Boston Church of Christ or the ''Boston Movement.''

However, now the church known for its hardball recruiting tactics and authoritarian control seems to be collapsing from within or at least losing its strength.

Thomas "Kip" McKean, the ICC’s forceful founder is gone and its "world governing body" was dissolved. Many local leaders have either left or been let go.

The story to some extent is about McKean’s personal family problems. His daughter attended the prestigious Harvard University and for the first time was somewhat on her own. That newfound independence eventually led the young woman to become even more independent, by leaving her father’s church.

The departure of the ICC’s supreme leader’s daughter caused "turmoil" in an already troubled organization, with a history of bad press and serious complaints about its structure and methodology.

''It caused [Kip McKean] to have to step aside and it caused the group to reexamine itself,'' said Michelle Campbell, executive director of REVEAL, an organization composed of former members of the ICC. ''It was sort of inevitable that Kip would fall. The standards he set, no one could meet. Not his children, not even himself. The very thing that he created came back and bit him,'' Campbell told the Boston Globe.

McKean was forced to resign ironically because of his own rigid rules, which required that any leader must leave if one or more of his children left the church.

''I think I hurt people's feelings in some areas. I do think there is some bitterness and some hurt,' the former leader advised the Boston Globe.

McKean’s followers once packed the Boston Garden to capacity.

His attractive daughter Olivia, an excellent student and tennis player, was often featured within ICC publications and an obvious focus of fatherly pride.

One former member explained that McKean’s three children; Olivia, Sean and Eric were like "celebrities" to church members. ''It would be like the president's kids. They had to be the best at everything" he told the Boston Globe.

McKean is reportedly the son of a Navy admiral. His religious fervor took hold during the 1970s when he attended the Crossroads Church of Christ in Gainesville and was a student at the University of Florida in Gainesvilley.

He later went to a Baptist seminary, but dropped out.

Married in 1976 McKean became a campus minister sponsored by a Houston Memorial church of Christ at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. Soon his ministry drew controversy and bad press due to its so-called "discipleship" practices, which allegedly included coercive control and high-pressure tactics.

The sponsoring church of Christ in Houston withdrew its support and McKean packed up and moved to Lexington Massachusetts.

In Lexington McKean set up his own church some say it resembled a pyramid scheme more like Amway than historic Christianity.

Perhaps following in his father’s footsteps McKean made his church much like the military, with every member assigned a superior to report to called their ''discipler'' or "discipling partner."

McKean kept sending out his troops to open new churches such as the Manhattan Church of Christ, the Chicago Church of Christ, and hundreds more. Eventually there would be branches in London, Sydney, Moscow, Nairobi and other locations around the globe.

McKean once planned to have a church virtually every important city across the US and every country in the world.

However, there was a dark insidious side to the ICC. Former members say they were often humiliated and some were shunned and/or kicked out. All this occurred within a system often characterized as crushing, controlling and unforgiving.

''Any major life decisions would have to be run through your discipler. 'Vacations, going home... If you are spending too much time with old friends, that would be frowned upon, unless you are recruiting them. All your free time is accounted for. Dating has to be pretty much approved. You can only date people in the group,' one former member told the Boston Globe.

McKean broke away from the historic church of Christ and preached that the ICC was the only "true church." New members were routinely required to be baptized again, or they would supposedly be damned and go to hell.

Everything was recorded in detail, baptisms, the rate of baptisms, church growth, donations and outreach.

''It was not just like a church; it was like a corporation,'' Rick Torres, a former leader at the Manhattan Church of Christ told the Boston Globe. ''If your numbers were going negative, they would come up with a reason that God is not with you'' he said.

McKean bought expensive gifts for those followers or leaders he liked and he could both praise and admonish from his pulpit of power. He was also known to have fits of rage, throwing things and yelling if he lost a game.

Apparently bad behavior within the ICC eventually created an interesting fact, there were probably more former ICC members than active ones. Former members formed support groups, started Web sites and used the Internet to share information about the organization.

''A lot of the upper-level leaders who I was friends with had tons of doubts about the group, and would even joke about it being a cult,'' said one former ICC leader. ''They knew there were serious problems, but they felt trapped financially. They had kids, and a house... They had no other job skills. No other church would hire them," he added.

By the 1990s McKean moved his family and ICC headquarters effectively to Los Angeles. He sent his children to a pricey school in Brentwood that charged $19,500 a year per child. Every success or life event of the McKean kids was reported through the "Kingdom Network News" (KNN), the ICC’s official media outlet.

They were the ''first second-generation disciple born, raised, and baptized in the Movement,'' it once read.

''I coached Eric's basketball team, and the Lord blessed us with the championship. All three have made straight A's this year and have been active in a tennis academy where they have reached out to and baptized their coach,'' McKean gushed to the faithful through KNN.

His children not only lived under a spotlight, but also seemingly were constantly pressured to perform.

''I'm convinced,'' McKean told followers in Washington, D.C., in 2000, ''that when a teen falls away [from the church] . . . there are some sinful dynamics in that family, and that family, that mom and dad, need to repent.''

But by January of 2001 Olivia McKean had stopped attending the ICC and told friends she was done with her father’s church.

''She finally just stood up and said, `I'm sick of the whole thing; I'm leaving,' '' one former church leader who knew her personally told the Boston Globe.

Olivia McKean declined to speak with the Boston Globe when the newspaper prepared an article that was published in the spring of 2003.

Kip McKean, soon after his daughter’s rejection of the ICC, would need to "repent" and he announced his resignation openly.

''I am very, very sorry. My most significant sin is arrogance -- thinking I am always right…I take full responsibility for how my sins have spiritually weakened and embittered many in our churches. I also take full responsibility for the spiritual condition of my family.''

He told the Boston Globe in 2003 that his family is fine and he remains in communication with his daughter Olivia.

However, McKean’s resignation letter, which was widely circulated, led to a chain of events that would begin the fragmenting and foundering of the ICC and its leadership.

Dozens of leaders would eventually also feels the need to apologize for their assorted sins. Many of the ICC churches would break away and become independent. There were also massive firings, precipitated by declining donations.

Elder Gordon Ferguson of the church once pivotal to the movement, the Boston Church of Christ admitted to the Boston Globe in 2003, ''We are going through a challenging time. Some of the critiques we have received are valid. We are trying to reexamine things we have done and not lose the good things.''

Since 2003 Kip McKean has moved to Portland, Oregon, where he seems to be attempting a comeback.

''We're praying that God will lead us to a new ministry. You might say, `What is that?' I don't know,'' he told the Boston Globe back in 2003. However, he has still not returned to lead the movement.

There are those amongst the ICC membership that seem to hunger for the glory days when McKean appeared destined to be leader for life.

But will McKean ever really be able to restore the ICC?

Perhaps the personality-driven nature of the ICC historically was its driving force rather than faith? And without that personality survival may prove to be difficult.

The future of the ICC remains shaky at best and unclear to date.

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