Church lets go of old ways

Chicago Tribune/March 5, 2004
By H. Gregory Meyer

After losing its leader, facing accusations of cultism and other scandals, the Chicago Church of Christ attempts to keep from falling apart.

In the last year, the friction was so strong inside the Chicago Church of Christ that it ignited a "firestorm," in the words of one elder.

The 22-year-old evangelical church and its worldwide affiliates in the so-called "Boston movement" long had been an institution that outsiders compared to a cult for its rigid control of members' lives and its recruiting practices. Church leaders had dismissed the complaints as "spiritual pornography."

Then "Kip" McKean, the movement's founder and international leader, quit in November 2002, apologizing for "arrogance" and other sins, and criticism started boiling up from within. A blistering letter from a church figure in London made the rounds on the Internet, attacking leaders' power and a climate of fear in the church and saying "the devil has his fangs deep in our neck." Chicago's leaders rented a Rosemont auditorium in February 2003 to renounce years of past practices.

A year later, church leaders say they have corrected course and are seeking to move forward, dropping an obsession with numerical growth, with compulsory contributions, with coercive "discipleship partners" who kept fellow congregants in line.

They also are mending fences. In what would have been an unthinkable gesture a few years ago, Chicago and other movement leaders ventured to Abilene, Texas, last week to share a hall with leaders of the mainline Churches of Christ, the evangelical arm they splintered from and said were headed for hell.

"We were expressing how we hurt the people in the audience," said Steve Staten, an elder of the Chicago Church of Christ. "We had lots of tears in fellowship. Lots of hugging, reconciliation. People making plans to do things together."

As the church faces the future, it will confront the challenge of maintaining its uniqueness without its founder. For all the novel religious movements that have found institutional legs after the loss of charismatic leaders--the Mormons, for instance--there is a long list of forgotten sects that failed.

The Chicago church was established in 1982 as one of the first congregations in the "Boston movement," or International Churches of Christ. Founded by McKean outside Boston, the movement predicated its success on spectacular expansion. In 20 years it had reached about 130,000 members worldwide, according to church figures.

But not without alienating more along the way. In the mid-1980s the movement broke with the mainline Churches of Christ, which itself dates to the evangelical Restoration movement of the 19th Century. (The United Church of Christ is a Protestant denomination separate from these evangelical churches.)

"The ICOC believed that they were the only ones that were saved in the world," said Rich Little, evangelist at the mainline Naperville Church of Christ. "They believed they were God's people."

A chorus of past members has attacked the church for what they call its heavy-handed control. A decade ago the Illinois Senate Education Committee named the group in hearings on supposed campus cult activities in the state.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect has been the church's historic emphasis on "discipleship partners," mentors assigned to guide members' spiritual growth.

For young members such guidance could be illuminating, said Lee Harrington of Naperville, a former member who joined as a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But in other instances the partners were little more than coercive minders who policed where members lived, whom they dated and whom they could live with. In one case, Eureka Reeves, a former member who now volunteers with REVEAL, a support group for ex-church members, said her discipleship partner forced her to keep house for the church evangelist.

"We washed clothes, dusted, cleaned the house. It took pretty much most of the day," Reeves said. After she left the church in 2000 she said she was "marked," which meant members could no longer talk to her.

"When people leave, they think they're going to hell, and they're ostracized from the congregation," Reeves said.

Nancy Bazile said she quit the church last August after 10 years. "I just felt that it was all too unhealthy for me, spiritually and physically." As a single woman living in Hyde Park, she said the church had forced her to take on boarders.

"You would be manipulated into having roommates because living alone was seen as being selfish, and tempting to adverse sexual activity," Bazile said.

Staten said that after the scathing letter from London leader Henry Kriete appeared in February 2003, "things blew up." Many of the resentments and questions from preceding years boiled over and leaders of the church offered public apologies at the Rosemont meeting.

"Our problem was an authoritarian arrogance," Staten said.

He said many of the issues people raised about the church, from discipling to dating, had been disavowed years before. But leaders had not publicly renounced them.

The short-term damage was done. Church membership dropped from 2,700 to 2,400, and the Elmhurst office where the Chicago Church of Christ is headquartered was slimmed from 70 staff members to fewer than 50, Staten said. Weekly revenue from tithes--which former members say was assiduously monitored in databases--dropped from $125,000 to $89,000, he said. But the leaders' contrition is matched by confidence in the church's survival, and a recent Sunday service appeared far from the scene of a crisis.

The crowd spilled out of the seats at Prosser Career Academy on the Northwest Side, home to one of nine congregations in the Chicago area. And it seemed almost handpicked in its diversity: blacks, Hispanics and whites; the young and the old; people wearing khakis and drooping hip-hop gear. An usher squeezed a visitor's arm and flashed a giant smile as she led him to a folding chair.

"The idea is getting your family saved," elder Randy Harris said in preaching leavened by jokes. "I don't know anyone here who doesn't have a burning desire to see your family saved and go to heaven."

The service featured communion rites and announcements of a whirlwind of church events, including a mothers' gathering, and a "church-wide teen revival." Donations of $10 and $20 filled brass collection plates.

Detri Lively, 43, who joined the church after growing up Roman Catholic, credited church leaders for owning up to past failures.

"They fall, but they admit it," he said. "They knew there were mistakes and they admitted them."

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