Controversial church gives first service

The Daily Cardinal/May 5, 1997
By Toby Gillett

The Madison Church of Christ, a religious sect that has been called a cult, offered communion, a live band and a sermon at its first service at a downtown hotel Sunday morning.

"Oh Lord, our Lord, How majestic is your name in all the Earth," sang the group of about 150 worshippers at the Best Western Inn on the Park, 22 S. Carroll St.

The newly founded Madison church is part of the International Churches of Christ, which has been called a cult in recent media reports. Byron Parson, who preaches for the Chicago branch of the church, denies the aspersion this casts on the organization.

"What is being labeled as a cult is being committed and being active on campus," he said. "If [the media] actually came down here and saw what goes on they would think differently."

Professor Joel Elliott, of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a former ICC member, warned about the commitment this church requires.

"They're a real intense group and they try to sustain it," he said. "This is sort of like the storm troopers and the Marines."

Sunday's service resembled religious services held at other churches. However, Pastor Dennis Johnson of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in LaCrosse, Wis., who keeps files on cults, said this follows the pattern of many cults.

"Usually the initial meeting is fairly above-board," he said.

The church is funded by donations from members, which sometimes includes a tithe, said Jeff Mannel, the minister for the Madison Church of Christ. "That is the goal," he said. "It depends on how much a member can give."

The church has faced criticism for its alleged coercive recruiting tactics. Elliott pointed out that physical force is never used. "It's not like they're sneaking up on people and forcing them to join," he said. "They offer something people want."

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