Church group recruits in Madison

The Badger Herald/May 7, 1997
By Christopher Tennant

The Madison Church of Christ, a Los Angeles-based religious group which has been labeled a "cult" by some for its alleged mind control tactics, held its inaugural service at the Madison Best Western Inn Sunday.

Steeped in controversy since their arrival in Madison in early April, the 30 member group is an off-shoot of the International Churches of Christ, an organization which purports to have over 145,000 members worldwide.

Headed by Kip McKean, the ICC has been the subject of critical newspaper, television and magazine reports since its inception in Boston in 1979. According to Ron Loomis of the International Cult Education Program, the group has been banned by over 22 college campuses in response to its aggressive recruiting practices.

According to Madison Christ Church Leader Jeff Mannel, however, these allegations of misconduct are for the most part unfounded.

"It's ridiculous, we are absolutely not a cult," said Mannel. "If you look at the religious groups that are destructive and have all these problems, you'll see that they are the polar opposite of what we believe. The people who wrote those articles never went to a service- to find out what we're really about takes a little more effort."

According to Mannel, "the church is modeled after the First Century Church, depicted in the book of Acts, which was started after Jesus was crucified. Our members try their best to live according to the scriptures."

The church drew criticism earlier this month when members, known as "disciplers," began approaching strangers on State St. with invitations to attend Sunday's meeting. For many, these impromptu offers were not well received.

"It's wack when someone you don't know starts talking to you about their religion," said Ben LaScala, a UW freshman who was approached by a "discipler." "I just told them to be out and I walked away."

A number of students, however, either agreed to attend the service or just politely declined the offer.

"It didn't sound like a cult to me," said Kathryn Hurley, another UW freshman who was also approached about the service. "The women who asked me were really nice. I told them I wasn't religious, and that was the end of it."

According to Mannel, the practice of approaching strangers is going to slow down.

"We're going to move towards developing more personal relationships with individuals," Mannel said. "Imagine you have free tickets to a concert and you really want people to go, what are you going to do. It was our first service and we wanted to get as many people involved as possible."

Well aware of the complaints which have been lodged against his group in the past, Mannel attributes most of the criticism to dissatisfied former "disciplers."

"Being a Christian is a hard life to live," he said, "If you leave the church, you have to justify why you leave. I think there is so much criticism because people who leave feel guilty about it.

"Anybody that's fragile and emotional, it doesn't matter what group they join, their feelings are going to get hurt at some point. It happens in fraternities and sororities all the time, but no one talks about that," Mannel said.

The hierarchical structure of the ICC has also been noted by critics who see Kip McKean's leadership position as analogous to that of a "cult leader," similar to David Koresh or Jim Jones.

Mannel called this assertion unfounded.

"Kip is the leader, but he's not worshiped, he's just a man," he said. "When he's gone, someone else will replace him. I've known Kip since '79; he's an awesome guy; he's not perfect though. We need a leader just like every company needs a CEO."

Despite the barrage of criticism his church has received in Madison, Mannel remains confident about the future of the church.

"This type of stuff is nothing new," said Mannel.

"Jesus told his disciples 'whoa unto you if all men speak well of you.' He said listen, people hated me and they're going to hate you. There were times when Jesus would preach a tough service and everyone would walk out. He'd look at his disciples and say 'aren't you leaving too?,' and they'd say no, we've pledged our lives to follow you. Of course everyone isn't going to agree with what we're trying to do," he said.

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