Discipling, Recruiting at Heart of Ministry

The Witchita Eagle/June 3, 1995
By Julie Wright

The International Churches of Christ, formerly called the Boston Movement, began in 1979 in Lexington, Mass., when a young church leader, Kip McKean, led a small group of people who broke off from a Protestant Church of Christ.

McKean's idea was to restore Christianity to its first-century form, with followers living as disciples.

The Wichita church began in 1991, first meeting in schools and now meeting at Century II.

Two church practices are most controversial: discipling and recruiting. Each church member, called a disciple, is assigned a church mentor called a discipler. Members have almost daily contact with their disciplers, discussing routine and major life decisions and confessing sins.

It is not unusual for a church to ask that its newest members be tutored in their faith by more mature members. Critics say, however, that the discipling relationships in the International Churches of Christ make the disciple extraordinarily vulnerable to the discipler and to the church.

For example, April Mejia, a Wichita resident and former member of the Kansas City Church of Christ, said sins she confessed to one discipler were brought up to her in conversation with another discipler years later.

Mejia, who said she was the 27th person baptized into the Kansas City church, left the church after six years. One of her complaints was that, during a time when her discipler thought her marriage wasn't what it should be, Mejia was asked to report every time she and her husband had sex.

Then she got pregnant, Mejia said, and thought that would be proof to church leaders that the couple was intimate. But, she said, church leaders admonished her that the couple should not have decided to have a child without consulting them.

Richard Jones, a teacher at Wichita's Metro Midtown and a member of the church for a few months in 1994, was, like Mejia, bothered by the requirement that he produce a sin list.

Like all who study the Bible in preparation for becoming a member of the church, Jones was asked to write a letter to God confessing his sins. He did so. But then his discipler wanted to see the list. Jones made up excuses for weeks about how he'd forgotten to bring the list to study sessions. Really, Jones said, he just didn't want to share the list.

"I'm not giving anybody any more control, any more knowledge about me than I want them to have,'' Jones said he thought at the time. ''And this is starting to sound like they want control."

Jones and his wife soon left the church.

"I think they try to program, condition people to the fact, or maybe to the myth, that they are a Christian entity," he said. "They want you to think that their way is the only way."

As far as Steve Ozanne, a Wichita physician, is concerned, it is the only way. The church is special, Ozanne said, in part because the discipling relationship helps him live out his faith. But Ozanne said he doesn't typically use the word 'disciple.' The people who help him in his faith are his friends. "When I grew up," Ozanne said, "I heard lots of sermons about how 'you need to come to church.' I heard lots of sermons about 'you need to read your Bible.' I didn't do that, and the people around me didn't do that. Here, there's an encouragement and a level of expectation that that's what you're going to do, and I'm doing it."

Though former members criticize discipling practices, the public most often learns about the church because of its aggressive recruiting. Members believe the Bible commands them to bring as many people to Jesus as possible, and they are pressured to talk people into studying the Bible and joining the church. The problem, critics say, is that church members often don't tell people exactly what they're being invited to do.

"The whole message is one that's marbled with deception," said Bauer, the former church leader. He described what he said was a typical attempt to draw someone into the church: An invitation is offered to a secular-sounding event such as a volleyball game. No mention is made of the church, but everyone at the game except the potential recruit is a member. While at the game, the non-member is invited to a Bible-study session.

During his contact with church members, the potential recruit probably will say something to reveal a vulnerability perhaps that he isn't getting along with his parents. The message is passed along quietly to a study group leader, and the next Bible study is about one's relationship with his or her parents. The reason for the lesson isn't explained, and the newcomer thinks it is a grand coincidence.

Scenarios like that worry officials at Wichita State University, where church members are a fixture on sidewalks and in the Campus Activities Center.

Jennie Brightup, for example, a 22-year-old psychology student, said she was pestered for an entire semester by a pharmacology classmate who kept inviting her to the church even after she'd made it clear she was happy in her own church. "They're just very persistent," Brightup said. But that's a strength, according to Sam Lazarus, a church member. Lazarus was at a low point in his life when he got involved in the church. Instead of rejecting it, Lazarus continues to value its place in his life.

He decided he had to change his life after his girlfriend told him she might be pregnant. Lazarus said he prayed and watched a religion program on cable TV in search of answers, but nothing happened for six months. Then he met a man on the WSU campus who invited him to a Bible study.

After studying with the church, Lazarus said, he realized he had been misled by his Presbyterian upbringing. "I could quote the Scriptures inside out, but they were not any good because my heart was not there I was not living like Jesus," he said.

That was 3 1/2 years ago. Lazarus eventually rose to be leader of the church's campus ministry at WSU but stepped down last year after he got involved in what he characterized as an 'impure' relationship with a female friend.

Lazarus addressed the entire congregation about the issue because he wanted to apologize for having failed after it had put its confidence in him. He daily considered quitting the church. But he didn't, and he's glad. "No one has ever looked down on me," Lazarus said. "No one has ever condemned me."

Officials at WSU have not taken action against the church because, they say, they don't want to interfere with the group's right to free speech, religion and association.

"It's such a complex area because we live in a country that has freedom of religion, and who has a right to criticize another person's religion?" said Lois Svoboda of the Cult Awareness Network. "We're not disputing their doctrine; what we are disputing is the way they abuse people." The church doesn't abuse anyone, Hayward said. It just asks them to change. That makes some of them feel threatened. After Jesus' resurrection, his disciples went from city to city and spawned riots with their beliefs, Hayward said. "It's not our intention to create riots," he said, laughing at the thought. "But the nature of living as a real disciple calls people to change. I think people are afraid to change."

    [Note: WARNING! The Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was recently bankrupted and bought up by Scientology. We strongly recommend you do not contact them for assistance.]

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