Former Members Raise Concerns About Church's Tactics

The Wichita Eagle/June 3, 1995
By Julie Wright

About 160 people attend church services in a Century II meeting room, a few in dress shirts and ties as if they've come straight from work, but most in sweatshirts and jeans as if they've come from home or class. The Wichita Church of Christ Jesus has a young and diverse congregation. Everyone seems to know everyone else. Enthusiastic greetings are offered all around, then various church members run up to the stage to lead the singing.

Finally, Mark Hayward, the church's minister, takes the stage. His message: Who are you listening to? You should be listening to Jesus. Worshipers punctuate his talk with "Amen" and "Come on, Mark."

To members, the church and others belonging to its parent movement, the International Churches of Christ (which is not affiliated with the Church of Christ, United Church of Christ or the Church of God in Christ), are the only churches they know of whose members live the way the Bible commands.

But vocal former members see a different church. They see a church that attracts the vulnerable, demands that they devote all their energy to church growth, dictates virtually every aspect of behavior and lifestyle, allows no dissent or questioning, and condemns all who leave or don't believe.

Richard Jones, a Wichita public-school teacher and former member, questions whether the group is a church in the traditional sense. "They don't center around God and Jesus and the teachings; they're centered around how much they can control you and what you do," Jones said.

Former church members in Wichita and elsewhere say church leaders:

  • Insisted that members be involved in church meetings and recruiting activities that took up most of their free time.
  • Required that they turn every social encounter into an event for recruiting potential new church members.
  • Opposed their efforts to leave town for vacations.
  • Asked that women who were having difficulties in the church report every time they had sex with their husbands.
  • Required that prospective members confess their sins in writing.

Hayward said it's not the church that demands total devotion from disciples. It's the Bible.

"We've got to look at not 'What's the church calling people to?' but 'What's God calling people to?'" Hayward said.

In Wichita, the church has been most visible at Wichita State University, where officials have been troubled since 1993 by what they describe as the church's aggressive and deceptive recruiting practices.

Jim Rhatigan, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, said church members use stealth tactics to get students involved. What's billed as an evening of movies and popcorn really is an attempt to draw them into the church, he said.

"If you're really committed to the life of Christ, you don't hide the message in the manner this group does, nor do you apply the pressure that this group does," Rhatigan said.

The church lost recognition on the University of Kansas campus in 1991 because of similar complaints.

The church is the most aggressive Bible-based group recruiting on college campuses, said Cynthia Kisser, executive director of the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network, which gets up to 50 complaints a month about the church.

"The complaints center around things like the former members feeling that they were manipulated into making major decisions about their life in terms of what was in the best interest of the group, not in terms of what was in the best interest of them individually," Kisser said.

"That may have included pressure for them to drop out of school, to go to work for the group full time in another part of the country. It may have included pressure about how to dress, who to date."

In Wichita, adult former members have begun to speak out about their experiences in the church. They all sound a common theme: control.

"They want total control over their members to a degree that they were telling me where I should be spending my time, who I should be dating, and the nature of the conversations I was having private conversations I was having with other individuals," said Ron Pastore, a representative with a Wichita investment firm who was a member of the church for four months in 1994.

"I was really very fond of the people in the church. They were a bunch of beautiful, neat people," Pastore said. "But it was the tactics of the leadership of the organization . . . I just disagree vehemently with their tactics."

Although some former members of the Wichita church say they fear that other members experience financial hardship because of their giving to the church, none said they felt pressured to give more than they could afford themselves.

Like most churches, the Wichita Church of Christ Jesus expects its members to tithe 10 percent of their income to the church. Once a year, the church holds a special collection in which members are expected to contribute 17 times their usual gift.

In 1993, the church collected $247,204, according to an income statement circulated to church members.

The church reportedly is among the world's fastest growing, with 50,000 to 70,000 members in 173 churches in 64 countries, according to church literature. Each member devotes himself to recruiting new members, which draws attention to the church.

As a result, the International Churches of Christ has been the subject of critical articles in newspapers across the country. ABC's "20/20" featured the church in 1993, and a producer from the tabloid television show "Inside Edition" infiltrated the church with a hidden camera.

Former members such as David Weber of Colwich question why church leaders object to members' dating outside the church and wonder whether it is an attempt to control members' emotional involvements.

But church members point to II Corinthians 6:14: "Do not be yoked together with nonbelievers."

Critics such as Pastore say the church urges new members to give up old interests and pastimes so they can be more easily controlled. "They really do want to alienate people from any kind of external support, emotional or otherwise, that they have, so that you become addicted," he said.

Church leaders point to Luke 14:33: "Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple." No one questions a workaholic's decision to devote night and day to career, said church deacon Ken Johnson, a Wichita aircraft-company employee. No one questions an athlete's decision to devote night and day to training. Why question devotion to God?

"It used to bother me," said Johnson, one of the handful of residents who asked that an International Church of Christ be started in Wichita. "It doesn't bother me any more, because 90 percent of the time, if a person will come and see the church, they'll see that it's not true," he said.

Critics such as Rick Bauer, a former national church leader who is now a minister in Bowie, Md., say the church tells potential, current and former members that those who don't follow the church's teachings will go to hell, and that it's not possible to follow the teachings without being an active, daily participant in the church.

Does the church teach that anyone who is not a member will go to hell? Hayward wouldn't say yes or no. "The thing I really want to say with that more than anything else is I'm not the judge of anybody," he said. "I'm not even the judge of myself. God is the judge, and the Bible says that God will judge each person according to what he has done."

Of course, many churches teach that those who don't live by their rules will be damned. The difference, according to former church members and observers, is the emotional dependence on the church that the International Churches of Christ promotes.

Lois Svoboda, a Wichita physician and member of the Kansas chapter of the Cult Awareness Network who has counseled former members of the Wichita Church of Christ Jesus, said the church pressures people to join, to stay in, to submit to authority, to confess their sins and to expose their innermost selves in public.

    [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.]

"I know there's also a very positive side in that there's a lot of affection and positive regard shown to recruits," Svoboda said. "But I also know that that's conditional, because as long as they are interested in joining there is a tremendous amount of warmth and acceptance demonstrated to the person that makes them feel wonderful, that makes them feel like they've finally found family. But this doesn't last.

"The group doesn't mind cutting off a friendship that is very powerful if they want to transfer a person to another place."

Some former members say the control over people's lives has become the church's ultimate goal. "I think it started perhaps with the power of love, but the love of power is, as far as I'm concerned, what motivates," Bauer said. He eventually left the church because of what he described as problems with the church's theology and methods.

Church leaders are so used to criticism that a booklet prepared by the national office anticipates questions about church practices.

Question: "How do you respond to critics who equate discipling with 'mind control' or 'brain washing?'"

Answer: "We try to respond with forbearance and love, for Christians have always been misunderstood and persecuted. Jesus himself was tortured and executed because those in power considered him to be dangerous or crazy or both."

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