The Church That's Brainwashing Australians

Reader's Digest (Australian Edition)/May 1996
By Mark Barbeliuk

Outwardly a respectable relgious organisation, the International Church of Christ is, in fact an active and dangerous cult.

Emma Hodgkins's phone call to her parents was short and to the point. "I don't need you any more," she announced. "And I never want to see you again."

Until that moment, Ros and Bob Hodgkins thought they knew their 22-year-old daughter well. She was a cheerful, capable girl who regularly confided in them. Now their pleas for an explanation were met with silence. What Ros and Bob didn't know was that standing beside their daughter were leaders from the Sydney branch of the International Church of Christ, a cult that was determined to isolate her from everyone she knew and from everything she believed.

Eighteen months earlier Emma, a trainee teacher, had been attracted to the church thinking it might be a way to meet new people. She wasn't disappointed when she attended her first church activity, a private party. "I was greeted by young, attractive and outgoing people who couldn't do enough to help me," says Emma. Within the space of 12 months, she had become a paid worker for the Sydney Church of Christ, handling recruitment, finances and a sinister form of religious coaching known as "one-over-one discipling." Hodgkins was in the grip of a cult widely regarded as one of the most dangerous in Australia. Operating under the cloak of respectability conferred by charity status, it splits members from their families and seems to control their lives totally.

The church was founded in 1979 in Boston, USA, by breakaway preacher Kip McKean, and practices an extreme form of Christianity based on its rigid interpretation of the Bible, with followers believing that they are the only ones who will achieve true salvation.

The church. now run from Los Angeles, is disavowed by the traditional, mainline Churches of Christ that have existed for some 200 years. It has claimed to have up to 50,000 members in some 50 countries and aims to establish a church in every nation of the world by the year 2000. It was "planted" - a favourite church euphemism for established - in Australia in February 1987 by James Lloyd and Chris McGrath, who came from the Central London Church of Christ. It already boasts 1000 members here, with sizable congregations in Sydney, Melbourne. Brisbane and Adelaide - and is currently mounting aggressive recruitment campaigns in Perth and on the Gold Coast.

The cult uses different names, which ex-members claim are chosen to cause maximum confusion with respectable religious groups. Typically, fund-raisers for the cult use the name HOPE Worldwide. It is also known as the Boston Movement. Members are trained in high pressure recruitment techniques - known as blitzing - in places frequented by young people, such as Sydney's Town Hall area or Melbourne's St. Kilda beachfront. The aggressive touch is characteristic: the church describes a recruiting campaign as Operation Devastation, while the effusive welcome for potential members is termed "love bombing."

Students are a prime target, with university halls of residence regarded as an "evangelistic paradise." At the start of the 1994 academic year, the church tried recruiting during orientation days at Sydney University under the guise of the Sydney Christian Uni Ministry (SCUM). Subsequently, universities around Australia banned the church from operating at their campuses or made it clear that church representatives are not welcome.

Not all recruits are young, though they are in the main middle class, intelligent and idealistic. Often they are friendless in a big city, beset by spiritual uncertainty in the aftermath of a broken relationship or just plain curious. Says Cyril Muller, chaplain to the University of Queensland, who has counselled numerous cult victims: "Almost to a person, they indicate that they were attracted to the joyful, welcoming nature of the group and the apparent genuine concern for them as individuals."

Part-time student and barman Dominic Kipps 'was traveling to work one day when a friendly young man struck up a conversation at Hornsby station on the northern outskirts of Sydney. "To be polite, I gave him my phone number," says Kipps. That night, Kipps received the first of a barrage of phone calls from cult members. "I guess I was intrigued," he explains. "And all the attention was flattering." within six weeks he was attending his first Bible-study session and was being drawn deeper into the cult. Soon he lost interest in his studies and drifted away from his family.

The key characteristic of a cult is the use of psychological coercion. The International Church of Christ demands total submission through "discipling" - a sort of spiritual mateship. Explains Sydney businessman Tony McClelland, who with his wife Joan founded CultAware in 1992 to spread information on cult activities: "Cults are about manipulation; they focus on behavioral control." Every recruit is answerable to a discipler, someone "more mature in the Lord," who in turn has a discipler and so on up the hierarchy.

"At the top of the pyramid is Kip McKean whose orders take less than 24 hours to be implemented by his Australian flock," notes Kipps's father, Peter Kipps, who spent months learning all he could about the cult in an attempt to extricate his son.

New "disciples" soon learn that there is no room for doubt. "I was reprimanded on a number of occasions for failing to ask for and follow the advice of my discipler," says Tony Adams, a former member of the Brisbane Church of Christ. "I quickly realised that submission was the only behavior that would be rewarded."

Disciplers try to control every aspect of a disciple's life. Tony was discouraged from socialising with anyone other than "brothers" and "sisters."

He was also persuaded to play touch football - something that he wouldn't normally have done. "Football, volleyball and basketball are considered good sports by the church as they provide opportunities to recruit new members," says Tony. The disciple's primary duty is to proselytize, and the more people they recruit, the faster they rise in the church.

When Hodgkins joined the movement, she was required to introduce two or three new people to the church each day. Later, during recruiting campaigns, she had to ensure disciples stayed out on the streets - till midnight if necessary - until they met their quota, which could be as high as 20. "Once we had someone's number we knew we could work on them," Hodgkins says. "We'd call at any hour of the day or night."

A good monthly score brings praise from the preacher during a service, a poor one brings rebuke as a "struggling Christian." Says Hodgkins, "The whole system is based on manipulation - one moment encouragement, the next humiliation, until you comply. You soon find yourself doing anything to look good in the eyes of your superiors."

Tony Adam's path to spiritual seduction started while he was waiting for a bus on a brisk April night in 1992. He was approached by two polite and engaging people who invited him to a church service. "I was curious to see what it was all about," Adams recalls.

Impressed by the "unconditional acceptance" he initially received, Adams was baptized into the church. But he soon discovered that life in the cult was far removed from his first impressions. Senior Disciplers were encouraged to "hammer" their flock, and "break" them, until they meekly bowed to demands that no-one in the outside world would tolerate. In their anxiety to please, disciples are driven to conform to the American cult leader's perception of the correct image: trendy haircuts and fashionable clothes. Many dress like their Disciplers and even mimic their speech.

They also feel obliged to reveal intimate details of their lives Records of "sins," income, relationships, weaknesses, sexual habits, are passed to against those who step out of line. Hodgkins remembers being forced to record personal details revealed to her by fellow members. "People who don't confess are assumed to be hiding something," she says. "At staff meetings, we would discuss the confessions of those we discipled." The cult's attitude to sex is bizarre. Says Hodgkins: "One of my jobs involved counseling married disciples. In one case this involved telling them how many times a week they could have sex." She also compiled lists of members' favourite three "brothers" or "sisters." These lists would be used by church officials to decide who was compatible.

A dating couple is restricted to 35 minutes a week on the phone, and often a discipler lurks in the background to make sure they don't exceed that time. When the church authorizes a marriage, Disciplers decide the length of the honeymoon, and couples are expected to seek permission to have children.

into communal houses where their lives can be more closely supervised.

"Brothers" and "sisters" share separate, low-rent accommodation chosen by the church. According to Adams, at least 75 per cent of Australian members - both married and single - live in these controlled environments.

The church controls every hour of a disciple's day, so that they quickly lose touch with everybody outside the movement. "We would study the Bible at the oddest hours," says Dominic Kipps. If he missed a church service, a meeting or a planned activity, he spent hours on the phone to his discipler, explaining where he had been and discussing religion.

"The church made such enormous demands that we had little time left to sleep," he explains. "It was mind control through exhaustion." Many recruits give up work or, like Kipps and Adams, curtail their studies. "I know of people who have given up ten years of their life for the church," says Kipps's mother, Christine Kipps, a clinical psychologist who counsels ex-cult members, "and then have realised they are unskilled to do anything but disciple."

Recruits are constantly dunned for money to spread the word. A Sydney Church of Christ document obtained by Reader's Digest lists one of the church's goals for 1994 as raising $17,500 per week. "Our contribution has grown consistently during 1993 and we are budgeting a 30 per cent increase .... over the next 12 months," the document states.

Every convert is pressured to give a minimum ten per cent of gross income - even if they depend on social security or student grants. Nor is that all. Members are regularly encouraged to double their normal contribution or put in everything in their wallet during a church service. "I saw people put in a few hundred dollars at a time - often their rent for two months," says Hodgkins. People who do not meet these financial burdens are often "challenged" - a euphemism for condemnation.

"As individuals' contributions are quite public within the church, there is a form of peer pressure to do your bit," she says. "The more you give, the more you rise in the leaders' esteem."

Disciples often get heavily into debt in order to fulfill their obligations. Hodgkins recalls one person inheriting $20,000 and handing it over to the church. Although the Australian organisation claims autonomy from the US, the Los Angeles headquarters houses a database of worldwide finances. So money-orientated is the cult that at least two former cult members claim this database shows on each Monday morning how much any member in any branch has given the previous day. To leave the cult, many fear they will have to forsake God, and this fear is used as a form of group discipline: if you go, you will go to hell.

Adds Hodgkins: "The leaders would say 'So-and-so has' left the church and was killed in a car accident - that could happen to you."'

Even those who quit voluntarily carry emotional scars. "The damage I've seen is incredible," explains Christine Kipps. "These people are left in a state of utter confusion. They've lost confidence in their own decision-making, they feel guilty and fearful and never know if they've done the right thing by leaving." Adds Muller, "I have seen victims shake in terror as they talk to me. I have watched them weep uncontrollably as they struggle to accept that they've been duped by someone they trusted so completely."

Bodies like Cult Aware and Concerned Christians Growth Ministries gather intelligence on new religious and coercive groups, and are inundated with calls and letters from parents pleading for guidance on rescuing their alienated children.

Although counselling is one avenueof help, some parents resort to drastic action, even spending up to $30,000 to hire professional "exit counsellors" from overseas.

Peter and Christine Kipps's rescue plan for their son involved flying ina counsellor, who had worked with former Boston Movement victims, from America and luring Dominic away from the sect for a few days. They invited their son to celebrate his birthday with the family at rented holiday house on the New South Wales North Coast. "I agreed to go because I thought it would be an opportunity for me to convert the family," Dominic says.

Slowly over three days, the counseller reasoned with Dominic, pointing out fatal flaws in the church' beliefs and practices. The Kipps even arranged for Dominic to speak by phone to Ayman Akshar, a leading critic of the Church of Christ in London. Akshar was a senior member of the church for seven years until he realised its methods were "a very very bad abuse of power." Ultimately. Dominic accepted the evidence and broke his ties to the cult.

Emma Hodgkins went back to the church after receiving the same sort of Intense counselling. "I wanted to help the leaders see the errors of their ways," she says. "But I soon learned they weren't interested in any sort of debate." Once the church realised that Hodgkins's questioning was now "an obstacle" to the smooth running of their group, leaders publicly criticised her behaviour and then froze her out of meetings. Says her mother, Ros, "Emma could be strong because she knew she had a family to come back to. Many recruits who don't have that option find themselves drawn back into the cult."

The International Church of Christ is now being investigated by authorities in the United States and Britain. Meanwhile the Australian arm continues to seek new ground, with new "plantings" planned for or already implemented in other Australian cities and in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia. The church has also been active in New Zealand for the past seven years.The only effective action against it is from the loose network of family and friends and privately funded groups such as CultAware and Concerned Christians Growth Ministries the group founded by Adrian var Leen, an educator and clergyman in Perth.

Van Leen, McClelland and Mulle agree that the lack of accountability together with Australia's religious tolerance has aided the establishment of many manipulative sects. Even the so-called Japanese "doomsday cult", the Aum Shinri Kyo (Supreme Truth Sect), linked to the Tokyo subway gassing that left 12 people dead and thousands ill in March last year, established itself in Australia. There is still no legal remedy for parents trying to recover family members. "Only if these cults break existing common, civil or criminal laws," says McClelland, "do they face legal action."

When Kip McKean visited Australia last September, Peter and Christine Kipps were prevented from getting close to the cult leader and asking questions about the organisation that almost shattered their family. They and others whose lives have been wrecked by it have many, many questions to ask McKean - questions that will probably never be answered by this spiritual Pied Piper and his self-proclaimed "true Church."

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