Reaching out? or Breaking down?

The Knoxville News (Tennessee)/November 8, 1997
By Add Seymour Jr.

Some say the new Knoxville Church is filled with joy. Others say it's fueled by psychologically damaging mind-control.

To walk into a service of the Knoxville Church is to be enveloped by a wave of joy and warmth. There are no strangers, and members will leap to hug and greet each other. "It's very much a family atmosphere," said evangelist Dean Toscano, the church's leader. "The reason for that is because we really stress people trying to being like Jesus. It's a very loving church where we really meet each other's needs."

It's one of Knoxville's newest churches, and one of the least known and connected to a controversial past. The church was "planted" four years ago mainly by members of the Nashville Church of Christ. Both are part of the vastly growing network of the International Churches of Christ.

A splinter group from the mainstream 18,000-congregation Church of Christ, the ICC began in 1979 in Boston, Mass., under current leader Kip McKean. Some of the group's origins can also be traced back to the Crossroads Movement in Gainesville, Fla., which began in 1967 and where McKean became acquainted with the group. He later moved to Massachusetts, eventually becoming leader of the group, which also became known as the Boston Movement.

The church's popularity spread like wildfire during the 1980s. Boston services regularly drew several thousand people to the Boston Garden. Churches were established in most major U.S. cities, including New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles, their current home base. Churches have also grown in 64 countries, including France, Australia, Japan, Great Britain and South Africa.

A strictly literal interpretation of the Bible is taught, and the Scriptures are voraciously studied. Discipling, where older members spiritually mentor newer ones, is also stressed.

Recruitment is extremely important, and cities with large college campuses, like Knoxville, are targeted. Local leaders say that young people aren't necessarily targeted, but college-age people are regarded as future leaders.

Locally, between 150 and 170 people attend services of the Knoxville Church on Sundays at the Radisson Summit Hill and Wednesdays at the Airport Hilton. Currently the enrolled membership is 89, and Toscano hopes to hit 100 by year's end. Services are typically held in hotel ballrooms instead of regular church buildings to better focus the organization's finances on the ministry. The racially diverse congregation is lively, well-mannered, neatly dressed and extremely friendly. Members busily take notes as they listen to their leader, evangelist Toscano.

Toscano and his wife, Cheryl, come from Tampa, Fla., and have been in Knoxville for only four months. He looks much at home with his fairly youthful, non-denominational congregation. "One of the things most appealing about our church is that we're very biblically based," Toscano said. "We just basically go by the Bible. We teach discipleship, and our people are very committed to the church. I think our commitment level is very high, which is in line with what Jesus taught about being a disciple."

While their commitment has never been in question, it's how far that commitment goes that has the International Churches of Christ embroiled in controversy. Outsiders and former members who've "fallen" from the church say the aggressive recruiting is more like high-pressured sales - the more recruits members bring in, the better they're regarded, and vice versa. Religious experts have likened the group's discipling method to a religious pyramid, not unlike Amway.

But the most damaging charges stem from the high level of manipulation and control that former members say church leaders exert on the lives and minds of their followers. "They want to have a close watch on you," said former member Darrell Davis. Davis was part of the group of 25 Nashville Church members who started the Knoxville Church. "They told you, 'you shouldn't be hanging out with people who are not believers.' It's like 'give up your past life and start your new life with us.' There's nothing wrong with that, but after I got in there, I saw more evil in the church than outside the church."

Davis decided to come to Knoxville with the original group but left the church a year later. He said church members turned away from him after he began suffering financial problems, after the number of members that he brought into the church and his contributions began falling.

Former members nationwide say they've been pressured to give as much of their money to the church as possible. They're also told how and when to spend their money, who they should live with, work for, date, how to dress and whether they should keep relationships with friends and family outside of the church.

"We don't make people do anything that's unbiblical, but our opinion holds a lot of weight, especially if you're a leader in the church," Toscano said.

But Rick Bauer of Olney, Md., a former ICC leader who answered directly to McKean, says that after members question leaders, they are considered sinful and told they'll live broken lives if they ever leave the church. Bauer now leads a national support group for ex-members who, like him, saw something wrong in the church's teaching. "That kind of doubting is the core reason for the existence of the organization," said Bauer.

When a member questions the leadership, "the leaders will circle the wagons around people in what's called a breaking session. That's when four or five members try to reinforce the group's doctrine," Bauer said. "This is where the psychological damage happens," he said. "A person's decision-making ability is brought into question, and they're told that that's Satan, and that's evil."

"Phobia indoctrination is the classic mind-control tool used by cults, and it seems to be one of the practices that the ICC uses," he said. "This is where you find suicide and other self-destructive behaviors when they leave the group."

'I want to die now'

To look at Myra Barrett, no one would think she was the type of person who wanted to die. "I would consider myself to be a pretty tough cookie," she said as her strong hands held her kitten, Solomon. But several weeks ago, that's exactly how she felt after she said Toscano's wife, Cheryl, refused to baptize her.

Myra, along with her husband, had been studying with the Knoxville Church since they moved to East Tennessee from South Carolina this past June. They had been in the area just a short time longer than the Toscanos, who Myra said were sent to Knoxville to toughen up the church. "The church wasn't growing," Myra said. "I mean, Dean said, point-blank, that if you didn't bring in any new members, he would kick you out of the church."

Her husband, (who Myra doesn't want to name), was already a member, and Myra was well on her way. But when it came time for Myra's baptism, Cheryl refused. "She said that I wasn't broken down enough - broken in mind and spirit and teachable to their ways. I was devastated. I did everything I was told to do in that church. I could not understand what I did wrong. I had an emotional breakdown.

"I felt like I had the Lord and God dangled in front of me, and then it was snatched away. I was frightened that I would die or something would happen to me, and I wouldn't be a Christian, and I would go to hell."

She told her husband what had happened. But after he talked to church members, he surprised her with his reaction. "When he came home, he was totally against me and totally for the church," she said. "He said 'you are wrong.' "

Labeled as evil and divisive, she was forbidden by the Toscanos to even visit the church, she said. Members who had been her closest friends were told to stay away from her. Her husband also began to question her faith. "People who are actively trying to be divisive, those are the people we say 'have nothing to do with,' " Dean Toscano said. "I would say Myra was not willing to change things in her life that the Bible clearly teaches."

Myra thought she was going to hell. "I remember at the time that my husband told me that I was fighting God," she said. "I remember thinking 'If I'm that bad, then I don't need to be here, and I want to die now.'

"I said, 'I can't live the rest of my life with this empty feeling that God was taken away from me.' I didn't have any friends anymore. I was alienated, I was isolated, I was alone." That's when Myra took a bottle of pills to escape that loneliness. Her life was spared after doctors pumped her stomach.

And with the same strength she used to get her through the death of her daughter Dallas in 1994, Myra pulled herself together. She was counseled by mainline Church of Christ officials and realized that God did indeed love her. She was baptized in an Atlanta church a few weeks ago and now attends Laurel Church of Christ in Knoxville.

Her husband has also left the Knoxville Church, and their marriage is again on solid ground. But she still feels for and misses many of the members of the Knoxville Church. "It hurts me because I love them, and I pray for them a lot," she said. "It's an electric church. The joy you feel in the singing and the worship, I mean, it's there.

"They teach you the Word, and that's good. They don't let you sin, sin, sin and let you stay. If you're in there, and you're committing adultery, and you keep screwing up and going against God's word in the Bible, they'll throw your butt out. That's what a lot of churches need to do."

"But it's a devastating experience," she added. "People you put your trust in, people you love, and all of sudden they snatch that away from you. And that's what happened to me."

'We don't just claim to be Christians'

John Beene couldn't wait to get to Knoxville in 1993. Having grown up in the Nashville Church, he knew what joy the Knoxville Church could spread to the area. "The opportunity to come here and start something new was very appealing to me, and a chance to come to UT (University of Tennessee) and to become a disciple was to me very exciting."

Beene, now a graduate student at UT, says his life in the church has been nothing short of fulfilling. Aside from being a Knoxville member since the beginning, he says he grew up in the Nashville Church. He also met his wife, Chandra, a third-year UT law student, while they were Nashville members. Mostly, he feels spiritually fulfilled, as the Knoxville Church has given him what other churches won't. "We don't just claim to be Christians, and we actually try to live out what the Bible says," he said. "We're trying to get back to the Bible and not live by the traditions that men have lived by over time - and the hypocrisy. People are serious and committed. Everybody in the church is.

"I think our relationships are a lot tighter because we're in each other's lives. At other churches, people come once a week and they sit in the same seat every week and do not know the person sitting beside them. We're in each other's lives here, and it's closer than any other group I've seen out there. The relationships are real and deep."

'I wish we didn't have to discuss this'

Mike Buckley cringes at the mere mention of the Knoxville Church.

Buckley, the campus minister at the University of Tennessee's Christian Student Center, has witnessed some of the things that have gone on at both the local and national ICC levels. He also helped to counsel Myra Barrett. And from what he's seen, Buckley is not exactly bursting at the seams to support the Knoxville Church or the International Churches of Christ. "I wish we didn't have to be discussing this," he said as he watched a group of students stream across campus.

Buckley was at UT when the group first came to Knoxville to establish their campus chapter. ICC churches usually go into cities with large college campuses, which contain eager, bright and mostly open minds. Buckley attended one meeting and left without having his mind changed. His familiarity with the ICC stems from having dealt with the Boston Movement in the past in various places around the country. While he admits that he's not very familiar with current local church leaders, he does believe there are problems with the overall church's teachings.

"I'm not opposed to evangelism as Jesus would describe in the New Testament, or spreading the gospel as mentioned throughout the Bible," he said, "but there's some warnings mentioned in Matthew 23 about reaching out to people. Just because you're out trying to reach people for your organization or your church doesn't necessarily mean you're trying to reach them the right way or with the right purpose."

Toscano isn't bothered by all of the criticism leveled against the Knoxville Church. As members joyously sing and clap during a recent Wednesday night service, he says no one's mind or life is being controlled, members are able to make decisions for themselves, and they can have friends outside of the church.

What they do have to be is committed to the church's ideas, he says. He believes there is a place in Knoxville for a church that is simply just trying to live by God's word. "The majority of the people crucified Jesus," said Toscano, "but does that make it right? No, Jesus was the son of God. He didn't deserve to die, even though everybody was against Him.

"So if you interviewed people in that day, everybody would say 'He's a blasphemer, He claims to be the son of God; He's a deceiver; He brainwashes people; He leads a cult. A little band of guys all do the same thing, they all act the same way, and they all follow this man.' People would say the same thing."

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