A lively song opens the service, prompting more hugs, then a young man in a crisp suit takes the podium and the spotlight. With the booming voice of a sportscaster, the affability of a talk show host and the charisma of a football coach, he delivers an informal yet eloquent sermon. Plucking biblical passages here and there, he urges the assembly to overcome temptation with the help of the Good Book, occasionally interjecting a relevant personal anecdote about his wife, his children or a recent trip to the gym. The audience members, who have all brought with them a personal copy of the Bible and a book of songs, scribble furiously in well-worn journals or Palm Pilots. They receive the speech with laughter, thunderous applause and shouts of “Amen!”, “C’mon now!” and “Help me!” At the end of the sermon, the auditorium erupts in a standing ovation.
This is the Boston Church of Christ, one of the most controversial religious organizations of the last 20 years.
According to U.S. News & World Report, the Boston Church of Christ is explicitly banned from at least 39 college campuses, including Northeastern, Holy Cross and Boston University. The church is charged with aggressive proselytizing—recruiting new members in off-limits areas such as dining halls and dormitories, sending church members to pose as students and pursuing potential members to the point of harassment.
Within the last decade, instances of BCC recruiting on Harvard’s campus have prompted warnings by proctors to first-years as well as the church’s exclusion from the United Ministry, the University’s interfaith association. Add to this accusations of psychological manipulation, abuse of member finances, overwhelming time commitments and the restriction of personal relationships, and suddenly spreading the Good Word becomes a very complicated deed indeed. “It’s the most destructive religious group I’ve ever seen,” the Rev. Robert Watts Thornburg, dean of BU’s Marsh Chapel, has said.
The Boston Church of Christ has arrived at its current state of notoriety from rather humble origins. The story begins with a man named Kip McKean. Born in Indianapolis in 1954, McKean first turned to religion as a high school student in Central Florida. There he joined a growing Methodist church that “encouraged a simple faith in the inspiration and inherence of the Bible,” he explains in an 1992 autobiographical essay entitled “Revolution Through Restoration.” A few years later, while a first-year student at the University of Florida in Gainesville, McKean became a member of the 14th Street Church of Christ at the invitation of a Sigma Chi fraternity brother. Soon active in the church’s campus ministry, he was baptized that spring.
McKean went on to work at various locations of the Church of Christ and was often criticized for what was seen as a narrow interpretation of the Bible. McKean writes, “A Christian should simply obey where the Bible speaks and only speak—have opinions—where the Bible is silent.” McKean also stressed the importance of the Old Testament, while traditional Churches of Christ focused on the New Testament. In 1977, McKean and fellow minister Roger Lamb were fired from the Memorial Drive Church of Christ in Houston (though not from the Church of Christ as a whole) for “teaching false doctrine.”
Disappointed by the small numbers and weak commitments of church members, McKean decided to stop pouring new wine into old wineskins and instead start his own church. The perfect opportunity to build a church from scratch without actually leaving the Church of Christ organization presented itself in 1979, when McKean was asked to be the pulpit and campus minister of the ailing Lexington Church of Christ in Lexington, Mass. McKean quickly set about reforming the church—with considerable success. In the previous three years, the church had seen only two baptisms. In McKean’s first year alone, there were 103.
Following Jesus’ command “to go and make disciples of all nations,” McKean devised an impressive plan to “plant” churches in every country. (McKean-inspired “plants” became known as members of the Boston Church of Christ—BCC—because of his Lexington base.) In 1982 the first domestic church was planted in Chicago and the first international church in London. By the following year, a New York City church was created (in what McKean refers to as “a metropolis of 18 million lost souls”), and Sunday services in Boston proper were drawing 1,000 people. In 1986 the BCC planted churches in Asia and Africa, in 1991 the 100th church was planted in Moscow and in 1994 the Los Angeles and New York branches were, according to the BCC at least, the top two fastest-growing churches in North America. By 2000 the BCC had reached its goal of planting a church in every nation with a city of at least 100,000 people.
Today the International Churches of Christ (the group’s official name since 1993) claims more than 400 churches in 170 countries, more than 128,000 members and a total of 188,000 individuals who attend their services each Sunday. They pride themselves on the racial, social and economic diversity of their members that is missing from most traditional Christian churches. Especially striking is the BCC’s youthful following. Twenty-two percent of the members of its largest church, in Los Angeles, are college students.
What explains the astronomical growth of the church? Their comprehensive website (www.icoc.org) asserts that “people are looking for something in life beyond materialism and pleasure. They want to find a meaningful purpose and lasting relationships.” Presumably these things can be found in the BCC’s unique set of beliefs and approach to community-building.
“I do not know of any other church, group or movement that teaches and practices what we teach as Jesus taught in Acts 2:41-42,” McKean writes. “One must make the decision to be a disciple, then be baptized for the forgiveness of [one’s] sins to be saved and receive the Holy Spirit.” This stance opposes the typical Christian view of baptism as a symbolic ritual but not necessarily a requirement for salvation. Even those already baptized in another Christian church must go through the BCC rite.
Paired with the BCC’s belief that good works—and not God’s grace—ensure salvation is the church’s practice of “discipleship.” Modifying a buddy system used in McKean’s Gainesville church which assigns people “prayer partners,” McKean created “discipleship partners.” The website elucidates: “Being ‘discipled’ simply means getting input, advice and teaching from people we know and respect so that each one of us can become more like Jesus.” In these relationships, older, wiser and “stronger” Christians counsel younger and “weaker” ones. Partners meet weekly but are encouraged to have daily contact, with the older member doling out not only spiritual advice, but also guidance in academic, personal and career matters. According to “Revolution Through Restoration,” “Studies were done by several church growth experts that proved that the number of relationships in the church a new Christian possesses is directly proportional to his likelihood of remaining faithful to God.”
The BCC differs from mainstream churches in other ways. Rather than buying or constructing church buildings with lavish facilities—which, leaders reason, would slow the growth of the church and detract from church projects—BCC churches rent out spaces in which they can hold services.
Also, there is no formal way of ordaining or appointing evangelists. Aspiring leaders act as full-time “interns” for months or years until they are deemed ready to become leaders. None of the BCC leaders holds a master’s degree in divinity or a Ph.D. in a theological field.
The central leaders of the BCC—elders, deacons and evangelists—are all male. Citing the Bible, the church professes that women cannot hold positions of authority over men. Rather, the BCC has separate women’s ministries in order to avoid the temptations and tensions of male-female relationships and to provide “women’s counselors” who can better offer insight to female disciples.
Members of the BCC are expected to contribute financially to the church. A weekly tithe of approximately 10 percent of a member’s gross income and a larger annual “missions” contribution supply the BCC with its revenue—which last year totaled $183 million. These missions often fall under the rubric of HOPE Worldwide, a program begun in 1991 to help the poor in over 80 countries.
In addition to a financial commitment, members of BCC fellowships make a significant time commitment to the church. “Generally speaking, there are six hours of meetings per week,” the BCC website states. “In addition, members spend time with their Christian friends in informal fellowship and friendship settings outside of the regular church meetings.”
To its members, the BCC is a way of life, a church claiming to produce “happy marriages and joyful households” through intense study of the Bible.
Around 1986, the Church of Christ stopped considering the BCC part of its fellowship. In “Revolution Through Restoration,” McKean explains his perspective on the rift: “The major issues were: who is a Christian, independent autonomy of each congregation and rebaptism. I am convinced that jealousy over our growth, which exposed their lack of growth, was a major motivation of this separation.” It was also at this time that allegations of cult-like activities within the church began to surface.
That year, Dr. Flavil Yeakley, a minister with the mainline Church of Christ, conducted a psychological test called the MBTI (Meyers-Briggs) on members of the BCC, as well as on a control group of members from the mainline Church of Christ. The results indicated that to an extreme degree, BCC disciples saw their personalities “shift” from their normal orientation to become more like the charismatic McKean. Yeakley published his results, causing the BCC to label him an enemy of the church and to forbid its members from speaking with him or reading his work. The church’s intensive “discipling” was now under attack.
Is the BCC a Cult?
RightCyberUp.org, a recovery website for former BCC members, alleges that the church is indeed a cult. Evidence presented by REVEAL (Research, Examine, Verify, Educate, Assist, Liberate), a non-profit organization for ex-members, bolsters this argument.
RightCyberUp says the BCC has a “pyramid-shaped structure with absolute authority at the top,” with disciples reporting to their partners, who report to their partners, and so on. The pyramid ends with McKean himself, who is self-appointed and has hand-picked all of the leaders beneath him. Some allege that McKean views himself as chosen by God. (The BCC website says that though McKean is “a very talented leader, he is not infallible, he is not an apostle, and does not claim to have a sense of being supernaturally led or inspired by God.”) The BCC’s Boston-area college student coordinator declined to comment for this story.
A study of former members’ experiences cited by REVEAL indicates some degree of submission on the part of the members of the BCC, stating that “93% of former members said that members are told to trust the group and its leaders over their own thoughts and opinions,” and “88% said members are told that to question, criticize, disobey or distrust leaders is to question, criticize, disobey or distrust God.”
Opponents claim that the BCC is “totalitarian in its control of members’ behavior.” RightCyberUp argues that discipling partners often dictate dating standards for advisees, pressuring members to enter or exit certain relationships, outlining the extent of physical contact that may be had on dates and even forcing members to report details of dates. Marriages are subject to the same scrutiny, with spouses reporting on one another. Members report being instructed by their discipler on which college to attend, which classes to take and how many hours of sleep to get. In the survey, “100% of former members said members are encouraged to imitate their disciplers—with 83% saying members are chastised if they fail to imitate.”
The BCC’s policy of mandatory confession is also subject to criticism. Members must confess all of their sins before they are allowed to be baptized by writing a letter to God stating all of their transgressions. Former members cite instances in which this information was shared by their disciplers with leaders and larger groups.
RightCyberUp also contends that the BCC interferes in members’ careers. The church must take priority over work in members’ schedules (with meeting times adding up to much more than the six hours the BCC website claims) and members are even expected to turn down job offers in any city that lacks a branch of the church. Money is one of the motivating factors in this policy. Jim Brown, a BCC sector leader, was quoted as saying in a personal budget workshop in 1997, “I believe that people that aren’t getting promoted need to be talked to—why not? Is it the company’s problem—could be—or is it your problem? Let’s get promoted, let’s get even more money. Why? Take care of more people. Send out more missions.” REVEAL shows that BCC members gave an average of $2,400 to $2,500 to the church between 1999 and 2001, and RightCyberUp cites this forced tithing as another indication that the BCC is a cult.
The BCC website maintains that “following God must be a decision made from the heart, and not because one has been manipulated into blind obedience.” Yet critics cite physical and psychological control as another cult-like symptom of the BCC. Members are told that their church preaches the one true faith and that all non-members are going to hell. Leaders urge friendship only within the group and encourage members to live with one another. To leave the church is to leave God, they are told, and doing so is detrimental not only to one member but to all. Family and friends who question a member’s commitment to the BCC are either ignored or attacked, and critical coverage by the media—the reading or watching of which is forbidden—is assumed to be inaccurate and labeled “spiritual pornography.” RightCyberUp says that all of this adds up to mind control and estimates that more than 25 percent of former BCC members suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after leaving the group.
“All major religions started out as cults,” says the BCC website. But critics insist that just because the BCC has become an international movement does not mean it cannot be deemed a cult. Mind control need not be absolute, uniform or intentional.
A major criticism of the BCC is what many judge to be over-aggressive recruiting tactics in the name of “discipleship.” While the church insists its members are merely “showing love to everyone, member or non-member,” opponents say that showering potential recruits with excessive affection and disguised invitations is misleading.
The BCC’s intensive recruiting stems from an obsession with growth. “If our churches are not growing, it’s sin,” McKean proclaimed in a 1994 sermon. In an article published last month and posted on REVEAL’s site, Dave Anderson, the mind behind RightCyberUp, attacks the BCC’s obsession with and manipulation of statistics. According to Anderson, of the 10 largest BCC congregations in America, six actually shrunk during 2001. The church, in fact, saw its greatest exodus yet between 1999 and 2001: For every five baptized, four members left the church. The BCC, he claims, manipulates its numbers by baptizing children of current members and by focusing on “restorations” (bringing “fallaways” back to the BCC). With such a disappointing retention rate, recruiting has become even more important for the church.
All BCC members are required to recruit new members, and how successfully one recruits determines how high one can rise in the leadership hierarchy. Disciplers encourage members to change their clothing, hairstyles and personality in order to be more effective recruiters. “We rub shoulders with our multitudes in the world daily and must figure out ways to influence as many as possible in order to get them into a relationship with God,” declared “Kingdom Teacher” Gordon Ferguson in a 1997 speech.
Bible talks are a key part of the church’s evangelism, as members are encouraged to bring at least one guest each week to their discussion sections. Something of a misnomer, Bible talks are not a time for BCC members to ask questions about their faith, but rather a time to focus on these visiting non-BCC members. Religious jargon that could frighten away potential recruits is discouraged and attending members are instructed not to disagree with their discussion leader in this setting. The talks are promoted as non-denominational and informal, but REVEAL asserts that they are actually designed to persuade guests to convert by carefully selecting verses of Scripture to prove that theirs is the one true faith.
Some recruiters introduce themselves only as members of a “non-denominational church” without specifying their affiliation, while others invite guests to social events or sports games without revealing the hidden religious intent of the activity. Most interested parties are never informed up front that they will have a discipling partner, that this person will greatly influence their daily life and that the BCC will demand many psychological, financial and time commitments.
Separated from their families and looking for new friends, college students are especially vulnerable to such BCC proselytizing.
BCC on Campus
“Campus ministry may be described as ‘the goose that laid the golden egg,’” says Douglas Jacoby, a BCC Kingdom Teacher, in the church’s 2000 evangelism handbook Shining Like Stars. College students are seen as prime candidates for future leadership. Monique A. Cloutier, a former BCC member who converted while a student at Northeastern, told The Crimson in 1995, “We were told to go after ‘sharp’ people, people who made a difference. They really want those type of people, the people who can make the biggest impact in spreading the doctrines of the church.” Adds Ron Enroth, author of Churches That Abuse, “[The BCC] uses talented people—whether they’re celebrities or artists or gifted people—as window dressing. It’s one form of attaining legitimacy.”
BCC literature specifies the first few days and weeks of school as prime recruiting time, as new students are eagerly searching for new friends. Shining Like Stars calls dormitories “the evangelistic paradise for Christians.”
Resident advisers stand in the way of such recruiting and require placating. Jacoby’s book explains, “The resident advisor, or RA, is the most immediate symbol of authority most dorm residents face. It is important that Christians develop good relationships with the RA before the Bible Studies begin. Then in the event someone complains, the disciple will be seen as a friend and not as ‘that religious nut’ in Room 18.”
For the serious BCC recruiter, all college campus activities are seen as a means to an end: “The challenge is to become genuinely interested in things that interest other people, while never losing sight of the fact that the activities are tools and not ends in themselves.” Rick A. Bauer, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and a former BCC member, told The Crimson in 1995, “There’s this divine mandate that the ends justify the means because we have to evangelize the world in this generation—it’s okay for us to cut corners along the way.”
Harvard’s Handbook for Students warns undergraduates about “destructive religious activity and the tactics of high-pressure religious groups” but does not mention the BCC specifically. Similarly, the United Ministry website cautions against involvement with religious groups that do not follow “the collaborative code of non-proselytization and mutual respect on the which the United Ministry is founded.”
The BCC cannot join the United Ministry first and foremost because of its recruiting tactics. “Any member church, denomination or chaplain has to promise on the way in that they’re not going to engage in proselytization,” explains the Rev. Irving Cummings, president of the United Ministry and pastor of Old Cambridge Baptist Church. A church representative cannot approach a student to discuss religious matters without the student first expressing interest and giving consent. Doing so is considered solicitation. “We very much frown upon that,” Cummings says.
Associate Dean of the College David P. Illingworth ’71 says the administration follows the United Ministry in its general anti-proselytization policy—that disapproval of the BCC is a matter of behavior and not beliefs. “Harvard has no problem with students who choose to attend this church,” he says. But while “a part of their belief structure is telling others about their beliefs,” the University has to put its foot down when “people [are] overly strong in their invitations to join.” Illingworth says the University has had no problems in recent times with the BCC and that no action has ever been taken against student recruiters by the College’s Administrative Board.
BCC and First-Years
Freshman proctors have been warning incoming students about coercive religious groups, including the BCC, for at least the last 10 years.
Matthew J. DeGreeff ’89 has been a proctor for nine years—first in Grays Hall and now in Greenough—and currently serves as a senior proctor. On the first Sunday night meeting with his students during his first year proctoring, DeGreeff delivered his spiel on dangerous religious groups and was surprised to discover that one of his students had already joined the BCC after being on campus for only one day. The church had even seen to it to warn her that her proctor would speak out against the church but to disregard his admonitions. Over the next four years, she became a frequent subject of student complaints—but also one of the church’s best recruiters.
DeGreeff says the BCC has “an incredible way of finding people looking for community.” Students become targets of “love-bombing” tactics: “All of a sudden you have all these friends who love you,” he says. Students don’t anticipate the unwavering devotion that the BCC demands and soon one’s “life is being dictated by the BCC.” DeGreeff, also an admissions and financial aid officer, knows of students who have given their financial aid money to the church or have dropped out of school altogether to focus on church activities. The BCC has even gone after Harvard summer school students, who are high school juniors and seniors.
He jokes about the BCC’s tendency to view overprotective proctors “as the anti-Christ,” but says that overall, proctor warnings have proven to be effective, as many students have approached him to discuss ways to handle harassment by the BCC. For this reason, he stresses the importance of healthy and trusting student-proctor relationships. He has even had ambitious students, after hearing the Sunday night spiel, actively looking for BCC recruiters on campus in order to turn them in.
DeGreeff says he understands that “for some students, [joining the BCC] can be a very powerful and positive experience,” but he worries about students’ mental health first and foremost. “The most upsetting thing,” he says, “is students who feel violated.”
Harvard VS. THE BCC
The BCC has endured what it perceives to be its own dose of violation, viewing campus bans as religious persecution and infringement of the right to free speech.
In 1995 matters came to a head when a group of Harvard students petitioned to get their student Bible study group officially recognized by the College. The BCC-friendly group, called Harvard Christians in Action (HCIA), had the 10 signatures required and needed only the approval of then-Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III. But HCIA president Michael J. Hrnicek ’96 and two others were members of the BCC. Epps questioned HCIA’s autonomy from the BCC, as independence from external organizations is required of student groups seekinh official status. Hrnicek complained of a two-year struggle with Epps and argued that First Amendment rights extended “to inviting fellow students to church and to challenging students’ religious beliefs,” reported The Crimson. Said Hrnicek, “I am very serious about [my religion], and I think this is why the Church has come under various charges of mind control and being too involved in members’ lives. The church is very serious, and I am very serious.”
Epps responded, “I fully admit to dragging my feet on the Boston Church of Christ issue, and it’s because of [the Church’s] history.”
Affidavits were presented to the Committee on College Life charging Epps with violations of the First Amendment, citing instances in which he had allegedly called students into his office and threatened to expel them if they did not stop sharing the Bible with other students. Epps denied these allegations.
In the end, Hrnicek was victorious—if only for a short while. Then-Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett ’57 agreed to recognize the HCIA, with the stipulation that the group refrain from recruiting and that they maintain their autonomy. But Jewett was later forced to retract the College’s recognition when one of the 10 members of the HCIA withdrew her support.
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Mark T. Silvestri ’05 is a member of Harvard Christian Impact. He has attended a BCC service, spoken with its pastors, and researched the church in his spare time to satiate his curiosity and draw his own conclusions about the controversy. Of the BCC members with whom he has had contact, Silvestri says, “They’re all great people. They’re all very strong Christians. They have a very supportive community, and they’re very enthusiastic. That’s something you don’t find in every church.” But Silvestri finds the BCC’s conservative doctrine less satisfying, particularly its philosophy on baptism and its belief that it is the only true church. “It disturbs me to think they can’t call me a fellow Christian,” he says.
Adds fellow Christian Impact member Benjamin T. Littauer ’03, “People seem very dedicated, very happy, very fulfilled” in the BCC, but “it’s a little too exclusive for my tastes.”
The BCC mission statement is a Bible verse from the Gospel of Matthew: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” In spite of criticism and accusations from other churches and the media, the growth of Internet-based support groups for ex-members and a forced retreat from college campuses, the BCC continues to flourish in this new millennium and will most likely be a force to reckon with for the forseeable future.