Conversion Course: A journalist spends a week with the London Church of Christ

Conversion Course

Damian Thompson survives a week living with the London Church of Christ without being won over

Daily Telegraph Magazine, 17 October 1998

Rolling down the taxi window I look up at the flat above Barclays Bank. ‘That’s your new home,’ says Viv, the BBC producer. Two shadowy figures are gazing down from a big window. They look slightly spooky. ‘Don’t be silly,’ says Viv. ‘They just want to know what you look like.’

I’m about to spend a week living with the London Church of Christ, an ultra-strict biblical sect accused by its critics of turning teenage recruits into glassy-eyed fanatics. It’s a group I particularly dislike; but that’s why I’m here filming a series called “Living with the Enemy” with the BBC. The door opens, revealing a beefy man with a pointed beard; he is introduced to me as Andy B, the leader of this communal flat in Muswell Hill. My other flatmate, Peter, is boyish and neatly turned out, like an off duty Sandhurst cadet. He shows me into his bedroom, which he has vacated for the week. On the floor there’s a little basket of fruit and sweets, with a note: ‘Dear Damian, we hope that the time we spend together is interesting, bonding and a lot of fun.’

But there’s no time to settle in: I’m due at something called the ‘student devotional’, held every Friday evening in King’s Cross. Peter, who seems an affable type, drives me there in his beaten-up van. As we hurtle through the streets of north London, he explains that he was converted five years ago during his gap year. ‘I was on my way back from the supermarket with my greens and potatoes, and two guys invited me to the student devotional,’ he says. Now his full-time job as a courier takes second place to a gruelling round of Bible study, three services a week and street evangelising. I ask him about students allegedly failing exams or ending up in mental hospitals as a result of the Church’s impossible demands. ‘Well, I wouldn’t excuse some of the things that have happened,’ he says. ‘But for me, what matters is what you feel in your heart; whether you’re really following Jesus.’

The service is held in a dank, pre-war office building. We pick our way through the snoozing winos and climb the stairs to a large room with antiseptic white walls. It is heaving with young people: jolly black girls in leather jackets; shy, bespectacled Orientals; a couple of dazed-looking trustafarians. People are hugging each other in a rather odd, stilted manner, sideways on: it’s one of the group’s trademarks. The atmosphere is sweaty and expectant.

‘Now for charades,’ says Peter. He’s not kidding. A young man claps his hands and a group of volunteers launch into a souped-up version of charades modelled on Chinese whispers.As the message is passed on, the improvisations become progressively more frantic and silly. The girls in the audience hop up and down, shrieking like teenyboppers, and I catch myself thinking; ‘These are students?’

In the front row, a thin, serious looking man in his 30s scribbles notes. Then he jumps up, flashes a cheesy smile and joins in, arms gyrating. ‘Come on, Mark!’ someone yells, and the whole room picks up the refrain: ‘Come on, Mark! Come’ on Mark!’ This is Mark Templar, the American leader of the Church in Britain. He’s a friend of the Church’s founder, Kip McKean a charismatic preacher from Boston who in 1979 broke away from an older traditional denomination, also called the Church of Christ, because it wasn’t zealous enough. McKean’s writings are full of smug contempt for the hundreds of millions of Christians who will go to hell because they don’t do things his way. Templar is about to preach; it will be interesting to see if he’s as fanatical as his boss.

He is. At the Last Judgment, he says the saved will attain heavenly bliss but the damned, the lost, will be thrown into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels. ‘It’s a scene from the future and we’re going to be in it,’ says Templar. It’s a stark message for his young listeners: their salvation hangs on their efforts to evangelise others, so they’d better not mess up. ‘In your hall of residence, are there people down and discouraged, overwhelmed by their exams? Maybe they’ve split up with their boyfriend or girlfriend. Maybe something’s wrong with their family.’ You can see how this group got a reputation for preying on the vulnerable. I decide that I don’t like Mark Templar.

Ten minutes later, I change my mind. When I introduce myself, he slaps me on the back. ‘Hey,’ he says, reading my mind, ‘you can stop worrying about us trying to convert you in the space of a week. But if we can make you think differently about us, then that’s great.’ Over the next few days I will get used to Templar’s mixture of charm and menace. ‘He makes you feel special even when he’s humiliating you,’ someone says – and indeed I’ve already seen him do it, bawling out a girl in the audience for addling her student grant and then praising her for owning up. Listening to him telling jokes against himself with neurotic, split-second timing, I keep thinking that he could make a fortune doing stand-up, but then the smile vanishes and he dangles his audience over a fiery pit. ‘You’re like Billy Graham with a twist of Seinfeld,’ I tell him, and he looks puzzled. ‘Who’s Seinfeld?’

The next day we go out looking for converts. Witnessing to strangers in the street or in the Tube is pretty well compulsory for LCC members. I’ve been stopped by them once or twice in the past and I’ve usually resented it, particularly if the evangelist sports a lobotomised grin. But now, shivering outside W.H. Smith in Muswell Hill on a Saturday afternoon, I’m seeing it from the other side.

I’m with John Partington, 51, one of the LCC’s elders, known to everyone as JP. A builder by trade, he has the chiselled features and square beard of a Victorian patriarch. When he speaks about his faith – which he does all the time, in rich Lancastrian vowels – any doubts about his authenticity vanish. The Church saved his marriage and his life, he says, moving him from cold and formal Sunday observance to a radical 24-hour commitment to Jesus. He’s not outgoing by nature; but now it is his duty and his pleasure to witness to strangers: ‘When I nipped down to the newsagents this morning I invited a couple of folk to church,’ he says. ‘It’s so natural to me now it’s like a reflex.’

It’s a miserably wet and blustery day; nine out of 10 people shake their heads as soon as JP opens his mouth, but he’s not discouraged. I’m strangely moved. For the first time I wonder if there might be something in the LCC’s claim that it has recaptured the pure, fearless enthusiasm of the early Christians. Then something extraordinary happens.

A friend of mine comes bustling towards me with her shopping bagss, eyebrows raised; and after I’ve explained what I’m doing, she introduces me to her companion, an African girl called Sarah. ‘What did you say this Church was called?’ Sarah asks. I tell her. ‘My God,’ she says in a low voice. ‘I used to belong to them.’ Sarah tells me that she was a teenager when she joined the Church in Nairobi. For a time she enjoyed the intense commitment – the Bible classes, the constant supervision by a ‘discipler’, the confession of sins. She even confided something her own parents didn’t know, that at the age of 17 she’d had an abortion. – That’s OK, her discipler said. But a couple of years later she decided to leave the Church, and the line changed. ‘They told me that if I left they would tell my parents about the abortion,’ says Sarah. She turns to go. ‘It’s a horrible Church,’ she calls out.

What does JP make of that? He pulls a long face. ‘Well, if that happened it shouldn’t have,’ he says; but he doesn’t know how to respond. You can’t blame him: he takes me out evangelising and within minutes we meet someone who claims to have been blackmailed by the Church. What are the odds against that happening? But later I realise that this incident fits neatly into the pattern of my week with the London Church of Christ. No sooner do I start thinking that it isn’t so bad than I come across something that makes me shudder.

I’m woken up most mornings by Muswell Hill’s answer to the muezzin: Andy B bellowing out his prayers. One morning he allows me to sit on his bedroom floor and watch him. He kneels over a chair, rocking to and fro as he implores his Father to save the lost. My eye is caught by his shirt, which carries the French Connection logo: ‘fcuk’. Or it used to – someone has painstakingly stitched over the first two letters. When he was first converted, he struggled with swearing. Now he’s got it licked; one of my favourite images of the week is of Andy – this immensely streetwise guy with his basic questions, expecting crude sectarian replies. Instead, Andy takes me on a dazzling tour d’horizon of contemporary biblical scholarship. Watching him wandering round the kitchen, effortlessly summarising latest trends in Christology in between slurps of tea, it occurs to me that he’s the most naturally gifted Christian apologist I’ve ever met. But underlying everything he says is one remorseless piece of logic: ‘We’re the only Church which is totally uncompromising in following the Gospel,’ he explains. ‘Therefore, yes, we are the true Church.’

But you don’t behave like one, I protest. What about your sneaky use of front organisations? What about the time you launched a Soviet-style purge of a third of your members, effectively consigning them to hell because they hadn’t signed up enough recruits? What about the fanatical young convert I’ve just heard thundering against masturbation? How come he’s been put in charge of discipling teenagers? What about…

‘OK, OK!’ Andy throws up his hands in mock surrender. ‘I’m not going to deny that some horrendous things have happened in the past. And you know something? I can’t guarantee that they won’t happen again. When people feel so passionately about what they believe; there’s always that danger. But I do believe that we’re working towards a new spiritual maturity.’

The LCC’s line on sex reminds me of those ‘No heavy petting’ signs in swimming-baths. Not only is premarital sex forbidden, but so is ‘inappropriate touching’. Unmarried couples are not even supposed to travel in a car together. Yet Church leaders behave like Jewish matchmakers, clucking maternally as they propel spotty young men towards wallflowers. The older you are, the greater the pressure to find a partner in the Church. I met one 37-year-old woman who had just acquired a boyfriend. People went round congratulating her as if she had recovered from a life-threatening disease.

The Church has decreed that Saturday night is Date Night. I’m off to a bowling alley in Finchley with Andy B and Peter, their girlfriends, and my own ‘date’, Janet, a sparky girl with bouncy hair and bright red lipstick. As we change into our bowling shoes, Janet tells me about herself. Like so many Church members, she was brought up Roman Catholic; her mother was distraught when she joined the LCC because she thought she’d become a Protestant. But surely you have, I say. ‘Absolutely not,’ she says, eyes wide with horror. ‘I’m a Christian, that’s all.’

I send the first ball spinning down the alley, then turn round to look for Janet. There she is, in the shadows by the bar, talking to a young Latin American couple I had spotted earlier cooing to each other in Spanish. I sidle over. ‘You… come… to… our… church… tomorrow…’ she is saying. I feel a sudden surge of indignation. How dare she pounce on these defenceless people! They barely speak English; they have no idea what they might be letting themselves in for.

‘Your turn, Janet!’ Andy B yells out from the bowling lane. She heads off reluctantly; my chance to warn the pair. ‘This is a very strange Church. Be careful,’ I whisper. The girl nods. Do they understand? But now Janet is back, this time with a friend who speaks Spanish. So much for our carefree Date Night.

As the week draws to a close, I find myself making lists of things I like and don’t like about the LCC. Top of the things I like comes living in the flat. My flatmates don’t conform to the stereotype of the cult member in any way: If they have been trying to convert me, they’ve gone about it in such a subtle way that I’ve barely noticed.. I’ve also really enjoyed the Bible study sessions with Jokn Partington. When he opens his heavily annotated Bible, JP seems suffused with quiet joy; as his eyes run over the page, they sparkle like those of a child in a sweet shop. How can the LCC be an evil cult if this man is a member? Then there is the drugs and alcohol programme run by the Church. I spent an evening with a tough unsentimental Church worker who ministers to down-and-outs in the Strand. There was no attempt to ram the Gospel down their throats; just practical help for those wanting to get into detox.

Things I don’t like: the sort of in your-face evangelising I witnessed in the bowling alley; and a rather creepy feeling that members are constantly monitoring each other’s behaviour. But it’s not easy to separate the good and the bad, the faith and the fanaticism.

I’m still wrestling with this question on my last day with the London Church of Christ. We’re in a school hall in Camden for the Wednesday service. Halfway through, we reach the one part of the week the Church won’t let the BBC film: the moment when people sit round in small groups and hand over the slice of their income that the Church demands. Although most evangelical churches ask for a biblical ten per cent, the LCC regards this as a bare minimum, and it doesn’t exempt students and teenagers from the obligation. As I walk past one group, I catch sight of a bank statement being spread out on the table. JP flashes me a warning glance and I move away. In a way, this bizarre little scene helps me make up my mind. This isn’t a uniquely sinister cult; but it is well and truly trapped in the treacherous, centuries-old dynamics of the sect. Its members are classic True Believers, living their lives poised on a knife-edge between eternal bliss and perdition. New leaders rise up and just as quickly fall; half of al1 converts defect; intoxicating revivals alternate with vicious purges. But what’s the’ alternative? Perhaps Andy is right, and the LCC really is moving towards a new maturity; but it’s hard to see how it can do that without toning down its theology and becoming the sort of Church it doesn’t want to be.

After the service, I wander round the hall, saying goodbye. Everyone seems relaxed and happy. Including, I notice, the Latin American man from the bowling alley. He’s already learned how to do the sideways hug.


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