Down from Kingdom Mountain
A story from the Early Days of the Discipling/”Crossroads” Movement
by Catherine Hampton <[email protected]>
“I saw no more; the spotlight in the center dazzled my eyes and made everything else too dark to see. I spoke no more; someone else spoke using my mouth. I thought no more; a stranger free from doubt or questions took over my mind. I felt no more; the group felt for me. I was no more….”
— a former disciple at the Boston Church of Christ in 1987
- How I Got Involved….
- Some History and Background
- The Mainline Church of Christ
- The Early Crossroads Movement
- Kip and Crossroads in the Mid and Late 1970s
- My Time in the Movement
- My First Two Years
- At College
- The Northwest Church of Christ
- After College — The Pepperdine MA Program
- Being “Discipled”
- Problems in the Church
- Running Up Against the Wall
- Leaving the Movement
- The Aftermath
My name is Catherine Hampton, and for ten years, from 1977 to 1987, I was part of the discipling movement, often called the “Crossroads Movement”, within the Churches of Christ. The Boston/International Church of Christ (ICC) came from this movement.
I wrote the first draft of this account the evening of September 29, 1996, after I ran into young ICC member in Internet Relay Chat (IRC), an area of the Internet where people can “talk”, or type messages to each other, in real time.
At first I thought the young member was trying to recruit other people — “evangelize” or “share the gospel” in movement parlance — and publicly commented that I was a former member of the movement out of which the ICC had come in order to warn her off. I was wrong — she wasn’t trying to recruit. She told me she “loved her church”, asked why I had left, and added immediately, before I had time to say anything, “Were you abused?” A barrage of other questions followed, questions that convinced me she was seeing serious problems in her church and needed to talk.
She was also intensely curious about the history of the ICC. Current members simply don’t hear about the history of their church — the official story is that it started with the founding of the Boston Church of Christ in 1979, and very little detail is given for any period before 1990 or 1991, from what I’ve heard from more recent former members.
She was also uneasy talking with an acknowledged former member, although by current ICC standards I am not a former member since I was never actually a member at a Boston-planted Church of Christ. Clearly she was more curious than afraid. I wanted to answer her questions, although I knew I couldn’t begin to answer many of them, because she hadn’t begun to ask the important ones yet. So I started writing….
It’s amazing how writer’s block goes away when you have someone specific you’re writing for. This covers my story fairly thoroughly. Since my story covers the middle and late discipling movement and (to some extent) the early Boston movement, it should provide some history for those who want to know more about the history of the ICC, as well.
Do remember that I wasn’t at Crossroads itself. My movement time was spent at two churches with Crossroads type ministries, one of them a direct Crossroads planting. My story is in some ways quite typical of that period, and in some ways very different from what many people experienced. And many of these memories are almost twenty years old, so exact dates are suspect unless I was able to double-check.
I named this story after a comment made by a friend after she returned from a disastrous sojourn at the Boston Church of Christ. She said that being the “Kingdom” (Boston-specific language for the ICC) was like being on top of a high mountain — you were always looking down on people outside the movement, and they all looked like ants, not human beings. This was a blow to the gut for me, because I realized I’d begun to look at people this way after almost ten years in a much less “radical” part of the discipling movement. For me, leaving the movement behind meant leaving my pride behind and becoming, not human again (I was always that), but part of the human community rather than an isolated and allegedly self-sufficient individual. And doing this took years, almost as many years as I spent in the movement.
There’s always some danger in long public confessions / autobiographies like this. As a number of early Christian Church Fathers point out (Augustine among them), confession can easily become a form of acute egotism. But I think my story captures the atmosphere of the discipling movement in the Churches of Christ during the period when the ICC was born and began to grow, and captures it from the view of a rank and file member rather than a leader. So I felt I should tell it. I hope it will be of value to those trying to understand the ICC.
I was raised by nonreligious parents. Probably partly because of this, I grew up fascinated with religions and with spiritual matters. I remember a few visits to church with my grandmother when I was five or six, hearing the story of Jesus’ birth directly from Luke 2 in first grade, an overnight visit to the home of a Jewish girlfriend at Passover when I was seven, getting my first New Testament when the Gideons passed them out in my fifth grade class, wandering into a summer church school/camp at a local Roman Catholic church when I was twelve…. In sixth grade a friend’s family took me in, and I attended a Lutheran confirmation class with her for several months, getting my first exposure to any kind of formal religious training.
After my family moved to a new area around that same time, my sister and brothers were invited by school friends to “ride the church bus” with some classmates who attended a local mainline Church of Christ, in El Paso, Texas. (I’ll say more about the mainline Church of Christ, from which the ICC came, later.) After a couple of months I got curious and went with them.
For a year I attended Bible school and occasionally services, more or less regularly. I liked the uncomplicated, easily understood beliefs of the Church of Christ, its emphasis on the Bible only, and the excitement and sense of community at the church were I was visiting. When I was fourteen, in 1975, I decided I wanted to give my life to Christ and was baptized.
For the next two years I struggled with the usual teenage angst, in addition to some indifference and occasional hostility towards my beliefs at home. I was deeply committed to my faith, read my Bible constantly, tried to escape from the confusion and upheaval in my life into the consistency and safety of my faith.
At times I wondered why others seemed less committed, less willing to give up everything for Christ and more interested in things and the opinions of other people. Like a lot of idealistic teenagers, I had all the makings of an arrogant fanatic, and if I escaped being one during these years it was due largely to my shame because I was fat and couldn’t quit overeating, and shy and couldn’t learn to make friends easily. It isn’t the first time my sins probably saved my soul, by keeping me aware that I was human and not God. But I didn’t like being reminded of my humanity — it hurt.
In 1977 a campus minister was hired by my church, a man named Tracy Vinson. Tracy had gotten his BA in Bible from Harding College, a mainline Church of Christ liberal arts/Bible college in Arkansas (now Harding University), and then had spent a summer training for ministry at Crossroads. Many young campus ministers did this in the early and mid-1970s — at the time most of the mainline Churches of Christ thought highly of Crossroads.
The first evening Tracy arrived, he spoke to the high school group at church and asked us to volunteer to be part of a new ministry. He warned us that it would require a considerable amount of time and “total commitment”. Of course, this just made an idealistic would-be world-saver like I was then all the more eager to be part of the ministry. I volunteered without a moment’s more thought or hesitation. This is when I entered the Crossroads movement.
The ICC came from a group of churches called the “Church of Christ.” (This is not the same as the “United Church of Christ”, a large mainstream Protestant denomination with Calvinist roots — while one small part of the UCC comes from the same movement that produced the Churches of Christ, most of it came from a totally different branch of the Protestant Reformation.) I find that most current ICC members know little or nothing about the Churches of Christ, so I’ll give some background.
The mainline Churches of Christ are a conservative evangelical fundamentalist group concentrated in the “Bible Belt”, the southern and midwestern states of the United States. They came out of a religious movement on the American frontier in the early 1800s, a movement founded by several Protestant evangelists who grew tired of the religious bickering of the period. They determined that they would believe the Bible only and toss out all creeds and other measures of faith. The movement came to be called the “Restoration Movement” by its adherents since they believed they were restoring Christianity to what it was in the New Testament.
The term “mainline Churches of Christ” is new. It came into use in the late 1980s to distinguish the traditional Churches of Christ from those Churches of Christ in the discipling movement, and especially the Boston Church of Christ and the churches affiliated with it. Before that time, all of them were just called Churches of Christ.
Three major branches of the original restoration movement exist today — the Disciples of Christ (the most theologically liberal), the Christian Independent Church, and the Churches of Christ. In addition, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, the Mormons, came out of the same widespread religious revivial of that era and shared several early leaders with the Restoration Movement. The ICC came out of the most theologically conservative branch, the Churches of Christ.
The Churches of Christ have no formal hierarchy or religious structure above the local congregation, and no written creed, but their beliefs are well defined and agreed upon among the members. Anyone who has been a member knows these beliefs:
- Churches of Christ believe in following only the Bible and no “creeds of men”. Any religious practice which is not commanded in the Bible, an example of which is not given in the Bible, or which is not a “necessary inference” from a Biblical command or example, is termed “unbiblical” and is rejected by mainline Churches of Christ. A common saying among them is that, “We speak where the Bible speaks, and keep silent where it is silent.”
- In their view of religious authority, the Churches of Christ are extreme evangelical Protestants who reject the notion that the Church itself has any authority to develop doctrine or initiate practices. All authority devolves in theory upon Christ Himself, in practice upon the written Scriptures since the Churches of Christ reject any post-New Testament revelation or direct guidance from the Holy Spirit.
- While in practice the mainline Churches of Christ do not object to the doctrines in the Nicene Creed, they do not repeat it in worship or teach it because they believe it is a creed of men, and not a command of God. Churches of Christ are trinitarian, although I have seen some teachers and leaders question the doctrine of the Trinity publicly without consequences when questioning whether women could be ministers or using an organ in church could ever be justified would cause an uproar.
- Churches of Christ believe that one must hear the gospel, believe it, repent of sin, confess belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and be baptized by immersion for remission of sins, in order to be saved. (Among irreverent mainline people this is called the “five finger exercise”.) They baptize only believers, so they don’t baptize infants or young children. They believe that the act of baptism actually saves a repentant believer, although not that the water itself has power to save. (They interpret Acts 2:38 literally.)
- Churches of Christ take communion every Sunday. They believe that the bread and wine are symbolic of Christ’s body and blood — that is, they don’t agree with the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Otherwise they don’t rigidly define what they do believe about this. They use “unleavened bread” and “fruit of the vine” as the communion elements — usually matzoh and grape juice. (Most mainline Churches of Christ disapprove of members drinking alcohol, and so don’t use wine.)
- Most mainline Churches of Christ are conservative about women’s roles in the church, and restrict them to teaching children’s classes or speaking to groups of women only. There’s no such formally-defined role as “women’s counselor” among mainline Churches of Christ — that is an innovation of the Crossroads movement — but older women in some mainline Churches of Christ do much of the work a women’s counselor does in an ICC congregation.
- Most mainline Churches of Christ reject the use of musical instruments during worship as unbiblical. It is primarily this belief that separates the mainline Churches of Christ from the Independent Christian Churches, many of whom also go by the name, “Church of Christ” and whose beliefs and practices are extremely similar to those of the Churches of Christ.
- Most do not allow members to divorce and remarry unless the divorce was for adultery or, in some cases, abandonment by a non-believing spouse.
This list does not give a full picture of the religious atmosphere of the mainline Church of Christ, though — a list of doctrines can’t do that. During my years in the Churches of Christ, I attended three mainline Churches of Christ — in El Paso, in Portland, and in San Francisco. All three of these churches were considered unusually liberal by Church of Christ standards. But, even in these churches, the idea that someone who used musical instruments during worship might go to heaven was radical. There wasn’t much sense of proportion — every little detail of doctrine was equally important.
Perhaps most telling, most members I met during my time in the Churches of Christ took for granted that the Churches of Christ were the true Church and the members were the only true Christians. And we didn’t mean this theoretically. While most of us believed there were probably a few other real Christians somewhere, who had figured out the truth from the Bible on their own (that is, come to the same conclusions about the Bible that we had), in practice we didn’t expect to encounter any. Our thinking was inherently polarized, black and white, us versus them.
This meant, of course, that we were very much isolated among ourselves. Some of us read books by other Christian authors, but in general it was considered best to read books only by “the brethren”. Almost no one I knew in the mainline Churches of Christ I attended went to religious events or meetings sponsored by other denominations. We didn’t worship with other believers. When I read and quoted from C. S. Lewis, for example, I had members ask me why I was reading books by an Anglican who wasn’t really Christian. Others approved of Lewis’s books, but if asked would state that he couldn’t be considered truly Christian because he didn’t follow the Bible’s plan of salvation, as the Church of Christ saw it.
Not all members, or even all congregations, felt that other believers were all going to hell, of course. But it was the common belief, the “party line”, if you will. I certainly believed it for the first few years I was in the mainline Church of Christ and then the discipling movement. Although I don’t want to blame my sins on others, the truth is I picked this attitude up from the other members around me. On the rare occasions when I ventured to question this belief, I got rebuked or found myself on the receiving end of a blank stare.
Since the ICC came from this group, it isn’t too surprising that their beliefs are similar except in a few areas. The mainline Churches of Christ don’t teach “disciple’s baptism” — they believe that people become disciples of Christ after they become Christians and not before. In practice, this means they will baptize someone much more quickly and with much less preparation than in the ICC, and that they tend to expect a person’s life to change and conform to the group’s norms as a result of conversion, and not to prepare for it or prove oneself worthy of it.
The “Disciple’s baptism” doctrine is a relatively late ICC teaching, by the way — it came up after I left the movement in 1987.
Mainline Churches of Christ have no authority structure above the local congregation level, and within the local congregation the elders collectively have the final authority, not the evangelist. Under the elders are the minister / evangelist / preacher (the words refer to the same job) and the deacons. Only men are allowed to fill any of these offices in most Churches of Christ, although I know of one Church of Christ which allowed women to be deacons. There’s no “Kingdom” structure — no “World Evangelism Leader” or equivalent, no “sector leaders”, no “pillar” or “model” churches, and no person or group outside of a congregation that has any authority over those in it.
Most mainline Churches of Christ view the authority structure in the ICC as an unbiblical innovation on the pattern of church government set forth in the Bible. This is the biggest doctrinal point of contention between the mainline Churches of Christ and the ICC.
The “Crossroads movement”, as it was usually called at the time, started at the 14th Street Church of Christ in Gainesville, Florida, back in 1967. The 14th Street Church of Christ was a mainline Church of Christ, and the evangelist there was named Chuck Lucas. In the early 1970s the 14th street Church got a new building, at a major intersection in Gainesville, and renamed itself the “Crossroads Church of Christ” for that reason.
Chuck Lucas and the Crossroads Church of Christ didn’t start all the various parts of the discipling movement. The movement grew out of a widespread Protestant religious movement called the “discipling” or “shepherding” movement in the late 1960s. (Members of the ICC still read many of the books that influenced this movement — Ronald Coleman’s Master Plan of Evangelism among them.) During that period there was a renewed interest in campus ministry among a number of Churches of Christ and at several colleges and universities.
Lucas and the Crossroads church started the most numerically successful discipling ministry within the Churches of Christ, though, and the movement eventually came to be associated with Crossroads.
At Crossroads, the early outreach was primarily at the University of Florida Campus in Gainesville. The Crossroads Church held a number of small-group Bible studies on campus, usually in the rooms of members who were students there. These Bible studies were called “soul talks” when I got involved in the movement some years later, and I think they were for the whole first ten or twelve years of the movement.
Lucas and Crossroads started their outreach during the height of the sixties era and the Jesus People movement, so their Bible studies were a few out of many. Unlike most other Bible studies on college campuses at the time, though, these studies had one purpose only — to win converts. In my ministry we never admitted this to visitors, and rarely to ourselves. We certainly didn’t tell visitors that we believed most believers in Christ in denominational churches were probably not really Christians, not saved and were going to hell. We told them were just a group of Christians who wanted to study the Bible, not that we had a specific aim in mind and that was their conversion into our church.
These soul talks are, of course, the ancestors of the weekly Bible Talks in the ICC.
Individual members at Crossroads and most other discipling movement ministries either acquired or were assigned “prayer partners” in the early movement. At this time the discipling methodology in use in the ICC now was not clearly defined, and the early prayer partners were more equals than discipler and disciple are nowadays. It wasn’t a totally equal relationship, though — an older, more mature Christian was usually paired with a younger Christian.
These prayer partners are the ancestors of the discipler/disciple relationships in the ICC.
We also had daily quiet times. In the early years, we would share from our quiet times with our partners, but were freer than I understand most are nowadays in the ICC as to which Bible passages we studied, what books we read, and what we focused on. There wasn’t much support for serious theological study, though. In general, it was viewed as a waste of time — it didn’t help bring in converts. And there was almost no support for learning from other believers whose doctrines were different from ours. We were convinced we were right, and had no time to waste.
In 1973 or 1974 (I don’t remember which), Kip McKean was baptized at the Crossroads Church of Christ. (A number of early leaders were baptized around then.) During the next couple of years Chuck Lucas trained certain disciples, among them Kip, and then sent them out to form Crossroads-style campus ministries elsewhere. After an abortive attempt somewhere, Kip went to a church in Indiana and was supported partly by the Memorial Drive Congregation in Houston, Texas, where Roger Lamb’s father was an elder. (Roger Lamb is a leader in the ICC now.)
Most of these early church plantings resulted in tremendous numerical growth — they had lots of baptisms. So, at first, the churches where these ministries were planted loved them. But, after some time, tensions grew up. Part of the reasons for the tensions was probably a culture clash — the mostly young, college age converts weren’t aware of traditional Church of Christ sensibilities about certain issues. Traditional Church of Christ members listened to acapella choral singing — we listened to Amy Grant, the Second Chapter of Acts, and occasionally even Petra or other early Contemporary Christian rock. Women from a traditional background were focused on being wives and mothers — women in the movement wanted to join mission teams, become women’s counselors, and work with men to spread the gospel. (I can remember older women at my church desperately trying to get me to come to “women’s” events, which I never attended, viewing them as largely irrelevant to me. And they were.)
Part of it was that the movement had little or no respect for age and experience regardless of other beliefs — it borrowed that attitude, among others, from the “60s generation”.
The misunderstandings grew, and a number of churches with campus ministries ended up splitting. My church in El Paso didn’t — after three and a half years, a couple of years after I’d left for college, it fired the campus minister.
The church Kip was at split. The elders at Memorial Drive Church of Christ checked into the circumstances, and then fired Kip and withdrew all support for the Crossroads Church and ministries, stating that they were authoritarian, divisive, and showed deeply unbiblical attitudes about a number of things. Kip moved on to another church briefly, but it became clear to him and others in the movement that the practice of forming campus ministries at existing churches was causing too many problems. And existing churches, which had been supportive, were growing disillusioned with the Crossroads movement and not welcoming Crossroads ministries anymore.
So, in 1979, Kip found a small church outside of Boston, Massachusetts whose leaders were willing to welcome a mission team which would literally reconstruct the church from the ground up, the Lexington Ave. Church of Christ. So he formed a mission team, and they planted the Boston Church of Christ. The ICC nowadays usually points to this church planting as the beginning of the ICC.
The campus ministry Tracy started had soul talks aimed both at my high school (of course) and at the University of Texas at El Paso. The high school and college students worked closely together, probably because in the beginning there weren’t many of us and we needed to work together, and later because we’d built an effective outreach doing this. Even in the early years of the movement, it was extremely results-oriented. If something produced the desired results, no one welcomed awkward questions about whether it was Biblically sound or a good idea in the long term. I started inviting everyone I knew to soul talk, first at Tracy’s home and later in college dorm rooms and the homes of other members.
I even invited my family, with whom I normally discussed absolutely nothing important in my life. They soon felt harassed and became defensive, so I gave up on them. My parents are both alcoholics and my home life was not good, so I welcomed the busy schedule and reasons to be out of the house as much as possible. Tracy frequently pointed out that Christ warned that new wine couldn’t be put in old wineskins, clearly meaning our parents and older people at church, so I felt my lack of respect for older people, even older Christians, was justified.
For the first time in my life, since I am an introvert and was not involved in many high-school group activities, I had peers who had a major influence on my life, especially a couple of prayer partners. I was fortunate in that I had a couple of good prayer partners early on.
Others in my ministry weren’t so fortunate. A girlfriend got a prayer partner who was very rigid and controlling, and suffered tremendously before she moved away to go to college. The “senior” prayer partner demanded that the junior prayer partner agree with her about all kinds of issues that had nothing to do with spiritual matters, and berated the junior prayer partner constantly for her failure to loose weight. (The junior prayer partner was not in the least overweight; the senior prayer partner was significantly so.) A year after I left for college, the junior prayer partner quit the church, largely because of the senior prayer partner’s abuse.
This is the first instance of abuse of leadership authority / power / influence I saw in the movement. In my ministry it wasn’t terribly difficult to switch prayer partners — they weren’t assigned in the same way they were later. But people felt that it was unspiritual not to be able to get along with someone, or to complain to the campus minister if something was wrong. And Tracy made it clear that he didn’t respect people who complained. So abusive situations usually got ignored instead of fixed, unless they had a negative impact on the ministry’s conversion rates or attracted attention from the elders at church.
This pattern continued through my time in the movement — problems usually got ignored, denied, or covered over unless and until they created a public scandal outside the movement. I saw nothing strange in this — I was the child of two alcoholics and in our family problems were routinely treated this way. But denial, as this is called, is a sign of an unhealthy group dynamic, whether in a family with alcoholism or a church with abusive leaders.
During the next year, my junior year in high school, we gained a reputation at my school for being committed, rigid, and pushy. We deserved it. Increasingly I became the group’s troubleshooter, called in when we were dealing with an unusually knowledgeable or articulate person who didn’t buy our shallow, quick-fix approach to the Scriptures and “winning sheep to win sheep to win sheep” mentality.
I also got called in when a Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon knocked on someone’s door. Looking back, I have to say that our attitude towards them was more like they were rivals on another team than false teachers. An argument with one of them was a game to be won or lost, not a soul. I studied my Bible constantly, and got quite good at winning arguments, although not as good at winning people.
I especially remember a few conversions during this period. One woman was literally scared into the baptistry — one of the other girls in the ministry later explained to several of us how she had “confronted” her visitor, explained to her that she was going to hell if she didn’t convert, and asked why she was waiting. The woman was bragging, not ashamed of how she had manipulated this woman through fear. And none of us felt there was anything wrong with what she did.
My private prayers, which had been regular and intense before I got into the movement, became much more programmed, structured, and routine — there were definite expectations associated with “quiet time” that were not associated with ordinary private prayers, and we often asked each other, “How was your quiet time this morning?” (The expected answer was inevitably “awesome!” Former movement people cringe at that word because movement people use it to describe everything from a good meal to a good date to a good sermon to the resurrection of Jesus.) My prayer life changed the same way — I spent less and less time worshiping God and more and more demanding that He do this and that. Increasingly “God” became the word to invoke the group.
Oddly enough, it was my quiet times that led to one of the few open conflicts I had with my mother about my religious beliefs or practices. I’ve always liked getting up early, and shortly after getting involved in the movement took to getting up at 5:00 AM for a half hour of private Bible Study and prayer. After a few months of this, my mother told me that the police had noticed the light in my room and checked with her to be sure there hadn’t been a burglar. She explained that my getting up was “bothering people” and forbade me to get up that early.
I was furious at the time, seeing her reason as a flimsy excuse (which it was) for interfering with my private prayers. (I prayed silently and made next to no noise.) But she stuck by her demand that I stop getting up that early, and at Tracy’s advice I didn’t make an issue of it. Now I realize that the personality changes in me were so extreme that even my mother, an alcoholic who was rarely sober past 6:00 PM and rarely conscious an hour or two after that, had noticed them and was worried.
In summer of 1978 several of us went to Gainesville for a high school campus evangelism seminar, at which both Chuck Lucas and Kip McKean spoke. I also met a number of other people, including Roger Lamb and Jerome Williams. (Jerome left the ICC a few years ago, but for years was one of the leaders. I understand he played the part of Jesus in “Upside Down”, a movie produced by the ICC which was based on the Book of Acts, so ICC members may remember him from that.)
Chuck was in my opinion a better speaker than Kip — Kip tended to shout a lot, and I found his sermons a bit sparse on Biblical content. But both were motivators — let them talk to your ministry and it would be seriously fired up and raring to go. I also especially remember Jerome Williams, a superb speaker who set my imagination on fire with his words about Christ’s time on earth with his disciples, and his urging us to be the same way. (Jerome also led us in singing, and was if possible even better at that.)
At the end of this first meeting my ministry went to Disney World for a day, and I can remember being bored with Disney World and anxious to get home and start evangelizing. It was after this seminar that I decided I wanted to be a missionary, and through college and for a couple of years afterward this was my goal.
The ministry at my church in El Paso, which had started with twelve people in summer of 1977, grew to about 150 eighteen months later. We had over a hundred baptisms in this period, and had at one point eight or nine soul talks going on a week. In addition to soul talk, which usually took place on Tuesday or Thursday, we had the usual Church of Christ routine — Sunday morning and evening worship services and Wednesday evening Bible classes — and a devotional on Friday night. This was in addition to a lot of smaller group, less formal activities and meetings with our prayer partners.
It isn’t surprising that some parents at church started complaining that they never saw their kids, that their kids weren’t able to keep up at school and weren’t getting enough sleep. At this time I was getting by on about six hours of sleep a night, almost enough for me but not enough for several of the others in the group, who were constantly exhausted and fell asleep during devotionals or even soul talks. My father commented once that he thought my church sounded like a cult. I remember laughing with Tracy and the others about this after devo (devotional) one Friday night — we all agreed that it would be wonderful if he got worried enough that he’d start coming to church to find out!
I also remember one of the other, rare open conflicts with my mother about my beliefs happening around the same time. One afternoon shortly after she got home, and just before dinner, she came into the living room and asked me to stay home from soul talk that evening for some family event. I refused, of course, not sharply or rudely, but I’m sure it must have been obvious that the idea of agreeing to do this didn’t even enter my mind. She started crying, which didn’t happen often and never when she was sober, and told me that she got the impression church meant more to me than my family. I said, “of course God means more to me than anything”. I equated church with God.
In my case, of course, home was nowhere I wanted to be or anyone in my position would have wanted to be. And my mother’s rare tears were more often than not part of an attempt to manipulate me, something I’d already begun to realize. So I absorbed the indoctrination of “church/God over everything” quite willingly. But absorb it I did — I did not adopt it consciously as part of a reasoned belief system.
I wasn’t alone in this. The whole group adopted this belief system, even those whose parents were seen as committed and supportive overall. Anyone who felt differently was not one of us. I particularly remember our cruel treatment of one young teenage boy. He was awkward, shy, overweight and didn’t join in with most of our activities, largely because his grandmother, with whom he lived, refused to allow him to be out late most evenings. He was ostracized — Tracy ignored his existence and the rest of us treated him as if he wasn’t there. He wasn’t one of us, and we all felt that since he wasn’t “totally committed”, he didn’t deserve to be part of our group.
Tracy understood that he had to keep the elders at church happy, though, and somehow managed to keep the increasing discontent under control until some time after I left for college. I later found out that he was also hiding some other things, particularly that he was abusing his wife. His wife was as shy as he was outgoing, and none of us had a clue how she was treated or what she was going through. A few years later, about a year after Tracy had been fired as Campus Minister, I found out that he and Pam were divorcing. A woman friend and fellow movement person told me and another friend that she’d just talked with Pam on the phone, and Pam explained she’d been trying to leave for a couple of years, but was frightened because she had two small boys and no way to support them. Apparently Tracy would regularly scream at her that she was a worthless slut, would starve if he ever left, and didn’t deserve to have him.
Although by then I was well integrated into a new ministry, this hurt a lot. I think most of the high school girls were more than a little infatuated with Tracy, myself included, and it didn’t occur to any of us that he could do anything really wrong.
While I considered briefly going to Harding, I eventually stuck to my original plans and, in August of 1979, moved to Portland, Oregon to attend Reed College, a small liberal arts college with a highly-rated academic program. I think I chose Reed because I had a mental picture of people who lived to learn and to contemplate Truth. It was an odd fantasy for a disciple, but despite the two years training to be outgoing, results-oriented, and earthbound, I was still an introvert whose natural state was to have her head in the clouds. And nature won out.
During college, I attended a mainline Church of Christ south of Portland, Oregon, which was a big supporter of the Crossroads movement. The first two years I was at the Linwood Church of Christ, both elders at Crossroads visited. I can’t remember if Chuck Lucas came to Portland or Seattle, but I recall seeing him in the summer of 1980. The youth minister at my church later left to join the Boston planting of the church in Toronto. I recently found out that Ron and his wife Renee are still members of the ICC and living in Los Angeles.
We started a small group Bible study at my college, but it faltered. I was the only member of the Church of Christ at Reed, which (like most small liberal arts schools) had a strongly intellectual, rationalistic, skeptical bent and little tolerance for true believers. Over the next two years, before Ron left, we tried again several times, but none of them took.
During college breaks and especially on the way to and from El Paso over Christmas I visited a number of centers of the discipling movement, including the Boulder Church of Christ when Tom Brown was the evangelist there, the Poway Church of Christ in the San Diego area, and the Berkeley Church of Christ outside of San Francisco. Within the movement there was a lot of visiting like this — you’d just warn the church office you were showing up for a week and there was always a place to stay, for singles usually in a household full of singles. You’d worship with the ministry there, share at soul talk, sing at devo, and leave feeling “pumped up”.
Looking back, I realize there was a whole protocol surrounding these visits which no one ever wrote down, but which was very well understood. Visitors were welcomed “in the name of the Lord”, introduced to the church after Sunday worship, and (if they were male) asked to “speak a few words”. A few words often ended up being a mini-sermon. Such visits were part of the bonding rituals of the movement — how we kept close to one another and how ideas would spread from one ministry to others back in the days before the pyramid structure of the current ICC.
Ministries would also take groups to visit other ministries en masse, usually to help with a round of door-knocking on campus in preparation for an evangelism seminar or workshop. I can remember a number of such trips, usually using a church bus and caravan of accompanying cars, with shifts of drivers so we could drive all night if need be. Increasingly over the years, the term “seminar” came to refer to movement meetings, while “workshop” referred to mainline Church of Christ events. But we went to both.
There was a nondenominational Christian fellowship group at Reed, which I occasionally attended, and some other believers. A couple managed to have an influence on me despite my rigid beliefs. One, a fellow German major who had been raised in a large Protestant denomination (probably some kind of Lutheran), was in the process of converting to Judaism when I met her. Anne bounced a lot of her ideas and thoughts off of me, and kept shoving books at me to read. Since I wasn’t convinced she’d ever been Christian, I wasn’t too bothered about her conversion to Judaism and found the conversations fascinating. They gave me a different perspective on worship and how to worship as a community rather than just as an individual.
The other was a young Roman Catholic man, a year older than me, with whom I argued incessantly. During my freshman year we argued so incessantly that the leader of the Christian fellowship thought we hated each other, met with us, and told us both seriously that, “it isn’t right for Christians to be this out of charity with each other.” But we weren’t — Matthew and I needed to test ourselves and our beliefs, and were debating constantly, not quarrelling. I doubt anyone less pugnacious could have broken through my arrogance and forced me to see that there really were other perspectives on Christianity. I owe him tremendously for that.
While it was known on campus that I was a “fundie”, and on occasion I would invite people to church, and even bring visitors, I discussed my faith less and less. I wasn’t trying to hide anything, or ashamed of who I was and what I believed, but I felt I’d already said anything I could say about it there.
Only once at Reed did I “bring someone to Christ”. A guy in my dormitory, who was struggling and emotionally upset over some things, started coming to church with me and decided to get baptized. I think he was hoping it would solve all his problems. That experience led to meeting an obviously loving, but upset and angry father who wondered why his son couldn’t have waited a week til he could be there. He wasn’t too hard on me, but he told me about his experiences with the Church of Christ when he was married to my friend’s mother, who had been raised in the Church of Christ. (He was Baptist). I remember being ashamed for the first time in my life of being a member of the Church of Christ. But I buried that deeply and forgot it for years.
My years at college were odd — increasingly as they went along, I was leading two lives. In one I was a student at school, with many of the same interests that my fellow students had. We were reading the same books, especially in our freshman and sophomore years when we were all taking the same humanities classes, and talking about the same subjects. Our lives didn’t touch on the “real world” much — I graduated from college never having found and held a job off campus, which made looking afterwards difficult. But I was more in touch with reality in other ways at Reed than I’d ever been in my life. For the first time I had friends who didn’t put conditions on the friendship, and room to make mistakes, experiment, think, and grow. These tools were left unused for some years, but in the end they proved critical when I started disentangling myself from the movement.
In the other life, I was a disciple in training, studying the Scriptures and waiting for the time when I would find the mission team God wanted me to join. I was convinced I would spend most of my life in a foreign country bringing the people there to Christ. It never occurred to me that, since I had such trouble talking with people here, it would be no easier anywhere else.
Linwood was a small influence compared to another church in the area, though. During most of college and for four years afterward, eight of the ten years I was associated with the movement, I either attended or was in close contact with the Northwest Church of Christ in Seattle. Northwest shaped me in ways I’m only beginning to realize now — it was the strongest force in my spiritual life for almost eight years. This is how I first met up with the ministry there.
In spring of 1980 a friend “kidnapped” me at the last minute on a Friday (and before I had a Latin test) to go with him to a retreat that a church in Seattle was putting on. At the retreat I heard Stanley Shipp speak for the first time. Stanley is a mainline Church of Christ minister and the only person I ever met in any part of the Church of Christ whom I believe fits the common meaning of the word “saint”. Stanley loves people, and communicates this extraordinarily well. I think he really loves the whole world — Jesus Christ has taken hold of him to that extent.
Among many other people in both the mainline Church of Christ and the ICC, Stanley trained Max Lucado, the writer of such books as, No Wonder they Call Him the Savior, God Came Near, and Six Hours one Friday. Lucado served as a missionary in Sao Paolo, Brazil for twenty years. Stanley also trained a close friend of mine from the ministry in El Paso, a friend whom I got back into contact with many years later and who told me a number of “Stanley Stories” I treasure.
Northwest was planted the same year and within weeks of the same time that the Boston Church of Christ was in 1979. It was planted by a mission team from Abilene Christian University, where the Campus Advance had been heavily influenced by Crossroads, “shepherding”/discipleship, and church growth ideas. We called our three-times yearly retreats “advances” because no one at Northwest was willing to talk about retreating. At them we had speakers from both the mainline Churches of Christ (which contain some very evangelistic people — the blanket condemnations in the ICC today are not accurate or fair) and the movement.
There were twenty eight baptisms at my first advance, although the baptisms took place in a freezing pool on a mountain stream fed by the snowpack in the northern Washington Cascade mountains. The first was of John Greenlee, who became a legend at Northwest for interrupting Stanley’s talk that Saturday evening and insisting on being baptized then, saying he wasn’t willing to wait. John later became young adult minister at Northwest. (His girlfriend Sherri, who later became his wife, attended Reed College for two years, the only other member of the Church of Christ who went there during my time.)
After John, about six other people interrupted Stanley, who wasn’t able to finish his talk until past midnight. After the talk there were another ten or twelve baptisms — I thought we’d never finish.
I never did get to bed that night. I think most of us couldn’t have slept if we’d tried — the adrenaline was running too high. We sat up, fellowshipped, sang songs, and prayed together, for each other, our various colleges and universities, the city of Seattle, the country, and the whole world.
At this advance I met Milton Jones, the evangelist at Northwest and leader of the mission team that had planted the ministry there. Milton played a tremendous role in the discipling movement, perhaps second only to Kip. Three years after this advance he wrote the book from which the ICC took its discipling methodology, among other things.
I also met Bill Lawrence, the campus minister, and a number of other people who became leaders in the movement later on. (Among them were Tom Reynolds, Rob Jacobsen, and Marv Law, all of whom later led various church plantings from Northwest.) In the next three or four years Northwest became one of the fastest-growing discipling movement churches, with over a hundred baptisms a year for most of that period.
I was a member of or closely connected with Northwest for the rest of my time in the movement, through college and for four years afterward. I spent one summer attending the University of Washington, and pretty much neglecting my intensive second-year Russian class so that I could focus on “reaching out”, as we called our efforts to convert people. I knocked on a lot of doors that summer, asking people to come to Bible Talk. (We’d abandoned the name, “Soul Talk”, by then.)
A couple of people in my dormitory cluster became very annoyed at my efforts to get them to come to church. In one case, I deserved it. In another, it turned out the woman had been part of a discipling movement church in another part of the country, had been hurt pretty badly, and wanted nothing to do with us as a result. I’ve always wished I’d asked her to tell me what happened, but at the time I didn’t want to hear it.
Given the difficulties I faced reaching out at my college, and the isolation and loneliness of being the only member of the Church of Christ there for much of the time I was a student, I am not sure why I didn’t just move to Seattle and transfer to the University of Washington. Perhaps I realized that I was getting a superb education at Reed. Despite the movement’s ambivalent attitudes toward us introverted bookworms, nature won out — I love learning and at Reed I was learning. I think something inside of me told me I needed this, even though I found the place frustrating in many ways.
But this love for learning was in constant conflict with a desire for action. Above all, the discipling movement was a movement of activist idealists — we wanted to see things happen. We were determined to take the world for Christ and get the gospel to every person on earth. We believed that this was God’s will, that He had chosen us to be His special people for this task, and that He would make it possible for us to do so.
I had doubts about myself, and about other individuals in the movement, but I don’t recall ever having a single doubt about the movement itself during this time or for many years after.
After I graduated from college, in 1983, I moved to Seattle to join the ministry there full-time and to enter the satellite Master’s Degree in Ministry program offered there that year for the first time by Pepperdine University. (The program is still being offered this year, as my copy of the Northwest Church bulletin, which I still get, indicated.) Pepperdine is affiliated with the mainline Churches of Christ and supported the program at Northwest because they considered the ministry there an “alternative to Crossroads”, as I later found out. Little did they know….
But nowadays most people in the mainline Churches of Christ seem to have forgotten what they ever knew about the discipling movement and their long-time connections to Kip and the Boston church, much as the ICC conveniently forgets its past as a movement within the mainline Churches of Christ. Neither group is willing to acknowledge the deep and fundamental similarities in doctrine and even many practices. As someone I met a couple of years after leaving the movement said, the movement just put into practice and took to extremes what the Churches of Christ had been teaching and believing for years.
While I was enrolled in that program, I thought it likely that I wouldn’t finish it. At the time Boston was putting together a mission team to plant a church in Vienna, Austria. The summer before I graduated I’d spent in Vienna working with a mainline Church of Christ ministry there, Eastern European Missions. (I was a German and Russian major as an undergraduate.) The leaders of the Vienna mission team had already spoken to me about it and were encouraging me to move to Boston to join up with them.
That summer the World Evangelism Seminar was held in Seattle. During it I heard Kip speak again, for what must have been the tenth or twelfth time in the previous few years. As usual, he was an awesome motivator. This time, his theme (as much as it is possible to pick out a theme in one of his talks) was the need to expand the movement from campus ministry to reach out to people from all walks of life.
At first I was impressed, but as the talk went on I became uncomfortable. He seemed to be shouting more than usual, getting very worked up, and something felt a bit unbalanced about his talk. And I noticed, as I had vaguely before, that it was almost impossible to take notes during Kip’s talks. There simply wasn’t a unified intellectual theme to hone in on. Perhaps because Milton is one of the rare introverts among the leadership of the discipling movement, the style at Northwest was quieter and geared toward your mind as well as your heart. I’d grown accustomed to sermons that one could take notes on, and which hung together when looked at afterwards. Discipling movement churches, even before the discipling methodology was well defined and implemented, always followed the personal style of the leaders.
The idea horrified me, but I wondered, just briefly, if Kip was fully in control of himself. He seemed on the edge, as if he’d start thrashing around or have a seizure if he got any more excited.
This didn’t cause me to question the movement — Kip was just one of the major leaders at the time, not the only one. I couldn’t even term my reaction as “thinking” — my gut told me that this felt wrong and dangerous. So I decided that it would be wise to stay at Northwest for a while and be sure that going to Boston was the right thing to do before I moved.
The following morning I got a call from Dr. Jerry Rushford, the coordinator of the Pepperdine M.A. Ministry program. Earlier that week we had been discussing the B.A. level religion courses I needed to take as preparation for the M.A. program, and I thought this was just about that at first.
He talked with me for a while, asked me what I thought about Crossroads and the Boston Church of Christ. I told him a bit about my background, not in the detail I’ve written here, but certainly not hiding anything either. I wasn’t aware that there was any reason to — I was proud of my involvement in the movement.
Then Dr. Rushford explained to me that Pepperdine was funding the program as an “alternative to Crossroads” and that Pepperdine University had adopted a policy a year earlier of not admitting any student from the Crossroads movement to any program at the school. He explained to me that I was out of the M.A. program.
I was horrified, and felt that this was persecution against God’s movement. While I had my doubts about Kip, I had none about the movement itself, and said so forcefully and clearly. (I also said nothing about my doubts about Kip. I didn’t trust Dr. Rushford to that extent.) I was so shaken I didn’t hear much of what Dr. Rushford said after this. I do remember him explaining that Pepperdine had adopted this policy because of a scandal at the movement Church in San Diego, the Poway Church of Christ, where parents of kids who got involved were picketing the Church and managed to get something into the local newspapers. (I visited Poway while I was in college one December, on the way home to El Paso for Christmas, and had to cross a picket line.)
Dr. Rushford told me that many politically conservative businessmen in Southern California, horrified by events at various University of California Campuses during the late 1960s and early 1970s, had begun supporting Pepperdine as a conservative alternative to the U.C. system. A number of them lived near San Diego, and when they heard about the picketing at the local “Church of Christ”, contacted Pepperdine demanding to know if the University was affiliated with this “wierd cult”. Pepperdine’s Regents, who were not thrilled with the Crossroads movement in the first place, then took action to avoid loosing a considerable amount of financial support.
While I was none too happy with Dr. Rushford at the time (and am not now), I did not get the impression he enjoyed telling me this. He seemed somewhat hesitant to talk about it. I think he told me because he felt he had to — that to tell me anything else would be a lie.
My years at Reed College gave me some exposure to academic ethics, and in particular to the academic reverence for independent thought and the search for truth uninfluenced by any personal consideration. Modern universities and colleges arose out of medieval monastic communities, and the vestiges of this heritage are still very much a part of the academic community. I suspect that Dr. Rushford would not have minded a principled stance against what he even then viewed as a cult which used improper influence on its members. Banning members of a particular group en masse out of fear that certain rich donors would otherwise quit giving the University money was not a principled stance, though, and I think he was too honest to pretend otherwise, to himself or to me.
I don’t recall Dr. Rushford saying much specific about Crossroads itself, or Boston, or the movement except that they were “evil people”, and begging me to stay at Northwest and not go to Boston. I was not open to hearing details, but oddly enough kept wishing he’d give some, perhaps so that I could make sense of this all. I wanted to hang up on him, as well, but was in too much of a state of shock to take any action. After an intense two hours he ended the conversation and hung up.
After this happened, I immediately called Milton Jones. Milton, who was obviously unhappy with what had happened, spent quite a while letting me unload and just commiserating. He then explained that Northwest was in a bind because of this. Pepperdine’s motives in sponsoring the program at Northwest were that it viewed Northwest as an “alternative to Crossroads”, in other words, as a normal, mainline Church of Christ with an active ministry which would attract kids who might otherwise go to Crossroads or a Crossroads ministry. If they became aware that, inside the discipling movement, Northwest was considered one of the main centers of activity, and that there was little or no difference in basic beliefs or methodology, they might drop the M.A. program. (I realize now that it is highly likely Dr. Rushford and others at Pepperdine did realize more than they let on, and were simply trying to avoid having to take notice of it officially.)
Milton had worked hard to get the M.A. program at Northwest, believing that movement people needed a better intellectual foundation, and didn’t want his effort wasted. He asked me not to talk publicly about the reasons I was dropped from the program so that I wouldn’t jeopardize the program’s existence. I complied, and for years said nothing about this to anyone but a few close friends, who agreed not to talk about it publicly either. I also started, for the first time, looking somewhat critically at the Churches of Christ. For the first time, I began to separate myself from what was happening, and to distinguish between loyalty to God and God’s Church from approval of what was happening at the particular church I happened to be at.
As I mentioned earlier, Milton Jones wrote what is probably the book on the movement’s peculiar discipling practices, titled Discipling, the Multiplying Ministry. In it he lays out the basic discipler/disciple structure that the ICC follows, with only a few modifications, today. In late 1983 the book had just come out and we were just starting to apply its principles at Northwest. When I moved to Seattle, I was asked by a woman there to be part of her discipleship group. (At the time this was voluntary and, in fact, many more people wanted a discipler than got one.)
My discipler was actually a younger Christian, but considered leadership material, or “sharper”, as ICC members would probably put it today. (That particular term hadn’t made it to Northwest by the time I left, and may never have.) At Northwest we weren’t as hung up on being “sharp” as many other discipling movement churches were, but it still counted. By the time I left college, my nonexistent social skills during high school had improved tremendously, but I was still studious, earnest, and socially awkward. I was not at all outgoing, and was overweight, as I have been all my life. (It was not and is not easy to be an introvert in the discipling movement, and being an overweight introvert was worse.)
My discipler was outgoing, socially skilled, and an admirable woman in a lot of ways. She spent quite a bit of time with me and tried fairly hard to help me overcome my shyness and lose weight. But we had nothing at all in common except our religious beliefs, and we didn’t click. I found it impossible to discuss personal things with her, and when I would discuss a real struggle I was having, often found that she didn’t understand why I was having the struggle or what it was about. (Part of the problem was probably that I was depressed and confused over what had happened with Pepperdine, and couldn’t discuss that with her or even tell her about it.) She would frequently get frustrated and lash out at me for being lazy, unloving, “unspiritual”, uncommitted.
I liked the other two women in my discipleship group, and one became a close friend. And at Northwest feelings were no more acceptable than in my old ministry in El Paso — you were supposed to ignore them and keep going, regardless of how much you were hurting. In the movement they were considered expendable, if not downright sinful. (For some years Milton was enamored of the work of Jay Adams, a minister who wrote a lot of anti-psychology material and who has, in my opinion, done a lot of damage.) After a year of this, however, I asked for and got a new discipler.
The new discipler was the wife of one of our campus ministers. She and I had a little bit more in common than the earlier discipler and I had, but she had a need to control people. I found that she asked about my quiet times constantly, and got upset if I had them at night instead of in the morning, or if I studied something other than what she wanted me to study. She disapproved of my weight (that was an ongoing issue), didn’t like how I dressed, and thought I was selfish and self-centered because I preferred to read a book than to play at some team sport or go to a college football game with other disciples.
She had rigid doctrinal attitudes, and when I would question some particular dogma of the Church of Christ — for example, our beliefs about musical instruments being inappropriate during worship — she would simply tell me I was wrong and refuse to discuss the matter further. I found that my questions got ignored or got me rebuked, so I quit asking. But I didn’t quit thinking, or quit wondering about some things.
After a few months the campus minister left to go to another movement church, and I transferred to a third discipler. She was quieter, gentle, and I liked her a lot, but I couldn’t seem to communicate with her either. I also didn’t understand the man she was dating — a football hero from the University of Washington who was a nice guy and up-and-coming leader, but who didn’t seem at all her type.
Later I found out that one of the leaders at church had set them up, thinking they’d make an excellent team since they were so different from each other. This was the first time I encountered one of the movement’s many “arranged marriages” — marriages arranged between people to create compatible ministry partners. I’m certain that the couple were not ordered, or even directly pressured, to marry, but a rising leader in a discipling movement church did not easily ignore the opinions of his discipler and his church’s leadership. And, unfortunately those arranging the marriages often did not consider whether the couple was a good match for a lasting, solid marriage.
A few months later, shortly after they married, they left, and I never saw her again, although I heard about her again some time later…. So I moved to someone else….
This went on for over three years.
During these years, I reluctantly began to see the problems underneath the surface of the ministry at Northwest, and of the movement. For much of the first year I was at Northwest, I was unemployed. I’d finished college intending to go immediately into getting my M.A., and when that fell through wasn’t sure how to find full-time, permanent work. So for the first year I had plenty of time to go to every imaginable event at church, and get to know a lot of people.
Most of us were always tired. We seemed to operate at the limits of our physical, emotional, and mental abilities, and sometimes would overstrain things and burn out. Burn out was a tremendous problem at Northwest — enough so that Milton did a considerable amount of research on it and taught a series on it at one point. I recall not getting my quiet times done for several days, and one of the Campus Ministers rebuking me for it, warning me that I needed the “spiritual fuel.” He was right, but I also needed the physical fuel — sleep.
There was a serious problem at Northwest with sexual immorality, not just among the rank and file but among the leaders. A number of women got pregnant out of wedlock the first two years I was there, and a number of marriages fell apart. I can remember Clayton Boyce, one of our elders, getting up one Sunday morning after yet another couple had come forward to confess falling into sexual sin and angrily telling the church, “This has to stop!” Clayton wasn’t just angry — he was hurt and baffled about this. He clearly did not understand what was going on.
It didn’t stop, at least not then and for a couple of years afterward. My guess is that a combination of constant pressure to perform, neglect of private spiritual life except for the mandatory quiet times, and a lot of depression, especially among the women, combined to cause this problem. The movement did not do a good job of meeting emotional needs or of even teaching us to recognize them, and it put constant, unremitting pressure on all of us to perform. Eventually the devotionals and occasional “well done” from our disciplers just weren’t enough to let us go on.
And emotionally starved, depressed people are extremely vulnerable to sexual temptation. Some would say women were especially vulnerable to this, but from what I saw the men were just as vulnerable. They fought the same, constant feelings of failure and fears that we women did. I’m sure there were cases when simple sexual desire led to people sleeping together, but this was not what happened in any of the cases where friends or acquaintances of mine were involved.
I also saw cases when a church member would attempt to recruit someone of the opposite sex by either dating them or implying that they would if only the non-member would join. One such case involved a woman who relieved me on weekends from my job as a live-in attendant to a woman with cerebral palsy. She was very much in love with one of the brothers at church, but also obviously not comfortable with the church. I remember one evening when she told me she knew she could never join, but then burst out, “But I’m afraid I’ll loose him if I don’t.” I then realized that she was unaware of something we all took for granted — that none of us would ever marry outside the church. Among most of us, the idea of marrying even outside the discipling movement was unthinkable.
She did lose him, and was bitter for a long time, but I don’t think she ever figured out what had actually happened — people had lied to her and withheld vital information in order to avoid “driving her away”. And we did this all the time — we were rarely honest with a non-member about sensitive issues. It wasn’t that we often lied outright, or that we were even aware we were being deceptive. We viewed it as just putting our best foot forward. But with non-members we were constantly on stage, presenting a picture, spin-doctoring everything, making everything as attractive as possible to get them into the baptistry.
During the years I was at Northwest we had a lot of people fall away — at least half our converts were gone within two years, according to the leaders. Some of these people were close friends of mine within the movement, and I couldn’t understand how they could leave God’s church. I’d try to get them to come back, but found that listening to their fears and thoughts was too frightening. So I usually just quit contacting them after it became clear they weren’t going to come back. I’ve never forgotten one woman who begged me to stay in touch. I didn’t.
Other people who had been loving and serving grew emotionally detached and judgmental. One of these had been a ministry leader. He started out excited and outgoing. The outside behavior remained unchanged, but over time grew forced — being around him left me feeling he was forcing every smile and every word. After I left his marriage fell apart. It had been through some difficult times, but I knew him and his wife. This was no “ministry marriage” — they loved each other. I think their marriage would have survived if the pressure had not been so great.
Another leader had been on a mission team to plant a church in Vancouver, Canada, when he and his wife dropped out, not just of the mission team, but some months later of the church. I looked Leon and Sue up a couple of years later, a few weeks before I moved away, and finally got their story. I also found them happily settled at a local nondenominational church. Sue was pregnant, and they were looking forward with considerable excitement to becoming parents. I remember feeling strange while I was there with them, and realized only months later that I’d been wondering, even then, how someone who had “left the Church” could be happy and fulfilled spiritually.
In 1985, Chuck Lucas, the evangelist who had largely started the movement and who had converted Kip McKean and most of the early leaders, was fired by the Crossroads Church of Christ. The reason given was that he had engaged in an ongoing pattern of sexual immorality. By then the movement’s center had shifted to Boston, but many people, especially those of us from the movement’s earlier days, were shocked and saddened by this. While Chuck was by no means the only leader in the movement to struggle with sexual sins, rank and file members like me usually didn’t hear about it. Even if a church’s elders found it necessary to fire someone, they rarely said why.
At first I wondered if this were a political move to discredit Chuck, but some people I knew at Crossroads later explained to me that Chuck’s behavior had become so blatant it was causing a public scandal.
In 1985 and 1986 two prominent and well-established mainline Church of Christ preachers who were friends of Milton and whom we saw frequently at Northwest “went to Boston”, as we said any time anyone joined a church planted by the Boston Church of Christ. One was Jerry Jones, who later left the ICC and became one of its most prominent critics. The other was Gordon Ferguson, who became a prominent leader of the ICC and is still affiliated with it.
Shortly before Jerry left for Boston, he visited us in Seattle — this was one of a number of occasions when he spoke at an advance. Late one night (or early that morning), Jerry and Milton were sitting in a corner of the camp’s dining room talking. I was sitting at the next table reading a book — I don’t think they noticed me. I remember Milton asking Jerry how he would handle the problems at Boston, and Jerry saying something like this: “I know [that there are problems], but they’re getting the message out to the world. And they need people like me. I can’t hold back.”
It was a year or so later that I heard that Jerry had left Boston. I saw him a couple of months later when he came to speak at an advance at Northwest, but said little about his time there. By then my suspicions of Kip and Boston were pretty high, and I wanted to know what happened, so when I got him alone for a moment, I asked him. But he wouldn’t talk about it, just told me that things had gone all wrong in Boston and he wasn’t ready to discuss the reasons.
It was a year later, shortly before I left the movement, that he brought copies of the first volume of his book, now series, titled What Does the Boston Movement Teach? with him to an advance. Even this book says little about what he went through personally — Jerry is extremely reserved about his private life and feelings. But in the book I found out what he thought about the Boston Church, which confirmed my misgivings.
I wasn’t privy to any such private moments with Gordon Ferguson, who left for a movement church in San Diego after Jerry returned from Boston. Gordon was the evangelist at the Lakewood Church of Christ in south Tacoma, about forty miles south of Seattle. His church sponsored the Great Northwest Evangelism Workshop (GNEW), which was held every summer the weekend after July 4, the U.S. Independence Day holiday. He spoke at Northwest several times as a guest, and I came to know his wife Teresa fairly well after she taught several classes at a couple of advances and workshops. I remember Gordon as balanced, but passionately committed to reaching people for Christ, and loving and kind towards those around him. Teresa struck me as balanced, realistic, and trustworthy.
After he decided to move to San Diego and become an elder at the Mission (formerly Poway) Church of Christ, a struggling Crossroads movement church, he spoke one more time before a mainline Church of Christ audience, at the GNEW. I heard later that this would not have been allowed except that he was already on the speaker’s list when he told them of his decision. In that last talk, he begged people to stay in touch, told them he wasn’t leaving the Church of Christ, and said he’d love to speak at anything he was invited to. You could hear the pain and the desperate hope in what he said.
Mission and most other remaining movement churches were reconstructed a year later, as I recall, and I am told Gordon was instrumental in planning and carrying out the reconstruction process, not just at the Mission church (renamed the “San Diego Church of Christ”), but throughout the movement. I’ve also heard of other things he’s done and said in the past ten years, particularly harsh and judgmental things about Jerry Jones and other leaders who opposed Kip or the Boston leadership on some issue. I have never been able to reconcile these stories with the man I knew in Tacoma. Unfortunately in some cases the sources of these stories are people I’ve never known to lie, and there have been many such stories. So I think Gordon has changed, or has been changed.
But I don’t really know what happened. I never saw him or Teresa again after they left Tacoma.
Around this time a book based on research done at the Boston Church of Christ and highly critical of it came out — Dr. Flavil Yeakley’s The Discipling Dilemma. In it Dr. Yeakley, a prominent mainline Church of Christ evangelist and researcher on church growth, reveals the results of a series of Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality tests given to a selection of members of the Boston Church of Christ, and a control group comprised of members from several mainline Churches of Christ. These tests were given with the knowledge, approval and cooperation of the leaders at the Boston Church of Christ — Yeakley was a supporter of theirs and did this test in order to clear them of accusations of being a cult.
Yeakley is also an honest man. He concluded that members of the Boston Church of Christ showed evidence of significant personality disruption — that is, that they showed the psychological patterns of people in a psychologically abusive environment. People in such an environment frequently show a shift in basic personality type over the period that they are in that environment, while people not in an abusive environment rarely, if ever, change their basic personality type. The members of mainline Churches of Christ, the control group, showed no such pattern of personality shift. Since this is what he found, this is what he published.
The leaders at the Boston Church of Christ then disfellowshipped and “marked” Dr. Yeakley, accusing him of manipulating his data to throw them into disrepute and forbidding members to have any contact with him or read his book. This action caused an uproar in the discipling movement, many of whose leaders were having second thoughts about Kip and the Boston Church of Christ at the time.
In 1986 I started to burn out. Milton was and is an unusually good speaker, not so much exciting as inciting — he makes people think and challenges them on many levels, not just emotionally. We were all burning the candle at both ends, though. I was between disciplers, and having a difficult time maintaining my enthusiasm and interest in church. My increasingly anemic “quiet times” and the predictable round of subjects in the sermons on Sunday weren’t sufficient spiritual food to grow on. I’d felt as if I’d come up against a wall, a barrier to further growth.
During this period I increasingly focused on learning the Bible and becoming good at outarguing anyone outside the Church of Christ on issues. Perhaps this was because I found it easier to memorize Scriptures and arguments and fire them back than to grow spiritually, because it got me some approval and recognition at church, and because it helped me ignore or at least not worry as much about my increasing uneasiness with a lot of things at my church. Unfortunately, it also increasingly turned me into a rigid, judgmental, arrogant person who could not have been less Christlike.
Inside I was miserable. When I asked for help, though, people would just tell me to keep plugging on. For a few months I went to peer counseling with a couple of older women at church. One of them turned out to be helpful in the long run; she was far less doctrinally rigid than most people in the Church of Christ and far more interested in theology and particularly in knowing God. Years later I realized I’d encountered a genuine mystic within the least mystical church imaginable. At the time, though, all that came of the counseling was that I got introduced to a couple of good authors whose books I still enjoy — Madeleine L’Engle and Lucy Shaw.
Other than that, while a few leaders were genuinely concerned, about my emotional state, none had any idea what the problem was. Neither did I. As the child of two alchoholics who “grew up” in this movement, I had denial down to a fine art and perfectionism almost to a religion. I had no idea what a “happy medium” was, and no mental or emotional tools to understand what “humanity” even meant. Limits were not a part of my concept of life. I couldn’t believe God would accept my limits or faults because I couldn’t accept them.
On various occasions more recent former members have asked me if I was abused in the movement. I was to some extent, and relate some of the stories of that here, but the real issue in the end is that I became an abuser in the movement. I abused other people far more than I was ever abused. I can’t count, and probably don’t remember, all of the struggling people I hurt and drove away with my know-it-all attitudes. I was convinced at the time that anyone who saw the Scriptures differently than I did either didn’t know their Bible as well, wasn’t as intelligent, or was dishonest and didn’t really want to serve God.
By the last couple of years, I’m now convinced, I wasn’t trying to serve God or listen to Him any longer. I was too busy trying to justify myself, and too uneasy to take a good, hard look at what I had become. God’s presence, which despite my limited spiritual understanding and theology of earlier years had been the great joy of my life, became acutely painful. My early idealism was gone, and I stagnated my last two years in the movement, growing unhappier and unhappier.
I had two girlfriends who moved to Boston join the ministry there in 1986 — one of them a woman who’d been in my first discipleship group. They returned unexpectedly after six months. One of them was in terrible mental and psychological condition, and ended up spending a few weeks recovering from a nervous breakdown.
The other woman was in somewhat better shape, and briefly told me what had happened. A rigid discipler in Boston had tried to remake our friend into her image — outgoing, bold, brash, athletic, and a leader. This friend was a quiet, gentle young woman with an extraordinary voice who was utterly unable to express herself except through her singing and writing. This particular discipler screamed and yelled at her disciples a lot, demanded rigid conformity with her even in dress and hair style, and objected vociferously to any spiritual insights or feelings that didn’t follow her program.
After some months of this my girlfriend was seriously depressed, suffering from anxiety attacks, hated going to church, couldn’t stand to be around people, and was withdrawing into her own little world. Her friend, who also wasn’t happy but was less hurt by what was going on, realized what was happening, bought a couple of plane tickets home, and practically dragged her onto the plane.
A couple of months later my girlfriend was finally able to talk about her experience and confirmed this, although in different words and much greater detail. As she spoke, I heard a description, not of who I was inside, but of who I had become to the outside world. I can still remember her voice and the look on her face as she said, “I have never seen such ungodly people in my life.” I realized that every word she’d said could have been said about me, and I couldn’t maintain my denial anymore.
Not long after this my third discipler, whose marriage had been “arranged”, and who had gone with her husband to Boston to be part of a mission team there, divorced her husband, and both left the church. I heard little else until I happened to run into her former husband by accident in mid 1987, shortly before I left, after he had moved back to Seattle. He was at Law School, and looked tired and a bit seedy, as if he had been drinking a lot. He was bitter, disillusioned, and told a horrific story of a marriage falling apart because of killer schedules, no time to spend together, and hamhanded interference by disciplers who evidently had marital troubles of their own. He said he was an atheist — that he wanted nothing to do with God anymore.
A couple of months later, realizing that I couldn’t stand the person I’d become and finding no help at church, I arranged to move, ostensibly to go to graduate school and not fully admitting even to myself that I was running away.
For some reason, though, I couldn’t just leave. I needed to be sure. So I took one last look at Boston that summer, or rather, two last looks — I went to Boston twice that summer and visited the Boston Church of Christ both times. Both times I felt strange and out of place — as if I were visiting a country where people spoke the same language I did, but used it differently. And I had the constant feeling they shared a secret I wasn’t privy to. The excitement was there, but felt fake — the leaders seemed to be putting on a show and the rank-and-file members appeared unusually unaware of what was going on, even for the movement. After visiting one Sunday at the Boston Garden, and going to a house church on the second visit, I knew there was nothing there for me.
After making the two trips back east and checking out colleges in New York City, Boston, and Washington D.C., I decided the east coast was not for me and moved to the San Francisco area. I planned to enroll at U.C. Berkeley after I’d established residence. When I got there, I placed membership, not at the Berkeley/San Francisco Church of Christ (which was reconstructed that same summer), but at a mainline Church of Christ in the East Bay.
When I got there, I found I wasn’t the only one leaving the movement. A veritable flood of people from the Berkeley Church of Christ, many of them former zone leaders and Bible Talk leaders, left or were thrown out during the reconstruction the following few months. Many of those who lived near me showed up at the local mainline Church of Christ too. We also had one former youth minister from the Poway/Mission/San Diego Church of Christ. Listening to them over the next few months showed me that I wasn’t alone. The people at church, although they didn’t really understand what we had come out of or been through, were loving and supportive as they knew how to be.
Unfortunately this wasn’t enough. I threw myself into work at the church, but found that the burst of excitement from the move wore off and nothing took its place. The other movement people seemed to be suffering a similar malaise — we were all depressed and unsure what to do. We’d been used to busy ministries and having most of our time taken up, and felt at loose ends with all the freedom and lack of structure. I think most of us missed the excitement of constantly being around each other, too. Most of the others wandered off in a year or so, some to other churches, many to nowhere in particular.
A year later the daughter of two close friends from my early college days, whom I’d introduced to each other years later and who ended up marrying, came down with brain cancer. I moved back to Portland, Oregon, where they were living to help out with Kimberly, who died a few months later.
The ensuing depression took time to do its work; I fought back and by then had dealt with enough depression to know how to fight it. But I had no foundation anymore. My faith in God was based on a childhood hope that He could be trusted and would protect me, although most of the adults in my childhood were not trustworthy. I think I transferred that early faith in God to the church at some point, which for me meant the movement, and I never resolved that after leaving. So, when this hit, my faith crumbled — not my belief in a Supreme Being, since the existence of a Creator has always been more or less obvious to me, but my faith in a good and just God.
So I left the Church of Christ for nowhere in particular. I didn’t really want anything to do with God at that point, although I was no atheist. After a couple of years I began looking at Him again, though, because I realized I was growing hard, cynical, and bitter. The rot that started at Northwest was continuing. I knew I needed a different perspective on God if I was to regain my faith in any form worth having, so when I started looking, I didn’t return to the Church of Christ.
I was never actually a member of the ICC or of a “Boston planting” movement church. During the years I was involved, however, the different branches of the discipling movement and the mainline Church of Christ still recognized each other as parts of the same church. In those years the Boston-planted churches and the rest of the discipling movement churches weren’t that different overall. The differences were between local congregations, which tended to follow the style of the evangelist or leaders. I know a number of people who were at Boston or at a Boston-planted church during those years, and they tell the same kinds of stories that people who were at Northwest do.
I haven’t mentioned the word “cult” yet. It was long after I left Northwest that I got interested in cults as a psychological, not theological, phenomenon. I rarely use the word, and then use it exclusively to refer to groups which meet the eight criteria of mind control first defined by Robert Lifton in his 1961 book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. These are:
- Milieu Control
- Control over a person’s ability to communicate with others, especially those outside the group, and control/limitation of the information available to him/her, especially information about the group.
- Mystical Manipulation/Planned Spontaneity
- Systematic control and/or alteration of group and individual activities, such as group prayer, chanting, fasting, sleep deprivation, which appear to members to be accidental or spontaneous, and which reinforce group identity at the expense of individual personality. Many cults also teach that people outside the group need not be treated as fully human — it is permissible to lie to them and use them to further the group’s objectives. Planned group activities which are viewed as antisocial or socially objectionable by the outside world, such as begging or aggressive proselytizing, are often used as part of this process.
- Demand for Purity
- Perfectionism — the demand that all members live up to the groups standards perfectly on pain of punishment or expulsion, inducing guilt and shame and making members easier to manipulate.
- Cult of Confession
- Requirement that all members of the group confess all sins or lapses to a leader, a group of leaders, or the group as a whole. The confidentiality of these confessions is rarely respected, which are used, not to free members from guilt, but to manipulate and control them. Confession is almost never two-way; leaders confess to other leaders, but not to rank-and-file members.
- Sacred Science
- Special doctrines within the group which claim a scientific basis or to be founded on empirical research, but whose proofs do not stand up to independent scrutiny, and which members are expected to believe without question.
- Loading of the Language
- Simplification and literalization of language, in which certain common words gain special meanings within the group, and which in its extreme form reduces thought by reducing the available words to express thought to a series of principles accepted as axioms and requiring no further consideration. George Orwell, in his book 1984, describes this phenomenon brilliantly in his description of “newspeak”.
- Doctrine over Person
- An environment in which a group member is not permitted to acknowledge, even to himself, that his experience contradicts a doctrine of the group. This leads to people rejecting their observations and experience as evil, adding to guilt and shame, and often leading them to blame Satan or some other outside agency for their own doubts and questions.
- Dispensing of Existence
- The belief that the group’s acceptance means salvation, life, and worth, while its rejection means damnation, death, and insignificance. Those who are fully indoctrinated literally feel that they have no right to exist if they ever leave the group or disagree with it on a fundamental issue. Lifton views this as the “most general and significant” of these characteristics.
Lifton and his coworkers did their original research on mind control by studying, not cult members, but prisoners who underwent “thought reform” or “brainwashing” while in prison in China. (Lifton’s original research in the field of thought reform was done on former prisoners of war who spent time in North Korean captivity.) One of his fellow researchers, Margaret Singer, later applied his work to cult members in a systematic way. Lifton himself has written a number of articles about cults and mind control.
A former member of one of the best-known cults, the Unification Church/Moonies, was heavily influenced by Lifton and Singer’s work, and wrote the first book on cults as a definable psychological phenomenon. This was Steve Hassan, and the book was his 1988, Combatting Cult Mind Control. One of its case histories is about a member of the Boston Church of Christ, and in his discussion of that case history he draws on Flavil Yeakley’s earlier work.
Do I think the ministry at my church in El Paso was a cult? Yes, I do — not the church itself, but the discipling ministry. Here’s why:
- As a member I was kept ridiculously busy with activities which provided the desired milieu and left me with no time to seek out information on my own. (If I had not been an unusually gifted student, and the high school I was at not especially demanding, I suspect my grades would have dropped.) I was discouraged from “wasting time” by reading books “not by the brethren”, except for a few which Tracy approved. Milieu Control? Yes, although not total.
- We “blitzed” residence halls at the university and neighborhoods around the high school, knocking on doors and asking people to soul talks. We were taught that those outside the group were not really “spiritual”, and that we were better than they were. Mystical Manipulation? Absolutely.
- We were expected to be “totally committed”, an impossible standard. Demand for Purity? Yes.
- We were expected to “confess our sins to one another, and pray for one another”, which in practice meant that Tracy confessed something innocuous or from his past life while we spilled our guts. Cult of Confession? Yes.
- We believed we alone understood, taught, and practiced God’s true plan for salvation, although in theory the plan was equally available to anyone who read his/her Bible. Sacred Science? I think so, although I’m not as sure about this one.
- We had a whole raft of terms we used and overused — such as “awesome” — and rarely described any spiritual thing using other language. I found after a while that I literally couldn’t talk with other believers who used different language — I didn’t hear what they were saying because they didn’t use my language and I had no mental spot for different language or new ideas. Loading of the Language? Certainly!
- There was no room for deviation or compromise on any doctrine of the group. If you dissented, you were first “studied with” (the term “discipled” came later) and if you didn’t “repent”, you were out of the group. Anyone who dared state that they felt someone outside the group, particularly outside the Church of Christ, might be saved in spite of their “misunderstanding” of the Bible got the verbal equivalent of a quarterback sack. Doctrine over Person? You bet.
- Anyone who “fell away” was damned, and a person who after joining the group decided it was too demanding and dropped out was treated as and considered an apostate. Although we were supposed to pray for people who left, in practice most of us looked right through them. Dispensing of Existence? To my shame, because I dispensed the existence of a number of people, yes.
Do I think Northwest was a cult? No, I don’t. While certain of Lifton’s criteria, notably the demand for purity, cult of confession, and doctrine over person, were definitely present, others were absent or present only in the beliefs and attitudes of certain individuals, not the leadership as a whole. Further, the leadership on a number of occasions acted in ways which contradicted these beliefs. A few examples:
- During the years I was at Northwest, I know of people who left the church and went, not to other movement churches or even mainline Churches of Christ, but other denominations, who were treated as friends by Milton and other leaders and who even came back and visited on occasion. This happened more often toward the end of time there than toward the beginning.
- One deacon’s wife went to a nondenominational Bible Church, and no one tried to hide this or criticized him or her, at least not publicly.
- A campus minister’s wife was a vegetarian and vociferous animal rights activist. While a number of the leaders disagreed strongly with her politics (we had a lot of conservative Republicans there), no one suggested that her politics indicated spiritual problems, and there was no talk of removing her husband as leader of a church planting team he led.
- The leaders and members read widely — not just books by the “brethren” or an approved few books by others. These books would often be used as texts for classes at church. I noticed this pattern growing stronger during the years I was at Northwest.
- An evangelist at a church planted by Northwest later left the ministry, having been influenced by a group in the Churches of Christ which believes that it is wrong to have a paid clergy or for the church to own a building or other property. He and his wife were accepted fully when they came to visit. People were confused, saddened, and grieved by his actions, but neither he nor she was ostracized.
Perhaps most telling, it was during a visit to Northwest in 1990 that I was given my first copy of Steve Hassan’s book. I can’t recall if it was Milton who gave it to me, or if he recommended I acquire it and another friend there actually gave me the book. At any rate, just about everyone I knew at Northwest was reading it at that time.
These are not the only examples I could cite, but should show my reasons for believing Northwest did not entirely fall into the cult trap. I do think it, and a lot of movement churches of the period, were fertile ground from which a cult, and cult attitudes, could spring. In a number of other movement churches, what you had probably qualified as a full-fledged cult. Steve Hassan clearly assumes that the Crossroads Church of Christ itself, under Chuck Lucas, was a cult, but I don’t know if he has actually studied the ministry there or on what he bases that opinion. From what I observed at the Poway Church of Christ, it probably qualified, as well.
I think we escaped at Northwest because Milton, Bill Lawrence, and our elders lacked the necessary qualities for full-fledged cult leaders — none of them was remotely a megalomaniac control freak who needed to run the lives of other people. Most of them had a sense of proportion, and several were genuinely humble people. In this case, a few good people stood against the flood. In others, perhaps there were too few and they couldn’t.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure this “almost cult” status was much less damaging to me, or to anyone else who had already been well indoctrinated in the Crossroads mindset. When I arrived at Northwest, I’d already spent two years being indoctrinated, and I am a good subject. I soak things up like a sponge, and don’t ask nearly enough questions about what I’m being fed intellectually and spiritually even now. (I still find it difficult to arrive at a happy medium between total trust and total suspicion of a person or group, or to separate trust of a human being’s motives from confidence in his/her judgment on a particular issue.)
At the time I arrived at Northwest, the leaders and members used all the same language we had at my other movement ministry, and in most of the same ways. We’d had quiet times, prayer partners, soul talks, believed in discipleship, were into total commitment, and had the same outlook. The ministry there, although gentle by movement standards, still had a “radical”, uncompromising attitude towards human weakness and particularly human emotions and the less rational things in people. So I understood these things in the same way at Northwest, even when the particular leader in question did not intend his words to be taken to an abusive extreme. The system was the problem, far more than the people.
In some ways it would be nice if things were all neat, tidy, and easily definable — if I could say that “this is definitely a cult” and “this definitely wasn’t.” But I am grateful to God that Northwest found its way out of the maze, and suspect the ministry there has done more good than harm overall for most people in it.
I also doubt that it is necessary to insist on absolute labels to get value out of assessing how any group fits Lifton’s criteria. Few of the psychological techniques embodied in Lifton’s criteria are in themselves evil — how these techniques are used and what they are used to produce make them evil or good. Milieu control allows athletes and students to focus, when used appropriately and for a limited time. Any good party makes use of some level of planned spontaneity. Standards of behavior and purity give structure and a goal to people, when reasonable. Confession allows people to unburden themselves when used appropriately and when the confidentiality of the confessions is respected.
Another issue — as Madeleine Tobias and Janja Lalich point out in their book, Captive Hearts, Captive Minds, you can have a cult consisting of two people. Certain patterns of relationships between people, particularly those where one person establishes control over the thoughts and emotions of another, are equally deadly to those involved regardless of the scale of the “cult”. Personally, if assessing my involvement with some individual, expecially a leader, at my current church showed an unhealthy pattern, let’s say a pattern of “demand for purity” combined with “cult of confession”, I would take action to fix the problem. I wouldn’t care that the overall picture of the relationship, and the overall picture of the church, showed no tendency to be a cult.
If I were feeling mischevious today, I could do a point-by-point assessment of the mainline Churches of Christ by Lifton’s criteria, and while I’m sure the picture would not be that of a cult overall, I daresay I would find areas of concern. I have in fact done this with my present church, and have found areas of concern, although mild ones. I’m keeping at least half an eye on this — while I’m a sinner and will make mistakes, I’d rather not remake the same mistakes over and over again. I personally suspect that most churches, at least in the United States and Western Europe now at the end of the twentieth century, would match at least a couple of Lifton’s criteria if tested. I’m not saying all churches are cults waiting to happen, though. I do feel that all human beings could, given the right circumstances, come under mind control and/or exercise mind control over others.
Unfortunately there are people and churches which show a pattern which matches most or all of Lifton’s criteria. The discipling movement churches are prominent among these, I believe because the discipling methodology itself is fatally flawed, and especially as it is practiced in the ICC. It gives fallible, frail, sinful human beings too much power over other fallible, frail, sinful human beings. Perhaps someone with the character, wisdom, and experience of a Stanley Shipp could act as a discipler and do mostly good, but most people can’t. At best their mistakes and lack of psychological understanding cause them to hurt people badly without intending to. At worst, they grow arrogant, proud, and cold to other human beings and, in the end, to God.
In my opinion and from my observation, an extremely common side effect of being around the discipling movement for any length of time is that people grow arrogant and judgmental towards others and towards God. I have seen that worst case scenario all too many times. I never was actually a discipler of anyone, but in the end I grew arrogant, proud, cold and almost fell into this trap simply though being in an environment where everyone was assessing their relative spiritual status constantly.
The devil fell by pride. Any religious practice whose outcome is to cause significant numbers of those who follow it to fall into spiritual pride is deadly. It should be abandoned immediately and at any cost, regardless of how “effective” or “efficient” it is in other ways. You do not risk contamination with this sin because it will cost you your soul in the end.
I could write a book about those ten years. The movement owned me, body and soul, for that time. I wish I could say that God had owned me for that period as well. While I’m free of it now and extremely happy with my renewed faith in the last couple of years, the process of getting to this point was difficult and painful, and is something I don’t like to remember. So I think this is all I’m going to write. Others can fill in the holes.
A few last words…. I wrote this in the first place for a young ICC member who had some questions, and then expanded it for anyone who finds it of value. I remember what it was like to have been questioning the value of what I’d given ten years of my life to building. In the movement you don’t make much of a distinction inside your mind and heart between “God”, the “Holy Spirit”, “the Kingdom”, and the leaders at your church. When one of these things is brought into question, they all are. It’s frightening, and it can leave you wondering where God was while all this horrible stuff was happening.
If this happens to you, don’t for one moment, ever, think that God is behind leaders who abuse their authority and hurt people, or a system which routinely encourages such behavior and promotes such leaders. God Almighty, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe and of all living beings, is not that small, that weak, or that petty. Questioning people, a system, or practices which appear harmful and abusive is not wrong. Refusing to ignore your own mind and especially your own conscience is not wrong.
In some cases, failure to question is wrong. Refusal to see — denial — is almost always wrong. Using your mind will neither offend God nor hurt you — God gave you your mind in the first place. Please do not despise His gift.
©1996 by Catherine A. Hampton <[email protected]>. All rights reserved.