Allegations of Cult Tactics Don’t Halt Church’s Rise
The Boston Globe, March 20, 1988
By Richard Kindleberger
Six months after she was “deprogrammed,” Wellesley College senior Karen Gray says she feels lucky she escaped the Boston Church of Christ with her emotions intact.
John Gath, a Billerica firefighter, tells of a radically different experience. His marriage was in trouble when he and his wife joined the church three years ago, Gath said. Since then the church has “changed our lives. We really love it.”
The Boston Church of Christ evokes a wide range of feelings in the people who know it. The converted say it is the first church they have found that has made Jesus Christ central to their lives, but some former members and other critics denounce it as a cult that uses mind-control to win and keep converts.
The church is said to be the fastest-growing religious group in this area. In 10 years, it has grown from a few dozen members meeting in Lexington to 3,600 worshippers gathering at Boston Garden for Sunday services.
Steven Hassan, who spent 2 1/2 years with Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church before becoming a student of cults and an “exit counselor,” said the church is “probably the group I’ve worked the most with in the past couple of years.”
The church has endured intense criticism in recent years, but it continues to double in size every two or three years, its leaders say. It has spun off new churches or “plantings” as far away as Buenos Aires and Johannesburg and hopes some day to spread its version of Christianity around the world. Yet, criticism continues from religious and educational leaders who say the movement manipulates the emotions and undermines the mental health of its members.
Boston University barred the Boston Church of Christ from recruiting in university residences last summer, and Northeastern took similar action in December.
At Harvard University, Rev. Larry Hill is concerned about reports of harassment by the church. For example, he said, “a student comes into your office and complains that she doesn’t feel comfortable about going back to her dorm room because she’s being continually bothered by members of the Boston Church of Christ to come to a Bible study and she doesn’t want to.”
The critics accuse the church of winning converts — particularly the lonely and vulnerable — by wooing them with flattery and attention, or ”love-bombing.” After the prospect is won over and baptised by immersion, the critics say, higher-ranking members enforce conformity and submission and undermine the new members’ self-image by making them feel guilty.
Members are pushed to live with other members and to limit contacts with family and friends outside the church. The demands of almost daily church meetings and other obligations leave little time for outside pursuits, critics say. Members are pressed to give generously to the church and to seek out new members.
Although the church denies it, some critics say quotas are sometimes set for the number of converts members are expected to produce. Critics say the church enforces doctrinal and behavioral conformity by having each member paired with a longer-tenured “discipleship partner” who monitors the member’s thoughts and actions.
“They are told that if they have a negative thought it’s Satan controlling their mind,” Hassan said. He said the beliefs of the church and other groups he has studied are different but that the basic mind control techniques are the same.
Al Baird, a church elder and spokesman, denies that the church tries to brainwash people. “There is no attempt to manipulate or control people’s minds,” he said. “The whole object is to get people just to follow Jesus.”
Interviewed at his modest home in Burlington, Baird acknowledged that the commitment required of church members is intense. “We do call for a radical lifestyle, the same lifestyle that Jesus called on people to live.” Baird, who has a doctorate in physics, said he gave up a higher-paying research job five years ago to work full time for the church.
In addition to Sunday services, members attend weekly Bible-study and prayer sessions. They are expected to set aside “quiet time” for reflection and to meet regularly with their discipleship partner.
As a fundamentalist group, the church takes its beliefs and rules of living from a literal reading of the Bible. “If you had to say what we’re about concisely,” said Baird, “it’s trying to live out the lifestyle that Jesus modeled.”
Members are taught Jesus is their savior and they should pattern their lives and morality after him. As part of their faith, members are expected to bring new disciples to the church.
The church is not to be confused with the mainline Church of Christ, which Baird said has become “secularized,” nor with the United Church of Christ, also known as the Congregational Church. The roots of the Boston Church of Christ trace back to Gainesville, Fla., where an offshoot of the mainline Church of Christ began using the “discipling method” in the early 1970s. Kip McKean, one of several evangelists in the Boston Church of Christ hierarchy, was converted there as a student. After stints as a religious leader in Pennsylvania and Texas, McKean in 1979 joined the Lexington Church of Christ, which later became the Boston Church of Christ. He is now considered the church leader.
F.H. (Buddy) Martin, like Baird a transplanted Texan, has been observing the evolution of the church for several years from his post as preacher of the Cape Cod Church of Christ. Although he has only 70 members compared to the 2,600 claimed by the Boston church, Martin says it is not jealousy that prompts his concern.
“If they were not damaging people spiritually, psychologically and emotionally, I would be 100 percent behind what they are doing,” he said recently in his church office.
But Martin said he gets 30 to 35 calls some weeks from “people who are really hurting” from their involvement in the church. Regarded outside the Boston church as an authority on the subject, Martin said he spends 75 percent of his time on matters related to the Boston Church of Christ. He is part of a network that counsels people leaving the church and travels abroad where ”plantings” are taking root to speak against the Boston church.
Baird objects to the attention paid to the church’s recruitment of college students, who he says make up fewer than 20 percent of the church’s members. It is on college campuses that most of the allegations of recruiting abuses have cropped up, with church members accused of deception in their approaches to students and of pursuing reluctant prospects to the point of harassment.
Paul Chan, a Harvard student who briefly considered joining the church two years ago, said church members at Harvard have offered to help freshmen move into their dormitories without fully explaining their intentions. He called it ”a very manipulative way to try to form relationships with freshmen” who are new to college and feeling lonely.
Baird denied that the church targets the vulnerable. But, he acknowledged, ”occasionally an ambitious young person will get rambunctious” and run afoul of prohibitions against door-to-door solicitation or other college rules. Some former members who are bitter about their experience may have been handled immaturely, he said.
Critics and former members acknowledge the strong attraction of proselytizing church members, with their friendliness and apparent sincerity. Even those who insist the church is practicing mind control and hurting people do not contend the members believe that or doubt the value of what they are doing. The critics also acknowledge there is no evidence church leaders are getting rich or living extravagantly off their positions.
Gath, the Billerica firefighter, said his wife was approached at work by a church member who saw her reading the Bible. An invitation to a Thursday-night Bible group followed, and the Gaths began reading the Bible more and were ”encouraged instead of just reading it to put it into practice.”
In the church, he said, he and his wife and their three children made closer friends than they ever had before. One value of such friends, he said, is that “I know if I do something displeasing to God, they will let me know about it. It takes a real friend to do that.”
Gray, the Wellesley student, recounts a very different experience. As a transfer student from a small women’s college in Georgia, she said, she was a prime target for recruitment last year. A fellow student asked her to a meeting. After joining the church, she cherished the attention and sense of community it gave her, she said, and would not have left had her mother not lured her to a deprogrammer. Only then, she said, did she come to learn just how much of herself she had given up.
Gray said her discipleship partner told her how much time she should spend on school work, Bible study and evangelizing and how much money she should give. With so much to do, Gray said, she only slept four hours a night, and there was constant pressure to do more for the church. Members had so little privacy, she said, that church leaders had to approve if a member dated the same person more than once a month.
“You have no privacy of thought or deed,” she said recently. ”Everything’s public and can be manipulated. People have been really hurt and mistreated because so much authority is going to people who probably shouldn’t have it.”
By the time she left she had lost the ability to make decisions for herself, she said, and “I didn’t know what I believed anymore. I had to reevaluate everything.”
See also: Come, all Ye Faithful.