The Boston Church of Christ: A cult or a church?
Daily Herald (Du Page County, Illinois Edition), October 25 1994
BOSTON – She’s 24 years old, an MIT graduate working on a doctorate in cell biology at Tufts University. She’s friendly, personable and religious. And at many colleges, Elsa Mak is not welcome.
Mak belongs to the Boston Church of Christ, which in 15 years has swelled from 30 members to about 50,000 worldwide. It is how it became one of the nation’s fastest growing churches that has stirred criticism and prompted dozens of colleges to ban it.
Members say the church has flourished because of the appeal of its back-to-basics approach to religion. People tired of the pomp and ritual of traditional churches are drawn to the Boston church’s pure dedication to the Bible. But critics say they are being duped. They say the church is obsessed with growth and will do almost anything to achieve it.
The critics, including former members, say the church smothers recruits with false friendships – “love bombing,” they call it – to lure them into the church and keep them there. It dominates their lives and, they say, threatens them with eternal damnation if they leave.
Church members recruit wherever they can – on the street, in parking lots, and especially on college campuses. They say they are following God’s command to proselytize, but their efforts have buttressed the arguments of those who call the church a cult.
Critics say membership is leveling off nationally and, amid reports depicting the church as a cult, the church is losing members as quickly as it’s recruiting them. Bauer said members had stayed in the church an average 4.3 years in 1991. Now the average membership lasts 2.8 years, he said.
Internationally, the church is growing. Among the most fertile areas for growth are the former Soviet republics. Church leaders expect eventually to have as many members abroad as they do in the United States.
“One could describe it as a church dedicated to church growth,” said the Rev. Jerry Handspicker, professor of pastoral theology and evangelism at the Andover-Newton Theological School. “They want to be large. They want to make converts. They want to keep them.”
Handspicker’s interest in the church is more than academic. His 33-year-old son, Nathan, was a member. Handspicker said he didn’t like the church, but he said he didn’t try to interfere with his son’s membership. As a result, he said, their relationship was never harmed.
He saw some good from the church: his son enjoyed Bible studies and the camaraderie. But Handspicker also saw the church as authoritarian and demanding.
After three years, Nathan quit without being prodded. Handspicker explained, “He started thinking, I don’t think the God I know in Jesus wants me to do this.”