By Karl Williams
It WAS A hot and humid day in June 1986 as I walked along Acton High Street in West London. I was running an errand for my employer, an importer of rare tropical fish, and tried to avoid the young man handing out leaflets on the pavement. My attempt to sidestep him failed.
`Excuse me, can I invite you to some meetings my church is having in the area?’ he enquired.
The approach seemed innocent enough. He was polite, friendly and appeared sincere, so I rejected my initial suspicion that he must be a Jehovah’s Witness.
‘No, we’re just a non-denominational Christian church that’s trying to go by the Bible. Do you live around here?’
I replied that I didn’t but he offered me an invitation anyway and asked for my phone number which I declined to give. After some brief small talk we went our separate ways.
I was 17 at the time and lived in one of the outer London suburbs on the fringes of the Kent and Surrey borders. I had never heard of the London Church of Christ (LCC) nor the extensive, evangelistic ‘Hope’ campaign that it held annually across the capital. The leaflet looked interesting: the group’s meetings appeared to be addressing some of the more pertinent questions leveled at Christians like myself. Why Is There Suffering? was the title of one. How Can I Find God? read another. It was an intriguing invitation; I shoved it into my pocket for future consideration.
My own relationship with religion had been taking a nose dive. Though not from a religious family I had become a committed churchgoer from a young age. Even the tedium of many a Church of England service had not deterred me. However, I had eventually decided to leave and was searching for something new. Perhaps the Church of Christ was an answer to my prayer.
I attended a midweek meeting of 150 people in a local school hall not really knowing what to expect. The welcome was warm. People not only made a point of talking to newcomers but appeared genuinely interested in them. I struck up several lengthy conversations with members who told me how joining the Church had changed their life. A recent convert, a young singer called Gary, talked about his ambition to become a pop star. Music was still important but now God came first. He had even moved down to London so that he could be with this Church. Another, older man with a strong American accent asked questions about my work. He didn’t tell me that the LCC, an offshoot of a large, radical American movement, believed that only its members were true disciples of Jesus. Those outside were considered lost, fated to spend eternity in fiery torment.
I was persuaded to attend other services. The Sunday gathering of several hundred members from all over the capital took place at a former cinema in the West End of London. The service was impressive, the singing vibrant and the message challenging and relevant with a healthy disregard for tradition. It appeared to be just what I had been looking for. Oddly, the members I had met at the previous meeting continually asked questions and tried to persuade me to study the Bible with them. Their phone calls were frequent, usually nightly and sometimes irritating, especially when there was little new to say. Still, they were always friendly and I wasn’t troubled, eventually agreeing to the studies if only to get them off my back.
We met at a house in south London that was occupied by Trevor, a rather domineering Jamaican in his mid-20s. He worked as a computer programmer and acted as a local group leader for the Church. About half a dozen young, single males who were all LCC converts shared the property with him. There didn’t seem much room for privacy.
The Bible studies started off as fairly innocuous but as time went by the group increasingly put me on the spot, attacking my beliefs and devotion to God as half-hearted and inadequate.
‘If you were really a Christian and really believed that people out there on the streets were lost, you’d be doing something about it, wouldn’t you, Karl? But you’re not, are you?’ interrupted Trevor as I tried to explain my position.
I didn’t agree but it was difficult to argue with people who were apparently so sure of their view of the world and had a Bible verse to answer every question. It became apparent that the LCC saw themselves as a recreation of first-century Christianity and viewed other denominations as spiritually substandard, particularly reviling Roman Catholicism and the Church of England. Many of their criticisms of the Christian establishment had a ring of truth. So, although I disliked the direction in which the sessions were going, I trusted the members’ desire to do what they saw as right.
The phone calls and the studies progressed on an almost daily basis. If I wasn’t attending the numerous LCC meetings I was at Trevor’s house in a Bible study. Little of what I said seemed to make any difference: Trevor and his house mates were certain of the truth of their position and the hopelessness of mine. It undermined my confidence in my own beliefs and at such a young age I didn’t really have the experience to walk out.
Eventually I became convinced that what they were teaching was right. Now I was ready to join God’s élite, to become one of a tiny handful of `true Christians’ and to begin a new life with a mission to `seek and save the lost’. I was baptized in the garage of the leader of the LCC, an American who had come over to Britain from Boston in the early days of the movement’s international expansion. Others found themselves being dunked in local rivers or ponds. Unlike most mainstream churches the LCC believes that baptism is the moment of conversion and salvation. From then on I was counted as one of the group.
Being a member meant that my personal situation changed dramatically. I was expected to start bringing others. My family weren’t particularly interested but that didn’t matter as the LCC engaged in regular, highly organized street evangelism known as `blitzing’. We would invite passers-by in the same way that I had been approached and if possible obtain their phone numbers to `follow up’. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of people could be contacted within the space of a few hours. At other times members would go `tubing’, riding the London Underground system, preaching and proselytizing as they travelled. It was often quite unnerving approaching strangers. Passengers were frequently rude and occasionally members were assaulted, but it just helped to fuel the feeling that we were part of the righteous élite battling against the forces of Satan. A hostile reaction from someone proved that their ‘heart was closed’ to the truth.
There was little in the way of spare time. A minimum of three official Church meetings a week was supplemented with informal gatherings at which attendance was compulsory. We were expected to spend our free time ‘productively’, which meant out evangelizing or in Bible studies with prospective new members. A quiet night in front of the television was not an option except perhaps on Saturday. Members were made to feel guilty about laziness or lack of love for ‘the lost’. How could we be so uncaring when there was a planet full of people destined to go to hell?
To maintain strict internal discipline, the Church assigned everyone a ‘discipler’, a sort of personal supervisor and confessor. This was someone who, we were told, had been placed in our lives by God to help us grow. We were to accept their guidance even when we disagreed with them because they were more mature in the faith. To disobey them could almost be considered an affront to Jesus. In many ways it was similar to the sales strategy employed by American network marketing organizations and was very effective. Everyone was accountable to their immediate superior and instructions could be passed down from the top and reach the rank and file within a short space of time.
The majority of new, unmarried converts found themselves pushed to move in with other members so that they could play a fuller part in the life of the organization. Male members or ‘brothers’ lived separately from the female ‘sisters’ and romantic attachments were discouraged unless endorsed by the Church.
Most of the members were fairly youthful, frequently students, in their late teens or early 20s. In such an insular and religiously fervent environment it was a huge mistake to give young and often naive individuals absolute power over each other. While the majority were probably well- meaning, the rigidity and narrowness of the group’s world view meant that obedience became as much an issue as the message that the LCC was preaching. Individualism and disagreement were heavily frowned upon. Those who refused to do as they were told were chastised and labeled as ‘independent’ or ‘divisive’. The pressure to conform to the wishes of the leadership could be enormous: an individual’s salvation might be publicly called into question and many were frightened that if they were to rebel or leave the Church they would go to hell. Because in its own eyes the LCC represented the only path to God, the decisions of its leaders were often equated with the will of the Almighty. Though privately some members were more skeptical, the peer pressure appeared to persuade most to conform.
I spent four years in the Church of Christ and in every way it was an emotional and spiritual roller coaster ride. There were good times: the camaraderie and the diversity of people involved. Their devotion and absolute certainty of belief provided an enormous sense of purpose. Most of those who joined said they had been attracted to the warmth of fellowship the group offered and the forceful, no-nonsense message that rang out from the lips of its polished American evangelists. For people living away from home, a religious group like the LCC can seem a haven.
After several years of membership its downside became increasingly apparent. The Church was beginning to attract bad publicity: the constant pressure to perform, the expectation that all members should continually bring new people into the group, was difficult to reconcile with the ignoring of many other aspects of Christian living. Love for God was measured by evangelistic success. People’s souls were at stake so members should ‘crank the baptisms’ (produce conversions). If good results were not forthcoming then they needed to be ‘rebuked’. Many converts, even the most good-natured types, found the authoritarianism too much and left, sometimes acrimoniously. For every person that joined someone else walked out.
Leaving was not easy. As far as the Church was concerned, to walk away from the LCC was to walk away from God. If someone left, it was undoubtedly due to a terrible hidden sin in their life or because they didn’t really love Jesus enough. The behavior of the Church and its leadership was seldom accepted as a legitimate factor in a person’s decision. People who went were said to have ‘fallen away’. They were considered worse for having rejected ‘the truth’ than those who had never shown an interest.
Emotionally it was an enormous wrench when I decided to go. I think that for many it is not dissimilar to breaking away from a close personal relationship. The time, energy and commitment involved, especially for those who have given years to the movement, are not something quickly forgotten. Others are upset that the people whom they considered to be their closest friends in the group are no longer interested in them. Ex-members, who neglected their outside family and friends during their time in the LCC, are sometimes faced with having to build a new life. Most eventually move on to better things. In retrospect I wish I had left sooner but perhaps through the experience I have ended up learning more about life than I lost.
All names, apart from the author’s, have been changed