New Malibu church: cult or not?
Graphic Online (Pepperdine University Newspaper), February 18, 1999
Officials worry similar Church of Christ name may confuse students. They’re here, they’re recruiting, and they’re confusing people.
The Malibu Hills Christian Fellowship, a new church in Malibu, is actively evangelizing in this seaside community. Its Sunday services, held at Malibu’s Juan Cabrillo Elementary School, are similar to traditional Christian worship services.
But controversy surrounds this new church and numerous media reports and Web sites have linked the church’s parent ministry with cult-like practices.
The Malibu Hills Christian Fellowship is a ministry of the Los Angeles International Church of Christ, more broadly known as the International Church of Christ (ICC).
The ICC was once part of the mainstream Churches of Christ. But its recruitment tactics and organizational structure caused a split between the ICC and the Churches of Christ. In fact, leaders of the Church of Christ that Pepperdine is affiliated with denounce the ICC and any association with it whatsoever.
Pepperdine officials, like mainstream Church of Christ leaders across the country, are concerned that the name similarity could cause confusion among members of the Malibu community. That, in turn, could lead to a major public relations problem for the university.
“It’s important that people understand we’re two different fellowships,” Malibu Church of Christ Minister Ken Durham said. “The style of the International Church of Christ is different than the mainstream Churches of Christ in significant ways.”
In fact, numerous Web sites and Pepperdine professors describe the church as a potentially dangerous organization that preaches an oppressive doctrine.
Church leaders of the new Malibu church, meanwhile, strongly deny that they are in any way a cult, that they are dangerous in any way or teach any oppressive doctrine.
“[We are] definitely not a cult,” said Devon Smith, a leader with the Malibu Hills church.
Nevertheless, an avalanche of media reports, including those published on the Internet, strongly criticize the church.
Just yesterday, the Associated Press reported that a group of 12 ministers in Lubbock, Texas, took out an ad in Texas Tech’s student newspaper urging students to avoid the church. A number of universities, including Boston University and Rensselaer Polytechnic University in New York, have banned the church from their campuses.
Campus papers at many other universities, such as the University of Southern California, University of Cincinnati and University of Nevada at Las Vegas, have reported about the involvement of the organization on campus and questioned their tactics.
According to Rick Bauer, a former leader in the ICC, in his essay “Responding to the Boston Movement/International Churches of Christ,” the ICC is a cult. He uses criteria established by Dr. Robert Lifton that includes deceptive recruiting tactics, using fear to keep members in the organization and information control. “In my own experience and based upon my own research, it is my opinion that the ICC is a harmful cult,” wrote Bauer, adding that the organization is directed and dominated by its national leader Kip McKean.
The ICC objects to the cult label.
“Nobody is controlled,” Smith said. “Nobody’s mind is controlled.”
Scott Lambert, Pepperdine’s campus minister, draws rigid distinctions between the two churches with the “Church of Christ” name.
“Over the years, I’ve seen a very controlling nature in the name of discipleship,” Lambert said. “When I say controlling, I mean [controlling] information and life decisions.”
Lambert expressed reservation about speaking out against another Christian church.
“I agree with a great deal of their theology, but disagree with some aspects of the theology and with all of their methodology,” Lambert said.
Lambert feels that the emphasis on gaining converts for the ICC has led some members to use questionable means to win people over.
“I feel they are a very ends-justify-means mentality,” Lambert said.
Durham is uncomfortable with labeling the organization as a cult. “I don’t like to use the word cult,” he said. “It’s a trigger word.”
Durham described why some have called the ICC a cult. “I think they’ve been called cult-like because of the way they discipline their members to keep them in the fold. It’s their strictness that has some people labeling them a cult. I think the cult label comes from their strictness and discipline.”
Dr. Rick Rowland, a Speech professor at Pepperdine, has studied the church extensively and has written about the movement is his book “Campus Ministries.” He said the church first worked actively on university campuses as part of the campus ministry movement before establishing its own formal church.
Rowland, who has counseled former members of the ICC church, also feels that the church displays cultic tendencies.
“They understand evangelism, but they don’t understand grace and love,” Rowland said. “They are, in my opinion, too militaristic.”
“Our ministry is not legalist and we’re not militaristic,” Smith said. “We believe we’re saved by grace and that we need to extend that to others.”
Smith repeatedly said that the goal of his church was to work for the community, and the church often reaches out through community service.
“Our main focus is meeting the needs of the community as Christ did,” he said.
The community refers to the areas near Malibu, Santa Monica and Calabasas, according to Smith. According to Smith, the Malibu Hills Christian Fellowship will not attempt to promote itself on the Pepperdine campus.
“We respect the privacy of their campus,” he said. “We don’t evangelize on campus. It is their campus and we wish to respect that in every way.”
Instead, the first contact Pepperdine students have from a church member is often at a public place. Members hand out invitational cards to people at Ralphs and other public settings.
Members approached Cass Tallon, a senior Spanish major, and Alex Huffman, a senior Chemistry major, at Ralphs near the beginning of the semester.
“They saw my Pepperdine sweatshirt, and they ran over,” Tallon said. “It was very friendly. They found out about us very quickly. They appeared to be very interested in us.”
Huffman feels that they were targeted because they were Pepperdine students.
“It was obvious they knew we were Pepperdine students and it was fairly obvious that’s why they came over,” Huffman said.
After turning down an invitation to attend a service, Tallon and Huffman saw the members speak to others. “We watched them talk to every person they came in contact with,” Tallon said.
Lambert has mixed feelings about these methods.
“I think there’s a place for mass advertising,” Lambert said. “In principle, I have no problem with what they’re doing, but the people I’ve talked to feel ganged up on.
“The most effective method of sharing your faith is in the natural settings of life,” he said.
Smith, the Malibu Hills church leader, said that the cards have helped the church reach out to the community.
“In terms of meeting new friends and inviting them to a great church, it’s been effective,” he said.
Jane, another Pepperdine student who spoke on condition of anonymity, was approached in public and attended two weeks of church activities.
The experience, she said, left her distraught and fearful of her own salvation.
“It became obvious to me that they consider all of mainstream Christianity to not be true,” Jane said. “This was a very startling thing to me, to think everything I’ve been taught and read for myself could not be true.
“It became clear that they were not another denomination of Christianity. They were something else entirely.”
Smith had no comment on Jane’s accusations. He said that it was difficult to remember one person.
Church members spoke with Jane in Starbucks in Calabasas before finals last semester. Two women in their late 20s engaged Jane in conversation.
She agreed to attend a church service and gave them her telephone number.
“They really talked up their church good,” Jane said. “I was impressed by their friendliness and how quickly they seemed to accept me.”
One of the two members began calling Jane each day and expressed an interest in her life. Jane believes that the member would have been the contact responsible for bringing her into the church.
The member invited Jane to a Bible study at her home. Jane believes the studies were designed to mold her thinking to fit the doctrine of the International Church of Christ.
“They have a proscribed method of indoctrinating you,” Jane said. “I very quickly realized the study was designed to teach me their views. They obviously had a preconceived plan. They didn’t seem to accept my Bible knowledge or spiritual depth. They seemed very doubtful of me.”
By the end of the second Bible study, she was emotionally upset. “At the end, all of the leading questions and misinterpretation of verses were turned on me so that it became very clear that they did not believe I was saved,” she said. Jane was confused about her own faith and worried about her eternal salvation. With the help of close friends, Jane found out about the church’s reputation and convinced herself of the validity of her traditional teachings.
Jane feels that the church is dangerous.
“I would definitely consider them a cult,” she said. “They provide friends and caring relationships. When you’re coming to college and don’t know anybody, that can be very inviting. If I was new in my faith, or less sure of myself, I may have very well gotten involved further. “It really worries me to think there’s a whole community here (at Pepperdine) of potential converts to a grossly distorted religion that claims the Bible and claims Christ.”
According to the ICC’s official Web site, their church emphasizes the Bible and its strict adherence, much like the mainstream Churches of Christ.
Some, including Jane and many reports on cult-related Web sites, say the church stresses works instead of faith as the path to salvation.
Smith disagrees. So does the ICC’s Web site. “We teach that salvation is by the grace of God and was purchased by Christ’s death on the cross,” stated the ICC Web site, icoc.org. “There is no deed or deeds we can do that are sufficient to earn us God’s forgiveness or pay for the debt of our sin.”
Unlike the Churches of Christ that Pepperdine is affiliated with, the ICC has a very rigid structure. Each church is not autonomous, but is part of a larger, hierarchical organization. At the top of the pyramid structure is Kip McKean, the leader of the church.
The church puts a strong emphasis on the conversion of non-members to its faith. Each member is also required to commit oneself to making others members of the church.
According to its web site, those who are not baptized are not members, or Christians.
After baptism, a mentor, or “discipler,” teaches each member. The discipler and the new convert meet at small Bible Talks, a term used by the church to describe Bible studies.
Although much of the doctrine stems from the same roots as the other Christian movements, its history is a unique and short one.
The International Church of Christ has been known by many names, including the Boston Movement, the San Francisco Church of Christ and the Los Angeles Church of Christ.
This church began as a movement within the mainstream Churches of Christ.
In the 1960s, Chuck Lucas began teaching a radical form of Christianity that stressed evangelism and a strict adherence to the Bible at the Crossroads Church of Christ in Gainesville, Fla. Lucas worked as a campus minister in an outreach program at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
This began the Crossroads Movement. Lucas trained other campus ministers for other campuses. One of these, McKean, would eventually lead the church.
After being terminated by the Memorial Drive Church of Christ in Houston, McKean turned his attentions to a small Church of Christ in Boston.
During this time, the mainstream Churches of Christ felt uneasy about the practices of the Crossroads Movement. The zealot nature of the members and the legalistic nature of its doctrine worried some religious leaders.
In 1979, the Boston church hired McKean, in an effort to revitalize the dwindling church with the principles of the Crossroads Movement.
The ICC points to this as the beginning of its church, while outsiders insist that the church began with the Crossroads Movement.
The Boston church grew dramatically. By 1985, the church had 3,000 in attendance at the Boston Garden.
According to both Rowland and Lambert, the church had a high conversion rate of about 1,000 yearly, but it also had a difficult time keeping members. There were nearly as many members leaving the church as coming in.
In 1982, the church started a new ministry in London. By the end of 1998, the church had established 350 churches in 153 countries. According to the ICC Web site, the worldwide Sunday attendance for the church reached 172,409 by December 1998.
The ICC formally split from the mainstream Churches of Christ during the late 1980s. McKean reorganized the structure of the churches, replacing some leadership and calling upon all leaders to be re-baptized. This “Great Reconstruction” from 1986 to 1988 formally marked the separation of the two different religious movements.
By 1989, the Boston church had leveled off in attracting new members, according to Rowland. In addition, the media was becoming increasingly hostile to the church. McKean decided to move the church headquarters to Los Angeles. The church began to aggressively minister on both the UCLA and USC campuses.
In 1993, the church formally adopted the International Church of Christ as its name.
Late last summer, the Malibu Hills Christian Fellowship was established. It is a ministry of the Los Angeles International Church of Christ and meets at Juan Cabrillo Elementary School near Zuma Beach.