Students make easy targets for questionable religious groups
The Daily Nebraskan, April 9, 1999
By Josh Nichols, Staff writer
Editor’s note: This is the last in a four-part series examining the relationship between religion and higher education.
They were friendly, hugged him and told him that he belonged.
But Christopher Measel didn’t know that belonging would cost him so much.
Last spring, Measel, a freshman biology major at the time, attended a service of the Greater Church of Christ in Omaha.
He joined the church, which meets at the Westside Community Center in Omaha, and became an active member. That, he said, is when the problems began.
“They had too much control over people’s life,” Measel said. “They were with me constantly.”
College students such as Measel are an easy target for cults and other religious groups because they are in a new environment, said Rev. Bill Steinbauer, pastor at the University Lutheran Chapel.
Hugh Whitt, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociology professor, called the university setting a “religious marketplace” for religious groups trying to recruit new members.
Though it isn’t always the case, Measel said, once he was recruited into the Greater Church of Christ, people called spiritual policemen followed him around to make sure he wasn’t sinning or giving into temptations.
They continually asked him for donations, which caused him to fall into financial debt, his grades dropped and he was almost forced to quit school because of the church, he said.
He said he was asked to break contact with his old friends and was also forced to break up with his girlfriend.
Measel had taken her to the church, he said, but when she refused to join, Measel was asked to stop seeing her.
There are about seven or eight members of the Greater Church of Christ on UNL’s campus, Measel said.
The Greater Church of Christ is a branch of the International Church of Christ, which was started in Boston by Kip McKean.
The church had been affiliated with the mainline Churches of Christ, but broke away and renamed itself the Boston Church of Christ, according to the Church of Christ Web page.
The movement has spread to cities throughout the world and is named for the city in which it is based, for example, the L.A. Church of Christ.
The church, which the Web page and Measel described as the fastest growing church in the world, bases itself on a discipling philosophy and mentoring system that demands strict obedience in all aspects of life.
Current member Phong Nguyen, who has been with the group a year and a half, said he joined because the group lived up to the Bible’s teachings more than any group he had seen.
Phong saw Measel’s experience in the group differently. He said that he had never had a spiritual policeman and neither did Measel.
“He broke away because members asked him about sins in his life, and he denied them,” Nguyen said. “He was sinning and trying to hide it, too. He didn’t want to be 100 percent committed to God.”
His unwillingness to be open and change is what drove Measel from the group, Nguyen said.
John Schadegg leads a Bible study, Won by One, of which Measel is now a member. Schadegg speaks to Measel weekly and has had experiences with other former members of the International Church of Christ.
“The Church of Christ understands what the Bible says, but where they go wrong is they try to control a person,” Schadegg said.
“They feel it is their responsibility to keep everyone in the group from sinning.”
The International Church of Christ has been attacked by media in recent years as being a cult group.
In the Webster’s New World dictionary, a cult is defined as a system of religious worship or ritual or a devoted attachment to or extravagant admiration for a person or principle.
Every religious group, including Catholics and Presbyterians, tries to get as many people as it can into its group, Whitt said, and they all have similar methods.
“The main way people get into new religions is through friendships,” he said.
For example, the Unification Church, nicknamed the Moonies for their leader Sun Myung Moon, is well aware of this and uses a technique called “love-bombing,” Whitt said.
They will befriend who they see as a lonely person, and pull them into a network of friends without mentioning church, he said.
The group will then suggest going on a weekend seminar. Usually someone from the group will drive the prospective members there so the members are not free to leave when they want to, he said.
Everyone is free to form a religion in the United States, and every group will try to have as many members as possible, Whitt said.
One method groups use to spread their beliefs to college students is by sending people to preach on college campuses.
The Assembly of God-Glad Tidings, 5555 Roose, is responsible for one of those speakers students may see on campus.
The church brought in Brother Jed, a renowned speaker from Newark, Ohio, who travels across the country preaching on college campuses.
Steinbauer said students come to him when they want to get out of a group like the International Church of Christ or the Unification Church.
Groups usually have a dynamic, charismatic leader who is able to persuade people to join, he said.
They will lead you to believe that every other religion is off-base, he said.
Measel warned that students should be wary of groups that ask someone to quit a job or rearrange a schedule.
Steinbauer agreed that students should beware if a group tries to dictate one’s studies, time and friends.
“It is not uncommon for a group to totally take control of one’s life.”