The Fear Of God: Critics Call Thriving Nashville Church a Cult
InReview Online, July 1999.
By David Frey
Exchanging hugs and handshakes as they took their seats, hundreds of people crowded into the auditorium of the War Memorial for a fiery two-hour church service.
“Let me tell you something!” evangelist Doug Lambert shouted. “If your church doesn’t change your life, then it is not of God!”
“Amen,” the congregation responded.
“You’re going to be on the outside looking in, sometimes,” Lambert preached. “That’s just the way it’s going to work. ”
It’s a key message for the Nashville Church, where members have cast aside mainstream denominations for what they believe is the true church of God. At a time when many churches are watching their congregations dwindle and age, the ranks of the 585-member Nashville Church are young, racially diverse and growing – up about 20 percent from last year, according to church figures.
The church is among 357 others that are part of the International Churches of Christ, an evangelical Christian movement based in Los Angeles. Critics claim the church is a cult that uses mind control to lure people into joining and then gets them to turn over their lives – and money.
“They’re very subtle, but they do control your mind,” says Debbie Campbell of Lebanon, who left the church a year ago.
Nashville Church spokesman Barry Holt says the church is no cult, but adds that there is no doubt it will change people’s lives.
“Our members are fully aware of what’s going on. There’s no secret agenda,” he says. “I think Jesus plainly said that you will have your critics and false things will be said about you.”
The church has an estimated 115,000 followers worldwide. Its stated goal is to “evangelize the world,” and officials boast of having already set up churches in every country with a population above 100,000.
ICC members believe they are modeling themselves on the earliest Christian church. They consider their literal Biblical interpretation to be strictly following the word of God, and blast mainstream churches as “lukewarm.” Many former members say they were taught that ICC members alone would go to heaven, and that leaving the church was equivalent with leaving God.
New church members are baptized, regardless of their religious past, and led into a life of full commitment to God, with a heavy emphasis on bringing in new recruits.
The church had a humble beginning in 1979, when 30 people gathered in a Boston-area living room with founder Kip McKean, a former Church of Christ minister who came to Massachusetts with a plan to create a new kind of church based on his controversial approach of total religious immersion. It quickly attracted a following.
“They offer an absolute direction in terms of both belief and behavior in a society that doesn’t seem to have any strong standard,” says Boston University Chaplain Bob Thornburg, who watched the group take root on his campus and become a strong force there. “And it gives security to people who live in an insecure world.” It has since been sanctioned there.
Few churches have physical buildings. Instead, like the Nashville Church, they rent space in schools, public auditoriums and conference centers where they set up elaborate stages and sound systems.
“Their hugest expense goes into personnel, their evangelists who are their mission outreaches. From an organizational standpoint, it’s a great idea. They put very little money into buildings,” Thomburg says. “You put your money into people who get more people.”
Campbell contends that the church lures members with a shower of affection, or “love bombing.” Bible studies don’t just present church teachings, she said, but quash skepticism through high-pressure methods that allow only the church’s answer to Biblical questions.
When people join the church, they are assigned to a mentor, or “discipler,” with whom they have daily contact, Campbell says. The discipler works to ensure that church doctrine is embraced while keeping tabs on the personal life of the new member, she says.
Campbell says members are expected to give the church 10 percent of their income. They are expected to recruit new members, and any affiliation with non-church organizations is frowned upon, says Campbell, who claims she was ridiculed by church leaders for volunteering with the Girl Scouts.
“The rank and file that are not upper-leadership material are doing their best. They are very friendly, honest people that are just caught up in the system,” she says. “They just really feel that what they’re doing is for God. They don’t see how they’re being used.”
Steve Hassan of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Resource Center for Freedom of Mind, an anti-cult group, says he considers the International Churches of Christ “a destructive cult.”
“What we’re talking about here is a set of methods or techniques that takes away people’s abilities to think for themselves,” says Hassan, a former leader in the Rev. Sun Young Moon’s Unification Church.
Holt bristles at the allegation.
“The Nashville Church is made up of doctors, nurses, attorneys, business owners, athletes, students that excel in what they do,” he says. “I think to say ‘mind control’ is very insulting to me and to the members. I think these people are very intelligent and very in control. No one’s controlling me.”
Committing to the Nashville Church is not about coercion, Holt says. “It’s people making a decision about their life. Willingly.”
Rubel Shelly, preaching minister at Nashville’s Woodmont Hills Church of Christ, says that the ICC has broken off all ties with the mainline Churches of Christ. But he believes the ICC owes its roots to a historic splinter in the Church of Christ, taking some of the church’s most sectarian views – that they are the only true church and demanding a strict uniformity on a literal interpretation of the Bible – to their logical conclusions.
“My personal view of the International Churches of Christ is pretty negative,” Shelly notes. “It’s pretty hard to be affirming of other people whose goal is to exclude everybody but themselves.”
The ICC’s recruitment approach got the church barred from Vanderbilt University and, according to Hassan, more than 100 other colleges around the world.
“It’s the only student religious group I’ve had to turn down, and I did it based on the sheer volume of complaints,” Vanderbilt Chaplain Gay Welch says.
“They said I was trying to stamp out religious freedom at Vanderbilt,” Welch continues. But she said the decision was about tactics, not beliefs. Members are required to recruit, Welch says. But religious groups aren’t allowed to solicit on Vanderbilt property. So in 1997, Welch blocked the church from becoming a campus organization.
Holt says Vanderbilt’s move has not affected the church.
“There’re still Vanderbilt students that are becoming disciples,” he says. “People are still holding onto the Constitution there.”
Kara Rogers, of Glencoe, Mo., was a lonely Vanderbilt freshman when she joined the church in 1997. An atheist, Rogers went to a Nashville Church picnic on the first weekend of school and liked what she saw. A week later, she was plunging in baptismal waters.
“At Vanderbilt, sometimes you feel that there’s a certain affluence there, and if you don’t have that, you sort of feel left out,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I had a place to fit in, and I think they could kind of sense that. ”
Rogers was asked to try to recruit up to 10 people a week. She shared her secrets each day with her discipler and sacrificed school work for church work. She says she was told not to date outside the church, and that she couldn’t turn down a date within the church. And she said she was told that everyone outside the church was going to hell.
She needed permission to return home to visit her family, she says, and when she went, she had to attend the local ICC church.
“My maternal gut instinct said something’s wrong here,” says Kara’s mother, Barbara Rogers. “That discipler had more influence on her than her family who had raised her for 16 years.”
When Kara Rogers came home for the summer, Ms. Rogers found a letter in which her daughter wrote she was praying for the strength to leave her family for the church.
“I literally sank to the floor and just fell apart,” Ms. Rogers says.
The next day, she found the letter shredded in her daughter’s trash can. In the days that followed, Kara’s church devotion waned.
“I didn’t feel like I could do anything that was right – that I would always be going to hell. I was just so confused and so upset that I was thinking of ways to end my life.”
Instead, she left the church, even changing colleges to escape its influence. Now, she says, her life is back to normal – with one difference.
“I kept my relationship with God,” she says, “but I’ll never go back to organized religion again, because I don’t trust them.”
One ‘Big Extended Family’
Nashville Church member Tim Brachert says he attributes stories like Rogers’ to bad advice from disciplers.
“I’ve never been exposed to those things personally myself…but I don’t doubt there have been abuses of that kind of relationship. I mean, the church is made up of individuals. We’re all humans, and for sure there’s been mistakes,” he says.
An engineer, Brachert travels 30 miles each way from Murfreesboro to attend twice-weekly church services. He lists joining the church along with his marriage and the birth of his son as the milestones of his life.
“It’s like a big extended family,” Brachert says. “It’s kind of like, to me, how I picture a small country church, only on a much more extended scale. Everybody knows everybody to a large extent. The minister in the church is on a first-name basis with basically everybody.”
Brachert says church members have not tried to convince him to sever ties with his family, who are not members. And he says he has never had a recruiting quota, although he adds he actively tries to bring newcomers into the fold.
“The Bible teaches that as a disciple, you need to go out and make other disciples,” he says.
Brachert invites neighbors, co-workers, people in stores. He has even invited people who dialed the wrong number – and they’ve come.
Holt says anyone who wants to leave the church can. However, Campbell maintains that leaving is not that easy once people have been convinced that doing so means they are turning their backs on God.
“They tell you if you leave this kingdom, you’re going to a life that’s going to be worse,” she says. “It’s like a dog returning to its vomit.”
During a span of four years, Campbell and her husband, Terry, handed over more than $16,000 to the church – 10 percent of their income, and much more when the church demanded it. If they didn’t have the money, they held yard sales, even sold their boat, to raise it.
When Campbell began to question church practices, she says, a church leader faced off with her in a grueling “breaking session,” battering her with insults to break her down and crush her resistance.
He called her sinful. Arrogant. A disgrace to Jesus.
Campbell believed him.
“I wanted to kill myself,” she says. “When someone tells you that you’re not a Christian and you’ve never been one, it’s like, well, what’s left for me?”
At first, she says, she lost hope, even considering suicide. “Then I started thinking, `No, I’m not going to let someone else take control over me.’ ”
Campbell left the church. A few months later, Terry did the same.
Now, ceramic angels smile down from their living room where baptism certificates testify to their new religious lives.
“It’s like when you leave, you have to start your world all over again,” Debbie Campbell says. “Because that was your world. They take the place of your family. They take the place of your friends.
“You know what we gained when we left? Freedom.”