Too Much Church

A Green Mountain High School student finds out there's the Church of Christ, and then there's the Denver Church of Christ

Not only was Donald spending most of his time away from his family, he was also acting differently. He desperately pleaded with his mom to quit smoking and insisted he needed to be baptized in his new church. "I started noticing that there was a lot of tension between Donald and his mother," Steve says while pacing and smoking in his kitchen. "We decided we needed to talk to an adult in the church. No one had ever approached us or asked us for emergency phone numbers to get in touch with us in case something happened to our son."

"In normal churches with youth groups, the adults call parents and introduce themselves," Debra adds. "Instead, we had to take the initiative. It was obvious nothing was going to be divulged."

After Donald had been involved with the new church for more than two months, the Salleys called Donald's youth minister and invited him over for dinner so he could tell them about his church. But the minister asked them to come to his house instead. Steve and Debra agreed but said they wanted their son to be present. "They had Donald eat dinner quickly and then someone came and took him away to a Bible study," Debra recalls.

That night at dinner, the minister told them the youth group is affiliated with the Church of Christ. Debra had heard of the brotherhood, as it's called, and knew it was fundamentalist, but she had no problem with that; after all, she was raised a conservative Baptist. When the Salleys asked why their son was spending so much time at church, the minister told them that "baby Christians" go through intense Bible studies at first.

One Tuesday night in mid-March, Steve was cooking dinner when he heard yelling in the basement. He went downstairs to break up the argument Debra and Donald were having about the merits of another baptism. "They were fighting about the Lord. And I thought, 'The Devil's laughing on our doorstep because they are fighting about our Savior,'" Steve says.

When he went back upstairs, the food he had abandoned was burning and the kitchen was filled with smoke. While Steve carried the smoldering food outside, boiling butter splattered onto his arm. He took a few breaths and a good look at the chaos the church was causing his family. "I knew then and there that this was going to be a real test of my spirituality. I decided I wasn't going to blame anyone," Steve says. "I was just going to ask my wife what she wanted me to do--tell Donald he couldn't go to his youth group anymore or let him go."

Steve collected his thoughts, and after both he and the food cooled down, he went calmly back inside, cleaned up the kitchen and finished making dinner. That night, the youth minister called and invited the Salleys to an adult church retreat, which they declined. It was then that the minister referred to the church as the Denver Church of Christ.

The next day at work, Debra typed "Denver Church of Christ" into her Web browser and up popped the DCOC's home page. When Debra clicked on the link at the bottom that read, "Affiliated With the International Churches of Christ," her computer froze. "I have a very nice computer at work that has a lot of memory, and it never freezes," says Debra, who gets goose bumps retelling the story.

When she rebooted her computer and brought up her Web browser, she typed in "International Churches of Christ" so she could immediately get to its Web page. But the first link that showed up was for R.E.V.E.A.L., a Web site with pages of testimonies from former members who claim the church is a cult that manipulated them, used thought-reform techniques to control them and left them emotionally and spiritually abused. The site also has links to cult awareness organizations that characterize cults as groups that have single charismatic leaders, deceive members into joining, make members feel guilty for not being good enough, alienate members from their family and friends outside the group and intrude into members' privacy to learn things that can later be used against them.

There are now 150 International Churches of Christ worldwide, with approximately 150,000 members. The organization was started in the early 1970s by Chuck Lucas, a minister at the University of Florida at Gainesville. Lucas borrowed his ideas about discipleship from a book by Robert Coleman called The Master Plan of Evangelism, which outlines how Jesus made disciples, says Carol Giambalvo, a Florida-based cult expert who has been investigating the ICOC since 1987. Lucas put those ideas into practice and formed the Crossroads Movement, named for the campus ministry's alliance with the Crossroads Church of Christ in Gainesville.

Lucas was also associated with five Protestant ministers in Gainesville dubbed the Florida Five, who promoted the concept of "shepherding," a hierarchical practice in which all the "sheep" in the church have shepherds who watch over them and help further their religious involvement. Lucas adopted the concept and called it discipleship. He then passed the idea on to an aspiring young evangelist named Kip McKean, who eventually took over the leadership of the movement.

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