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The church is already well-known for its presence on college campuses. At the University of Colorado at Boulder, the ICOC group goes by the name Boulder Advance. Members usually approach other students who are walking alone on campus or in the dorms; they'll strike up a friendly conversation, and if the student listens long enough, they'll invite him or her to an "event" on the following Sunday--but they rarely say it has anything to do with the Denver International Church of Christ. Sometimes they'll walk away when a student declines to attend; other times they'll persist. Heavy-handed recruitment has gotten the ICOC banned from at least 21 college campuses nationwide, including Harvard, Boston College and UCLA.
The Boulder Church of Christ had been in existence as a mainline church for almost a century when leaders from the Crossroads Movement sent people to start a campus ministry at CU in the late 1970s. The influx of newly recruited college students quickly overwhelmed the church, which became aligned with the new movement. In 1986, some members of the Boulder church were called to start the Denver International Church of Christ. Leaders of the Boulder church were told they would have to submit to the Denver church.
"Fortunately, the [Boulder] leaders at the time had the good sense to say 'no way,'" says Mark Henderson, who has been the minister of the Boulder Valley Church of Christ for the past five years. At that time, the Boulder church separated itself from the ICOC and its Denver affiliate, which now has about thirty members on the Boulder campus.
The Denver International Church of Christ recently purchased the Arvada Covenant Church and is negotiating to buy the Littleton Christian Church. Most International Churches of Christ don't own buildings, which critics say adds to the covert nature of the organization. Local members used to meet in community centers and downtown Denver hotels.
"The ICOC has so distorted any biblical version of the church and what it means to be a disciple that I advise people to get out of there as quickly as they can," Henderson says. "Where their church becomes a cult is in the emphasis they place on control within the membership. A new member is matched up with someone inside the church--not as a peer, but as someone you have to report to."
Chisholm joined the church in 1981 while studying at CU-Boulder and helped form the Denver International Church of Christ five years later. He admits the church has made mistakes in the past. "We've hurt people, and we may have deceived people in the past, but we've changed a ton," Chisholm says, explaining that for ten to twelve hours, church leaders conduct a thorough study with potential members to point out Bible verses that substantiate their beliefs. During that time, they also address the commitments members are expected to make before the new person decides to join.
"We're more compassionate than we used to be, and we're better about educating people about who we are, although I knew exactly what I was getting into eighteen years ago," Chisholm says in the new office building across from the DCOC's Arvada church, in a room thick with the smell of new carpet. "We invite people to church, and we're not ashamed about it. I would dare say we're the most straightforward group around."
The time commitment is huge, Chisholm adds, but "as far as encouraging people to leave their family, that's absolutely false. It may have happened in an isolated case or two, but it's not church doctrine."
He says the number of people who have positive experiences in the church is far greater than those who don't. Chisholm has had about thirty different disciplers during his eighteen years in the church and says he's never been beholden to any of them. "I've had three houses, and I've certainly gotten input from people on where to live and whether it fits in with the ministry, but do I ask permission to buy a house? No. And have I ever made decisions that were different from the input I've gotten? Yes."
He says he has also enjoyed confidentiality from the disciplers to whom he's confessed and insists the church does not teach that Christians outside the ICOC are headed to hell. He says he was attracted to the church because the members didn't just talk about being Christian, they strove to live the way Jesus did. "We've had a lot of critics, and so did Jesus," Chisholm says. "He said [in the Bible] that when you lead a godly life, there will be critics."
Not only has the church had a positive impact on his life, adds Chisholm, but it helped his premarital relationship with his wife remain "pure" and has offered him close friendships, the likes of which he says he couldn't have found elsewhere--and it has helped countless poor people all over the globe through its sister organization, HOPE Worldwide. The DCOC has also contributed $4,000 to a United Way fundraiser benefiting Columbine High School.
"We're a very normal group of people who are excited about being Christian," Chisholm says, adding that the Columbine massacre did not result in a recruiting effort for the church. "We just want to impact lives. That's the goal of any church. We're sorry there have been people who have been hurt or offended by what we do."