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

Michael Brown, an elder-in-training at the Denver International Church of Christ, says that if critics want to refer to his church as a cult, "that's their prerogative. In terms of a cult like Jonestown, we're not. But are we more active in each other's lives than other churches? Yes. If that constitutes us as being a cult, well, then, I don't know."

Brown, whose two teenage children are members of the church, knows that the Salleys were unhappy with their son's experience in the DCOC but says, "We go to great lengths to make sure parents feel great about their kids' involvement in our church. But [the Salleys] saw a lot of Internet information from our critics and chose to pull [their son] out. That's certainly the parents' prerogative." (The church would not allow Westword to attend any of its youth services or interview its teen members.)

When Steve Salley found out who his stepson was involved with, he called people at the Jefferson County School District, who told him that Green Mountain High School had been contacted and that administrators vowed to look into why the group was allowed to meet there. The school's principal did not return calls from Westword, but Kathy Tully, director of property management for the district, says the church never filled out the building-use form required of all groups that meet in schools. Under state and federal law, Tully says, any group that is not subversive or violent can use school facilities, but they must pay a fee and fill out the form.

"[The youth minister] was going to get a sophomore who was home-schooled to lead our Bible study," says Donald. "He probably knew it wasn't a good idea for him to lead it in the school, but he couldn't find a student to lead it. I think the only reason he wanted to have Bible studies in the school was to get more kids from school to attend."

After Debra Salley printed out the Internet information from former members who accused the International Church of Christ of being a cult, she and her husband invited her father--a devout Baptist whom Donald looks up to--over and planned to sit down and present Donald with their findings. Steve wasn't sure they would be able to talk Donald into leaving the group. "As any parent knows, if you tell a kid not to do something, he'll want to do it," Steve says.

The day before he warned Donald about the church, Steve was on the verge of tears when Donald came home from a Bible study. "He caught me in a weak moment," Steve confesses. "I lied to my son when he asked what was wrong, because I didn't know how to present [what I'd learned] to him. I told him I was angry at his mother. I stayed up all night praying and worrying. Finally, at 3:45 a.m., I broke down and decided it was up to the Lord."

The next day, a Friday, Steve was buoyant, and Debra couldn't figure out why. He says it's because he awoke refreshed, confident that his stepson would see the light. When they sat down with him that evening, Steve started out by making an admission. "I had always promised him I'd never lie to him and that I'd never interfere with his spirituality," he says. "I had to confess two lies then: that I was never mad at his mom, like I told him the other day when he saw me upset; and that now I had to interfere with his involvement in this church."

Steve then read aloud a dictionary definition of "cult" without telling Donald what word he was describing: "An instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers...a religion that is considered or held to be false or unorthodox."

"What word comes to mind?" Steve asked.
"'Cult'?" guessed Donald.
"Yes, and we think you're in one," his stepdad answered.

Steve and Debra asked questions that allowed Donald to analyze the group he was in. "Do they let you date people outside the church? Are there any elderly people in the church? If only people in this church can be saved, what happened to all the people who lived before this church formed?"

The information his parents presented made sense to Donald. "All the pieces came together," he says. The pressure to recruit new members, the view that baptism in their church is the only path to salvation, the "sin lists" churchgoers must compile and reveal to their disciplers, the alienation from family and friends not associated with the church...The experiences from the online testimonials matched his own.

After the four-hour family meeting, Donald went to bed. The next morning he told his parents he was going to leave the church. On Sunday, when the youth minister called for Donald, Steve answered the phone. "I told him we came to a family decision for him to not be in the church anymore, and I told him not to contact my son again," Steve recalls. "He said he wanted to discuss our theological differences, and I said that our minds were made up."

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