Too Much Church
Every night before Donald goes to sleep, he says a prayer for his family. He asks God to protect his parents, his six siblings and his grandparents. And he tries to block out all the things he was told would happen to his family, all the images of hell with the faces of his loved ones behind the flames.
The fourteen-year-old, whose blond hair is tucked beneath a Colorado Rapids baseball cap, has wide, trusting blue eyes. "Donald," who did not want to be identified by his real name, is soft-spoken and agreeable. He's the kind of kid who does his chores without any prompting, who's disappointed if a "B" blemishes his report card. He just completed his freshman year at Green Mountain High School, and he's looking forward to spending the summer doing what he loves best--playing sports. Donald almost always wears sports attire--one day it's a Denver Broncos Super Bowl T-shirt, the next it's a blue shirt with a red Nike logo and white satin Nike shorts. His basement bedroom walls are covered with posters for car racing, the Broncos and the Avalanche. Ice hockey is his favorite spectator sport, and the player he admires most is Theo Fleury--"The shortest hockey player at 5'6" and one of the best in the NHL," says Donald, who is proudly one of the smallest freshmen in his class.
When he's not in school on the sprawling, modern campus in Lakewood--where his favorite classes are math and science--Donald is on the field, playing soccer with the Green Mountain team or roller hockey for a league outside school. He doesn't want to be an athlete when he grows up; instead, he wants to treat his heroes--as a doctor of sports medicine.
Donald looks out on a warm evening from the front steps of his home in the quiet neighborhood near his school. Some of the residential streets end in cul-de-sacs; others, like his, are situated on continuous streets that wind through the hilly area. The lawns are well-tended; basketball hoops hang above garage doors. Donald's one-story gray house with white trim is home to seven kids, a golden retriever and a friendly gray and white cat that rubs against the boy's legs. Although it will be a couple of years before he's behind the wheel, Donald already has a favorite car--a blue Dodge Viper with a white racing stripe.
But he's not too eager to drive, nor is he interested in having a steady girlfriend, though he "knows girls that want to go out with me." He went to homecoming and to a Sadie Hawkins dance. Dating may come later, but for now, he says, "I have other important things in my life to do."
Things like spending time with his family and friends, making good grades, perfecting his kick and studying the Bible. "'For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son...' You know that one, from John 3:16? That's my favorite verse. I've known it ever since I was little. It really shows what the Bible is about and what Jesus is about. It shows that if you believe in Jesus, you'll have eternal life," says Donald, who can recite John 3:16 and about ten other passages without faltering. The words comfort him, make him feel safe.
For five years, Donald was in a youth group at his parents' church, Bethel Baptist in south Denver. Sometimes only three other kids would attend; at most, ten would come to the Bible studies on Sunday mornings before church services. If they had good attendance, the kids earned trips to the Cherry Creek Reservoir or to Laser Quest or Fun Plex to play laser tag. Memorizing Bible verses could also win them outings, but there were no strict rules--their youth group leaders just wanted them to have fun.
In January, one of Donald's friends at Green Mountain High invited him to join a new youth group with about seven high-schoolers in the suburbs west of Denver; about 25 students from other parts of town would attend the church services. The friend who invited Donald had attended a Bible camp, where he met other high school students who are part of the youth group. Donald's stepfather, Steve, and his mom, Debra, were happy that Donald would be joining a bigger group of young Christians.
In the beginning, Donald studied the Bible with the three other Green Mountain students for about thirty minutes, and then they would play Nintendo or jump on his friend's trampoline. Soon the youth group's adult minister asked Donald to reserve a room at Green Mountain High so the kids could meet there after school. They met in the library once a week and outside when the weather was warm. The meetings were brief--30- to 45-minute studies on different topics in the Bible. One week they studied Bible verses dealing with sin; another week they read the parts about friendship and "how friends need to stick together and always have a close relationship," Donald says.
After a couple of weeks, the youth group started meeting more often. Donald went to church services on Sunday nights, Tuesday nights and Friday nights. In between, he went to Bible studies--where boys and girls met separately--and to devotionals, where the youth minister went over the sermons from the last church service. "They told us that to be a true disciple, we had to get together and study the Bible every night," recalls Donald, who was with his church group from 6 to 10 p.m. most nights.
Donald's parents didn't have to worry about driving him to and from his activities--the church took care of that. Older high school students and college students picked Donald up and took him to church. Friday nights were "fun nights," when all the students played ping-pong or watched movies, like National Lampoon's Vacation. At first the amount of time he was spending at church didn't seem strange to Donald, a young man whom his stepfather describes as "one of the most upright fourteen-year-olds I've been around" and who, at the age of nine, took it upon himself to get baptized in his parents' church.
Donald wasn't worried about his grades suffering, either; in fact, they improved. "They told us we have to get good grades so our parents will let us stay in the church," Donald says. "They said if our grades got bad and we got grounded, the first thing our parents would take from us is the church. They told us all of our time had to be devoted to God, and they said the people in the church are our family. They used an example from the Bible, from when Jesus told his disciples that they are his family.
"They told us to give up things. If we had a soccer game on a Sunday, we needed to give it up to go to church. They said we have to come to church and that if we didn't, we'd fall away," he remembers.
That's when Donald started wondering if he wanted to stay in the youth group. "I missed the time at home with my family," he says sadly. "My parents always ate dinner before me. There was food on the table when I came home."
The youth minister told the students they needed to be baptized in the church in order to be saved. But the kids had to complete a certain number of Bible studies before they could be baptized, and they were urged to finish them as quickly as they could. "They would say, 'What would happen if you were doing a Bible study and Jesus came right now and you weren't done with it? Would you go to heaven or hell?'"
Donald had finished eight Bible studies when the church leaders started pressuring him to get baptized. "I kept putting it off because I didn't want to go against my mom's wishes," Donald says. "She didn't understand what the point was of getting baptized again."
The church leaders also told the kids they needed to be "fruitful" by inviting their friends to Bible studies. "Every time I didn't bring people, they asked why," says Donald, adding that on Sundays the church leaders posted charts detailing how many new members the adults and teens in each of the city's four quadrants recruited that week.
It wasn't enough to just believe in God, Donald says; they had to bring in new members or they'd risk losing their salvation. But pushing his church on friends was uncomfortable for him. "I'm not a person who wears a big cross around my neck and tells people what they should believe," says Donald. But he is the type of person who asks questions. "Why do I have to be baptized again? Why do I have to go to church so much?" For every question he asked, Donald says, "they always had an answer that sounded right."
They even had answers for him to give his mom when she asked questions--he would answer that his salvation was dependent on being baptized in their church. Donald also began to wonder why he had to confess his sins to the youth minister, to whom he was to answer until he got baptized and assigned a "discipler," another member of the church who would hear all of Donald's confessions and give him advice. Donald says the youth minister used his confidences against him, like the time he mentioned that his stepdad used to smoke pot and that both of his parents smoke cigarettes. "They said my parents are impure and that they're leading me astray," Donald says. "I thought it was weird when they said we were the only ones going to heaven and that everyone else was going to hell. I couldn't accept that."
Well, maybe, he thought, they still considered good Christians worthy of salvation, so he asked about his great-grandmother, a Baptist who devotes all of her time to God. Donald lowers his eyes and softens his voice when he recalls their answer. "They said she's not going to heaven."
On the front lawn of his house, Steve Salley fixes the seat on a training bike while his youngest son looks on expectantly. It is on this lawn that Steve and his wife stood many nights between January and March, anxiously waiting for Donald's church group to bring him home. "I didn't buy it at first," Steve says. "No kids spend that much time at Bible study."
Debra asked her son for the name of the church that was sponsoring his youth group, but Donald didn't know. She asked the students who were picking him up, but they didn't know, either. And when she asked where they were meeting, they just told her it was at some church in Littleton. One night she asked Donald to call her at nine o'clock. When the phone rang, she checked the caller ID; it read "Littleton Christian Church." They finally knew where their son was meeting, but the Salleys still made him call to tell them when he'd be coming home. Some nights when he said he would be home in thirty minutes, it would be more than two hours before he'd get back. When the car finally arrived, the driver dropped Donald off at the top of the hill and sped away.
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.
On June 1, 1979, McKean and thirty others of like mind started their own church in Massachusetts, the Lexington Church of Christ. They made disciples of everyone they could. The Lexington church soon outgrew its meeting place, and the group was renamed the Boston Church of Christ. The 1980s was a time of rapid growth for the fledgling ministry; its disciples moved to big cities across the country to begin congregations. Their aggressive evangelism quickly earned them new members, but it also earned them notoriety--mainline Churches of Christ began disassociating themselves from McKean's churches, which came to be known as the "Boston Movement" and, later, the "International Churches of Christ."
Mainline Churches of Christ are offshoots of the Restoration Movement, which started in eighteenth-century England. The early leaders rejected "creeds of men" and sought to restore Christianity to what it was in the New Testament, which means believers base their beliefs only on the Bible. The ICOC still shares many of the church's doctrines, but while the congregations in the mainline churches are autonomous, the International Churches of Christ answer to a central authority: McKean, the man at the top of a pyramidal power structure.
On the R.E.V.E.A.L. Web site, Debra Salley found the story of a man who joined the ICOC while attending high school in Orlando, Florida. During the "reformation" period preceding his baptism, the new convert was assigned a counselor who asked him probing questions about his past sins. The counselor asked if he'd had premarital sex, if he'd ever had sexual relations with another male, or if he'd ever had sex with someone in his family. Finally the young man admitted he'd had sexual contact with his brother. But his secret wasn't safe with his counselor; the man he confided in told his discipler and the young man's brother. There were more stories of people who had been cut off from their families, of people who said that when they left the church, they didn't know who or what to believe anymore.
The accounts left Debra shocked and sickened. She was worried that if she didn't get her son out soon, he might experience similar traumas. One Sunday, Donald skipped church to attend a Nuggets game with his grandfather. Looking back on that day, Debra says getting front-row tickets to the basketball game was a blessing: It was the night Donald was to have been baptized.
And it was also a blessing that her computer froze. If her computer had worked normally that day, she says, "I would have stopped at the ICOC Web site, because I had no problem with their beliefs. I know that God was working through my computer."
The International Churches of Christ have long had teen members, but leaders have been stepping up their efforts to target high-schoolers in the last year. John Lusk, an evangelist at the Denver International Church of Christ, recently posted a response to the Columbine High School shootings on the ICOC's Web site (www.icoc.org). In it, he mentioned that two young disciples at Columbine survived the rampage and that because of the tragedy, "we are all sobered and more urgent in our mission to save our city--especially on the high school campuses."
"They're trying to hitchhike on this tragedy, but it's not just about the Columbine shootings. They'll hitchhike on all kinds of societal things, whether it's teen pregnancy or school violence," says Hal Mansfield, director of the Religious Movements Resource Center, a partnership of the United Campus Ministry at Colorado State University and the Fort Collins Area Interfaith Council, which has been providing the public with information on cults and hate groups since 1981.
Mansfield says he's gotten more calls this year than ever before from people concerned about high school students involved in the ICOC. "Where I used to get one or two calls a year about high school involvement, I've gotten six calls in the last month. We network with [cult information] groups all over the country, and they've all gotten more calls about this high school stuff. That tells me there's a trend," Mansfield says. "Parents are seeing this group taking up all their kids' family time and extracurricular activities. This group is very much about milieu and information control. They'll tell kids, 'Satan's out there; you need to stay with us.'"
The ICOC's teen Web site (www.iccteens.com) announced that a youth minister in Los Angeles was appointed by Kip McKean last year to start a "Teen Revival" all over the world. Last week, Los Angeles hosted the first Youth Ministries Conference, where church leaders discussed "how to forcefully advance the Teen Ministries around the world!" The Web page also states that the goal of the Los Angeles teen ministry is "to get a teen disciple on EVERY high school in LA!"
Denver International Church of Christ administrator John Chisholm estimates that there are between 75 and 100 teens in Denver's 820-member congregation. The members in south and east Denver attend church services together, while members in north and west Denver meet together, as a way to diversify the congregations. "Part of the reason our teens are such a focus now is because a lot of our own children are growing up, so we want to make our teen ministry really awesome," says Chisholm, who has an eight-year-old and an eleven-year-old.
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."
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."
When Donald's friends noticed his absence at the next church gathering, several of them called, wondering why he wasn't there. But since March, Donald hasn't been bothered by DCOC members. He has no hard feelings; in fact, he says the experience strengthened his faith. "I am closer to God now than when this all started," says Donald, who has since joined the youth group at his parents' new church, nearby Lochwood Baptist.
And it taught the Salleys some lessons. "I'm more aware that you really need to keep an eye on your kids," says Debra. "If I could have gotten information about this group up front, I wouldn't have had to wait a couple of months to realize who they were. They figure that by the time parents find out who they are, they'll have already gotten their clutches in the child."
Steve says he feels naive, because it never occurred to him to distrust a Christian group. "Can you imagine twenty years ago telling your kid, 'No, you can't talk to that person--he goes to church'?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.