Too ‘hot’ to handle: Kip McKean’s methods aside, former International Churches of Christ leader wants to reunite the faith’s worshipers
Kip McKean wants his community of evangelical churches to be “hot.”
Hot as in the kind of fiery loyalty he inspired before his church drove him away.
“What is needed, particularly in the United States, is for the leaders of the ‘hot churches’ and those who desire to be ‘hot’ to allow God to bring us together again,” the former leader of the International Churches of Christ wrote to members of his Portland congregation last month.
Those opening words only hint at the turmoil that caused a schism in the Los Angeles-based movement that once numbered more than 138,000 people. Before allegations of cultish manipulation and heavy-handedness forced his resignation in 2002, McKean was the charismatic leader of nearly 280 churches that had earned a national reputation for their aggressive recruiting practices.
Central to that discontent was McKean’s emphasis on “discipling.” New recruits had to submit to the whims of church leaders, who eventually reported to McKean – a top-down structure that lead to the group’s downfall.
Since then, the churches that were once members of the international group – which at its peak boasted of a presence in 110 countries – have wrestled with questions of belonging and leadership. Among them are nearly 80 members of the Salt Lake Christian Church in Salt Lake City, which broke away from McKean’s denomination.
But the zealous evangelist, now living in Portland, wants to win them back.
McKean repeatedly has called for the faithful to humbly beg forgiveness from church leaders while rededicating themselves to what’s left of his organization, emphasizing the need for ” ‘structure’ to implement Bible principles.”
Now a sliver of his Utah church is listening.
On Sunday, McKean and a 10-member mission team from Portland will meet with about 25 members of the Salt Lake City church in North Salt Lake to sow the seeds for a ” ‘restoration’ to energize God’s people to preach the true gospel in the capital of the Mormon world.”
If successful, the Utah church could serve as a model for McKean’s churches in other states. It’s an exciting prospect for Joshua Byrd, one of the 25 members leading the church’s reunification. But even he is cautious.
The Utah congregation made its break in 2003, and Byrd’s memories of that time still sting.
Steve and Julia Roland, then the Utah leaders, had written a letter to their congregants, questioning McKean’s authority and criticizing his “arrogance and pride” on “issues of discipling.”
They weren’t the first. McKean’s tactics had appalled believers throughout the country.
According to The Religious Movements Project at the University of Virginia, McKean required each new convert to be assigned a “discipler,” whose job it was to “teach scripture according to ICC interpretation and to ensure that new members make everyday decisions which reflect ICC standards and values.”
In practice, that meant a discipler could dictate life choices such as whom to date or marry, or how often to visit family members.
“People kind of get their lives, in a sense, controlled. They get told what to do,” said Thomas Rasmussen, a former San Diegan church leader who moved to Salt Lake with his wife.
Sometimes, the dictates involved money, even “cleaning out bank accounts,” Rasmussen said.
In parts of the coastal United States, McKean’s congregation was called a “cult” and banned from college campuses, where the charismatic evangelicals were attracting vast numbers of young people drawn to their spirited ways. At one time, American University, Boston College, Smith College and the University of Southern California reportedly had banned such fraternization with students.
But for every convert, four or five people leave the faith, Rasmussen said. “It’s interesting because they have the push to baptize, baptize, baptize. But they’re not very good at maturing and nurturing people once they’re in.”
Byrd agrees, but he says McKean and his church have changed. Sure, discipling still is an integral part of dogma, but there is greater autonomy among member churches and more free will than coercion.
He saw the changes first-hand during a visit to the Portland church earlier this year.
“I really liked what I saw there,” Byrd said. “People were excited about their relationship with God. . . . There is still that call for a higher standard, yet talking to normal members, you didn’t get the sense that they were telling you what to do.”
Still, he hedges on the question of a “hot church” in Salt Lake City. He wants no return to the old ways, but acknowledges that “mistakes are going to occur. We’re always going to have to re-evaluate our situation.”