For two Sundays now, University of Oregon freshman Eileen Mengis has worshipped with other members of the International Church of Christ in a Eugene hotel conference room. On campus, in between classes and homework, she and other church members have asked other students if they can share their testimony of faith with them.
Disenchanted with past experiences in Catholic and Lutheran churches, Mengis said she’s grateful to have found a church she feels is true to its convictions. “They actually believe and follow what they’re preaching,” said Mengis, who found the church in Portland last year. “It’s more personal. It’s not a superficial kind of religion.”
But Mengis’ enthusiasm isn’t shared by Chad Reyes, one of three former Portland church members who visited the UO campus last week with fliers warning students of the church’s intentions to recruit locally.
Reyes and other critics across the country say the church is overly aggressive in its evangelizing, targets young people on college campuses, and publicly humiliates members who fail to recruit enough newcomers or tithe 10 percent of their income to the church.
More troubling, they say, is the church’s “discipler” system, in which each member is assigned a mentor who can dictate such life choices as where they live, who they live with and how often they can visit family members.
“They even said who you could or couldn’t date,” said Reyes, 32, an unemployed computer support technician in Tualatin. “You had to get permission: `Let my discipler talk to your discipler.’ “
Banned from several college campuses back East and in Canada, the church has lost thousands of members in recent years in the wake of controversy over financial abuses and authoritarian control. The church’s founder, Thomas “Kip” McKean, resigned in 2002.
But McKean is now senior minister at the Portland church – and a catalyst behind the move to reach out into Eugene. In a letter last November, he told parishioners that Eugene is home to the UO “as well as nine other colleges with a combined enrollment of 30,000 students.” (The Higher Education Directory lists four colleges in Eugene.)
At least 18 church members have moved to Eugene, from Portland, San Diego and elsewhere, to get the new church off the ground.
In a telephone interview, McKean acknowledged the past campus bans and said accusations of over-the-top proselytizing were justified in some but not all cases.
“Someone would say, `I’d rather not come to your church,’ and if we pressed it again, then we’re `harassing’ – that’s the buzzword,” he said. “I’m sure that happened.”
As for undue control over members, McKean said there’s some truth to the charge but that he and other church leaders have worked hard to correct any abuses. “There definitely was a problem, but absolutely we’ve addressed it,” he said.
McKean said the church is “very fundamental in our following of the Bible, so we have convictions that are narrower than some groups about what it means to be a Christian. We don’t apologize for our beliefs.”
McKean, 49, founded what was initially known as the Boston Church of Christ, or Boston Movement, in 1979. His church was affiliated with the Churches of Christ, a coalition of more than 15,000 autonomous, evangelical churches across the country.
The churches are often wrongly confused with the United Church of Christ, which comes from a different branch of Protestantism and holds different beliefs. A schism in the early 1990s led the Churches of Christ, meanwhile, to drop McKean’s “international” churches from its official directory.
The International Churches of Christ a year ago claimed more than 135,000 members worldwide, according to its Web site. The movement at one point had a goal of planting a church in every nation in the world with at least one city of 100,000 or more.
The church teaches that a person must be baptized as a disciple in order to be saved; that all members must engage in active proselytizing; and that all members should be assigned a “discipler” or mentor whom they are expected to trust and emulate.
At worship Sunday at the Red Lion Inn, Eugene mission team leader Jeremy Ciaramella touched on another tenet: a belief that the church is the “one true church” with salvation limited to its members.
“When you say, `There is one faith, one truth, one Lord, one God,’ people don’t like that,” said Ciaramella. “We change the world one person at a time, one life at a time.”
New to campus
UO administrators said they’ve not received any complaints about the church. But Charlie “Dusty” Miller, director of the Erb Memorial Union, said he’s read about the church in professional literature dealing with groups that view college campuses as “fertile recruiting grounds.”
As a public university, the UO can place “time-place-manner” restrictions on groups requesting a room or table, he said. But unless someone’s disruptive, people are by and large free to approach and interact with strangers on campus, he said.
Richard Beswick, director of the University Christian Fellowship, a student outreach affiliated with Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, said the international church has a reputation of siphoning students from other Christian student groups. He said he views the international church’s approach to discipleship – where “every major and moderate decision has to be screened” by a church superior – as unduly coercive and authoritarian.
“In that one area at least, they’ve gone over the line,” he said.
Mike Alverts, director of the Campus Crusade for Christ student group at the UO, said the International Churches of Christ had an active group at the University of Washington when he was a student there 10 years ago. Alverts said he felt the group was very harmful to a friend of his who “basically had to escape from the house he was living in” with other church members.
“I don’t have any huge doctrinal problems with them, but I do with the way they carry out control over people’s lives,” said Alverts, who is co-chairman of the Religious Directors Association at the UO. “If they were on campus (here), I would be concerned for students with what could happen.”
But Tom Moyers, pastor at Santa Clara Church of Christ in west Eugene, said he once attended an International Church of Christ in Chicago for two weeks to study their style of outreach – and liked what he saw.
“They were unashamed and unafraid and willing to speak out for Jesus – they were awesome,” he said. “They have to be careful with their discipling, that it doesn’t become too intense. They are very evangelistic, very aggressive. They really emphasize the Scripture of the word, and have a heart for people getting saved.”
Ex-members speak out
Reyes said he joined the church in Portland in 1992. He said he was pressured to recruit new members and tithe 10 percent, and that when he fell short he was told he was ” `in sin’ and not in relationship with God.”
Reyes said he was astonished to be told he should be able to walk away from issues of childhood abuse after being baptized, and that questioning his mentor was tantamount to questioning God. He said he in turn was assigned to mentor a drug addict whom he felt at a loss to counsel.
He said there are many young people “who will drop everything and go be a fry cook until they can be a disciple,” if that’s what they’re told to do. McKean, he said, “taps into that zeal … he loves campuses and young people.”
Joe and Belinda Beller of Portland have joined Reyes in his flier campaign. The couple, both former church members, married last year despite objections from church leaders. Joe Beller, a federal government worker, said he joined the church while going through a difficult divorce and was soon persuaded by leaders to move from Salem to Portland.
Elevated to a position of Bible talk leader, Beller, 38, said church higher-ups dissuaded him from getting involved with Belinda, whom they denigrated as “not really leadership material.” He said church leaders disregarded members’ complaints of depression or anxiety, reasoning that all troubles could be solved “with more faith.”
Belinda Beller, 28 and a full-time student, said she felt overwhelmed by the charge to recruit strangers, and was harangued for failing to do so. She said her experience has left her wounded and unable to trust. “I don’t want to attach myself to anything because I feel I’m going to be burned and taken advantage of,” she said.
Such complaints baffle Rich Hackett, a self-employed businessman who grew up in Elmira and has returned there from San Diego to help lead the Eugene church. In 13 years with the church, he said he has never encountered the kind of control or abuse issues reported by detractors.
“The discipling is there, but it’s more of a teaching, not a `do as I say,’ ” he said. “It’s one-on-one, not one over one.”
McKean said students and others in Eugene have nothing to fear and plenty to embrace.
“I know we don’t have perfect people in our church – I’m not perfect,” he said. “But does the church help people, really get into their lives and heal past hurts and disappointments and relationships? Yes. Do we really try to point people to God? One hundred percent.”
INTERNATIONAL CHURCHES OF CHRIST