The Jesus Pyramid

The International Churches of Christ builds a road to heaven through intense recruiting and tyrannical discipline.

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College agrees with Chris Hook, a Case Western sophomore with an earnest face and a feathery mop of brown hair. He's a conscientious student, double-majoring in political science and psychology. He's also a residence hall adviser and Spanish Club president.

On this afternoon, Hook is drinking coffee at the University Circle Arabica. A year and a half ago, he avoided the place. "It wasn't one of those things where I feared for my life, but I didn't come to Arabica, because I was afraid I'd run into him."

Hook speaks of his freshman year as if it were a distant memory, a page in a photo album. He grew up in Louisville and, encouraged by his parents, hoped to find a church in Cleveland. The first week of classes, while walking back to his dorm, he was stopped by an older student and asked if he wanted to join a Bible study. Feeling overwhelmed by the college experience, Hook welcomed the extension of a friendly, Christian hand.

He met the student, Michael Hake, a 1998 Case grad who had matriculated to the university's medical school, at Arabica. "The first couple of meetings, we didn't delve into anything that great," Hook says. He did find it strange that their studies consisted of Hake meeting him alone or with an Asian student who never said much. Hake also implored Hook to attend services with him at the Greater Cleveland Church of Christ.

After a few meetings, they dug deeper into the Scriptures. Hake found a passage in Matthew that talked about Christians' responsibility to carry the message to others. He told Hook he was a sinner if he wasn't vigorously spreading the Word, and that he should target four students for evangelism. If Hook questioned Hake about his interpretations, he was told he was wrong.

Hake assigned verses to read between meetings and called almost every night, often as late as 11:30.

"Did you read that passage yet?" Hake would ask.

"Not yet," Hook would answer. "I've been reading about molecular bonding."

Soon, he asked his roommate to say he wasn't home.

One Friday night, Hake called just as Hook was on his way out the door. Rushed, Hook didn't try to offer an excuse. "I told him it wasn't for me and that he didn't need to keep calling."

A child of the Southern Baptist church, Hook appreciates a strong faith, but he found Hake's insistence on the One True Way creepy. "I ask myself, 'How do you get like that?' It's not conservative. It's a tyrannical outlook on life."

Hake left him alone after that call. Hook has since seen him approach other students on campus and wonders, "Do I stop and say, 'This guy's psycho'?"

Though he calls his experience a "living hell," Hook might consider himself lucky next to those who have embraced -- and eventually fled -- the International Churches of Christ. Larry Pile, a counselor at Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, a Meigs County halfway house that helps those recently separated from supposedly destructive religious groups, says the church has driven some followers to attempt suicide.

"They really do feel like they're going to hell if they leave the church," Pile says. "They feel like they've committed the unpardonable sin."

The church's website reads like the prospectus of a Wall Street darling. Based in Southern California, the movement has grown from a living room to 400 churches worldwide. Thirty worshipers attended the first service in a Boston couple's home in 1979. Today, the church claims more than 125,000 members. Services have been held in venues as vast as Texas Stadium and the Rose Bowl, in lands as distant as Cairo and Moscow.

But behind the steeply sloping attendance graphs are accusations that the group manipulates followers. Critics who are loath to use the word "cult" describe the church as an "authoritarian sect," a "destructive religious group." On websites and in support groups, former members report being saturated with attention, isolated from friends and family, lectured on life decisions big and small, even malnourished and deprived of sleep until they submitted to the church's unbending demands for purity.

The International Churches of Christ is a "multiplying ministry." Converts seek out new converts who, in turn, seek out new converts. The process begins with an invitation to study the Bible. Former followers, however, say these studies better resemble legalistic scoldings, intended to convince nonmembers that they aren't real Christians and their souls are damned. Recruiting is so intense, says Ron Loomis, a former student activities director at Cornell who lectures on cults, that members have weekly and monthly quotas to meet. "Recruiting is absolutely the number-one priority for new members."

Loomis counts 36 colleges in the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom where the church has at one time or another been denied or stripped of recognition as a campus organization. The University of Cincinnati removed a church-affiliated ministry twice -- once in 1989 and again in 1998, when it reappeared under a different name. One student said church members knocked on her dorm-room door for several hours when her commitment wavered, according to UC spokesman Chris Hand.

"The problem is not so much their belief system as their behavior," says Reverend Chuck Graham, a Methodist minister from Canton and former director of Kent State's United Protestant Campus Ministries.

Church teachings are not the ravings of a mad prophet. Comparing modern Christian worship to the Titanic ("large, elegant, and sinking fast"), the movement preaches a return to the primitive, apostolic church. The call is centuries old, but critics say the movement crosses the line from preaching the Gospel to inflicting it.

"One of the major problems is that it's so close to a mainline Christian church," Pile says. Of the 500 people Wellspring has treated, Pile says almost 100 were involved with the International Churches of Christ -- "way more than any other group," including Scientology and Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.

The church is not oblivious to its detractors. Its standard defense is that the early Christians were also called fanatics. "The whole point of what we believe and teach is that, first of all, Jesus taught that disciples were to make disciples . . ." says Al Baird, a church spokesman and elder who lives in Los Angeles. "You can't make your people share their faith. You could make somebody do something for a little while, if that was your intent, but you can't control people."

As for those who leave feeling broken, the church appears to regard them as casualties of spiritual combat. Informed of Wellspring's figures, Baird says, "I'm not proud at all of 100, but on a scale of 120,000 members, that's a pretty insignificant number."

Eleven years ago, Molly Stevens of Canton attended Kenyon College on a full-ride scholarship. Her father, Bill, remembers her as a bubbly 21-year-old with dreams of a ballet career. The Stevenses were a tight family, "not the Cleavers, but damn close," Dad says. (At his request, the family's names have been changed.)

Molly spent her junior year studying in Stockholm. She wanted to attend an English-speaking church in Sweden and found the International Church of Christ. "She naively assumed this was an innocuous group," her father says. "They are super-friendly and avid, aggressive recruiters."

Bill was initially happy his daughter had found a church, but he began to notice a change in Molly during their trans-Atlantic calls. She was waking up at 3 a.m. to spend quiet time with God; she was directed to recruit three new members a week. After eight months, she informed her parents she was no longer interested in finishing school or pursuing ballet. She wanted to become a missionary.

On her return from Sweden, Molly was supposed to stay in Canton for a night. From there, it was on to a new church in Cincinnati. But Bill and his wife had taken out a second mortgage on their house and hired a deprogrammer.

The Stevenses barely recognized the daughter who got off the plane that night. A dance-trim 110 pounds when she left Ohio, Molly looked too fragile to stand. Her weight had dropped below 80 pounds. "They starved her ass down to nothing," Bill says. "They don't call it protein deprivation; they call it fasting."

Her deprogramming lasted four agonizing days. It was conducted in a safe house to ensure that church members couldn't snap her back into the fold. Bill listened to his daughter say he was an agent of the devil who wanted to kill her.

Finally, "I just saw the window shade go up in her eyes," Bill says.

Molly is now married and works as a dancer on the East Coast. Bill says she's "pretty much over it," though the family barely speaks of the experience, and Molly has yet to find solace in any church.

Eleven years ago, Bill, a Vietnam veteran, fought impulses to reach for his Marine rifle.

"It would have been justice," he says, "but it would have made martyrs of them."

Kip McKean dedicated his life to Jesus in 1972. As a student at the University of Florida, McKean discovered a campus ministry that placed fire in his soul.

Campus Advance was led by Chuck Lucas, a Church of Christ minister who promoted the concept of "shepherding," a sort of supervisory evangelicalism. Shepherding, or discipling, had two main features: "Soul talks" were opportunities for church members to invite nonmembers to join in Bible study; "prayer partners" involved mature Christians mentoring newer ones.

His approach proved a terrific success. So great was the enthusiasm, the church supporting Campus Advance trained 80 full-time ministers. But newspapers in Gainesville and St. Petersburg ran stories questioning whether it bullied its members. Lucas said the church's followers were committed, not pressured.

In 1976, McKean took the Campus Advance plan to Eastern Illinois University. Student participation swelled from 20 to 180, but it was not to last. A Houston church that funded the Illinois mission grew disturbed by the teachings of McKean and fellow pastor Roger Lamb. A church elder likened prayer partnering to "artificially supported Christianity" and noted Campus Advance's attitude of "smugness, intolerance, and eliteism [sic]." The financing stopped.

Unbowed, McKean turned to the struggling Lexington Church of Christ, outside Boston, in 1979. He rallied the congregation. To accommodate the growing crowds, the church moved services to the Boston Opera House and then Boston Garden, the fabled home of the Celtics and Bruins. While the church baptized thousands, McKean set his sights on the world at large. In 1982, the Boston Church of Christ -- renamed to reflect its stature as the area's authentic church -- set out to plant pillar churches in large cities around the world. Within five years, it was open for evangelism in Chicago, New York, London, Toronto, Johannesburg, Bombay, Paris, and Stockholm.

McKean preached a rigorous method of prayer partnering, and disciplers were chosen for new converts, who were expected to talk daily and meet weekly with their superior Christians. "To not have a discipleship partner is to be rebellious to God and to the leadership of this congregation," McKean said.

Citing the Great Commission of Matthew 28 ("Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations"), McKean believes Christians are play-acting if they are not saving lost souls. To cement the movement's hold on "true" Christianity, McKean found a vague passage in Acts to invalidate baptisms performed by other churches. By atomizing the New Testament into terse codes of law, the church finds justification for all its actions, a practice liberal scholars call "Scripture twisting." McKean's "Basic Studies for Making Disciples" is so clipped and relentlessly annotated, it looks like term-paper footnotes.

In 1985, the church asked Abilene Christian University researcher Flavil Yeakley to document its fantastic growth. Initially, Yeakley thought the cult accusations were the seeds of jealousy or a bias against religion. But after running psychological tests on more than 800 subjects, he found that, upon joining the church, members' personalities melded into a single type. Even the shy became little Jesuses: extroverted, sensing, feeling, judging. While he praised the church for its enthusiasm and avoided the term "cult," Yeakley called the discipling relationship "unhealthy," equating it to "a multi-level marketing system." Results "clearly indicate that something is causing their members to deny their true type and try to become copies of something else."

The movement denounced Yeakley's findings, but its own actions and words suggested Amway or cheesy science fiction. In a period called the Great Reconstruction, the movement formalized its hierarchy. Church autonomy was dissolved and replaced with "brotherhood and unity." To belong to the movement, satellite churches had to accept preachers trained by the home office. "World sector leaders" were appointed to administrate the evangelism. At the top of the pyramid, McKean called for obedience. "Even if the evangelist calls you to do something that disobeys your conscience," he said in 1987, "you still have an obligation to study it out and prayerfully change your opinion so you can be totally unified."

No thought or activity seems to be beyond the church's reach. Former members tell of days and nights filled with activities, from predawn meditations to evening services, Bible talks, home meetings, and social outings. Throughout the day, opportunities to share the Gospel are to be seized.

One woman was discouraged from her exercise regimen because it was too "self-focused." Another worshiper was rebuked for getting a haircut without consulting her discipler. A "zone leader" once preached that if a church leader said everyone should wear red shirts, everyone had better wear red shirts.

Matters of romance are also within the church's purview. Single members tell of needing permission to go on dates, of being given detailed instructions on kissing (once per date if going steady -- and no tongue), of being quizzed afterward about lustful thoughts. Disciplers have even instructed married couples about their sex lives.

If recruits dare challenge the church's authority, they might be told they've let the devil steal their thoughts.

Guilt is another motivator. To move from the "darkness to light," baptism candidates are expected to confess their sins to a discipler. After admitting her sins, a member of the San Francisco church was then handed a gruesome description of the crucifixion. "You killed Jesus, just like they did," her discipler said. "Just look at your many sins."

In 1989, McKean and his family moved to Los Angeles, where the movement became the International Churches of Christ. Befitting its global outlook, the church in 1994 announced plans to reach every country with a city of 100,000 by the year 2000.

Yet some followers were already resisting. A church in Seattle refused to be reconstructed by the Boston office. The first former members' group met in London in 1990. A mission team in Italy defected in 1993. A year later, the Indianapolis congregation was ousted when it voted 600-1 to question the church's centralized authority.

Religious studies scholar Russell R. Paden's thesis, written in 1994, traces the church's hardening self-aggrandizement. Paden quotes one missionary who claimed "nations stand in awe" of a movement "unparalleled since the dawn of Christendom."

"A certain level of spiritual arrogance exists among the membership," Paden wrote, "for they believe they are the only true Christians, the only ones serious about their devotion to God, and members of the only true movement of God."

Everything else is Christianity Lite.

University of Maryland professor Denny Gulick developed an amateur's interest in cultic groups after one moved into his neighborhood. Though he teaches calculus, he regularly breaks from the lesson to warn his students about the threats of destructive religious groups. He's afraid college administrators are too ignorant or too cowardly to face the challenge. "Most institutions deny cult activity," Gulick says. "It has nothing to do with reality."

Gulick says the International Churches of Christ has more than 100 Maryland students under its wing. The stories he's heard offend him as a teacher and a father. A student from Central America, whose parents were dead, told Gulick the church forbade him from sending money to his younger brother and sister. His siblings did not belong to the House of God and, therefore, were not as deserving of his money as the church was. Another student was threatened with eternal doom if she delayed her baptism. "If you're not baptized this Wednesday, and if you die before next Wednesday, you're going to hell," Gulick says the student was told.

Pile, the Wellspring counselor, says groups like the International Churches of Christ reach out to college students because they're idealistic, but not necessarily committed to a cause. "They're the most available labor pool."

Kim Hauenstein, the executive director of United Protestant Campus Ministries at Case Western and Cleveland State, says the movement usually approaches vulnerable freshman. "They focus on students who are alone. They rarely approach students who are in a group."

Take Matt Cramer, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering at Case. Cramer is a shambling six-foot-three, with dishwater-blond bangs falling into his eyes. Though he moves like a teenager adjusting to puberty, he has a droll sense of humor and speaks with an elegance unusual for a student of theorems and numbers.

The spring of his freshman year, Cramer held the door open for a young woman at a campus bookstore. As he walked away, the woman asked if he was looking for a church. He was. Cramer grew up a Baptist in Atlanta, but hadn't settled on a church in Cleveland.

Cramer agreed to go to the woman's church, which she described as "non-denominational." He found the service "enthusiastic, but not real deep." He shook a lot of hands and agreed to have a Bible study with one of the members.

His study partner arrived with two other men. One, it turns out, was Michael Hake. (Hake agreed to be interviewed for this story, but then canceled, complaining of a busy schedule.) The other man was the church's evangelist. They tried to convince Cramer to follow the Bible, speaking to him as if he had gone to church all those years with a cookbook under his arm. By the third meeting, the disciplers told him he wasn't a real Christian. When Cramer defended himself, they said he was arguing against God. "I was pretty much crying by the end of it."

One day he went with a group of churchgoers for coffee. Cramer was struck by how little they had to talk about, aside from church. The conversion fell to stale jokes, like the one about three strings walking into a bar. "I was the only one who would groan at them," Cramer remembers. "They were all laughing."

For the two months he attended services and Bible studies, Cramer was skeptical. A fellow prospect told him an unsettling story about being invited to a Super Bowl party, only to find the evening's emphasis was not on football but the feet of Jesus. At what would turn out to be Cramer's last service, the evangelist said that, if he told someone to move to another side of town or even another city, a moving van should show up in two weeks' time. Cramer wanted to vomit.

After talking it over with his roommate, Cramer decided to stop attending. His decision was reinforced by an Internet search, which unveiled scripts the movement uses to persuade recruits -- the same lines Cleveland followers used on him. But breaking free wasn't easy. Cramer had to hang up on one discipler three times before he stopped calling; he provided another with a three-page, typed summary of his misgivings.

Had Cramer not been so forceful, he might still be suffering the costs. At one of his lectures, Ron Loomis met a couple, both college students, who joined the church in Colorado. They maxed out their credit cards to meet the strict tithing demands (10 percent of gross income as well as the occasional "missions gift," which is several times the normal tithe) and moved to Laramie, Wyoming, to help start a church. Tired of being told how to run their relationship, they left the movement. Now stuck in Laramie, one of them attends school while the other works to pay the out-of-state tuition. "They're slamming those who can least afford to give," Loomis says.

Case Vice President of Student Affairs Glenn Nichols remembers two students who, upon joining, neglected their families and then dropped out. At Kent, the movement's activity seems to have peaked in the fall of 1997. "It felt like a bus landed in Kent, sought 15 people for recruitment, and then left us with these deadheads," says Della Marie Marshall, Kent's assistant director of Residence Services. Marshall says groups like Campus Crusade for Christ can be overly aggressive, but they are timid compared to the International Churches of Christ. "This group was like Planet of the Aliens."

Loomis says a church's recruiting efforts ebb and flow with the dynamism of its local evangelist. If the movement in this area isn't as boisterous as it has been in the past, it hasn't vanished, either. Within a week of speaking to Scene, both Cramer and Chris Hook said they were approached by church members.

REVEAL -- an acronym for "Research, Examine, Verify, Educate, Assist, Liberate" -- is a support group and information clearinghouse for those suspicious of the church. So many ex-members have written their stories for the site that they are indexed alphabetically.

Executive Director Michelle Campbell says there are now more former members of the church than current ones. "Before the Internet, the average turnaround [for members] was two and a half to three years," she says. "Now, it's about one and a half to two years."

Campbell joined the San Francisco Church of Christ in 1990, her junior year of college. She had heard the cult rumors, but found members friendly, their stories moving, and their praise for her spiritual growth intoxicating. She compares her first few months in the church to visiting a religious Disneyland. And she appreciated that church members weren't disenfranchised from pop culture. (The teen ministry, for example, is fashionably named "Xtreme.") "They're not within that Christian ghetto you see nowadays."

Not long after becoming a member, Campbell was made a Bible talk leader. It was a demanding responsibility. She turned down a job promotion because her discipler told her it would crowd out worship time. She flunked out of college. She dragged from the lack of rest. "A person is told they're weak for missing a Wednesday night meeting when they might have been visiting a sick friend in the hospital or studying for a midterm," she says.

Campbell found the way leaders talked about recruits especially troubling. Their intimate secrets and doubting hearts were openly discussed. Prospects were assigned "friends" and their contacts with church members were detailed on a "conversion calendar" that targeted a date for membership. "It's like a sales organization," Campbell says. "You're projecting your sales."

Campbell, now 33, left the church for good after five years. By the time she walked away, she had been accused of falling into Satan's hands and unjustly suspected of having a lesbian relationship with another member. She was officially "marked"; members were to shun her.

The cult accusations, she believes, have forced the church to soften its public face. But recently departed members tell REVEAL the same old stories. Groups accused of cultism "always claim they're changing, but they never do," Loomis says.

"Cult" conjures all sorts of wicked behavior, but critics don't portray Kip McKean as a rock-star psychopath, in the mold of a Jim Jones or a David Koresh. While there have been accusations of sexual misconduct by church leaders, it would seem impossible for any organization of its size not to house a few serpents. Campbell says evangelists who have "impurities in their marriages" are typically shuffled off to another congregation with little explanation.

Of greater mystery is what the church does with its money. Baird estimates the church's budget at between $20 million and $30 million. It claims its books are open for inspection, yet Campbell says leader salaries and housing allowances are not available. According to the research of former members, four top officials in Los Angeles live in homes valued between $380,000 and $445,000. In Chicago, an elder reportedly left after questioning whether the evangelist needed a $400,000 home in the posh suburb of Wilmette.

Yet Baird says the elder left for other reasons, and that the princely house has strategic value. "We're trying to establish footholds in upper-middle-class societies, so we can reach out to those communities." Moreover, the church can't help but pay top dollar in L.A., he asserts, because even homes in South Central don't sell for less than $250,000. (According to the California Association of Realtors, however, the median price of a home in the metropolitan area is $205,000.)

A running joke among ex-members, Campbell says, is the number of leaders who explain their fine homes and other trappings as gifts from wealthy relatives. McKean's two sons attend the private Brentwood School, and his daughter is a sophomore at Harvard who plays on the tennis team. Says Campbell of church leaders: "Do they lead extravagant lifestyles? Not compared to Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, but they live well."

At many churches, worshipers hunt for the least-occupied pews, spacing themselves apart with almost mathematical precision. A Greater Cleveland Church of Christ service, in contrast, is a crush of togetherness. The theater on Tri-C's metropolitan campus, where the church meets, is half-full, but the 175 or so in attendance crowd the first seven rows. A straggler takes a seat in the row behind them and soon he is joined by a young woman who shares her songbook during the hymns.

The two-hour service is a wonder of kinetics. The singing, led by an a cappella choir of five, is enthusiastic. The lessons are told in easy, conversational language. Without needing to be encouraged, the worshipers laugh, clap, stand, and trade energy with the speakers.

"Come on, Tom!" one man calls to evangelist Tom Caswell during the sermon, as if encouraging a batter from the dugout.

"Help us, bro!" yells another.

Seemingly every aspect of worship is described as phenomenal, incredible, awesome.

Today's lesson is: How far does God have to go to get your attention? Caswell hits the theme that everything happens for a reason. It's a sentiment popular in various religious walks, but his God is an especially powerful puppeteer. Evidently, He's convinced His flock to hit the turnpike. "He's moving people to Toledo, we know that," Caswell says to knowing cheers.

In an interview with Scene, Caswell confirms the movement is sending disciples to Toledo and hopes to open a church there by the end of the year. Caswell is a tall, trim 38-year-old who became an International Churches of Christ evangelist 10 years ago. As an architect living in Minneapolis, Caswell considered himself a Christian but not a student of the Scriptures. What he liked about the church was "how it was so straight from the Bible. I never had really understood or read the Bible much before this. And then, when I started reading the Bible and seeing how applicable it is to life, it was like 'Wow, this is cool.'"

Caswell interned as an evangelist in Chicago. He led congregations in Dayton and Columbus before coming to Cleveland two years ago. "I don't want to be the biggest church in the area," he says. "I don't want to build some big building. I just want to lead a church where it's a great Christian fellowship of people who want to become disciples, people who want to have a relationship with God."

Caswell mentions the work the church does, cleaning and maintaining area women's shelters. Sharon Martin, the development director of the Domestic Violence Center, says the church spruces up two of its shelters. "If they don't have a list of things to do, they look for things to do."

When asked to discuss the cult accusations, Caswell makes the comparison to the first-century church. "In terms of authoritarianism, we try not to do things other than what the Bible says and practice Christianity. It's definitely not our goal or our desire to do anything to hurt people. Obviously, our goal is to do the opposite -- to help people."

But have people been hurt?

"Oh, I think, probably, yeah. I think whenever people are interacting with one another, there's going to be feelings hurt, sure, or mistakes made, sure, things that people don't want to hear, or people have their feelings hurt over, or misunderstandings. I think that's probably common in anyplace where there's people working together or being together. I think a workplace would be the same way."

Matthew, a 29-year-old Cleveland member who asked that his last name not be used if this was going to be a "negative" article, found the movement five years ago in Minneapolis. The old Matthew was a drinker and chaser of women. "Now, I understand what sin is and how my actions can affect people." He met his wife through the church, and before marriage, the two never more than embraced and kissed on the cheek.

Matthew says there was a time in the church when "too much authority was being used." He himself was guilty. "Honestly, I did try to make people follow my example, and I've learned that's wrong." But when pressed with the tales of oppressed converts, members and leaders often lapse into a disassociating, passive voice. "Mistakes were made" or "faiths were destroyed" or "things happen." There's also a sense the church's "fallaways" were too weak or too sensitive to handle the truth. "I think that a lot of the people who leave the church and are unhappy, it's because they didn't really want the input to strive to become like Christ," Matthew says.

The movement is concerned about the large number of fallaways. Even the church admits that two out of three people eventually leave.

Al Baird wrote an article about authority that is posted on the church's website. He admits the movement's teachings in some areas were "off the mark," that disciples were made to do things rather than motivated by a love of God. Baird tells Scene the infamous red-shirt comment was "stupid." He also denounces Bible studies cloaked as parties as the product of "young, ambitious Christians" and says the church encourages its students to excel academically.

But the changes seem more a shift in style than substance. When, say, an evangelist tells a disciple to move, Baird's article asks the preacher to mind "the process of persuasion and motivation that leaves people confident and excited. The end result may be the same, but the heart is very different."

When asked why so many leave, Baird says there are as many reasons as there are people, but three that come to his mind show poorly on the fallaways: They joined for the wrong reasons; they carried in dangerous habits from the outside world; they fell back into an old relationship. As for the church's accountability, Baird concedes that family group leaders may have been too harsh or there were "relationship problems."

The church's opponents say it is incapable of change, because it dismisses most criticism as the whispers of Satan. Caswell and Matthew both referred to stories that quote ex-members as "persecution" articles.

"They don't really accept responsibility about things they have done in the past," Matt Cramer says. "Until they admit to what they've done, there's not going to be any real change."

Having met its goal of planting a church in every country with a population center of at least 100,000, the International Churches of Christ is looking for new cities to save, Baird says. It now hopes to have a church within an easy drive of every lost sheep.

Meantime, former recruits and members look for joy and peace elsewhere. Chris Hook, the Case student who shied from Arabica because he feared a brush with discipler Michael Hake, today finds fellowship with United Protestant Campus Ministries. "You can question your spirituality without feeling like a heretic," he says. "At the same time, it provides a good moral compass."

Matt Cramer is now a hardened foe of the movement. He's posted a mordant account of his experience on the web and once picketed a church gathering on campus, handing self-generated leaflets to the recruits. He, too, has found a place to worship, though "it was several months before I could set foot in a church without feeling nervous or scared."

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