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BCC recruitment tactics subject of controversy

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analysis

By Seth Gordon

(First in a series)

Last summer, a number of MIT students patrolled the Infinite Corridor, offering a survey to all who passed. It asked, in part, "What would it take to get you to come to a practical Bible discussion?" It was sponsored by a new student activity, the MIT Christian Student Association, "largely consisting of MIT/ Wellesley students in the Boston Church of Christ."

The Boston Church of Christ is one of the most controversial religious groups in the Boston area. Its disciples say they are following only the Bible, devoting themselves completely to Jesus' will, and building the "Kingdom of God." Its critics say that the disciples pervert the Bible's word, using guilt and peer pressure to maintain a spiritual police state.

There are over 10,000 "Churches of Christ" scattered throughout the country; most of these are independent of the BCC, and some have even repudiated its principles. The BCC is also independent of the United Church of Christ-Congregationalist.

The BCC's disciples have been accused of not always being upfront about who they are and what they believe in. For instance, the CSA's self-description above is disingenuous. BCC disciple Bruce Lewis '90, who wrote that survey, concedes that everyone in the CSA is a disciple of the BCC, although followers of other religions are free to join.

In the past, disciples at MIT have been even less open. They have been asking me to go to Bible Talks since the spring of 1988, and gave me several flyers and brochures advertising the talks, but it was not until May 1989, when I went to my first BCC service, that they revealed the name of the church.

Robert Watts Thornburg, Dean of the Chapel at Boston University, complains that despite promises to the contrary, "they continue to recruit in this highly duplicitous manner, of `we are not a church, we're just a group of friendly students who want to talk about Christian life and the Bible.' "

Bible Talks

In "Bible Talks," the BCC introduces non-members to its doctrine. Byron Stewart '89, the BCC's "House Church Leader" at MIT, explained that the talks "make practical the spiritual things that are in the Bible."

Peter Simon (not his real name) was a BCC disciple for two years and eight months, and works with many ex-disciples. He said that he, and other disciples, sometimes made the Bible Talks seem more informal and spontaneous than they really were.

"Somebody will know that Pete is a philosophically minded kind of guy, and he's taking a year off from school, and he's got this girlfriend, so. . . How can we use the Scriptures to make him want to study with us more?" In the Bible Talk, Simon went on, the visitor would think: " `Wow. This is talking directly to me. I wonder if God's moving here in a powerful way. . . And it's obvious that I should continue studying with these people, because they seem to know something.' But the reality is, they set it up."

According to Simon, after he criticized the church on television, church leaders claimed that he was gay and his mother was a gay-rights activist, and that this was the reason he left. Simon denies both accusations.

Certain subjects are off-limits to the Bible Talk. For instance, the BCC holds that Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists, Pentecostalists, and most other Christians are not "real Christians." But Stewart would never lead a Bible Talk on this subject.

If a Catholic visitor was interested, "I would talk to the person about it himself, and if someone brought up a comment [in a Bible Talk], we would field that comment and then we'd move on, but our whole premise is not -- we're not going around trying to publicly malign other churches."

Zealous friends

Stereotypical "Bible thumpers," like the street preachers in Harvard Square, try to attract converts by making them fear eternal damnation. The BCC, however, prefers zealous friendliness to zealous fury.

Guilt goes hand-in-glove with the friendship. For instance, one Wellesley disciple told me that she prayed I would write a "slanderous" article about the BCC, feel guilty about "betraying" my friends in the church, and then join.

Thornburg said that prospective disciples are "recruited by common interests. . . I used to think this was the most diverse group I've ever run onto until I discovered. . . they just plain lie about these common interests [to make friends with prospectives]."

(As part of my research on the BCC, I attended some of their services and Bible studies. My first one-on-one Bible study was in June, with Vic Gobbell G. Gobbell said that he had written for his high school newspaper, and was interested in writing sports stories for The Tech. I suggested that he talk to the news or sports editors; he never did. On the morning of Sept. 10, I asked Gobbell why he had not; he said that he had been busy with his thesis, but might have time later in the fall term. He told me he would go to a Tech Open House that afternoon, but did not.)

After the first Bible Talk, the disciples will build friendships with the prospectives, and encourage them to spend more and more time with the BCC, both in religious and social events. Those who abandon the Bible study abandon most of their friendships in the church.

In the studies, disciples will reveal more and more of the church's doctrine; they will press the non-members to accept the doctrine, commit to more church activities, and share more of their personal lives. If they accept the doctrine, their next step is to repent all their past sins and be baptized into the BCC.

Many students have gone to a few talks, refused further study, and were ignored by the church for months or years afterward. Many others have complained of intense pressure to join the church. It appears that the more time a given non-member has spent with the BCC, the more negative his or her opinion of the church is.

The Palm Sunday Incident

"They would not let up," recalled Leah Bateman '90. "They continued with the lines of questioning, you know: Have you made a commitment? Do you want to be a Christian? Do you love God? Confess your sins. On and on and on." Bateman said the disciples made her feel "more and more uneasy. . . nervous. . . trapped," but because she didn't want to be rude to them, Bateman told them what she thought they wanted to hear.

Bateman cut off her relations with the BCC after Palm Sunday of 1989. A week before then, she told Sharon Belville '89, a disciple she studied with, that she would be going to the BCC's Palm Sunday services, and asked Belville to give her a wake-up call. Then, she changed her mind, without telling Belville.

Belville worked desk in Bateman's dorm at that time. On the morning of Palm Sunday, when Bateman would not answer Belville's calls, the disciple got Bateman's key from the desk area, came in, and woke her up. Bateman calls Belville's actions a "flagrant violation of desk ethics."

Belville later apologized. "I know that was wrong," she said. "I wanted her to be there, and she said she wanted to come. . . I just didn't know what to do at the time."

Let the seeker beware

The BCC's leaders, in interviews and sermons, agree that people who say "no" to disciples' invitations should be left alone. Yet Bruce Lower, who spent two years in the BCC as a teenager, said that his leaders privately told him, "Don't take `no' for an answer." Church leaders, at all levels, frequently rebuke their disciples for not trying hard enough to make converts.

Simon remains a conservative Christian; he likes to read the Bible and tell others about Jesus, and says that others shouldn't be afraid to do so. But he advises caution. If necessary, he insists, you have the right to be obnoxious to get disciples to stop bothering you.

Associate Dean Robert M. Randolph, head of MIT Student Assistance Services, said: "We will respond to any complaints that we receive. Few people complain about them."

Simon urges that people interested in the BCC investigate other churches at the same time, and find out what they say about each other. People exploring any religion, he said, should understand what cults are, and what groups are alleged to be cults.

Kip McKean was once the BCC's lead evangelist; now, he leads the international network of "discipling ministries," which includes the BCC. He calls anti-cult and anti-BCC literature "spiritual pornography." All disciples, he said, no matter how strong their faith, should avoid it. "The thing that's driving you there is curiosity. That is Satan. Get it out of the house!"