Leaving the flock- deprogrammers, aftereffects and the BCC
By Seth Gordon
(Fourth in a four-part series)
Disciples of the Boston Church of Christ are proud of the many people who join; almost every church bulletin lists church attendance and the number of baptisms. But how many leave the BCC?
Gene Vinzant, a former research assistant at Abilene Christian University, helped Flavil Yeakley Jr., head of the ACU's Church Growth Institute, with his research on the BCC. According to Vinzant and Yeakley, around 1985, the church boasted that its attrition rate was only five percent. Vinzant compared the church's baptism statistics with its Wednesday night church attendance to deduce that their attrition rate was really 35 percent. (He used Wednesday attendance to measure active membership because many visitors and prospectives go to the Sunday services.)
Since the church "upped the commitment" three years ago, Yeakley notes, the BCC's attrition rose above the attrition rate of mainstream Churches of Christ. (The mainstream or "mainline" Churches of Christ are not affiliated with the BCC; about 50 "discipling ministries" are.) According to a 1987 article by Al Baird, the BCC's lead evangelist, the mainstream attrition rate is 50 percent.
The BCC's membership appar-
ently peaked six months ago. Since then, according to its own statistics, it has baptized 750 disciples and lost 1142. Overall, in the 10 years that it has used the "discipleship" philosophy, it has baptized about 7,200 people and lost about 3,800 -- 53 percent attrition.
Deprogrammers, exit counselors
How did these people leave the church? The best-known route is through "deprogrammers," who kidnap BCC members, lock them up for days or weeks, and argue them into repudiating the church.
A pioneer deprogrammer, Ted Patrick, explains: "Thinking to a cult member is just like being stabbed in the heart with a dagger. . . [To deprogram them,] you force them to think. The only thing I do is shoot them challenging questions. I hit them with things that they haven't been programmed to respond to."
The technique raises controversial questions about the limits of religious freedom. It doesn't always work. Even when it does, it traumatizes the person being deprogrammed. It is as expensive as a year or two at MIT.
Steven Hassan spent two and a half years in Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. He spent a year as a deprogrammer, but wanted to find a less coercive way to get people to leave cults. Several years later, he developed a new form of therapy, "exit counseling."
Leaders of the BCC claim that "exit counselor" is a euphemism for "deprogrammer." Hassan adamantly denies that he holds
anyone against their will. Furthermore, he says, the BCC's leaders have had his book, Combatting Cult Mind Control, for months; if they read the book, he said, they are lying about what he does.
Hassan warned that some Christians call themselves exit counselors, but are actually trying to convert people into their own sects. To avoid such people when seeking an exit counselor, Hassan advised, "call around, . . . ask for references, interview the person."
His "interventions" typically last three days, and cost $3,000 plus expenses. Hassan said he only started charging these rates about a year ago, and has done more interventions for free or at a discount than for the full cost. He pointed out that if he was in exit counseling for the money, he could command a much higher price, and would not write a book telling others how to be exit counselors.
How does exit counseling work? "First," Hassan wrote, "I demonstrate to [the cult member] that he is in a trap -- a situation where he is psychologically disabled and can't get out. Second, I show him that he didn't originally choose to enter a trap. Third, I point out that other people in other groups are in similar traps. Fourth, I tell him that it is possible to get out of the trap." The cooperation of the cult member's family, Hassan said, is crucial.
Hassan boasted that 46 BCC disciples have gone through his interventions, and only two have remained disciples of the church.
Many people choose to leave the church without any formal counseling. Hassan said he refers those people to FOCUS, a support group for ex-cultists, which meets every month in Boston
University's Marsh Chapel. In addition, several mainstream Churches of Christ have support groups for ex-BCC members.
BCC disciples firmly believe that to "fall away" from the church is to fall away from God.
Bruce Lower was a disciple for two years. He, his girlfriend Tara Santos, and several other ex-disciples now attend the Tyngsboro Church of Christ. Lower said that those who fall away are used by the BCC as examples of what happens to people who are unfaithful, "involved with sin," or not committed enough to church duties.
Ose Manheim speculated that if she left the BCC, "I would commit suicide. No. Not necessarily. I would have earlier." Manheim expects that "God would probably be on my case again, . . . it would get so painful apart from Him" that she would want to return to the church.
Peter Simon (not his real name) spent two years and eight months as a disciple. He claimed that one former BCC prospective "had three kids, one of which was not born of her husband. And she was taught that if she didn't get baptized, that child would become sick, be cursed, because of her not becoming Christian."
Lower said that just after he left the BCC, he kept thinking the Tyngsboro church was not right because they didn't do exactly what Boston did. According to Santos, some ex-disciples feel the same way: they aren't getting as much out of some lessons, and the preacher at Tyngsboro isn't as dynamic as the BCC's preachers. One of these ex-disciples, she says, feels that the BCC would have kept a tighter rein on her and kept her from falling into sin.
Simon had a harder time recovering from the BCC. For instance, he had trouble making decisions. "What should I eat, eggs or cereal? . . . If you eat eggs, [a disciple would think] it might make a difference to your spirituality." Hassan wrote that such trouble is common among people who have recently left cults.
Most psychologists misdiagnose ex-cultists, Simon warned, because they don't know about mind control. They may think an ex-cultist is schizophrenic. "Or they say it's your problem, start calling you a neurotic idiot."
Counselors disagree on ex-disciples' attitudes toward other religions. A colleague of Yeakley's estimated that three-quarters of those who left the BCC have no faith in God anymore. Hassan says most ex-disciples he has met left the church because of their faith in God. Simon observes that those who leave the BCC but remain Christians tend to be involved in missionary evangelism.
According to Yeakley, counselors in Boston who specialize in helping ex-cultists say they are seeing more defectors from the BCC than from all other alleged cults put together. The same is true, he wrote, for BCC affiliates in Toronto, New York City, Chicago, San Diego, and San Francisco.