Church's Practices Criticized -- Seattle Church Of Christ Too Controlling, Some Say
Music erupts from the Snoqualmie Room at the Seattle Center as the faithful who have gathered for Sunday church services join their voices in song and turn to embrace their fellow worshipers.
As Drew Nitchoff, the youthful-looking pastor, launches into a 45-minute sermon, members of the congregation interject, "Go, Drew, go! Come on, Drew, lay it out!"
At times, the service at the Seattle Church of Christ seems more a pep rally than a time for worship.
Many say joining the church is the best thing that has ever happened to their lives. They have made friends and met spouses there who share the same strong commitment to Jesus and to strict Biblical teachings.
But others say the outward show of love and hospitality covers another dimension of the church, one that is controlling and debilitating.
Of all the churches operating in the Seattle area, the Seattle Church of Christ may be one of the most beloved, most disliked and most controversial religious groups to have emerged in recent years.
For all the members who are committed to the church's teachings, there are others who have left the church in frustration and emotional exhaustion.
"I believe the people are good people caught up in a bad system," said Tim Holman, a University of Washington student who said he joined the church last fall, only to quit after a few months. "What they do is take people who are already Christians and make them doubt they are Christians and make them feel guilty that they have not done good enough for God."
The church also has a system of discipling in which newer members are assigned mentors who give them advice and listen to their confessions of sin, including those of a sexual nature.
The church demands an intense commitment that blurs the line between life inside and outside the church. For many, it's an obligation they are happy to accept.
"We thought we were Christians, but now we're learning actually how to be one," said Donna Callahan of Federal Way, who began attending the church three months ago after she was recruited by another church member while grocery shopping.
"There have been some turmoils and struggles along the way, but it's nothing I regret."
Margo Schindler, a Tacoma resident who has been going to the Seattle Church of Christ for three years, agrees: "I've gone to a lot of churches, but I've never seen any church as committed to living by the Bible as this one."
Critics say members are recruited by "love bombing," showering them with false affection and wrapping them in the cloak of the church community.
`FILLING A VOID'
"I think they are filling a void that a lot of mainline churches have avoided," said Flavil Yeakley, a professor of religion at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., and a critic of the Seattle church's parent, the Boston Church of Christ. But he said the Boston church and its affiliates go too far in controlling members' lives. "I think they are using people," Yeakley said. He said the control the church exerts in telling people how to live their lives is "dehumanizing."
1.3 MILLION MEMBERS
The Boston church, as well as outlets in Seattle, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other major U.S. and European cities, is an outgrowth of the independent Churches of Christ, which has 1.3 million members in 13,000 congregations across the country. It is not related to the United Church of Christ, whose individual congregations are sometimes known as Congregational churches.
The Boston church was started in 1979 by Kip McKean, a young evangelist who had been exposed to strict Biblical theology while a student at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
McKean launched his church in a Boston suburb, sending members across the country to recruit and preach the Gospel. The Seattle church was established in 1989.
Today the Boston church movement has approximately 45,000 members in 136 churches worldwide. The Seattle church counts 188 members, but draws 300 to 400 to its Sunday services.
It was while at the University of Florida that McKean learned the concept of "discipling," or assigning each member a personal confessor and adviser.
Seattle Church of Christ members said they are encouraged to talk daily with their disciplers. They say the disciplers, who are more experienced church members, help them make important life decisions, yet don't dictate the choices.
Critics, including several former church members, say the disciplers can control new members' lives to the point of approving and disapproving of friends or activities based on the church's view of Christianity.
Church leaders vigorously deny they control their members' lives.
"For me to say let's control these people, I have better things to do with my life than that," said Nitchoff, the 37-year-old Seattle pastor.
In Biblical discipleship you give up everything for God, Nitchoff tells his congregation. Heads nod in agreement. Inconsistent attendance at services and inadequate financial contributions are danger signs of weak discipleship, he admonishes. Again they nod. "If you fit this category, repent," Nitchoff booms. "Get back in there."
Rather than buying their own church building, which they expect they'd outgrow, they rent space at the Seattle Center.
Most of the faces in the congregation are young. Recruiting on college campuses has been one of the cornerstones of the movement. Nitchoff also is drawing in young families.
Some young church members left school or jobs earlier this year to work for the Church of Christ in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Some parents complained their children were following the church's wishes over the wishes of the parents.
LOCAL MINISTERS SPEAK OUT
Even ministers of local evangelical churches, who often criticize mainline Protestant and Catholic churches for not being true enough to the Bible, expressed concern over the Seattle Church of Christ.
"This group is real exclusivistic in their attitude, in that they are the church of Christ, which is kind of sad," said the Rev. Wayne Taylor, pastor of Calvary Fellowship in Seattle. "They feel they are the most spiritual, that no one else is following the Bible like they are, that even other evangelicals aren't Christian."
Nitchoff countered, "I have never stood in the pulpit and said we are the only church. That's ludicrous."
Critics single out the system of discipling as the most controversial dimension of the Boston Church of Christ movement. Yeakley said it constitutes almost a "pyramid" method of discipline, where each discipler has another above him, up to Kip McKean, the church founder.
But Laurie McGhee, a Des Moines resident and member for more than two years, sees no problem with the system. She serves as a discipler and said she has no problem bearing the weight of her "new baby Christians" on her shoulders.
"You don't disciple anyone until you're ready," she said. "I think, wow, God must really trust me."
For many of the members it's the sense of family that binds and energizes them. Even those who have left the church say they miss this closeness, this affinity.
Kirsten Benson, a UW student from Marysville, knew she wanted to get involved in a campus-area church. So when she was invited by Seattle Church of Christ recruiters on campus to attend a Bible study, she quickly agreed. "I had been praying about it," she said. "This was like a sign from God."
Soon the church absorbed her life. She said she was late for classes or missed them because she was reading the Bible and praying. But pressured by her parents and her own growing doubts, she dropped out.
It was the church's assertion that members of other faiths weren't true Christians that disturbed her.
"There are other people I know to be very religious and spiritual. There is no way I can say they are not Christians or saved," she said.
"But it still agonizes me about leaving, and not being a part of (the church) every day breaks my heart."
Published Correction Date: 07/13/93 - While Encouraging People To Follow The Bible, The Rev. Wayne Taylor, Pastor Of Calvary Fellowship In Seattle, Does Not Make It A Practice To Criticize Mainline Protestant And Catholic Churches For Not Being True Enough To The Bible. A Paragraph In This Story Incorrectly Characterized His Attitude Toward Mainline Denominations.
Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.