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Xenos critics say church is controlling

By Danae King

The Columbus Dispatch

Posted Nov 26, 2018 at 5:54 AM Updated Nov 26, 2018 at 7:32 AM

As Kelly McKenna fought, and failed, to feel Christ’s presence in her life and bring others to her church, she turned to the only aspect of her life that she felt she could control: her weight.

McKenna said she developed anorexia and bulimia in her early 20s in response to the controlling efforts and constant criticism from peers and leaders at Xenos Christian Fellowship.

“I was doing the same thing everybody else was .... (yet) I was blamed for letting Satan into my life and not praying well enough,” said McKenna, who is now 32 and lives on the West Side. “That wreaked havoc on my mental state and forced me to try to control things in other ways — through eating disorders and cutting.”

For years, some ex-congregants such as McKenna have raised concerns about the Columbus-based church’s power and what they say is its destructive influence over members.

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Ten former Xenos members and three of their relatives shared their disenchantment with the church with The Dispatch. They accuse the non-denominational evangelical church of spiritual abuse, isolation, control and manipulation.

The former members who talked with The Dispatch said they joined Xenos because of the acceptance and fun they had in the beginning of their involvement with it. But over time, some said they were overcome by strict biblical mandates, stressful time commitments and friendships that seemed to be based only on their membership in the group — not on who they are.

“It totally sucks you away from all other aspects of your life,” McKenna said. “It doesn’t allow you to enjoy your life.”

Leaders of Xenos, which has about 6,000 members in Columbus, reject claims that it attempts to control or pressure its members.

“We’re the furthest thing from that,” said Conrad Hilario, a teaching pastor at Xenos. “It’s due to people’s misunderstandings.”

Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Connecticut’s Hartford Seminary, said Xenos appears to be a “strict sect group” or a small, breakaway group from a larger tradition — in this case, the evangelical Christian movement.

Strict sect groups “often have high boundaries from the outside world, require more obedience from members and hold distinctive beliefs,” Thumma said.

***

Xenos was founded in the 1970s by two Ohio State University students, Dennis McCallum and Gary DeLashmutt, who remain leaders today. The two started the church in their campus house after they began to feel called to teach others about the Bible, said Keegan Hale, the pastoral support division coordinator for Xenos. Today, the church remains focused in Columbus, he said.

It has grown and now is made up largely of unmarried adults who are college age or older, Hale said. He credited its growth, which surged in the 1980s and 1990s and again this past decade, to large influxes of high school and college students.

The church is modeled on the book of Acts, which states that Jesus’ apostles met daily in their homes, which is largely where Xenos operates, Hilario said. High school students and adults meet in neighborhood homes, and college students and other unmarried young adults meet and live in “ministry houses” that they’re encouraged to rent in groups near the Ohio State campus. Once there, they have to abide by a set of guidelines spelled out in a ministry house agreement available on Xenos’ website.

The church’s principles are based on a “common-sense” reading of the Bible, with a focus on certain “one another” passages that speak to relationships and community, Hilario said. For example, some of the verses say to “be devoted to one another” (Romans 12:10), “serve one another” (Galatians 5:13) and “carry one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), he said.

“These commands kind of form a basis for the level of community we’re trying to call people to,” Hilario said.

Luke Gourley, 31, of Clintonville, is a member and was introduced to Xenos by his now wife. At first, he was skeptical, but what really drew him in were the clear biblical messages and the genuineness of the other members, he said.

People were “pretty vulnerable and open about their own lives, which was pretty atypical,” said Gourley, who joined Xenos in 2013. “People at other churches were more putting on a front.”

***
The church bucks the notion of “Sunday-only” services, Hale said.

Members are encouraged each week to attend a large group teaching (central teaching); a Bible study of about 60 people (home church meeting); a smaller same-sex Bible study (cell group meeting); and a meeting with a spiritual mentor called a “discipler,” he said.

The number and intensity of the meetings can be beyond overwhelming, the former members told The Dispatch.

Though meetings aren’t required, if members live in a ministry house, the church makes it clear that attending them is important because of biblical examples, Hale said.

In addition to meetings, Xenos’ website and study center, at its headquarters on the Northeast Side, promote books written by elders, which former members say they were encouraged to read with their disciplers.

To move up in the church, members must attend more than 200 hours of leadership training classes, which include graded exams and homework and cost between $25 and $75, Hale said.

McKenna lived in ministry houses from 2005-09 and missed several family reunions and other events because of her involvement with Xenos, said Barbara Moum, Kelly’s mother. Even when McKenna was with relatives, she talked only about Xenos and spent a lot of time trying to persuade them to join the church, Moum said.

When her sister tried to persuade her to leave the group, Kelly McKenna said she thought it was a test of her commitment to God. She said the church characterizes those not involved in Xenos as non-believers who harm members’ journeys with God.

Xenos’ encouragement to live in ministry houses and attend several meetings a week “creates more of a potential for controlling the environment,” said Steven Hassan, a mind-control expert and mental-health professional in Massachusetts.

Jake Leppert, 25, and a member, doesn’t see it that way.

“I think there are a lot of meetings,” said Leppert, who lives in one of Xenos’ ministry houses near Ohio State’s campus. “I go to them because I want to. People have a choice to go to them or not.”

Leppert said he’s read posts online about bad experiences with the church and wants to hear both sides.

“Some things people said happened don’t sound good ... if these things are true, I’d like them out of our church,” he said.

In addition to grueling meeting schedules, some former members complained about the church’s use of what it calls “accountability software” to monitor their internet usage.

“It’s insane; you’re an adult,” Alex Craig, 20, of the University District, said of the software program.

She said it has been used to monitor or block sites that aren’t Christian or are critical of the church.

Hale said the software program is optional and only used to make sure that those living in the ministry houses aren’t looking at pornography. It can be used to block certain sites, he acknowledged, but said those features have to be turned on by the person with the device.

“The goal of behavior control is dependence and obedience,” said Hassan, who was a college junior in the mid-1970s when he was recruited into the Unification Church, the so-called Moonies.

“You want access to followers ... you don’t want them exposed to things you can’t control,” he said. “You want to keep them very busy with your own projects.”

Delia Grantham, 18, of Bexley, was a member of Xenos for two years during high school.

She left the church because she said leaders of her high school group told the then-16-year-old that she couldn’t be with her Jewish boyfriend forever: He was going to hell and she was going to heaven. Her salvation also was questioned, she said, when she admitted she’d been depressed after a friend, a fellow Xenos member, died by suicide.

“They were telling me even the thought of wanting to kill yourself is this big sin and you can’t go to heaven now,” she said, speaking of her own dark thoughts.

Some of Xenos’ practices and theological beliefs are not uncommon among some conservative Christian churches, said Thumma, of the Hartford Institute. But it seems to lean toward the extreme.

“Generally, the Christian God is about grace and forgiveness, and anyone that stresses otherwise is using their interpretation to try to control and manipulate other people,” he said.

***

Some former members say they were slowly isolated and became estranged from their friends and relatives who weren’t involved or didn’t support their involvement in the church.

Tricia Jones, 40, of Worthington, was involved from 1993 to ’98, and she said she was persuaded by her Xenos peers to cut off all of the people in her life who were “not really Christians,” including her parents.

Jones’ father thought the distance he felt growing between him and his then-teenage daughter was normal. Now, he said, he realizes how different she became under the church’s influence.

“She was not as independent and not as self-confident as she used to be,” said John Jones, of Worthington. “Her self-image seemed to change.”

When she was excommunicated after five years in the church, Tricia Jones said that all of the people she considered her close friends stopped talking to her.

“I thought I was in an environment where people were practicing the love of God, which I was taught was unconditional but, in fact, it’s completely conditional,” she said.

Hale said Xenos encourages people to spend time with their family, and that it excommunicates people, but only rarely and after several hearings and approval from leaders.

“What happens more often than not is ... someone doesn’t want to follow God,” Hale said. ***
Criticism of Xenos has been going on for years.

In 2009, a woman from the northeastern Ohio city of Stow stood outside a Bible study at a Kent church and told passersby that Xenos had brainwashed her son and taken him from her. She also started an online blog and took allegations to various city, county, police and school officials.

There are online forums, one dating back to 2012, criticizing Xenos.

The amount of online criticism of Xenos is significant, said Rick Alan Ross, executive director of the Cult Education Institute in New Jersey.

“When you have a lot of former members who say the same kind of thing about why they left and what was wrong ... you have to say, ‘Hmmm, what’s going on here?’” Ross said, adding that many older, larger movements have not received the same kind of negative attention.

Xenos hasn’t changed its policies or practices due to online complaints, Hilario said. However, it is willing and would even like to investigate allegations if people reach out to the church, he said.

“We’re very dedicated to keeping people accountable,” Hale said.

Former member Emily Fravel, 41, of Linden, was in the group from 2001 to ’09, and she said she was cut off from Xenos after her departure. As a member, she said she had been told not to talk to people who left — or believe anything they said — because they were bitter, angry and never really committed to God.

This kind of behavior implies that Xenos believes there’s no legitimate reason to leave the church, which is concerning and “not typical of Protestant churches,” Ross said.

Ross has received complaints about the level of commitment “demanded by the group and its leadership.” He said people describe it as a “rigid, intolerant-of-criticism, top-down organization where people felt like they had no voice.”

Scared to leave the group, McKenna said she snuck out at night during a meeting to avoid other members trying to persuade her to stay.

She left a note for her roommates saying she wasn’t happy and needed to leave, and she never went back. Now, she realizes she never felt a connection to God like she thought she did, like members made her believe she should.

“I’d been convincing myself for years and lying to people and lying to myself, and I just reached a point where I couldn’t do it anymore,” she said.

dking@dispatch.com

@DanaeKing

https://www.dispatch.com/news/20181126/xenos-critics-say-church-is-controlling

 

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A Response to the Dispatch Article

On Monday, November 26 the Dispatch ran a front-page article about our church. The article reported testimonials from several former members who were very critical of their experiences in Xenos. It also quoted three cult or church experts about their view of Xenos.

There was a consistent theme that people have been hurt by our church in some way and we are grieved that these individuals are suffering. Finding a church that best fits you or serves your needs is very difficult but worth the effort in the end.

We wish to be very clear. We do not want our members to withdraw from family as implied in the article —in fact, exactly the opposite. We do offer times of fellowship throughout the week and teach people to dedicate time to growing their relationship with God, deepening their friendships and helping others in need. Everything is voluntary at Xenos. People come and go as they please. As a community, it is true that we are not interested in low- commitment versions of Christianity. Xenos is for people who really want to make friends and learn how to grow spiritually together while serving God.

We take very seriously the mental health struggles that many in our society face and often refer members to seek outside counseling and intervention with a medical professional if they feel they have a mental health issue that needs addressed. If Xenos is not a church for you, we understand and hope that you would find another church where you can grow with God and find a deep sense of peace and happiness.

Regarding the Dispatch article itself, we were also surprised to see how the experts represented our church. Consequently, we contacted these experts. Dr. Scott Thumma responded and said: “I would never disparage a church unless I had direct knowledge of the dynamic. I did not reference your church in any of my comments to

 

[The Dispatch reporter]; she used my words to make the reference to your church.”
Other scholars, who have spoken at our annual Xenos Summer Institute o
ffer the following comments:

Renowned African-American church scholar, Dr. John M. Perkins (who actually has studied Xenos) says, “As one who has visited Xenos a number of times, I know they actually practice the principles in Acts. As an outsider, I see Xenos as biblically and theologically correct, and they have struggled to live that out.”
Internationally renowned scholar, John Lennox said of Xenos, “I was most impressed by the passion for Scripture that I saw among the young people that attended Xenos.”
Best selling author and scholar, William Lane Craig says, “Xenos is a highly unusual megachurch... People were so enthusiastic, and it was a privilege to be involved in their training.”

In our correspondence with the Dispatch, we suggested interviewing area pastors for a more neutral view of Xenos. A senior pastor of a large area church was interviewed and sent Xenos leaders the positive observations he had shared with the Dispatch. None of his comments appeared in the Dispatch nor the several hundred positive stories that our members shared with the Dispatch before the article went to print.

The article said nothing about the extensive and highly respected work Xenos does with the poor and disadvantaged in our community or our award-winning inner city Harambee school.

Assessing the quality of any large church is a serious undertaking, normally requiring collection of information from many sources, including outside professionals who know the group. This article did not seem to do that serious data collection.

In closing, we wish to express sincerely that we want all people to know and grow in Christ. We see this as the most fulfilling way of life. We also want to express how thankful we are for all the people who have come through our doors. We view each and every person as important and we pray they see their value in Christ.

 

https://www.xenos.org/about-xenos/response-dispatch-article

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Ministry House Agreement

One great way to grow in the Lord is to live together in fellowship with other believers. In biblical times, living in community with other Christians was the norm, not the exception. This would normally occur either in one's own Christian family or in the extended family of their parents. Christ apparently lived with his disciples, as did Paul with apostolic bands with whom he traveled. Living alone in an apartment is a modern phenomenon.

Xenos encourages people to live in community, and many singles in the church have decided to do so by renting houses together. These houses are called ministry houses. Ministry houses are not the only way to live in fellowship, but they are a very good way for singles to enjoy the benefits of Christian community. In a ministry house, singles can develop a spiritual base that will last a lifetime, while serving the local church.

For these reasons, members need to understand that ministry houses are not rooming houses because ministry houses have added expectations. A ministry house is more like a sports team. If you were recruited to a sports team, it would be because of the contribution you could make to the team. By moving into the house, you agree to these extra expectations and willingly try to comply, or, if you change your mind, agree to move out. Be sure to read this paper carefully, so you understand what a ministry house is. This list of policies should enable believers to live together fruitfully, supporting one another while respecting each other's rights.

The Purpose of a Ministry House
A ministry house is a house of discipleship. It seeks to promote discipleship

through learning and sharing a lifestyle committed and obedient to Christ.

House members will generally have the opportunity to meet with an older believer for personal discipleship, or mentoring.
We practice hospitality to those within and outside the church. Hospitality can cause extra work and interfere at times with personal privacy (Heb. 13:2; I Pet. 4:9).

We try to share Christian love with each other and friends outside the house (Jn. 13:34; I Thess. 3:12; I Jn. 4:8).
We learn to give sacrificially and unselfishly to the Home Church and to others (I Jn. 4:16).
We try to provide an environment with some of the emotional support found in a family unit while learning how to grow and mature emotionally and spiritually without undue dependence on other people (Rom. 12:5).

Ministry houses are expected to avoid illegal, dangerous, or unedifying behaviors.

To develop mature relationships with other Christians and non-Christians (Gal. 6:10).

Making and maintaining friendships with non Christians implies learning to share God's love with those who don't know him (II Cor. 5:11; I Cor. 11:1; Mt. 5:13ff; love having its effect Jn. 13:35). Friendships with fellow Christians involve time spent socially, as well as regular involvement in fellowship meetings (Eph. 4:15, 29; I Pet. 3:8,9).

Areas of Commitment
House members should plan on regular involvement in:

Ministry: Learning to serve others in the body of Christ by developing relationships and learning how to build up other believers.
Spiritual growth: Learning and experience that help us gain relative victory over our sin areas while enhancing our relationship with God and others.

Emotional maturity: Engaging in learning and interactions that tend to enhance character traits advanced in Scripture as typical of mature Christians (Gal. 5:22,23).

Specifically, we expect members to:

Participate in the house meeting once a week.
Regularly attend the appropriate home church, Central Teaching and discipleship group as a

regular diet of Body Life (Heb. 10:24,25 and Acts 2:42).

Live responsibly in terms of performing your house job according to the schedule (Eph. 4:3ff; I Jn. 3:18). Members should also have a job or go to school regularly (2 Thess. 3:11,12). Laying around watching movies and playing video games is not an adequately healthy life for ministry houses. This also includes a commitment to taking any medications prescribed by your doctor. Pay your agreed upon rent, utilities and additional expenses on time (I Thess. 3:11,12).

Accept and initiate loving involvement with other roommates. Ministry houses are not for private living away from others. These houses are intended to promote interpersonal involvement. This includes timely and godly resolution of conflicts with other members or leaders. Home church leaders or college ministry leaders will help, if necessary with conflict resolution.

Be diligent to find and practice appropriate ministry roles in the local church. (I Cor. 12). Your house leadership and home church leadership will help you with advice and training, but you must exert initiative in finding ways to serve God.
Practice hospitality as part of a team, when the house hosts events. This implies sharing in the work to set up and clean up, buying food, welcoming guests, etc.

Respect the rights of others, allowing them to sleep and study, not using others' personal belongings without permission, and helping to keep shared open areas free of personal clutter, out of consideration for other roommates and visitors.
Members should avoid o
ffensive social practices that would negatively impact fellow members or guests. Out of control temper tantrums, drug abuse, drunkenness, and viewing pornography are examples of unacceptable behavior.
Roommates should avoid both the appearance of evil and becoming a bad example by inappropriate behavior with dates. This includes staying out all night with dates and entertaining dates in your bedroom. Dates are welcome in the common areas.
Members of the house should strive to show respect and care for surrounding neighbors. Each member should do his or her part to make the ministry house a blessing and a help to nearby residents.
Members must agree in advance to move out of the house if the house leadership, in consultation with the college ministry leadership, judges them to be in violation of house rules. Respect and cooperate with house leadership.
No rules will be added to this agreement without approval of the college ministry leadership, and the full knowledge and prior agreement of a majority of the existing membership of the house.

Special House Rules:

Some houses have decided to add special rules not mentioned above. All special rules must be approved in advance by the director of college ministry.

House Name ____________________________________________________________ Address ________________________________________________________________ Special Rules:

Although Xenos Christian Fellowship leaders assist and advise house leaders, the houses are not Xenos property, and house leaders and members are not under the control of Xenos Fellowship. Ministry house leaders are not employees of Xenos and such leadership is not an official office in the church. Therefore, Xenos cannot accept liability for accidents or errors in judgment on the part of ministry house leaders or members. Xenos also receives no fees or income from ministry houses.

We cannot guarantee a specific level of quality in training or living conditions. Living in a ministry house is similar to living in any other campus boarding house--the landlord normally carries liability insurance.

If, at any time, you become aware of a problem in your house that you believe will not be addressed adequately by your house or home church leadership, feel free to bring your complaint to the Xenos College Ministry director at 614-823-6500, and we will help you arrive at a Christ-centered resolution.

https://www.xenos.org/college/ministry-house-agreement

 

 

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