t what point does a church become a cult? Many of what are commonly called cults in today s world call themselves churches. For example, the followers of Sun Myung Moon, commonly called "Moonies", call themselves the Unification Church. Where is the line to be drawn that separates "legitimate" churches from destructive cults? Surely any church member, regardless of what anyone else may think or say, would draw the line somewhere beyond the boundaries of his own particular group. The Churches of Christ discipling movement, which began in Gainesville, Florida in the late 1960's and is now headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, illustrates how fine the line is between churches and cults, as well as the tendencies which push a religious organization over that line.
The Churches of Christ discipling movement (one of many "discipling", also called "shepherding", movements within the religious world of Christianity) began in the late 1960's in Gainesville, Florida as an "evangelistic" program of the Fourteenth Street Church of Christ on the University of Florida campus. The program was initiated and supervised by Chuck Lucas, first as the congregation's Campus Minister and, shortly thereafter, as its preacher. As a result of the rapid growth of the student membership, the congregation built a new building and became the Crossroads Church of Christ in 1973. From its inception the aim of the campus program was not only to recruit members from the University of Florida campus, but also to train Campus Ministers, who would reproduce the same program in other congregations and on other campuses throughout the United States.
The 1970's saw unprecedented numbers of students recruited from the University of Florida campus through the Crossroads program as well as an increasing number of Crossroads trainees duplicating (more or less) the same kind of results elsewhere. By the end of the decade Crossroads-trained Campus Ministers were sending out their own trainees to reproduce the program on other campuses in their own regions of the country. At the same time, congregations, within which Crossroads trainees and their trainees were working, were experiencing the effects that are inevitable when innovations are introduced into closed social systems. Churches of Christ congregations were, generally speaking, not prepared for the intensity of the pressure or the forcefulness of the demands that the campus programs generated. In addition, an increasing number of leading figures within the Churches of Christ institution as a whole were calling into question the Crossroads methodology and indicting the obvious tendency of the Crossroads program to wreak internal havoc on local congregations.
The 1980's saw a shift in focus, from the campuses of the U.S. to the major metropolitan areas of the world. Corresponding to this shift was the shift in the power structure of the movement from Gainesville, a small college town in north central Florida, to Boston, Massachusetts. A Crossroads-trained Campus Minister from the early 70's, Kip McKean, became the preacher for a small congregation in Boston in 1979. Under his supervision this church, renamed the Boston Church of Christ, surpassed all previous statistical measurements of church growth as far as the Churches of Christ institution was concerned, whether Crossroads related or not.
Because of the inability and unwillingness of traditional, or "main-line", Churches of Christ congregations to be remodeled according to the Crossroads image during the 70's, the Boston Church of Christ strategy changed to "planting" new churches. Church planting teams were (and continue to be) sent out from Boston to reproduce the supposedly "new and improved" Boston Church of Christ program in other major metropolitan areas. Virtually the entire leadership of the discipling movement, having radiated out from Crossroads to college campuses throughout the U.S. during the 70's, was recycled through Boston under the guiding hand of Kip McKean. The result was that, by the end of the 80's, the Boston Church of Christ and branch organizations in most major cities of the U.S. and on every continent of the world. The 1990's seem to bode further and broader expansion of the movement, which has severed its ties with the main-line Churches of Christ institution.
The Crossroads-dominated years of the 70's came to be viewed by the movement of the 80's as the misbegotten attempt of Chuck Lucas to reform the Churches of Christ. Rather than a true restoration of "New Testament discipleship" it was a reformation that did not go nearly far enough, hindered as it was by Churches of Christ traditions such as congregational autonomy and the rule of the Elders (as opposed to the rule of the Evangelist, which is the title of the ruler of the local Boston branch organizations). These traditions, having been rejected as unscriptural, have been replaced by the doctrine of one Brotherhood or Kingdom, which is identical to the movement itself, with one leader Kip McKean.
Kip McKean is understood and asserted to be the modern day parallel to the apostle Paul, who is viewed as having been God's primary instrument, and therefore as having had preeminent authority, in the first century. A parallel has been verbally drawn (by McKean) between Crossroads and the Jerusalem "Church" of the first century. Consequently, just as the focal point of "missions" in the first century shifted from Jerusalem to Antioch approximately twenty years after the Day of Pentecost (as indicated in the first fourteen chapters of Acts), so the leadership of "God's movement in the twentieth century" shifted from Crossroads to Boston, approximately twenty years after the movement began in Gainesville. This parallel (first verbalized publically by McKean in 1987) equates Boston with first century Antioch in the twentieth century plan of God and, obviously, places McKean in the position of the twentieth century Paul. This has had the effect of authorizing and validating his words and actions with a divine seal of approval in the eyes and ears of the movement.
The emergence of Kip McKean as the mouthpiece of God and leader of the Kingdom of God was made much smoother by the removal of Chuck Lucas from his position at Crossroads due to unspecified personal problems in 1985. McKean was clearly the most effective and productive of Lucas' Crossroads recruited and trained disciples, having taken the Boston Church of Christ and movement beyond anything Lucas anticipated. From a pragmatic standpoint, he had clearly earned the right to run the show. And based on the bottom-line validating criterion of the movement, that is to say, results, McKean had clearly shown himself to be God's chosen instrument.
The Churches of Christ discipling movement views itself as not only the ultimate restoration of "the New Testament Church" but, even further, as the extension and evolution of its first century counterpart. It has been raised up by God to complete the job that the first century movement began but left unfinished. As Kip McKean has said publically to congregations on the verge of reconstruction into the Boston Church of Christ image: "I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it" (Mt. 13:17). These words, of course, are the testimony of Jesus to his having come to fulfill the promises of God as foretold by the prophets. But McKean applies them to the movement over which he rules. It is not overstating the case to say (though it might be denied) that the movement sees its own significance as being on the same level as the coming of Christ !n the flesh, and as being more significant, by the sound of its message, than Christ's return.
The information presented in this article is based on my own "first hand" experience in and exposure to the Churches of Christ discipling movement. This extends from my baptism and training through the Crossroads program from 1972-75, through my reproduction of the Crossroads program as a Campus Minister in Montana from 1976-82, to my gradual disassociation from the Bostonized movement from 1983-87. I remain an interested observer of the movement, having gained valuable insights into myself and the Word of God through my struggle to gain freedom from its control. The next article in this two-part series will include some of my theological and practical observations and conclusions regarding the movement.