The Boston Church of Christ, home base for more than 3,000 worshipers, and New England’s fastest-growing congregation, is the focus of a controversy that reaches across the country.
Last year, the Christian Chronicle, a Churches of Christ newspaper published in Oklahoma, labeled the Boston congregation divisive, authoritarian, and “dangerous.” Detractors cite excessive demands on members’ time; isolation of church members from family and most outside friends; heavy pressure to succeed in evangelism; and a one-on-one discipleship program that one Churches of Christ periodical called “a glorified snitch system.”
Supporters point to the Boston congregation’s ethnic integration (77 nationalities are represented); to marriages saved and psychological crises ended; and above all, to the congregation’s commitment to evangelism. Commented church-growth specialist Donald McGavran of Fuller Theological Seminary: “All the branches of the universal church in America could look at this [congregation] and see what they can use.”
The rapid growth of the Boston Church of Christ began in 1979 when evangelist Kip McKean was hired by a suburban congregation with fewer than 100 members. By December 1980, Sunday attendance exceeded 250. Today, more than 3,300 people worship weekly at the Boston Garden, home to the Boston Bruins and Celtics. In addition, more than 1,300 were baptized in 1986 at churches planted by the Boston congregation on five continents since 1982.
The heart of the church’s outreach program is evangelistic Bible studies, more than 300 of which are hosted weekly within a 40-mile radius of Boston. McGavran cites those, as well as the use of house churches and rented worship space instead of a mortgaged building, as keys to the church’s growth.
Points Of Disagreement
The Boston Church of Christ is part of the nondenominational Churches of Christ, one of the groups produced by a nineteenth-century attempt to restore New Testament Christianity to the American church. The Boston church differs from most Churches of Christ congregations, however, in that it is part of a movement known as Multiplying Ministries, developed by Chuck Lucas at the Crossroads Church of Christ in Gainesville, Florida. Many of the more than 13,000 Churches of Christ outside that movement say the Boston church’s methods diverge from Churches of Christ traditions of freedom of conscience and congregational autonomy.
Other controversies focus on theology and methodology. Key among the theological objections is the Boston church’s claim to be virtually the only channel of salvation. While leaders acknowledge that some outside their congregation are saved, they believe baptism is necessary for salvation and teach a narrow definition of what constitutes valid baptism. As a result, the church rebaptizes even people who were baptized in other Churches of Christ.
The primary objection to methodology centers on the authority the congregation holds over its members and the guilt resulting from its heavy demands. Each member is assigned to a discipling partner with whom he or she is expected to have daily contact. Discipling partners provide advice on every aspect of a member’s life, from daily schedules to the duration of kisses on a date. College students are discouraged from going home for the summer unless there is a strong Churches of Christ congregation in that community. And former members report they were urged not to take even four-day trips away from Boston.
Living in “total commitment [to Christ means] you’re always babysitting for the [children of church] leaders, serving the brothers and sisters … pushing for people to go to church or to Bible talks or church functions,” said former member Karen Gray, a senior at Wellesley College. “And then you’re sinning because you didn’t get enough sleep. You’re always guilty.”
The Boston church’s ambitious world evangelization plan involves planting churches in key foreign cities, with daughter churches expected to plant other congregations. The influence of the Boston Church of Christ already extends to six continents.
Some have questioned whether the Boston church can maintain its momentum. The congregation’s dropout rate has risen dramatically as the number of baptisms has grown. The church claimed a 90 percent retention rate in 1980. But a review of its records from May 1980 to December 1986 shows that 32.5 percent of the members who have not moved away from the area have quit.
“When you get white hot, I don’t know where you go after that,” commented Robert Randolph, a member of the tiny Church of Christ in nearby Brookline, Massachusetts. “After a while, even the faithful begin to notice it’s hype.”
Responds evangelist McKean, of the Boston church: “If places are not growing, I’m 100 percent sure God is not with them.… This is the condemnation some churches feel. This church is growing; they’re not.”
In interviews, former members of the Boston Church of Christ gave a variety of reasons for leaving. “Most of the people who leave do so because they can’t take the pressure any more … and they’re so burned out they don’t want to have anything to do with any other group either,” said Philip Owen, an Indianapolis engineer who was recruited while a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
To join the Boston Church of Christ is to find “instant family, instant friends,” said Kecia Henderson, a member of the church for four years. But because church members are strongly encouraged to socialize only with other members and with evangelistic prospects, she said, leaving the church means facing the prospect of leaving your friends behind.
Moreover, because the church teaches that few, if any, outside its number are saved, people who leave the church often believe they have turned their backs on God, said former member Gary Idleburg. “A lot of people end up wallowing in debauchery because they never made the separation in their mind between the church and God.”
By Carlene B. Hill, in Boston.
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