In his new book "Recovering from Churches That Abuse," sociologist Ronald Enroth devotes little more than 25 pages to Jesus People U.S.A. (JPUSA), an Evangelical Covenant Church and intentional community based in the tough Uptown neighborhood of Chicago.
But for a year, Enroth, JPUSA officials, top leaders of the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination, and mutual friends in evangelical countercult ministries have churned out many more pages of furious correspondence as JPUSA has worked to clear its name before publication of the book. Based on 70 hours of interviews with more than 40 former members of JPUSA, Enroth maintains that the community is authoritarian and ostracizes its departing members.
In his book, Enroth praises JPUSA's "wonderful ministry to the margins of society in the inner city of Chicago." He also says JPUSA "has had a positive impact on the Christian world through Cornerstone magazine and REZ band."
"Ironically, though, many of its own members have been marginalized in the interests of 'the ministry' and 'the community,'" Enroth writes. "I have done my homework and am willing to stake my reputation on it," Enroth has assured board members of Evangelical Ministries to New Religions (EMNR), an umbrella organization.
JPUSA has held Enroth to those words, vigorously questioning his reputation and his methodology in a 96-page issue of Cornerstone issued before the book's release.
That issue of Cornerstone has divided EMNR board members, which includes JPUSA member Eric Pement, Elliot Miller of Christian Research Institute, and three other leaders in the countercult movement: James Bjornstad, Gordon Lewis, and Bob Passantino.
"Two board members called me and were upset about [the Cornerstone issue] and felt it was unfair," says Bill Alnor, EMNR executive director. "I called two others, and they felt that way.
"This is not good journalism," says Alnor, who teaches journalism at Temple University. "They're throwing up a smokescreen, and they're not dealing with Dr. Enroth's issues. Why would anyone release such an issue before they've seen [Enroth's] final product?"
Alnor also objected to the more than 40 letters JPUSA sent to journalists and Christian leaders at varying times during the controversy. "I have documents from both sides of this issue," Alnor says. "The documents from JPUSA have been very selective and one-sided."
The latest Cornerstone issue includes a lengthy interview with sociologist Anson Shupe, who sharply criticizes Enroth. "If Ronald Enroth has committed a scholarly sin, it's that he has treated narrative accounts as literal ... as history," Shupe told Cornerstone senior editor Jon Trott. Enroth says Shupe and a few other sociologists like him ultimately function as "cult apologists."
"I think it's probably going to heat up more for Ron Enroth," Trott told CHRISTIANITY TODAY. He s going to find, as we have discovered in our investigative reporting, that accountability is a two-edged sword. I think he underestimated the [Evangelical Covenant Church's] integrity, and that the Covenant did a thorough job of looking into our past."
Several JPUSA leaders, in a 19-page "Open Letter to Ronald Enroth" in January, wrote: "Bear in mind that we began as an independent community, and that we voluntarily placed ourselves under the leadership of the Evangelical Covenant Church—an action that would seem incompatible with the premise that our leadership is geared toward ever-increasing control of JPUSA members."
Throughout the dispute, JPUSA and Covenant officials have criticized Enroth's methodology as flawed because he:
* Quotes anonymous sources as criticizing specific JPUSA leaders, including REZ band lead singer Glenn Kaiser and Cornerstone editor-in-chief Dawn Herrin Mottimer. JPUSA leaders say Enroth and his respondents should instead observe the confrontation principles of Matthew 18;
* Has not visited JPUSA'S facilities;
* Has said that he plans only to tell the former members' stories, not JPUSA'S perspective. Trott calls this methodology "the therapeutic view of reality," in which authors presume the truthfulness of victims' stories.
Trott believes the conflict between verifiable, historic truth and personal, subjective reality will be "the issue of the nineties."
Enroth says he is obliged by professional ethics to honor his promise of anonymity to former members of JPUSA.
"The people at JPUSA and the Covenant headquarters are not behavioral scientists and apparently do not comprehend that promises of research confidentiality are standard practice in psychology, sociology, and anthropology," Enroth writes in a nine-page response to the Cornerstone issue.
"This is the same research and methodology that I've used for 20 years, but now that it's applied to JPUSA, somehow it's considered different," Enroth told CT. Enroth had accepted JPUSA's standing invitation to visit the facilities, but changed his mind twice. Once, Enroth objected to JPUSA's terms for the meeting, which he described as "a congressional hearing-like scene."
Eventually, Enroth and his publisher, Zondervan vice president and editor-in-chief Stan Gundry, met with JPUSA and Evangelical Covenant leaders at the denomination's offices in Chicago. Enroth considered a visit to JPUSA after that January meeting, but backed out, saying Trott violated the confidentiality of remarks in the meeting. Trott and Covenant president Paul Larsen maintain that the meeting was clearly identified as being on the record.
Covenant officials stand behind JPUSA. ''I believe there is abusive behavior in churches and cults, but if this is [Enroth's] usual methodology, he does a great injustice, even to those [cults] we would find abhorrent," Larson told CT. "He has evidence we have shown him that his sources are unreliable. Most of his material is 15 to 20 years old."
"What disturbed me most about that meeting was that they spent the better part of an hour attempting to discredit three of my respondents," Enroth says. "I felt they were engaging in inappropriate character assassination of my respondents. Every single group I have studied would disparage ex-members as unreliable." Enroth's best-known respondent is Jim Denton, former bass player in REZ, who is now a Covenant pastor in Virginia.
As the Covenant has stood behind JPUSA, Zondervan stands behind Enroth. "The testimony of forty-plus people is not hearsay. It is the evidence," Gundry told CT. "Neither JPUSA nor the Covenant gives much credence to that." Trott says an invitation to visit JPUSA unannounced and tour the facilities unrestricted stands.
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