On paper, a September conference sponsored by Evangelical Ministries to New Religions (EMNR) seemed to be a gathering focused on dealing with questionable religious movements. But behind the scenes, much more was accomplished. Countercult ministries that have been feuding with one another began steps toward reconciliation and mutual respect.

EMNR, a consortium of ministries, has operated in fits and starts since 1982, its efforts sometimes interrupted by disputes within its ranks. "I confess I failed to anticipate the problems that could arise in the simple idea of an organization to help others," says the organization's founder, Gordon Lewis of Denver Seminary.

Presiding over the summit in Atlanta, EMNR board member Craig Branch of Birmingham, executive director of Watchman Fellowship, told his fellow cult watchers, "Maturity and knowledge are much needed in order to have an effective front. There have been a number of Christians who, in zeal and sincere efforts, have caused problems."

The four-hour meeting preceding EMNR's annual conference produced rough ideas for ethical guidelines on everything from plagiarism to criticism of fellow ministries, which will be smoothed out by a committee within the next few months.

"People in countercult ministries have honest differences of opinion among themselves," says Rob Bowman, director of research for the Atlanta Cult Awareness Project. "We're going to have to learn to live with that."

BINDING UP WOUNDS: Bowman has firsthand familiarity with such disagreement. A former staff member of Christian Research Institute (CRI) in Irvine, California, Bowman served as spokesperson for the 35-member ad hoc Group for CRI Accountability, which made allegations against CRI president Hank Hanegraaff. Dueling lawsuits between former employee Brad Sparks and CRI were settled in Christian mediation recommended by EMNR in July (CT, Sept. 11, 1995, p. 88).

Hanegraaff, host of The Bible Answer Man on radio, was not invited to speak at EMNR's cult-watch conference, but some representatives of CRI did attend. Hanegraaff has been named a preferred speaker at the 1996 meeting in Saint Louis, according to EMNR executive director Bill Alnor.

"The fact that he's invited next year is a good sign," says Alnor, himself a former CRI employee. "CRI is very committed to continuing their relationship with EMNR. There is a possibility we may sponsor a conference together down the road."

Players in another well-publicized dispute were also on hand. Sociologist Ron Enroth, author of two popular books on dysfunctional congregations, addressed the meeting on how new religious groups seek legitimacy.

But even before Enroth's "Recovering from Churches That Abuse" hit the shelves last year, the Chicago-based Jesus People U.S.A. (JPUSA), one of the groups he covered, engaged in an aggressive campaign to counteract Enroth's characterization that the group is authoritarian and ostracizes its former members.

Although Enroth earlier had praised JPUSA's "wonderful ministry to the margins of society" and its "Cornerstone" magazine, that did not stop "Cornerstone" from issuing a lengthy retort to Enroth's book last year.

In an interview with CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Enroth, a sociology professor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, says he feels disconnected from other cult watchers because of his academic background. "Most of these people are full-time cult watchers," he says. "It seems to me they haven't learned to dialogue with each other as we do in the academic community. … It's almost childish infighting rather than scholarly discourse."

GETTING ALONG: Enroth met with "Cornerstone" editor Eric Pement for two hours at the summit.

"It was the first opportunity I'd had to talk to him face to face in a long time," Pement says. "The situation still isn't perfect, but it was a very fortunate and meaningful step toward understanding and communicating our differences."

This year's meeting had several such conversations, according to Alnor.

"The good thing about this conference is there are so many disputes out there in cult research, and most of them are now resolved," Alnor says. "I saw people huddling who had been bitter enemies. Last year in Philadelphia, our conference just seemed to make everything worse" (CT, Oct. 24, 1994, p. 85).

This year's gathering closed with a sermon by founder Lewis. He called for fellow cult watchers to meet the standards for church leaders outlined in 1 Timothy and Titus (to be blameless, patient, self-controlled, upright, and of sound doctrine), and to follow the directive from Paul in 1 Corinthians to love one another.

"We can have the most extensive knowledge of true and false doctrine ever, but if we have not love, we gain nothing," Lewis said.

Lewis told a joke about six shipwrecked sailors: two who were Southern Baptists built a lean-to church and started reciting Scripture and singing hymns; two who followed New Age ideas built a shack where they began channeling; the two who led countercult ministries "built separate lean-tos and published lengthy papers against each other," he said. "Will the watchdogs become attack dogs at each other's throats while the house is being burglarized?"

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EMNR, he said, should call for "unity in the essentials, liberty on the nonessentials, and charity for all."

Lewis praised the cooperation of EMNR and the Interfaith Witness Department of the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board, which cosponsored the three-day conference that followed the summit meeting. Involvement with denominational agencies can increase the influence of EMNR and provide added accountability to the organization, he said.

Organizers credited Phil Roberts, director of the Interfaith Witness office, with the idea for the summit, which many participants said set a positive tone for the conference. One Chicago-area cult-watcher, Don Veinot, Jr., of Midwest Christian Outreach, observed, "It's much easier to backbite somebody if you haven't broken bread with him."

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