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At Gracepoint Ministries, ‘Whole-Life Discipleship’ Took Its Toll

As the predominantly Asian American church network expands to dozens of college towns, former members come forward with claims of spiritual abuse.
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At Gracepoint Ministries, ‘Whole-Life Discipleship’ Took Its Toll
Image: Edits by Christianity Today / Source Image: Justin Sullivan / Getty
People walk through Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus.

Gracepoint Church checks all the boxes of a college ministry success story.

Founded in 1981 around the concept of whole-life discipleship, the church—then known as Berkland Baptist—established itself as a home for Asian American students attending the University of California, Berkeley. With the mission to plant “an Acts 2 church in every college town,” Gracepoint stands out among the loose network of predominantly Asian American college churches that pepper campuses across the West Coast and beyond.

Located on over 60 campuses, it has launched church plants in 35 cities nationwide, as well as one in Taiwan, with 15 new churches planted in 2021 alone.

At campus clubs like Klesis and Acts2Fellowship, Gracepoint pushes college students to wrestle with tough questions and pursue church mentorship. At graduation, it encourages young Christians to live life on mission by joining staff at one of its campuses or helping launch a new one. Staying at Gracepoint has a strong appeal, echoing the coming-of-age films that ask, Why can’t college last forever?

“I guess you could say we were just a bunch of people who enjoyed college life so much that we never left it,” the church quips in a promotional video.

“I think people experience a spiritual vibrancy and potency and just a warmth and depth of relationship with God that they haven’t experienced elsewhere,” said Michael Kim, a member at the church’s Santa Barbara campus who was raised at Gracepoint. “For serving members, it’s high pressure, high labor, high toil, but high gratification.”

But many who were involved in Gracepoint say the church’s desire to pursue radical living, coupled with the pace of its ministry, has come at a cost—its members.

“They do good, but the process in which they enforce that good is spiritually abusive,” said Joshua Mun, a former member who grew up attending the Berkeley church and served at various Gracepoint church plants throughout his 20s.

Thirty-two former Gracepoint members who spoke with Christianity Today for this story described a culture that was “controlling” and “coercive” for the sake of ministry efficiency.

Members said they were manipulated into confessing sins, screamed at by leaders, and overloaded with obligations to the point of illness. To keep members focused on mission work, Gracepoint effectively restricted dating, media consumption, and pet ownership. Leaders directed staff on how to arrange their homes, where to shop for clothes, and what cars to drive.

“My leader’s words were like the words of God,” said Mun, who left the church last year due in part to anxiety. “I viewed God as this incredibly sensitive, temperamental, judgmental being. I’m one sin away from him dropping the hammer and smiting me, because that’s what my leaders were representing to me.”

Gracepoint has faced decades of criticism from members who left its ranks, but allegations drew new attention last year on a channel of the message board site Reddit. Posters allege they were belittled by church leaders, encouraged to take on credit card debt to fund ministry expenses, and slandered after choosing to leave the church.

“I am very sorry for those who feel they have experienced harm under our ministry,” wrote Ed Kang, the church’s senior pastor and network leader, in an email response to questions sent by CT. Kang said he would be “eager to hear from them so that we can seek healing, apologize when necessary, and seek reconciliation.”

A regional director for the church, Daniel Kim (no relation to Michael Kim), shared his contact information on the forum, asking those looking for “personal reconciliation” to reach out. He told CT that eight people have contacted him since he first posted in April 2021.

Over the course of CT reporting this article, Gracepoint has begun to rethink aspects of its ministry style and implement reforms. Kang told CT the church is focusing on “dialing down the excellence” in response to internal reflection and public criticism.

“One conclusion was that a lot of our relationships have been disrupted because of our church planting efforts,” Kang said. “We have been too task oriented, trying to do a lot with fewer people and thinned-out relationships.”

Yet even when acknowledging former members’ hurt, leaders have prioritized the damage they’ve done to Gracepoint’s ministry by making their grievances public.

On a new church podcast launched last month, Isaiah Kang, Ed’s son, said anonymous posters are “not messengers from heaven.” He added, “Whatever else may be true—you may be wronged, you probably were wronged—that doesn’t make what you do right.”

While college ministries like InterVarsity and Asian American Christian Fellowship were launching programs to serve a growing wave of Asian immigrants and second-generation Asian Americans, Rebekah and Paul Kim (no relation to the other Kims) planted a church to minister to Korean Americans at UC Berkeley in 1981. On the border of Berkeley and Oakland, the church was named Berkland Baptist.

Berkland members bonded as both Christians and Korean Americans, often referring to older church members by Korean honorifics—hyung for older brother and noona for older sister.

“One of the things that’s good about the Korean culture is that when someone wants you close to them, they make you part of their family,” said a former longtime Berkland member who asked not to be named due to his close ties with Gracepoint leadership. “You’re not just a fellow brother in Christ; you are really my brother. You’re my true family. Those kinds of values were considered essential as part of the church.”

That familial attitude tied into the church’s model of whole-life discipleship. Like many college ministries where young adults commit to codes of conduct, accountability, and community obligations, Berkland attracted Asian American students with its strict but tight-knit ministry philosophy.

They joined the church, paired with disciplers for mentorship, fervently studied Scripture, and evangelized on their campuses, seeing more added to the church. (Because of the church’s focus on college ministry, leaders discouraged members from inviting coworkers or neighbors who were out of college.)

By getting involved in Berkland, and later Gracepoint, students were expected to forgo the typical liberties associated with college life. The church’s guidelines were enforced not as rules but as “stances” and “values.”

Undergraduate students were discouraged from dating and, in some cases, forced to break up. (The church is reconsidering its stance against dating, Kang said.) When disciplers approved of a dating relationship, both parties were still expected to keep it private. Half a dozen former members recalled learning that couples were together only upon receiving wedding invitations.

When they became part of the ministry team, Gracepoint members were required to install internet filtering software like Covenant Eyes on their devices. Leaders could track screen time not just to check for pornography but also to discourage users from listening to K-pop or watching too much ESPN. Kang told CT the church tries to mitigate “the effects of the media-entertainment complex and tech companies” and has historically discouraged the use of televisions and social media.

According to Len Tang, director of the Church Planting Initiative at Fuller Theological Seminary, high-pressure churches like Gracepoint often enforce a “methodological purity” within their ministry.

“A methodological purity might say that college ministry must be done in a specific way. You have to disciple them in a particular way, or you need to isolate them or separate them from certain influences,” Tang said.

Young members were being discipled to follow not only the Bible but also the church’s culture—what was acceptable, what was lauded by their leaders as signs of their devotion. And when they violated those expectations, often unknowingly, the results could be explosive.

Paul Lee said his pastor at UC Riverside called to yell at him for having coffee with a female friend on staff, which he had done before but didn’t know was frowned on. “He jumped so quickly to scolding me, really making sure I was in this posture of shame,” Lee said.

Documents from 2011 taught church leaders to rebuke members “so that the person gets to have proper fear toward God & proper shock over what he has done,” with the trainer modeling screaming and slamming the table, according to former staff. Kang said such rebukes are infrequent and such training couldn’t be used now with the “anxiety and emotional fragility” of today’s generation.

These outbursts shamed members for not following the standards of their community. But what might have felt like conviction from God at the moment they later saw as the leaders’ aggression.

One Thanksgiving, Austin Lee (no relation to Paul) was berated for not tithing enough after moving cross-country to help plant a church at the University of North Carolina without consistent employment. Pastor Richard Tjhen told CT he became “agitated and annoyed” because Austin Lee was defensive during their conversation. Tjhen said that his own actions were “totally inappropriate and not our church policy.”

“I realized I was never going to be able to prove that I was taking my sins seriously.”

Members under discipline could be asked to refrain from serving in ministries and even attending services. But their restoration hinged on the whims of Gracepoint leaders, with the process sometimes dragging out and involving assignments to repent with written reflections and confessions. Kang said that a “period of withdrawal” from ministry can be appropriate, but the practice of writing reflections has tapered off over the years.

The Berkland network disbanded in 2006, and the Berkeley and Davis churches rebranded as Gracepoint, eventually planting churches in college cities and towns beyond California. Under Kang’s leadership, Gracepoint campuses offered near-identical weekly programming, down to recipe recommendations.

Commitment to church ordered all of life: Tabulated spreadsheets organized staff schedules by the hour, often stretching late into evenings and weekends. Members realized their schedules were no longer their own. They were expected to ask permission to go on vacation or visit their families, former members said.

“I had a strained relationship with my parents,” said Martin Loekito, who was a member of Gracepoint’s Davis church for 14 years. “I could never spend time with them without feeling like I needed to get away, like I needed to be back at church.”

Another former member, Elaine Huang, said church leaders called her “selfish” when she opted to visit her parents in Taiwan the summer after her graduation from UC Berkeley in the early 2010s. Arguing that her parents were already saved and therefore required less of her attention, Huang’s leaders convinced her to cut her months-long trip short to participate in the church’s fall outreach.

For Loekito and others, the church’s warning of idolizing the family carried into married life. Loekito said his eldest daughter spent large portions of her early childhood at the church’s babysitting ministry while he and his wife were participating in events.

“When we left [the church], she was a year and a half old, and I kind of felt like it was a lost time,” he said, recollecting on missing his daughter’s first words and steps. “Just having dinner, everyone at the same table—that was very rare.”

Years of “whole-life discipleship” took a toll. Paul Lee, the former Riverside church member, experienced “physically debilitating” stress that caused stomachaches, headaches, and frequent panic attacks. Despite bringing his symptoms to his leaders, he said he was not allowed to step back from most of his church responsibilities.

“I think it was at that point when I realized that [the church] really did not care for my well-being,” Lee said. “They cared more that I was staying and being a productive sort of functioning member.”

In his CT response, Kang said the church has implemented changes including a monthly “sabbath week” when members are required to break from all formal ministry.

In an internal survey of 1,004 Gracepoint members late last year, 37 percent viewed the church primarily as a family, 34 percent viewed it as an army, and 29 percent viewed it as a factory.

Whole-life discipleship did in fact extend to every area of life. According to emails from former leaders, members were asked to change their wardrobe (“I think I need to get some odd clothes out of [this member’s] closet too so she doesn’t get tempted to keep wearing them.”), dietary habits (“I found out [that you] regularly eat late at night. I think you need to really curb that. I have noticed that you are looking more and more unhealthy lately.”), and living spaces (“I was appalled once again to hear that your house has been like a pig sty. … Either your life is out of control or you are extremely lazy or you are extremely selfish.”).

Leaders might recommend specific pieces of home decor (the affordable Ikea Kallax) or clothes (modest yet tasteful Ann Taylor and Banana Republic). Members even purchased similar vehicles—the Nissan Quest or Honda Odyssey, affordable minivans that could easily transport students and ministry supplies.

37% of Gracepoint members viewed the church primarily as a family, 34% viewed it as an army, and 29% viewed it as a factory.

While oversight and granular life advice can be part of college formation and discipleship, Gracepoint’s influence grew more intrusive as members remained at the church. One member who attended Gracepoint Berkeley for 22 years worried that her involvement stunted her maturity.

“One of the things I’m learning now that I’m out [of the church] is that I can actually make my own decisions without checking with somebody, asking for permission, being afraid that I’ll get in trouble,” she said. “I know it sounds weird. This is what a 20-year-old would realize, but here I am at 40 just realizing this now.”

Evangelical ministries eager for holistic, 24/7, “all-of-life” discipleship have sometimes crossed boundaries into spiritual abuse, where members feel coerced and manipulated rather than guided and mentored. In 2020, Acts 29 CEO Steve Timmis was removed from leadership for his level of bullying and control. The charismatic shepherding movement of the 1970s and ’80s ended with former leaders disavowing their own intrusive practices. (Former Berkland members said founder Rebekah Kim was trained by University Bible Fellowship, a Korean offshoot of the shepherding movement.)

Six ex-Gracepoint staff said mental breakdowns contributed to their decisions to leave the church and, for some, the faith. Last year, Pete Nguyen left Gracepoint after experiencing severe depression and suicidal thoughts while attending.

Huang, the UC Berkeley student, said a church leader told her that her suicidal thoughts were because she didn’t “love God enough.” She said this response pushed her to walk away from Christianity. The leader, Suzanne Suh, said she did not recall the conversation but “would not talk to someone who is suicidal using this type of approach or using these kinds of words.”

A former UC Santa Barbara student said her declining well-being—depression and an eating disorder relapse—was seen as evidence of her unrepentance after she crossed a physical boundary with her boyfriend. She was asked to write reflections and was repeatedly told that she had not seen the full reality of her sin.

“These constant assessments about me being unrepentant—they didn’t reflect what I was actually thinking and feeling,” said Noelle, who is also an abuse survivor and asked CT not to use her last name due to her job as a teacher. “I realized I was never going to be able to prove that I was taking my sins seriously.”

Online criticism of the church’s high-pressure environment did not start with the Reddit posts. Anonymous blogs including Twisted Gracepoint and The Truth about Gracepoint Church circulated online in the 2000s.

Emails obtained by CT show that Gracepoint maintained its own blogs to compete with those critiquing the church. Over the years, church members were told to avoid driving traffic to the online criticism and were instead encouraged to protect the church’s “online reputation.” At times, Gracepoint leaders asked staff and members to search and click on church webpages or positive blog posts at least three times a day to improve Google search rankings.

Church leaders were also encouraged to write positive Yelp reviews—and sometimes report negative ones. Both practices remain, especially in the ramp-up to fall quarter.

Gracepoint’s training documents teach staff to explain why the church’s “hierarchical leadership” is “not authoritarian” or why negative perception of the church’s culture of rebuke is “overblown” due to “an emotionally fragile generation.” Weary of internal programs being leaked, leaders asked members to periodically delete “sensitive” recordings and emails containing talks and trainings or to watch them under supervision.

An FAQ page on Gracepoint’s website answered the question “Is Gracepoint a Cult?”—“Nope, not really”—while dismissing “Reddit trolls” and touting its Southern Baptist affiliation. (Kang previously sat on the advisory board for Send Network, the church planting arm of the Southern Baptists’ North American Mission Board. Vance Pitman, the network’s president, has lauded Kang’s “kingdom leadership.”)

Some critics are taking their concerns offline. Several parents of former and current members, worried that the church is distancing them from their children, have raised concerns about the church’s fellowship groups to leaders at UC campuses and Biola University.

The University of San Francisco revoked the recognition status of Gracepoint’s Klesis fellowship in May 2021 because it “did not meet the requirements to be a USF affiliated ministry, misrepresented its relationship with Gracepoint Church, and continued to have contact with students” following an interim suspension issued in March. Kang confirmed the church no longer operates on the campus, though some students still attend the San Francisco location. He was unsure how the group may have misrepresented itself to the university.

For those who have left, connecting with other former members in person and online has helped their transition out of the church. Loekito, who left in 2019, said that the discussion has allowed him and his wife to process their experience, but reacclimating to a new church has been hard.

“My regrets are mostly about the people that I ministered to when I had no right to be called a minister,” Loekito said. “Some of them left, and I was able to reconnect with them and say I’m sorry for what I did to them. But the worst is those who are still there, young people who I told to defy their parents and throw away their ambitions and throw away their future to join the [Gracepoint] cause.”

Some former members said their departures were mischaracterized within the organization, with current attendees saying that those who left did so to “pursue the world” by purchasing pets or getting Disneyland passes.

“It feels like the bridge is being burnt from the other end,” said Mun. “I’m not going to negate the truth that God reached me through Gracepoint, but it doesn’t mean that Gracepoint is God’s heaven on earth.”

Gracepoint continues its evangelism efforts for the fall semester. Rebranding as Gracepoint Ministries, it has expanded Area Youth Ministry, a parachurch organization meant to evangelize middle- and high-school students and supplement church youth groups. The group operates in 24 cities, and according to Kang, Gracepoint staff are now split between college and noncollege ministries.

Nguyen, who left in 2021 after attending Gracepoint for a decade, has spoken at length with his former leaders at the Riverside and Pomona campuses, as well as with Daniel Kim, about the ways he felt wronged.

“If they really examine things, they really could change,” he said, “but I just don’t think they’re willing to let go of a lot of the practices they’ve been holding on to.”

During an April 2021 sermon on one of the Beatitudes, Kang told the church not to be discouraged by their online critics; Jesus himself warned that detractors would “utter all kinds of evil against you falsely” (Matt. 5:11, ESV).

“Clearly people who are posting are either genuinely grieved and wounded or so narcissistic that some small evil or injustice or wrong done to them is something utterly outrageous and they can’t move on,” Kang said.

“One thing that we must not do is be persuaded by criticism that there’s something wrong with us.”

Curtis Yee is a faith and culture reporter in Sacramento, California.

September
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