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John Maleya Kilaha, lead evangelist for the 1,570-member Nairobi Christian Church in Kenya, speaks to a crowd of nearly 18,000 during the World Discipleship Summit in San Antonio.
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Revisiting the Boston Movement: ICOC growing again after crisis

A decade after ‘the roof caved in,’ the International Churches of Christ change their leadership structure and discipling approach as they refocus on reaching the lost.

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SAN ANTONIO — Ten years ago, a crisis gripped the International Churches of Christ — once known as the Boston Movement.

Long-simmering concerns over the movement’s top-down hierarchy, aggressive discipling techniques and sectarianism seemed to threaten the ICOC’s future.

Steve Kinnard, teacher and evangelist for the 3,000-member New York City Church of Christ, recalls that period as a “time of discipline” by God.

“We got haughty. We got a bit Pharisaical in our attitude and our approach.”

“We got haughty. We got a bit Pharisaical in our attitude and our approach,” said Kinnard, a Freed-Hardeman University Bible graduate who joined the movement in 1981. “God said, ‘You guys need to stop for a minute and rethink some things.’ Now, I think we’re in a much better place than we’ve ever been.”

In what ICOC leaders characterized as a milestone moment, 17,800 believers filled the San Antonio Spurs’ basketball arena for the recent World Discipleship Summit.

Men, women and children from 96 nations came together as the ICOC — a global discipling movement with roots in mainline Churches of Christ — openly acknowledged past sins while voicing a renewed commitment to reaching lost souls.

“Back in the 1990s, we were baptizing a lot of people … and we sure were proud of it,” Mike Taliaferro, lead evangelist for the 400-member Mission Point Christian Church in San Antonio, told the overflow crowd at the AT&T Center. “We should have never been the message. Christ and him crucified should have always been the message.

“Yes, tell the Good News, but put a lid on the cocky, proud bragging,” he said to loud applause.

The ICOC’s reported membership hit a high of 135,000 in 2002 — the same year worldwide leader Kip McKean stepped aside.

McKean, whose singular control prompted some to label the ICOC a cult, confessed to the sin of arrogance and said his leadership had “damaged both the Kingdom and my family.” He later left the movement.

By 2006, worldwide membership plummeted to less than 89,000 — a 34 percent decline.

“The roof caved in …  and it was completely our fault,” Taliaferro said.

A singer shows his emotion as he praises God during the World Discipleship Summit.

A singer shows his emotion as he
praises God during the World
Discipleship Summit.

But the numbers have started rising again: A survey this summer showed 97,800 members in 610 churches in 148 countries, ICOC leaders said. That’s a 10 percent increase in the past six years.

Taliaferro, an Abilene Christian University graduate, described the ICOC’s efforts to right its wrongs as the movement’s “finest hour.” But he suggested members have lost their passion for evangelism.

“How long’s it been since you went and made a disciple?” he asked the crowd. “When thousands of us decide not to share our faith, millions perish.”

Evertt Huffard, vice president and dean of Harding Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, Tenn., attended the summit and said he witnessed a “humble spirit” among those present.

“I saw a group who have learned from their mistakes and have tried to respond accordingly,” Huffard said. “My feeling is, if mainstream Churches of Christ were ever so open and honest about the mistakes of our past and responded accordingly, we’d be a healthier, growing church today.”

First known as the Crossroads Movement and later the Boston Movement, the ICOC traces its roots to the late 1960s. The movement developed in the campus ministry of Chuck Lucas at the Crossroads Church of Christ in Gainesville, Fla., as that ministry began baptizing many college students.

Lucas later converted McKean, who called 30 disciples to be totally committed to Christ. In 1979, McKean’s group planted the fast-growing Boston Church of Christ, which became the center of the discipling movement. In 1988, the Crossroads church disassociated itself from the movement.

“In the less-than-half-century existence of the movement, many thousands have been brought to Christ through its works,” said Doug Foster, a church history professor at ACU. “Many thousands also have been burned out and left the ICOC and sometimes Christianity altogether.”

In the early 1990s, the ICOC formally split from the mainline Churches of Christ. In 2004, some leaders from both groups shared tears and apologies at a meeting during the ACU lectureship.

Men, women and children from 96 nations came together at the World Discipleship Summit.

Men, women and children from 96 nations came together at the World Discipleship Summit.

At that reunion — described as a first step toward healing — ICOC leaders apologized for the authoritarian discipling techniques and “judgmental elitism” that led many away from the movement and created friction with mainline churches.

Representatives of mainline churches apologized for using “cult” as a careless label in referring to the ICOC and for years of mistrust between the two groups, The Christian Chronicle reported.

Among the concerns the ICOC has attempted to address:

Top-down hierarchy: At one time, nine individual leaders of world sectors reported to McKean.

That authority structure has been scrapped and replaced with voluntary cooperation and collaboration by congregations, said Roger Lamb, president of Disciples Today, a nonprofit media organization that serves the ICOC.

About 93 percent of ICOC churches support the group’s Plan for United Cooperation.

“There is no headquarters,” Lamb said. “Various brothers are selected to serve in cooperation roles for three years at a time. We firmly believe we are stronger together than apart and that, as Christians, we should ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.’”

Disciples from Lebanon join ICOC membersfrom 95 other nations at the summit.

Disciples from Lebanon join ICOC members
from 95 other nations at the summit.

Aggressive discipling techniques: In the past, discipling partners sometimes exerted too much control and influence over converts, ICOC leaders acknowledge.

“Now, we very much believe that we should be involved in each other’s lives in a godly way by practicing the ‘one another Scriptures,’” Lamb said, “and we believe that God gave us the church as a family to help us in our Christian walk.”

“We were too pushy in the past. Today, we have deep convictions in this area. Advice is good. But no one gives orders.”

Taliaferro said: “We were too pushy in the past. Today, we have deep convictions in this area. Advice is good. But no one gives orders. So, yes, we try not to baptize someone and then desert that person. We believe strongly in discipling, and we believe very strongly that it should be done right.”

Sectarianism: As the Boston Movement began planting daughter congregations, it became clear that some of its leaders did not consider members of mainline Churches of Christ to be Christians.

“Today, I believe that arrogance is gone,” Taliaferro said. “We truly are a non-denominational church. We’ve learned a lot about grace. Anyone, in any century or any continent, who believes the message, repents and is baptized is saved.

A volunteer provides a Russian translation.Messages were translated into six languages.

A volunteer provides a Russian translation.
Messages were translated into six languages.

“We in the ICOC do not believe ourselves to be ‘the one true church,’” he added. “Honestly, at times we have been ‘the one big mess.’ We believe that Jesus established one church, and you are in that church or not based on the Bible. So we simply claim to be a part of the one church he established on the day of Pentecost.”

In recent years, ICOC churches have sent a number of ministry students to universities associated with mainline Churches of Christ — including Harding School of Theology, ACU, Lipscomb, Lubbock Christian and Pepperdine.

“We’re heavy on teaching and biblical studies, and they’re heavy on evangelism. We’ve got some things to learn from each other.”

“We’re heavy on teaching and biblical studies, and they’re heavy on evangelism,” Huffard said. “We’ve got some things to learn from each other.”

Steve Staten, teacher and evangelist with the Chicago ICOC, which has 1,800 members scattered across seven locations, agreed.

“Those of us who do have education are spending a whole lot more time teaching ministry staff,” said Staten, who has a master’s degree in theology and is pursuing a master’s in conflict management through Lipscomb.

Like mainline Churches of Christ, ICOC churches believe in baptism for the forgiveness of sins and partake of the Lord’s Supper each Sunday.

Unlike the a cappella fellowship, a majority of ICOC churches use instruments in worship assemblies.

“We don’t really have a concept of instrumental or non-instrumental,” Lamb said. “All of our churches love and sing a cappella music beautifully. Many will also use instruments when the occasion and talent calls for it. We are mostly trying to focus on what will exalt God.”

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].

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