Overview:

Xenos Christian Fellowship changed their name to Dwell Community Church. They didn't change anything else, which is why abuse accusations still erupt regularly around them.

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Dwell Community Church (formerly Xenos Christian Fellowship) can’t catch a break! Their leaders keep getting accused of being a cult. I can see why! Dwell/Xenos functions as a dysfunctional authoritarian system.

Here’s how that system manifests, and how it leads to nonstop and entirely predictable and even inevitable abuse of these groups’ followers.

Read: Xenos: Turnt up for Jesus; ‘New Catholic Movements’ turn out to be hotbeds of abuse

Checks and balances? Not in this authoritarian system!

In any functional group, whether it be authoritarian or egalitarian, the group’s masters bake accountability into their social system’s rules. Accountability means a lot of things:

  • Clearly-defined rules that everyone, especially leaders, must follow
  • Systems for catching rulebreakers at any level of power, especially in leadership ranks
  • Transparent leadership decisions, bias-free decision-making, and refusal to play favorites
  • Protection for those bringing rulebreakers to their group’s attention
  • Meaningful but not disproportionate consequences for rulebreaking at both minor and major infraction levels, which includes referring the rulebreaker to civil and criminal authorities outside the group when necessary

Accountability is how even a tightly-regimented authoritarian group (ideally, like most countries’ military forces) can operate in at least a semi-functional way. When accountability breaks down, as we saw in the United States’ infamous Tailhook scandal in 1991, abuse of the group’s less-powerful members erupts and runs rampant.

When we see an authoritarian group that lacks accountability for leaders, we need to understand that abuse will be inevitable in that group. We need to expect it. This fact isn’t accidental, either. Authoritarian groups that lack these checks on power quickly become risky to anyone joining them.

They are, in effect, as dysfunctional as a car with faulty brakes.

Why a lack of accountability inevitably leads to abuse

In authoritarian groups that lack accountability (as defined above), abusive people who ache for personal power can easily game their group’s power-acquisition rules. They jockey for power at lower levels, ingratiating themselves by increasing turns to the next level’s power-brokers.

In turn, those power-brokers refuse to rein them in when they commit minor acts of wrongdoing. After all, these power-grubbers are so loyal and useful! And it’d make the group look just awful!

Very quickly, the group’s lower-level followers recognize that this power-grubbing person is the darling of the group’s power-brokers. They become fearful of speaking out against that person, and for good reason: the group has opaque, secretive operations that allow power-grubbing people to curry favor in secret, then to use that favor to call for retaliation against whistleblowers.

Power-brokers in dysfunctional groups are well aware of their status as kingmakers.

The system itself ensures an endless cycle of increasing dysfunctionality

Power-brokers in these dysfunctional authoritarian groups like having sunshine blown up their butts by those seeking their favor. As a result, they’re easily fooled by big shows of loyalty and fervor for whatever the group deems important. In Christian groups, these are usually over-the-top displays of piety, sycophancy, and zeal. Most importantly, these power-brokers have no defense against such displays.

The group as a whole, therefore, lacks a way to keep out bad-faith actors seeking power.

In fact, power-hungry, abuse-prone people gravitate to groups just like these.

Once bad-faith actors achieve power, the group lacks a way to check their misbehavior, much less to remove them. The group has stripped that kind of power from its followers’ ranks. Only other leaders could remove a bad-faith actor, but leaders protect each other. And they do this at the expense of anyone in lower ranks.

Read: Russell Moore reveals how to fool a monster

Accountability for thee, never for me: it’s the dysfunctional authoritarian way

Of course, dysfunctional authoritarian groups love to force accountability on their lower-ranking members. We’ve seen that many times over the years, especially in evangelical churches’ increasing use of so-called membership covenants and church discipline.

It’s not uncommon at all for such groups to slam members to the wall for relatively minor infractions of the group’s rules, all while their leaders openly flout rulebreaking. We saw that happen with Jerry Falwell Jr. He broke his group’s rules repeatedly and flagrantly for years before finally facing consequences for any of it. His fellow group leaders protected him at all costs, because they knew that his hypocrisy would lead to a serious blow to the group’s reputation (which in turn would seriously impact their membership, recruitment, and donation numbers).

At the same time, Falwell’s university reserved the right to fine, suspend, and even expel students for breaking the exact same rules that he, as their Dear Leader, regularly broke.

Come meet the new boss, same as the old boss

As I said a moment ago, authoritarian groups are way more similar than they could ever be different. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a free online game (and I mean seriously totally free to play, like old-school, all-volunteer-run multi-player text games) or a quasi-Buddhist cult or a flavor of Christianity that is a great many centuries old.

Whatever window dressing they might use, dysfunctional authoritarian groups’ operational and often unspoken rules tend to be identical. Their power-brokers behave in identical ways, as do the power-grubbers working their ways up the group’s ranks. Because of the group’s unstated, covert focus shift away from its stated goals, it loses its ability (if it even had the ability in the first place) to fulfill those official goals. It becomes broken.

At that point, the group becomes a conduit for power for people who know they can’t find that level or unilateral kind of power in functional groups. The group’s followers, in turn, become targets for power-grubbers—and stepping-stones and tools for acquiring more of what they want most.

That’s why Dwell/Xenos is not much different at all from Roman Catholicism. Catholic leaders have long been known to shield rulebreakers and protect their group’s reputation at all costs, and also to resist any attempts at serious reform.

Well, we can see similar behavior in Dwell/Xenos.

Dwell/Xenos: The situation report

A few years ago, I wrote about a weird evangelical group called Xenos Christian Fellowship. They operated as a series of cells called small groups with no real oversight or accountability. And their recruiters targeted college students, for the most part.

Xenos leaders operated a bunch of rental homes in their town. Members paid rent to live together in them. And by the way, the rent at these places always sounded really high to me, especially when compared to what the renters got in terms of personal space and amenities. Xenos just crammed their followers into these houses. In each rental home, each small group Jesus-ed and evangelized together.

(Here is just my humble opinion, based on what I’ve read: Xenos makes big fat greasy piles of money from rent. And its small group leaders push new recruits very hard to live in these houses. So, those rent payments seem, to me, like a major factor in why Xenos operates as it does.)

The unthinkable overcrowding in these homes and the renters’ overall behavior led to inevitable and rightful complaints from the cell’s neighbors. But it also led to inevitable conflicts of opinion and lifestyle between the renters themselves. Worse, if the cell leaders were anything less than ideal manager types, these houses could hide a lot of abuse behind the scenes. And wow, a lot of these cell leaders were way less than ideal manager types.

But as long as their renters still paid their rent on time, Xenos’ top leaders cared little about that abuse.

How Dwell/Xenos works

Most church organizations have a sort of mothership, like the Southern Baptist Convention’s top-ranked Executive Committee. This mothership runs and organizes things on a group-wide scale. At the same time, a number of smaller churches orbit around that mothership. They take orders from their mothership, follow the rules it sets, and report their metrics back to it. Often, we call these organizations denominations, but a mothership-styled organization doesn’t always use that exact term.

In regular churches, small groups operate as cells within the church. At my first Pentecostal church, we didn’t call them small groups, but that’s really what they were. My church’s small groups met for Bible study and prayer before the Sunday service, then attended service together. Often, small groups socialized together as well.

Small groups in churches that belong to broader organizations (like denominations) tend always to be beholden to their pastor, who is, in turn, beholden to the organization’s mothership.

By contrast, Dwell/Xenos seems to run more like a Fediverse or Discord server. About 300 small-to-medium cells operate within the Dwell/Xenos umbrella, boasting about 5000 members total, but they operate more or less independently. They may come together with other cells at times, but they do their own thing most of the time. Each cell’s leader operates as the ruler of their very own city-state.

So as you can see, they might use the small group label, but their small groups are far more all-consuming, self-contained, and controlling than a regular church’s small groups.

Another year, another scandal caused by lack of accountability

Wikipedia claims that around February 2020, Dwell/Xenos instituted some basic “accountability mechanisms” and church hierarchy rules for cell leaders to follow. Unfortunately for the members of Dwell/Xenos, they don’t sound at all like the functional checks I outlined above. Rather, they sound like they’re just groupthink checks and an assessment of sycophancy, “character qualifications,” and piety. Literally all of these assessments are laughably easy for bad-faith actors to game and fake.

(Go ahead. Ask me how I know that.)

Also in 2020, Xenos changed its name to Dwell Community Church. It’s an eye-rollingly generic, trendy, Millennial-pandering name, yes. (In 2018, Thom Rainer relayed evangelical church-naming trends without a hint of self-awareness.) I find the timing of the name change suspicious as well, given the accusations constantly erupting around the Xenos name. It must have seemed just as tainted as “Southern Baptist Convention” label.

But Dwell is also a regular word in English. That makes me wonder if Xenos wanted to avoid search-engine revelations for potential recruits and renters.

Either way, Dwell/Xenos hasn’t had much luck dodging the tainted “Xenos” label, any more than Southern Baptist leaders have had in trying to rebrand as “Great Commission Baptists.”

And of course, other than their business’ name, they don’t appear to have bothered to change anything else. One ex-Dwell/Xenos member even characterized the name change as “lipstick on a pig.”

Come meet the new Dwell/Xenos abuse accusations, same as the old accusations

A few months ago, a news site in Columbus, Ohio was just abuzz about fresh allegations of abuse in Dwell/Xenos. Over the last week of February, starting here, the site posted at least a half-dozen articles about these allegations.

Megan Cox plays a major role in that first February article. She used to belong to Gwen Shamblin’s wackadoo church, Remnant Fellowship. According to Cox’s ex-timony, she saw a lot of similarities between the evangelical weight-loss coach’s culty church and Dwell/Xenos. In the NBC article, she and Rafael Martinez, a minister who is also the director of an anti-cult group, say that they’re hosting some kind of docuseries about abusive religious cults.

Incidentally, I couldn’t find the docuseries. It might be HBOMax’s The Way Down, which concerns Shamblin and Remnant. However, neither Cox nor Martinez are listed in the series’ IMDB.com entry, so that not might be it.

That said, Martinez’ writeup about Dwell/Xenos is excellent. Mostly. He doesn’t blame doctrinal heresy as the root of the church’s problems. That bit is accurate. However, he does land on TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ and fervent Jesus-ing as the obvious and foolproof solutions to every awful thing about Dwell/Xenos. Also, he threatens Dwell/Xenos’ leaders with Hell, a favorite manipulation tactic of dysfunctional authoritarians.

Captain Cassidy’s Christianese 101: Testimonies and ex-timonies

A testimony is a Christian’s elevator speech about their conversion. It is always told with an eye toward either recruitment or in-group virtue signaling. Entire books, websites, and seminar series exist to help Christians craft their testimonies. Christian leaders constantly stress that a good testimony gets heathens’ attention and helps massively with recruitment. I have found no evidence supporting this claim, especially in recent years as more and more people catch on to just how dishonest Christians’ testimonies truly are. (My series The Cult of Before Stories concerns that dishonesty and why it persists.)

Typically, testimonies comprise three acts. In Act One, the Christian describes their life before conversion. It might be miserable or joyous, poor or rich, filled with friends or lonely, but at all points the Christian must stress that something was missing from their life. Act Two describes the moment of conversion. It may or may not involve miracle claims. Act Three describes post-conversion life, almost always as a reversal of the circumstances from Act One.

Interestingly, testimonies also chase trends by creating a narrative around the tribe’s biggest current enemies. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the Satanic Panic led to countless breathlessly-told testimonies about real honest-to-goodness witchcraft and Satanic Ritual Abuse done to children. Nowadays, ex-atheist testimonies are way more popular, at least with Protestants. Catholics, meanwhile, are trying to restart the Satanic Panic.

An ex-timony is an account of a Christian’s departure from Christianity. It may also take the form of three acts, but it functions very differently from a testimony. It doesn’t seek to sell anything or follow trends. Often, the person telling it uses it as part of introducing themselves to a new group, or as a contradiction to a Christian’s claims.

What Dwell/Xenos does in the shadows

Megan Cox and Rafael Martinez set their sights on Dwell/Xenos after realizing that the group has operated more or less in the shadows for years. For my own part, I sure believe it. I’ve been contacted by a half-dozen ex-members since writing my own post about Dwell/Xenos. Almost always, they’ve expressed surprise that the church got the attention of anyone outside of Ohio.

Also, their stories are always consistent with those of other ex-members, as well as deeply painful-sounding and alarming. My heart goes out to anyone who’s ever tangled with these greedy-sounding, control-hungry opportunists.

The abuse accusations themselves offer a steady and predictable drumbeat of similar claims. These two similarities tell me that Dwell/Xenos has never really dealt with the systemic, structural dysfunction in their organization that opens the door so readily to bad-faith actors. Even their own written account of their history points squarely at that dysfunction⁠—all without any self-awareness at all.

In short, Dwell/Xenos members are defenseless against predators and opportunists. At every single turn where their leaders could have made meaningful changes for the better, they’ve only drilled down on dysfunction and rejected true accountability.

The more recent Dwell/Xenos news

Unlike the 2018 scrutiny Dwell/Xenos got from at least local media, it doesn’t look like the February scrutiny is just going away⁠—though I’m sure the church’s leaders would simply love that!

On May 21, The Daily Beast published an article about “the Megachurch That Has Ex-Members Screaming Cult.” After spending a couple of months interviewing ex-members, the site concludes:

While the details of their experiences differed, the result was the same: Dwell, they said, was a church that drew them in when they were young or lonely, showered them with attention and compliments, and quickly turned dark. [. . .]

What they were describing, many of them said, was not a church at all, but a cult.

The Daily Beast

Overall, the stories the Beast shares sound remarkably similar to stories I read from four years ago. And 30 years ago. Seriously, it’s the same overreach, abuse, and control-grabbing that has always marked Dwell/Xenos.

Meanwhile, the Columbus subreddit, which discusses Dwell/Xenos fairly regularly and never in glowing terms, celebrated that their local cult had “gone national.” Yep! It sure has! And I’m glad to see it.

Dysfunction, lack of accountability, refusal to engage with systemic flaws

So yes, all Dwell/Xenos has changed is its name, even though it sounds like their members have always tried to recruit new members without even invoking their church’s name.

The same abuses still happen all the time behind the scenes. And Dwell/Xenos leaders still always respond in the same way they have since at least the 1980s: They deny victims’ accounts or claim the victim isn’t perceiving matters as clearly as they do. Then, they sometimes state that they don’t condone whatever the small group leader did, but they don’t talk about putting any measures in place to stop that small group leader from hurting their followers. Nor do they ever say that they’re taking tangible, meaningful steps to ensure that that small group leader never, ever, ever hurts anyone ever again.

I haven’t even seen any indications that Dwell/Xenos intends to stop stuffing renters into their houses, either, which fits in with my hunch about their real priority of making as much money as they can from these houses.

Dysfunctional authoritarians observe only one real rule: Who’s gonna MAKE them do right?

If the answer is nobody and nothing, then they don’t change. They don’t change till something forces them to change. Even then, it’s got to be something they can’t ignore or maneuver around. Until Dwell/Xenos puts real accountability into their hopelessly broken, dysfunctional authoritarian system, it will never matter how hard they Jesus or how TRULY CHRISTIAN™ they manage to be.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...