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Christian cults sound so weird and alien to most people. But this one will probably sound even more sinister than the culty norm. It’s called Xenos Christian Fellowship, and it’s taken root in Ohio thanks to a philosophy that’s unique even by Christian-cult standards. Here are the details, just in time for Spooky Week.

ninja whiskers activated
(Hernán Piñera, CC-SA.) He’s seen some things.

What in the World is a Xenos?

Xenos Christian Fellowship is a Christian cult operating (mostly) in and around Columbus, Ohio.

They mostly seek young adherents–high school- and college-aged folks, though they’ll take anybody. And they’ve been around for so long that their first wave of members have grown up, married, and had their own kids.

Their focus centers on “home groups,” which are about what you’d expect. Someone opens their home to a small congregation. That congregation meets there and then hangs out after a service. Their website says that they focus on home groups because they “view it as the backbone of community and healthy growth.” (Remember that phrase.) They do have a couple of church-like buildings for meetings, but these home groups constitute their bread and butter.

Xenos also encourages younger members to live in dormitory-style houses. They convert regular houses into dorms. The residents of these houses regularly throw parties and have home group meetings. (And just like that, every homeowner reading this blog just tensed up. I know. Me too. We’re coming back to this idea.) Residents drink, smoke, vape, and do a bunch of other stuff that most Christian groups disallow. (Hence, today’s post title.)

Overall, Xenos people consider themselves non-denominational, which usually translates to mostly Baptist. Indeed, that’s about what we find when we examine their doctrinal beliefs. For all the gloating they do about how “non-traditional” they are, they’re about as traditional as one could see in evangelical beliefs. Why, they even buy into all the culture-war stuff!

Oh Yay, Another More-Hardcore-Than-Thou Christian Group.

When we see a Christian group patting themselves on their own backs about being “non-traditional” and yet they are as traditional as it really gets, that should instantly ruffle our ninja whiskers.

We live in the twilight of Christian dominance in America. Christian groups squabble and fight to the death over a fast-shrinking number of potential recruits and members. They feel a serious need to differentiate themselves from all of their competitors.

One easy way to rise above the pack is to start a megachurch, of course. As we’ve often discussed here, megachurches do very well for themselves. They’re simply so huge that they have a great deal more money coming in than a smaller church can cobble together. And they use those funds to create and maintain a dizzying array of amenities and programs benefiting their members.

But if someone wants to start a church and doesn’t have the funds or the name recognition required to start a megachurch, that person can utilize other methods of differentiating their new group from the rest.

Acting super-duper-hardcore is one of those ways.

(Allen T Coffey, in comments just today, shared a great example of a church leader going exactly this route!)

#NoFilter (O Palsson, CC.)

How to Out-Hardcore Everyone Else.

The nice thing about Christianity (from a huckster’s standpoint) is that nothing about it tethers to reality. Nothing. I mean it. Not a single thing. No Christian claim can be credibly supported through objective evidence. Not a single one.

That truth means that nothing whatsoever stops an opportunistic Christian from upping the ante on any of the religion’s many behaviors, beliefs, or claims. That’s why I call this mindset the problem with wingnuts. Nobody in the same tribe can stop them; nobody can even rein them in. To rebuke problematic people necessarily means seriously stepping on their own shoes. My own aunt (a nun) and mother (not a nun) discovered that painful reality when I was eight years old and got totally freaked out about the Crucifixion in Sunday School (taught by a nun).

So if you’ve got one Christian saying that Christian believers must attend church every week, then another can come in and insist that three times a week is the bare minimum to make “Jesus” happy. If one Christian says that an hour of prayer and Bible study a day keeps the demons away, another can say that no, Christians must perform three hours of it to be safe(r). Other churches may require strict dress codes (mostly for women) or sexual abstinence even from married couples.

Then we get into the Christians trying to redefine the religion itself. They seek to make their religion feel more personal and immediate, but they do so at the expense of their own credibility as an overall group. I often point to the it’s a relationship not a religion chirpy sorts as one example of that phenomenon, but there are plenty of others.

Most of the most mockable Christian advertising campaigns consist of some group trying to out-hardcore their peers.

Home Groups, According to Xenos.

Xenos’ attempt to out-hardcore their competitors begins with these “home groups.”

Chances are good that they went that route for financial reasons. Groups meeting in members’ homes are way less expensive to operate than a brick-and-mortar building. Indeed, that’s how Mark Driscoll’s megachurch empire got its start. A brand-new fundagelical church often operates for a while as a home church, sometimes called a church plant, with the intention of moving to their own building once they get enough people to bankroll such an endeavor.

But the Xenos website makes them sound like they did it for Jesus reasons, because they are just that HARDCORE FOR JESUS, y’all.

When we examine the leaders’ writeup of their decision to go with “home groups,” we see immediately that they appeal to Original Christianity. This calculated move definitely appeals to younger, less-experienced, less-knowledgeable Christians who yearn for that vision that once captured me so much. Their webpage tells us:

In the New Testament we find descriptions of early church life that are very appealing. Groups who regularly met together were close knit, dynamic, and excited about their faith. These original churches met in people’s homes and experienced an intimacy that is often lacking in a modern church (Acts 2:43-47, Ephesians 4:15-16).

They go on to talk in glowing terms about how these groups operate: sharing “Christian love” with each other, studying the Bible, engaging in “fun and exciting group activities,” and making “deeper friendships.”

It sounds downright idyllic–if someone doesn’t know better.

Targeting Advertising.

Recently in comments, we talked about the people who join cults. Xenos makes a great case study for how someone can get sucked into these groups. In fact, they likely find it crazy easy to find people to join their groups and move into their weird dormitories.

Observe this photo, which is from the Xenos website. Nothing in the photo landed there by accident.

cult cult cult cult cult cult
Screengrab from Xenos’ website, used here to illustrate a specific point.

How many Hipster Christian Points can you detect?

  • A young woman speaks while seated in a place of prominence.
  • All observable clothing and grooming indicates a complete casual environment.
  • All observable furniture and decorations appear to be part of that classic College Eclectic decorating scheme that poor students often adopt out of necessity. Probably 99% of it came straight from Target.
  • An old television and gaming stuff rests behind her in a cheap entertainment center.
  • The display wineglass on the entertainment center speaks to the group’s tolerance of drinking.
  • ZOMG POP CULTURE AHOY: Spiderman, Star Wars (I myself own that Darth Vader bobblehead), and probably more.
  • The map on the wall behind the speaker ain’t there by accident. The residents of this home want to show that they look outward to the world.
  • And Beardy McHipsterChristian to the left there, stroking his resplendent beard all contemplative-like.

A young person looking for a relaxed vibe in church might well see a picture like this and think that this group will be less intense and more welcoming than the typical fundagelical church.

Unfortunately, it’s just marketing hype. 

The Warning Signs.

Warning signs abound on their website, of course.

  • the attempt to out-hardcore other Christian groups with that “non-denominational” thing
  • that whole “original Christianity” poseur act; it reminded me of the Farm cult that Biff and I almost joined
  • the weird emphasis on “home groups” over actual churches, well past the time they should have moved to a real church building exclusively
  • a total lack of visible concern for the neighbors around these “home groups”
  • this entire page about “motivating involvement,” which sounded so coercive that it made my skin crawl
  • the emphasis on “discipleship,” which so easily lends itself to abuse (they mention the Shepherding Movement, which exploded into abuse allegations a few years ago, and though they speak disapprovingly of it, they disapprove for the worst reasons)

And where there is smoke, we find fire with Xenos.

A Target-Rich Environment.

Xenos chose a good city for its operations. Columbus, Ohio overflows with students who all need accommodations. Further, a lot of those students hail from outside the state–even outside the country! That number seems to rise every year. Those students represent easy pickings for a group that love-bombs them, offers so many interesting (but unsupervised) activities, and promises so much.

These cultists also target high-school students from around the Columbus area. (Remember the infamous fundagelical “4-14 Window?”) There, Xenos utilizes the same basic tactics. They seek to become a young person’s entire social network, to isolate them from their existing supports, and to isolate them from any influences that might draw their prey from the cult. Adolescents, with their often-higher needs for belonging, must seem like irresistible targets.

Indeed, when I read the testimonies of people the cult has abused and mistreated, that common thread rises to the top in their stories.

As with other super-controlling, ultra-authoritarian groups, Xenos spins on a dime once they have enough of a hold over their prey. The moment victims accept enough of the group’s control over their lives–and even more so if they move into one of the cult’s dormitories–that facade of friendliness drops like a curtain.

The Reality About “Home Groups.”

Here’s a Reddit thread from mostly non-members about what it’s like to live near a Xenos “home group.” Very quickly, I perceived that the Xenos hype about “community and healthy growth” is just more-hardcore-than-thou noise to suck in the unsuspecting. Observe these quotes from the thread:

  • a 10-12 member home church (3/4 bedroom) lives directly next to me. monday nights are my most dreaded nights of the week; church gatherings where they invite 20 boys from another home church to be obnoxiously drunk on their porch. (chrlsdrwn)
  • I used to live across the alley from a Xenos ‘church home’ on Blake Ave in ONC. Same experience you describe: loud parties with music and idiot girls shrieking, drunkenness, assholes pissing outside and trash all over. I called the cops over and over. . . (DaPoeticchampion)
  • Xenos tried “culting” (recruiting) me and my friends on several occasions when we’d just moved to Columbus for classes. Unfortunately, all the free beer in the world couldn’t make us comfortable with being cornered by groups of dudes who wanna talk about Jesus. In retrospect, it’s super creepy how they just let a bunch of 18 year-olds get wasted before they spring a religious debate on them. (BigSpicyMeatball)
  • Honestly, this place is only a few Kool-aid packets away from Jonestown mentality at most times. (tlb919, and yes, someone mentioned it wasn’t Kool-aid; the observation still stands.)

But it gets worse. You see, Xenos strongly encourages its unmarried members to move into these “ministry houses.” That’s where its worst abuses happen.

Follow the Money.

More than a few folks in those threads brought up a troubling possibility. It concerns the real function of “ministry houses.” As mentioned, they’re simply dorms made out of single-family homes. But the kids staying in those dorms pay rent for the privilege of living there. Moreover, Xenos leaders push hard for the kids to move into these homes. If Xenos members own those houses, then it suddenly starts looking like they’re using those kids to create a nice fat income stream.

With a lot of these Christian groups, what it really comes down to is wealth creation. Real estate remains one of the easiest ways to create wealth. 

That’s why I presented as such a big huge deal the recent Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) decision to sell off so much land recently. Remember when the Roman Catholic Church flat-out lied about its real-estate holdings to a judge? They sought to protect their land. They hoped to avoid having to sell any of it to pay their sex abuse victims. For that matter, it’s almost certainly why the Roman Catholic Church instituted celibacy as a requirement for priests. The move prevented land from posthumously transmitting to priests’ children. Land equals money, in perpetuity.

Of course, if those kids were good neighbors and not getting howling drunk, overcrowding these single-family homes, throwing ragers regularly, destroying property, clogging the streets with cars during their “ministry” hours, and having 3am basketball games outside, Xenos’ ploy might not arouse so much antipathy. As it is, many of those Columbus Redditors now know about the city’s zoning laws. They now plan to pursue action against the cult.

And they need to expect Xenos to fight that action tooth and nail.

The Reality About Isolation and Shunning.

As most cults do, Xenos pushes members toward practices that quickly ensure that they become hugely isolated from their families and support networks. The leaders demand that members “aggressively” evangelize their friends and family. (Remember Dare 2 Share?) In addition, members spend all of their time pursuing church activities. They cut contact with anybody who criticizes the cult too much.

When someone finally decides to leave, or gets kicked out for the sin of contemplating suicide, Xenos practices the usual abusive shunning BS we expect out of cults.

Redditor oceansnowe reports that he belonged to the cult for almost two years. He moved into one of their “ministry houses.” His superiors tried to force him to pursue friendships with his fellow cultists. They also convinced him to break up with his girlfriend (because they had someone “more suitable for her needs” lined up for her). Finally, they shunned him after he left.

Another Redditor, bangschwang, concurs with the shunning. He went from living with fellow cultists who insisted they loved him “unconditionally” to moving away and never talking to them ever again. He says of the experience, “no one should have to go through that.” And he’s right.

See for more–and even more chilling–examples of the abuses members face in these houses.

To Stop a Cult.

For many of us, today’s post functions as the very first time we’ve ever even heard of this particular cult. But it exists alongside many others. I mentioned a minute ago that my fundie husband Biff and I almost got sucked into a cult in Waco, Texas (right before David Koresh’s group got into national news). We eventually discovered that dozens of little cults operated in the area there. We’d never even heard of any of them.

We all move through a world filled with opportunistic abusers and money-grubbers. Many of those predators discover that cults make a great way to achieve their sick dreams. The Mormon Church and Scientology specifically began in that way, after their founders tried unsuccessfully to achieve wealth and power through other contrivances.

Defusing cults’ marketing requires a concerted effort beginning with children. Teaching children how to detect boundary violations and unfair demands might go a long way toward stopping most cults dead in their tracks.

Unfortunately for children growing up in Christian homes, most of that suggestion sounds like total gibberish. Way too many Christian groups don’t even recognize personal boundaries as valid. Nor do they habitually teach important concepts like consent and self-ownership.

Even for Christian kids who don’t grow up in ultra-authoritarian groups, they may still feel that yearning for original Christianity and Christian community. And as I discovered at eight, their families might not be able to effectively rebut those ideas.

Another Demographic Death Spiral.

All the same, these cults’ days might possibly be numbered.

Every generation of people in America grows up less and less religious. Generation Z has barely gotten started, and almost none of them are fervent fundagelicals. These cults need people who believe in or are open to believing the same underlying worldview to sell their product, and this generation simply doesn’t possess that worldview.

That lack of shared worldview currently decimates the member rolls of Christian churches in America. However, it could become a plus or a minus to cults like Xenos Christian Fellowship. As we’ve seen before, weird cults sometimes find a firm foothold in extremely secular societies like Japan. Often, their doctrines seem so unfamiliar that they end up sounding extra-compelling to people lacking a framework for or traditions supporting strong supernatural beliefs.

That said, America remains a fairly religious country. That framework more than exists here. So I seriously wonder how this is going to shake out for cults like Xenos. I’ve already seen some disturbing signs that they’re branching out internationally, while part of their website even talks about them preying on international students in Columbus.

Chilling! But forewarned is forearmed. Keep your ninja whiskers honed.

he smells presents
(Adam Wilson, CC.) Annnd this is why we haven’t had a Christmas tree in years.

NEXT UP: It’s SPOOKY WEEK! Join me for an evangelical horror story about the Great Husband Hunt.

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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,...

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