A new billboard just outside of Columbus, Ohio tells members of Dwell Community Church that it’s possible to escape the abusive Christian congregation. The sign reads, “Stuck in Dwell Community Church? There is hope.”
Why would such a sign be necessary? Because, according to NBC4 reporter Jamie Ostroff, a number of former members have alleged “exploitation and emotional abuse.” Ostroff published a series of articles earlier this year bringing attention to the Christian church, formerly called Xenos Christian Fellowship. (My OnlySky colleague Captain Cassidy has written about the church as well.)
[Mark] Kennedy and other former members described shaming an exploitation of teenagers.
“I saw sexual information that was extracted from – literally, minors — and being shared with these adults, these college students,” said Kennedy.
And in church-sanctioned ministry houses, former residents described crowded and potentially unsafe living conditions.
“They pile in as many as they can,” said former member Lexi Thompson. “I lived with 13 roommates for probably about six or seven months.”
As a leader, [Ian] Martin said he did things he now feels were manipulative, including recruiting younger members whose parents were not members of Xenos.
“I remember telling kids in middle school and in high school that, you know, ‘f— your parents … they’re crazy. They’re crazy, and they don’t love God. And you need to come to more meetings.’”
Martin explained that Xenos members were isolated from nonmembers, largely due to the time commitment from the number of meetings.
“You don’t have anyone. We’ve separated you from your family, we’ve separated you from your friends from the outside, we’ve done a really good job of making you part of this system, and now we have control over you,” Martin said.
While there are no criminal allegations against the church, the level of control it exhibited over members, no matter the intent, is frightening. Just because it doesn’t necessarily fit some textbook definition of a cult doesn’t mean it wasn’t one functionally. And that’s what led some former members to raise money to put up a billboard in the community.
… after several painful years, I realized being in the church was incompatible with my soul’s own vitality. I left the church and slowly began to rediscover myself, rebuild my relationships with my family, and learn that friends could love me for me – God didn’t actually expect me to spend all my time with people who judged me and picked me apart for every thought and action. I was also free to spend time doing the things I love to do, instead of feeling ashamed for them not being the “right” things that will help “get people saved.”
The truth is billboards like this could be placed outside any number of evangelical megachurches that take over the lives of their members and make them feel like they need the church to survive. Your volunteering time goes to them. Your friends are other members. Your money becomes donations. It’s all-encompassing and—this is where it becomes a serious problem—all-controlling. When a glorified book club takes over your entire life and dictates how you ought to live your life in a way that involves repression and bigotry and denying reality, it’s time to find new hobbies. Or at least a different book club.
The resources on the Leaving Dwell website include support groups for LGBTQ people, other local churches, professional counseling, and more. There are also questions people can ask themselves to know if they suffered spiritual abuse.
Dwell leaders have argued they’re not keeping people there against their will, which is true. But when you’ve emotionally manipulated people to stay, it’s not like you need to lock the doors to keep them in. So if anyone has suffered at the church, it’s good to know there are people out there who are better off because they left and they’re eager to help others obtain their freedom, too.