Church says it heals, but some say it hurts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was too dark in the auditorium to see her, but the woman standing at the microphone could be heard clearly.

She had experienced a vision, she said, "of a volcano -- huge -- glowing orange. I knew it was about to blow any minute. The spirit has begun to trickle down the sides, but the big explosion is about to come."

That explosion, say leaders of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, is a new era in God's kingdom, marked by massive healings and conversions.

The Severn church, which holds its services at a local high school, bills itself as "the church that heals," both physically and emotionally.

Some former members, however, say it is the church that hurts. They claim Vineyard tries to control them psychologically. At least one disgruntled former member said church leaders told him he would commit suicide; another said retarded children he brought to the church were dismissed as being demonically controlled.

The Vineyard movement claims it does what any genuinely Christian church does, lead people to Jesus Christ and teach them to live godly lives. Marked by a belief that God is preparing to usher in a new era of the miraculous -- national leaders speak of children walking through hospitals healing the sick -- Vineyard also emphasizes what the local pastor, John Odean, calls "servant evangelism".

Once a month, the church goes to a nearby mall and cleans the windows of every car in the lot. They carry groceries for shoppers and hand out free sodas.

"God loves the community, and we just want to reflect that," said the minister.

Detractors, however, say the church's leaders are hurting their own members with unprofessional psychological counseling and cult-like authoritarianism, even as they care for outsiders.

One of a California-based network of more than 300 churches, Anne Arundel County's Vineyard -- the only one in Maryland -- was established 10 years ago, and quickly attracted a following. In recent months, however, growth has slowed as people have moved away, or left the church, the minister said.

Mr. Odean said the congregation had about 350 members last February; now the tally is closer to 250.

Some former members claim the group is cult-like in its attempts to control their lives.

"Innocent people are being sucked in and abused," said John, who asked that his last name not be used. The 33-year-old contractor said church leaders manipulated him spiritually and emotionally until he sank into clinical depression. He says the church pastor called the depression a demonic spirit, predicted John would commit suicide if he left the church, then kicked him out. He said he sought professional help and now leads a healthy life.

"This church screws people up," said John. "I have seen too many people hurt by them."

For Mark, who runs an advertising business, doubts started when, after interviewing for jobs outside the state, he said he was told by the pastor: " 'God does not want you to move to New York.' "

"They act like they have a direct line to God," John said. "They had me convinced [that] if I did move I would be out of God's will."

Mark and his wife say they've have heard the phrase "God has told me . . ." so often they shudder at the words. "They used this so abusively it hits a raw nerve," said Mark.

The couple, like most former members, say their faith is damaged, if not destroyed; they remain fearful of attending other churches and skeptical of Christian leaders.

Mr. Odean dismisses the accusations as sour grapes from disgruntled former members.

"You can't please everybody," he said. "But I know nothing about the reality of the accusations. They go against what I believe and how I believe a church should be run."

But California sociologist Ronald Enroth, an evangelical Christian and author of "Churches That Abuse," said the rapidly growing Vineyard movement has definite problems.

While noting that no two Vineyard churches are alike and not all are abusive, Mr. Enroth said he has encountered dozens of abusive churches within the movement.

"There's a strong control orientation on the part of Vineyard pastors, a tendency towards authoritarianism with regard to spiritual and non-spiritual aspects of people's lives. There is a real sense of spiritual elitism, and a tendency to use fear and guilt as manipulation," he said.

Complaints by ex-members of the Anne Arundel church range from reported attempts to split up married couples to what some view as an unhealthy interest in the supernatural.

One former member -- who said he was abruptly asked to leave after expressing concern that the church was not reaching out to minorities -- claims church members viewed mentally handicapped youngsters he brought to the church as demonically possessed.

Said Paul, a psychology student at Morgan State University: "They over-spiritualize things. John Odean met one of the kids, a paranoid schizophrenic, and pulled the kid's glasses down and looked in his eyes. Later he said to me, 'That kid has demons crawling all over him.' "

Secular cult-watching groups have expressed concern over some of the group's teachings, such as the alleged ability of some leaders, who say they are "prophetically gifted," to read minds.

Said Tom Yoder, a researcher with the national Cult Awareness Network: "These Vineyard leaders say they can can know from divine guidance what is going on in the people around them. Imagine how this makes you feel. Your religious leader said he knows all about you and he acts like he does. You can't disagree."

Mr. Odean said he has occasionally had supernatural insight into someone's mind, but not as often as he would like.

Perhaps most damaging, say ex-members of the Anne Arundel County Vineyard, are the group's attempts at counseling.

"They have this idea, 'We can deal with anything because we have the Spirit of God,' " said John, who emphasizes that he remains an evangelical Christian. "But they deal with volatile issues like sexual abuse and they are not trained. They do a lot of damage."

Said Mark: "They have a six-month healing program I went through. My wife and I were having problems. But they have you dig up your past, and then there's nobody to work through the issues with. Their classic line, once you pinpoint things, is, 'You have to trust the Lord now.' "

While she wouldn't discuss the Vineyard movement specifically, Kathleen Flanagan, a psychologist with Skeen, Dewitt & Associates -- a group of therapists who specialize in treating Christians -- agrees such methods can be dangerous.

Untrained people offering counseling may not understand that people put up psychological defenses for good reasons, to protect themselves from real or perceived threats, Ms. Flanagan said. If the defenses are removed before the person is prepared to cope, "there may be a breakdown. Often this is the point when people end up in a therapist's office."

Mr. Odean denies the varied accusations against Vineyard. "We don't get into deep psychological issues in counseling," he said. "We just try to help people identify where there is unforgiveness in their lives. If there were serious problems, we would refer them to a professional."

He denies having predicted that a former member would commit suicide. He said that telling people what God wants them to do goes against his philosophy.

Mr. Odean, who appears personable and friendly, joined the Jesus People movement during the 1960s, converting so thoroughly that he ended up a clergyman. He has no formal theological training; he often preaches in jeans and work boots.

The movement grew out of a home Bible study group started in Beverly Hills in the early 1970s.

God's power was a repeated theme at one recent church gathering, where about 75 people lifted their hands and sang: "Oh, Lord, have mercy on me and heal me."

The worship period usually ends with "prophecies" by members -- visions, dreams or simply messages they believe come from Heaven. Church members approach a microphone on the floor, but they are hard to see in the dim lighting. The stage is empty, and the effect is that of God speaking out of the darkness.

"I see a scene from the "Lord of the Rings," began a female voice. "The king is plain, but his people know who he is." There are murmurs in the congregation. "People are starting to pick up beautiful weapons. That's what we're in. The muster has begun."

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