Note: Rachel and Amanda are current CSU students whose names have been changed to protect their identities. They wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of their experience with Grace Christian Church.
We’ve all heard it. “Can I ask you a few questions?” They’re on the plaza. They look like students. They’re in their early twenties. When you were first approached, you assumed they might be asking for directions, or for the time. Then you were thrown off when they asked where you think you’ll end up when you die or whether you think the devil is inside you. Many students quickly learn not to engage with them. You come up with a list of responses: “I’m actually late for class.” “I’m on my way to work.” “I have to get to office hours.” Some just tell them to “f*ck off.” But Rachel didn’t. Rachel was raised in a Christian home, and when she came to college, she was looking for a church to call her own. Like many of us, she initially avoided the campus ministers from Grace Christian Church. They approached her, and she told them she was already Christian, essentially blowing them off. The organization’s campus crusaders are internally referred to as “ministers.” These are people who have progressed far enough into the program and are committed enough to the group’s message to be trusted to recruit more students. They are responsible for the students they recruit. They carpool them to Bible study and to church, and they report their recruitment successes to the higher-ups in the organization. The second semester of her freshman year, Rachel became more invested in finding a church. Early in spring 2011, she was approached by one of these ministers, again outside her residence hall. This time, she agreed to attend their Bible study the following week, and soon after started attending their church services. Initially, they seemed like any other church group. For her, the red flags started much later. “People joke that they’re a cult. … They don’t know how right they are, and they don’t know why they’re right,” Rachel said.
Faith Christian Church moves to Fort Collins
Jason Kluge began his ministry in 1996 with Faith Christian Church in Tucson, Arizona. In 2001, he and eight other members moved to Fort Collins with support from Faith Christian in Tucson and founded Grace Christian Church, an offshoot of Faith Christian. The group targets underclassmen and people who haven’t yet found their campus community, or who are looking to join a church or a Bible study. Grace Christian’s organized meetings take up about five hours of a student’s time each week. Outside of those church-related meetings, members host parties at their homes on Friday nights. These parties don’t have drugs or alcohol and, according to Rachel, were a major factor in her initial involvement. “For students like me who weren’t really into the party scene, it was nice to have somewhere to go on Friday nights where that stuff wasn’t happening,” Rachel said. “That was one of the main reasons I stayed involved for so long.” The group does not have a sanctuary. When she started, Rachel’s minister carpooled her to services at the Hilton on Center Avenue and Prospect Road, but now the group meets at Rocky Mountain High School. As soon as students arrive, they are welcomed. According to Rachel, they are excessively welcomed. “They — like many, many, many organizations — they practice something called love bombing, not that they would call it that, but it’s like an unofficial term,” Rachel said. Love bombing is a practice of overt friendliness. According to Rachel, the moment you enter the community, you have 30 instant friends who all want to talk to you, and everyone wants to get to know you. They compliment everything — your clothes, your hair, your shoes.
The focus on campus
The Grace Christian Church ministers have become as infamous as the preachers who stand on the free-speech stump on the Plaza and yell at students, calling us Sodomites and whores. Grace Christian targets college campuses because its members don’t see universities as pillars of education and higher learning, but rather as breeding grounds for sin. Maybe they’re right. CSU was named one of the top party schools in the nation by Playboy magazine last year, and students have thrown multiple block parties-turned-vandalous riots. These are among the reasons Grace Christian Church ministers criticize us.
According to former minister Lisa Phillips, the group is very narrowly focused — everything is targeted toward the college campus ministry. She remembers the mantra being, “Change the campus, change the world.”
“When you’re a young person, you let the red flags go because you want to be part of something where you feel like you have purpose and something bigger than yourself,” she said.
For the past 25 years, Steve Hall has served as the head pastor of the now-infamous Faith Christian community in Arizona. He writes books and Biblical commentary that each of the seven campus offshoot ministries uses in its liturgy. This commentary, while inspiring and uplifting to many, has caused concern for others, including the administration at the University of Arizona. As reported by the Arizona Daily Star, the church meets all five warning signs for “religious practices gone awry” and was placed on the University Religious Council’s list of groups students should avoid. The group hasn’t received a similar designation at Colorado State University, but CSU’s free speech and peaceful assembly policy applies to all persons on University property. CSU upholds First Amendment protections, but has established regulations to those free-speech rights “to assure the safety of the campus community,” naming the Lory Student Center Plaza as the “primary designated public forum … for the purpose of exercising free speech and assembly.” Grace Christian Church does not always adhere to CSU’s policies. A couple weeks into the spring semester of her freshman year, Rachel was approached by a minister outside her residence hall at Academic Village. It was nice outside, a sunny February day. She was on her way back from the gym. “I saw her coming. I think by that point I had grown accustomed to how they are … they kind of make a beeline for you and, you know, they fixate on you,” Rachel said. She didn’t know at the time that it was against CSU policy for this group to approach students near the dorms — they were such a fixture on campus that it didn’t surprise her. Justin Eaker, a senior physics major, said when he first got involved in 2011, his minister was incredibly persistent in getting him to come to church. Eaker was first approached on the Plaza, but his minister would call and text him from the lobby of his residence hall. He felt extreme pressure not to socialize with anyone outside the church. His minister told him not to befriend people outside the community because they would corrupt him. “He really started pressuring me multiple times a day, even if I didn’t respond … to where if I wouldn’t, he’d tell me I’d go to hell, which made me feel even more pressure to go,” Eaker said.
“I felt like I couldn’t really leave.”
Eaker stopped attending services after he went home for the summer following his freshman year. When Rachel started training to become a campus minister, she also became privy to the inner workings of how certain recruitment decisions are made. “They knew at this time that the solicitation of students according to CSU’s by-laws cannot occur outside of the Plaza and the academic spine,” Rachel said. “They know that. They see it as a violation of their free speech rights so they violate that rule willingly and knowingly.”
Distancing members from family
Lois and John Kluge’s son, Jason, was one of the founding members of Grace Christian Church. They live in Tucson, Arizona, where Jason attended college. They were happy for him because he was excited about the church. Growing up, he had always made the right decisions, and they trusted that this was just another church fellowship group. It took them years to learn that it wasn’t. It’s subtle. It starts with Bible study and services on Sundays. Members are slowly brought in, and as they become more involved, they become more and more isolated from everyone else in their lives. Members are told their parents made mistakes in raising them. Their flaws, their sins and their shortcomings are attributed to their parents. This leads members to believe they are saved, but their parents — and everyone around them — aren’t. Members are told to stay away from people who might lead them back to sin, even when these people are their own families. “Students frequently lose friends,” Rachel said. “They lose the relationships with their families, so that over the course of a year or two, similar to what happened to me, they don’t know anybody outside the church. If they leave, they are very much alone and isolated, so they don’t do it because that’s terrifying.” This only tightens the grip the church has on the students involved. When Sandy Wade’s daughter, who attended CSU and wished to remain unnamed in this article, didn’t want to come home before her father was about to deploy overseas, it began to raise red flags. “Her dad was getting ready to leave for Afghanistan,” Wade said. “We’ve been a military family for 30 years, and this is his 10th deployment. She knows the deal.” Wade remembers her daughter saying she couldn’t come home because she had to help with a children’s church service. The church told her she made a commitment to them and it’s important for her to keep her commitments. When she told them her father was deploying, they asked her if she really thought her dad was going to die. When she timidly told them no, they told her that there was no reason for her to go home. “God’s not going to let anything happen to him.” Those were the words Wade remembers her daughter telling her. “And that’s when I knew,” Wade said. “We’ve buried enough friends in the military that she knows that when it’s his time, it’s his time, and you better take advantage of every minute you have together while you can.” Wade staged an intervention for her daughter.
Dating and relationship mandates
Rachel discovered fairly quickly that dating and relationships are frowned upon in the church. The pastors never specifically said dating wasn’t allowed — it just never happens. This occurs because of the belief that when a couple is meant to be together, they will receive a message from God. “They have to wait for (the pastor’s) permission before they can even pursue each other, and even after they pursue each other — only after the day they are married — they are not left alone together, they don’t touch. They side hug, but they don’t hold hands, they don’t kiss, nothing,” Rachel said. The man plans out a date. He proposes on that date or within a few weeks. The couple announces their engagement to the congregation and shares their testimony about how it came to be and how they realized they were meant to be together. “The first time I was there and heard about it, I was like, ‘You know, that is so cool. I want that. I want to not have to worry about who my husband is. I don’t want to try. I want God to tell me. I want it to be quick because it sucks waiting. And I want everything to just kind of be given to me.’ … They always seemed so happy with it,” Rachel said. Couples are married six months after the engagement. Within a year, most couples are pregnant. If the woman does not become pregnant, there are questions about what is wrong. Rachel learned of this process from a friend of hers in the church who had just gotten engaged. When the couple has children, the wife does not work — it is her job to home-school the children. The couple is expected to raise their children the way the church dictates.
Parents are instructed in teaching obedience
Jeff and Lisa were ministers in the church for 15 years and finally left when they began to question the directions they were given to discipline their children. Congregants are expected to teach their children obedience. When the child gets old enough to roll over onto its stomach and lift its head on its own, parents are instructed to start spanking the child. One method uses the cardboard dowel from pants hangers. When the baby is lying on its stomach and raises its head or tries to roll over, the child is spanked until it stops. This is to completely stifle any sign of rebellion. Rachel said this practice is attributed to scripture, Proverbs 23:13, which states, “Withhold not correction from the child: for if you beat him with the rod, he shall not die.” Lisa said she and her husband felt uncomfortable disciplining their child this way. Their child was “rebellious,” but they had no control over his outbursts. Lisa said because the rest of the children were so intensely disciplined, her child’s tantrums couldn’t go unnoticed. Lisa was told she was an “indulgent mom” and she needed to control her “rebellious kids.” Then she and her husband found out their son was autistic. He had difficulty expressing himself, so he was prone to crying and throwing fits. They were too afraid to tell anyone. Shortly after they left the church, her husband started to pursue a Masters of Divinity — a field of study that is frowned upon in the church. According to Rachel, seminaries are deemed evil in the eyes of the congregation — she surmises it is because seminaries teach the actual scripture, not a corrupt version. Lisa said her husband came home excited to share what he was learning and began to see how the church leaders twisted scripture. “Our eyes began to be opened,” she said.
The church controls finances
Wade’s daughter received a job offer in her field before she graduated from CSU. She decided not to take it and wanted to go on staff at the church instead. According to Wade, before her daughter could become a campus minister, the church asked for her banking information and an expense report indicating how much money she spends each month. They then required her to work unpaid throughout the summer. She, like every other minister they employ, was expected to raise her own support. This support could come from anywhere — from family and friends to cold calls. Once the upper management at Grace Christian could be sure she could garner enough funds to help sustain herself — and have enough left over for the church — they would decide if she could go on staff. Her call asking for her financial information startled her mother, who wondered if it was some kind of scam. “No employer would ever ask these questions,” Wade said. According to former church minister Lisa Phillips this financial structure is the setup in each of the church’s offshoots. Ministers reach out to family, friends and strangers, asking them to become financial partners. Checks are made out to the organization, and when money comes in, it is earmarked with which minister recruited that specific donation. Phillips said campus groups may take out 10 to 20 percent of each payment for “administrative fees,” but as she remembers, ministers get most of the money they raise. Rachel said her ministers were living off what must have been about $40,000 a year. Financial records for Grace Christian Church are private and could not be obtained, but according to Larimer County property records, Chris Tomlinson, one of the founders of Grace Christian Church, owns five properties in Fort Collins and Loveland. Four are single family residences and the fifth is a barn. His wife, Jennifer, is named as the primary owner of two of the properties. Their property holdings total $1,571,900.
Leaving the cult
Rachel explained that the church got into her head and convinced her the path she was on was the wrong one. Rachel ended up changing her major because of the pressure she felt from the church. “I changed it back once I realized what I was doing was dumb because I’m good at what I do, but I started to feel guilty for what I was doing in school,” Rachel said. “Over time, it develops into a sense of anxiety because there’s never an offer for help when you’re stressed.” She said the hardest part was re-establishing relationships with her friends outside the church once she left. The church has a way of insulating members with their community, and only their community.
“With cults, I think one of the defining qualities is how they attempt to deter people from leaving, and what happens with all the church offshoots is they actively shun members from leaving because if they leave the church they’re no longer walking a Christian path,” Rachel said.
Lisa Phillips said after she left, the nightmares didn’t go away for more than a year. She would dream she was stuck at a church gathering and couldn’t speak to anyone. In the dream, she would cry, but no one acknowledged her tears. She would wake up angry. Every time the phone rang, she worried it was someone from the church.
Colorado State University resources
According to Colorado State University Dean of Students Jody Donovan, the University has received complaints about Grace Christian Church. Donovan also said complaints increased once media coverage in Arizona reported on the Faith Christian sect in Tucson. “The University is considering the concerns and complaints that have come forward,” Donovan wrote in an email to the Collegian. Amanda is one of the students who came forward to report the experience she had with Grace Christian Church to CSU’s Division of Student Affairs. Amanda’s name has been changed to protect her privacy. “It was amazing,” Amanda said. “(CSU was) so nice, and they were so genuinely interested and concerned about what happened to me. I was blown away at how polite they were and how comfortable they made me feel.” Sandy Wade was one of the parents who reached out to the administration to voice concerns but was told that the University couldn’t intervene without a complaint from a current student. Wade’s daughter was part of the group for two years, and Wade ultimately staged an intervention for her daughter to get her out. Wade said she thinks CSU has a responsibility to protect its students, whether they’re currently enrolled or alumni. “I know they’re walking a fine line between freedom of religion and freedom of speech, and they want current students to complain, but the fallacy in that is that this organization knows that if current students aren’t doing anything but having the time of their life and making the best friends of their life and they’re not seeing the really bad stuff, then there’s nothing CSU can do,” Wade said.
Starting a support group
One night, Lisa and Jeff Phillips were on Facebook, messaging other former members of Faith Christian. Once they left, no one else in their lives could really understand what they went through in their 15 years with the church. Other people who had also left became their community. The support group started organically. The initial group had a thread that went on for hours and hours as a private message. Then one of them finally started a formal Facebook page. Lisa said she didn’t expect it to grow or gain much traction. “It was a place we felt safe and could talk,” Lisa said. Then other ex-members started joining. Now the Facebook group, “Former Members of Faith Christian Church Tucson and Its Offshoots,” has over 360 likes. They post information about how you can tell if a church is bad for you along with supportive scripture passages. “I would think that would be a red flag at first to members that there’s a support group that exists for these churches,” Rachel said. But the group exists for family members as well as ex-members. Lois Kluge found the support group after her son cut off all contact with her.
“You can imagine, all of a sudden we weren’t alone. There were other people who had experienced the very same thing,” Lois said.
Sandy Wade said she hopes what happened to her daughter never happens to another student. She doesn’t want what her family went through to happen to someone else. A year after the intervention, her daughter told her she was grateful her mother got her out when she did. “If I had gotten further in, you’d have never seen or heard from me again,” Wade remembers her daughter telling her. Rachel hopes when students are approached, they’ll do some research, or even Google the church, before they become too involved. “I think a lot of people that are there now would have never joined the church if they knew all the stuff that happens behind closed doors, but they don’t see that, and by the time they do see it, it’s almost too late because they’re completely isolated,” Rachel said.
Attempts to contact Grace Christian Church
On April 20, the Collegian emailed Grace Christian Church requesting an interview. A follow up email was sent on April 23. On April 30 the Collegian sent a third email with another request for comment, along with a list of 10 questions. On April 20 and April 30, the Collegian phoned the number listed on Grace Christian’s website and on May 1, called a minister who is still involved in recruiting students. The Collegian received no comment from Grace Christian Church at time of publishing.
Collegian Content Managing Editor Kate Simmons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @k8mckee.