Dump your boyfriend for Jesus or be damned: The London Church of Christ shows no mercy to those who don't pass muster, as Nick Thorpe and Niky Price found out when they posed as potential members to investigate its recruiting techniques

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A BUS STOP in the morning rush hour is not an obvious place for a pick-up. And the smiling French girl had an unusual opening line. 'Hi, how are you? Would you like to come to a bible meeting?'

Her feet were glued to the ground. She stared intently, waiting for an answer. Her name was Beatrice. She was from the London Church of Christ.

She was well-dressed, attractive and bright, and about my age: in her early twenties. I took her phone number to shake her off.

Two days later, I am sitting with Beatrice and several other seemingly well-adjusted young adults in a Burger King at King's Cross. The tables are cluttered with fast food and bibles. People laugh and hug. It is like a school reunion. Others clutch highlighter pens and pore over Leviticus in the course of their bible study.

It all seems harmless enough, if a little eccentric. After half an hour we all set off for the formal part of the evening, where about 100 people - all of them young - are gathering in a large college hall. We sing and clap our way through several upbeat choruses together. Everyone is smiling, full of energy.

It is this welcome that attracts so many towards what has been dubbed 'Britain's fastest-growing and most dangerous cult'. One moment you are talking to a stranger on the street, the next you are part of a family.

The London Church of Christ considers it has returned to a pure, New Testament Christianity with strong emphasis on the Bible. It is a branch of a movement that was started in Boston in 1979 by a young evangelist, and it claims to be the only true Christian church. Organised on a pyramid-selling structure, its members ascend the ladder of authority in direct relation to their success in attracting new members.

Eileen Barker, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, is the founder of Inform, which researches into and provides information about new religious movements. She believes an important difference between the London Church of Christ and some fundamentalist and evangelical groups within the mainstream is accountability. 'There are a lot of groups trying to go back to early Christianity that are not so demanding. They would say you get saved by taking Jesus into your hearts, whereas the London Church of Christ says you are saved by Jesus, but only through them. Its strong authority structure is worrying.'

Membership in Britain has grown to about 2,000 since three Americans first started recruiting in a London suburb in 1982. There are now branches in cities such as Birmingham, Leeds, Oxford, Liverpool, Newcastle, Manchester and Edinburgh. Worldwide membership is near 50,000, says a church leader.

Cult helplines in London report a large number of inquiries from worried friends and relations of members all over the country. 'It's one of the top cults in terms of the number of calls,' says Ian Howarth, of the Cult Information Centre. 'It's probably the most active group in Britain.'

But not all critics of the church would call it a cult. 'It's an overall term that tries to simplify the problem,' says Charlotte Hardman, of Inform. 'The anti-cult movement makes all people passive victims. It's far more complex than that. People who join a religious sect are willing members. They may have enormous pressure put on them to stay, but it is not brainwashing.'

Almost immediately, new members find themselves part a lifestyle that demands all their energies. Many move into communes, all must actively recruit on the streets - or by 'busing and tubing' - and attendance of up to five church meetings each week is compulsory. As most also work or study full time, normal socialising is squeezed out, and many become cut off from friends and family. An authoritarian leadership structure enforces personal decisions and financial donations of at least 10 per cent of members' incomes.

Even in a small area meeting near King's Cross you can feel the pressure. Curtains are pulled down the middle of the room to separate the sexes - the evening's special lecture includes instructions on dumping your boyfriend for Jesus. The leader, Siobhan, pulls no punches. 'If you find it difficult to give up your boyfriend, think of the pain of having a nail hammered into your hand, or God's pain at watching his son die.'

This is only one of many sacrifices already made by Beatrice and others for the sake of a church that demands total control. 'Before I came here I had been going out with an Irishman for two years,' says Beatrice. 'I really loved him, but after joining the church, I realised that we weren't on the same intellectual plane. It would have been impossible for me to be with someone not in the church.'

Recruitment is another condition of Beatrice's membership. 'Everyone must bring a visitor to the bible discussion,' says Tim Dannatt, 'zone leader' for north London. 'If you're not being fruitful, it is time to look at your life. There is obviously some serious sinning to talk about.'

The church's members include solicitors, accountants, students, models, even, it claims, an Olympic bronze medallist. Almost all are under 30. Carl Williams, 23, a student at Sussex University, was a member for four years. 'There was this sense of euphoria, a feeling we were God's elite,' he says. 'People got on a high thinking they had found the truth. We were the only true Christians on the planet.'

He was a potential 'future leader' and received special nurturing. Only then did the small print emerge. 'It became apparent that people in power were on an ego trip. I got the impression that having their orders carried out was more important than the members' welfare.'

Carl remembers rigorous conditions placed on dating, which was allowed only within the church, and then only if it was officially approved by the leaders. 'After your maximum one date a week there would be a critique on your behaviour by the woman, who would say whether your conversation had been spiritual enough. A lot of men thought it wasn't worth the hassle.'

Sex is allowed only within marriage and even then it is rare. 'Saturday night has become known as 'nookie night' because it is the only night when couples are not too knackered from church functions,' says Carl.

On leaving the sect, he says, 'they dropped me completely. Their friendship is always very conditional. It can be hard to get over when undying love is declared the one minute, and the next you are dumped.'

The church has been banned by several university student unions - including Newcastle, Birmingham, Aston, King's College London, Manchester and the LSE - because of underachievement and fatigue among student members. Their studies have to come second to the church.

The Rev Keith Albans, Methodist chaplain at Birmingham University, has seen many join the church within their first weeks at college. 'It is seen as a safe port at a time in their lives when everything is changing. It is also very vibrant,' he says. 'When first-years arrived in Birmingham they would be snatched up before they had a chance to make any other friends, and separated from university life by living in the church's shared accommodation.'

In January, London Church of Christ leaders interviewed all members and evicted 400-600 of the most 'lukewarm' - almost half of the 1,200-strong congregation - who were not bringing in enough visitors. They were told they did not love God enough. Chris Watkins, a student in Guildford, was one of those behind the purge. Could the sudden withdrawal of friendship have a devastating psychological effect?

'Not at all, man,' he replied. 'This church brings people together. . . . If people get messed up, it is by their own deliberate sin. Jesus is very clear about sin. He whipped the people out of the father's house. . . .'

For those who failed to make the grade, the effects are easy to imagine. 'These people have had their world exploded,' says Ian Howarth. 'One moment they think they are with the elite, the only truly saved people on earth. Next minute they are on the street, going to hell. They have lost everything.'

Dr Elizabeth Tylden is a consultant psychiatrist who treats former members for psychological disorders. She says common symptoms include feelings of failure, an inability to make decisions alone and ongoing obsession with the church. 'People are so full of guilt, they turn these things over and over in their minds. One patient had to be put in a psychiatric hospital and they still didn't leave him alone. He was told he should be proselytising in his ward.

'It's a totalitarian system,' she says. 'The worst thing is, they put untrained people in positions of complete power. Each member has to consult their 'discipler' over whatever they do, how they spend their money, what girlfriend or boyfriend they have - almost down to what toothpaste they use.

'I've tried to contact the ministers to persuade them to have a little bit of mercy, but they won't listen. I cannot persuade them to look at forgiveness in any sense.'

This pressure to succeed is very much in evidence at the church's central gathering on Sunday morning at the Odeon cinema, Leicester Square. You can sense it in the impossibly jolly voice of the street evangelist. Inside, five sharply dressed men sit framed against plush velvet curtains, near a spotlit podium decked with greenery. More than a thousand people are buzzing in the auditorium. Most look like students or professionals; about half are white. Few look more than 30 years old.

Chris McGrath, a north London butcher, takes the rostrum, after a welcome reminiscent of a gameshow host. His sermon is about 'Hitting the Wall'. Many members, it seems, find they run out of energy in their street evangelism. Like marathon runners, they feel they can't keep up the pace and are not bringing enough people into the church. Well, Chris has news for them. They are not praying hard enough.

'Brothers and sisters, have you hit the wall? Then it's time for you to push through the mediocrity of your lives, and the standards the world is setting for you] We are of God] We are not of this world]'

Two weeks later, the Odeon is again packed out, but this time the tone is more defensive. Events in Waco, Texas, have focused attention on religious groups such as this and Douglas Arthur, the American who brought the church to Britain, is back in London to reassure his flock.

Young, handsome and waggish, he is greeted by deafening, adulatory whistles and shouts. His sermon is a witty, biblical, damage-limitation exercise. 'Some of us find controversy hard to handle,' he says. 'All it takes is some nut in Texas, and suddenly everyone's looking for their local cult.' Laughter.

'But this is not a cult. There are a few ways to knowing if you are in a cult. Firstly, your leader says he's Jesus Christ. (More laughter) Secondly, you bring your gun, not your song book. (Uproar).'

He takes us through a number of bible stories, peppered all the way through with one-liners that keep people on his side. But his underlying message is deadly serious.

'Jesus was comfortable in controversy. And the worst thing that could happen to us is not controversy but anonymity.'

Yet the leaders of the church are not quite so comfortable with controversy themselves, it seems. Almost all have gone ex-directory and refuse to answer requests for interview.

Any questioning of their authority can result in curt replies, says Ayman Akshar, a business consultant and church member, who was ostracised when he tried to investigate the organisation's financial arrangements.

'Over nine months ago I noticed there were no wage slips for full-time church staff and no contracts,' he says. 'When I asked why, I was told it was none of my business. The church leader said my main concern should not be finance but my relationship with God.' Ayman has since been asked to leave, but he refuses. He is married to another church member and for the past three years their lives have revolved around the church.

'I left Islam seven years ago and turned to Christianity, only to be faced with the same kind of double standards, hypocrisy and secrecy. I will voice my opinions until I see some changes.'

The pain of reconciling doctrine with doubt

'I EVANGELISE on the train most days,' John, 23, says. 'I'll just go up to somebody and say, 'Hi, are you a Christian? Would you like to come to church with me?'

'The responses are pretty varied. Some people give you abuse, some ignore you or walk away, others say 'That's very kind of you but no thanks', which is rather like saying 'No thanks, I don't want to go to heaven',' he says with a nervous laugh. A minority say yes.

John (not his real name) is articulate and, friendly. He dropped out of university after two years, got a job in a solicitor's office, and had started evening classes for a law degree when he got involved with the church six months ago. 'I was sitting on the tube at about 9.30 in the evening, and I'd had a bit too much to drink. Somebody sat down next to me and asked me to a meeting. I was going to a United Reform church with an average age of 97 at the time. I thought I was a Christian, and then I found out I wasn't'

Within two weeks he moved into one of the church's single-sex communes, and became involved in meetings and activities. He admits his legal studies have begun to look shaky. 'I can't find the motivation for it any more. I find my time's more restricted. I don't have the time to spend with non-Christian friends, but to be honest, they've not exactly been shouting down the phone saying where are you. I think my parents are a bit intimidated, a bit worried for me. I see them less now. I feel like they'd almost rather I went out and got drunk . . . than followed the Bible.'.

There's something attractively frank about John. But his God is as demanding as his leaders: 'At one stage God killed 40,000 Israelites because their hearts had gone stone cold and they'd turned away from him completely . . . This is how intense God is.'

'Intense' is a word that is used a lot. God is intense, experiences are intense. For John, it seems ordinary life wasn't intense enough.

He recalls a friend who was asked to leave the church. It is as though he is talking about someone who has died. 'He was desperately insecure, and there was one particular sin that he just couldn't stop doing. If a guy gets like that, then he's got to move out of the house because he's a very negative influence. Now his heart's just gone cold. It's really sad . . . .'

But in quieter moments his words suggest he hasn't given up thinking. The clash of received doctrine with genuine doubts is painful to watch. 'I've become unhappy here,' he says. 'But that's only because my life has become at variance with God's. It's not that I hate God or that I want to get out of here. It's just a feeling that I can't do this.

'But of course,' he adds quickly, 'it's all a question of perseverance . . . .'

(Photograph omitted)

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