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At Gracepoint Ministries, ‘Entire-Life Discipleship’ Took I…… | Information & Reporting

Gracepoint Church checks all of the containers of a faculty ministry success story.

Based in 1981 across the idea of whole-life discipleship, the church—then generally known as Berkland Baptist—established itself as a house for Asian American college students attending the College of California, Berkeley. With the mission to plant “an Acts 2 church in each faculty city,” Gracepoint stands out amongst the loose network of predominantly Asian American faculty church buildings that pepper campuses throughout the West Coast and past.

Positioned on over 60 campuses, it has launched church crops in 35 cities nationwide, in addition to one in Taiwan, with 15 new church buildings planted in 2021 alone.

At campus golf equipment like Klesis and Acts2Fellowship, Gracepoint pushes faculty college students to wrestle with robust questions and pursue church mentorship. At commencement, it encourages younger Christians to stay life on mission by becoming a member of workers at certainly one of its campuses or serving to launch a brand new one. Staying at Gracepoint has a powerful attraction, echoing the coming-of-age movies that ask, Why can’t faculty final without end?

“I assume you can say we have been only a bunch of people that loved faculty life a lot that we by no means left it,” the church quips in a promotional video.

“I feel individuals expertise a non secular vibrancy and efficiency and only a heat and depth of relationship with God that they haven’t skilled elsewhere,” stated Michael Kim, a member on the church’s Santa Barbara campus who was raised at Gracepoint. “For serving members, it’s excessive strain, excessive labor, excessive toil, however excessive gratification.”

However many who have been concerned in Gracepoint say the church’s need to pursue radical dwelling, coupled with the tempo of its ministry, has come at a price—its members.

“They do good, however the course of wherein they implement that good is spiritually abusive,” stated Joshua Mun, a former member who grew up attending the Berkeley church and served at varied Gracepoint church crops all through his 20s.

Thirty-two former Gracepoint members who spoke with Christianity In the present day for this story described a tradition that was “controlling” and “coercive” for the sake of ministry effectivity.

Members stated they have been manipulated into confessing sins, screamed at by leaders, and overloaded with obligations to the purpose of sickness. To maintain members targeted on mission work, Gracepoint successfully restricted relationship, media consumption, and pet possession. Leaders directed workers on methods to organize their houses, the place to buy garments, and what vehicles to drive.

“My chief’s phrases have been just like the phrases of God,” stated Mun, who left the church final 12 months due partially to anxiousness. “I seen God as this extremely delicate, temperamental, judgmental being. I’m one sin away from him dropping the hammer and smiting me, as a result of that’s what my leaders have been representing to me.”

Gracepoint has confronted many years of criticism from members who left its ranks, however allegations drew new consideration final 12 months on a channel of the message board website Reddit. Posters allege they have been belittled by church leaders, inspired to take on credit card debt to fund ministry bills, and slandered after choosing to leave the church.

“I’m very sorry for many who really feel they’ve skilled hurt beneath our ministry,” wrote Ed Kang, the church’s senior pastor and community chief, in an e-mail response to questions despatched by CT. Kang stated he could be “keen to listen to from them in order that we are able to search therapeutic, apologize when vital, and search reconciliation.”

A regional director for the church, Daniel Kim (no relation to Michael Kim), shared his contact info on the discussion board, asking these in search of “private reconciliation” to achieve out. He instructed CT that eight individuals have contacted him since he first posted in April 2021.

Over the course of CT reporting this text, Gracepoint has begun to rethink facets of its ministry type and implement reforms. Kang instructed CT the church is specializing in “dialing down the excellence” in response to inner reflection and public criticism.

“One conclusion was that quite a lot of {our relationships} have been disrupted due to our church planting efforts,” Kang stated. “Now we have been too activity oriented, making an attempt to do quite a bit with fewer individuals and thinned-out relationships.”

But even when acknowledging former members’ damage, leaders have prioritized the damage they’ve done to Gracepoint’s ministry by making their grievances public.

On a new church podcast launched final month, Isaiah Kang, Ed’s son, stated nameless posters are “not messengers from heaven.” He added, “No matter else could also be true—chances are you’ll be wronged, you most likely have been wronged—that doesn’t make what you do proper.”

While faculty ministries like InterVarsity and Asian American Christian Fellowship have been launching packages to serve a rising wave of Asian immigrants and second-generation Asian People, Rebekah and Paul Kim (no relation to the opposite Kims) planted a church to minister to Korean People at UC Berkeley in 1981. On the border of Berkeley and Oakland, the church was named Berkland Baptist.

Berkland members bonded as each Christians and Korean People, usually referring to older church members by Korean honorifics—hyung for older brother and noona for older sister.

“One of many issues that’s good in regards to the Korean tradition is that when somebody needs you near them, they make you a part of their household,” stated a former longtime Berkland member who requested to not be named as a result of his shut ties with Gracepoint management. “You’re not only a fellow brother in Christ; you’re actually my brother. You’re my true household. These sorts of values have been thought-about important as a part of the church.”

That familial perspective tied into the church’s mannequin of whole-life discipleship. Like many faculty ministries the place younger adults decide to codes of conduct, accountability, and group obligations, Berkland attracted Asian American college students with its strict however tight-knit ministry philosophy.

They joined the church, paired with disciplers for mentorship, fervently studied Scripture, and evangelized on their campuses, seeing extra added to the church. (Due to the church’s give attention to faculty ministry, leaders discouraged members from inviting coworkers or neighbors who have been out of faculty.)

By getting concerned in Berkland, and later Gracepoint, college students have been anticipated to forgo the everyday liberties related to faculty life. The church’s pointers have been enforced not as guidelines however as “stances” and “values.”

Undergraduate college students have been discouraged from relationship and, in some instances, pressured to interrupt up. (The church is reconsidering its stance towards relationship, Kang stated.) When disciplers authorised of a relationship relationship, each events have been nonetheless anticipated to maintain it non-public. Half a dozen former members recalled studying that {couples} have been collectively solely upon receiving marriage ceremony invites.

Once they turned a part of the ministry staff, Gracepoint members have been required to put in web filtering software program like Covenant Eyes on their units. Leaders might observe display time not simply to test for pornography but in addition to discourage customers from listening to Okay-pop or watching an excessive amount of ESPN. Kang instructed CT the church tries to mitigate “the consequences of the media-entertainment advanced and tech firms” and has traditionally discouraged the usage of televisions and social media.

In line with Len Tang, director of the Church Planting Initiative at Fuller Theological Seminary, high-pressure church buildings like Gracepoint usually implement a “methodological purity” inside their ministry.

“A methodological purity would possibly say that faculty ministry should be accomplished in a selected method. It’s a must to disciple them in a selected method, or you could isolate them or separate them from sure influences,” Tang stated.

Younger members have been being discipled to observe not solely the Bible but in addition the church’s tradition—what was acceptable, what was lauded by their leaders as indicators of their devotion. And once they violated these expectations, usually unknowingly, the outcomes may very well be explosive.

Paul Lee stated his pastor at UC Riverside known as to yell at him for having espresso with a feminine pal on workers, which he had accomplished earlier than however didn’t know was frowned on. “He jumped so shortly to scolding me, actually ensuring I used to be on this posture of disgrace,” Lee stated.

Paperwork from 2011 taught church leaders to rebuke members “in order that the individual will get to have correct concern towards God & correct shock over what he has accomplished,” with the coach modeling screaming and slamming the desk, in line with former workers. Kang stated such rebukes are rare and such coaching couldn’t be used now with the “anxiousness and emotional fragility” of right now’s era.

These outbursts shamed members for not following the requirements of their group. However what might need felt like conviction from God in the mean time they later noticed because the leaders’ aggression.

One Thanksgiving, Austin Lee (no relation to Paul) was berated for not tithing sufficient after transferring cross-country to assist plant a church on the College of North Carolina with out constant employment. Pastor Richard Tjhen instructed CT he turned “agitated and aggravated” as a result of Austin Lee was defensive throughout their dialog. Tjhen stated that his personal actions have been “completely inappropriate and never our church coverage.”

“I spotted I used to be by no means going to have the ability to show that I used to be taking my sins significantly.”

Members beneath self-discipline may very well be requested to chorus from serving in ministries and even attending companies. However their restoration hinged on the whims of Gracepoint leaders, with the method typically dragging out and involving assignments to repent with written reflections and confessions. Kang stated {that a} “interval of withdrawal” from ministry could be acceptable, however the apply of writing reflections has tapered off through the years.

The Berkland community disbanded in 2006, and the Berkeley and Davis church buildings rebranded as Gracepoint, finally planting church buildings in faculty cities and cities past California. Below Kang’s management, Gracepoint campuses provided near-identical weekly programming, all the way down to recipe suggestions.

Dedication to church ordered all of life: Tabulated spreadsheets organized workers schedules by the hour, usually stretching late into evenings and weekends. Members realized their schedules have been now not their very own. They have been anticipated to ask permission to go on trip or go to their households, former members stated.

“I had a strained relationship with my mother and father,” stated Martin Loekito, who was a member of Gracepoint’s Davis church for 14 years. “I might by no means spend time with them with out feeling like I wanted to get away, like I wanted to be again at church.”

One other former member, Elaine Huang, stated church leaders known as her “egocentric” when she opted to go to her mother and father in Taiwan the summer time after her commencement from UC Berkeley within the early 2010s. Arguing that her mother and father have been already saved and due to this fact required much less of her consideration, Huang’s leaders satisfied her to chop her months-long journey quick to take part within the church’s fall outreach.

For Loekito and others, the church’s warning of idolizing the household carried into married life. Loekito stated his eldest daughter spent massive parts of her early childhood on the church’s babysitting ministry whereas he and his spouse have been taking part in occasions.

“Once we left [the church], she was a 12 months and a half previous, and I type of felt prefer it was a misplaced time,” he stated, recollecting on lacking his daughter’s first phrases and steps. “Simply having dinner, everybody on the similar desk—that was very uncommon.”

Years of “whole-life discipleship” took a toll. Paul Lee, the previous Riverside church member, skilled “bodily debilitating” stress that brought on stomachaches, complications, and frequent panic assaults. Regardless of bringing his signs to his leaders, he stated he was not allowed to step again from most of his church obligations.

“I feel it was at that time once I realized that [the church] actually didn’t look after my well-being,” Lee stated. “They cared extra that I used to be staying and being a productive type of functioning member.”

In his CT response, Kang stated the church has applied adjustments together with a month-to-month “sabbath week” when members are required to interrupt from all formal ministry.

In an inner survey of 1,004 Gracepoint members late final 12 months, 37 % seen the church primarily as a household, 34 % seen it as a military, and 29 % seen it as a manufacturing unit.

Entire-life discipleship did the truth is prolong to each space of life. In line with emails from former leaders, members have been requested to vary their wardrobe (“I feel I must get some odd garments out of [this member’s] closet too so she doesn’t get tempted to maintain sporting them.”), dietary habits (“I came upon [that you] repeatedly eat late at night time. I feel you could actually curb that. I’ve seen that you’re wanting an increasing number of unhealthy these days.”), and dwelling areas (“I used to be appalled as soon as once more to listen to that your home has been like a pig sty. … Both your life is uncontrolled or you’re extraordinarily lazy or you’re extraordinarily egocentric.”).

Leaders would possibly suggest particular items of house decor (the inexpensive Ikea Kallax) or garments (modest but tasteful Ann Taylor and Banana Republic). Members even bought related autos—the Nissan Quest or Honda Odyssey, inexpensive minivans that might simply transport college students and ministry provides.

Whereas oversight and granular life recommendation could be a part of faculty formation and discipleship, Gracepoint’s affect grew extra intrusive as members remained on the church. One member who attended Gracepoint Berkeley for 22 years apprehensive that her involvement stunted her maturity.

“One of many issues I’m studying now that I’m out [of the church] is that I can really make my very own selections with out checking with any person, asking for permission, being afraid that I’ll get in bother,” she stated. “I do know it sounds bizarre. That is what a 20-year-old would notice, however right here I’m at 40 simply realizing this now.”

Evangelical ministries looking forward to holistic, 24/7, “all-of-life” discipleship have typically crossed boundaries into non secular abuse, the place members really feel coerced and manipulated quite than guided and mentored. In 2020, Acts 29 CEO Steve Timmis was removed from leadership for his level of bullying and control. The charismatic shepherding motion of the Nineteen Seventies and ’80s ended with former leaders disavowing their very own intrusive practices. (Former Berkland members stated founder Rebekah Kim was trained by University Bible Fellowship, a Korean offshoot of the shepherding motion.)

Six ex-Gracepoint workers stated psychological breakdowns contributed to their selections to go away the church and, for some, the religion. Final 12 months, Pete Nguyen left Gracepoint after experiencing extreme melancholy and suicidal ideas whereas attending.

Huang, the UC Berkeley pupil, stated a church chief instructed her that her suicidal ideas have been as a result of she didn’t “love God sufficient.” She stated this response pushed her to stroll away from Christianity. The chief, Suzanne Suh, stated she didn’t recall the dialog however “wouldn’t discuss to somebody who’s suicidal utilizing any such method or utilizing these sorts of phrases.”

A former UC Santa Barbara pupil stated her declining well-being—melancholy and an consuming dysfunction relapse—was seen as proof of her unrepentance after she crossed a bodily boundary together with her boyfriend. She was requested to write down reflections and was repeatedly instructed that she had not seen the total actuality of her sin.

“These fixed assessments about me being unrepentant—they didn’t mirror what I used to be really considering and feeling,” stated Noelle, who can be an abuse survivor and requested CT to not use her final title as a result of her job as a trainer. “I spotted I used to be by no means going to have the ability to show that I used to be taking my sins significantly.”

Online criticism of the church’s high-pressure surroundings didn’t begin with the Reddit posts. Nameless blogs together with Twisted Gracepoint and The Truth about Gracepoint Church circulated on-line within the 2000s.

Emails obtained by CT present that Gracepoint maintained its personal blogs to compete with these critiquing the church. Over time, church members have been instructed to keep away from driving site visitors to the web criticism and have been as a substitute inspired to guard the church’s “on-line fame.” At occasions, Gracepoint leaders requested workers and members to go looking and click on on church webpages or constructive weblog posts no less than thrice a day to enhance Google search rankings.

Church leaders have been additionally inspired to write down constructive Yelp critiques—and typically report adverse ones. Each practices stay, particularly within the ramp-up to fall quarter.

Gracepoint’s coaching paperwork train workers to elucidate why the church’s “hierarchical management” is “not authoritarian” or why adverse notion of the church’s tradition of rebuke is “overblown” as a result of “an emotionally fragile era.” Weary of inner packages being leaked, leaders requested members to periodically delete “delicate” recordings and emails containing talks and trainings or to look at them beneath supervision.

An FAQ web page on Gracepoint’s web site solutions the query “Is Gracepoint a Cult?”—“Nope, probably not”—whereas dismissing “Reddit trolls” and touting its Southern Baptist affiliation. (Kang beforehand sat on the advisory board for Ship Community, the church planting arm of the Southern Baptists’ North American Mission Board. Vance Pitman, the community’s president, has lauded Kang’s “kingdom management.”)

Some critics are taking their issues offline. A number of mother and father of former and present members, apprehensive that the church is distancing them from their kids, have raised issues in regards to the church’s fellowship teams to leaders at UC campuses and Biola College.

The College of San Francisco revoked the popularity standing of Gracepoint’s Klesis fellowship in Could 2021 as a result of it “didn’t meet the necessities to be a USF affiliated ministry, misrepresented its relationship with Gracepoint Church, and continued to have contact with college students” following an interim suspension issued in March. Kang confirmed the church now not operates on the campus, although some college students nonetheless attend the San Francisco location. He was uncertain how the group could have misrepresented itself to the college.

For individuals who have left, connecting with different former members in individual and on-line has helped their transition out of the church. Loekito, who left in 2019, stated that the dialogue has allowed him and his spouse to course of their expertise, however reacclimating to a brand new church has been onerous.

“My regrets are principally in regards to the those that I ministered to once I had no proper to be known as a minister,” Loekito stated. “A few of them left, and I used to be in a position to reconnect with them and say I’m sorry for what I did to them. However the worst is those that are nonetheless there, younger individuals who I instructed to defy their mother and father and throw away their ambitions and throw away their future to affix the [Gracepoint] trigger.”

Some former members stated their departures have been mischaracterized inside the group, with present attendees saying that those that left did so to “pursue the world” by buying pets or getting Disneyland passes.

“It feels just like the bridge is being burnt from the opposite finish,” stated Mun. “I’m not going to negate the reality that God reached me by means of Gracepoint, however it doesn’t imply that Gracepoint is God’s heaven on earth.”

Gracepoint continues its evangelism efforts for the autumn semester. Rebranding as Gracepoint Ministries, it has expanded Space Youth Ministry, a parachurch group meant to evangelize middle- and high-school college students and complement church youth teams. The group operates in 24 cities, and in line with Kang, Gracepoint workers are actually cut up between faculty and noncollege ministries.

Nguyen, who left in 2021 after attending Gracepoint for a decade, has spoken at size along with his former leaders on the Riverside and Pomona campuses, in addition to with Daniel Kim, in regards to the methods he felt wronged.

“In the event that they actually look at issues, they actually might change,” he stated, “however I simply don’t assume they’re keen to let go of quite a lot of the practices they’ve been holding on to.”

Throughout an April 2021 sermon on one of many Beatitudes, Kang instructed the church to not be discouraged by their on-line critics; Jesus himself warned that detractors would “utter every kind of evil towards you falsely” (Matt. 5:11, ESV).

“Clearly people who find themselves posting are both genuinely grieved and wounded or so narcissistic that some small evil or injustice or improper accomplished to them is one thing totally outrageous they usually can’t transfer on,” Kang stated.

“One factor that we should not do is be persuaded by criticism that there’s one thing improper with us.”

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