Hope Christian Church at ASU: Cult or supportive religious entity?

A church that is heavily involved in campus ministry on Arizona State University’s campus is under investigation for stalking, hazing and other misconduct. Hope Christian Church was founded in 2004 as a satellite of Faith Christian Church in Tucson, which 20 former insiders have described as a cult that operated on the Arizona campus since the 1990s.

Image from hope4asu.org

Seven disciplinary charges are pending against Hope Christian Church, mainly for suspected violations of the university’s student code of conduct. Other allegations have been made about the organization-entering student housing without authorization, unauthorized use of student information, and discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation. In addition to the campus ministry being under fire, five campus clubs that partner with the church are also facing misconduct charges. 14 people filed a 123-paged complaint against the church in July and the formal misconduct proceedings were launched in November. Five complaints have been filed in the past six years against the church.

Investigation is still underway and it is unclear about how much longer it will take. The staff in ASU’s Dean of Students Office did not respond to three requests copied to four employees over a three-week period. If the charges are upheld, the church and clubs could lose access to campus.

One student complaint calls Hope a “bona fide cult” because they shower new recruits with attention and affection but then use twisted Bible quotes and psychological manipulation to keep them in line. Hope’s advisory board member Gary Kinnaman has admitted that Hope’s leaders had authoritarian tendencies when the church was founded in 2004, but has created a much “kinder and gentler ministry” in recent years.

Image from tucson.com

In April 2013, a father of a freshman male wrote to ASU’s president saying that his son was in danger of hurting himself because of the church’s brainwashing. The father described his son as a shell of the boy he sent to college, so fragile that he bawled during an entire hour-long phone call. After a few months when nothing had changed, the student left ASU.

Other complaints include students being bombarded with harassing and intimidating text messages and entering student’s residence halls unescorted, banging on dorm doors inviting students to church-related activities. Hope created a policy banning employees from entering residence halls, two weeks after they were alerted that students were preparing a formal complaint.

Hope Christian seems overly interested in their member’s sexual experiences. Students have complained that church leaders had pressured them to confess their sexual histories while being questioned at length about whether they masturbate, watch porn, are homosexual, or whether or not they were molested as children. Several students have come forward saying that once they admitted to being molested, the leaders kept forcing them to relive their traumatic experience. One student recounts, “I was also told that being sexually assaulted at a fairly young age was a good thing because it had prevented me from engaging in intimate relationships before marriage.”

Image from tucson.com

Not all people believe these allegations. The church still has a large congregation and those involved in the church are fully committed. A largely shared perception of the church is that the church leaders have the student’s best interests at heart and have no hidden agendas. Phoenix-area pastor Mark Buckley is one of the pastors that have been counseling Hope for more than a decade and believes that Hope has been largely successful and that members have had positive experiences. “Our conclusions are that Hope is a good tree, bearing a lot of good fruit, that had needed some pruning,” he said, “not a bad tree that needs to be uprooted.”

Discussion questions:

  1. Would you consider Hope Christian Church a cult? Why or why not?
  2. If yes, what makes this organization a cult, compared to other religious organizations? If no, what do you think is getting misinterpreted about Hope to cause this perception?
  3. Due to the numerous complaints filed to the school, do you believe that ASU should be doing more in regards to the campus involvement of Hope Church?
  4. How much control should ASU have over the religious organizations on their campus? Is it their place to end an organizations because they don’t agree with everything they are doing/believe?
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