International Church Of Christ | History, Beliefs, Practices and Criticism

International Church Of Christ

All About The International Churches Of Christ

The International Church of Christ (ICOC) is a body of cooperating, religiously conservative, and racially integrated Christian congregations. Beginning with 30 members, they grew to 37,000 members within the first 12 years. Currently, they are numbered over 120,000, and currently have a network of over 700 non-denominational churches in about 150 countries.

A formal break was made from the Churches of Christ in 1993 with the organization of the International Church of Christ. The ICOC believes that the whole Bible is the inspired word of God.

The International Churches of Christ (ICOC) is a spin-off of the Churches of Christ; both groups are non-denominational, worldwide associations of churches and part of the Restoration Movement.

The International Churches of Christ also goes by other names: the Boston Movement, the Discipling Movement, the Crossroads Movement, and Multiplying Ministries, for example. Often, the city in which a local assembly is located is added to the name, for instance, Milwaukee Church of Christ and Sarajevo Church of Christ. The ICOC teaches that there should only be one church per city and that all churches outside of the ICOC are sinful.

The largest congregation, the Los Angeles Church of Christ, has over 6000 members. The largest church service was held in 2012 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas, during a World Discipleship Summit, with 17,800 in attendance.

International Church Of Christ

History Of The International Church Of Christ:

The ICoC has its roots in a movement that reaches back to the period of the Second Great Awakening (1790–1870) in early nineteenth-century America. Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell are credited with what is today known as the Stone-Campbell or Restoration Movement. There are a number of branches of the Restoration movement and the ICoC was formed from within the Churches of Christ. Specifically, it was born from a “discipling” movement that arose among the Churches of Christ during the 1970s. This discipling movement developed in the campus ministry of Chuck Lucas.

In 1967, Chuck Lucas was minister of the 14th Street Church of Christ in Gainesville, Florida. That year he started a new project known as Campus Advance. Centered on the University of Florida, the program called for a strong evangelical outreach and an intimate religious atmosphere in the form of soul talks and prayer partners. Soul talks were held in student residences and involved prayer and sharing overseen by a leader who delegated authority over group members. Prayer partners referred to the practice of pairing a new Christian with an older guide for personal assistance and direction. Both procedures led to the “in-depth involvement of each member in one another’s lives”.

The ministry grew as younger members appreciated many of the new emphases on commitment and models for communal activity. This activity became identified by many with the forces of radical change in the larger American society that characterized the late sixties and seventies. The campus ministry in Gainesville thrived and sustained strong support from the elders of the local congregation in the ‘Crossroads Church of Christ. By 1971, as many as a hundred people a year were joining the church.

Among the early converts at Gainesville was a student named Kip McKean who had been personally mentored by Chuck Lucas. Thomas ‘Kip’ McKean, completed a degree while training at Crossroads and afterward served as a campus minister at several Churches of Christ locations. By 1979 his ministry grew from a few individuals to over three hundred making it the fastest-growing Church of Christ campus ministry in America. McKean then moved to Massachusetts, where he took over the leadership of the Lexington Church of Christ. Building on Lucas’ initial strategies, McKean only agreed to lead the church in Lexington as long as every member agreed to be ‘totally committed’. The church grew from 30 members to 3,000 in just over 10 years in what became known as the ‘Boston Movement’.

While still a Church of Christ congregation, they differentiated themselves through high levels of commitment, accountability, mentorship, and a numerical focus on conversions. Meanwhile, the center of the new philosophy of ministry training and evangelism began to shift from Florida to Massachusetts. Moreover, the relationship between The Boston Church of Christ and the larger CoC became more and more strained. During this period, Boston Movement leaders had begun to ‘reconstruct’ existing congregations. This began to cause tension with the larger Church of Christ leadership that would eventually lead to a complete split. Parallel to this, the Boston Church of Christ began to plant new congregations at unprecedented speed for the Church of Christ at the time. The Boston congregation sent church plantings to Chicago and London in 1982, New York shortly thereafter, and Johannesburg in June 1986.

By the end of 1988, the churches in the Boston Movement were for all practical purposes a distinct fellowship, initiating a fifteen-year period during which there would be little contact between the CoC and the Boston Movement. By 1988, McKean was regarded as the leader of the movement. It was at this time that the Boston church initiated its program of outreach to the poor called HopeWorldwide. Also in 1988 McKean, finding that running the organization single-handedly had become unwieldy, selected a handful of men that he and Elena, his wife, had personally trained and named them World Sector Leaders. In 1989 mission teams were officially sent out to Tokyo, Honolulu, Washington, DC, Manila, Miami, Seattle, Bangkok, and Los Angeles. That year, McKean and his family moved to Los Angeles to lead the new church planted some months earlier. Within a few years Los Angeles, not Boston, was the fulcrum of the movement.

The International Church Of Christ In Recent Times:

In 1990 the Crossroads Church of Christ broke with the movement and, through a letter written to The Christian Chronicle, attempted to restore relations with the Churches of Christ.  By the early 1990s, some first-generation leaders had become disillusioned by the movement and left.  The movement was first recognized as an independent religious group in 1992 when John Vaughn, a church growth specialist at Fuller Theological Seminary, listed them as a separate entity.

TIME magazine ran a full-page story on the movement in 1992 calling them “one of the world’s fastest-growing and most innovative bands of Bible thumpers” that had grown into “a global empire of 103 congregations from California to Cairo with total Sunday attendance of 50,000”. A formal break was made from the Churches of Christ in 1993 when the group organized under the name “International Churches of Christ.”  This new designation formalized a division that was already in existence between those involved with the Crossroads/Boston Movement and “original” Churches of Christ. Growth in the ICOC was not without criticism.

Other names that have been used for this movement include the “Crossroads movement,” “Multiplying Ministries,” and the “Discipling Movement”. Since each city had a single church, its membership might be large and geographically disperse; if so, it was divided into regions and then sectors of perhaps a few small suburban communities. This governing system attracted criticism as overly authoritarian, although the ICOC denied this charge. “It’s not a dictatorship,” said Al Baird, former ICOC spokesperson; “It’s a theocracy, with God on top.”

Growth continued globally and in 1996 the independent organization “Church Growth Today” named the Los Angeles ICoC as the fastest-growing Church in North America for the second year running and another eight ICOC churches were in the top 100. By 1999, the Los Angeles church reached a Sunday attendance of 14,000. By 2001, the ICOC was an independent worldwide movement that had grown from a small congregation to 125,000 members and had planted a church in nearly every country of the world in a period of twenty years.

Once the fastest-growing Christian movement in the United States, membership growth slowed during the latter half of the 1990s.In 2000, the ICOC announced the completion of its six-year initiative to establish a church in every country with a population over 100,000. In spite of this, numerical growth continued to slow. Beginning in the late 1990s, problems arose as McKean’s moral authority as the leader of the movement came into question. Expectations for continued numerical growth and the pressure to sacrifice financially to support missionary efforts took their toll. Added to this was the loss of local leaders to new planting projects.

In some areas, decreases in membership began to occur. At the same time, the realization was growing that the accumulated costs of McKean’s leadership style and associated disadvantages outweighed the benefits. In 2001, McKean’s leadership weaknesses were affecting his family, with all of his children disassociating themselves from the church, and he was asked by a group of long-standing elders in the ICoC to take a sabbatical from the overall leadership of the ICoC. On 12 November 2001, McKean, who had led the International Churches of Christ, issued a statement that he was going to take a sabbatical from his role of leadership in the church.

Nearly a year later, in November 2002 he resigned from the office and personally apologized citing arrogance, anger, and an over-focus on numerical goals as the source of his decision.

The period following McKean’s departure included a number of changes in the ICoC. Some changes were initiated by the leaders themselves and others were brought through members. Most notable was Henry Kriete, a leader in the London ICoC, who circulated an open letter detailing his feelings about theological exclusivism and authority in the ICoC. This letter affected the ICoC for the decade after McKean’s resignation.

Critics of the ICOC claim that Kip McKean’s resignation sparked numerous problems. However, others have noted that since McKean’s resignation the ICOC has made numerous changes. The Christian Chronicle, a newspaper for the Churches of Christ, reports that the ICOC has changed its leadership and discipling structure. According to the paper, “the ICOC has attempted to address the following concerns: a top-down hierarchy, discipling techniques, and sectarianism”. In the years following McKean’s resignation, the central leadership was replaced with “the co-operation agreement” with over 90% of the churches affirming this new system of global coordination.

Over time, McKean attempted to re-assert his leadership over the ICOC, yet was rebuffed. The Elders, Evangelists, and Teachers wrote a letter to McKean expressing concern that there had been “no repentance” from his publicly acknowledged leadership weaknesses. McKean then began to criticize some of the changes that were being made, as he did in the 1980s toward Mainline Churches of Christ. After attempting to divide the ICOC he was disfellowshipped in 2006 and founded a church that he called the International Christian Church.

In 2010 the Evangelists Service Team formulated a “2020 vision plan”, that all the regional families of churches have the plan to evangelize their geographic area of the world. The plan encompasses the need to strengthen existing small churches and plant new churches.

They plan to build and strengthen those churches through a “best-practices” approach to ministry: oversee and support those churches through strong regional relationships and provide additional training for their ministers and congregations through the newly formed “Ministry Training Academy” being rolled out across the world, and provide global co-ordination and co-operation through “Service Teams” that specialize in “Campus Ministry”, “Youth & Family Ministry” and other specialized ministries.

Beliefs Of The International Church Of Christ:

Like the Churches of Christ, the ICOC recognizes the Bible as the sole source of authority for the church and believes that the current denominational divisions are inconsistent with Christ’s intent. Christians ought to be united. The ICOC like the Christian Church, in contrast to the CoC, considers permissible practices that the New Testament does not expressly forbid.

The ICOC teaches that “Christians are saved by the grace of God, through faith in Christ, at baptism.” Scriptures used to support this view include Ephesians 2:10, Romans 3:22, Acts 2:38, and Matthew 28:18–20. They claim that “faith alone” is not sufficient, supported by James 2:14–26, unless an individual by faith obeys God in baptism, believing that baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sins. The ICOC maintains that anyone, anywhere, who follows God’s plan of salvation as found in the scriptures is saved.

The ICOC teaches on the basis of James 2:20–26 that the “Sinner’s Prayer” is not biblical. Steven Francis Staten argues that the sinner’s prayer represents “a belief system and a salvation practice that no one had ever held until relatively recently.” The evangelical preacher Francis Chan has made statements that contradict the sinner’s prayer and emphasizes baptism and the Holy Spirit.

In agreement with the prevailing view in the Churches of Christ, the ICoC believes that it is necessary to have an understanding of Baptism’s role in salvation.

Practices Of The International Church Of Christ:

Sunday Worship

A typical Sunday morning service involves singing, praying, preaching, and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. An unusual element in ICOC tradition is the lack of established church buildings. Congregations meet in rented spaces: hotel conference rooms, schools, public auditoriums, conference centers, small stadiums, or rented halls, depending on the number of parishioners. Though the church is not static, neither is it “ad hoc” the leased locale is converted into a Worship Facility.

This practice of not owning buildings changed when the Tokyo Church of Christ became the first ICOC church to build its own church building. This building was designed by the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki. This became an example for other ICOC churches to follow suit.

One Year Challenge

To provide an international service opportunity for college-age students, the ICOC has a program called the “One Year Challenge” (OYC), where graduating students take a year off and go and serve another church in the Third World or a recently planted church in the First World looking to reach younger people with the gospel. The One Year Challenge program currently operates in ten countries, including China, Taiwan, The Czech Republic, Hungary, Haiti, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, The U.K., and The U.S.

Bible talks

A Bible Talk is a small group of disciples that meet usually once a week. They can meet almost anywhere, including college dormitories, restaurants, and members’ houses. Bible Talks, or ‘Family Groups’, are designed so that disciples can read the Bible together and build relationships with others in the church. All are encouraged to invite guests as a way for the guest to be introduced to the Church in a more informal setting. The Bible Talk is very similar to the “cell group” or “small group” structure found in many churches to facilitate close relationships among members.


Disciples are student-followers of Jesus Christ. The practice of discipling involves mentoring and accountability partnerships and is one of the central elements of the ICOC’s beliefs. Members who have mentoring and accountability relationships believe that this practice is based upon and encouraged by Biblical passages like: Ecclesiastes 4:9-12; Proverbs 11:25; Proverbs 27:17; Hebrews 10:25; James 5:16 among others. They also cite numerous examples of such relationships found in scripture like Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, Jesus and the early disciples, Paul and Timothy.

The church’s emphasis on discipling has not been without its critics. A number of ex-members have expressed problems with discipling in the ICOC. After the removal of McKean, the practice of “Discipleship Partners” has taken on a more “servant leadership approach”. Michael Taliaferro explains in a survey of ICOC churches: “We fully recognize that discipleship partners today are (thankfully) much different than what many were experiencing 10 years ago. We know that we blew it in this area in the past. We also feel that we have grown. As far as we know, no churches assign partners (everyone chooses for themselves), and all respondents were very convicted about the need for relationships that are not harsh or bossy, but rather Biblically balanced, respectful, and mature.

Criticism Of The International Church Of Christ:

The International Churches of Christ has a number of distinctives. One is a strong emphasis on discipleship; however, “discipleship” in the ICOC often looks very different from what most other churches practice. Many who have left the ICOC have reported “heavy shepherding” tactics. That is, they experienced high-pressure, intrusive, and abusive or spiritually manipulative tactics at the hand of the leader they were assigned to.

Another distinction is that the International Churches of Christ focuses its evangelism almost exclusively on college students through campus groups such as Campus Advance, Christian Students Association, and Disciples on Campus. This fits well with the ICOC’s preferred method of “love-bombing” suddenly and purposefully surrounding a person with high amounts of friendly contact, various forms of aid, and an overall sense of being immersed in a community things first-year college students especially crave. While none of these things are unbiblical (indeed, community, service, and friendliness are all excellent aims for Christians), the International Churches of Christ use these virtues as a façade and manipulative tool to increase membership.

Theologically, the International Church of Christ holds to the basic tenets of Protestant evangelicalism, with two important exceptions. First, the group is exclusivist, claiming that the church is meant to be divided only by geography. Any church outside of their unified system, i.e., not under the ICOC’s leadership, is not a part of the “true church.” Such claims of exclusivity should raise a red flag. Any church or denomination that claims to be the “one true church” and that all others are false churches is itself teaching falsehood.

The International Churches of Christ also depart from sound doctrine in its teaching of baptismal regeneration, the belief that water baptism is required for salvation. The ICOC believes that anyone who is not baptized is not saved and must be “evangelized” and brought into the church. Further, the ICOC teaches that the only “valid” baptism is one performed by the ICOC. No other baptism will do. Further still, the ICOC does not allow anyone to be baptized until he or she is first a “disciple” committed to the organization. The Bible, on the other hand, teaches that salvation is by grace through faith, apart from works (Ephesians 2:8–9) including the work of baptism.

The International Churches of Christ has a strict and invasive power structure that uses manipulation and indoctrination to control its membership. Many people have been hurt by this group emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. Because of its manipulative practices and errant view of salvation.


World Religions

Sources: 1, 2, 3

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Mercy Cuthbert
Mom, Wife, Author, Bachelor of Arts Comparative Religion.

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