Campus ministry's success at evangelism may be its undoing
Lindenwood group, its founder are accused of conflict of interest, harassment of students.
BY TIM TOWNSEND
ST. CHARLES - Kerry Cox was raised to reach the unchurched on college campuses.
In fact, he's so good at it, his efforts have engulfed Lindenwood University in a dispute that includes allegations of cult activity, two resignations and a broader debate about the proper bounds of evangelizing on campus.
The son of a pastor, Cox grew up sharing his father's fiery zeal to mine the faithful amid the indulgences and parties of youth.
He watched his father, the Rev. Robert Cox, launch a successful campus ministry at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville two decades ago. The son would later take over that ministry while enrolled as an SIUE student, sending hundreds of believers to his dad's Greater Alton Church.
So when the church was looking to expand its evangelization to Lindenwood, Kerry Cox was the perfect choice.
He enrolled as a student in 2004, quickly establishing a ministry called A Cross Between.
He and his new wife bought a house with a big living room to better host all of the college students who would be stopping by for small group worship services. It was the way he had grown up, with college kids coming and going at all hours from his parents' home.
"College is the time when people meet their mates, " said Cox, 34. "It's when they meet the friends they'll have for the rest of their lives. ... People are at their most open-minded in college, and we can talk to them about these things they might not know about. It's just a good opportunity."
In the case of Lindenwood, that opportunity paid off beyond anyone's expectations.
A Cross Between accomplished its goal of sending worshippers to Robert Cox's new congregation, the Crossings Church in Wentzville. It claimed as many as 125 students, and its influence on campus grew, with several staff members becoming active in the group.
Soon the ministry was not only the largest of Lindenwood's eight campus ministries, but one of the most popular student organizations of any kind. A Cross Between sponsors one of the largest student events of the year, the Root Beer Kegger, after a football game each fall.
His work with the campus ministry was so successful, Kerry Cox said, that Lindenwood approached him to bring that kind of energy to all of the campus' students.
In 2007, he was named the school's director of student life, overseeing all of Lindenwood's student clubs and organizations, now numbering 71. Even his critics say Cox was good at the job - bringing to campus dances, goofy college events and concerts with national acts such as Switchfoot.
"Kerry was hired when the social life at Lindenwood was dead, " said Aaron Kothe, a Lindenwood senior. "He came in and built student life from the ground up."
Then it all started crashing down.
This year, A Cross Between has been under assault by critics who call it a cult that exploited Cox's position in Lindenwood's administration and used manipulation and psychological pressure to harass students who tried to leave it.
Lindenwood's campus newspaper, the Legacy, ran a story this spring suggesting that the ministry dictated everything, from whom its members could - and could not - date to whom they could sit with at lunch.
"Intimidation, privilege, intolerance: These are the three charges leveled against A Cross Between, one of Lindenwood's largest student organizations, by more than a dozen students and former members, " the paper reported.
University officials have cast doubt on the student paper's reporting, telling followers of its official Twitter account the day after the story ran in March that the newspaper "is a learning tool" and that the "article has no substance."
Even before the Legacy story ran, the growth of A Cross Between and Cox's broad influence over religious life at Lindenwood triggered faculty discord and the resignation of the university's chaplain.
Finally, Cox stepped down last month as director of student life.
The ministry he founded, meanwhile, has been asked to curtail its proselytizing or risk losing its status as a campus organization.
National Christian ministries are ubiquitous on college campuses. Groups like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship - which had 866 chapters on 557 campuses last year - claims nearly 37,000 members. Individual national denominations also frequently have a presence on campus: the Catholic church through its Newman Centers, for instance.
Particularly now, as the millennial generation - those ages 18 to 29 - are straying from religious affiliation, campus ministries are seen as a key for the survival of churches.
But experts say A Cross Between stands apart in both its structure and relationship to its campus.
For starters, it's an arm of a single, independent local church.
"There's not a lot of campus ministries sponsored by one church, " said the Rev. Paul Walley, president of the National Campus Ministry Association. "It's probably more normal to go through an institutional channel or through a denomination."
But more peculiar by far has been Cox's role as both Lindenwood's overseer of student clubs and the founder of a ministry that falls under that umbrella.
Nicole Hoefle Cronenwett, the spirituality and religion adviser for Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said that while it was not unheard of for someone in a university's administration to advise a student group, "what can become sticky is if there's a conflict of interest in terms of, 'I represent a certain group, and I'm also an adviser and I oversee a number of organizations.'"
(A Cross Between's official adviser is not Cox, but an employee of the university's financial aid office.)
In a long statement released in April in response to stories in the student newspaper, Lindenwood President James Evans briefly addressed the conflict-of-interest questions posed by Cox's position. Without naming Cox, Evans said supervisors in the university's student development office should not "hold a leadership position in or play an influential role in a student organization that receives benefits" from that office. Evans also said that an investigation of student activities funds had found no evidence of impropriety.
Neither Evans nor the school's vice president for student development, John Oldani, who oversees the student life office, would talk to the Post-Dispatch.
In late April, Michael Mason resigned his position as the campus' volunteer chaplain, saying that the oversight of Lindenwood's religious life had slowly been ceded to Cox.
Mason - who is also the school's religion department chairman - gave the administration 19 reasons for his resignation, most of which could be summed up, he said, with: "We have policies, and we don't follow them."
Mason said a 6-year-old university regulation states that anyone who wants to start a campus ministry at Lindenwood must sign a statement saying they will abide by the school's religious life policies. One of those policies declares that faith groups cannot "interfere with students" by "proselytizing, 'witnessing' or other acts of influence or persuasion."
The problem, Mason said, is that none of Lindenwood's ministries has ever signed the document.
But that appears to be changing.
Cox, who resigned in mid-May, said Lindenwood officials told him they will now get commitments from every campus ministry promising they won't proselytize.
STUDENTS AS A LIFEBLOOD
Evangelization is A Cross Between's main purpose. It's the reason the group established a foothold at Lindenwood - and at SIUE, St. Charles Community College and Lewis & Clark Community College. The leaders of the Crossings Church and Greater Alton Church see college students as the lifeblood of their worship communities.
Robert Cox and a fellow minister, the Rev. Tim Gill, founded the original chapter of A Cross Between on SIUE's campus in the mid-1980s to reach a younger crowd as they were getting Greater Alton Church off the ground.
It proved a smart move. Over the next couple of decades, as SIUE students who had been part of the campus ministry there graduated and became full-fledged congregants, Greater Alton's numbers rose.
By 2003, with about 600 members, the ministers decided it was time to start a new church. During the search process for a second property, the single geographical stipulation was that the new church be situated close to a university.
They chose St. Charles County, opening the Crossings Church the next year. Eventually, they settled into an abandoned lighting warehouse behind a Dress Barn and a Kohl's, just off Interstate 70.
On campus, A Cross Between recruits students through Cross Chats - small, casual gatherings to which members can invite classmates. Students who become ministry members are expected to take part in small group sessions during the week, participate in baptisms and appear at the Crossings Church on Sundays for worship.
Sarah Belcher, 24, is a former A Cross Between member at SIUE. She said that the settings for the ministry were informal and that new people could just come to the weekly Cross Chats, eat some food and talk.
"If they decided they liked it, great, " she said. "If not, then it was sad, but you can't force people to come."
If a student had a good time in the Cross Chat, Belcher said, they were asked to come worship at Greater Alton Church.
"That's the next step, " said Belcher who is now a member of the church's adult ministry.
Kothe, the Lindenwood senior, said he's never been a member of A Cross Between but has been to Cross Chats and is friends with many in the ministry. He said the Crossing's interpretation of Christianity is "firm and conservative."
"It's not a relaxed church, " he said.
A Cross Between members have "a very strong feeling about being in the group, " Kothe said. "It's a big part of their personal identity."
Kerry Cox said A Cross Between members - as a group with conservative beliefs living on a college campus - often become close.
"If someone is hooking up with someone they shouldn't be hooking up with, you let them know, " he said. "There's a high degree of accountability these kids have for each other, and when one of them walks away from that - yes, there are going to be hurt feelings."
Cox said the Lindenwood faculty's dislike of his conservative theology and the success of A Cross Between are at the root of his ouster last month. At one point, for instance, he brought a creationist speaker to campus.
In 2010, he rejected the application of a gay-straight alliance student group, saying the group "does not coincide with the traditional values of Lindenwood University."
Cox says now that he told Oldani that the group should be allowed a formal organization on campus (and it eventually got one) but that his advice was rejected. He said he took the public hit for the administration.
"A lot of faculty never let that one go, " he said.
Now, the future of A Cross Between could be tied to university policy.
Lauren Cauley, a Lindenwood senior who is president of the ministry, said the group was told by the Lindenwood administration that if its leaders didn't sign the school's religious-life guidelines pledge not to proselytize, their recognition as an official student organization would be revoked.
Cox said A Cross Between student leaders will refuse to sign the statement, and one of Lindenwood's most popular student groups will be forced off campus before the fall semester begins.
"Why have campus ministries if you can't minister to people?" Cox asked. "They want me to tell (A Cross Between) students that they have to stop inviting their professors or their friends to church? I won't do that. It's a violation of their rights."
The 400 members of the Crossings Church and their campus ministry have recently equated their sense of persecution with the hostilities hurled at the earliest Christians.
That theme was apparent from the moment the student newspaper stories began to threaten the ministry.
"There are going to be people that are going to oppose you because this is a spiritual battle, " the Rev. Robert Cox said from the pulpit at the Crossings on a chilly, overcast day in March. "Understand that those people who think they're so secure and so independent are simply the minions of Satan."
Members of A Cross Between packed the house, some sitting on the floor, as they listened to their pastor preach fire.
"It's a war, and they're always going to be out there, " he told the students. "We've had some great victories as a church. We're engaged in a great battle. We'll win. And we'll fight again."