Awesome Families: The Promise of Healing Relationships in the International Churches of Christ

Awesome Families: The Promise of Healing Relationships in the International Churches of Christ

Awesome Families: The Promise of Healing Relationships in the International Churches of Christ

Awesome Families: The Promise of Healing Relationships in the International Churches of Christ


Denounced by some as a dangerous cult and lauded by others as a miraculous faith community, the International Churches of Christ was a conservative evangelical Christian movement that grew rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s.

Among its followers, promises to heal family relationships were central to the group's appeal. Members credit the church for helping them develop so-called "awesome families"-successful marriages and satisfying relationships with children, family of origin, and new church "brothers and sisters." The church engaged an elaborate array of services, including round-the-clock counseling, childcare, and Christian dating networks-all of which were said to lead to fulfilling relationships and exciting sex lives. Before the unified movement's demise in 2003-2004, the lure of blissful family-life led more than 100,000 individuals worldwide to be baptized into the church.

In Awesome Families, Kathleen Jenkins draws on four years of ethnographic research to explain how and why so many individuals-primarily from middle- to upper-middle-class backgrounds-were attracted to this religious group that was founded on principles of enforced community, explicit authoritative relationships, and therapeutic ideals. Weaving classical and contemporary social theory, she argues that members were commonly attracted to the structure and practice of family relationships advocated by the church, especially in the context of contemporary society where gender roles and family responsibilities are often ambiguous.

Tracing the rise and fall of this fast-growing religious movement, this timely study adds to our understanding of modern society and offers insight to the difficulties that revivalist movements have in sustaining growth.


“IT’S like free counseling
all the TIME”

Imagine a church, a community of Christians who claim they are able to help people establish “awesome” families, who make up a fellowship where married couples share their most intimate fears and desires and develop fantastic sexual relationships, where children respect and enthusiastically follow the Christian life path set by their parents, and where sons and daughters are reunited with estranged parents and siblings. Within this church, interracial/ethnic marriages and biracial/ethnic children are fully embraced and members from disparate backgrounds become “real family,” learning to love and care for each other in extraordinary ways. This is the picture of exceptional family that members of the International Churches of Christ (ICOC) claim to have and present to potential new members.

Member stories revolve around the restorative power of the church community to heal marriages on the brink of disaster. As one husband in the church relates: “There are many couples just here in our church of three hundred that have had their marriages saved because of the church. and there are countless testimonials that you can hear, worldwide.” He credits successful marriages to the church’s mandatory marriage counseling and community support, the dpi (ICOC’s publishing house, Discipleship Publications International) marriage guidebook, Friends and Lovers: Mar riage as God Designed It, and yearly icoc marriage boosters like “Marriage Enrichment Day.” in fact, before he and his wife joined the church, he claims they had one foot on the path to divorce. Other marriages healed in the church, he suggests, have been virtually resurrected:

I know of one couple in our church who were actually at the point
of signing divorce papers. They were separated for a long time,

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