COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — NBC4 Investigates is looking into claims that a central Ohio church is functioning as a cult, as multiple former members are sharing their stories publicly.

The former members of Xenos Christian Fellowship, which changed its name to Dwell Community Church in 2020, said recruitment of new members can start as early as middle school and that members work hard to earn the trust of newcomers.

Alexandra Craig was first asked to attend a Xenos bible study when she was in middle school. From there, she started attending social events.

Dwell currently has ministries for middle school, high school, college students, and adults.

“In middle school, you do a fun activity like, for example, a grocery scavenger hunt, something like that,” Craig said. “At first, they treated me awesome. I felt like I was the center of attention. I was the spotlight. I was the new shiny toy. Like, I felt like I was it.”

Craig was one of many former members who described feeling comfortable and trusting of their peers and mentors when they first joined Xenos. Then, those former members said the tone shifted.

“They prey on, obviously, people who need to fill a void, and want more out of life, and then they take that want and they turn it into something that they can harness and use,” said Megan Cox, a survivor of a Tennessee-based cult who is now co-hosting a docuseries to expose other cults. The docuseries, which is still in production, filmed an episode in Columbus about Xenos.

Craig and Mark Kennedy, who joined in high school, said this type of exploitation occurred when they belonged to Xenos.

“You see a subtle manipulation,” Kennedy said. “What you see are small red flags.”

Former members described sharing personal information with peers or with disciplers (mentors), only to discover those intimate details had been discussed with other members.

“I saw sexual information that was extracted from literally minors and being shared with these adults — these college students,” Kennedy said. “I saw someone brought in front of the entire church and have all their sexual history – real and made up – in front of like 20 people brought up. And they were shamed, and they were treated horribly.”

Another former member shared an 11-page form, saying disciplers fill it out about members. The form includes questions about financial contributions to the church, the level of personal sharing the member does, their sexuality, “miscellaneous character issues” such as sarcasm and introversion, and whether the member has a “killer instinct” when giving the gospel.

NBC4 sent pages of the form to a Dwell elder to authenticate the document. In an email, Conrad Hilario, who holds the position of Senior Sphere Leader, wrote:

We utilize a Goals Worksheet in our Leadership Training Class (LTC) based on Appendix 1 (Goals for Discipleship) of Dennis McCallum and Jessica Lowery’s book Organic Discipleship (2006). It’s possible someone adapted or edited this material without the authors’ knowledge. The copyrighted Goals for Discipleship is in Organic Discipleship mentioned above.

Regarding the purpose of the Goals for Discipleship, Scripture calls on believers to ‘consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds’ (Hebrews 10:24). In the spirit of this passage, the Goals for Discipleship is intended to help individuals consider areas of growth in their own life and in the life of the person they are mentoring spiritually. The book encourages individuals to go through the Goals for Discipleship together with the intent of finding new ways to grow with God. It’s not a file to use as a record of behavior.”

Conrad Hilario, Dwell Community Church

Craig said “character issues” involved openly questioning leadership. (“Gossip” appears on the form as a character issue, which Craig said she was questioned about.)

“I was kind of confused about how (my information) spread from one person to another, to now, the entire leadership team knows kind of what’s going on with me,” Craig said.

She said she was approached by her mentors multiple times to discuss her issues until she was eventually asked to leave as a result.

“At first, I really thought they were looking out for my walk with God, and they were looking more into, ‘Hey, they want me to be this better person. They have expectations,’” Craig said. “Slowly, it turned into a head on a swivel. Like, should I watch what I’m saying more? Should I just not question things?”

Craig admits she engaged in similar tactics during her seven years with Xenos, by actively recruiting new members and encouraging them to divulge intimate details of their lives.

“I did a lot of the things that (were) done to me, unfortunately, and I apologize to anyone I’ve done that to because I see it now,” Craig said. “Unfortunately, being in Xenos at the time, I did not understand it. I was thinking I really was doing what’s best for other people; I really was looking out for their walk with God; I’m really looking into their spiritual aspect when really it’s none of my business. It’s between them and God, and I was inserting myself in places that I shouldn’t have.”

NBC4 Investigates asked Dwell leadership if any current members would like to share their experience with the church. A spokesperson instead provided a link to recorded testimonials on Dwell’s website.

The videos show members describing the church’s positive influence in their lives.

”God has shown me what it looks like to live a fulfilling life,” said a member named Layni Bray, who said the church helped her part from her “party lifestyle” after she joined in high school.

“What I found presented at home church was that Christ was really about being with you, and meeting you where you were,” said Andrea King, who said she struggled with trying to be “perfect” prior to joining Dwell.

Dwell also denied a request to interview leadership, but Hilario answered questions via email.

When asked about gossip, he wrote:

“Our church is a tight-knit community of people who love God and love serving our city. An unfortunate aspect of any community is people tend to gossip. Christians sadly are not exempt from this. Despite the Bible’s clear teaching on the subject (Prov.11:13) and our efforts to teach and equip members regarding the importance of being gracious and keeping confidence, people still gossip. We don’t believe it happens more at Dwell than any other church, school, or workplace, but it does happen. Jesus taught that love is the primary motive for real change (Romans 2:4). Thus, we teach that shame/guilt are destructive and ineffective at helping people grow spiritually.”

Conrad Hilario, Dwell Community Church