COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Former members of a Columbus church are telling their stories, accusing the church of functioning as a cult. Some of them say members can be subjected to dangerous living conditions in overcrowded homes.

The homes are not owned by Dwell Community Church, which until early 2020 was called Xenos Christian Fellowship, but are referred to on the church’s website as Ministry Houses.

The website describes Ministry Houses as “homes where committed Christian believers live together.”

Former Xenos member Lexi Thompson, who lived in a Ministry House in 2018 while attending Ohio State University, said living in the house was, indeed, a commitment.

“You’re going to three bible studies a week, you have a one-on-one time with your discipler that you have to be at, you have a house meeting that you need to be at,” Thompson said. “Then I was also in leadership training classes.”

The commitment to meetings is part of an agreement the church requires members moving into the houses to sign. The agreement is posted on Dwell’s website, and includes avoiding “illegal, dangerous or unedifying behaviors” like drunkenness. Residents must also “strive to show respect and care for surrounding neighbors,” according to the agreement.

Thompson said she moved into the ministry house because the $250 monthly rent was attractive to her as a college student. She said she was offered scholarships to play softball at other schools but turned them down to attend OSU.

“(The church) talked me out of it,” Thompson said. “They’re like, ‘You need to stay in Columbus. Like, these are your friends.’”

Thompson is one of multiple former Xenos members who said church leadership encourages young members to attend college locally.

“They really promote going to Ohio State or Columbus State,” Thompson said. “Anything else, you’re turning your back to God, because God’s given you this community in Columbus.”

Another former Xenos member, who spoke to NBC4 on the condition of anonymity because he still has relatives that belong to the church, shared a document that he said came from church leadership. The eight-page document, titled “Propositions on Christ, Culture and Career” has a byline from Founding Pastor Dennis McCallum and Scott Risley, who holds the title of Senior Sphere Leader on the church’s website.

Excerpts from the document include:

“On picking a college: God has sovereignly placed these students in Xenos, shouldn’t the burden of proof be on why you should go away to school? If someone had a perfectly good job and decided they would leave their church and established relationships to move to another city to take a slightly better job wouldn’t we critique that decision? Why wouldn’t the same critique apply if we’re talking about colleges?”

“We have heard both parents and students argue, “God is sovereign, so if a kid’s heart is right with God, he can go anywhere and things will work out. Columbus isn’t the only place God works.” This argument might hold water in some cases, but usually, if a kid’s heart is right with God, he doesn’t want to go elsewhere. The kids we see taking this move follow one of two patterns: either the kid would rather stay here, but is being pressured by parents to leave, or the kid has never served God in the first place.”

Xenos document

NBC4 Investigates asked Dwell leadership for interviews with current members and was provided a link to recorded member testimonials.

Describing her experience moving into a ministry house, member Christina Nelson said, “I saw it as a convenience to see my friends more and get to use my house to serve as a bible study, too.”

Former church members provided NBC4 Investigates with addresses of ministry houses they were aware of near OSU’s campus. Several of those homes appeared to be in disrepair, with clutter on the outside.

One house, nicknamed “Thunderdome,” was being fumigated when NBC4 Investigates stopped by in January. There were liquor bottles, glasses, and trash on the porch.

NBC4 Investigates sent the list of addresses to Columbus’ Department of Building and Zoning, which provided copies of complaints and code violations for a majority of the addresses on the list.

Many of those violations were similar, and included citations for graffiti, unkempt lawns, and peeling paint. Homes were also cited on numerous occasions for storing upholstered furniture on porches.

People who’ve been inside ministry houses describe a mess.

“Every single one of those houses, I promise, is over, like, not up to code in terms of living conditions. They are all — bedbugs rampant through them. I mean, any of the streets – like, if you go to any of those houses, you’re not going to find parking because there’s 15 people living in a three-bedroom,” said the former member who provided the document, telling NBC4 Investigates he lived in a ministry house of 16 men.

“I had 12 roommates,” Thompson said. “Think about 13 girls with only four closets. It didn’t work out very well.”

Thompson said she can’t remember exactly how many people lived in her ministry house when a local reporter came to her home in 2018 to do a story about crowded houses that neighbors had come to associate with college-aged Xenos members, but she said she is confident that there were at least seven at the time.

“We put a lot of thought into how to come off as we’re just a normal– normal college girls living in a house together,” Thompson said. “We cleaned the downstairs living area. We had bins for all of our roommates for all of our personal items. We took eight extra bins and put them upstairs so that it could look like only five of us live there.

“My leaders were like, ‘Do not tell them, whatever you do, don’t say that, because that’s going to put us in a whole lot of trouble.’”  

Church leadership declined to grant NBC4 Investigates a visit to a ministry house, citing the privacy of its members and the owners of the homes.

Church elders also declined an interview but answered questions via email.

“Thousands would say that they have had a positive experience living in a Ministry House,” read a statement provided by Pastoral Support Coordinator Keegan Hale, who also serves as a spokesperson for Dwell. “These houses have helped many people work through personal problems and overcome destructive addictions. Over the last few years, ministry houses have upped their efforts to serve their neighbors living in the University District.”

When asked about the liquor bottles found on the porch of one of the homes, Conrad Hilario, an elder with the church, replied:

“To clarify, many have found support and freedom from drug and alcohol addictions. However, the vast majority of our members do not struggle with substance abuse.

Unlike many churches, we do not prohibit drinking alcohol when done so in moderation. After all, Jesus drank alcohol with his disciples. The Bible teaches that drunkenness is a sin (Ephesian 5:18). We discourage underage drinking and drunkenness, but we do not monitor alcohol use at our member’s private residences. A ministry house is similar to many thousands of off-campus houses where college students choose to live together.”

Dwell Community Church Elder Conrad Hilario

In response to a question about the number of people living in ministry houses, Hilario wrote:

“Our church has been on OSU campus for 50 years, and ministry houses have been a part of that presence since the beginning. The church does not own any ministry houses. It’s difficult to estimate how many people live in a typical ministry house, since each living arrangement is unique and negotiated between the people choosing to live together and their respective landlord.” 

Dwell Community Church Elder Conrad Hilario