COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Former members of a Columbus church are going public with allegations of exploitation and emotional abuse, in the name of religion.

People who belonged for years to Xenos Christian Fellowship, now called Dwell Community Church, told NBC4 Investigates that the church continues to recruit new, young members, and they want parents to know what’s going on.

The members take issue with what they describe as a hierarchy that can cause shame, anxiety, and sometimes dangerous living conditions.

“That’s what’s sad for me, is to see Christians – other Christians in the community get absolutely hurt by what Xenos is doing, because they’re making people so hurt, so upset,” said Mark Kennedy, a vocal critic and former member of the church. “It’s really tragic.”

Megan Cox and Rafael Martinez are hosting a docuseries to expose what they describe as cults, hiding in plain sight, behind the veil of religion.

Martinez is a minister who serves as the director of Spiritwatch Ministries, a Christian group that he says works to separate people, like Cox, from cults.

“Cults are cancerous. They are organisms that will seek to live and gain a living by feeding off of– parasitically– a vibrant life someplace else,” Martinez said. “And that’s what they’re doing. They’re preying upon Christian churches and Christian members and the public at large.”

Cox belonged to the late Gwen Shamblin’s Remnant Fellowship Church in Tennessee, which critics in the 2021 HBO docuseries The Way Down call a cult, centered around weight loss. Cox appears in the series, describing her experience as a member of Remnant Fellowship.

“The stigma around being a part of a cult – you don’t know you’re in it. you don’t know you’re signing up for it,” Cox said. “Xenos — the parallels for me are – and what I went through – run pretty deep. A lot of the same religious, physical and emotional abuses that happened to me happened to everyone that came forward and spoke to us.”

The documentary crew reached out to NBC4 Investigates in December to discuss Xenos.

“There’s been only four news articles about Xenos,” Cox said. “And learning what we’ve learned, it’s a travesty.”

Xenos Christian Fellowship changed its name to Dwell Community Church in 2020. Dwell’s website describes the church as “a culturally engaged, non-traditional and non-denominational fellowship with mainstream biblical doctrines,” with a growing network of members who meet to worship in smaller home church groups.

Through research and interviews with former members, the allegations against Xenos quickly surfaced.

Former members, like Alexandra Craig, described behavioral control.

“(My) head (was) on a swivel,” Craig said. “Like, ‘Should I watch what I’m saying more? Should I just not question things?’”

Kennedy and other former members described shaming an exploitation of teenagers.

“I saw sexual information that was extracted from – literally, minors — and being shared with these adults, these college students,” said Kennedy.

And in church-sanctioned ministry houses, former residents described crowded and potentially unsafe living conditions.

“They pile in as many as they can,” said former member Lexi Thompson. “I lived with 13 roommates for probably about six or seven months.”

More than 10 former members spoke with NBC4 Investigates on and off camera. Their stories, along with dozens more on social media and a website founded by Kennedy, portray similar challenges within the church, leading to a painful departure that in some cases, tore families apart.

Cox, Martinez, and the former Xenos members who came forward said they did so to make the exit easier for current members, or prevent people from joining in the first place. 

“The trend in cultism today is not toward huge, massive, monolithic groups, like the Hare Krishnas,” Martinez said. “Now the trend clearly is toward more and more smaller groups that can so much more easily disguise themselves as these harmless, benign little home-based groups.”

A spokesperson for Dwell Community Church declined NBC4 Investigates’ request for an interview with church leadership, but another elder responded to questions via email.

“We treat claims of abuse very seriously. We are not a perfect church, but we do have many safeguards to protect members from potentially harmful leaders,” wrote Conrad Hilario, an elder who holds the title of Senior Sphere Leader with Dwell. “When a member has a specific complaint against a leader, they can contact one of the elders or bring their complaint to a grievance board.”

NBC4 Investigates will spend the week exploring specific allegations brought about by former members. On Tuesday, those former members will share how they first got involved with Xenos as teens and young adults.