COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — NBC4 Investigates is exposing the secrets of a Columbus church, which some former members describe as a cult.
Those former members describe leaving Xenos Christian Fellowship, which changed its name in 2020 to Dwell Community Church, as a challenging and painful process. While some former members said they left due to practices in the church, which they described as controlling, manipulative and dangerous, others said they were asked to leave by their leaders.
Mark Kennedy said he joined Xenos as a high school student.
“My sister was in a soccer group and she was invited out by one of the soccer players. And then one day, suddenly, my sister invites me out, and very quickly I’m in this group,” Kennedy said. “I had this kind of weird feeling after the first couple of meetings.”
Despite his suspicions, Kennedy said he remained a member of Xenos for three years.
“It’s very easy to convince yourself that, one, you’re the problem; or two, it’s kind of hard when you’re in the forest to see the trees,” Kennedy explained.
Kennedy left Xenos in 2013, after he said he felt as though leadership did not care about the safety or wellbeing of members.
“These students were – they threw a huge branch off of a two-story building,” said Kennedy, recalling a church retreat during his time as a member. “Me and my friend were walking, and that branch was extremely close to hitting us. We immediately went to a leader and told them and nothing happened.”
Dwell leadership declined an interview with NBC4 Investigates, but responded to questions via email.
“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,” wrote Conrad Hilario, an elder who holds the title of Senior Sphere Leader with Dwell.
Kennedy and other former members refuted Hilario’s statement that a grievance board exists, which NBC4 Investigates first reported Monday.
Kennedy said after leaving Xenos, he initially felt alone.
“One big thing about Xenos members that you don’t realize is that Xenos is their life. Xenos is their entire social network, and leaving that is very difficult — even in high school,” Kennedy said. “It was very hard because it felt like a part of me had died.”
Lexi Thompson left in 2018. She said she was shaken by the suicides of two other Xenos members, and didn’t know where to turn.
“If you struggle with mental illness in the ministry house, it’s all about — ‘You need to read your Bible more,’” Thompson said.
Thompson moved out of her church-affiliated ministry house quickly and secretly, when no one was home. She said the move would have been more difficult without her brother, who did not belong to Xenos.
“All my time was dedicated to people in the church, so I didn’t talk to my family very much anymore,” Thompson said. “I got lucky enough when I decided to leave, that I still had a semi-good relationship with my brother and sister-in-law, and I was able to move in with them for a couple months.
“And the next thing I know, (my church group is) having a meeting and putting all my business out there for everyone. And they were basically like, ‘She left she’s been living in sin the whole time. She didn’t really love any of you.’”
Unlike Kennedy and Thompson, Alexandra Craig was asked to leave after she said her mentor said she wanted to have a conversation.
“I walk in, and there’s 12 other people,” Craig said. “I was not expecting this. It turned into, ‘We’re going to lead a passage,’ and they’re going to list basically why I’m being asked to leave.”
Craig believes she was asked to leave because she questioned church leadership to other members. She said she remembers crying in the room after everyone else had left.
“At first, it was hatred. It was a lot of hatred and confusion and sadness,” she said, adding that her life has improved since that day. “I’m happier. I feel like i actually am in control of my life.”
After talking with friends who also left Xenos, Kennedy said he launched a website: xenosisacult.com. It contains dozens of allegations of harm and abuse, submitted by other former church members.
“I think they have church aspects,” Craig said. “But overall, that is not a church. It is something that is controlling and manipulative. It is, by definition, a cult.”
“I want them to change,” Kennedy said. “I don’t want to be having to do this, but I believe it’s the right thing to do.”
He said his sister is still a member.
“Weirdly enough, we’re closer. We had the best relationship in the family before the website. But when the website came out — before that, she’d almost never show up at family functions, or she’d show up and leave,” Kennedy said. “Afterwards – the website – she started showing up all the time, which feels disingenuous.”
Asked about Kennedy’s website, Hilario replied, “It’s very hard to know how to respond to anonymous stories. However, 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.”