Church of Christ members pray, respond after Scottish tabloid calls congregation an extremist cult
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Erik Tryggestad | The Christian Chronicle

Christians in Scotland and the U.S. are praying as they respond to a newspaper story that refers to Churches of Christ as an "extremist religious sect."

The article also says that parents of elementary school students in Scotland are worried that church members are "trying to brainwash their kids."

The front page of the Daily Record (VIA DAILYRECORD.CO.UK)The headline "Parents' outrage as extremist US religious cult hand out creationist books and preach to kids at Scottish school" appears on the website of the Daily Record and Sunday Mail, a tabloid newspaper based in Glasgow, Scotland. (The newspaper's online edition has since changed the word "cult" to "sect.") It was a front-page story in the paper's print edition and details a controversy at a public school where church members distributed two religious books recently.

Underneath the headline is a blurry, ominous photo of Jared Blakeman — his face painted to resemble Captain Jack Sparrow in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." The photo caption reads: "Face-painted Jared Blakeman is one of the 'missionaries' that has been in classrooms at the school."

"That picture is totally unwarranted," minister Alex Gear told The Christian Chronicle

Gear, a native of Scotland who preaches for the West Mains Church of Christ in East Kilbride, supervises Blakeman, an apprentice in Adventures in Missions, or AIM. The 40-year-old program is a ministry of Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock, Texas.

Recently, the church hosted an annual community day, which included games and crafts for children. Another AIM apprentice painted multiple eyes on Blakeman's face — to resemble actor Johnny Depp's character in the popular Disney film. Blakeman posted the out-of-focus photo on his Facebook page, which the Scottish newspaper lifted for its story.

Blakeman never entered the school wearing the face paint, Gear said. (Nor would the minister have allowed him to, he added.)

Gear said he has hosted students from the AIM program in East Kilbride for seven years — about the same amount of time that he, fellow church members and AIM workers have volunteered at Kirktonholme Primary School, where the controversy occurred. 

On the Facebook page of Adventures in Missions, Christians ask for prayers for the AIM team and fellow Christians in Scotland. (PHOTO VIA FACEBOOK.COM/ AIMSUNSET)

Sandra McKenzie, head teacher at Kirktonholme, invited the West Mains Church of Christ into the school eight years ago, the Daily Record reports. Gear said he served as a chaplain for the school, occasionally teaching Bible lessons and speaking at school assemblies. Members of the church and AIM students volunteered in classrooms, hosted a Monday evening youth club for students and built wooden garden huts for the school's agriculture projects.

On Sept. 2, with the school's approval, Gear and Blakeman distributed copies of two books to students — "Exposing the Myth of Evolution" and "How Do You Know God is Real?" — produced by Alabama-based Apologetics Press, a publishing ministry associated with Churches of Christ.

Some of the students' parents complained about the books. One parent told the Daily Record that they contained "crazy, right-wing nonsense about how evolution never happened — real flat-earth stuff."

McKenzie sent a letter to parents and explained that, “whilst I appreciate that not every family in our school are practising Christians, I was only too happy to accept this generous gift on your behalf," the Daily Record reports. “I hope you will all accept it in the spirit with which it was offered.”

The newspaper also claims that parents at the school were "furious to learn that cash raised by children, which they thought was intended for school funds, had been given to the sect to build a church nearby."

Gear told the Chronicle that the school occasionally raises money for local charities and had selected the church as the recipient. School children donated their spare change over the course of a few months, and the school presented the church with 220 pounds (about $343 U.S.). 

The school "sent a letter with all the children to let them know what was happening," Gear said, and presented the money to the church at a ceremony attended by parents in June.

The recent controversy has forced Gear to resign from the chaplaincy at Kirktonholme and another school where he served, he said.

Truitt Adair, president of Sunset International Bible Institute, told the Chronicle that he had spoken with Gear to confirm that the AIM students were in no danger. He voiced support for the minister and said that he and the institute's staff are praying for the congregation and the people of Scotland.

Bill McMurdo, a Scottish writer, speaker and consultant who blogs about football (soccer), was critical of the newspaper's characterization of the church as an “extremist U.S. religious cult.”

"This is so typical of our media’s propensity to use smear and slogan to vilify people," he wrote in a blog post. "The 'cult' in question is the Churches of Christ, a well-known denomination in Christianity and one considered fairly orthodox in the Protestant mainstream. The East Kilbride congregation sound a zealous lot and may have been a touch over-exuberant but this doesn’t make them a cult by any stretch."

Since the article appeared, Gear said at least 20 church members and neighbors had stopped by his home to check on him and show support.

"I believe God's got us here for a reason," Gear said, "and that some good will come of this."

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