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A High-Commitment Church?

The only thing rivaling the profusion of Protestant denominations today may be the absolute explosion of podcasts. So then it will come as no surprise that Dwell Community Church now has a podcast of it's very own: Dwell On These Things hosted by long-time member Paul Alexander. Indeed, you may recognize Alexander from an interview he gave to NBC4 regarding the recent allegations against the church, a response which was, if not a bit quizzical, at least heartfelt. I personally remember Paul and his wife, Becky, as members of the leadership team in my 2006 home church which instructed members not to visit or otherwise provide support to me or my family after I was involved in a tragic car accident (more on that decision here). Because I love digging into my past trauma, I decided to listen to the episode, History of Dwell CC, Part 2 - Growing Pains. Because I am also a very lucky lady, Alexander was joined on this particular episode by Ben Foust, also a former leader of my home church and the husband of my discipler at the time, Sarah Foust. Or maybe it's not luck at all that the precise Xenos Christian Fellowship leaders from my high-profile home church involved in a decision of immense emotional and authoritarian scope are now critical figures within Dwell Community Church. After I finished hyperventilating, I composed the following thoughts.

In this enlightening episode, Alexander and Foust interview Xenos-Dwell co-founders Gary Delashmutt and Dennis McCallum regarding the church's history - specifically relating to a major split that took place in the 1990's. This schism is characterized by significant allegations of abuse against the church which are largely dismissed as outlandish by the founders. Eventually around 1,400 people would leave the organization, some of whom would join other churches within the community, as Delashmutt points out. When asked what lessons the founders took away from this significant incident, McCallum states that he "was prone to make sarcastic comments and stuff and it was causing a problem." This comment is quickly followed by the declaration that "a lot of negative players left the church during that period... Paul says that it's inevitable that there will be divisions among you, that those who are approved may be manifest." McCallum is of course quoting 1 Corinthians 11, curiously a passage where Paul (the apostle, not Alexander) is admonishing the Corinthians for rushing to the dinner table before the entire church arrives, diminishing the communal celebration of the Lord's Supper. The four then go on to discuss the implications of the split, as well as their personal preferences and belief in a high-commitment church.

I'll just highlight, but not even touch upon the following logic, since you don't need to have been personally tutored by Socrates to see the problem:
  1. Significant allegations of abuse arise against the church and its leadership in the 1990s

  2. Over 1,000 people - approximately half of the church - leave the group as a result

  3. The key lesson learned by McCallum was that his sarcasm and sense of humor can be problematic

  4. Those who left were "bad fruit" whom God pruned from the church as a metaphorical tree

  5. Though sad, those who remain are proven to be "good fruit"

While a high-commitment church may be fine in theory, the Xenos-Dwell model of high-commitment is highly questionable in practice, not to mention deeply incongruent with its militant model of evangelism. Many areas of life demand a high-level of commitment and correspondingly boast a significant reward: Olympic gymnastics, becoming a violin virtuoso, medical school, banking - to name just a few. All of these demand substantial time commitments and personal sacrifice coupled with the risk of disillusionment, shame, and loss of identity if met with failure. However, none run the risk of a complete and entire loss of personal support, community, and spiritual identity as seen time and again in Xenos-Dwell allegations. Moreover, each of these high-commitment life paths come with a large societal WARNING label regarding the significant demands, potential rewards, and risk of failure. Indeed, our society still wrestles with the question of whether minors even have the ability to properly consent under these conditions.

The founders of Xenos-Dwell along with its current leaders appear to take great pride in the high-commitment church that they have built along with its periods of rapid growth through evangelistic campaigns. Alexander and Foust stand in reverent awe of the founders as they describe working one hundred hours a week "for the Lord." These four may not know it, but I have seen this precise model of awe directed at the spurious efforts of the hundred-hour work week in my professional career, primarily in the context of another group of all white males: professional bankers. I guess boys will be boys.

Delashmutt and McCallum may forget that they signed up for this high-commitment church - a church that they have always wielded the power to define - after years of reprobate life and drug abuse, as fully-formed consenting adults. Nearly all of the new adherents today are committing their lives to the church at the undergraduate level and earlier - in high school, middle school, or even from birth. The zealous evangelistic campaign draws people in with the conventional church line of come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest followed by a bait-and-switch of the hundred-hour work week. Fail to meet the standards of a full-time job you didn't realize you were signing up for and Xenos-Dwell will withdraw every benefit, every signing bonus, and every drop of self-identify that you managed to give up along the way.

Needless to say, we don't invite every child to follow the rigorous training lifestyle of an Olympic gymnast and then shame and abandon them for what is guaranteed to be certain failure. Indeed, very few children are even qualified candidates for such a radical commitment. In contrast, Xenos-Dwell views the entire pool of humanity to be candidates for spiritual try-outs in their self-congratulatory, high-commitment model for spiritual life. It is clear that the immense pressure that initiates feel to comply with intense membership demands, is an ethos that comes straight from the top, and is best illuminated in the reverent awe that Alexander and Foust direct to the founders of Dwell Community Church.

Questions to think about:

Is the idea of significant evangelistic growth compatible with high-commitment as practiced by Xenos-Dwell?

Is the messaging of Xenos-Dwell transparent when individuals commit to the group? Are the consequences and risks clear?

Is it possible or ethical to ask minors to commit to this lifestyle, especially considering the loss of family, support, and identity if they reject it as adults?

Dwell Community Church professes that it has a special call from God to evangelize the young. Is this a call from God or a recognition of the demographic most receptive to the message? What are the dangers here?

What about those who are unable to meet the Xenos-Dwell commitment level?

Is the very real suffering of individuals who have been damaged by this high-commitment model worth the risk?

Why is church leadership unable to acknowledge the inevitable results of a high-commitment model when former members claim psychological and emotional abuse?

Is any of this compatible with individual spiritual empowerment? Are there elements that are self-empowering?

Why the automatic assumption that the individuals who "remain" are the good fruit and those who "left" are the bad fruit? Is this viewpoint not readily reversible?

How do we distinguish good fruit from bad fruit given the nearly infinite number of doctrinal, practical, or interpretational divisions in the Christian church from the time of Christ up until today?


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