Quit Your Church! 

It was bad enough when evangelical broadcaster Harold Camping falsely predicted the apocalypse. But his latest crusade really has Christians fuming.

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Since Camping began his campaign, conservative Christians have scrambled to dissociate themselves from him, and scores of others have decried his stance via Christian publications and Web sites such as FamilyRadioIsWrong.com. Camping's radio ministry has lost key associates, with the Back to God Hour, Back to the Bible Hour, and the large satellite network known as Sky Angel all pulling out -- not only for Camping's divisive comments, but because he has taken to editing any mention of pastors, deacons, or churches out of the programs.

Some Christians fear Camping's far-reaching broadcasts could bring about significant defections from the church. So far, though, it hasn't been as bad as feared, according to Dave Rastetter, who oversees FamilyRadioIsWrong.com. "I have found that people are not pouring out of churches as would be expected," he writes on the site. "I get an occasional e-mail from a pastor who has one man or at times one family leaving the church due to Harold Camping. And I'd put the number of departures from what I can collect from my contacts from under 1,000 to 1,500 people bowing the knee to Harold Camping."

In one of the more noteworthy episodes, Pastor William Shishko of the Franklin Square Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Manhattan told Christianity Today he'd lost 10 percent of his congregation. "One of the Camping followers who has left our church was a deacon," he told the magazine. "He came to the point that he refused to submit to two of the church elders here. This man and his family left the church, as did several members of his extended family and two other families."

The real damage, some Christians say, may be that when a man of Camping's prominence broadcasts views that might be viewed as a few cubits short of an ark, he undermines the faith by scaring away nonbelievers, not just from the church but from religion altogether. What makes people especially uncomfortable is that Camping pits the gospel of Family Radio against the teachings of the church -- an us-versus-them mentality that strikes some Christians as the height of pride and arrogance, the actions of a man who wants control of his own flock of believers. "It's a cult," says Patton, a Family Radio employee from 1974 to 1994. "Family Radio is a cult." Rick Ross, who heads his own Jersey City, New Jersey, think tank on "destructive cults, controversial groups, and movements," says he's received repeated complaints about Camping and his nonprofit ministry. "They have been from people who feel that they have been misled by him, manipulated by him," he says. "This is pretty much the standard call of a cult leader: 'It's my way or the highway,' and 'I am the only truth in town and if you're not with me, you're on the side of the enemy.'"

If it all comes down to who is reading the Bible correctly, Camping's opponents are quick to note that no mainstream theologians agree with his interpretations. "People who don't understand Bible doctrine or history, Camping can run rings around them," Gistand says. "They are uninformed and listening to this one guru, one teacher, and they think he's right. But he will not submit himself to public debate, nor public discussion with reputable pastors or teachers. Consequently, he has fixed his listening audience and his scenario so that he can appear to be correct." Not so, says Tom Holt, a staunch Camping defender and friend who runs an entity called Bible Ministries International. "I've been to theological seminary," he says. "I've studied the Bible in Greek and Hebrew, and I found him and what he wrote to be very faithful. I became very interested as to whether Christ would return in 1994, and when he didn't, it didn't discourage me from my interest in what Harold Camping was writing, because I found his books very faithful to the Bible."

Since Camping wasn't returning phone calls, the only option was to visit the place he goes every Sunday morning: the old Alameda Veterans Building, which hosts his Bible Fellowship.

The hall engulfs most of a residential block, nestled amid oak trees and breezy midcentury bungalows. On this Sabbath, families in varying sizes of bike helmets pedaled past happily, and an undeniably bored boy had set up a lemonade stand out front. There were no outward signs the building was being used as a place of worship, save for a simple sandwich board off to the side reading "Alameda Bible Fellowship. Visitors Welcome."

Inside, about 75 people sat in a vast room whose stage was decked out with an immense red velvet curtain worthy of the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz. At center stage stood a plain podium with a single microphone. No sign of any crosses, stained glass, or the props that one might find in a regular church, but the neat rows of beat-up folding chairs were littered with dog-eared Bibles and prayer hymnals. A pianist played soft songs of praise as members greeted one another warmly and caught up on each other's lives.

One row over, a fortysomething woman wearing a wide, scallop-collared long-sleeve blouse under a pastel jumper was deep in conversation with a fresh-faced woman in a sari. It appeared to be the Indian woman's first visit. "Even as I was getting divorced, something inside me told me it was wrong and against His teachings," the parishioner proclaimed. The woman in the sari listened impassively, smoothing the creases of her wrap with her Bible.

But if Harold Camping is running a cult, we weren't exactly being love-bombed. One or two friendly people approached to give welcome, but for the most part, the newcomers were left to themselves.

Then he appeared, entering from a door to the right of the stage. Harold Camping is tall, and was probably quite handsome in his day, in a Jimmy Stewart sort of way. Now his long face is deeply creased in interesting patterns, including a series of wrinkles that resemble a tic-tac-toe board on his forehead.

He emerged with a group of three other men, smartly dressed and important-looking, and quietly took a seat in the very back of the room in the very last chair of the very last row. Camping rarely addresses this congregation. Not only has he denounced hierarchies in churches, he isn't a minister by trade. Alameda Bible Fellowship is democratic, with someone different each week delivering a sermon and leading the group in prayer.

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