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Xenos Changing Church Name To 'Dwell,' But Skeptics Remain

Xenos Christian Fellowship maintains a study center and cafe on 4th Street near Ohio State's campus.
Xenos Christian Fellowship
Xenos Christian Fellowship maintains a study center and cafe on 4th Street near Ohio State's campus.

Xenos Christian Fellowship is getting a name change - one that leaders hope will help the Columbus church better communicate its purpose and values. But the church's critics view the rebranding with skepticism.

Xenos leaders announced Friday in their annual Vision and Stewardship Meeting that the church will be known now as "Dwell."

According to Xenos spokesman Keegan Hale, the church has been debating whether to change its name for several years. It decided on Dwell after meeting with a consulting firm.

"For a long time we felt that Xenos, for lack of a better term, might be antiquated and doesn’t really describe who we are," Hale says. "And frankly, a lot of people don’t like the name. It’s difficult to pronounce, a lot of people don’t pronounce it correctly."

Xenos has many detractors, and criticism abounds online. Stories about the church regularly appear on the Columbus subreddit, and former member Mark Kennedy maintains the website Xenos Is A Cult. It shares testimonials of people who left, many of whom say the church is overly controlling.

View From Inside

Leaders of Xenos reject the label of "cult." The church describes itself online as a "culturally relevant, non-traditional and non-denominational church with mainstream biblical doctrines." There is no official membership, although Hale says the church has about 5,000 regular attendees.

The church finds its organizational inspiration from the biblical Book of Acts, in which the apostle Luke writes that Jesus’ disciples met daily in their homes.

To that end, Xenos followers meet in "ministry houses," where the church encourages college students and single young adults to live in order to grow in fellowship with others. On its website, the church maintains guidelines for those ministry houses, including expectations for behavior, hospitality, social practices and dating.

Alexis Burgett and Aubrey Reece, two Xenos followers, study at the church's 4th Street cafe.
Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU
Alexis Burgett and Aubrey Reece, two Xenos followers, study at the church's 4th Street cafe.

"Xenos" is a Greek term that means “stranger” or “alien.” The name refers to biblical New Testament stories, which describe disciples as sojourners in a foreign land who are making their way home to the Kingdom of Heaven.

“I’m not gonna lie. I hate the name," says longtime church attendee Alexis Burgett. "Since I was a kid I was like, ‘I think Xenos is a dumb name,’” Burgett says. “Because it sounds weird. You try to talk to people and you’re like, ‘The church I go to is Xenos,’ and they’re like, 'The hell is that?'"

Burgett grew up in Xenos, became disinterested in grade school, but felt convicted to re-join in high school after attending a bible study. Now she regularly studies at 4th Street Study Center near The Ohio State University campus. It's a space run by Xenos where students read, have coffee and attend weekly church meetings called Central Teaching.

While Burgett thinks the current name isn't ideal, changing it would be worse.

“If we change our name and I’m talking about the church I go to, I’ll be like, ‘this is the church I go to. But if you know it by this other name, this is what we used to be called,’” Burgett says. “I don’t wanna like confuse people.”

Burgett studies next to her friend Aubrey Reece, who's deciding what to major in at Columbus State Community College. Reece joined Xenos after someone on social media invited her to a bible study last March. At the time hadn't heard about the potential name change.

“If they’re trying to rebrand, I guess that makes sense," Reece says. "But at the same time, I’m still like, I don’t know if that’s really gonna work."

Reece says she’s not sure why a rebrand is necessary.

“I’m not really sure how people perceive Xenos, to be completely honest," Reece says. "I perceive it in a really great manner, and I haven’t really heard anybody diss it or anything."

Outside Of Xenos

Some Xenos attendees aren't the only ones skeptical about the switch. People who have left the organization say it's an effort to paper over the problems that gave Xenos a bad name in the first place.

Gail Burkholder left Xenos in 2000, and now runs a support group for ex-followers.
Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU
Gail Burkholder left Xenos in 2000, and now runs a support group for ex-followers.

Gail Burkholder joined Xenos in 1983 after coworkers invited her to join a bible study. Burkholder says she had been dealing with family issues at the time. She eventually married within the church and raised two children, who are now in their late 20s and early 30s, before deciding to leave.

“I was tired of being manipulated. I was tired of being told who my friends could and couldn’t be. What activities were acceptable or not,” Burkholder says. “Way too much gossip, way too much 'speaking the truth in love.'"

Burkholder taught at Calumet Christian School, which is affiliated with Xenos, and was a home church leader. After several years of questioning church teaching, Burkholder ultimately decided to leave in 2000.

Her two children left with her, but her ex-husband stayed with the church.

“It was literally an unraveling of my life because my home church met in my home. All my friendships were within the church,” Burkholder says. “When you leave, you literally leave everything behind.”

Now, she helps run a Facebook group for ex-Xenos followers called “Turns Out We’re OK: Xenos Survivors Support," which currently has 102 members.

One group member, Kelly McKenna, was in the church for 10 years before leaving in 2010. She says the external pressure she faced to recruit new members resulted in anorexia and bulimia.

“With home church, Central Teaching, cell group, house meetings, disciple meetings, there’s really not a whole lot of time," McKenna says. "And I was doing poorly.”  

When she made the decision to leave, McKenna called her sister for help.

“(My sister) almost joined the church just to like be able to spend time with me,” McKenna says. “I called her. She was there within half an hour. And we moved all my stuff out in two hours when everybody was at one of the meetings.”

McKenna thinks the name change means something more.

“I think it shows that they want to distance themselves from everything that Xenos is becoming connotative with,” McKenna says.

Hale says everyone's level of participation is up to them, and that the church does not put undue pressure on members.

Senior Pastor Ryan Lowery adds in an email that as far as controlling behavior goes, "I have to deny that claim categorically."

He points to active Xenos followers' willingness to express that they dislike the church's name to prove his point.

"I think this demonstrates the fact that people are free to dissent and disagree even in a very public forum without fear of reprisal."

Frank Rodriguez is currently in Xenos but questions why the church is changing its name.
Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU
Frank Rodriguez is currently in Xenos but questions why the church is changing its name.

Current Xenos attendee Frank Rodriguez is aware of the church’s reputation. He says the name change probably will not help that much with the community outside the church.

“So for me, if they’re changing the name, at least from an outsider perspective, if I was looking at it, I’d be like, ‘O.K., why are you guys changing the name? Are you guys trying to run from something or hide from something?” Rodriguez says.

Larger Changes In Store?

Hale says Xenos’ name change aligns well with the 50th anniversary of the church's founding. Its first iteration was the "Fish House," an underground newspaper that lead pastor Dennis McCallum and friends started printing in 1970 while students at Ohio State.

The paper sparked the formation of some bible studies around campus, which later grew into the present church community. Fish House adopted the name Xenos Christian Fellowship in 1982.

Church leaders are still working out whether their new name will be a variant of "Dwell Christian Fellowship" or simply "Dwell Columbus," but they'll keep ties to their past with the tagline "a ministry of XCF."

Inside Xenos' 4th Street Study Center.
Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU
Inside Xenos' 4th Street Study Center.

Hale says Xenos will eventually redo its website and signage to reflect the shift. But he says those aren't the only things different in the church.

“We have a completely new eldership now. There’s been a turnover,” Hale says. “For the last several years, it’s been slowly changing out older elders for younger ones.”

Hale says the church leadership change represents a new era with the same values.

“We don’t want to lose our history. There’s nothing to run from,” Hale says. “We’re actually very proud of what God has done.”