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It's a time of intense self-scrutiny for the Family International (formerly known as the Children of God), a tiny Christian fellowship that advocates communal living, extramarital sex and an apocalyptic worldview.
Some 40 years after David Berg, a charismatic evangelical preacher, garnered thousands of hippie followers in Southern California with his messages about sharing bodies, food, children and homes, the movement is struggling to reinvent itself. The 1960s church has battled allegations of past child sexual abuse, complaints from disaffected and aging members and dissatisfaction with an outdated theology.
All new religious groups face essentially the same question if they hope to endure: How do you revise some teachings and practices for wider appeal without forsaking the faith's unique identity and unconventional doctrines?
"Many desire to see innovation, professionalization and modernization," Karen "Maria" Zerby, one of the Family's spiritual and administrative leaders, said last week in her first-ever public address. "We must determine what elements of our theology, culture and context are rooted in the past and no longer hold relevance."
Zerby, who was Berg's wife and his successor after his death in 1994, shared her plans for reshaping the Family at the annual meeting of the Center for the Study of New Religions in Salt Lake City.
This is no small task for Zerby and her co-leader, Steve Kelly (who goes by "Peter Amsterdam"). The Family now has about 15,000 members gathered in small communal centers in 90 nations -- none in Utah.
There is a core group of followers, including some second- and third-generation members, but fewer than 20 percent of the original participants remain, and many of the those are in poor health with no medical insurance or retirement plans.
The church made headlines in 2005 when Zerby's son, Ricky Rodriguez, murdered Angela Smith, his former nanny and confidante of his mother, and then shot himself. Rodriguez blamed the Family for ruining his life.
That's all behind us, said two public-affairs representatives for the church who were in Salt Lake City for the conference.
"We acknowledge that mistakes were made and that there were excesses," said Claire Borowik, who has been with the Family International for 30 years. "We've taken stringent measures to right those wrongs and apologized to former members."
Thus, she said, "we find it disheartening for people to focus so much on the past."
The Christian counterculture » David Brandt Berg, his first wife, Jane, and four teenage children arrived in Huntington Beach, Calif., in 1968 and felt immediately called to preach among the so-called "Jesus freaks" who had congregated in the seaside town.
Berg sought young converts willing to "commit themselves to a radically focused missionary life in which they abandoned worldly occupations to preach salvation, live communally and share all things in common," sociologist brothers Gordon and Gary Shepherd wrote in an essay about the Family in The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions .
The point, the Shepherds wrote, was to be "witnesses for Jesus in the end time of human history."
When Berg's followers had grown to about 100 members, he became known as "Father David" and the group "the Children of God." One of them was a young Karen Zerby, who later became his wife.
Berg communicated his counsel on spiritual and practical aspects of Christianity via letters of instruction, called "Mo letters," to his followers. But Berg's Children of God was controversial from the beginning.
It practiced the "law of love," or nonmonogamous sex, as well as using sex to attract new members in a system known as "flirty-fishing."
"The demand for total commitment to an unconventional missionary lifestyle that sharply condemned the corruption of the existing social institutions and established churches, while simultaneously flouting traditional sexual norms, quickly stigmatized the Children of God as a religious 'sex cult,' " the Shepherds wrote. "All of this converged with the brainwashing controversy concerning new religious movements in the 1970s."
In the aftermath of sensational media attention and hounding by critics, church leaders restructured the group, changing its name in 1978 to the Family International Inc.
Responding to child-abuse allegations, Berg and Zerby later barred sexual contact between adults and children and discontinued "flirty-fishing," conceding some members had misapplied Berg's liberal teachings about sex.
Since then, the Family has issued seven official apologies to former and current members for any grievances they had with their experiences in the group. It also has worked hard to repair its image and reach out to potential converts.
Family spokesman Lonnie Davis -- who notes that the group keeps careful records of each pamphlet distributed, DVD sold and Web page viewed -- said, "We've led 33 million souls to Jesus."
What now? » Zerby's speech in Utah was part of the Family's coming-out party, said Utah attorney Michael Homer, one of the conference sponsors.
"The Family has made a decision to begin constructing a more public profile," he said. "It plans to enhance its Internet presence and adapt its message to the cultures in which it lives. It also plans to open the membership to persons who are not full-time missionaries and do not want to necessarily commit their entire day to Family activities. This may include allowing members to live outside homes and not participate in communal living."
The group is honing its missionary appeals, focusing on humanitarian efforts and social-gospel ministries. It is working to make each community self-sufficient as well as more open, tolerant and egalitarian.
And its leaders are looking 30 to 50 years into the future, rather than expecting the return of Jesus at any moment.
That is "a monumental shift" for these believers to contemplate," but an essential one, Zerby said in her speech.
The hope, she said, is that the Family can "prosper well into the future as a thriving religious community that is relevant to today's world."
» There is one true, eternal God, who is the all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present, invisible spirit of love who created and rules the universe and everything in it. In the Godhead, there are three distinguishable but inseparable persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
» Everyone can have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. He can speak to our hearts and give us direction, guidance and practical solutions to the challenges we face in society today.
» The Holy Bible is the inspired word of God.
» The biblical account of creation as depicted in the book of Genesis is to be accepted literally and not allegorically.
» Although God has power to heal illnesses, the decision of whether to rely on prayer alone or to seek medical assistance in addition to prayer is a personal one, and members are free to avail themselves of medical assistance.
» The New Testament's account of the lifestyle of the early church offers not only a historical narrative, but also an exemplary pattern and model, which God intended succeeding generations of believers to follow.
» Heterosexual relations, when practiced as God ordained, designed and intended between consenting adults of legal age, are a pure and natural wonder of God's creation, and permissible according to Scripture.