When several members of a Georgia Baptist church were invited to attend a weekend of spiritual renewal, their pastor, Paul Mason, didn't give it a second thought. After all, "Tres Dias" (Spanish for three days) sounded like it was a normal weekend getaway sponsored by a mainline religious denomination.
But a few months after they returned from the retreat, Mason realized he had a problem on his hands. "When I asked them how the retreat went, they told me it was a secret. They couldn't talk about what happened during the weekend," he said.
Mason noticed that couples who had attended the Tres Dias retreat were secretly inviting other couples to attend the program. After the church's Sunday school superintendent went to the retreat, he abruptly resigned his church position without reason. And within six months, Mason said the couples who had initially attended Tres Dias completely ostracized themselves from the congregation. The result, Mason said, was a divided church.
Determined to learn all he could about Tres Dias, Mason uncovered some unsettling information about a spiritual movement that is raising concern in the Southern Baptist Convention. Tres Dias is one of three major spiritual renewal movements that emerged from the Cursillo Movement.
Cursillo is a three-day learning, sharing experience of living in a Christian community or a short course in Christianity.
The Cursillo Movement originated in the Roman Catholic Church. However, many of the current Cursillo Movements are run by Protestant denominations. The three major movements in this country are Tres Dias, a charismatic movement with ties to the United Methodist Church; "The Emmaus Walk," sponsored by the UMC; and the Lutheran-affiliated "Via De Cristo."
The weekend retreats aren't just aimed at adults. Many Southern Baptist teenagers have attended the UMC's youth Cursillo called, "Chrysalis" and that has caused the North American Mission Board to sound a word of caution.
"If Southern Baptist teenagers want a deeper relationship with Christ, a three-day weekend is just a quick fix. These retreats often create more problems for a church than they resolve," said Tal Davis of NAMB's interfaith witness team.
Mason agreed. "The Emmaus Walk and Chrysalis were adopted and adapted to fit the Methodist denomination and it works well for them. I make my strongest appeal that Baptist teenagers should receive their spiritual training through Southern Baptist organizations," he said.
Davis said a number of Southern Baptist churches have contacted his office with stories of problems resulting from the retreats. "It's very strange. Some church members have done extreme things, selling possessions, becoming secretive. It's almost like the weekend retreat has become the focus of their spiritual lives."
George Osment, Jr., a lay leader at First Baptist Church, Scottsboro, Tenn., said the intensity is so great that leaders of one Tres Dias retreat refused to allow a camper to leave. "This person wanted to go home but they wouldn't let him. He saw what was going on and wanted to leave," Osment said. "They formed a circle around him and prayed over him."
Osment said the secrecy surrounding the retreat has caused division in their congregation. "It's very sad," he said.
Said Davis: "Anything that involves a measure of secrecy sends up a red flag. There's no need for anybody in a Christian church to keep anything secret. Everything should be out in the open."
Davis said the Cursillo movement is intent on getting as many people out of the church to attend as possible. "There is an elitist mind-set and that can become divisive. It's a problem," he said.
And while Davis stressed that he doesn't believe the Cursillo movement intentionally tries to undermine the local church pastor, he warned that even some pastors have been blinded by the retreats. "Their focus is no longer on the gospel or evangelism, rather the experiences they've had."
Mason, now ministering in Tennessee, noted that the Cursillo movement does good work. "However," he said, "There are points at which Cursillo and Southern Baptists clash. Let me stress that before any member of a Southern Baptist church goes to a Cursillo, the pastor needs to go first."
One area of concern, Mason said, is the potential for participants to manifest charismatic tendencies. All participants are recruited by those already in the movement, and thus it does not appear to be open to everyone, he said.
Jean Johnson Green, the international assistant director for the Walk to Emmaus, said that while the retreat may have some problems, the intentions are pure. "Our purpose and vision is to create Christian pilgrims who can go back and strengthen local congregations," she said. People attending the retreats are called pilgrims and the retreat locations are called communities.
The Walk to Emmaus was created in 1977 as the Upper Room Cursillo. It was licensed with the Roman Catholic Cursillo. In 1982, the United Methodists broke from the Catholics and created a retreat that would steer away from Catholic theology, Green said.
Tres Dias was actually a Methodist Cursillo that broke off in the 1980s. And while it is a separate Cursillo, the structure is similar to the Walk to Emmaus.
Green admitted there have been some problems with the retreats – specifically the veil of secrecy. "We are doing everything we can to change that policy," Green said. "The secrecy is part of the tradition of the Cursillo.
"I suppose people were more trusting back in the early days of the retreats," she said. "We have moved into the ages of the cults and it [the secrecy] has become problematic for us."
Green stressed there isn't anyone keeping the participants from revealing what happened on the retreat.
As for the accusations of forcibly keeping participants from leaving, Green said it is not a widespread problem. "Yes, there have been those instances, but I want to stress there are very few. Our motive is if we can just keep them at the retreat, they will be changed," she said. "Again, this is another tradition that needs to be changed. It was a bad decision on the part of the local Cursillo leadership."
Davis said it's important for churches to be alert. "The other side of this is that our churches need to be aware and concerned about the spiritual training of the membership," he said.
Out of 78,000 pilgrims attending 370 Emmaus Walk and Chrysalis retreats annually, Green said only one person has left the weekend retreat.
Green said she was also aware of local church concerns. "We stress to our pilgrims that we aren't better than anyone else. The world is still the same. Our hearts are different. We encourage the pilgrims to go back to their congregations lovingly," she said.
"There are some people, who are baptized by the Holy Spirit, who think they are on a higher plane. When we find out about this, we immediately contact the community leaders and tell the pilgrim this is inappropriate behavior," she added.
As for Southern Baptists, Davis said the best method of spiritual renewal is through discipleship. "We have some wonderful materials, from Experiencing God to MasterLife," Davis said. "A balanced approach to spiritual growth involves discipleship over a period of time, using sound, biblical principles and materials."