How to Become a Cult Leader

This video makes disturbing viewing as one does not have to look far to find churches that manifest many of the classic signs of a cult. For this very reason I would recommend that people watch it.

There are a number of tendencies of some Christian groups that I find particularly troubling in this area. Here are a few examples.

1. A failure to engage with the broader Church tradition and a tendency to become theologically inbred. In the Church we are blessed with people from a vast range of historical, social and cultural backgrounds and theological convictions. We do well to interact with them. Christian groups, for example, that only sing CCM or that sing only 18th and 19th century evangelical hymns are inviting the increased expression of the negative recessive traits that are present within the ecclesiastical or theological gene pool in question. The fact that ‘evangelicalism’ has produced some terribly mutated offspring is, to a large degree, a result of this practice.

2. The manner in which conversion is spoken of and conceptualized. One can be a Christian without having undergone a ‘conversion experience’. One can be a Christian without having any clear sense of a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ in your life. Many have been raised as Christians and do not remember a time when they did not believe in and trust Jesus. For many people becoming a Christian is a very gentle and gradual process and there is little sense of a sharp break with a past life.

Without wanting to deny the reality of a ‘before’ and ‘after’ (which is clearly biblical), it is important to pay attention to the way that we construe this. The Gospel does not merely present Christ as pronouncing God’s ‘No’ to the sin of our world; the gospel also presents Christ as the one in whom the true telos of creation is realized, as God’s ‘Yes’. For many converts, it will be the ‘Yes’ that hits them with more power. However, in many churches the ‘No’ of the Gospel drowns out any whisper of the ‘Yes’. Converts are led to deny that which they were before, rather than appreciating that the Gospel calls them to recognize that which was good about their ‘past life’ and fulfill it.

The product of this is churches filled with boring clones. They are subtly discouraged from expressing that which is truly interesting and exciting about them as individuals. People are entirely stripped of their old existence and have to begin their lives again from scratch. This process of rebuilding their lives makes them very dependent on the church and their newly constructed life will often tend to revolve around the church. Conversion, however, is a death and resurrection. The old body of our existence dies, but there is a coming back to life in a more glorious form.

3. Too many church meetings and activities that one is expected or encouraged to attend. There is only so much free time and so many free evenings in the week. The superfluity of Christian meetings and activities can often simply crowd out everything else. New converts have less time to spend with their families, less time to take up new hobbies, less time to devote to developing new skills, less time to be around their non-Christian friends. Many new converts lose many of their non-Christian friends primarily because they come to spend all of their free time around other Christians. They also lose friends because this process tends to result in their becoming more boring people.

It is incredibly easy to have a week where practically every evening is taken up with church meetings, Christian groups or activities with other Christians. I really don’t believe that this is particularly healthy. If one is not careful Christian meetings and events can consume one’s life. There is no biblical commandment that teaches that the day of rest should be filled with church meetings. It is not a sin to only attend one. Nor is it a sin to stop attending a midweek meeting and to take up a sport instead. However, it is not unlikely that you will be made to feel guilty should you decide to cease attending such things. Being a Christian is not primarily about attending church meetings.

4. The indoctrination of new converts. There is a difference between teaching and indoctrination. Good teaching should equip the mind to think critically. Indoctrination tends to turn off the mind’s critical faculties. Indoctrination imposes an ideology upon people, an ideology that often restricts them from giving expression to important aspects of their lives. Teaching grants people the tools with which they can begin to work towards true expression of the world, God and themselves. Someone who has been taught, rather than indoctrinated, is empowered to think in a way that goes beyond their teachers.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Christian Experience, On the web, Theological, Video. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to How to Become a Cult Leader

  1. John H says:

    That is an awesome, if depressing, video. Very insightful.

    The aspects that strike particularly close to home for some manifestations of Christianity include:

    * “love-bombing”

    * lots of singing to stop people thinking and get them *feeling* instead.

    * the strictly binary before/after-type “testimony”

    * centering your life around this new group of people at the expense of friends/family.

    ISTM this is a particular danger for Christian Union groups, who are dealing with young, often vulnerable/lonely people, can often be semi-detached from (or even actively hostile towards) local churches, lack mature leadership, tend to discourage any manifestation of spiritual non-conformity or doubt (“Hmm. Sounds a bit liberal“) and can become an all-enveloping social environment for their members – a one-stop shop for all your social and spiritual needs.

    But they also organise missions at which some of us get saved and subsequently meet our future wives. So they’re not all bad. 😉

  2. Christopher Witmer says:

    Excellent insights, for which I am very grateful. Your final point, however, about education versus indoctrination, needs to be kept in a particular context. When we break down the word indoctrination we see that it includes the notion of imparting doctrine — maintaining orthodoxy. Catechising children could well be called indoctrination. Education is always building on certain fundamental presuppositions, which in the nature of the case must be accepted on faith. It’s not quite fair to say that one’s presuppositions are incapable of being proven, because the “great circles” that we make when we interact with the world around us and then continually come back to our starting point (our presuppositions) does constitute a proving process of sorts. (If one started off with the presupposition that one could fly like a bird simply by flapping one’s arms, a walk up to the nearest rooftop would quickly disprove that presupposition.) In any case, critical thinking does not mean that everything needs to be equally criticised. The critical thinker needs a set of basic tools with which he analyzes everything else, and these basic tools are the fundamentals of the faith that are themselves not subjected to criticism, at least not directly. The criticism of the tools comes indirectly, when their effectiveness as critical-analytical tools is tested through use. In this sense, I think a certain element of indoctrination is inescapable in any true education, and we do not need to be ashamed of that. The important thing is to do the right indoctrination. Proper indoctrinaton makes true education possible, and improper indoctrination can make true education next to impossible.

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  4. Elbert says:

    I see your general point, but I’m not sure I agree with it. Although a church should/does broadly partake in society, it is at the same time a new koinonia. Although church meetings and such may consume all possibilities of partaking in society outside the church, the reverse is equally true.

    In fact, I see that somehow more and more of the ‘christian experience’ is tried to be fit into and around the worship service twice or once on the sunday, because there is nowhere else left to fit it during the week. I suppose it depends very much on the context though (not every church is the same), and I fully agree on the necessity of ‘freedom’ to differ, to create freedom in relationships (taking in account your previous view on freedom).
    But am I right that you connect the possibility of that freedom to the requirement of friendships/activities/whatever outside the church, or is this just about very small (and/or narrow) local communities?

  5. Al says:

    Good points, John.

    Helpful qualifications, thanks. The key difference that I see between true teaching and cult-like indoctrination, is that the former is ultimately liberating, while the latter brings people into bondage.

    I see what you are saying. The Church is certainly a new community. My point derives from the fact that the Church is not the only community that we belong to. My point is that participation in church-related activities often results in people gradually detaching themselves from other communities that they belong to in an unhealthy manner. As Christians we also have a duty to be salt and light and there is a danger that we fail to move beyond the Christian communities that we belong to.

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  7. Christopher Witmer says:

    Al, Paul repeatedly refers to himself as the slave of Jesus, although he obviously sees himself as having achieved true, unsurpassable freedom in that relationship. As long as we have a thoroughly Christian understanding of freedom, I think I can agree with your distinction: true teaching brings people into the freedom that comes from submission to God, while cult-like indoctrination does the opposite. Obviously there is an element of paradox in this . . .

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  9. Daniel Nairn says:

    An instructive video.

    Several years ago I was volunteering as a leader in a youth ministry. During one leaders meeting at camp, the speaker read from a book on methods we could use to help the kids become more receptive to the gospel (keep them active, minimize sleep, etc.). Pretty similar to this video. After discussing all of these, he revealed the source of the book – a horse training manual.

    To my complete disgust, these ideas were actually taken seriously. We were encouraged to implement them.

    The church needs to be constantly weary of confusing man-centered methods of manipulation with the movements of the Spirit in our hearts. Totally different things.

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

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  11. To be honest, I think with annoying music, you can make anything look creepy. The truth is in my opinion though, that the main problem lies in the fact that such a community has a wrong focus on an something which isn’t God, whether that be the individual or the group or the leader.
    This video may be mind-numbingly annoying, but I think it is stretching it a bit to apply it to evangelicalism so much.

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