Why do people get involved with cults, questionable religious groups and sects? Everyone has needs and cults and questionable religious groups can offer benefits and meet those needs. Today’s post explores who gets involved in a questionable organization and why, as well as all the benefits of being involved in a questionable religious group. I draw from my own experience in Mormonism and what I observe from a distance about Sovereign Grace.
“Seeing reality for what it is is what we call discernment. The work of discernment is very hard.”
Lewis B Smedes
“The purpose of life is to contribute in some way to making things better.”
Robert F Kennedy
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
James 3:17 NIV
I want to write and reflect on the following question….why do people get involved in questionable religious movements, sects and cults? After all no one wakes up and says “I think I’ll join a cult today!” But its an issue that begs a question. I learned this the hard way when I got involved with Mormonism in college. If you want to read more about my brush with Mormonism you can do so here. In this post I discuss the cognitive dissonance that I had as I started to get involved in the LDS faith, plus in this post here I write…what is cognitive dissonance. I was aware of the stories and the problems but I was also naïve in my thinking that it wouldn’t happen to me, that my experience would be different. In regards to Sovereign Grace or ex-SGM churches there still are questions to pose. Are they really different? Why would a person join or get involved in a troubled movement or sect? Reflecting back in my own life let me share some more information and talk about how everyone is vulnerable. Cults like the Mormons and questionable religious organizations do have their own benefits. I remember years ago once reading that cults and questionable religious organizations are the baggage of the church. And with what I have seen I couldn’t agree more. That said lets explore the benefits of a questionable sect, cult or religious movement.
Benefits of Being Involved in a Cult/Sect/Questionable Movement
Everyone focuses on the negative with cults, there are many positives. I’ve learned this first hand. The perks and benefits to being involved in a highly questionable religious organization are multiple, here are a few.
- Instant Community – A cult or questionable religious movement offers a home, a place of sanctuary and love. People seem to care, and love and have deep compassion. The love you experience is amazing and different. I encountered this with Mormonism and I see it in some of the sects I research and write about. The community takes you in and you bond with it and become loyal in the passing of time. I did the same thing with the Mormons, when people told me I was getting involved in a cult I blew, and used to think, ‘How could anyone call these individuals cult members? They are nice, sincere, deep, and loving!” All this community has a point however, its to keep you involved. The goal is to get you in the church or sect and keep you engaged.
- Instant friendship – You’re new to a city, you’ve come here because of work or the military PCS (Personal Change of Station) and you want to get to meet people in your new environment. You meet all these people who are so nice and suddenly want to be involved in your life. All of the sudden you have all these friendships out of the blue. They don’t take time, work, or investment and they are all linked through one source – your church. These friendships can also discourage your from seeking or knowing other people outside this community. You fall for it because these people seem incredibly nice and you wonder how could they be wrong?
- You have a close tight knit community – This community you find is exceptionally tight. So tight that in a short amount of time they start to get to know your intimate details. They obtain that information and in the course of time use. This community also dictates your life, who you can and cannot hang out with. They make their church the center of attention and all activities.
- “Sound Doctrine” – The doctrine of this community is sound. Its central, distinct and used to separate itself from others in the community. This doctrine is controlled and not up for discussion. You become another brick in the wall as you have to take it all. Everything else is attached of course to the doctrine. The other social activities, social community, friendships all re-affirm this doctrine. One thing about the doctrine however is that in many questionable religious groups there are two or more groups. There are the those on the outer, and those on the inner. Those in the inner rule play by a different rule. Those on the inner are leadership, those with longstanding ties to the organization, or its founders or the powers that be. Those on the outer are those who are trying to fit in but who do not conform or those who recently have joined.
- Social Activities – Social activities abound in a questionable religious group. The activities are used to control you. What type of activities are we talking about? We’re talking about baby showers, surprise parties, birthday parties, regular eating together, etc…. One of my personal favorites occurred in the Mormon Ward I looked into…it was a Cookie Decorating Party. Yup you get the drift. In questionable religious settings the activities are used to keep people busy and occupied so that they don’t question authority or think independently.
- Sense of Purpose and a Feeling of Belonging – We all need to be loved and we all are lonely. Questionable religious groups play to that feeling. They attach a hook into that part of your life. Now you have purpose and that group has become your identity. Or another way is to say that you have needs and this group is meeting your needs. You feel like you are a part of something and a community that is unique. You belong in this group and you can’t imagine life being done any other way.
Much if not all I have learned about the above I learned from my time in Mormonism. I see questionable religious groups do this in some capacity or some form regularly. Anyone can get sucked into these groups. I learned this the hard way as a 19 year old college kid in Montana when I was drawn into Mormonism. What I wrote above applies to the Mormon faith, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Church of Christ Movement, John MacArthur’s movement, 9 Marks, Sovereign Grace and others.
Who Gets Involved in a Questionable Religious Group?
The one advice I have is to be on your guard. Everyone is vulnerable or will be vulnerable at certain times in your life. Never say this won’t happen to me. Things that can cause people to join these kinds of churches or movements are the following:
- College kids away from home who are lonely and homesick. It can be hard to be away from home and kids can have lots of emotions and feelings.
- People who had a major tragedy in their life who are vulnerable. That could be…loss of spouse or child, loss of job, divorce, illness, or some other personal crisis. During this season everyone experiences grief or difficulty. Your parents will die one day, not every marriage goes smoothly, and people can and will lose their job. Life is hard but during these times you will be emotionally raw and vulnerable.
- People who live in transient areas with a large turnover. For example cities like Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. Chicago, New York, etc…have a high turnover rate. I’ve lived in the DC area for 10 years and I can’t tell you how lonely I feel here. In one year alone most of my close friends moved away and I am the process of finding new community. Even the people I get to know now are in the process of leaving. Recently I had lunch with a guy who confided how frustrated he was to live here because of this issue. For me I’ve also accepted the fact that as long as I live in DC area community is going to be elusive.
- People in the military are especially vulnerable. From the Marine Corps (USMC), to the Navy (USN), the Army (USA), to Air Force (USAF), to the Coast Guard (USCG); people who serve who have to move every 3 years (PCS – Personal Change of Station) are vulnerable. There are several reasons why…some people serve in the military out of family tradition and since they grew up in the military they don’t have any roots or an anchor in any one community since they were constantly moving in their life. Some of these individuals are incredibly lonely and get sucked in by the “warm” and “loving” community that presents itself. I realized earlier in my life after I walked away from Mormonism in which I heard stories of people in the military (in this case the Air Force) who would get sucked into LDS theology because of Mormon basketball leagues, church socials, etc… And some people joined the LDS faith not because they totally believed but they were looking for friendship, love and community. I think this is why organizations like the Mormon faith and Sovereign Grace thrived in the DC area…they feed off that turmoil, the constant change, and the large military presence here.
As I look back in life I think I fell in the first category when I got involved in Mormonism. I was in college in Montana, I was homesick, lonely and struggling to adjust. The Mormon church attracted me for that reason. I will also say that given the turmoil that exists in the DC area I feel like I am vulnerable to the third point. There has been so much turn over in relationships that I am trying to be mindful and careful as to where I plant roots lest I duplicate previous mistakes in life. I think Andrew White fell in the last category based upon what he told me. He struggled with his military assignment in New Jersey, was frustrated with getting connected and I think Sovereign Grace appealed based upon that fact. He had longed and hungered for community and it fed that need. In these situations in life you have trade offs, sometimes you can’t seem them do to cognitive dissonance or that need is so great you are willing to ignore the concerns or red flags. That is my observation with Sovereign Grace and it is what I learned from Mormonism.
Problems Being Involved in a Questionable Group
There are many problems to being involved in a questionable group. But before I get into this further let me step back and walk through this issue and frame it properly.
Nearly 20 years ago (God I feel old as I write this…) when I was in college the internet rolled out. At the time I was exploring the Mormon faith. Most of my research on it was from material the Mormon missionaries gave me, and later on things I started to read in my college’s library. One of the oldest religious blogs that exists on the internet is this one. It’s called ex-Mormon.org. Here is a link to the blog:
Its a blog that came out in the mid 1990’s that helps people recover from Mormonism. In this blog you will see how Mormonism has torn apart families, friends, and how ex-Mormons in Utah face employment discrimination by Mormons. People will anonymously talk about how they don’t believe in Mormonism but go to the Mormon church to keep their family together and prevent their marriage from ending in divorce. The saddest posts I read were of Mormon missionaries abroad who violate the LDS rules, sneak off to an internet cafe in Africa or Asia and post about the problems they have with the Mormon faith and how they don’t believe what they are teaching others. This blog ex-Mormon helped keep me out of the Mormon faith and was an eye-opener.
So in the early 2000’s years after I pushed back from Mormonism I was told by Christians that cults and unhealthy religious groups have a trail of debris, destroyed lives, and damage. I was told that unhealthy religious groups bleed negative publicity and press. For me this made perfect sense and the blog ex-Mormon.org fit the bill.
Fast forward to 2011 when I started to be invited to Sovereign Grace. In the beginning I was still hurt and in pain over prior church and ministry experiences. I still was crushed and overwhelmed with doubts. I feared church considerably. Over a meal Andrew told me about SGM Survivors and how another person warned him about the organization. At the time I thought nothing of it. I thought it was a disgruntled person whining and complaining. Again I thought it was 1 person. When I started to research SGM online I discovered SGM Survivors and learned that Sovereign Grace has an extremely negative internet presence. The amount of information about SGM bleeding out on the internet shocked and horrified me. It led me to wonder why would a person want to go to a church that had such a negative presence and so many problems.
SGM Survivors wasn’t just one disgruntled person. It was on online community of story after story after story of brokenness, pain, divided families, devastated marriages, alleged criminal activity being covered up, child sex abuse, shunning, Mahaney’s alleged blackmail of Tomczak, etc… . It was exactly similar to exMormon.org for me. Both blogs are large red flags – one for Mormonism the other for Sovereign Grace.
So the question I have is this…why would a person want to attend a Sovereign Grace church given all the problems that it has. I mean…
- You can’t invite co-workers.
- You can’t invite neighbors.
- You can’t invite friends.
- You can’t invite your exercise partner.
- You can’t invite the President of the Northern Virginia Poodle Chapter.
I mean you can invite them, but as soon as they learn all the problems that exist with Sovereign Grace and online blogs….they are going to push back and turn you down. One of the common criticisms I hear from people who have attended churches like Covenant Life Church is that “I can’t invite anyone my church has such a bad reputation or its known as a cult.” When you read stories like the one below from SGM Survivors that can only be re-affirmed:
January 7th, 2014 at 6:33 pm
I can’t speak to all of the issues swirling around the SGM organization. My contact with them has been through my son, who joined them in college, about 8 years ago. My family attended a few SGM services when we visited him out of respect for him; we were very uncomfortable with what appeared to be SGM manipulation but he did not recognize it. Over a period of years I have watched him slowly break his ties with his family. We don’t know what is going on since he will not talk, and seems stressed and sad.
Why would anyone want to get involved in a Sovereign Grace church? It also begs the following question. If you can’t invite people to church because of how corrupt it is, how cult like it is or the problems it has it begs the following questions:
- What kind of Gospel are you committed to? Are you committed to a Gospel of Jesus dying for sins, being risen and ascending into Heaven. The Gospel is remarkably simple it mazes me as to how many people make it complicated.
- Are you following a particular brand or Jesus? Meaning are you committed to following the Lord or are you enamored with a group because you like their social activities, or the fact that they still peddle Mark Driscoll? Following Jesus is not hard, the problem is that in these situations Jesus is being added to.
- What does this say about a person’s discernment? Before I continue let me be clear that every church has its baggage and no church is perfect. However while saying that there are those churches that have an especially heinous reputation and problems. When people can’t practice discernment they are feeding the problem and also bringing harm to the Gospel at the same time.
- Why go to a denomination bleeding sex abuse stories and needlessly expose your children to the potential of being molested or abused? After all this is a cultural issue in many ways and cultures do not change over night.
This is cognitive dissonance on steroids. I went through this once with Mormonism and found myself grappling with it again due to being invited to Redeemer Arlington. When I saw what Andrew was inviting me to, for him it was game over. As an agnostic at the time I would not explore Christianity in a denomination bleeding such horrific stories. Ultimately the opportunity that fell in Andrew’s lap to share the Gospel was at worst lost. At best it was deeply compromised.
In questionable religious sects, groups and cults the important thing is conformity. You are expected to conform. And whether that be worshipping someone like Joseph Smith in unison while denying it, or shaving your head or dressing like your Sovereign Grace pastor because others do it in the end its about conformity. In the end you become another brick in the wall of the organization as you help prop it up and support it. Its with that reference that I will close with Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.”