Why Do People Get Involved in Unhealthy Churches or Cults?

Stephen Smith from Liberty for Captives blog quoted comments from some of you and added more of his own insight. It’s excellent. Let’s keep talking! This is good stuff!!

~ja

Liberty for Captives

Cults are bad even when they lead you to Jesus.

I came to know God in a church which turned out to be a Bible cult.

I was raised in this church and I stayed until I was thirty years old. Early on, I had no other experience of what church could or should be like. By the time I visited other churches in college, my worldview was steeped in the teachings of this particular group. In this unhealthy church I had a genuine conversion experience and was taught the Bible. In this church, the pastor sometimes acted with apparent patience, kindness, and love. He rose early and stayed up late in order to conduct the affairs of the church. He forsook vacations and seemed to eschew worldly praise. He gave money to congregants who were down and out. His words sounded spiritual—they seemed to float in calm, sanctimonious sunbeams…

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33 comments on “Why Do People Get Involved in Unhealthy Churches or Cults?

  1. Cults prey upon young, still naïve young Christians who are easy prey. They are hungry for the word, but not yet well read in the Bible and definitely not schooled in the Berean principle.

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  2. B4B – I think you’ll find this a more complex issue than folks being properly “schooled in the Berean principle.” Cults are very complex and deceptive appealing to ‘Maslow’s hierarchical of needs.’ They lure folks in, play on their pride and well being, drawing them deeper into the organization with esoteric teaching/understand, and then when you “arrive” and show “maturity,” they break out the deepest material permitting people to also control others and promote their selves as leaders within the group. These folks certainly feel like they’ve been “schooled in the Berean principle.”

    By the time folks realize its indeed a cult, they’ve been sucked, getting out is now the new mountain to climb, even dangerous and life threatening. Even if a people have great real spiritual strength, they will still be berated by members and treated like they are in rebellion for leaving, even after having left for some time. If they move from the geographical area, then that makes it much easier to not go back. However, as with the Jim Jones cult, many former People’s Temple members had death threats from those who were still in the community, after the slaughter. I don’t know what that’s like today, but there have been several articles detailing the aftermath of the People’s Temple slaughter.

    We all should be careful what we consider a cult – clearly establishing organizations that are cults, and holding back from making extreme claims. A church organization having some controlling aspects does not a cult make. However, being cult-like can exist in many Gospel preaching churches, like the one I went to in Rota Spain (denomination withheld), and later in my walk, Okinawa, Japan.

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  3. I would argue that “seasoned” Christians are just as susceptible, if not more, to cults. They are so set in their ways, and cannot fathom the idea that the abusive and authoritarian systems and leaders that they have invested all their lives and put their faith in could be wrong and toxic. It is much more difficult to UN-learn than to learn when one is so entrenched. The young and the naive can relearn and adapt easily. Old and stubborn people often have more trouble accepting that they have been living a lie.

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  4. I agree, David. I can only speak to what I saw in SGM. Perhaps other denominations prey on new converts. Actually, my story is more atypical for SGM (coming to faith there). One common criticism among many of SGM is their lack of concern for evangelism. Most of their “missions” funds went toward paying off building debt. Church “plants” meant starting a new church and recruiting Christians to this particular brand of Christianity. Most of the people who came and stayed and took the bait were long time believers who were very grounded in Scripture but were slowly being converted to the neo Reformed brand of Christianity. In fact, it was rare to meet some one in a SG church who actually came as a nonbeliever and came to faith there. The focus was all about doctrinal conformity. Mature believers were deceived because the leaders didn’t out right say, “this is the only correct theology and the only true church.” But if you came from another church, you were slowly taught to appreciate the near perfection you had finally found in SGM. You would hear constantly how blessed you were to have “gospel centered” this and that. Eventually, since the church you were in clearly was perfect, everything being spoon fed to you must be true as well.

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  5. Ric, to your July 22, 2013 @ 6:33 PM
    I merely offered reasons that might apply. that there are more complex issues goes without saying. I first read Walter Martin years ago and have studied many of them (new and old) in great depth.

    For David C July 22, 2013 @ 10:24 PM.

    I don’t know what you mean by ‘seasoned’ but if it means only well read in their Bibles, they would definitely not be more susceptible to getting into a cult. When you know what is true, what is false either jumps out at you or red flags go up. The written word does that to you.

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  6. B4B: You said:” When you know what is true, what is false either jumps out at you or red flags go up. The written word does that to you.”

    It is just not that simple.

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  7. David C JULY 22, 2013 @ 10:24 PM
    When I read what you said it was like you had been looking at what happened to me. I was at a vulnerable time in my life after my husband died and I changed churches. The new people/pastors etc. embraced me. Shortly after my husband died, my elderly parents moved in with me to help take care of them on top of the fact that I, myself, have my own health issues. And I think that, as being Christians and not having been exposed to toxic, unhealthy, cults, etc. before, that we do not know or expect that there are evil and abusive leaders/pastors/etc in a church. Yes, I was very naive.

    Julie Anne JULY 22, 2013 @ 8:20 PM
    So I do think ‘seasoned’ christians can be taken in by a cult when we are in a vulnerable place in our life. Or even if we aren’t. Cults can be something so outrageous that as soon as you walk in the door that you immediately turn around and run. Or in my experience, it can be so subtle that you don’t notice anything because they basically believe in the bible. The one I was associated with was ‘extra-biblical’; they basically believed in the bible but then their ‘apostles and prophets’ added to the Bible what they wanted to. And when I left the church and started investigating some of the people and found out some of the people I, and others, had questioned their actions, it was only then that we found out they were associated with a cult. THAT is how subtle a cult can be. The one I left is known as the “largest religious movement that you have never heard of”….

    There were things I saw over the nine years that I didn’t agree with. But I don’t think you will ever find a church that you agree with EVERYTHING. So even if it ‘seems’ pretty much okay from the outside, and there are a lot of nice people (many unsuspecting victims like me) who are there, it can still be rotten in their core values.

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  8. Our family left an unhealthy church about 7 months ago. We were a part of the church for over 20 years. When we first joined, we were in our early 20’s. We were young, immature and unaware that unhealthy churches existed. I noticed something was wrong about 10 years ago. The pastor was authoritarian and a micro-manager.
    We started visiting other churches but we didn’t find one we both liked. I feel we went back because of denial and fear. We were in denial of the spiritual abuse because it was so subtle. There were good things going on and we prayed for change. We also were in fear of losing our relationships and fear of the unknown. What would happen if we did leave? Would we find another church? We finally left. It’s been a painful but freeing growing experience. We haven’t found another church yet but we still visit some Sundays. This is such an important topic that needs to continue to be addressed. Our former pastor sent a text to my husband telling us not to tell “his” members why we left. I feel it’s time for me to speak up….

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  9. Thank you Donna and others for sharing. Each story gives others insights into how people were ‘taken in’ without being aware. It is hard to factor in that you have chosen a poor or a toxic church. We all feel that we understand the Scriptures, that a church is a spiritual family to belong to, and that we made a good choice from all the other churches/denominations in the area.

    Unfortunately, the school of hard knocks begins to confirm our worst fears–that our choice for a church family to belong to and be involved with is moderately or extremely spiritually and emotionally unhealthy. To even think of leaving is a very stressful process. It can create huge tensions in a couple or a family. This adds to the second guessing and frustration with the whole process. When you have finally decided to leave, then you become a statistic of another individual or couple who have had to ‘leave’ a church community for your own spiritual health. Then there is the slow path to ponder all that has happened and the aim to slowly work towards recovery.

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  10. JA – you asked how I define a “cult.”

    Cult is a very subjective term, based on the what folks think a cult would be like, or a “church” in our context here, that has controlling belief structures. The problem is, the term can be used to describe any church or church organization that merely sought to apply scripture in a more literal sense than some other more passive churches or church organizations. Its my estimation that the heavy controlling part of a church org is where the wide, blurred line starts to be crossed.

    Wiki has an interesting take: http://tinyurl.com/kc3stlv

    Nailing down a very objective and precise usage would be difficult.

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  11. Hi Donna – I’ve been driving home for the last 4 hours and catching up now.

    First of all, I’m very sorry to hear about your church experience. Boy, do I get the wavering-back-and-forth thing. It is difficult and it’s not just about walking away from the church building and the pastor/leaders, probably the most difficult thing for us was leaving the friends behind. Also it’s difficult because of the friends of our kids. It’s bad enough that we have adult friends we may have to sever ties with, but we have the whole emotional process with our kids, too, with explaining, saying good-byes, etc. That is just difficult and very painful. If you had children, that is likely the only church they have known. It’s like pulling the rug out from under you! Ouch!

    Donna, please stay tuned for a new post. I’m going to use your comment to springboard for a new post. ~ja

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  12. Rick said:

    Nailing down a very objective and precise usage would be difficult.

    I agree it is subjective. But it seems there is a point where it does cross the line into full-fledge cult status and I wonder where you would place that line?

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  13. my wife and I were told once, by a former pastor, you are not allowed to leave a church once you’ve joined; so, we weren’t hearing from God (who we felt was leading us to move on). then, the pastor’s wife called my wife and asked her why her husband was taking her and the kids out of the church. As if I’d leave on my own and leave them there. This was nothing more than a wedge to try and divide our marriage on church grounds. Incredible. This is where, I believe, bad theology, coupled with bad practice, combined with over zealous leaders, not loving the saints, started crossing into that blurred area of when a church becomes a cult.

    this is part of one of our bad experiences. we have other stories, but are thankful to the Lord for His keeping us, even through these hardships.

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  14. oh, this was the only time we sensed a problem with control in the church. if there were others, the were personally directed, and not shared in the preaching.

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  15. Ric – Ken Garrett has studied spiritual abuse extensively and we’ve discussed exactly what you mentioned – how sometimes pastors will split up a marriage pitting one against the other. That is absolutely wicked!

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  16. Thanks, Barb, for your comment. You’re right it is a “slow path to ponder all that has happened.” I think about what has happened almost everyday. Many times I have to force myself to think about something else because it can be overwhelming. But I have hope, and my hope is in Christ. I look to Him as I recover.

    Thank you, Anne, for your response. Leaving relationships has been the most difficult part. We left suddenly without saying goodbye. My friends tell me my real friends will call me to find out what happened and I don’t need to go back to say goodbye. But it still bothers me. My three daughters were raised in our former church. My youngest was born and raised there. They are young adults now. My middle daughter left a couple years ago. I think it’s been hardest on my youngest daughter. I look forward to seeing your new post.

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  17. Pingback: Should We Speak out about Our Spiritually Abusive Church? | Spiritual Sounding Board

  18. JA ( July 23, 2013 @ 10:27 PM) – it was unexpected for sure. it was also revealing and confirming that our decision was the right one. Thankful to the Lord for His leading, for the Holy Spirit working through our “inner man.”

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  19. My wife was pulled into a cult several years ago. It has been a horrible experience. A woman named Pastor Sun East runs it and has destroyed many families and marriages. She claims to be a prophet and uses her prophesies to scare her members into doing everything she says including giving her every last penny of their money and picking up and moving from their homes in Colorado to Texas to escape the many lawsuits that have been brought against them for abuse. She now hides behind a production company that makes Christian films. It is called Strong Foundations. She lives in a mansion in Texas and recruits members through her movie company. This appeals to many people looking to get discovered through these movies. She is controlling and manipulative and in my opinion dangerous because of her delusions that she speaks to God (in an audible voice). I am warning anyone who is involved with this person to get out before she destroys your life or the life of your loved ones. It is too late for me.

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  20. “Too late for me” I too am a survivor of this cult and I can’t believe all the crazy things I put up with for years as this Pastor Sun East slowly tried to destroy every relationship in my life. She is running a full blown cult and the people in her church put up with so many mind games and so much spiritual abuse. I feel sorry for her son and daughter. Her daughter is controlling and operates under the same Jezebel Spirit as her mother Pastor Sun Hui East. Her son Josiah acts like he is 12 even though he is in his mid 20’s because he has been so sheltered and emotionally stunted by this cult. His mother does everything she can to make him feel like a super star by putting him in every B rate movie she writes and making him the main character. He will never be allowed to live a normal life. Im not sure he has ever even dated before because his mother wants to keep him pure. Her followers are brain dead and can’t make any decisions on their own. They are told who to marry, where to work, who to speak to, when to eat, when to sleep, where to live and how to raise their children. Everything is manipulated in order to bring fear and confusion. This woman is prideful, arrogant, vain, and only surrounds herself with people who tell her what she wants to hear. This Pastor Sun Hui East uses the broken and vulnerable catching them at a weak moment and then heaping huge amounts of shame to keep them under her control. She has exploited the homeless for years and I have heard several of these ex members claim to be spanked by her for not doing what she told them to do. If you are even considering joining her church First Love Harvest look around at the members first. They are all mindless and highly dysfunctional people. Look at the people closest to her. They are all weak men and woman looking for a mother figure. Get out before she ruins your life posing as a good Christian woman. You will know them by their fruit.

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  21. Thank you for sharing your stories, Too Late for Me and SO SAD. I get angry when I think of the destruction left behind by people who try to control others. You are right – – the fruit is very evident.

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  22. I just ran across this post when looking for information on Pastor Sun Hui East. My daughter was asked to be in a “movie” this cult was making and I started to get an uneasy feeling after meeting many of the “church members”. I knew that something was very wrong right away when I met with the “pastor” and she had an entourage of about 6 people around her at all times that she ordered around and made them wait on her hand and foot. Got a creepy feeling when ever she would talk to anyone and got the impression they were all scared of her. Most of the church members seemed like they were spacey and out of it and looked to her for every little thing. It was really odd and I told my daughter I did not want her to get involved with this church. Later I found out that this was really a cult and that they used these movies to enlist young members into their church. Pastor Sun Hui East’s son is the leading character in every “movie” she makes and he was really weird too. The whole experience gave me a creeped out feeling and I was glad we didn’t get involved in this weirdo cult.

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  23. My name is Desera Price, and I believe that I am the “wife” being referred to in this blog by my husband, Timothy Price. Recently I filed for divorce because Tim has never been able to provide for me & has been controlling & mentally abusive, failing in his duty as a husband during our 17 year marriage. I am responding to this blog only because I want to bring some truth to light and get rid of these ridicules accusations.

    First off, in the 5 years we have attended this very small church & been part of the film company, no one else in our congregation, our leadership, or our movie company has talked about, or filed for divorce (this is how I know this blog is referring to me).

    Secondly, our “move to Texas” was a corporate move of our film company, of which, our Pastor happens to be the CEO. The choice of the location of our destination was based on our collective research and has proven to be a good environment for an independent film company. The company paid expenses for this move, as we were planning to set up operations right away and resume work on our ongoing film projects. Many of us, chose to make the move; however, relocating was not feasible for everyone involved, due to family, current jobs or other obligations.

    During the 5 years that we have attended Pastor Sun East’s church, she always encouraged and counceled me to stay with Tim and work out any issues that we might have. Pastor Sun East helped Tim & I out in many ways, including paying our rent over and over again. (Pastor Sun always looks out for her church members and makes sure all of us have what we need financially). When we first came to this church, my own business had started slowing down dramatically. At this point, I was no longer bringing in a large income, and Tim grew very resentful and rejected me.

    Tim’s mind has never grown up to be independent from his parents and even to this day, his parents have to take care of him financially.

    Lori Fox, I believe you have a misunderstanding about a few things. I want you to know that Pastor Sun never invited your sister, or her husband to make the move with our film company. Both your sister and her husband found out about our plans after they had been solidified and strongly considered joining us. (they began looking into housing and jobs in the area and were encouraged enough to announce that they planned to join us in in the move, something that they later chose not to pursue). I believe enough is enough and it would be nice if you would stop attacking Pastor Sun East, our church and me… I would really appreciate it. I have been attending this church for 5 years and people come and go freely, always… coming whenever they want, and leaving whenever they want, just as your sister did. Also, I, myself could leave the church or film company at any time.

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  24. Desera, I find it interesting that you thought this post was about you but beside that fact there are a few things I want to ask you. You said your husband did not provide for you and so you filed divorce. Where in the bible is this a reasonable reason to file divorce? I know your pastor has been married 3 times so maybe you are both reading different bibles then the one I have but you never mentioned infidelity as one of your reasons. You make this “little church” you attend sound so innocent but all you have to do is GOOGLE Pastor Sun Hui East Warren’s name and up pops all kinds of scandal and accusations of this being a cult. Here is just ONE example.
    You are brainwashed and delusional like the rest of them. STAY in Texas! http://forum.culteducation.com/read.php?14,105963

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  25. I was raised in this cult that was lead by Pastor Sun Hui East. I endured many hours of being phsically abused by the members and made to feel like I was cursed from my birth. I had to spend every day contolled by the members of this cult and wasnt allowed any outside contact with people who did not go to this church. The members were told I was cursed and to have little conversation with me. The details of my childhood are horrible and one day I am going to write a book. I want to save the other kids who are still there. I will make this happen one day. This is a horrible cult. You are all right about this.

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  26. Mary, I won’t be approving the comment you’ve been trying to post. It is inappropriate and unrelated to the dialogue here. Perhaps you can deal with this person privately. Thanks.

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  27. They are not a cult they let you leave when you want. I know them personally. Yes they have a very strong belief in God but that’s it. If they where a cult they would be killing people off and drinking the cool-ad lol but seriously I have been wrong about them. They just believe in God alot more then others.

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  28. Hey mo182, you say that if they were a cult they’d be killing people off. Well, I happen to recall hearing about “Baptisms” where people were rapidly dunked over and over again when the “church” thought they had a demon. Then there’s the suspicious drowning of Grace White… in a swimming pool. I hope you have been able to escape since you wrote that.

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