Searching for spiritual meaning and connection with others is common when young adults enter their college years. There are many positive and ethical religious groups open to these young people, but, unfortunately, there are also destructive religious cults actively recruiting new members through deceptive and authoritarian means. I have recently been contacted by people from two separate university campuses where destructive cult members have set up active recruiting groups. University administrators are looking for advice and information on warning students and possibly even banning the groups from campus.
Tactics used for recruitment and retention of members by Bible-based cult groups are well known, and an excellent place to start in individual cases is with my Influence Continuum. I developed this tool to help assess the degree of destructive and unhealthy behaviors within a group as they manifest in individuals, group leaders, and organizations (or in personal relationships) as a whole.
My colleague, Chris Lee, was recruited into a Bible cult when he was a sophomore at MIT. We sat down to discuss his story and brainstorm ideas that might be particularly useful to the people who have recently contacted us, starting with his interview and this blog post. I asked Chris to share his background and explain how he came into contact with the Boston Church of Christ (BCC). This group has changed names many times and currently is on campuses as the International Church of Christ. Chris says he grew up believing in God, but not with a specific Christian orientation. He planned to go out into the world, get an education, establish himself, and then figure things out from a spiritual perspective. Chris spent his first year at MIT, concentrating on his studies and pursuing other music or sports interests.
In his sophomore year, a few of his friends who were also in the MIT Symphony Orchestra had gotten involved with the Boston Church of Christ. Before he had left home for MIT, Chris’s best friend from high school, who was a Christian, warned him about a notorious Boston area group that was “extremely aggressive” and had some “bad beliefs,” but Chris admits that he didn’t take their warning seriously. A friend who had recently joined the BCC invited Chris to see the new Kevin Costner film, “Dances with Wolves,” with some other friends of his. After the movie, the members engaged him in the discussion, framing it as someone discovering his real self and finding out what he wants most in life. Even though Chris was making straight A’s at MIT and had plenty of outside interests, he still had a nagging feeling there was something missing, and he was looking for someone to teach him more about what the Bible said. He told them he was open to studying the Bible and learning more about Christianity.
Right from the beginning, Chris felt rushed and pressured at the pace at which he was brought into the church activities – he studied at least an hour and a half every single day. This culminated in three hours on Sunday, November 17th and four-and-a-half hours on Monday, November 18th! He didn’t realize it at the time, but his instinct that something was not quite right was correct. His reaction was very similar to what I had experienced when being recruited by the Moonies and described in my first book, Combating Cult Mind Control. Unfortunately, we both ignored our instincts!
High-pressure recruitment and constant highly focused attention (sometimes referred to as “love bombing”) are signs of cult activity.
As he started associating himself with known members of the BCC, Chris’s other Christian friends became concerned. They showed him copies of news articles detailing serious concerns that many others had about the tactics of the cult. Chris had some momentary doubts but figured he could watch carefully and would be able to detect if any abusive tactics were being used. After Chris had become an assistant Bible Talk leader and Bible Talk co-leader, he made some suggestions that he thought would improve the practices of BCC but was shut down by the leaders (Chris’s grades began to suffer as he gave more and more of his schedule to various meetings of the Boston Church of Christ, such that his parents became highly concerned – he was about to be remanded a required/involuntary withdrawal from MIT. Chris calculated that the average non-leadership member averaged at least 12 hours a week in mandatory activities, excluding travel time. As a leader, it was easy to spend 30-40 hours a week or more.)
Authoritarian cults do not allow questions or suggestions for improvement and maintain the fiction that the leaders of the cult possess perfect and indisputable knowledge not available to the “rank and file.”
Chris recalls how any disagreement or questioning of the beliefs and practices at BCC was made into a personal problem, such as “you don’t have enough faith” or “you are not spiritual enough” or “who are YOU to question how we do things” rather than leading to an honest and open discussion. Chris tried to negotiate a collaborative effort with the other [what he believed to be] Christian groups at MIT but was told that the BCC did not consider them Christians and thus weren’t willing to work with other “Christians.” (The BCC did like to ‘sheep-steal’ or take their members.) One of the Boston Church leaders at that time was Jim Ryan, and he was very dismissive of any “outsiders,” calling into question the legitimacy of their baptisms and denying they were real Christians. (Jim Ryan later left the Boston Church and apologized to Chris for the way he was treated, acknowledging there had been abusive treatment and questionable financial practices.)
Cults operate under the principle of “ad hominem” argumentation, a tactic by which disagreement is directed against the person asking the questions rather than directly discussing the problem.
During our discussion, we touched on many points of similarity between my experience with the Unification Church (“Moonies”) and Chris’s with BCC, and particularly how both organizations employ methods of thought control, perhaps more familiarly known as brainwashing. In a previous post, I discussed the work of Robert Lifton, and Chris agreed that many of the same techniques Lifton describes as being used in China during the 1950s were used by the Boston Church of Christ and are common to all cult recruitment and control. One of the criteria, “dispensing of existence,” Lifton describes as
absolute or totalistic vision of truth, then those who have not seen the light—have not embraced that truth, are in some way in the shadows—are bound up with evil, tainted, and do not have the right to exist.
This concept is usually metaphorical, but it is understood in a literal sense and quickly leads to deadly violence under worst-case scenarios. ISIS is an excellent example of ideology that uses the concept of “dispensing of existence” in the literal sense.
Bible-based cults have some specific ways they use Scripture and religious ideas to indoctrinate and control their members. It is critical to study the Bible with an understanding of the historical and cultural context in which it was written, taking into consideration grammar, word-studies, the written context and even the flow of argument (exegesis) and avoid using the text to support any preconceived notions or even manipulating the text to support a foreign meaning (eisegesis). Any ethical, religious group would have some flexibility in looking at and interpreting the Bible and other related writings. Ethical and legitimate Christian groups also allow individuals to study the Scriptures on their own and to also do their own research – as well as allow for the Bible and the Holy Spirit to persuade individuals, in their own time. But cults do not. Cults often enforce a particular reading of certain passages.
Cults have already determined what they want their followers to believe and present Scripture in a way that will support those beliefs.
Leaving a cult is difficult, but fortunately, there are more resources available now than back when I was rescued from the Moonies, and even when Chris finally got out of the Boston Church of Christ in the 1990s. Chris is webmaster for a site called Reveal, an organization of former members of the International Churches of Christ (reveal.org). Chris also knows two former members of International Churches of Christ (the greater ‘movement’/umbrella of churches of the Boston Church of Christ), Janice, and Joe Franklin, who started Sparrow Ministries in order to provide support and resources to people recovering from their experiences as cult members (https://www.sparrowministry.com/).
As to the question of whether to ban such cult organizations from campus, we both agree this is not always an easy decision. Obviously, if there are any activities that are illegal or clearly violate the university’s charter, then banning the group would be a reasonable decision. On the other hand, banning a group from on-campus activities isn’t likely to stop their attempts at recruitment. They might create variations on the name of their organization – putting up “front-groups”, or as Chris puts it, “they’ll just go across the street and set up at Starbucks.”
Whatever decision is made about on-campus activities; however, it is indisputable that making objective information about cult tactics easily available to all students and staff within a university is crucial. This can be done through printed or online information, orientation programs, and periodic talks by invited experts. Former cult members who can speak directly to the experience of being recruited can be most effective in helping people understand how even someone who is otherwise intelligent and successful can be lured into a cult by the use of these destructive tactics.