To the EVA 363 class of Lee University:
Thank you for the privilege of allowing me to share with you in your class last Tuesday. I think we spent most of the time on the issues of cultic culture and recruitment and barely brushed your excellent and thoughtful questions you submitted. I am afraid that my zeal for ensuring you understand those issues took our time there. I hope that the videos and discussion are helping you appreciate the fact that the Cultworld is indeed a culture of cultures and a world of worlds that are what Christians seeking to fulfill Christ's Great Commission must grapple with.
It is understanding this world that will make a great difference in how you approach it with Christian witness. For cult evangelism, as in any truly Biblical evangelistic strategy, involves more than just proclamation of the Gospel - it will require the building of relational bridges that will involve the pastoral, the prophetic, the apostolic and the teacher. In any given evangelistic moment in which you bear witness to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus, Christian truth itself will be challenged across the many settings of encounter you will come across as you go "into all the world." These challenges will come when people ask hard questions out of personal pain, cynical skepticism or out of their own philosophical and spiritual convictions, as well as out of the wiles of cultic recruitment techniques.
So you must be ready to become a student as well as servant of those who you hope to reach for Christ, to have prepared yourself to hear out their questions and have, as Peter said to "be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear" (KJV) In 1 Cor 9:22-25, Paul alludes to this as well when he compared becoming "all things to all men" in his personal evangelism to that of preparing for a footrace:
I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. (NIV)
I believe that your questions reflect a serious intent on your part to be engagers of the culture of the Cultworld, and it's my prayer that these answers will be of help to you .. Let me address these for you here and I will arrange to have a copy of this sent to Dr. Effler as well.
Your questions broke down into roughly three categories: you wanted to discuss
1. Research - specific information on the cult problem that quantifiable study has provided
2. Approaches - how to dialogue and deal with the unique problems cult evangelism presents
3. Mind Control - what it is and what it involves
You also asked some other miscellaneous questions and asked for testimony. I will try to be as brief as I can .. Your questions are in italicized bold font here and listed under the 3 categories:
What percent of Americans operate in cults?
How many different cults exist in America?
These are excellent but exceedingly difficult questions to answer due to several variables.
First, one needs to define which of the innumerable social gatherings around us in our world should be identified as cultic. The old saying that "one man's religion is another's cult" is a rather cynical proverb that completely ignores the fact that cultism can and does involve movements that aren't typically viewed as cultic, from business associations to therapy groups to codependent relationships. These are cultic settings virtually invisible to independent observation, off of most people's social radar screens, but are no less spiritually toxic or dangerous.
Secondly, objective information is quite sketchy when it comes to numbering those groups that are popularly viewed as cultic movements. As we've said, cultism is a slippery social abberrance that defies easy definition. Estimates of how many questionable groups that are popularly called "cults" exist have ranged from 2000 to 5000, and are often unreliable due to the short life cycle of most of them. Many divide into splinter groups, become inactive, or regroup and become more or less aberrant.
Thirdly, outside of knowing the current population of the United States (about 305 million) and membership statistics that cultic groups themselves post, we are are limited to making estimates based upon guesswork and older data whose veracity can't be fully proven since their sources have long ago become outdated and inaccurate. For example, the LDS Church claims 8 million members in America (with a world wide total of 13 million) and the Watchtower Society (Jehovah's Witnesses) states they have 1 million with a global membership of 17 million. Taken at face value, we know that there are at least 9 million members between both of these groups in the U.S. alone. Other cultic groups like the Unification Church(Moonies), the Family (Children of God) and Remnant Fellowship are far more guarded in circulating statistical information about themselves - or are more likely given to issuing misleading or inflated figures.
Fourth, numbers don't tell the full story behind the fluid state of cult membership which can be very difficult to track. Cults typically gain as many members as they lose: the abusive nature of discipline within cults as well is largely responsible for this. The Watchtower Society at one time stated that they annually disfellowship 40,000 members from "Jehovah's organization." In 1994, the International Churches of Christ, whose membership was about 60,000 worldwide then, was reported to have lost 20,000 members that year alone for a variety of reasons - and from 2003-2007, the LDS Church's membership rolls lost on average about 55,000 each year. This kind of turnover in larger and more established cult groups is readily seen in smaller groups as well. In fact, the rise of innumerable and largely anonymous social gatherings that may number no more than a few dozen individuals at most is where cultism in the 21st century is going. With spiritual anarchy becoming more and more prevalent in the last days (2 Peter 2:10), small groups meeting in living rooms, conference centers and hotel banquet halls are where perhaps the greatest challenges to the Church will emerge.
And another important thing to keep in mind: cult members always impact scores of others around them who may never darken the door of the group (friends, family members, acquaintances, neighbors, co-workers, class members, etc.). That extended circle of influence easily can involve hundreds of thousands and even millions more.
With all of this in mind, I think the estimates we hear from a variety of authoritative sources about the extent of cult membership are very likely understating the problem. If we limit the working definition of what constitutes a cultic group as one that is authoritarian in leadership, heretical in doctrine and abusive in practice - the one most familiar to evangelical and secular perspectives - then all of the groups above certainly qualify as bona fide and abusive cults. Both the late Dr. Walter Martin and Dr. Margaret Singer, two world class authorities on cults for their generation, used the same criterion for their definitions of cultic movements and they stated that 20 million people were directly involved in cults back in the 1960's and 1980's. However, they didn't explain how they arrived at this figure, nor differentiate between the various sectarian divisions that constitute it - which have been estimated in the several of thousands by other researchers, estimates that may be quite conservative.
One thing is certain - the cult problem is real and cultic movements are indeed all around us, as American as Mom, apple pie and Chevrolet. Their spiritually and socially aberrant influences are undeniable realities in Western society today. And they are one of the greatest challenges to the Christian faith today and provide untold amounts of society destabilization that are threats to the social order. They may be Constitutionally protected in the United States, where religious tolerance and diversity has been at its best in Western civilization, but patience for them has grown quite thin in Europe and other parts of the world.
How many churches actually have a countercult ministry?
Not many and far too few. I personally do not know of any locally, although I'm not at all willing to say they don't exist. Spiritual discernment may be at all time low in the church, but there are still masses of Christians who still value it enough to pursue it through intentional response aimed at countering cultic influence. These are individuals who can be found among many Christian churches who create small ad hoc groups and ministries seeking to respond to the perceived challenges that the activities of cults or the occult have supplied - often at widely varying levels of knowledge and experience but with undeniable zeal and piety.
Some church-based ministries (click here and here to locate a couple of them) do exist across the nation, but few evangelical and mainline church leadership circles seem aware that a problem with cults even exist, let alone seek to take a proactive approach to their societal devastation within their own immediate reach. Some like the Southern Baptist Convention have established denominational offices seeking to equip their movement, as has the Church of God (Cleveland). Spiritwatch Ministries was launched as a Christian outreach of the Westmore Church of God in 1993 and was originally entitled the Tennessee Valley Bible Students Association, continuing the outreach even after its' formal connection with Westmore ceased in 2002.
More to follow: click here to go to the second part of three.