The Cultic Connection
In the late 1960’s, the group founded by Sun Myung Moon, the Unification Church, known on the street as the ‘Moonies’ hosted weekend gatherings at a ranch in Mendocino County (80 miles north of San Francisco) replete with free food and lodging, not to mention rather unsupervised mixing of the sexes accustomed to hippie free love. It was perfect—for cult recruitment.
And, as might be suspected, our Christian ministry lost some members, temporarily at least, to the Moonies.
During the late sixties and early seventies, I was a street preacher in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. That experience with the Moonies was my first encounter with an aggressive cult whose agenda was hidden from those they made initial contact with. But, this would not be the last time. Group after group, some religious, some social/psychological like EST or the Forum founded by Werner Erhardt, emerged and employed manipulative practices to recruit members. In fact, one of my favorite definitions of a cultic group is it will use ‘mind bending’ methods to recruit, motivate, and retain members.
My sensitivity to cultic practices then has made me wary of certain methods to recruit people into the church or to make them open to Christianity. A critic or two of mine think I am being uncharitable, judgmental, or downright anti-evangelistic. Perhaps, but I would rather error, if error it be, on the side of going about the work of the Gospel in a biblical manner than to employ, however successful, processes that disguise the offensive nature of the Gospel.
We cannot avoid the peculiar nature of our Christianity. ‘For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing’ (1 Corinthians 1:18). However, ‘it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe’ (verse 21). Offense must come if the preacher is faithful to his calling. There will be those who are saved through the preaching—this we can depend upon. Schemes then devised to win favor and avoid the scandal of the cross are unacceptable practices and therefore to be avoided at all costs.
Let me go on to a strong point: I do not see the use of bonding techniques encouraged by Jesus, Paul or any New Testament personage. Nowhere are we urged to create bonding processes using small groups or cells. Music, in the Scripture, is to facilitate and express praise and worship—not to be used as entertainment. Not at all, nothing even close, rather the Gospel is to be presented in a straightforward way with no hidden agendas or doctrines. The full story is to be publically presented all the way from heaven and hell, law and grace, repent and believe.
This is why I am not attracted to things like the Alpha Course where food, intimate small groups, and weekend gatherings are employed to ‘introduce’ Christ to non-believers. When I see this I am reminded of the Moonies and their recruitment weekend get-togethers in Mendocino. ‘But’, my critics say, ‘people will not come to hear the Gospel preached; we need to use whatever means necessary to bring the world to Christ.’
My response is: 1. There will more likely be false conversions than genuine conversions. (How can there be genuine conversion when the fullness of the Gospel is not preached? Even us Calvinists insist on proclamation of the cross and resurrection.) 2. Bonding type conversions are short lived; where there has been no real forgiveness, no peace with God, no new birth, the ‘duped’ merely go on looking for the next experience. 3. We are not being faithful to biblical revelation when we go beyond clear practice and doctrine. The evangelical commands in the Bible are to preach the Word of Christ because that is how saving faith is made effectual. (see Romans 10:17) 4. Dependence on techniques, could I say gimmicks, is far from a trusting in the ministry of the Holy Spirit to bring conviction of sin and the revelation of Jesus Christ as Saviour to the lost.
Not that the quasi-cultic techniques employed by some churches and ministries today are not working, that is, some pews have been filling up. (There is evidence and experience now that shows there is eventually an emptying or a recycling.) This is the deceptive aspect to it; others are using the new methods of recruitment and no one wants to be left behind or find themselves at odds with denominational superiors. Frankly, not many are able to resist.
Have I been too harsh? I suppose that is possible, but we are not talking about business strategy or working on plans for our sports team to succeed. We are talking about the ultimate ‘bottom line’, eternity, heaven and hell, we are talking about the honor and glory of God, we are talking about being obedient to the plain and simple commands of God to preach the Gospel to every nation. At the end, it is not a bankruptcy or a losing record at issue, it is what will be spoken at the judgment where Jesus will be heard either to say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your rest’ or ‘Depart from me, I never knew you.’