A case for introspection.

Nine hundred people die in the jungle of Guyana.” The headline is still fresh in our minds. Death on this scale was tragic enough, but the idea that so many people would take their own lives voluntarily seemed scarcely conceivable. Charges of brainwashing were quick to follow, in an attempt to fathom how this could occur.

Since the Jonestown incident, People’s Temple has lost most of its followers. But fears of mindless obedience to cult authority figures are kept alive by accounts of coercive conversion to other cults and by concern for the welfare of the countless thousands who have joined them.

Do cults really engage in coercive conversion and brainwashing? Can their tactics be successfully resisted? How can the church prevent loss of its members to such unchristian groups? To answer these questions requires first some familiarity with the procedures cults use to win converts. To clarify the nature and operation of these procedures we have taken elements common to such cults as People’s Temple, the Unification Church, The Way, the Children of God, and the Hare Krishna movement and have developed a fourphase model.

1. Impression management. Someone attending a cult meeting for the first time quickly finds himself the object of attention and loving regard. Feelings of warmth and acceptance are experienced as the group—which may initially refrain from disclosing its true identity—presents itself as a closely knit family bound together by ties of affection and common purpose. The messages refer to some basic problem in the individual and/or society that the group promises to resolve. Such problems range from evil to ignorance, while the effects attributed to them encompass the full range of human suffering. The promises are also often vague and general; one group, The Way, promises that “You can have whatever you want.” To confirm its ability to make good its promise, the group offers personal testimonies and other dramatic evidences.

2. Grooming. After the initial presentation, the visitor is invited to remain with the group. If he decides to stay, the visitor—now a guest—finds himself isolated from outside contact and is subject to intense group interaction. During this period he typically receives less sleep than usual, eats low protein foods, and, perhaps without fully realizing it, begins to be exhausted. His reasoning capacity is thereby reduced, and since there is no alternative support group nearby, he becomes a prime candidate for cultic indoctrination.

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3. Intensive indoctrination. During this phase an individual is bombarded with the idea that one’s self amounts to very little, that the group and its leader are everything, and that “outsiders” are misguided or hostile and to be feared and avoided. A person’s feelings of guilt and personal insufficiency are highlighted, and in such a context the idea of being directed by a perfect leader begins to be attractive.

4. Action. At this point a critical moment arises as the guest, by now a seeker, is requested to take some action. This may involve confession of guilt or weakness, a renunciation of past behavior, and a pledge of loyalty to the group and to its leader in particular. Pressure to evoke a “concrete” expression of commitment typically follows. For example, People’s Temple members were induced to sign away property holdings, bank accounts, and even their children to the cult. One former member recalled: “After you’ve made a commitment of this magnitude, it’s hard to admit you’ve made a mistake, and you’ll go to great lengths to rationalize what you’ve done.”

To determine whether the techniques employed by the cults would be best described as super-salesmanship or whether cults really engage in coercive conversion and brainwashing would require a cult-by-cult and case-by-case analysis. It is clear, however, that many of the techniques closely parallel those described by Edgar Schein, Robert Lifton, and others, who have studied brainwashing techniques used on American soldiers captured during the Korean War. (Chinese brainwashing techniques included efforts to undermine physical resistance, removal of all social and emotional supports, mortification exercises, and intensive indoctrination procedures.) Moreover, the results are sometimes similar in that converts experience altered personalities, altered world views, and partial or complete loss of the ability to think clearly and abstractly.

How should the church respond to this cultic conversion phenomenon? First, to be true to its charge to be the light of the world, the church is obligated to direct attention to, and forcefully condemn, all cults that try to deceive, mortify, manipulate, and exploit people. Such action exposes the danger posed by the cults to potential converts and the rest of society, and glorifies Christ by contrasting unethical cultic procedures with Christian values.

Second, in denouncing the cults for their unethical or immoral conversion practices, the church is obliged to examine its own methods. Is the church always careful to avoid deception (impression management) by stressing the costs of discipleship as well as the benefits of conversion? Is it careful to allow reasoned and sober reflection while promoting conversion? Does it emphasize the liberating power of grace alongside the debilitating effects of sin? When it emphasizes the sinfulness of society and the frailty of man, does it avoid insistence on social isolation and withdrawal? And, while encouraging loyalty to leaders, does the church resist the temptation to elevate them to such levels of influence that what they preach overshadows what Scripture teaches? These difficult questions must be confronted.

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Third, the church must do all in its power to prevent its members from being taken in by the cults. Cultic conversion can be successfully resisted. The answer lies in equipping Christians with an appropriate armor of defense. In fashioning this armor, three ingredients are crucial.

1. A sound knowledge of Scripture. Many cults, including those of Asian origin, frequently quote Scripture and liberally incorporate references to God and Jesus in their teachings. For the person not saturated with biblical teaching, such appeals may prove most convincing.

2. A knowledge of cult conversion techniques and the purpose they serve. Methods of persuasion and coercion prove most effective on those who are unfamiliar with them and their effects.

3. A Christian support group. People tend to become involved in a cult during a period of personal stress, sorrow, or uncertainty. A Christian support group not only helps to keep the vitality of an individual’s faith alive, but it provides him with a source of direction and encouragement that is invaluable when facing the problems of life.


“Verily I say unto you, Insomuch as ye
have done it unto one of the least of these
my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Matthew 25:40
Deny me that presumptious lack of spirit
that would dare to try to fill God’s role
of judging. Help me deeper trust my brother
as we deeper trust our maker. Let my cup
spill encouragement; let mercy be my call.
Teach me to befriend; not like Job’s
“friends,” the unhumbled, self-called,
who came with analytical expertise
and spiritual thermometers
to presuppose, prescribe.
Strip from me that awful lack of sight
that blinds and binds another to his
plight. Forbid that I should
come to oil, and instead salt
raw wounds.

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

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