Is Your Church a Community, Clique, or Cult?

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Is Your Church a Community, Clique, or Cult? | June's Journal

Too many churches these days frown when people decide to attend another church.

And frankly, I don’t think God is pleased with the enormous community pressure in some congregations for its members to remain loyal “until death we do part”…– to the point where folk are ostracized for leaving.

When commitment and obligation turns cultish.

I’ve said it a million times, and I’ll say it again now.  The Body of Christ is so much larger than any one church.  Yet so many Christians can’t see beyond their own church walls.

What actually is a cult?

Here’s the most common definition:

cult (kŭlt)  noun.   A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader

This definition is usually reserved for non-Christian churches or groups.  After all, any half decent Christian church has fundamental doctrines that are “biblically correct” and not considered extreme or false, right?

But I contend that even where sound doctrine is taught, the church can still exhibit cult-like behaviors.

And that’s what has me growing weary… the growing number of churches like these.

Let me cite you a couple of examples…

The Unpardonable Sin?

I vividly recall one family in a church I attended who felt led to begin worshiping at another church fellowship.  They were not leaving on bad terms or anything like that.  They just felt it was time for their family to move on.  This family had served in leadership for a few years and were excited about new and different leadership opportunities awaiting them at another church.  The other church was a well-known and respected church.  So it wasn’t even like the family decided to depart from Christianity and begin attending a Mormon Ward or anything controversial like that.

So imagine my amazement when the couple came to church for their “last Sunday” and they were snubbed by the entire deacon staff.  Folk weren’t even talking to them!  After service, one of the church ministers suggested that we lay hands and pray for the family to be blessed at their new church location (because apparently the deacons would not permit anything like this to be done during the service). So myself and other persons gathered around them to pray, but several of the deacons stood in the not-too-distant background with their arms crossed and would not pray.

I asked one of them why they did not participate in the prayer.  It turns out that many of them were “angry” that the couple was leaving.  They did not believe that God was involved in the couple’s decision to leave.  I still didn’t understand their posture.  Even if the couple was making a bad decision, why treat them with such disdain?  Even if God Himself wrote on the wall of the church that He did not want the couple to leave, why wouldn’t the deacons want to send them off with a prayer?  Must prayer be conditional?  Aren’t we to pray even for our enemies?

Incidentally, the deacons at this particular church rarely believed that God called ANYONE to leave.

Being a church member was almost like belonging to a gang or a cult; once you’re in, it was difficult to leave in peace or on “good terms.”  Your departure was viewed as the ultimate betrayal.

The only legitimate reason “accepted” for leaving seemed to be if the person was relocating to another country or moving to the other side of America.

Wait. Hold the phone and stop the music. You mean to tell me that if I join a church or attend it regularly that I must continue attending until I die or move out of the country, less I be considered a traitor?

That’s cultish.

A Widespread Problem

And I’ve seen it time and time again, at more than one church.

I mentioned the topic of this blog to a few Christians I know in the workplace, and they immediately had their own stories of how difficult it was when they changed churches, citing how people at their former church immediately severed ties with them.

Saints, this ought not be a problem in our churches!

Those who are in Christ Jesus are free indeed (John 8:36), or are they? 

Maybe it depends on what church you attend.

Here’s another example…

Bible Study Allegiance

I recall attending a bible study on South Street in Philadelphia some years ago.  I loved it.  I liked the teachers, the people who came, the environment (we met inside of a Christian music store), and it was just what I needed at that time in my life.

The pastor of the church I began attending during that same time period confronted me one day, stating he had a problem with me attending a bible study “outside of the church.”  The pastor and his wife wanted me to stop going to the bible study on South Street and attend *the church’s* bible study only, or at the very least attend both bible studies. (At the time, my schedule did not permit me to attend both.)

“Can’t you support what we are doing here at the church?” I was asked.

Upon further dialog with the pastor and separately with his wife, it was pretty clear that they saw my attendance at the other bible study as a betrayal, almost like I was “cheating on them” by not attending the bible study that was available at my “home church.”  Mind you, I wasn’t even a leader at the church. Just an ordinary church attender. It was quite mindblowing to further discover that many other persons at the same church and other churches in my area held this view about “allegience to the home church.”

At first I thought that maybe they might have a genuine “concern” for my spiritual well-being, as to whether the bible study I attended was sound or “on point,” theologically speaking. But they never once asked me who the teacher was or what was being taught, or even why I liked it so much.  To them those details seemed irrelevant because the bottom line was that it was a bible study “outside” the church.  They didn’t even seem to care that I said this bible study was impacting my life.  And to be frank, the bible study held at the church, while it was sound doctrine, was boring.  It basically consisted of the pastor reading out of a workbook.

Likewise, it seemed to insult the church that I was engaged in an urban ministry outside of the church walls, a ministry I had been involved in for years prior to coming to the church.  Not only did the church not support the ministry when asked, financially or otherwise (my other fellow staff members had the backing of their churches), I was informed that any ministry I do should be done at the church, underneath the church’s umbrella.  (This leads me to another blog I wrote years ago called Paradigm Breakers.)

But there are other types of symptoms of what I’m calling church cultism.

Does the Church Pick Your Friends?

And what about churches who pick your friends?  Those churches are out there, folks.  I say, that if a church is picking your friends, do like Forrest Gump, and ruuuuuuuun, Forrest, run!

Or what about churches where its members only socialize with those who attend their church?

If leadership of any church discourages its members from making friends with persons outside of their immediate church fellowship, that is is a form of church cultism or control. A church should not be dictating your social network.  That’s scary. And reminds me of many famous cults who had their members also cut themselves off from all others in the world, even family members.  Churches like that might as well pass the Jim Jones kool-aid.  Might as well!

It shouldn’t be frowned upon for a church member to have friends who attend other churches. As long as we are “wise” about it.  The bible has several guidelines for friendships, for example, like the scripture that says, “Bad company corrupts good character.”  Any church that teachers otherwise ought to examine the motives behind that.  God did not send us to be the salt of the Earth to live isolated lives within one set of church walls in some sort of protective bubble where we only socialize with persons in our “local church family.”

All I’m sayin’ is, I’m weary.  I’m tired. 

I’m exasperated of all the antics present in today’s Christian churches.

And I’m not even talking about the ones teaching or preaching crazy doctrines.

Nothing New Under the Sun

I’ve written nothing profound here.  I just felt like putting this topic out there because I’m ready to hear and dialog with others about many of these disturbing practices in our churches.  Or am I the only one seeing these cult-like tendencies in our Christian churches?  Is it just a Philly thing?  Is it just an urban church thing?  Or is it just happening all over the place irregardless of those factors?  What are the reasons it is happening?  I’m sure there are many different kinds of reasons.

I’m glad to know there are churches out there where this isn’t a problem.  I’d also love to hear from persons where this is NOT happening at your church.  This would be so refreshing to hear.

When I get a chance I plan to write about some other topics that are disturbing me about our churches, but thought I’d start with this one!

I invite your comments below.

18 COMMENTS

  1. Well said. Unfortunately, the definition of community for many Christians is clannish at best. For them, we are all apart of the same genus group, but my clan (local church) is most important. As a senior pastor, I am sad to say that this attitude is typically incited and encouraged by senior leadership. Many believe that our effectiveness as ministers is tied directly to the number of persons who sit and listen to us on Sunday mornings, instead of the effectiveness of the lives of those who sit and listen on Sunday morning (regardless of what the number is). Until the masses of senior church leadership accept that numerical growth alone is an inadequate measure of ministry effectiveness, many leaders will continue to teach clan over community.
    At our church, we have members who are active in ministries outside of those we house or host. We support those ministries in a number of ways, and often encourage other members to support them as well. Why? Because the mission of Christ is more important than whether or not Harvest Christian Fellowship’s name is on the lips of every person in the state. We exist to exalt the name of Christ, not our own. Keep up the good work. Stay blessed.

  2. Good Stuff as usual JD.
    I dont know if it’s only an urban or Philly thing, but Philly defintely has a predisposition to this mentality.
    I’m pretty sure the root of it is insecure / immature Pastors – the vast majority of whom are uneducated.
    I think if you were to analyze it a bit more, we would find that the “leadership” in those churches lack in the education department and may even be hostile toward education lest any of their members become more educated than them – because God speaks only to and through the Pastor, right?
    Oppresion cannot continue unless ignorance is maintained.
    I wrote on a similar topic, in case anyone is interested at
    http://fgbbi.blogspot.com/2009/12/wolves-in-shepards-clothing.html
    I also recomend a book called “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse”.
    Blessings To All,
    Justin Cohen

  3. Servantfirst, you make an excellent point that a desire to see a big attendance rate is one motive for some leadership members to behave this way. The statistics become more important than ministering the actual person(s).
    Justin, I will check out your blog post on this topic. Another book to check out is one by George Barna called, “The Revolution.” He discusses how “millions of believers have moved beyond the established church and chosen to *BE* the church instead.”

  4. Very interesting, you find a lot of that in Nondenominational Churches, when a person leaves the pastor knows that’s one less dollar coming in and he’s running the church like a business and which he should, but don’t let the money and tithing take over your life, and that’s what aggregates me with some pastors when they feel the need to preach on … See More tithing every Sunday for about a half hour, experiences in the past, Thank God there the past, and to grow within the Body of Christ in a Nondenominational church is impossible, because he/she wants to feel in control and doesn’t want any1 but themselves at the highest rank instead of empowering them to be what God called them to be. I like her first example, it goes to show the God DOES lead people to different churches for different reasons, he has his ways of making changes, depending how much u seek him and depending on what u pray 4.But some don’t realize that….
    Another thing I’ve realized in my walk with God is that certain, now don’t get me wrong when I say this, certain churches have cliques like you stated, and I agree with that, and if you aren’t apart of that clique you will not be as acknowledged as you should be. Personally I think all members of the Body of Christ should be acknowledged the same way, I don’t care what title you hold, you should still treat others as you would your brother and sister, don’t get me wrong, we are not perfect, but we can die trying to be like Christ likeness. I make errors everyday, but God correct me on them EVERYTIME and I correct the errors I make by not doing them again. Its all about, Observation, Interpretation and application.
    Walking the walk with God correctly. He will open your eyes up to so much, because he’s looking and he knows who to choose to correct the things that shouldn’t be going on in churches, Such as CLIQUES and CULTS. Don’t get me wrong some people who are in these things “Truly” know the word of God but people also see what’s going on and all a person has to do that see’s what’s going on in the church, such as the cliques or cults is trace back the history of the church and they will see it clearly and understand it. But you really have to submit yourself to God and ask him to reveal what he wants you to do within that church and he will do it, because it aligns up with the will of God and that’s not how he wants thing’s to be!!
    God is good! Be Blessed!!

  5. You know, you’re right, June. I think this falls into the genre of Spiritual Abuse, more than cultic, though; it’s the abuse of power in the infrastructure of the church. I have found it much more in Spirit-filled, Charismatic and Pentecostal circles than I have in other areas of Christianity.
    I think it behooves all of us to remember that Paul moved around church to church to church – and yet was completely within the will of God to do so. I honestly believe some are sent into ministries and churches to be “scaffolding” to help in the process of building, and then are uprooted, and moved on when the building is done in the particular place they’ve been planted.
    And yet the other extreme is the church hopper who just moves when things don’t go his way. There is a substantive difference. I think many churches try to ward that off by talking about the “wrath of God” and “umbrella of protection” to keep people from leaving their fellowships. And people are leaving the organized church, in general… in DROVES.
    Deeper subject I’d love to go more into… but I have to get to church. :o)

  6. Jamar, you make some interesting comments and good points also, particularly that money may be a motive for some church leaders to behave this way, because as you cited, a loss member could mean loss financial income.
    Chris, I really love your comments. Yes, there has to be a balance, because as you cited, there are also folk who church hop by going from church to church because they are upset about something that happened at their previous church, and that isn’t cool either.
    Thank you both for sharing; I am enjoying this dialog.

  7. @ Jamar and JD – very much true.
    Unfortunately, Pastors view the sheep as a funding source or a human resource to use to build THIER ministry.
    The people are not there to be ministerd to or cared for, they are there to be used to “build the vision” or some other spiritualized phrase which essentially means the Pastor’s lifestyle, etc.

  8. @ Chris – Yes, Chris – you are correct.
    Spirit filled, Charismatic, Pentecostal, Full Gospel, etc. churches are more prone to the abusive phenomina due to the lack of educated “clergy” in that strain of Christianity.
    If this were any other profession, there would be so many malpractice lawsuits it would not even be funny.
    In no other professional field could one “practice” with not so much as even 1 day of college and no internship.
    The Bible makes a clear distinction between between leadership and believers via the use of titles and the qualifications thereof. Leaders are to held to a higher standard.
    Through our wishy washy spinelessness, unwillingness to confront self apointed leaders, and hold people accountable – we perpetuate this abuse in our churches.

  9. The co-dependance that is produced by some well-intended Leadership in many churches is astounding! in some ways I liken the church to a hospital. A place set aside to help those in need. Where some go after trauma or illness requireing a team of people who are prepared and waiting to patch them up and send them home to heal…with follow ups as necessary. Not everyone is called to “work” inside the four walls of a church. Most have families and jobs that simply require that they move on in life. That does not mean that they are not changed as a result of the ministry. Many churches do a great job with the initial triage, but then they keep people just weak enough that they can’t quite heal. The purpose of Leadership is to teach the church to do the work of the ministry and then send them out to wherever God will direct. A congregation that does not allow people to go back out into the world and be who they are in Christ, creates a cycle of disfunction inside the church. When there are too many people trying to do the same job the only thing that can happen is eventual conflict. You can only accomplish so much preaching to the choir.

  10. June, This was a great article and an exceptional observation. Unfortunately, I’ve seen similar scenarios play out myself. I think the solution lies in those few people who are willing to break away from the group and publicly acknowledge that this behavior is wrong. I applaud you for doing it not only here in your blog, but in real life when you confronted the deacon. Hopefully, your example will open other people’s eyes and give them courage to speak up against unruly leadership also.

    • Marcia, I think it’s more of a problem then people are willing to acknowledge. I’ve run into so many people in the past several who have been critically hurt by churches and church folk. It’s so critical to keep our eyes steadfast on the Lord, although that doesn’t always lessen the pain and reality of the abuse taking place by some churches, church folk or pastors are doing.

      I actually know a woman who wrote a book called, “Hurt By Church Folk,” and I can now understand why! Earlier this year a friend sent me a link to a really good article called, “Fact: Christian Women Will Hurt You.” Here’s the link: http://www.incourage.me/2012/04/fact-christian-women-will-hurt-you.html

  11. June,
         THANK YOU !!! I thought I was the only one seeing such behaviour. THANK YOU God for leading me to Junes site !!!!!!!!!!

  12. Hi June, thanks for posting this article, this happened to me about a month ago, the Pastor turned everyone against me, I don’t know what she said to them but it was all lies. I used to be friends with many people from the church and now they all turned their back on me including the girl that invited me to the church, just because the pastor told them not to talk to me anymore. They didn’t even bother to ask me what the problem was or even hear my side of the story. They were quick to block me on social networking sites all at once which I personally felt that was creepy and really immature. I’ve been thinking about all the events that led up to this and it was unfair the way one of the leaders and the pastor was treating me. They excluded me from the connect group two weeks before I was excluded from the church entirely. Everyone that I spoke to keeps telling me it’s a cult and I should stay away from them but I refuse to believe that because I wanted to believe the best in them they were my friends for almost a year and I was trying to make sense out of this but there’s no reasonable explanation for their behaviour towards me. A church is suppose to be a place that is welcoming and where you go for healing and forgiveness. No one should ever be shunned from a church.

    • Melissa, your church friends snubbing you may be a blessing in disguise. I say this because from what you described above (and I only have your side of the story), it does not sound like a church. Not a loving Christian one. Not a bible-teaching bible-following one anyway. I’d have to agree with the people who said it sounds like a cult. Cults do that. They cut folk off when you are no longer apart. Sort of like a gang. Even if you had done a crime or something else terrible, that is still not the recourse for them to take. Let’s say you were arrested for shoplifting while babysitting a baby in the congregation. And the parents had explicitly asked you to keep the baby in your home. (This actually happened to my hubby and I with our baby; we had to pickup our child from the police station!) I could understand if the parents no longer wanted you to babysit their child, but the church should continue loving you. The pastor or a leader should schedule a meeting to address the situation if it was really bothering them. But otherwise, for him to tell others to remove you from their social network and they do… yeah, sounds like a cult my friend. For we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. In other words, we are all sinners. Church is for sinners. The church is a place or worship but also a hospital. For us to be redeemed and restored. And embraced. Not shunned. So I agree that it does seem immature at best. I sincerely pray you can heal and find another church family and build new healthy relationships. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Very well spoken/written. I have written hundreds of topicals on cult actions and religions. I used to be a part of one of the largest in America to be graciously delivered from it by a Gracious God. I was seeking some info today and ran across this writing and was very impressed and blessed by it to the point of even liking your page. Thank you and God Bless your efforts
    as you continually serve Him!

  14. No it’s not a philly thing you’d be surprised how much cut-like behavior we have out here in 209 california.

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