Is Your Church a Community, Clique, or Cult?

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.