If it quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, and looks like a duck then it is probably a duck: or so the saying goes.
I have been part of the evangelical culture since 1975 when as a teenager I attended a small church in the east side of Manchester, England. At the time I was impressed by the community and the clarity with which they presented their ideas.
Over the years, however, I have seen my fair share of dysfunctionality; some of which was my own. There does seem to be a pattern in some of these moments that I believe is worthy of consideration.
First of all let me say that I am committed to remaining within the evangelical community, even though some of my views have been met with the kinds of reaction that suggests others might not agree.
Having said that I am not of a mind to stay silent about important issues just to be seen to tow the party line; it never ceases to amaze me how often people call for silence in the name of unity without recognising how this can have a tendency to enable unhealthy cultures.
Some time ago I came across some work done by Dr. Robert J. Lifton called ‘Criteria for Thought Reform’ in which he highlights some key indicators that suggest whether an organisation might be seen as a cult. Condensed they look like this:
1) MILIEU CONTROL – Essentially controlling what people read and with whom they relate. Creating an ‘us’ against ‘them’ scenario.
2) MYSTICAL MANIPULATION – (Planned spontaneity) Assigning supernatural significance to things that happen even if they might be explained in normal ways.
3) THE DEMAND FOR PURITY – Binary response to what ‘in’ looks like; or what is deemed as acceptable behaviour.
4) CONFESSION – Creates control by devaluing the person. Revealing mistakes and sins makes the individual vulnerable to manipulation.
5) SACRED SCIENCE – The ideology is given special/sacred status and cannot be critiqued.
6) LOADING THE LANGUAGE – The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliche.
7) DOCTRINE OVER PERSON – The ideology is more important than the the person.
8) DISPENSING OF EXISTENCE – Value is now attributed the individuals relationship to the group: are they valuable to the aims and objectives.
Now it needs to be pointed out that Dr Lifton’s theory was developed in response to his studies of North Korean brainwashing techniques in the 1950’s. So at first they may not seem completely transferable to an evangelical context. I think, however, that they are worthy of further thought.
When you consider your own local evangelical church you might think it a far cry from the manipulative techniques of North Korea but take a look at the following thoughts that bring together Dr Lifton’s ideas and and a few of my own.
Firstly, the persistent need for evangelical churches to so tightly define the core beliefs is a worry for several reasons. Now here it is worth noting that I am not suggesting theological debate is not crucial but that the way beliefs are used to prescribe inclusion creates an unhealthy culture.
Honesty has to be an essential component of any healthy culture. As soon as thoughts are limited to those deemed as acceptable by the group we perhaps enter the area of mind control suggested by Dr Lifton.
Now in more moderate evangelical churches this may not seem so overt but ask your self the question ‘how would I be treated if I admitted that some of the Old Testament offended me’. In truth most people who have read it cannot escape some of the stories of genocide, infanticide, and tribalism that seem to be offered as a holy standard for life. I understand that there are exegetical methods for dealing with such things but for most people in church some of this stuff is problematic. This is compounded by the fact that we are not encouraged to admit such thoughts.
Secondly, is the use of conversation stopping statements that create a link between adherence and commitment to God. How often have you heard things like ‘you cannot out give God’ or ‘God always answers prayer, sometimes he says no’.
These might seem like innocuous sayings but think about how they both control behaviour and suggest a view of God that is distinctly unbiblical. Firstly the very idea of martyrdom suggest that, in this life at least, it is possible to out give God. When you add to this the fact that this saying is most often used when people are being urged to give more to the church it is easy to see the level of control at work.
Regarding God answering prayer we only have to look at Jesus’ cry from the cross to realise that the dark night of the soul is not easily lightened by such flippancy.
Either way it is less likely that congregation members will feel able to speak honestly about their true feelings and beliefs.
Thirdly, we often see how people are considered valuable when they are useful to the vision of the church. If you can give, serve, live right, believe right, speak in the correct way, then you are counted as a true adherent to the church. Those who fail in any of these areas are often consider as dissenters, mischievous, flawed, problematic, or sometimes even dangerous.
The headline narrative of the church suggests that everyone is valuable to God but in truth the church operates by an unspoken principle that considers adherence as being equal to value.
Fourthly, how people are treated as they leave a church is a key indicator of the true beliefs of a church. The headline narrative may suggest that every person is of equal value but this has to be brought into question when we consider how people are often treated as they leave a church.
One concern for the leader is that those who leave are more likely to speak openly about the concerns they have. It is not unusual for leaders to look to counteract this by offering an alternative narrative so that their remaining congregation can stay committed. Sometimes this is done with a simple hint: ‘there is more to this than I can tell you’ suggests other issues are at play without the need to specify.
Now as you look at your church I would suggest you consider Dr Lifton’s seven points and decide how many seem to be an accurate description. Add to this the four observations that I have offered.
My critique is not suggesting that leaders are disingenuous or manipulative on purpose but that the markers of a successful church drive the culture in a particular direction.
You may be reluctant to consider that your church is a cult: but if it talks like a cult and walks like a cult…….