Sunday, 4 November 2007

The problem with "Anti-cult Ministry"

Actually, there are a series of problems with so-called “anti-cult” ministry. The first is that it is so foreign. To paraphrase the opening lines of LP Hartley’s book The Go-Between, “The cults are a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Once you start dealing with the cults it is like stepping into a parallel universe. James Sire refers to it, in the title of his book, as “The Universe Next Door”.

Now when the local church is dealing with an actual foreign land and culture it typically throws its weight behind some missionary organisation. Perhaps it will have one or two keen individuals who feel called to foreign parts, people for whom it will pray and to whom it will send funds and encouragement periodically. Their pictures will be put on a notice board, alongside a map showing their location and newsletters will be read to the congregation from time-to-time. If the country isn’t too dangerous some youth might be sent out for two or three weeks experience. Otherwise foreign mission needn’t disturb the church’s comfortable, middle-class existence.

However, when the foreign country is a cult the church can’t simply “send” because this foreign country isn’t abroad so much as abroad in the land. Having a few people dedicated to the work doesn’t cut it because the cult comes to your neighbourhood, to your own door! This is shockingly uncomfortable and so the church largely ignores the problem, adopting a policy of keeping as healthy a distance as possible in the circumstances. Since that distance cannot be maintained geographically it is maintained ideologically. Cults are dubbed dangerous and subversive and members condemned as culpable and beyond the pale.

There is no need therefore, let alone any imperative to prepare thoughtfully, witness intelligently and reach out lovingly. After all, we have decided that it is too dangerous and they are too far beyond talking to. I recall speaking to a Christian friend after a church meeting. He had had Jehovah’s Witnesses around and, clearly exasperated declared, “It’s no good talking to these people in cults!” Seeing my impersonation of a goldfish as I stood in stunned silence he quickly remarked, “Of course you are different Mike.”

This attitude was eloquently brought home to me on two particularly memorable occasions. One time, when I was a very young man, I was in a local indoor market, standing at the perimeter of a Christian book shop nervously perusing a typical anti-cult book, and looking at what the author had to say about my own Mormon faith. What a witnessing opportunity for some caring and confident Christian. An older man, perhaps about sixty, stood behind me, looking over my shoulder from a discreet distance. I was unaware of him until he caught my attention with the question, “You don’t believe that rubbish do you?”

No sooner had I looked around at him than he took off at a brisk pace across the market. I took off after him, collared him and demanded to know if he knew me. Of course, he did not. “Then why,” I wanted to know, “assume that I was a Mormon? I needn’t have been.” I continued, “I am a Mormon, and want to know what exactly gives you the right to speak to me in that way when you don’t even know me?” He had no answer and ducked out of the market, unwilling to continue the ‘conversation’. I got the message however. I was fair game it seemed.

On another occasion, troubled about questions concerning my faith, I plucked up the courage to walk into a local Pentecostal Church - the type that sings about tearing down strongholds, binding the enemy and triumph in bucket loads – to ask for help. I entered the pastor’s office and explained very nervously that I was a Mormon and wanted to understand the differences between our respective faiths. He was understandably shocked to find a Mormon in his office. However, his response was less than helpful, and I found myself being told, “You know, of course, that there is a huge gulf between you and us?” Faltering in my resolve (I was not invited to sit down) I mumbled that I did understand and, when he seemed to have no plan to detain me, I backed out of his office, thanking him for his time (about 90 seconds).

Thank goodness for people in “anti-cult” ministries! However, there is a problem even here. You see, people who concern themselves with the continuous assault on truth that these cults represent tend to fall broadly into two categories. Many of the people working in “anti-cult” ministry are mature, intelligent and responsible. They are, however, often embarrassingly emphatic about what they believe and this does not sit well with the middle class, liberal agenda that typifies the modern Western church. These people draw the church’s attention to the uncomfortable issues surrounding truth and error, doctrine and teaching. They inconveniently insist that the church has a responsibility in these things and should see this as fulfilling the call to guard the deposit of faith. The church often sees it as unreasonable pedantry and blush in its presence.

Some others in anti-cult ministry however are rather immature, reactionary and irresponsible. They are sometimes damaged and flawed in some way. They can find no meaningful role in church that, despite its responsibilities toward them, doesn’t know what to do with them and feels relief when they find instead a place in so-called “para-church” organisations, sometimes finding a home in what is wrongly perceived as the exotic world of “anti-cult” ministry. These are the people who will turn up to any meeting, are glad to help in any capacity, consider themselves experts because they have read a few books and, given half the chance will hold forth on their pet cult ad nauseum.

Whichever group you look at the church is not comfortable with it. Whichever way you look at it the church wishes these people would go away or at least like good cobblers stick to their last; become a picture on a notice board; be thankful for the occasional hand out. Those in the ministry wish the church would live up to its responsibilities and actually learn to reach out to cult members not react to them.

Get out of My Light

The story goes that when a colleague asked Isaac Newton what he might do to help the great man Newton replied, “Get out of my light.” Christians are often the greatest obstacles to the cult member seeing Christ and coming to faith and if I was asked that same question I would reply, “Get out of their light!”

I don’t wish to be rude and certainly don’t want to discourage Christians from witnessing to people from other faiths. I am concerned about what kind of witnesses Christians so often are. Too many preach victory on a Sunday singing, “The Battle Belongs to the Lord”, then hide in the bathroom on a Monday when Jehovah’s Witnesses come to call. They preach grace on a Sunday and sing, “Just as I am, with not one single plea”, and on Monday stand at the door berating the Mormon for not being fit for human company let alone the company of Christians, much less the company of God. They harangue him as we might the devil himself.

This attitude to the cultist is a learned behaviour - we learn it from other Christians when we become Christians and would not have dared behave so crassly towards our fellow human beings before we came to Christ.

When the Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness does come to Christ we find it nigh on impossible to change our attitude toward them, treating them with caution as though we never fully accept that they are truly converted. We don’t fully trust that they have left “all that” behind entirely. And anyway how can you fully trust anyone who could have fallen for that stuff in the first place?

What the Former Cultist needs

The new believer coming out of a cult faces challenges of his own. He has made a huge decision, the magnitude of which the Christian surely fails to appreciate. He has left behind friends, often relations, he’s changed loyalties, lost status perhaps, reputation and standing in the community that, until recently, was his world. He comes with a mixture of excitement about the Good News of Jesus Christ, questions and understandable doubts about his decisions, and hope for the future.

The best advice the new believer can have is to spend the next few years establishing firm Christian foundations in his life. This is so vital and yet the new believer, perhaps flattered by invitations to ‘share your testimony’, is often tempted to throw himself into “ministry” and help others come out. He doesn’t need this right now and it won’t help him become a fully born again Christian, with a knowledge of Christ that will take him through life. Much needs to be unlearned and much to be learned and the best place to learn is not the public platform. There is also often a subconscious agenda to this eagerness to bring someone else out, i.e. if others agree with you it is so affirming.

The Christian attitude to the former cultist so often re-enforces this ill-advised ambition as the former Mormon/JW finds he has to prove his bona fides to everyone he meets by taking every opportunity to tell his story, publicly reject his past and work against his former friends. He is cast into the role of an “ex-Mormon/JW” and is forever known by what he was and not by what he has become or what he is becoming in Christ.

What good is it if a man claims to have faith?

To put his roots down and establish a firm Christian foundation he needs to be welcomed and encouraged as would any other convert, lock, stock and misconceptions. His views and contributions need not be constantly treated with suspicion. When he struggles with issues, disagrees with people or otherwise proves increasingly comfortable in his new found freedom it shouldn’t automatically be attributed to his background for which Christians, all-too-often, and all-too-often inappropriately “make allowances”.

If he speaks warmly of his old friends and associates he need not be treated with suspicion, as though he were an unrehabilitated cultist. His old friends were probably very nice human beings and, in light of the role his new Christian friends have thrust on him, he might be missing just a little his old friends who simply accepted him and gave him status.

The bottom line is that it takes joined up church and grown up Christianity to make it possible for a former JW/Mormon to find a home amongst Christians and too many Christians, leaders included, are less than mature and all too autarchic. We ‘believe’ in the doctrine and sing with gusto the songs but need to realise that ‘faith without works is dead’. With James, I say, ‘show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do’.

If you truly believe in victory don’t go to the door in fear.

If you believe in grace don’t go to the door in judgement.

If you truly trust God then go to the door trusting that he has given you an opportunity to demonstrate assurance and share grace.

Otherwise don’t open the door because you will only make things worse.

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