Cults—do you think these were a phenomenon that died out decades ago and only appealed to easily-led people? That’s what Steve Worsley used to think before circumstances made him realise otherwise. He shares here what he has since learned.
Many will be aware, from a series of New Zealand Herald articles, that a new breed of cults has been operating in our country. This would’ve meant little to me had I not seen the destructive effects of these cults close up. In the last 18 months I’ve had to deal with one cult (Shincheonji) extensively.
How do you extract someone from a cult? How do you pastorally help families who are devastated over losing family members to a cult? How do you keep your church safe from the recruitment techniques of cults? I needed answers to these questions and fast.
I spent hours studying Shincheonji and how cults generally operate. I reflect sadly on how different things might have been if I’d known 18 months ago what I know now. In the hope of saving others the same struggle, here are my 10 key learnings.
1 . Cults flourish in the fertile soil of our ignorance
If someone started attending your church in order to befriend people and invite them to their cult, how would you know? If you were asked to attend an interdenominational march for peace, would it cross your mind that a cult may have organised it, aiming to spread their influence?1 If someone you liked and respected invited you to a Bible study, would you go? What could possibly be dangerous about a ‘Bible study’ anyway?
My ignorance of these cult recruitment techniques had me on the back foot. Because cults flourish where we are ignorant of their workings, I conclude that speaking out is better than hushing things up. If people in your church are informed, cult recruiters will look elsewhere.
2. They may originate in South Korea but they are targeting Kiwis
All my South Korean Christian friends agree there’s a serious problem with cults in their home country. An international cults expert told me there are around 500 self-proclaimed Messiahs in South Korea!2 The Moonies are still the largest Korean cult, due to their historical following, but the second largest and fastest‑growing is Shincheonji. After gaining many adherents in South Korea, Shincheonji’s methods were exposed, so they commenced work in other countries including South Africa, USA, Holland, Germany, Japan, China and the UK, where Nicky Gumbel was amongst those who spoke out about them.
It’s Kiwis, not Koreans, who I have observed getting drawn into Shincheonji in New Zealand.3 Kiwis are unaware of the recruiting techniques that were exposed in South Korea so we are easy targets.
3. Cults today are much smarter than we think
If there are 500 cults in South Korea and a history of cults dating back to the Moonies, you’d expect them to be quite sophisticated by now: clever at disguising their methods and practised at answering people’s questions. This is what I encountered. Korean cults in New Zealand appear to target influential, smart and personable young people. Why? Because those people inspire trust and thus make fantastic recruiters of others. Add to this, techniques like ‘love bombing’ and cleverly disarming statements taught early on, such as
- “Everything we teach is entirely biblical”
- “Anyone is free to leave at any time”
- “Don’t look at online critique of our movement. Haters have written all kinds of rubbish about us.”
- Simply saying these things aloud does not make them true.
4. Their methods of thought control sound fair and reasonable
Until you are hooked you’re unlikely to be told the actual name of the cult you’re in.4 All you know is that it’s a Bible study, and a really engaging one. It feels engaging because there are people planted in your group to act enthusiastic. You come away thinking, ‘If only people in my church were this keen on Bible study!’
But if you ask a question to which you’re not yet permitted to know the answer, you’ll be told, “Spiritual food at the proper time.” In other words, “We haven’t got to that part in our teaching yet and you need to learn other things first.” This sounds reasonable, and the ‘food’ metaphor works well: if dinner is an hour away, just hang on till then. In reality, this enables the cult to drip-feed its red flag material and sandwich it with solid Bible teaching, which wins your trust. This explains how, in the case of Shincheonji, people who’ve had an evangelical Christian upbringing can end up believing that eternal life comes from an 86-year-old Korean man who believes himself to be immortal.5
5. Cult members lose their identity, change personality and stop thinking for themselves
More productive than challenging the theology of a cult member, is asking them about their hobbies (which they’ve probably given up on) and reminding them of their past and the future hopes they once had. Expressing this caringly is likely to leave an impression even if you don’t see any emotional response. It will remind them of the ‘self’ they left behind in assimilating with the cult.
When I did engage cult members in theological discussion I was told either, “You’d have to come along to our sessions to get a proper answer to that,” or, “I’d need to ask my tutor about that.” The person in front of me could only convey what those higher up had told them. Getting through to the person in front of me was impossible as long as they continued contact with the cult.6
6. Nobody who’s in a cult says, “I’m in a cult”
Using the word ‘cult’ with someone in a cult will probably just get their back up and close down future conversation. It also feeds their ‘persecution mindset’, i.e. “Jesus was persecuted for truth, so we will be also.”
7. We need clarity around what the word ‘cult’ means
The term ‘cult’ can be used emotively and thoughtlessly such that we brand any belief system different to our own as a cult. Accordingly it’s helpful to know the key markers of a cult that are accepted by psychologists and courts of law. These are
- a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship
- ‘thought reform’ or ‘coercive persuasion’
- exploitation of group members.7
8. It’s possible to create a ‘Theology of Lying’
“Abraham was a man of God who lied for the greater good when he went to Egypt and said Sarah was his sister. Therefore, lying for the greater good is okay.” Many more scriptural examples are given. Frightening!
9. Hunger for in-depth Bible study is one of the appeals
When asked what attracted members to Shincheonji, I was stunned by the answer: “Biblical truth.” These folk found that people in Baptist‑type churches were generally pretty lukewarm about getting together for a Bible study. At Shincheonji, people were passionate about it. We ought to think about that!
10. Exiting a cult is complex; it may take years
You could forcibly remove someone from a cult but that doesn’t mean the cult is out of them. Even those who leave voluntarily can spend years in spiritual confusion. Expecting them to immediately re-enter a regular church is unrealistic. We have a serious lack of professional cult interventionists in New Zealand who know how to unpick or ‘deprogramme’ the toxic thinking of ex-cult members.
As helpful as it has been to learn these 10 things, the fact that influential people have left mainstream churches to join the likes of Shincheonji leaves me pondering the following implications:
- If people are experiencing greater hunger for Bible knowledge in cults than in regular New Zealand churches, what should churches do about that?
- Given that all ‘Christian’ cults challenge it, can our church members defend the Trinity from Scripture?
- If cults keep their real agendas from new recruits then are we fully transparent when we promote or invite people to attend church programmes that have evangelistic content?
- If cult leaders may not be questioned, do we pastors allow our leadership and Bible teaching to be open to question?
- Spending up to 22 hours a week together in a cult like Shincheonji, members experience a heightened sense of community that has huge appeal, as well as solidarity of purpose and mission. What is the church’s answer to that?
I hope this article is helpful in building some general awareness. While some find this topic fascinating, the reality of dealing with it is heartbreaking. As such, let me conclude this article with what I’ve found to be helpful advice—if you are invited to a Bible study that is not run by your church, ask three questions:
- Which recognised church denomination is this Bible study group affiliated with?
- What qualifications does the Bible study teacher have?
- Can you show me a statement of faith?
If you get fobbed off with any of these questions, don’t attend!
Story: Steve Worsley
Steve is the Lead Pastor at Mt Albert Baptist Church, and previously pastored at Petone Baptist and Otumoetai Baptist. He is the author of the church resources One Step Ahead Preaching and One Step Ahead Worship.
- Like the Moonies before them, Shincheonji (also spelt Shinchonji) use front groups that appear to campaign for world peace. Front groups are deceptive by nature; attenders are largely unaware of the real identity of the group organisers. Shincheonji international peace rallies have been a means of branding themselves as do-gooders to insiders, and of recruiting new outsiders. Googling Shincheonji founder Man Hee Lee reveals him as, amongst other things, an ‘international peace activist’. The most repugnant thing about Shincheonji in my view is that Mr Lee styles himself as a peace activist yet simultaneously teaches hatred towards any who disagree with his teachings, e.g. “Anyone who opposes Shinchonji is evil.” Man Hee Lee, The Creation of Heaven and Earth, (Shincheonji Press, 2009), 320.
- Of those 500, there appear to be six or seven that are operating in New Zealand. Of course it isn’t just Korea that generate dangerous cults. India and Africa come to mind. But South Korean cults stand out as being more prolific and vigorously exported than those originating in other countries.
- Recruiting is also being done largely by Kiwis.
- This prevents new folk from investigating the group more fully online.
- Shincheonji’s founder and self-proclaimed ‘Messiah’ is Man Hee Lee.
- Accordingly, the most successful method of getting people out of a cult that I encountered was inviting them to spend some days away from their cult without having contact with it, then taking them through a series of learnings, as detailed in Cults Inside Out: How People Get In and Can Get Out by Rick Alan Ross (Createspace Independent Pub, 2014).
- Robert Jay Lifton, “Cult Formation”, The Harvard Mental Health Letter 7 no.8 (Feb 1981) – see csj.org/studyindex/studycult/study_lifton2.htm. In the case of Shincheonji, the charismatic leader is Man Hee Lee who uses self-descriptors such as ‘The Promised Pastor’, ‘The One Who Overcomes’ and ‘The Advocate’. Page 80 of Mr Lee’s book The Creation of Heaven and Earth (Shincheonji Press, 2009) states that eternal life is only available through him. An ex-cult member relates a worship song that he was required to sing to ‘The Advocate’ / ‘The One Who Overcomes’ during his time in Shincheonji – see shinchonjiandthebible.blogspot.co.nz/2010/06/the-parable-of-two-seeds-in-mt-13.html. ‘Spiritual food at the proper time’ (as per point #4 above and Lee, The Creation of Heaven and Earth, 317) is a key tool for sequencing thought reform. Exploitation of group members takes various forms but is seen most constantly in the demands on group members’ time. The Shincheonji members I worked with were spending 22 hours a week at cult meetings with an obvious detrimental effect on the individuals and their families. An ex-Shincheonji member shared with me how he was manipulated into spending more time at the cult, along the lines of, “You should be grateful—we have done all of this for you for free.” Shincheonji has made unsuccessful legal challenges in Korea in relation to its alleged status as a cult and the destruction the group has caused to families and individuals. It has been described as a cult in Korean, New Zealand and British media reports. Korea Times example: koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2016/12/116_221100.html. A helpful website is: jmscult.com/scj.html.