"It's been three years and I'm still having problems! No one in my church knows what I'm going through--not even my Pastor!"
Identifying herself as "Barbara," she explained that prior to becoming a Christian she had been in a cult, but was on the verge of going back.
"I pace the floor at night unable to sleep" she continued. "I feel like a horse is tied to my right brain and another to my left, and both are taking off in opposite directions. I'm in such turmoil, I'm ready to give up!"
Barbara's plight, typical of others coming out of false religions, reflects a growing concern. Churches are not prepared to solve the wake of problems that follow an ex-cultist's conversion to Christ.
HOW PREVALENT IS THE PROBLEM?
In America, cult experts Dr. Margaret Singer and Janja Lalich, in "Cults In Our Midst," state that there are "three thousand to five thousand cults," with "between two million and five million . . . involved in cults at any one time." (An estimate of those in occultism, is sixty million.) Designed to deceive and exploit members through thought-reform processes, many inflict psychological and physical harm; often sexual abuse.
There are two major classifications of cults: "destructive" and "non-destructive." The destructive kind consists of two-and-a-half to three million active members at any one time. In the non-destructive, or benign, groups, designated as such solely because of anti-biblical doctrines, membership is in the millions with some assessing 30 million.
The solution to helping former members, contrary to popular belief, does not lie in rehearsing apologetics to them; but, rather, in understanding what they are going through.
"To understand cults [and ex-cultists]," says Singer and Lalich, "we must examine structure and practice, not beliefs." It is the "thought-reform techniques used by skillful manipulators," that cause the long-range difficulties in coming out of a cult.
Since former cultists are unknowledgeable about the techniques used on them by their cult, the key to recovery lies in education. They need to learn about the scrupulous and exploitative methods that stripped them of psychological stability. In addition, understand all the ramifications of why they are suffering such debilitating impairments.
The severity of the emotional problems former cultists experience in Christian churches could admittedly be lessened if, when they first exited the cult, they had contacted cult educational organizations such as the American Family Foundation, or counter-cult ministries knowledgeable about their unique problems. But, one of the reasons they don't, is that they are ignorant about such ministries.
A second reason, as Dr. Michael Langone, Executive Director of the American Family Foundation explains in "Recovery From Cults," is "they do not usually view the group [they came out of] as a cult-at least not initially." They believe that "cults are weird groups for crazy people, and since they are not crazy and their group isn't weird, it isn't a cult." Only later, as new believers experience the aftermath of problems, and become educated about the manipulative ways cults operate, are they finally able to acknowledge they were in one.
"Only crazy, stupid, needy people join cults. No one could ever get me to commit suicide or beat my kids or give my wife over to a cult leader!"
Former cult members, intimidated by the above mindset, are often forced to hide their cult background and suffer in secret. This hinders those who are trying to help them.
Further, it is difficult for others to understand how a person could join a cult. They fail to realize that there is a hidden agenda.
HOW ONE IS DRAWN INTO A CULT
When individuals first join, they know nothing about what will be required of them in the future. Former members declare, "If I had known ahead of time each of the things that I eventually, one step at a time, would be led into doing, I never would have joined."
Members, propelled into the cult by high ideals, are initially led to believe that they are joining an altruistic group intent on saving the world. If a religious cult, they are convinced God is speaking to the leader. Thus, they are willing to sacrifice everything they have, to join what they perceive as a holy cause. Once hooked, psychological entrapment begins through gradual thought reform.
The subtle procedure is based upon the "frog in the pot" principle. Put a frog in boiling water and he'll immediately jump out. But, put a frog in cold water, gradually turn up the heat, he'll stay until it's too late. Similarly, the same incremental process is used on cult recruits, and no one is immune. Dr. Singer states, "Everyone is susceptible to the lure of these master manipulators."
ENTERING THE CHURCH
How many enter Christian churches? While there are no comprehensive statistics, John Heinerman and Anson Shupe, in "The Mormon Corporate Empire," have calculated figures for the Mormon Church. In 1981 to 1982, from a membership at that time of five million, forty thousand members either voluntarily left or were excommunicated. (As of 2002, membership of the church is eleven million.)
What percentage seek out Christian churches? In a study conducted by Stuart A. Wright, in "Leaving Cults: The Dynamics of Defection," seventy-eight percent of his sample group of ex-cultists entered Christian churches, a figure believed to be typical.
If Wright's seventy-eight percent applies to the above-mentioned forty thousand ex-Mormons, then during those years of 1981-1982, this equated to approximately thirty-one thousand converting to Christianity. This percentage would also apply to those exiting other false religions during those years. Thus, the number entering churches is greater than supposed.
Many who exit cults immediately seek out a church. For others, it takes years before they consider doing this. But, for those who do enter Christian churches, they bring with them a plethora of perplexing problems.
"I never knew such bewilderment, pain, and feeling on the brink of insanity," said one. Another stated, "If I had known beforehand how difficult it would be and how long the turmoil would last, I never would have left the cult!" Established Christians gasp, "How can someone who has accepted Christ, say such a thing?"
This is because there is an illusion. Christians often believe that once cultists convert to Christ, God will make the transition easy. This is not necessarily so. Whether new believers are fully converted to Christ, whether they have come out of a benign or destructive cult, or whether they are highly educated or illiterate, it makes no difference. Psychological aftereffects are inevitable. New converts, plagued with anxieties and puzzling disorientation, find themselves hurled into an unexpected world of pain for three to eight years after accepting Christ.
Grappling with conflicting emotions, they suffer through flashbacks, panic attacks, and an inability to relate to people. They exhibit irrational behavior, severe mood swings, and are unable to make decisions. They also defend former beliefs, when they know better. In addition, they have recurring nightmares that the cult leader will find them and force them back to the cult-or else have them killed. This is especially true of those coming out of Mormon Fundamentalism (independent offshoot groups of the Mormon Church) where the doctrine of Blood Atonement is either practiced, or at least threatened.
Undergoing one psychological crisis after another, new converts pace the floor at night unable to sleep, convinced they are losing their mind. They wonder if they made a mistake by leaving the cult. One new believer exclaimed, "Maybe my turmoil is God telling me that the cult was right after all, and I should go back!"
In addition to the new convert's emotional problems, ignorance on their part of what is happening to them, takes a toll on their physical health. Ann Kaiser Stearns notes, in "Living Through Personal Crisis," "Not only through tears do we cry out pangs of grief, [but] our bodies have a dozen ways of weeping with us." Conway and Siegelman, in "Information Disease," note that "one in five experience lasting health problems.
Christians who do not understand the traumatic transition, view new converts to Christ as problematic, unmanageable, resistant, incorrigible, and exhausting. Their strange behavior, says William K. Burtner in, "Don't Be So Sure You Can Say No to a Cult," causes "85 percent of therapists and clergy [to] misdiagnose former cult members [and mistakenly treat them] for schizophrenia."
Because no one in the church understands their problems, former cultists often resort to a facade. Hiding their problems, they falsify a joyful behavior, believing they will gain quicker social acceptance. They also cover up depression over cult-related problems-problems they believe Christians will criticize them for not overcoming sooner. Myra, a former Mormon, explains:
"I wanted so much to be like them. So, I entered in and acted just like they did, singing hymns with gusto, smiling, testifying, and agreeing with them how wicked my former cult was. I spent a lot of energy putting on a joyful countenance, then I'd go home and cry knowing all my actions were a farce. I loved Christ, but I still missed the cult!"
"The clergy," says Dr. Michael D. Langone, should be the "primary helpers for former cultists". But, unfortunately, as Singer and Lalich note, former cult members continue to describe "their dismal contacts with clergy . . ." who are unaware of "the stresses of life in closed intense high-control groups, or the pains of life after leaving a cult."18
New believers should be able to find healing in the Body of Christ. But, regrettably, they don't. Pastors are limited, since their counseling background does not prepare them to deal with the unique problems of ex-cultists. Lay members are often inadequate, for even those knowledgeable about cult doctrines are unaware of the emotional aftereffects of coming out of a cult.
THE NEED TO IDENTIFY PROBLEMS
One convert to Christ stated: "I had no logical answers for why I was miserable. If someone could have provided me with an explanation, it would have shortened my time of suffering, not to mention my discouragement."
New believers who are in the midst of their upheaval are, unfortunately, incapable of analyzing their problems. Although they can describe their symptoms, they have no idea why they are suffering. Therefore, the need to identify and explain their problems to them is crucial.
Because no one in the church is equipped to help, new converts are seriously hindered in their new walk. Without adequate support they will do one of four things:
* stay in the church and be miserable
* start church hopping
* drop out of church altogether, or
* return to the cult
Therefore, knowledgeable church workers are indispensable. Recovery cannot begin until the post-conversion problems can be identified and explained to the new convert. Further, without recovery, former cultists are unable to devote themselves fully to God or their church.
The author's book, "Out of the Cults and Into the Church: Understanding and encouraging ex-cultists," is an excellent resource that will enable Christians to become more knowledgeable about the former cultists' emotional state, gain insight into their private thoughts, and acquire specific instructions on how to help.
References to quoted material available upon request.
*Copyright 2003. This article cannot be copied and used in a professional publication without express permission of the author.