When I arrived on campus for the first time, I had a few places for connecting with Christians: a Lutheran church that a pastor mentioned to me and two campus ministries a friend told me about. These tips were enough—I checked them all out, eventually settling into a Baptist General Conference church and a quality campus ministry.
But many students have arrived on campus this fall with less to go on than I had. And some of them will be approached by unhealthy and unhelpful groups. A few new students will even be contacted by cults.
“Cult” is a label that gets thrown around at the popular level, and its use can be subjective. But it certainly is a negative one—no one says, “Yeah, I’m part of a cult.” While these groups may seem attractive at first because of their friendliness and appearance of care, they are harmful because they often seek to control their members and obscure the good news of Jesus.
There are some traits that can tip you off to a religious group’s health and helpfulness, whether it’s something you’re checking out or a group that someone you care about is considering:
Cults usually focus on a charismatic leader. Often there is a single individual that is the center of the community’s life. This person may be regarded with special respect or power, whether explicit or more hidden.
Cults discourage asking questions and having open discussions. Conversations hit walls and are shut down when they run counter to the party line.
Cults often control members’ behaviors. This may arise from instilling guilt in members or finding them in a moment of weakness or need.
Cults sometimes focus on money while being very secretive about its use. Members may be asked to pay to prove their devotion. There is not usually transparency around finances.
Cults rarely dialog openly with other groups. Members may be isolated and insulated, without the opportunity to hear others’ perspectives and ideas.
Cults frequently use terms differently than common usage. One group I bumped into while on campus used terms I was familiar with (e.g. sin and healing), but they used them in a way that eventually showed we didn’t mean the same things when we said them. To them, sin was all in our minds and we just needed to think differently, sort of like denying our sin would make it go away.
If you find yourself or someone you love connected to a worrisome group, get out of it. If you’ve been part of an authentic, biblical community, reconnect with them. If not, there are a lot of caring campus ministries or churches on or near most campuses. Connect with another community for support during a transition. Many solid campus ministries are listed at the bottom of this page.
Are there other ways to identify a cult you’d add to this list?
Adam Jeske regularly contributes to Relevant and is co-authoring a book with Christine Jeske on bringing lessons from the global Church back to North America (IVP, November 2012). He blogs, tweets, and serves as the Associate Director of Communications for InterVarsity.