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How to help loved ones caught in a cult or fringe group
Articles in the LOOKOUT section of this website span a number of decades and are re-published on behalf of Adrian van Leen for research purposes. Original dates are being added to articles so as to place them in their correct historical setting(s). Adrian has endeavoured to be as fair and accurate as possible at the time of the original writing, but please note that the original article information may no longer reflect the subsequent or current actions, values, beliefs, positions, opinions, teachings or policies held by individuals, groups and/or organisations referred to in the original published article at the time of writing. As people change and move on, the same often applies to related Internet links; some links referred to in articles may have been changed or may no longer be available online.
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No instant answers - No simple solutions
Our Western society today seems to be characterised by a desire for instant everything - from instant tea and coffee (and other food products) to instant solutions to the complex problems of life. The other side to the ’instant coin’ is the ’throw away’ syndrome. If it doesn’t work as well as we want -throw it away, and get another...!
When a member of a family gets caught in the confusion of the cults there is often a short-sighted attempt at finding instant answers and simplistic solutions.
Some people even promote this instant, simple solution attitude, by claiming that the only way to overcome the problem of a family member in a cult is to kidnap that person and ’brainwash’ them in reverse.
Desperate parents may seek desperate solutions to the hurts and conflicts caused by the cults. We believe that kidnapping and the popular idea of ’deprogramming’ may be understandable from the parents point of view, but it is not Christian, it’s not morally justifiable, and often causes many other problems and hurts.
Families hurt by cultic involvement need to respond in ways that bring reconciliation and not further alienation.
Christians, of all people, should be able to understand this, for we are called to a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). True reconciliation comes when people are reconciled with God through Christ, which then enables them to be truly reconciled to each other.
We believe that the following points can help families (and friends) respond constructively to those who become involved in the cults:
RESPOND - DON’T REACT
Sometimes parents come to us distraught and confused because, in frustration, they told sons, or daughters, that if they were not going to leave the cult they could pack their bags and leave home - and they were taken literally!
When you find that a family member has joined a cult, or extreme Christian fringe group, don’t react in an emotional way. Telling son or daughter (or spouse) to pack his, or her, bags if he, or she, is not going to leave the cult may be said in frustration, and the anger of the moment, but can cause permanent alienation and drive the person deeper into the cult.
Express your concern and uncertainty about the group, and suggest that decisions about deeper involvement should not be rushed into. Suggest caution until further information about the group can be obtained. If the group is genuine and worthwhile, waiting to join up, and checking it out, won’t be a problem. Groups that want instant and total commitment before questions are answered, and want instant access to a person’s money, are suspect - to say the least! Help the family member involved in the group to realise that.
KEEP DOORS OF LOVE AND COMMUNICATION OPEN
Take the initiative in communicating with the family member in the cult. Don’t wait for him (or her) to communicate with you - ask him to tell you what he wants to do with his life, and what he thinks the group has to offer him.
Talk to him (or her), telephone him, write to him - regularly - even if you don’t get regular responses back from him. Treat him just as if he has moved out of home or gone on a holiday - and not as if he was in a cult. Take an extra effort to communicate with him.
Remind him of the good things of the past and of family activities in which he was involved. Let him know what is happening in, and with, the family at present.
If he is living away from home (especially interstate or overseas) encourage him to send postcards of places he has been to, as well as writing about how he is and what he is doing.
Keep correspondence, and other communication loving, non-threatening and non-aggressive or abusive.
ASSURE THE PERSON OF YOUR LOVE AND ACCEPTANCE
Make sure your son, daughter, or spouse knows that you love him, or her - and that this love and acceptance is genuine, and not a mere use of words to get your own way in order to make the family member leave the cult and conform to your wants and wishes.
Don’t pretend that you accept, like, or agree with the cult. You can accept and love the person, without loving the cultic involvement.
Let the person know that you accept, and admire, the positive aspect of what has happened - a desire to find God, a meaning and purpose to life, a desire to share faith with others - but gently express concerns about how and with whom he (or she) is doing these. Be honest, acknowledge you may not know much about the group and let him know that you would like to know more about the group, because you care for him and his search for truth.
Let him know that he is always welcome at home and can always return or contact you without recriminations, if help is wanted or if a break (a breathing, thinking, space) is wanted away from the group.
FIND OUT WHY THE PERSON JOINED
People are rarely, if ever, kidnapped in the streets, bundled into cars and taken to a cult brainwashing centre.
People become involved with cults, the occult and extreme Christian fringe groups, because they have particular needs that are not being met at the time.
The needs can be many - everything from the need to know God, truth, a purpose for living, or direction and help in decision making - to the need to overcome loneliness, lack of self-worth, emotional and/or physical ill-health or lack of the basic necessities of life.
Before trying to encourage or persuade a person to leave a cultic group you should try and find out what needs he (or she) had that made him vulnerable at the time of becoming involved with the cult.
You need to discover why those needs weren’t met, or why he felt they weren’t being met, and then raise the question of why he thinks this group, the cult, IS meeting the need.
Try and raise the possibility, if not probability, that those same needs could be met elsewhere with less concern and less cost involved.
FIND OUT ALL YOU CAN ABOUT THE GROUP
Don’t be content with what your son, daughter, or spouse may tell you about the group he or she has joined.
The cult member, having had some needs met at a time of vulnerability, will have uncritically accepted the positive promotional propaganda of the cult. This does not mean that you have to accept it without question.
Be prepared to do some homework. Seek information other than the group’s own materials. Read concerns others may have about the group. Carefully consider critical responses from ex-members, and others, to the cults’ public claims.
Don’t fall for the cultic propaganda that all ex-members are unbalanced and disgruntled apostates distorting the truth. They may well be telling the truth as they try and counter the claims of the cults.
Try to obtain balanced, non-hysterical or non-sensationalist information that can give you an accurate understanding of what your son, daughter, or spouse, has become committed to. Think through all material carefully for yourself.
You need to be informed if you are going to be at all successful in countering the subtle deceptions, indoctrination, and manipulation of the cults.
ASK QUESTIONS THAT ENCOURAGE THINKING
Whether you are involved in face to face discussion, or in writing letters, try to raise questions that encourage critical thinking on the part of the cult member.
Initial involvement with the cults is generally an emotional one based on meeting nice friendly people at a time of vulnerability and need. This usually involves an unquestioning trust and acceptance of what those nice friendly people have stated.
You need to stimulate the new cult member into thinking for himself (or herself) about the deeper aspects of involvement with the group that go beyond the PR aspect.
To raise questions that encourage thinking it helps to be well-informed yourself.
Avoid asking questions that have simple ’yes’ or ’no’ answers. Remember HOW, WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, and especially, WHY in asking your questions.
But beware of becoming angry or aggressive, putting the person through the ’third degree’, or turning your questions into an inquisition. The purpose is not to force the cult member into the corner so he, or she, feels trapped and becomes defensive, but to make the person think and question cultic claims for himself, or herself.
DON’T ARGUE OR RIDICULE
Don’t try and prove that you are smarter and know more (because you are an adult, male/father/husband, an academic, or anything else) than the cult member.
Sarcasm, and ridicule of the person who has become involved (for being so dumb as to swallow all that propaganda nonsense - or anything else) will only cause further alienation - not reconciliation.
If you have done your homework well, you MAY know more about the cult than the new member, and you MAY be able to win a clever argument - BUT you’ll lose the person.
Ridiculing the group, or its leader(s) will only put the new cult member on the defensive.
Be sensitive to the person in the cult and recognise that, had you been vulnerable, you too could have, or may, get caught by a cult.
Quiet, informed rational discussions that raise pertinent questions and encourages independent thinking is positive and constructive. Such an approach can lead to ultimate reconciliation.
Ridicule and arguments are belittling and destructive and cause greater alienation.
DON’T GIVE MONEY
The cult member may try and use you for support, including asking for money to pay for clothing, food, accommodation, travel etc.
Don’t hand over, or sign over money or possessions. You will not really help the cult member - instead it can ’feed his cult habit’ and ultimately be contributing to the cult.
Often the cults work on new members to solicit money (or other valuables, possessions) from them directly, and you, indirectly.
If your family member in a cult wants money to travel home, arrange for a ticket, or transport, that cannot be refunded and turned into cash for him and the cult.
Be assured that he will cope without your money - the cult will take care of him, and if the cult can’t or won’t, take care of him, it may encourage him to think independently and begin to see through false cultic claims and promises.
DON’T BE OVERAWED, OVERWHELMED OR INTIMIDATED
No parent or spouse is perfect. We have all made mistakes, but don’t be misguided into guilt and think that your son’s, daughter’s, or spouse’s involvement is all YOUR fault. You may have contributed to his (or her) needs and vulnerability - but at the time of cultic involvement most people, including your son, daughter, or spouse, are old enough to be a free agent and be responsible for their own decisions. Don’t let them (or anyone else) lay a guilt trip on you.
You are not dumb, stupid, or unworthy, anymore than anyone else. You have the ability to think (even if you haven’t had a college education), and you have your own personal rights.
You have the right to refuse to see, or talk, to cult representatives. You don’t have to attend meetings. You have the right to a friend (or friends) or a legal advisor to be present with you if you do meet with cult representatives.
Many cults, and extreme Christian fringe groups, use psychological bullying and manipulation. They can be as persuasive as some unscrupulous salesman who can persuade you to buy a product you don’t really want.
Recognise the psychological games the cult may try to play with you (often through the family member newly involved in the cult). Don’t let the cult (or your son, daughter, or spouse) belittle, intimidate, overwhelm, or overawe you.
SHARE YOUR CONCERNS
You need to know you are not alone, or that you aren’t suffering mental delusion, when you are concerned about a family member’s involvement in a cult.
You also need the support and encouragement of others who understand (even if only vaguely) what you are going through.
Share your concerns about the cultic group, in a loving way, with the family member involved.
Then, don’t bottle it up and keep it to yourself, share your concern with caring trustworthy friends, family members, and/or a small group (other affected parents, church prayer group etc.).
The support, encouragement and prayers of your own church leader(s) or members can help you face the traumas you may be facing.
DEVELOP YOUR FAITH
You need to know where you’re going in life - especially at the time of trauma and uncertainty that comes when a family member joins a cult.
You need the inner resources and strength to see you through the troubled time of the cultic involvement of a son, daughter or spouse.
Develop your own faith in God through Jesus Christ, through regular prayer, Bible study, and worship with fellow believers. In this way you’ll be able to face the traumas and conflicts that may be before you, and you’ll also have a positive answer to the cult member who may think you have no spiritual source of strength or relationship with God.
HAVE AN ALTERNATIVE TO OFFER
The family member who became involved with a cult did so because of needs not met and/or a search for ultimate truth.
Revealing the errors and deceptions of the cult are not enough. Those needs will still have to be met. And all the cults have a mixture of truth and error. For the cult member to leave it all can bring a vacuum, an emptiness.
The offer of an alternative choice needs to be made available to the cult member. The cults claim to be the only choice available - but theirs is generally a soul-destroying choice.
We believe that the best alternative to the cults is a dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ - not a restrictive imposition of one church denomination being superior to another - but a personal relationship that encourages personal growth.
If you are developing your own faith and relationship with Jesus Christ, you will have a positive alternative to offer to your son, daughter, or spouse.
Prayer is not an instant magic wand that makes God do what we want Him to do. Nor is it a way of psychicly manipulating people to conform to our wishes against their will.
Nor is prayer the final resort when all else has failed.
Prayer opens the divine connection between God and the person praying and brings guidance, peace and inner strength and courage. Prayer also opens the divine connection between God and the person prayed for to make them more aware and sensitive to God’s direction and will. It often opens the door to self-discovery and the ability to reason, relate and have a balanced faith.
Pray for the family member in the cult and his or her needs. Pray, knowing that God hears, cares, and answers prayer. Draw on His strength when the going gets tough, or if despondency comes.
Pray, and keep on praying - and ask others to pray with, and for, you.
DON’T GIVE UP
Never give up. Hang on to hope, and hang on in there.
People DO come out of the cults - some after a short time, some after a long time.
Ask God to give you patience, and strengthen your hope.
People are complex and often have complex problems and needs when they get involved with cults. Those problems didn’t instantly appear - and they are not going to instantly disappear. There are no instant answers or simplistic solutions - but help and hope are available.
Lookout exists to provide that accurate information and understanding for families in need. It seeks to help families respond in ways that lead to reconciliation, when one, or more members of the family get caught in the confusion of the cults.
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