maybe they’re not a cult, but still…

Yesterday, I discussed the need to guard our students from unhealthy ministry… and I started with the most obvious enemy: actual cults.

But simply unbalanced or otherwise unhealthy college ministries can be nearly as harmful as cults, yet they are much harder to spot. And from what I’ve seen and heard around the country, campuses are filled with present examples and recent stories of the harm caused by such ministries.

While this is no perfect list, here are five issues that have led to unhealthy college ministry:

  • Unbalanced teachings springing from otherwise orthodox positions
  • Unhealthy or unbecoming ministry methods
  • Overemphasis on single spiritual disciplines or areas of discipleship
  • Authoritarian leadership or unhealthy devotion to ministry leaders
  • Isolationist ideas, in which certain ministries or methods are held to be the truly “right way”

Please remember, when I first presented this series at a college ministers’ conference, I had been asked to provide a sort of “top ten” list of ideas college ministers should consider, based on everything I’ve seen around the U.S. So I wouldn’t be bringing this up if I didn’t think it was a really important concern and an actual, widespread problem.

While I don’t believe cults and other unhealthy ministries are running rampant on America’s campuses, I do believe that many campuses are affected by “unhealth” in one way or another. And the even bigger problem is that things can go from bad to worse on a single campus easily within one school year.

So unless we’re helping check problematic ministry teachings, methods, and leaders, we run a pretty scary risk.

[Third & final post on this here.]


  1. This topic intrigues me. The last two items on your list seem to be right on – a group centered around a single personality or a isolationist goal can only end badly. But the first three items seem too vague…

    * Unbalanced…as opposed to balanced? *
    Was Jesus balanced?
    Haven’t many of the great ministries in the world focused on a particular issue at one time or another?
    Who defines orthodox positions? Does being Pentecostal put you out of orthodoxy in the US? What about Catholics?

    * Unhealthy…who defines what is healthy? *
    What does “unbecoming” mean? Does an underemphasis on evangelism equate unhealthy? What about an overemphasis? Who decides where the perfect middle is?

    * Overemphasis on single spiritual disciplines or areas of discipleship *
    Again, who decides this? Would Jesus applaud our efforts to not be too radical? There are multiple ministry groups on most campuses – it’s not like students can’t go elsewhere. Who decides that a ministry is having an overall negative influence on campus life?

  2. Good thoughts. It’s a tricky list to make, but I ended up going for vague-but-broad rather than going specific and not covering the bases. The list is certainly more for “classification” than it is for trying to recognize unhealthy ministries. Ultimately, there are probably other “categories,” too.

    On the specifics –
    1: I use “balance” to mean proper proportion, not even proportion. In that sense, I’d say Jesus was ultimately “balanced,” in that His love didn’t water down His truth, His wrath didn’t damage His kindness, His teaching about heaven didn’t minimize His teaching about earth. That kind of stuff. The Bible has several examples of calls to keep things in proper proportion and healthy “tension.” (We don’t always like ’em, because we’re humans and tend to wander off from the biblical ideals, one direction or the other.)

    Sometimes ministries focus so much on one doctrine or one area of doctrine that students (who aren’t always great at putting things in proper proportion) start treating those areas in unbalanced ways. Really, my wording should probably have been, “Unbalanced response to orthodox teachings” or something like that. Sometimes students have grabbed hold of a particular area and become arrogant, brash, or excessive in their discussions or practices.

    While Protestants don’t have a pope and therefore no final human authority on orthodoxy/non-orthodoxy, there does seem to be a lot of Christian consensus when that word is used in a technical sense. (Non-orthodoxy and error are not the same thing.) Pentecostalism and Catholicism are certainly part of orthodox Christianity, even among those who disagree with them.

    2: “Unbecoming” means methods that don’t make God or the Christian cause look good. (Certainly, some of what we’re called to will offend, but you can actually be offensive – when necessary – in ways that are still “becoming.”) For example, unbecoming evangelism would be the kind that doesn’t use the “gentleness and respect” that Peter commands.

    Yep, any area we UNDERemphasize or OVERemphasize would be unhealthy, just by definition. But as for deciding the perfect middle, I think that’s our job individually, with all the wisdom and direction we can beg God for. That’s part of the “testing and approving” to determine His good, pleasing, and perfect will.

    3: For who decides these things, it’s the same answers as 1 & 2.

    But I’m not encouraging non-radicalness. Obviously, we should be teaching our students to be radical. But “radical” is a relative term, not an absolute one. We’re only “radical” in regards to something else.

    I do think the local community of ministers tends to have the best pulse on individual campus situations. While we can all be tempted to get jealous and catty, I still think wise ministers can point out troubling movements on their campuses. Sometimes, I wish they’d speak up a little more; unity is awesome, but not at the expense of truth or student discipleship. It’s sad that in some cases, campus administrators (who may not even be Christians) may be quicker to express concern than we are.

    I would say there seems to be no biblical call for certain areas of the spiritual life to be emphasized at the expense of others when it comes to personal discipleship. The problem isn’t when a ministry has a particular “best area” or even a single focus – IF the ministry is only complementing what’s taking place in students’ lives from other groups.

    But if a ministry is aiming for full-fledged discipleship of its students, students need to be receiving full-fledged discipleship. Any student who walks away from college thinking that one particular spiritual area or discipline is the “key” to everything else may not be served well. In fact, that comes awfully close to Gnosticism, where those guys looked for knowledge-keys to open up doors to higher spirituality.

    The same is true if they walk away focusing on one area (because they like it or it “fits” them or it’s been overemphasized), without recognizing the grander call to complete-life Lordship.

    Just my thoughts. Thanks for making me think. Feel free to follow up!

  3. Good thoughts. You have traveled a lot more than I have, so your experience is helpful to hear.

    I just know what it is like to be on the receiving end of an “unhealthy ministry” accusation. It can be tough being in an “edgier” ministry that doesn’t fall into the mainstream middle road. In our case, time healed many of the wounds, and the practices that made us “cult like” in the 1980s (for example, expressive worship and the lifting of hands) are now generally accepted practices in every other ministry in town.

    So my two cents are to be cautious before labeling a group as harmful. In my opinion, there is a huge gap between the obviously destructive cults of Jim Jones and what most mainstream ministers would label “unbalanced”. Often times the divisions between ministries come down to very petty and personal differences – things that should never lead to us condemning a group doing Godly work. And considering the current lack of widespread influence the gospel is having on our campuses, isn’t it too early to pick each other’s methods apart?

  4. Pingback: how do we deal with cults on campus? « Exploring College Ministry blog (daily notes about our field)

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