how do we deal with cults on campus?

This post was suggested by a Facebook message I received recently. I’m always on the lookout for helpful topics, so feel free to suggest one!

How should college ministers respond to harmful ministries on campus?

This is an issue that has come up multiple times during this trip, and it’s one I freely admit I struggle to get my head around. I haven’t personally been involved in standing up to an unhealthy ministry. So I would love any wisdom you’ve got, or suggestions for who might have good wisdom for this area.

The history of campus cults and other ministries that harm students runs pretty deep. College campuses naturally draw and nurture errant people and groups. Sadly, the first entity to stand up against harmful ministries might be a campus’s (secular) administration, once they see the emotional harm it brings.

Shouldn’t college ministries to some extent, as shepherds, help protect students from harmful groups – even when those groups seem to come from within our ranks? But what does that look like?

This is a tricky issue from a lot of angles.

First, there’s the question of how we define / discern unhealthy ministry. That’s not the point of today’s question, but it certainly matters. Before a college minister “does something about” a ministry they believe is harmful, they had better be clear on their concerns (On the difficulty of determining what’s truly unhealthy – and Christians’ ever-present ability to misjudge this characteristic, be sure to read Adam Ratliff’s solid comments on my post here.)

Second, some ministries with past errors have repented or simply become healthier. We need to make sure our understanding of a local or national ministry is current. (It would also be helpful for us to be aware of the histories of campus cult-like activity. I fear we are doomed to repeat our difficult history because we aren’t aware of the problems of the past.)

Third, national ministries always vary chapter-to-chapter. College ministries are generally quite autonomous, even when they’re tied by organization, denomination, or other affiliation. So we need to be extremely hesitant to make generalizations just because we’ve seen problems locally. (That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t deal with the local problems, but in fact a national organization may be an ally in helping with local ministries gone awry.)

All that being said, I still think we need basic ideas on what to do if this situation arises. But I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a college minister discuss how they have handled campus cults or other clearly unhealthy ministries. I think we could all really use some wisdom on this, because our need to employ it could be just around the corner.

I would love to hear any thoughts you have, ways you’ve handled this, or examples of how others have handled these issues. (As always, just be wise about how you refer to groups, please.)

written from Motel 6, Madison, WI

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Road Trip 13: Day 30 recap
recap: a whole lot of catching up… though it never really ends…
T-shirt: the Rebel tribe of UNLV
tuesday: a little exploration around Madison, then on to Chicagoland! (see all explorations so far)

7 Comments

  1. Cults are a problem on a lot of campuses and one of the difficulties in dealing with this problem is that most non-Christians just don’t get what the problem is about. It really seems to them like some sort of power play where one religious group trying to push out another.

    One solution I have suggested is working with campus chaplaincy on two fronts. One is having the chaplaincy have a list of “approved” healthy Christian groups on campus. The other angle would be running some ads (again preferably through chaplaincy as opposed to by any particular campus ministry) along the lines of “How to tell if a Christian group is a cult” with three questions to ask; 1) Do they ask you to change to using their Bible? 2) Do they ask you to change to their church? 3) Do they ask you to be rebaptised?
    And then point out that a group that asks you to do any of these three things may be a cult and you should be on your guard.

  2. Karl – really good thoughts.

    You’re definitely right about many cults or unhealthy ministries NOT being a concern to secular universities. Some are – when they get to being problematic along emotional, psychological, or familial lines. But many aren’t.

    The “approved list” seems like it would be tricky – and some would (possibly rightly) see it as a slippery slope toward university-controlled spiritual life. But that depends on context, and I too have wondered if there might be SOME sort of approval system (like that Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability does for finances).

    Most of all, I love your thoughts on PREVENTION. Of course there would be trickiness here, too, on what guidelines to lay out. But even one that’s pretty vague at least gets the message out there that students should be vigilant!

  3. Perhaps “recommended” would be better than”approved”. On some campuses many students will go to chaplaincy to find out about Christian groups. I know that some chaplaincies will actually publish such a list anyway. Adding a comment along the lines that they are aware that cults do operate on the campus, and to carefully check out any group that’s not on the list before joining.

    In terms of prevention, one of the difficulties is that hardly anyone, let alone most freshmen know much about any particular cults, and on campuses where there may well be half a dozen or mroe cults operating you’re fighting a losing battle if you want to help people identify each one. It is far better to teach some wise guidelines, and avoid naming names, because there no doubt will be new cults that we haven’t heard of, there may be legal issues with saying “X is a cult”, and it is much more likely to stick in students’ memories.

    Actually I first started thinking about this after a cult on the campus I was on at the time affiliated under the name “The Christian Club”. Of course many Christians signed up thinking it was what it purported to be instead of what it was.

  4. Benson,

    This is an important topic… and I’ll give me two cents, but with the understanding that my experiences have been on Christian campuses where there are many more guidelines put on how/what can be in campus.

    1) I think prayer needs to be central to the discerning process. We don’t want to be misguided by our own prejudices or perceived threats to our own ministry. It can’t be ego that drives a witch hunt… but a genuine prompting of the Spirit that moves us out of concern and care for the student body.

    2) We need to make sure that we’re not getting caught up in exclusive doctrinal issues. The college years are such liminal years… and in the midst of the liminality students of faith can strongly desire clearly defined doctrine. Some ministries look to provide this… others choose to walk with students through the messiness of faith as a conversation partner… These differing approaches can be the source of much skepticism.

    3) Reach out and get to know students and leaders involved with the ministry you are concerned about. Ask the leader to lunch… give them a chance to share their heart, their philosophy of ministry, their beliefs, etc., and from a position of wanting to better understand… ask the questions you have. Ask about “questionable” behavior that you have observed. Speak your concern if it still exists at that point. Don’t make assumptions from a distance… We must go to our brother or sister in Christ and seek understanding.

    4) As a final resort, approach the “gate keeper” on campus. Hopefully this is someone you’ve already forged a relationship with… If not, you should do that today. Every campus will have someone, or some office, that is concerned with what is happening on campus (likely a Division of Student Affairs), and bring them your compelling case with all of the evidence. No administrator, when faced with the harsh reality of potential harm being done to their students, will sit by and do nothing. If you have built a relationship with this person, and you show them what you have discovered going through the first three steps above, you will hopefully see some institutional action take place.

    5) Ultimately we end where we began… in prayer. God is fully aware of what is going on in the world – and our campus – and he cares. We must be people who pray for students and the choices they make. That God would give them “eyes to see and ears to hear” His truth in contrast to the deception of the Enemy.

    Confrontational and controversial situations like this just won’t be fun. But when we’re talking about the spiritual well-being of the students we care about… is there really any other option?

    My two cents. Love to hear other’s thoughts!

  5. Marty Webb McGukin

    When my husband and I confronted two staffer belonging to two different ministries as to the health of their objectives and practices, we were shut down both times. However, we continued to teach the importance of the link between the church and parachurch organizations. Although there are many unhealthy churches as well, this connection offers some sort of accountability. Neither of the ministries that we questioned had strong ties to any church of any denomination. So, I say teach the truth and teach it in the context of the church. Many errors in theology and practice of Christianity can be seen when one group or another chooses to become totally autonomous. I believe that is why the word of God speaks so clearly to the concept of community and accountability through the church. They are natural opposites of the problem you have raised.

  6. Being a church planted specifically to reach the University of Texas, we have encountered a well known cult on campus. I was made aware of them by other campus ministries, warning me to watch out for them.. which i appreciated. It wasn’t hard to find out their were bad news bears..its never good when you google a ministry and warning websites pop up..

    I have never encountered their staff, only students who were in deep and were able to get away… a very hard and painful process :( I rely heavily on our campus renewel staff worker- his job is to unite ministries to work together on the campus. When I have a student checking out the cult, or they have friends involved with it, I send them to Justin for wisdom and counsel. Since he is not trying to recruit or supports any one ministry, he can give the students his objective perspective. Which is run run run away!

  7. Tim Hawkins

    The cult word is loaded, and one that is thrown around sometimes justifiably, sometimes from historical/doctrinal reality and sometimes by pure self-preservationist evangelical dogmatic territorialism. Honestly, I’ve heard the term used FAR TOO OFTEN to describe any number of historically orthodox Christian traditions simply because they were influential.

    If by cult we simply mean doctrinally unorthodox, there is not much we can do or say on a diverse campus. If by cult, however, we are really referring to practices that are detrimental to a students well-being, that is a different issue.

    I am thinking immediate of two campus ministries I know with charismatic, committed, Christ-like leaders who lead hundreds of students and literally dozens if not hundreds of those students have dramatically altered their life-direction and have chosen to enter ministry or the mission field against the wishes of their parents. Both have fought cult accusations from other campus ministries, legal battles from parents, and reprimands from the university.

    Not because they would traditionally be identified as a cult, but because their influence was altering the lives of students and impacting the the university in structural ways. Isn’t that our dream? Isn’t that what we would expect if Christ filled the lives of students on our campus?

    So, I think Guy provided a great summary of how to approach a situation. Though if he reads this I’d love to hear more clarification about the following:

    “in the midst of the liminality students of faith can strongly desire clearly defined doctrine. Some ministries look to provide this… others choose to walk with students through the messiness of faith as a conversation partner… These differing approaches can be the source of much skepticism.”

    Do you mean the very act of students being pulled back and forth can creat in them a skepticism? If so, I completely agree…and maybe beyond skepticism depending on how we speak of the other people they may have come to love and trust.

    Finally, I think we have to prayerfully consider whether our accusations of “cult” are protecting students or protecting ourselves.

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