While talking with some friends, someone asked about my opinions concerning manipulation and authoritarianism in churches as well as how they can become cults. All of this came up because I’d shared with them some of my experiences at a church I’d left about three years before. While I was at that church, I’d been a very active participant for about five to six years, serving as the “sound guy” for most services, the ministry webmaster, the youth leader, the secretary of the finance committee and also was on the “deliverance team” (exorcism team). Now please understand, I’m not listing these things to boast about how accomplished I am in ministry; on the contrary, I’m the first to say now, that much of what I did had a lot less to do with serving God as it had to do with building a ministry. The reason I list those things is to just to say that I helped see this church grow from a small group of about eight or nine people, to a small congregation of about forty people.
One of the questions asked of me was, “how do you think things like this happen?” That’s a question I’ve spent a lot of time in the last three years thinking about. How is it that a well-intentioned bible study or small group could so easily descend into something where the people become committed to a single person and his ideas without question? The truth is, things like this don’t happen simply or even quickly. The “changes” happen slowly and subtly. I say “changes” loosely because the truth is the foundations needed to support this type of “man in the center” ideology, really exist from the beginning. We may not see them in the beginning because the structures that these foundations are meant to hold up, don’t come into view, until the ministry begins to grow, and by that time we’ve already “bought into it” or are just too ashamed to admit that we were fooled.
I’ve realized now looking back, that there were a number of common warning signs that were always there that were ignored. I can say now what I think were the reasons that I ignored what I saw; in some cases I really just didn’t know any better, in some cases I did know better but found ways to justify what I saw. These justifications we sometimes rooted in a misplaced sense of loyalty towards the leader or sometimes I would feel that if I did say something, I might affect the “faith” of the other people there because of my position. Sometimes I just didn’t want to make waves. None of these reasons were truly valid.
My original intention was to make this a single article but after I began writing I realized I have a lot more to share than I initially thought. So I’ve made it a short series of posts about the “warning signs” that I myself encountered and ignored, These warning signs are not just a list of things that can go wrong in a church, but things that go wrong that indicate a high degree of manipulation is taking place in your church. My hope is that if you read this and find yourself facing some of these things, you may not ignore them as I did.