“For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. Behold, I have told you in advance” (Matthew 24:23-24).
For 51 days, the Waco, Texas, siege dragged on. Finally on April 19, federal authorities took drastic measures-for the most part to rescue the children in the Branch Davidian compound. The trouble is, the children could not be rescued. They were pawns of parents who believed that their salvation would come only by following David Koresh completely-even to an apocalyptic death.
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These children were tragically doomed by their parents’ choices. It’s sobering to realize that many of these parents in this cult had grown up in Christian churches and were still unable to resist the allure of Koresh’s deception. What went wrong with their Christian training? Is it possible that these former church members were actually conditioned to join a cult? What can we do now to protect our children from vulnerability to later cultic involvement?
CULT MEMBER PROFILE
No one is quite sure how many cults there are. Estimates range from 700 to 5,000, depending on the definition of “cult.” Cults are normally defined as small, fringe groups with a single, charismatic leader.
Tal Brooke, president of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project in Berkeley, California, says these leaders are “usually very much into control; they’re very manipulative personalities. And one of their bartering points is that they claim authentic and original revelation. So they claim to be revelators of divine truth, whether they claim to be God himself or mouthpieces of God.”
According to Gretchen Passantino, co-author of the classic Answers to the Cultist at Your Door and co-director of Answers in Action in Costa Mesa, California, cults that are deviations of Christianity target people with a Christian church background. With more Eastern and New Age cults, most recruits have no religious background. These cult recruits grew up in a religious vacuum and are searching for a religious reality.
Whatever the background, the following are characteristics of people who get involved in cults:
- Looking for answers–People who need the security of an authoritarian environment crave black-and-white answers-even if those answers are wrong. Cults provide such an environment.
- Desiring God–“Another common reason that young people join cults,” says Passantino, “is they want to experience God in a way that seems more real than what they’ve grown up with. And cults frequently promise this kind of a mystical experience with God.”
- Needing to make a difference–Cults meet young people’s idealistic needs to change the world. In a cult, people can lose themselves in something greater and nobler than themselves.
- Hurting–Lonely, alienated people find in cult members the love and acceptance they’ve longed for.
- Breaking away--Sometimes kids join cults out of rebellion against their parents’ values.
We can safeguard our children from being misled. But we must start now. Here’s how:
- Teach kids to think. Churches with a rigid autocracy teach kids not to think. Kids learn that they’re to obey orders without reasons. This kind of environment mimics cults and actually trains kids in the stimulus-response mode of cults-“I command, and you jump!”
Passantino says parents and churches need to “teach kids to think critically about what they believe and why they believe it and how their lives should be ordered according to God’s will.”
- Appeal to kids’ idealism through meaningful service. Dr. Gordon Lewis, author of Confronting the Cults and professor of systematic theology at Denver Seminary, says “the church is not showing young people they can make a difference in the world where they are and where they go in the future. We somehow leave that to the professionals and to a few. And we need to help every young person know that each young person is part of the great worldwide mission of the Christian faith.”It’s not enough to ask kids to bring food for the hungry. Let them organize the drive and deliver the food. Or instead of having them help run a booth at a church carnival, invite them to be on the steering committee.
- Provide a strong cult-education program. Passantino says we can be “so afraid that kids are going to be lured into sin or into false teaching that the church isolates them from any other ideas or practices, instead of educating them and giving them good sound answers and choices. [The church] pretends like those religious choices don’t even exist. And then when the kid gets out into the world and say, his best friend in school turns out to be [a cult member], he’s totally unprepared to evaluate what he’s hearing or seeing. He really doesn’t know how to respond to it.”
- Expect and encourage kids to question their faith. “I think often that children get the impression that it’s wrong to have any doubts or questions,” says Lewis. “I think the church must do all in its power to be open to questions and even encourage people to ask questions about issues that are on their mind. Kids are told, ‘believe, believe, believe’…The Bible also says to not believe every spirit-1 John 4:1-3. We are to test the spirits. We are to see whether they are of God.”
- Love and accept kids unconditionally. If we don’t teach children that the church is the place to find God’s love and acceptance, cults may convince them that they are the ones who will love them as God does.
- Teach kids to understand the Bible. “The focal point for Bible study, for both young children and mature adults, should always ultimately be on the person of Christ,” says Dr. James Breckenridge, professor of religion at Baylor University in Waco.
Lewis adds, “One of the things we’re not doing is teaching hermeneutics–the science and principles of biblical interpretation–and this can be done on different levels. We have to agree to help children know they must take a verse in its context. They should interpret every verse in its paragraph, its paragraph in the light of the chapter and the light of the purpose of the book, and whether it’s in the Old Testament or the New, and how those two basic divisions relate to each other. They need to end up with the whole context of the Bible’s teaching.”
- Work with parents. Breckenridge says churches need to “work very carefully with the homes of the parishioners because there is only so much that the church can do-even at its very best. And the church should encourage meaningful instruction at home-time for prayer, Bible reading, and giving the kids the chance to ask questions concerning Scriptures.”
- Pray and trust the Holy Spirit. We’re not in this alone. Breckenridge affirms, “Even the most dedicated pastor, Christian education worker, or parent cannot do the work of the Holy Spirit…But I think at least we can prepare the ground for the Spirit by being loving, very caring, patient, and understanding.”
Christine Yount Jones is the executive editor of Children’s Ministry Magazine.
(This article was originally published in 1992.)