By Ken Garrett
Through the years, since I left an
abusive church, I have been contacted by many family members whose loved ones
have become embedded in abusive churches. They often contact me after months or
years of a deteriorating relationship with their family member or friend, and
sadly, when they are sure the relationship is irredeemably lost. If your loved
one, family member, or friend is in an abusive church, here are some basic
truths to remember, and some positive actions you can take so that (as far as
you are concerned) the door is open for the building of a genuine (though not
First,remember that most people leave abusive groups and cults, though they may remain members for many years. Inevitably, the false, disingenuous personality (or, self) developed by the member to become a functioning, accepted member of the abusive church is finally overcome by the person’s true, authentic self. As I reflect on my time in an abusive church and the process of leaving it, I see that the inmost parts of my psyche, the private thoughts and beliefs, were never really destroyed or even replaced by the outer, church-pleasing personality that I developed in my time there. No, the real me, the Ken that I was born as, and is my core personality,was simply shut down, repressed by my attempt to fit in and avoid displeasing my leaders and fellow church members. My authentic, true self battled for me,and eventually won. Your friend or loved one has not really been lost; he has simply been masked by the false, cultic, abusive church self that is being formed by the policies and social environment of the group. While the control and influence of the leaders of cultic groups seems overwhelming and total, as Michael Langone notes, “not absolute, because ultimately most people leave cultic groups.”Never give up on your loved one! Never give up hope!
a tremendous impact for good is made in the life of the member of an abusive
church when an outsider treats them with kindness, affection, and acceptance.
Many of the friends, parents, and family of abusive church members attempt to
argue their loved one out of the church through theological debate, attacks on
the leader of the church, or the application of a good-sized serving of guilt
for the person’s abandonment of his relationships. While it is certainly
understandable that a concerned parent, sibling, spouse, or friend would resort
to these tactics, the fact is, they simply do not work. By the time a member of
an abusive church has made the decision to join and live as a fully committed
member, he has long since rejected the theological rationale of outsiders, and
may even believe his own grasp of theology exceeds that of outside voices. He
has come to see the abusive leader as a great man or woman of God,
misunderstood by the outside, uninitiated world, as many great religious
leaders of history have been. Moreover, members are well prepared by the
abusive church leaders for the onslaught of concern, criticism, and guilt that
they will encounter from family and friends. However, for the member to be
treated with kindness, affection, and respect by his family and friends,
without argument, (perceived) slander of their church leaders, or shaming
indictments of their failure to maintain relationships with family and friends,
is tremendously powerful, and makes a deep, if unacknowledged, impact on the
Make long-standing, open invitations
for coffee or breakfast or lunch, anytime. Remind your loved one that he can
call you, anytime, and you will always be available to him, no questions asked.
Express affection, acceptance, and commendation for the good things that he is
accomplishing in his church. Perhaps he is excelling in study or devoting time
to service of the poor and needy. Perhaps he is becoming a person of a better
character and more mature integrity and is gaining social skills that did not
exist before membership in the abusive church. (All of those are distinct
possibilities!) Do not be shy about praising what is good. Do not withhold
affection because of his membership in the abusive church. Be as present in his
life as he will allow. Remind him of the love you have for him, and of the
cherished memories you will always have of your relationship with him. (Deep
down, he has not forgotten those memories, either!) Learn the names of his
friends in the church, and invite them over for dinner or a barbeque. Do not
stop inviting him to every family event, holiday, and special occasions, even
though he often does not show up. Do your best to rise above the tension,
awkwardness, and distancing that often marks the relationships between abusive
church members and their (non-member) family and friends. Visit his church
regularly and avoid the temptation to be consumed with a criticism of the
church, or to engage in arguing or defending your beliefs. Just visit, because
someone you care about belongs to that church, and you do care, after all.
Leave your anti-cult books at home; walk through the doors of your loved one’s
church with nothing but your love, and your prayers for their good and
blessing. Ask God that he would fill you with his Spirit of power, love, sound
thinking, and he will.
Genuine love is simply more powerful than all the dogma, coercion, and
religious zeal in the world, and will win out in the end, overcoming all fear.
family members and friends of those who are in abusive groups usually find
great benefit in learning about the general processes of thought-reforming
groups (such as cults and abusive churches) from an academic standpoint. It
can be discomfiting to read of the horrific abuses that take place in such
groups, particularly when you are imagining your loved one as a member of the
same. However, it is also liberating to see that you have not been thrown into
an undiscovered wilderness but are simply entering a world that is new to you,
and that world is well researched and understood by professionals and survivors
alike. There are numerous excellent books and articles available that address
the phenomena of spiritual abuse from a secular and Christian perspective.
(Feel free to check with me for some suggestions that I’ve found to be useful.)
find others who can identify with your experience as a friend or family member
who are deeply concerned about a loved one who is a member of an abusive,
cult-like church or high-demand group. It is likely that there are
survivors in the area of the abusive church to which your loved one belongs.
Just having a cup of coffee with someone who gets it regarding abusive churches can be both powerful and
empowering. Once you start asking around, somebodywill know somebodywho
knows a person who has some knowledge of spiritual abuse, and perhaps, even of
the specific group of your loved one. Do not be afraid to reach out; when you
do, you’ll find that you are not alone.
Michael Langone, Recovery
from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse (New
York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995), 9.