When They Become Cultists

Paul Derengowski, ThM


On occasion I receive letters requesting help for some loved one or friend who has joined a cult.  Typically the request comes in one of two forms.  Either information about the cult is sought or advice on how to extricate the individual from the cult is requested.  The assumptions are that the more one knows about the cult, then the likelihood of rescue is increased OR that by doing or saying something almost “magical,” then the cult friend or family member can be saved.  Rarely, in either instance, are favorable results produced, though.

So, just what can be done if a friend or family member becomes a cultist?  Should one simply stand idly by and do nothing or is there a method to the madness of redeeming a loved one from the clutches of cult involvement?  Although people leave the cults on a regular basis, the mental, emotional, and spiritual mountains that must be climbed by both the cult member and his or her support network are usually so steep that, comparatively speaking, few are successful in their endeavor to leave.  Leaving a cult, in other words, is often like freeing oneself from the tentacles of a voracious octopus intent on not letting go.

Therefore, what can one do and what can be expected?

Recruitment Is Not About Stupidity or Ignorance

First of all, let’s dispel one myth about cult recruitment.  Joining a cult has nothing to do with how smart or unintelligent a person is.  One can be a member of Mensa or have an I.Q. of five, it does not matter.  Cult recruitment is not about stupidity, but spirituality and preparation.  All cults, like all churches, have those who are brighter, sharper, and more cognitively on the ball than others.  That said, not all cults appeal to the intellectual pursuits of its clients, while others definitely attract those with a more cognitive pursuit.  It is part of the devil’s strategy to be as diverse as possible when it comes to entangling a person in falsehood, given the diversity and background of those he pursues.

So, when a person decides to join a cult, it really has nothing to do with individual intelligence and everything to do with filling a spiritual vacuum in the soul.  And not all spiritual vacuums are exactly alike.  Some might long for a familial answer to a lost relative, so Mormonism might appeal to them.  Others may be looking for what they believe is a cogent response to the biblical doctrine of eternal damnation and therefore find the Jehovah’s Witness message appealing.  Finally, some might be more inclined toward esoterism and find L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology to be more to their taste.  Whatever the case, submitting to cult indoctrination and recruitment is not about how stupid a person is, but about spiritual desperation to fill a gaping hole in one’s being that no one or nothing else has seemingly been able to.

It Did Not Happen Overnight

The second thing that needs to be remembered is that the decision to involve oneself in any cult does not happen overnight.  Typically there is a long period of cult recruitment which takes place before anyone actually joins a cult.  As noted elsewhere, any one of a variety of things may be going on in a person’s life which leads up to accepting the invitation to commit to the cult.  Therefore, preventative intervention on the part of friends and families is often going to be the best means possible to keep a loved one out of a cult.

The problem, though, in today’s society is that too many take an off-hands approach to what their friends and family members are doing when it comes to cult recruitment.  It is not that everyone should be bunch of busybodies when it comes to other people’s lives.  It is that we are our brother’s keepers, and that if we see transitory or troublesome events occur in our loved one’s lives, we should be careful to assist that loved one through them, rather than stand back and be uninvolved.  This is especially true when the affected person begins to display atypical behavior or starts making irrational comments that are inconsistent with previously held thoughts and beliefs.  For it is during times of transition in life that the loved is often the most vulnerable to cult recruitment.  It is during those times that those closest to the individual should pay attention and get involved before it is too late.

Once They’re In, They’re In

Since cult involvement typically takes place over an extended period of time, often long before a cult member seeks out a possible recruit going through some kind of life struggle, should a decision be made by a loved one to join a cult, typically that decision solidifies the process and cannot be immediately broken.  In fact, the more resistance put up by those who object to the decision, the more solid the individual becomes in his or her adamancy that he or she has found what it is that he or she has been looking for all along to help the person through the transition.

The reason for the adamancy is that the cult almost always comes across as the purveyor of all answers to all problems.  To object to the cult’s response which allegedly helped the newbie cultist to “find the light,” so to speak, is interpreted by the cultist as either a misunderstanding or an attack.  Friends and family members either do not understand the wonders or the truths the cult has to offer or they are simply attacking because that is what the cult leadership has ingrained into the new cult member to believe.

Therefore, it should be remembered that once a person has joined a cult, they’re in!  The process of time and uninhibited indoctrination has so conditioned the friend or family member that it may now be a very long time, if ever, before he or she ever decides to leave the cult.  That said, however, if any kind of discussion or persuasion is to take place that will be beneficial, it is at the outset of “conversion” to the cult.  For the longer an individual, who is truly committed to a cult, remains in the cult, the less likely that individual will ever be freed from the cult.  But, the discussion must proceed painstakingly slow and tactfully.  Again, anything perceived as a misunderstanding, an attack, or a threat will only serve as additional mental, emotional, and spiritual cement to bind the loved one to the cult.

There Is No Panacea

While some do eventually leave the cult world of false ideology and theology, there is no one specific remedy which applies to all cases where a cult member is emancipated.  Each individual case is different.  Some might simply outgrow the cult and find its teachings no long fulfilling or even plausible.  Others may struggle for years trying to reconcile obvious disparities and inequities in stated doctrines and practices.  Then, finally, when an opportunity arises, the individual bolts from the cult and does not look back.  What is needed is for a family or friend network to be in place if, or when, the individual discovers the exit to leave.

One thing that all persons can do, should a loved one become involved in a cult, is to pray.  By prayer it is not meant that the friend or family member merely become enlightened and then walk away from the cult as if nothing ever happened, as much as that might seem desirable.  No, prayer for introspection, forgiveness, and wisdom is necessary as well.  Remember, friends and family members do not just walk into a cult because they do not have other things better to do with their time and lives.  Friends and family members frequently join the cults because their friends and family members have been neglectful in failing to watch out for them.  Therefore, confession through introspection leads to forgiveness, which, in turn, leads to wisdom in how to handle the current situation of cult involvement.  Cultism is a spiritual phenomenon and real, meaningful, spiritual prayer is going to be necessary, if the person under consideration is ever going to leave the cult.

Going From Bad to Worse

A final word needs to be mentioned in relation to what happens all-too-often to those who do leave a cult and it is simply that many of them go from being emancipated cultists to embittered or distrustful agnostics.  Having been burned by the cult, the person leaving the cult feels as if he or she cannot trust anyone, including themselves, when it comes to matters of spiritual truth and reality.  It is as if the former cultist has jumped from the frying pan into the fire, so to speak, or thrown the baby out with the bathwater, to coin another cliché.

The warnings at this point are two.  First, one must be extremely careful when assisting a loved one to leave a cult, particularly if one is a Christian him or herself.  The person leaving the cult is going to be unstable all over again and therefore does not need someone harping on them with their caricature of Jesus or Christianity.  What the cultist needs is a real person who is willing to listen and only offer recommendations and counsel in plain language that is free from the usual religious jargon that too many Christians are famous for, that tends to alienate rather than regenerate or rehabilitate.

Second, one must be ready for disappointment at nearly the same level as the person leaving the cult.  While one might feel a sense of relief, or perhaps jubilation, over a friend or loved one’s decision to leave a cult, often the former cultist is going to experience a deep sense of loss or even confusion.  To that person the cult is frequently all that the person has known which has meant anything too them, perhaps for several years.  Feeling betrayed, coupled with a sense of personal humiliation, can lead to a decision which causes them to reject any and all alternatives to their previous cult indoctrination, at least in the interim.  So, one must be prepared to allow the former cultist enough breathing space to simply leave the cult and then slowly readjust to life without the cult.


People leave cults and cultism all the time.  That said many never leave at all, assuming that regardless of whatever sacrifices they might have to make or contradictions they have to endure, they believe they have found the sole source of the truth and are a part of the exclusive community of the saved.  It is what makes perfect sense to them amid all the nonsense.

The answer to those attempting to extract a loved one from a cult is regularly as complex and uncertain as the cult itself is.  If it can be remembered that cult acceptance has nothing to do with how intelligent or ignorant a person is; that joining a cult rarely happens overnight; that in almost every case those who join a cult are in it for some time before ever leaving; that there is no one-answer, cure-all for assisting anyone out of a cult; and that in many instances, the cultist often goes from bad to worse after leaving a cult, then the person dealing with a loved one involved in a cult will be way ahead of the curve when/if the day comes to deal with untying the knots the cult has put in place to keep a loved one in the cult.

As always, though, the best means to prevent cult involvement or recruitment is to know what one believes in the first place and then to beware of those false prophets and professors who prowl about as wolves in sheep’s clothing.  Conversely, those who know little or nothing about what they believe, when it comes to the things of God, are like open invitations to the wolves to come and ravish them.  The warning ought to be clear.  Either take preventative steps or be ready to suffer the consequences of cult recruitment that unfortunately may last an eternity.

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