Church Cults

Well, I promised a “Church Cult” post yesterday, and Chris seems to be waiting for it (how about some trackback love dude?), so I guess I’ll have to get my thoughts out for the world to see.  Here’s some statements people make that might indicate that you’re messing with a Church Cult:

  • Of course they’re members!  I taught their parents in Sunday School.
  • Our by-laws don’t talk about qualifications for leadership, you just need to be a member.
  • We pay you to make us happy!
  • Who cares what they think, they haven’t been here that long?
  • I’ve waited for years to have my turn at being in charge and now you’re shutting me out!
  • Maybe if we put them on a committee, they’ll come back.
  • Pastor so-and-so made them upset a few years ago, you should go talk to them.
  • The building shouldn’t be unlocked except on Sunday mornings!
  • We can’t afford to be giving our money and time away – we’ve got enough problems to spend it on right here!
  • I hope this Church is always right at this corner.

In case you’re wondering, “Yes, I’ve heard variations of each of these statements.”  It’s a bit strange, but while I’ve been in close proximity to Church Cults for the bulk of my Christian existence (all but one of the congregations I’ve ever been part of has been small and shrinking) – but I’ve never actually been part of a Church Cult (I’m not sure that any current pastor can be part of a Church Cult, it would conflict with them creating a cult for themselves, after all).

Church Cults tend to form when a congregation ends up worshiping nostalgia.  They tend focus on physical location, hereditary membership privileges, and a strict interpretation of by-laws (when such a practice is able to achieve the cult’s core values).  Church Cults with fiercely guard the status quo, and would often rather curse present circumstances until death rather than attempt to live.  The battle cry of a Church Cult is “But we’ve always done it that way.”

In order to work out it’s core values, Church Cults split into two grid-lock producing factions.  One of these factions will consist of “old-guard” members (both those present in the current make-up of the Church and those still hovering on the periphery of congregational life [if only to gossip]).  The “old guard’s” job is to try and make “everyone happy,” with the definition of “everyone” being, “People like us.”  The other factions will consist of “new-guard” members (almost always people who transferred from elsewhere – Church Cults don’t evangelize), and some children of “old-guard” members – their goal is “change.”  What that change is, and how to get there, is rarely clarified for the group (specific, obtainable, goals might end the purpose of the faction – which is to be in constant unresolved conflict).  A statement that the “new-guard” faction often makes is, “Well, [insert congregation] is doing this, let’s try it it here.”

Ironically, the rallying cry of both factions is, “But we’ve always done it that way!”  How one responds to that statment determines the faction a person is part of.  Actually, pastoral search committees which are serving in Church Cults might actually want to pose this question to potential candidates – it would save a love of trouble later.

It is important to note that a person’s age, and even the length of time spend in the congregation, are not necessarily indicators for identifying which faction a given member is part of.  Both groups tend to probe visitors to see if they would be suitable additions to a given faction.  Due to a profound lact of evangelism, and outrageous attrition rates, both “old-guard” and “new-guard” are constantly on the lookout for people to step into roles that have been vacated (both official and unofficial).  This is because the greatest fear which drives the Church Cult is not the potential death of the congregation, but that one’s own faction would lose the atrocious war of attrition that drives the Cult from week to week.  Consequently, one of the best ways to weaken a Church Cult is not to join one faction over another (a land-mine that all pastors, including me, have done).  Rather, the best way to weaking the power of the Church Cult is to allow attrition, and therefor the death of some beloved cult activities, to happen (please note this is different from killing said activities – which is often quite rightly percieved at an attack from the other faction).  Attrition creates a change in the status quo (if only throught the existence of a sudden vaccum), which weakens the power of the Cult.  This is a dangerous exercise, however, as those who are attempting to help a Church Cult transform into a Christian Congregation have to have a very good idea about how to fill the vacuum with the presence of Jesus (while also being ready for the remnants of the factions to try an reassert control).   This is why congregational change is so difficult – very few people are able to walk this artful line, and even when leaders manage to do so – the Cult factions may simply combine their forces in an effort to make the new status quo the “new-guard” faction in a renewed Church Cult.  Sin, after all, dies hard.

Church Cults are messy, nasty, beasts – be wary of them.  The only cure for a Church Cult is a renewed experience, and knowledge, of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  This means that there is, indeed, hope that Church Cults can be transformed – but not without some perseverance.


  1. metallurge says:

    Yeah, but the horrible thing is when you get a combined Church cult and Pastor cult. As in former long-term Pastor, deceased.

    Been there, done that. Have the scars.

  2. wezlo says:

    Oh yes, that’s the perfect storm that nearly brought down Central after the 60’s. In fact, a lot of Church cults are just pastor cults that morphed after a beloved pastor moved on.

  3. metallurge says:

    Yes, I think you are right.

    Praise God for your willingness to minister in such a place! It is surely the Lord that you are serving there.

    I had just about come to the theological conclusion that in such cases, the Lord removes His Spirit (e.g. Rev. 2:5). It’s the only thing which explains what I have witnessed.

    It is good to know that there may possibly be hope; that the Lord perhaps doesn’t just abandon such places.

  4. wezlo says:

    Eh, thanks – but I’m really no great pastor. I’m just from Philly and impossible odds are kinda what drives us forward.

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