You know what nobody does? Nobody wakes up one morning, checks their calendar, and says, “I’ve got nothing going on today. I think I’ll join a religious cult.”
It’s strange, right? The idea that someone purposely signs up for months or years of gaslighting and narcissism. But also, nobody accidentally falls into a cult, either. I mean, I don’t think people flocked to Jonestown in the ’70s because they heard Kool-Aid would be served, or others chose to hang out in Waco with the Branch Davidians in hopes of making it over to the Magnolia Silos for lunch.
Let’s be honest. If someone asked, “How’d you like to hang out with us this Sunday, handle some snakes, chant, and pledge your unswerving fealty to this sketchy but charming individual,” you’d probably say, “That’s a hard pass.”
I know I would have.
Until I found myself doing just that.
There are many who can probably think of a church congregation they visited at some point in their spiritual journey that seemed a little off. Maybe a lot off. Whether it was the doctrine, how people interacted, or just a feeling in their gut—a normal individual would probably never return. But what makes others stay even when there are enough red flags waving to make a bull go crazy?
Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question. While I’m not a psychologist or an expert of any kind, after spending over 13 years in a cult, I can answer it now.
When the term cult gets thrown out, most people think of the most extreme examples, like the two I mentioned above. The thing is, there are many different religious cults meeting quietly right down your street. No, they’re not being held in huge armored compounds, making suicide pacts, and threatening the government.
Most of them look fairly normal on the outside. Charismatic leaders, a group of people who seem loving and welcoming, and plenty of programs and activities draw you in. But once there, you suddenly find yourself in a different world. Fear, manipulation, and fear tactics are used to keep people in line. The use of Scripture as threats, an emphasis on complete loyalty to the leadership, and distrust sown like seeds among the congregation all become evident eventually. While these things don’t lead to a Jonestown-like experience of 1978, they are still indicative of spiritual and emotional abuse and, frankly, cult-like activity.
So why do some hold dogmatically to the illusion of what they want to believe is real and ignore all the signs and warnings? From my own personal experience, here are three reasons I’ve seen people stay in a toxic spiritual environment.
They came out of extreme sin. Addictions (from drugs to porn), adultery, or career crime make some people an easy target for narcissistic leaders. Individuals looking to turn far away from their old lives can easily become ensnared in a graceless environment of self-abasement and manipulation. This was me. I’d lived a dark life before Jesus found me. When I fell in love with Him, I ran as far away from the things of my past as I could. But I missed what the heart of Jesus is: mercy, grace, love.
I substituted religion for relationship, became dogmatic, and refused to listen to that still, small voice that was issuing warnings. I let the fear and manipulation that came from the leaders paint a picture of a very different Jesus. And so I stayed.
They come from abusive homes and families. Many end up in toxic and abusive churches because they are seeking love and healing. Instead, they are met with a twisted, conditional love in a harmful environment. They stay because trauma, both past and current, keeps them conditioned to believe leaving would be dangerous.
They have family or friends who are part of the organization. There are those whose entire identity, family, and social structure, even their professional lives, are intertwined with an unhealthy church. Mulit-generations of pastors and missionary kids, now adults, find themselves trapped in a system they’ve discovered is controlling and graceless. They’ve seen others part ways and know ex-communication is a common tactic when someone leaves an abusive church environment.
Spiritual abuse and toxic churches are real and can cause irreparable damage to individuals and their faith. They are not limited to any specific denomination but exist in any environment where pastoral control is absolute, manipulation and fear tactics are employed, and church traditions supersede Scripture.
No matter how difficult it is to walk away, there is liberty in knowing Jesus doesn’t manipulate, Jesus doesn’t control, Jesus doesn’t use fear. People do. Freedom is found in Jesus alone.
Snake handling not required.