What It's Like In A Cult
Faith With ALL the Hoopla
If you’re a part of a religious community, I hope you will read to the bottom for a very important message. Thanks!
We’ve been trained to play “follow the leader” since we were little kids. And I’m certain all of us have followed “bad” leaders from time to time. Sometimes you just overlook some of the questionable things a leader might say (or tweet!), or a weird thing you hear about them doing, and instead, choose to focus on all the good they’re doing.
And who wants to rock the boat, especially when you’re getting so many of your needs met by being a part of the group?
Well, I do. And I have. I love asking the difficult questions of people in charge when something seems off-kilter. Even in churches where I’ve been a member.
I was deeply involved in a church in Nashville for over a decade when I heard the pastor tell a lie about a close friend of mine in front of a large group of people. I raised my hand, stood up, and told the crowd that they had just heard a lie about my friend. After that gathering, the pastor went back in the office with his staff and declared, “Mark Smeby will never sing at this church again!” It was a “either you’re with me or you’re against me” type of leadership. He was a bully— but an amazing speaker in the weekend services, so his weaknesses were overlooked. Until they couldn’t be overlooked, with too many questions raised about his character and even money handling. The church crashed and burned, and the pastor was ousted in what became a very publicized church battle. Uggh.
I wish I could say this was the only instance of me being in a church with a bully for a pastor. Was it a cult? Nah…probably just a regular church, like one you have been a part, but with extra ickiness.
When Does a “Normal” Church Become a Cult?
This is a very interesting question I’ve been thinking a lot about since watching a documentary that just came out.
Have you seen this 3-part miniseries on HBO Max called “The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin”? It revolves around Remnant Fellowship, a church located in the heart of Nashville’s wealthy suburb, Brentwood, TN, my stomping grounds for much of the 25 years I lived in the area. Check out the trailer here…
It was fascinating to get a glimpse inside the walls of a place that we all had hunches about, but not much tangible information, especially as to their being an actual cult. They could’ve just been super-different, ultra-private people. Doesn’t mean they’re a cult, right?
Gwen Shamblin came to fame as the founder of the Weigh-Down Workshop, a Christian weight-loss program that had members around the globe, with best-selling books, workbooks, and seminars that turned its founder into a very wealthy star. God wants you thin, she instructs. And if you’re not, there’s some kind of disobedience toward God in your life. A low level of body fat is the indicator of a person’s right relationship with God.
I’m not sure when this weight-loss program turned into a church. But it did, and Gwen became the leader. I heard they even called her their “prophetess,” as Shamblin seemed to hear direct words from God, that would turn into instructions for her church. They were focused on staying pure before God, and believed they were one of the only groups of people who were doing it correctly. Hence the name Remnant, a reference to those few who are faithful to God’s original truth despite apostasy and opposition.
Again, nothing too dissimilar from a lot of churches, right?
We used to play against Remnant in softball and it seemed like their whole church was required to attend the games. There would be 100 people on their side and one or two on ours. They’d be dressed up and socializing the whole time (with grills, video cameras, an RV) while their team seemed to be playing for their lives. Again, kind of a head-scratcher. But, honestly, I couldn’t help but admire their tight-knit community.
What Makes A Cult?
From an article in The Tennessean, here’s how a cult can be defined: “A cult is a group or movement held together by a shared commitment to a charismatic leader or ideology. It has a belief system that has the answers to all of life’s questions and offers a special solution to be gained only by following the leader’s rules. It requires a high level of commitment from at least some of the members.” The documentary also shows how fear of abandonment, even lawsuits, are used to threaten members into obedience.
Well, this sounds like most churches I’ve been a member (except for the lawsuit parts).
Have I Been In a Cult?
I wouldn’t say I’ve been in a full-blown cult. But I’ve definitely been a part of churches that had “the only right answer” to the essential questions about God and eternal life. And people who didn’t agree were identified as lost, or even, enemies—and enemies were clearly defined and to be fought against. Not following their rules can lead to being excommunicated, or disparaged at the very least. And the idea of leaving the church would mean losing most of your social connections that had been deeply established.
I was indoctrinated in church rhetoric from a very young age and told to memorize all the specific beliefs, which I did gladly because I wanted to fit in, to be accepted, to be a valuable team member. I learned which thoughts were never to be spoken, and which questions were never to be asked. I learned which music to listen to, and which records to destroy (which my sister and I did to our Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, and Captain & Tennille records).
Perhaps the most damaging and trauma-inducing ideology is this: The leaders told me that thinking about myself—my desires, my needs—was one of the worst things I could do. In fact, my heart was evil, and not to be trusted. On my own, I am beyond redemption and God literally can’t come near me. But we have the answer for how to make it all better: Say these words and do these things and you can have a loving relationship with God.
If that doesn’t make a person a ripe candidate for a cult—or at the very least, in need of a good therapist, I’m not sure what does.
The Bible says the work of redemption was completed—there’s literally nothing more I have to do. God loves me as a parent unconditionally loves a child. My job is to let myself be loved, and then let that love flow through me to everyone I meet. But unfortunately, religion likes to complicate things.
When I hear a pastor or religious leader say that there’s more to it than simply letting yourself be loved, my bullcrap meter starts flickering hot, and I wonder whose kingdom they’re actually trying to build.
“The Way Down” opens with the tragic news of Gwen, her husband (the pilot), and a handful of church leaders being killed in a plane crash—they took off from Nashville and went nose-down into Percy Priest Lake. At the end of the third episode, we see Gwen’s daughter taking over the reins of the church, and perhaps her son-with-a-scowl will lead, as well. Hopefully the forthcoming episodes (Spring 2022) will give more insight into how they are continuing without their visionary leader.
There is heartbreak and tragedy throughout, unfortunately, like in most churches I’ve been a part. I truly hope help and healing is close for all of those affected negatively by the instances of fear, shame, and control chronicled in this program. And that they can know God’s unconditional love that accepts us all just the way we are. Just like I hope for you and me.
Please Read This If You’re In A Religious Community
I hope you are continually being bombarded with the unconditional love of God. You and I are the Beloved, and we need to be reminded of that frequently. If you’re being made to feel like crap, that you’re not good enough, that you’re broken, please consider listening to other voices. God is not waiting for you to change anything about you to start blessing you. It is God’s character to bless, restore, and make whole those things that are broken.
Be aware of who your leaders are saying the “enemy” is. If the result of their defining the enemy is increased fear and division between you and other people, please know that’s not the heart of God. God is love, and longs for us to love each other, not hate or be riddled with fear.
I also hope you are free to ask questions—to look behind the curtain of how things are being run (e.g., how money is being handled). More than that, I hope you’re free to ask questions about what it means to live like Jesus, beyond all the hoopla that religion is so good at creating.
You are loved just the way you are. Please don’t ever forget that.
Check out last week’s blog where I talked about what it means to be a Christian. (Hint: it’s all about living like Jesus).
Some comments I found on Facebook about Gwen and the Remnant Fellowship:
“The scariest part of this (like a lot of cult-like situations), is the “nugget of truth”. There’s a lot in there that just wasn’t weird to me. Growing up in evangelical churches, I heard a lot of the same phrases, knew a lot of people who disciplined their kids harshly, and gave glory to God for their weight loss that happened because of a group that met in a Sunday School room on Thursday nights. But there’s always a line. She did more than jump up and down on that line… she passed it by in myriad ways. People’s lives have been completely destroyed in ways that will take years to recover from. This show has been so hard to watch.”
“Several of the members are my neighbors and the nicest group of ladies I have ever met! I got to meet Gwen and saw her last sermon. She was a great speaker!”
“Watching this, and yeah, it's messed up. But you know what? ... I've spent years in churches like this before, with best intentions. I was nearly 50 years old before I realized how manipulated I've been at times.”
“This film made me realize that churches I've attended have had a couple of close encounters with movements on their way to becoming cults.”
“The Remnant think they are the one true Church. This is way more around cult of personality (which sadly is widespread in Christendom).”
“One thing that struck me is that in our rather smallish community I don't ever remember meeting anyone that is/was involved there.... that we know of.”
“Somehow a lady who runs a weight loss scheme has the inside track on interpreting the Bible. Everyone before her somehow got it wrong. Every single Christian scholar in the history of the church missed it.”