Why Do People Get Involved in Unhealthy Churches or Cults?


Few churches or cults appear overtly abusive to newcomers. It is only upon careful inspection that the reality is perceived.

Cults are bad even when they lead you to Jesus.

I came to know God in a church which turned out to be a Bible cult.

I was raised in this church and I stayed until I was thirty years old. Early on, I had no other experience of what church could or should be like. By the time I visited other churches in college, my worldview was steeped in the teachings of this particular group. In this unhealthy church I had a genuine conversion experience and was taught the Bible. In this church, the pastor sometimes acted with apparent patience, kindness, and love. He rose early and stayed up late in order to conduct the affairs of the church. He forsook vacations and seemed to eschew worldly praise. He gave money to congregants who were down and out. His words sounded spiritual—they seemed to float in calm, sanctimonious sunbeams, suffused with confidence in the knowledge of God. Few could deny my pastor’s apparent commitment to the church, the people, or the things of God.

Yet we were a cult which twisted God’s word, destroyed families, promoted isolation and depression, and focused fearfully in the end on the work of Satan more than on the work of God.

Why do people get involved with unhealthy churches or cults? And once involved, why do they stay?

Julie Anne Smith over at Spiritual Sounding Board found the following comment on another blog:

“The fault does not lay so much with the leadership as with the people who blindly follow and allow for abuse to continue without question.”

She wrote a post about it and opened it up for feedback. A woman named Lois left the excellent replies below. You can read all the other comments, but I thought Lois hit the nail on the head. Her experience matches that of many other victims of spiritual abuse.


JULY 19, 2013 @ 1:54 PM

There is so much which could be said on this subject and the quote in question. Surely, if people are simply accepting and swallowing everything their pastor says and they never check its validity, and they witness abuse, recognize it as such and do nothing….yes, they are at fault. While I believe this happens, much of the time in unhealthy churches that is not the case.

The poster who mentioned fear is dead on. In unhealthy churches, fear permeates the teachings. This doesn’t happen overnight. It is normally a slow process, similar to the frog in the kettle story. In addition, some people do come to know God for the first time in an unhealthy church and that makes them more open to being pulled in. Some have never studied or read the Bible before. Some have been raised in an unhealthy church and know nothing else. These have a more difficult time when leaving.

excitement about GodIf you are new to following God, you just want to gobble everything up. You are excited! You want everything God has for you. The abusive pastor can take advantage of this and slowly turns the focus of that person from Jesus to themselves. Their joy slowly subsides and is replaced by a performance-oriented thinking. Obeying the pastor and pleasing the pastor becomes the same as obeying and following God in their mind. He watches for my soul, you know…..

When one doesn’t know how to study the Bible, the unhealthy church will give them Bible studies, besides the regular sermons. They will piece together passages that appear to support the unhealthy teachings. They will read things into the text that are not there. The honest-hearted believer “sees” what they are saying and is further pulled into the system. They will tell you they have studied out the matter, when in fact they only learned to do what the unhealthy church taught them.

Should one start to have questions, they will find that they are either not acceptable to have or they will be told they simply need to pray and read more and accept it by faith until God gives them the revelation. It seems everyone else around them is with the program and so they will start to feel something must be wrong with them.

Then you learn to rationalize things you see, usually subconsciously, so you can survive while things around you happen that you don’t understand and/or agree with. Your salvation is at stake! By now you are chin deep into the unhealthy church. Outside your group or church, there are all kinds of bad things or people. You have “the truth” or something “special” that the other churches—including sometimes churches in your own group—do not have. You wouldn’t think of leaving, even if there are problems, because you want to be saved. If you leave, you could have all kinds of bad things happen to you, even death, plus no hope of salvation. If you could just do more or follow the rules better or stay on the good side of the pastor, everything would be okay.

Most people who wind up in an unhealthy church did not go looking for that. They are sincere people. People wanting something, people wanting to know God and have a relationship with him. They were slowly transformed into what the abusive leadership wanted and most do not recognize the changes as they are happening. Then they are caught up in something that is not easy to leave due to all the fear and beliefs they have taken to heart.

I could write for hours on this subject. It is not as simple/basic as the one writer tried to make it seem. They need some education on what happens in unhealthy churches and why.

[Lois continued her observations in reply to other reader comments]:


JULY 20, 2013 @ 10:33 AM

A bunch of thoughts….

I have known people who have remained in an unhealthy group because it is all they know and they can’t see upsetting family by leaving (family is also in the group).

I have known people who have remained for a time because the pastor shared with them that change was coming. It didn’t come.

I have known people who have remained because they honestly believe there is no place for them to go if they leave. They believe all the lies the ministers have told about other area churches and groups….

why-people-stay-in-cultsAs to the types of people who become involved in unhealthy churches…..it can and does happen to all types of people and those from all backgrounds. You can be a high school dropout or hold a master’s degree. You can be the CEO of a prestigious company or flip burgers. You can be rich, poor or in between. You could have a troubled childhood or background or come from a healthy family life.

And, yes, a number do not return to any church. And some leave Christianity and/or become agnostic or an atheist. Some hold on to their warped view of God, instilled in them by their unhealthy group, and can’t see that this is not how God really is. Some people take advantage of those who left an unhealthy church and feed them with all types of other things that help to pull them away from a relationship with God. I know a PK [Pastor’s Kid], who though he can see the errors of the teachings of his former group, he still cannot get rid of the idea that God is harsh, mean, never happy with you and unfair.

RP Said: “I have been disillusioned trying to make sense of everything, as the very same denomination where I had a powerful and genuine conversion experience is being brought to light as having swept over horrific sins and has been walking in such darkness for so long.”

Here is what we need to consider. When a person desires to come to God, it doesn’t matter where they are at. God isn’t going to turn them away because it happened while they were at an unhealthy church. And because we came to God in an unhealthy church, it doesn’t mean that God has stamped them with his seal of approval. This is a tough area. God deals with the individual people, not a church or a group or a denomination. This is how a person can come to know God while at an unhealthy church. It happened to me, too, just a different group than yours.

At first things were great. I was very happy and my life was changing for the better. I had a lot of joy in my new walk with God. But because I also remained at the unhealthy church, not realizing it was that way, I also started changing in other ways that were not good. I did see some things but did not have the knowledge or discernment at the time. Then as time went on, rationalization covered other things. Hindsight is so much better…..

Eric wrote: “On a very personal level, we’ll likely have to look at ourselves as far as trust goes after a spiritual abuse experience. Do we completely walk away from church and faith, attend a mega-church and remain on the fringes of the fellowship, or seek out a healthier church and try to learn to trust again?”

Hard-to-trustTrust is a major issue for most people who leave. It isn’t just about trusting another church or pastor or group, but in trusting themselves, their own judgment. Some people need to remain on the fringes and attend a church where there is little to no accountability at first. They need to be able to not be seen, so-to-speak, and even rush out the doors as soon as service is over or before. They may try a number of churches/groups before they feel they have one that’s right for them. Some need a quiet church at first, because they came out of a very emotional church with lots of displays. Others need another emotional church at first because they feel others are dead (until they start to learn more about this). Some need to stay away from any church for awhile while they start to sort through all the issues and teachings. What works for one person may not work for another. I wish there was a set of steps we could tell people that would work for everyone in the same time frame. But there isn’t. There never will be.

Someone mentioned the book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen. I don’t care what type of group you were involved with; this book will help you to understand things that happened. I have highly recommended it since I read it in 1994. If you are reading here and have not read it, get a copy. It is in print form and available on Kindle. There are often used copies for sale for around $5. I have given dozens of copies away—that is how helpful I believe this book is. There are others on the subject you can read, some tackling it from various angles, but this one will give you a good basic overall knowledge.

Cults are bad. But sometimes even they can lead you to Jesus. Praise God for his redemptive work.


15 comments on “Why Do People Get Involved in Unhealthy Churches or Cults?

  1. Ok this is the right spot.

    I can’t say that I have ever been in a particularly unhealthy church, but have dealt with some unhealthy aspects in the churches I have been in. While the Church is the bride of Christ the idea of leaving a church has continually brought me to thoughts of girls I dated before my own bride. I would get into an unhealthy relationship and as much as I knew that I needed to break things off there is always that nagging thought in the back of your head that at least you have someone. As bad as things are at least someone loves you and wants to be with you. In much the same way, since my wife and I left our last church it has felt very much like dating. We would go out with this one church on a Sunday and it is obvious from the start that things aren’t going to work out, but as time goes on the doubts start creeping in… are all these churches wrong or is there something wrong with me. Then you start having booty calls with that church out of town that you used date, but that doesn’t seem quite right either. Over a year later we are still out there, and I’m cautiously optimistic about this new church. She may not be the prettiest or flashiest girl around, but she doesn’t borrow my car to hang out with other guys, or steal my money to go do drugs… so there’s that.

  2. Fwiw, I believe this is the same Lois who sent me a free hard copy of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse last year. I appreciate her ministry.

  3. “We were in the ether, under a kind of ‘delusion.’ I have come to believe that when idolatry is at play, it often creates and allows for an unreality to take hold of those who participate, as if under a spell, unable to see or hear the truth because it is all filtered through a projected “reality.” But it is a false reality – a delusion. I believe this dynamic is often true in cults where there is one dominant, charismatic, controlling leader.” — Jonna Petry, http://www.joyfulexiles.com

  4. Good observations here. I have always said that bad theology (and bad churches) is like chemotherapy: it’s great for getting rid of cancer, but in the end it’s still poison. This post has reinforced this idea for me.

  5. Love this.
    And your opening image. It’s perfect.

    I really appreciate the distinction made here between God’s redemptive work, his ultimate power to draw people into truth, and our (lack of) obligation to the institution that He used.

    A useful concept I’m still working at articulating is the mixture of good and not-good in things (Changes That Heal is the book that showed this to me just recently). The idea that we have to grow out of black-and-white thinking, and recognize the complex mixture most things are.

    Otherwise, when we see real-good in something (coming to God), we can’t or won’t believe it holds any bad. It also goes the other way of not being able to accept truth from “the World” because other things they do are wrong.

    It really is a type of immaturity: we can try to avoid responsibility for recognizing/discerning truth by saying it only works *this* way.

  6. Reblogged this on Spiritual Sounding Board and commented:
    Stephen Smith from Liberty for Captives blog quoted comments from some of you and added more of his own insight. It’s excellent. Let’s keep talking! This is good stuff!!


  7. I don’t normally reblog, but I had to! Well, and to let my readers know they had been quoted. 🙂 Good stuff, Steve. Thanks for keeping this topic going. It’s important.

  8. Because there is a code of silence. People who have been in unhealthy churches move on and don’t speak up about the spiritual abuse they experienced or saw happening to others. And the ones who know they are in an unhealthy church give excuses like “well we haven’t found anything better’ or “God hasn’t told us to go anywhere else.’ Or they want to ‘stay with their friends.

  9. Hi Stephen,
    I’m always glad for another voice sharing about this topic. What comes to mind with your article question is the fact that people just can’t imagine that they would be devastated by attending a church. Their idealism about a church community is admirable until everything that they considered good about going to church with God’s people turns sour, or rather turns toxic. Some people don’t have a name for what has just happened to them but after doing a bit of research, usually online, they come to the realization that what they have experienced is ‘spiritual abuse.’

    One of the shorter articles on my website is entitled: ‘From Trust to Dust’. That about covers the feelings of betrayal and disillusionment with leadership. There is so much more on the internet that is available to people in distress. There is a huge support system that people can tap into since there are many who have come through their own muddy tunnel church experience yet are willing to share their insights with hurting others.

    My website: http://www.ChurchExiters.com is also an available website for people looking for help.

    Hi to Jonna and Paul!


  10. Since spiritual abuse and other abuses are related, your readers might be interested in another helpful website resource: Abuse Resource Network.


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