Okay, it’s not that simple.
While a few cult converts may walk away shortly after entering a spiritually abusive group, for most it is a longer process. It can take months or years.
And the number one reason for leaving the group? It’s not the pleas of family members. Instead, it’s dissatisfaction or disillusionment with the group or group leader.
The second most common reason? Expulsion from the group because the member is deemed rebellious or useless.
The point is that once someone is in a cult, it is very difficult to leave. This is part of the definition of a cult, by the way—exiting is hard.
Also by definition, the cult member doesn’t believe that he or she is in a cult. Instead, he or she believes that they have achieved a privileged status in an elite group which offers them ultimate salvation. So your attempts to “save” them from their group ring hollow—or sound nefarious—to the cult member.
But there are steps a concerned family member can take which may hasten a cult member’s exit from the group. I have already described ten strategies in a previous post. After reading Livia Bardin’s excellent book, Coping with Cult Involvement, we can boil it down to four primary strategies:
1.) Increase Your Knowledge
Most family members react with strong emotions when they discover that a loved one is in a cult. That’s understandable. But before rushing at the group with drawn swords, family members should educate themselves about cult behavior in general and the specific cult in particular. There are reasons why people join cults. Cults offer their members three things: perceived significance, security, and love. And all cults have certain distinguishing characteristics. Is it a Bible cult? A doomsday cult? A New Age cult? A Satanic cult?
The Bible says that zeal without knowledge is not good (Prov. 19:2). By charging into a cult situation, directly confronting cult leaders, or using words like “brainwashing,” “mind control,” or “cult,” you will almost certainly do more harm than good. This is because the group has taught members that family will criticize the group and will get angry about the new convert’s choice to follow God. By reacting emotionally, families play right into the cult’s hands and bring shunning upon themselves.
Though it is difficult, try to remain calm, ask other people to pray, and read as much as you can about cults. This will put you in a strong place to wisely interact with your loved one and the group members and leader(s).
2.) Stay Connected with Your Loved One
This is easier said than done, especially if you’ve ignored step one and have already described the group as a cult or have blown up at your loved one or other group members. Staying connected with your loved one may be difficult or sometimes impossible. But as the Bible says, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. This takes patience. But love, after all, is patient.
How can you stay connected? First, understand that the group leader wants you to do something which will require your loved one to shun you. This is part of every cult’s strategy, 100% of the time. They want to isolate group members from outside relationships which could draw them away from the cult. So if you know this, how can you foil their plans? You trump their strategy by refusing to react to accusations leveled by your loved one. You refuse to make direct statements against the cult. You answer questions with questions. You set aside your feelings of horror and disgust and choose simply to be patient and listen.
Ask your loved one about the group. Sit in on a meeting if it is safe to do so. Learn the group’s “lingo” and use it in conversation. Every group has certain buzzwords and phrases which are loaded with meaning and which make the members feel special and in the know. If you can use phrases in the same way the group does, you can connect with your loved one on a level playing field.
Perform acts of kindness. Send cards or letters, even if you never hear back. Call occasionally, even if you just get voicemail. Visit your loved one, even if they live far away (ask first). These points of contact may carry more weight than you realize. This leads to step three.
3.) Build Trust and Maintain a Place of Safety
This is difficult, because the group leader has told each cult member to distrust family members who are outside of the group. They may have vilified you or cast aspersions on your character. But the beautiful thing is that the group leader is in fact the person who has an inconsistent, manipulative, treacherous character. At some point or another he or she will make a mistake, get caught in a lie, or evidence inconsistent behavior which will trouble a discerning group member. Hypocrisy cannot hide forever.
Through your faithful, consistent, truthful behavior, you can build trust with your loved one. If you say you’ll do something, do it. If you say you won’t do something, keep your word. Continue to act in a loving, sane, rational manner, and your words and actions will carry greater and greater weight. Part of this trust may involve refusing to speak badly about the cult or cult leader while with your loved one. If your loved one says, “Pastor so-and-so is the perfect pastor,” simply reply with, “Wow! I can tell you really respect Pastor so-and-so. Can you tell me more?” You don’t have to agree with your loved one. But let them know that you will listen to them and respect their right to voice their opinion (which is different than agreeing with or respecting their opinion). This will pay dividends later.
Maintain a safe place. Let your loved one know that they are always welcome to visit. By definition, the easier it is to leave a cult, the sooner the cult member will exit. If a cult member knows that they have someplace safe and welcoming besides the cult to go, they may just leave. Some cults do allow members to visit their family outside the group, as long as those family members haven’t spoken out against the cult. The cult members will use these visits to try to “convert” you to their perspective. Refuse to be ruffled. Just love them, listen to them, and let them know they can come back anytime. If they blow up at you, try to defuse the tension. If they press you to make a decision for or against the group, delay by saying you need more time to make a thoughtful and genuine decision.
4.) Exploit Opportunities
What is an opportunity? It could be anything. A phone call. A visit to your home. A spectacular misdeed by the group leader. The death of someone in the group. A strange new teaching which contradicts former teachings of the group. Illness. Doubts.
At this time you may carefully point out disparities between what the group leader teaches and what the Bible says, but do so with tact. Plant little seeds of doubt, but do so in ways that sound like questions. For example, you could say, “I notice that you said that your group is privileged to have the truth of God. Do you believe that other people also have the truth of God?” Or, “I know that Pastor so-and-so teaches that most Christians are sub-biblical or unsaved because they don’t follow the Bible the way your group does. But there is another group in town which believes the same thing: that if you don’t follow their group, you are unsaved. I’m confused. How can both groups be right? This sounds like mutually-exclusive exclusiveness.” Keep asking questions like this, and then listen respectfully to your loved one’s replies. You never know how a single question might lodge in their mind.
If you suspect the group has done something illegal, you may be obligated to get the appropriate authorities involved, depending upon what the issue is and how strong your suspicion. Child Protective Services, the FBI, the ATF, local police, and the IRS may all be called upon to investigate. Many cults eventually blow apart because the cult leader did something illegal: tax fraud, physical or sexual abuse, or in extreme cases, illegal possession of weapons or contraband.
The four steps above are not a panacea for cult involvement. There is no magic bullet to free a cult member from his or her unhealthy group. If there were, experts would be using the formula to free thousands of people every week.
Instead, these steps are general principles which may help to hasten a cult member’s exit from a destructive group.
And never forget: Jesus came to bring liberty for captives.
He is the one who sets prisoners free.