The Dynamics of High-Demand Churches

Have you yearned for deeper spiritual discipline? for a church more like the Book of Acts? for authentic fellowship? You come across a group that looks wonderful-- intriguing preaching, heartfelt worship, a real community of all ages. But how did this come about?

If it is a high-demand group there is a hidden agenda at work behind this scene. Strong pressure and invasive control have been applied to conform everyone to this perfect appearance. It has not been a process of natural growth. From infancy members have been rigorously trained to it. The impressive results have been attained by the abuse of spiritual leadership.

• Structure of the System
• Unethical Influence
• Resulting Damages
• Toxic Leaders
• Clergy Sexual Abuse

Structure of the System

Note on the "cult" word: On this site we use the term in reference to how a group functions, not its beliefs. Even churches that begin with orthodox beliefs can veer off into cultic practices.

Dr. Janja Lalich, an expert on aberrant groups who worked with Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer, gives a comprehensive description of groups that inflict abuse.

I define an abusive group as a particular kind of relationship; it can be a group situation or between two people. Within that relationship there is an enormous power imbalance, but more than that, there is a hidden agenda. There is deception, manipulation, exploitation, and almost certainly abuse, carried out and/or reinforced by the use of social and psychological influence techniques meant to control behavior and shape attitudes and thinking patterns.

Such a group is led by a person (or sometimes two or three) who demands all veneration, who makes all decisions, and who ultimately controls most aspects of the personal lives of those who are cleverly persuaded that they must follow, obey, and stay in the good graces (i.e., in the grip) of the leader. Read the complete article  » »

Dr. Ronald Enroth spent many hours interviewing former Assembly members as part of his research for his books, Churches that Abuse and Recovering from Churches that Abuse. (Names have been changed to protect privacy, but those interviewed confirm the accuracy of Enroth's characterizations.).

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, by David Johnson and Jeff Vanvonderen, is probably the most widely recommended book on the subject. Jeff was interviewed by Steps Magazine.

"Spiritual Abuse" by David Henke, on the Watchman Fellowship website, describes five common characteristics of spiritually abusive groups, and gives a Biblical response. It briefly details several serious effects of spiritual abuse, and how to approach recovery.

Categories of Cults and Sects and Groups with Cultic Potential, drawn from material compiled by cult recovery experts, terms the Assembly a 'T. A. C. O.', that is, a Totalistic Authoritarian Christian Organization.

The article, Stress Making Churches, by Dr. Ronald Enroth, first appeared in the magazine Christian Counseling Today, August 1996. Dr. Enroth graciously sent us a copy of this article, along with a memo letting us know that the article contains material from interviews with people who had left the Assembly.

A summary of the book Toxic Faith by Steve Arterburn and Jack Felton is available online. I mentioned this book to Jim Hayman when I ran into him in the bank shortly after we left the Assembly, and his shocked reaction was, "What a terrible title! Faith is NOT toxic!" Proper faith in GOD is not toxic, but misplaced faith in an abusive Christian leader definitely is.

Warning Signs of an Unhealthy Church - Part 1 and Part 2 are excerpts from the book, Exposing Spiritual Abuse: How to Rediscover God's love when the church has let you down, by Mike Fehlauer.

Is Your Church Free from Cultic Tendencies? is a checklist of 37 questions to ask about a church, prepared by the Spiritual Counterfeits Project.

"You Know You/They Are Wrong When..." is the title of blog post by Michael Spencer about attempts to control discussion, questions, and independent thought.

The film "Join Us - Better Felt than Telt" premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2007. It follows twenty-one folks in real time as they leave their South Carolina Bible-based high-demand church and get help at Wellspring. The DVD is available on Amazon. Dave Sable reviewed the movie. He says, " certainly touches upon the list of characteristics of abusive churches – they are all there...But this is only secondary to what the movie is about. The movie is about people. It is about what abusive principles did to people emotionally."

Brent T. published a piece written by the Local Church of Los Angeles describing their outreach techniques. Amazing similarities to the Assembly.

Rachel Geftakys recounted how the similarity between the Assembly and the "Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization" (3HO) turned the lights on for her about Assembly dysfunction.

When to Leave...Think It Over identifies warning signs of a blind leader leading the blind. Chuck Swindoll wrote this while he was pastor of the Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, which lost a number of college students to the Geftakys Assembly.

Unethical Influence

Dr. Kelton Rhoades, a professor at USC, addresses questions about cults on his website, Working Psychology. This site is dedicated to the scientific investigation of persuasion and influence. Read An Introduction to Social Influence and Cult Influence Tactics, and you'll want to learn more - Rhoades is a good communicator.

Steve Hassan on his website, "Freedom of Mind", charts a continuum of influence, from positive to negative.

The Rick Ross website summarizes Dr. Robert Cialdini's work on the subject of influence and persuasion. He enumerates six fundamental social and psychological principles that successful marketers use on us every day. At Wellspring this is regarded as a key piece in understanding high-demand groups, which rely on this exact thing - the unethical use of persuasion.

When George Geftakys was accused of brainwashing the young, he replied, "Yes, I do. Who would you rather brainwash them, the world or me?" A blog post, "Societal vs. Institutional Brainwashing", examines a similar defense made by Grace Communion International (the former World Wide Church of God). The article clarifies the concept of "brainwashing" as it occurs in cultic groups.

Dangerous Persuaders, a free online ebook by psychologist Louise Samways, is a brief, thorough and excellent explanation of how people are drawn into abusive organizations, how the mind control works, and what it takes to get free. Highly recommended! A must-read for everyone who has suffered spiritual abuse.

Dr. Singer's brief article, Thought Reform Exists: Organized, Programmatic Influence, shows a detailed chart (p.2) of the continuum of influence and persuasion. The continuum ranges from legitimate education, to advertising, to propaganda, to legitimate indoctrination (such the military), to unethical thought reform.

A person does not know the agenda of an unethical high-demand group at the beginning, nor the full content of the ideology. Being fully informed is the key to avoiding unethical influence. Getting Hooked gives an example of how the Assembly recruited a young couple without informing them of the implications of a "commitment to fellowship."

Dr. Robert J. Lifton is an American psychiatrist known for his research on the thought-reform techniques used in China under Mao Tse Tung. His analysis includes eight characteristics of thought reform that are well-summarized on the REVEAL website. Lifton's own brief condensation of his work is entitled "Cult Formation". Here is Brian Steele's application of Lifton's characteristics to the Geftakys Assembly. Gretchen W. analyses her experience in the Omaha Assembly in terms of Lifton's criteria.

There are many, many similarities between the Geftakys Assembly and the International Church of Christ. Two articles analyze the ICOC in terms of Steve Hassan's "BITE" model and Lifton's eight criteria for mind control.

K. Gordon Neufeld spent ten years in the Unification Church. After leaving, he completed an M. A. in creative writing and wrote a book about his experience with the Moonies. Neufeld uses an excellent explanation of mind control that discards the image of "mindless robots" and incorporates instead the very helpful concept of "mental roadblocks". Here is the introduction to his book.

Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the famous 1971 Stanford prison experiment, says, "A remarkable thing about cult mind control is that it's so ordinary in the tactics and strategies of social influence employed. They are variants of well-known social psychological principles of compliance, conformity, persuion, dissonance, reactance, framing, emotional manipulation, and others that are used on all of us daily to entice us to buy, to try, to donate, to vote, to join, to change, to believe, to love, to hate the enemy. Cult mind control is not different in kind from these everyday varieties, but in its greater intensity, persistence, duration, and scope."

Tom Maddux wrote an insightful and extremely helpful analysis of Zimbardo's experiment in relation to the Assembly leadership and includes an editorial review of Zimbardo's book, The Lucifer Factor. Here are excerpts from an Assembly bulletin board exchange about whether Christians have special protection against such psychological manipulation....or not.

Tom Maddux recommends Biderman's Chart of Coercion. Here is a fuller explanation of the chart.

Resulting Damages

Excerpts from Recovering from Churches that Abuse by Dr. Ronald Enroth cover some of the common problems experienced by people who leave abusive groups. Several cases Dr. Enroth describes are drawn from interviews with former Assembly members. The complete book is now available online in PDF format.

A former member of the Taylorite exclusive brethren in Britain interviewed 200 other former members, and found that they were suffering from a variety of psychological symptoms. Foremost were a feeling of alienation from society, and a lack of interpersonal skills.

A blog post comments on Allen Shawn's book, Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life, making the point that in some cases psychological phobias were created in members of the Geftakys Assembly. This might be the case in other high-demand groups well, where leaders are bullies and Scripture has been twisted to instill unbiblical fear.

High demand groups like the Assembly are very stressful, we all know. An excerpt from the book Brain Longevity by Dr. D. S. Khalsa shows the destructive effects of chronic stress on the brain and the body.

C. S. Lewis observed that the longing to be a part of the "inner circle" is one of the "great permanent mainsprings of human action". He warns that unless we take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of our lives.

Cognitive distortions are errors in thinking. While anyone can have a few, in the thought reform process they are firmly ingrained. This brief article lists 10 cognitive distortions, and says, "The good news is, like any habit, these patterns of thinking can be broken and discarded through awareness and practice."

Toxic Leaders

To say that there was malignant narcissism in the Assembly may seem shocking and extreme, but we should at least seriously consider the possibility. Certainly there were devastating effects on many lives. Dr. Scott Peck, in his book People of the Lie, proposes malignant narcissism as a category of psychopathology. Here is a series of three short articles on malignant narcissism: Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD),  Characteristics of Malignant Narcissism (quotations from People of the Lie) and Malignant Narcissism: A Stage Production, which proposes a way to look at the Assembly as a whole from the standpoint of malignant narcissism. Children in the cult of a narcissist are particularly at risk.

Profile of a Sociopath is a comprehensive list of the behavioral characteristics of sociopaths. The 'Exit and Support Network' site is dedicated to helping former members of the World Wide Church of God, founded by Herbert W. Armstrong. There are quite a few similarities between the WWCOG and the Geftakys Assembly.

Clergy Sexual Abuse

Clergy sexual abuse occurs in many types of religious settings. On this site we deal with it in the context of dysfunctional groups. There is a tendency to dismiss clergy sexual contact an "affair" between "consenting adults", which is a complete misconception. This article explains why.

In regard to Kristin's story, some may think it was  not a case of "clergy sexual abuse"--after all, the Assembly didn't believe in "clergy". But the issue isn't the terminology;  it's the power differential. Bear in mind that "Brother" George was not simply "George", and not even "brother George, a brother amongst brethren", but "Brother" capital "B", at his insistence. Sexual contact between a pastor and a church member is often dismissed an "affair" between "consenting adults", which it is not.

We received an email from a Watchman Nee researcher who found this website. After reading about G. Geftakys, he wrote to us, "Watchman Nee did the same thing."

On this website, the term 'collusion' is used to describe the collaboration, conscious or unconscious, of two or more individuals to protect those engaged in unethical practices from exposure. Collusion allowed George's sexual abuse and David's domestic violence to go unchecked for 25 years. The following links show that collusion around the issues of clergy sexual abuse and clergy domestic violence happens in many churches.

• Basic Facts About Domestic Violence & Collusion
• Collusion Is Just a Symptom
• Parallels with Family Dynamics of Addicts
• A Two-Fold Treatment Approach for Collusion

The Hope of Survivors website has  a number of articles dealing with clergy sexual abuse. Here is a link to a brief synopsis of other misconceptions and misunderstandings about clergy sexual abuse.

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