Friday, September 21, 2012


The following article offers a brief glimpse into the collapsing world of new Christian believers as they struggle to undo former baggage and overcome personal losses.

This article will employ the terms of "fringe religion," "sect" and "cult," all having the same definition: “A religious organization that deviates doctrinally from the traditional norm of Christianity.” I do not like using the term "cult" in referencing some fringe religions because it conjures up images of a Jim Jones or Waco destructive type that doesn't always apply. I do, however, use the term if I'm referring to a definite destructive group, and to those where free agency is curtailed and fearful blind obedience and submission to a leader is required. The 13 effects listed below have been shown to apply to former Mormons entering traditional Christianity, also Mormon Fundamentalists, members of other fringe religions, as well as those from destructive cults. Since I need to have a term to use for the sake of brevity that applies to all possible groups, I have chosen "sect/cult," with no offense intended.


Culture Shock

Former members of sects, cults and fringe religions must survive two kinds of culture shock: societal and religious. 
Societal culture shock is the difficulty one experiences when emerging from their former religion and coping with reentry into the secular world. One exiter said, “Even “hamburger stands, televisions . . . and people looked foreign, of another world.”(1)

Religious culture shock, on the other hand, occurs when one enters a traditional church. These former members of sects/cults are unprepared for the jolting encounter: “It was like entering a foreign world. Christians talked and acted so differently. I felt like leaving and never coming back—I knew I’d never fit in!”

The problem of Subcultures and their World View
All fringe sects and cults are subcultures containing their own world view and unique ways of doing things—like a tribe or ethnic community. Each has its patterned ways of thinking and feeling; its shared symbols, meanings, values, ideas, standards, doctrines, and bonds—all of which foster certain behaviors and expectations in members.

When new converts enter traditional churches with these predilections, culture shock is inevitable. Myra, trained in Mormon standards, describes her experience:

“The shock shattered me!  It was like someone had crept up behind me and hit me full force with a baseball bat—I saw the pastor drinking coffee!  I immediately panicked. “If the pastor is God’s anointed leader in a church that is supposed to be more true than the LDS Church, why hasn’t God given him a revelation on the subject?  Doesn’t he know his body is a temple of the Holy Ghost!  Was Joseph Smith more in tune with God than this pastor?  Maybe I’ve made a terrible mistake and should go back!”(2)

All Myra’s years of faithful abstinence were called into question—not to mention the authenticity of her new church. Her inclination was to return to the Mormon Church with its predictable norms. 

Loss and Grief

Swiftly slashed from their life, the absence of their former religion acts like a death, hurling ex-members into a state of bereavement and the stages of loss and grief. Comparable to a spouse losing a mate, there is one distressing difference:

When a loved one dies, society has ways of venting grief. There are church services, prayer, weeping, friends relaying sympathy and graveside ceremonies. All of these effect the necessary “good-byes” so crucial for recovery.

But, when one experiences the death of their former religion, there is no funeral, burial, farewell, or friends offering sympathy. Without these avenues for emotional release their grief becomes locked in; thus becomes more severe.

Further, they endure more than the death of just their former religion. They also suffer the death of their identity, security, roots, self-image, basic needs, sect leader as father/mother, community, friendships, goals, strong causes, heavenly rewards and other essentials—all in one fell swoop. Ex-members lose “in a single stroke,” notes Susan Rothbaum in Between Two Worlds, “everything that has structured their lives and defined their personal identities, from mundane routines to the meaning of life.”(3)

Debra, a Christian for twelve years and a former Mormon, broke into tears recalling her experience:

“It hurts to lose all those things!  Christians need to understand how devastated you are. It’s like a death, only worse!  But, it’s not like when just one loved one dies; it’s like multiple deaths happening to you all at once. Things . . . beliefs . . . securities . . . friends . . . start dying. No one can handle losing that many things all at once without cracking up!”(4)

These sudden and unforeseen losses effect a critical sense of tragedy. Everything ex-members of fringe sects and cults have passionately clung to dies, bringing an aftermath of pain, distress, torment and bereavement.

To recover, new converts must somehow bury their former religion, acknowledge its death, grieve, and say farewell. But, no such ritualistic opportunities are available for them. No ceremony, no burial, no final good-bye, no emotional relief through open expression of loss. More importantly, there are no Christians able to offer the kind of compassion that comes from real understanding.

Fearful of criticism and anxious to be socially accepted, new believers stifle their feelings and suffer through the loss and grief stages alone. This results in prolonged symptoms of nervousness, panic, insomnia, crying, nightmares, hallucinations, flashbacks and health problems. 

Loss of a Leader Claiming Supernatural Contact with God

New converts look to the pastor as a substitute for their sect leader. They reason that if their leader claimed to hear from heaven and the sect/cult is supposed to be a counterfeit of the real thing, then God should be speaking to Christian pastors in the same manner.

When discovering that the pastor does not claim extra biblical revelation, or contact with heavenly beings, new believers are devastated. God, they conclude with alarm, has slammed the door shut and is no longer speaking to his children!  A former Mormon said:

“When I found out that my pastor hadn’t seen God or an angel that very day, it was the biggest disappointment I could ever have imagined. I felt like shouting, ‘Hasn’t God called you!  Isn’t Christianity the only true church?" 

Loss of the “Only True Church 

The divesting of this particular conviction proves to be one of the more problematic losses. New believers enter a Christian church anticipating it will claim the “only true church” status. Believing this to be a valid expectation, severe confusion results when the pastor tells them that his church cannot claim this. However, an explanation of an only true "spiritual" church, made up of believers from all denominations, proves helpful to many. 

Loss of Absolutes 

In sects, fringe religions and cults there are no grays. Everything is black or white from diet, dress standards, ethics, food restrictions, to elaborate detail about what heaven is like. This gives members a strong sense of security. When they leave and find no comparable black and whites in Christianity, this secure sense is destroyed and they are unable to pick up the pieces by themselves. 

Loss of Being Called to Church Positions by Revelation 

In a sect or cult, no one volunteers for positions. Members are appointed by the leader through “divine revelation.” This makes members feel hand-picked by God.  When new believers who are anxious to serve find they must volunteer, their sense of being called by God is destroyed and heaven’s sanction upon their new church is diminished. 

Loss of Sacred Myths 

Sect and cult myths boast of leaders contacting heavenly beings who reveal secret knowledge unavailable to outsiders. Through these sacred stories and the information they relay, both the community and individual members’ roots and identity are established. They also fulfill the basic need for answers, significance, and purpose. Giving them up, hurls new believers into the chaos of opposites—doubts, insignificance, and ambiguity.

To lose every single belief supposedly received from God, has a shattering effect. The former sect/cult member's world comes crashing down about him amidst anguished and conflicting emotions. All guidelines, standards and ethics come into question. Securities begin to tumble; assurances are swept away. It is one of the worst devastations that can be suffered.

Christians might comprehend this to some degree, by imagining what it would be like if they suddenly found out that Christianity had no historical validity; that the Bible was fictitious; that the story of Moses and Mount Sinai were elaborate stories made up by the Jews; that Jesus was called Messiah by His followers simply because they were desperate for one; the apostles contrived the story of the resurrection, and so on.

Reeling from the shock of this deception, they would become angry and bitter. They would doubt if there was a God. They would no longer be able to pray. There would be no assurance of salvation. Their hope of life after death would be gone.  Having absolutely nothing to put their faith in, goals would crumble. Life would lose all meaning and purpose and they would be left empty and desolate. This is a little of what it is like to come out of a strict fringe religion, sect or cult. 

Loss of Friends and Communal Ties 

The loss of friends and the sect/cult community proves to be a crushing experience. It is made even harder when former friends believe that by leaving, they have joined the “devil.”

Losing the regard of others provokes a sense of loss that is impossible to describe. A devastating “aloneness” pervades which proves to be one of the strongest motivations to return. Acquiring Christian friends is, therefore, crucial. 

Loss of Believing One was Right  

Previously convinced their sect held special favor with God, it is a crushing humiliation to admit they were wrong. Ashamed, they feel Christians will continue to view them as spiritually immature. Further, they wrestle with the idea that if they were so wrong about their previous religion, how can they trust themselves to determine if Christianity is the truth? 

Loss of Elite Status 

Members of false religions believe they are God’s elite. Self-esteem, therefore, rises to spectacular heights. But, when they enter Christianity it plummets to the very depths.

This may come from hearing Christians say, “I’d never do a dumb thing like join a cult!” Taken personally, new converts are convinced they are viewed as unintelligent. It may also come from hearing any offensive statements against the religious culture they once loved. Although church members explain, “We are only denouncing the cult, not you,” former sect/cult members are unable to make that distinction. Depression and a feeling of worthlessness set in which seriously hinders their progression in Christ. 

Loss of Strong Causes 

Cult and sect leaders claim they are going to change the world; thus offer members a strong sense of mission. This evokes purpose, destiny, and intense dedication. Whether it’s tirelessly chanting a thousand times on a street corner believing the mantra will change those who hear it, serving long hours to raise money, or devoting all their time and talents to their church, new believers expect to find the same tenacious commitment among Christians. When they don’t, or if they enter a church unresponsive to world concerns, they doubt Christianity’s validity. Una McManus and John C. Cooper, in Dealing with Destructive Cults explain that, “It is impossible for anyone who has not “been there, to comprehend the tremendous loss [of purpose and goals] suffered by ex-cultists. In its place sits a gaping void.”(5) 

Former Members of Cult/Sects are to be Commended

Considering their emotional struggles, new believers are to be admired for their perseverance. They have lost much: Heavenly rewards have been obliterated, status quashed, community ties gone, friendships sacrificed, cherished myths lost, deeply-rooted beliefs forsaken. With no prophet/leader they become directionless, purposeless, and believe they are no longer useful to God. Reduced to nothing, they undergo one crisis after another.

Dealing with the psychological aftermath proves to be the most soul-wrenching experience of their life. It is no wonder that those receiving no help spend up to eight years in a traumatic state of hopeless and inextricable confusion, fearing they won’t make it. Many think they are "cracking up." Nevertheless, many keep on, mainly because they have burned too many bridges behind them to return to their former religion. 

The Solution

Former cultists and sect members who recover in less than the typical eight years are those who, over the long haul, have strong Christians standing by their side. Unfortunately, this is not true for the majority. Christians, knowledgeable about the coming-out process are rare, those not knowledgeable tend to back off, and pastors and staff are too busy to study ex-fringe, cult and sect members' post-conversion problems—something seminaries don’t address in their counseling classes.

But, somewhere in the congregation there is someone who can!  All it takes is someone who genuinely cares, has a willingness to study the phenomenon, an ability to explain to the victim about cult and sect strategies, the aftereffects, and emphasize what they will gain in Christ. This will significantly reduce the time of recovery. It isn't difficult. Understanding what they are going through can be gained by reading Out of the Cults and Into the Church: Understanding and encouraging ex-cultists (avail in paperback, kindle, nook and iTunes).  It explains everything in a simple manner, including all the do's and don'ts. However, if you prefer, the book is also designed to hand to the former sect or cult member to read for themselves. There, they can  see their problems identified for the first time, more importantly, why they are having them; that they are not "cracking up" as many describe, and that what they are going through is "normal." Many who have read the book have said, "It saved my life!"

Pastors, determining who has the sensitivity for this kind of ministry, can appoint them; or those who feel so inclined, can volunteer. Once a ministry is in place, a lifeline will be established for new converts to cling to during the turbulent transition.

When Christians are committed to this kind of ministry, new converts will gain confidence, acquire stability, and move toward full maturity in Christ.


The next post will be on or about October 9. 


"Out of the Cults and Into the Church: Understanding and encouraging ex-cultists
Click here:

Until next time,

1. Hutchinson, Out of the Cults, 40.
2. Ibid, 35.
3. Susan Rothbaum, “Between Two Worlds: Issues of Separation and Identity After Leaving a Religious Community,” in Falling From the Faith, ed. David G. Bromley (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1988), 205. 
4. Hutchinson, Op Cit., 55.
5. Una McManus and John C. Cooper, Dealing with Destructive Cults (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 77.

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1 comment:

John W. Morehead said...

Thank you for raising this issue. As I mentioned to you in a private email previously, while evangelicals have put a lot of thought and effort into evangelism and apologetics, very little work has been done address discipleship issues. What do we do after people in these minority religions convert?

We have studied this issue for years and put the results of our work and the insights from a variety of disciplines into a new resource for former Mormons who have retained an interest in more traditional undertandings of Christianity. For those emigrating into the Christian church we have put together the Transitions resource, a six-part DVD and workbook that addresses identity, relationships, church culture, and doctrine and worldview. The strategy was to deal with pressing personal issues first before building on that to address doctrinal concerns.

Chapter 1 addresses formation of identity apart from the LDS Church. Chapter 2 addresses the damage done to relationships when someone decides to leave the LDS Church. Chapter 3 looks at the differences between church culture and ward culture in areas like baptism, communion, stewardship, and the call to service. Then with the second three chapters we shift gears and with Chapter 4 we present God's Grand Story, his work of restoring humanity and the creation to himself through the redemptive work of Christ. The last two chapters draw upon Mormon questions including Why am I here?, and Where am I going? and present answers from a more traditionally Christian perspective.

Transitions is comprised of a DVD with a workbook so that individuals in homes, in small groups, or in churches, can work through the issues involved at their own pace. Several churches throughout the Wasatch Front of Utah as well as in California (where Transitions is an approved resource of Calvary Chapel), are using this program. Interested readers can learn more by visiting the website at There they can read more about the background of Transitions, download the Introduction to the print workbook, and sample the first three video chapters, all for free.

This appears to be the first type of work done that specifically addresses the discipleship issues related to Mormonism, with applications to other religious groups. In addition, Transitions has also been positively received by practicing Mormons, indicating that it has evangelistic potential as well.

Give it a look; taste and see: