I didn’t realise it. It felt like the truth. And it felt lovely – until I tried to leave.
I’d moved to London and was just getting settled. One day, a girl of about my age approached me on the tube. She was warm and friendly and we chatted about life. “I’m a Christian,” she said. I smiled, “me too!” She asked about the church I was going to, and talked about hers.
“It’s amazing!” she said, “everyone there is really sold out on Jesus. I think you’d fit right in.” She invited me to a bible study that day, but I was busy. “How about tomorrow? I can meet you from work?” Flattered, I agreed.
The next night we met and she enveloped me in a huge hug. I’m not a hug-y person, but it was lovely to be greeted so warmly – especially in London, where only stalkers make eye contact. We went to a school hall where the church rented rooms. It was packed, with the happiest, friendliest people I’d ever seen. Everyone hugged me. Everyone wanted to know my name. “We’re thrilled that you came, ” they said. “We can’t wait to get to know you.” Like being in an ad for Diet Coke, except – somehow, I belonged.
The preacher was like no-one else I’d ever heard. Dynamic, powerful, intense. He spoke about God and the church with such passion, as though nothing else mattered. He talked about what He’d done for us; and all we had to give up for Him. People were laughing and crying and hugging. They told stories of recovery from addiction and lives transformed. “Before I came to this church I was broken. But the pastor saved my life.”
I left on a high, with hundreds of friends. And as we walked back, the girl I met talked about making a commitment. “I’m a Christian,” I said. “I already believe.” She smiled. “That’s a good start. But are you really sold out for Him? Have you given up everything? Are you obedient? Are you bringing others to know Him?”
I wasn’t sure. I thought I loved Him, but not like these people. I thought I lived for Him, but they went to church every day. I had lots of non-Christian friends. I went clubbing at the weekend. They lived for church. All their money, all their time, all their energies. This was what a real Christian looked like.
I started going to more Bible studies. And the more I did, the harder it was to do anything else. The pastor’s wife met with me and said, “God’s got great things planned for you. But you need to get serious about Him. If you want to be accepted, you need to open up about your past. You tell us everything you’ve ever done and ask our advice on what you should do. We’ll tell you what God wants and we’ll teach you how to live.”
So I talked – about anorexia, depression, OCD. Things I hadn’t shared, even with close friends. “Well done” they said. “We love you as you are, but no-one else will; especially with your background. You can only trust us.” I wasn’t sure – but they seemed to know the Bible inside out. “True believers” they said, “obey God in everything. That means listening to us.”
Over time, the meetings increased. They started early and went on late, and they wanted me to bring others. I was exhausted. Friends asked if everything was okay. “I’m fine,” I said, “I’m happier than ever.” I was – when I was with the church. But when I was away I felt flat and low. The world seemed dangerous and I was told to cut off contact with unbelievers. Move out of your flat, they said. Give up your earnings and come live with us. This, they said, was what Jesus wanted. This was what Jesus would do.
Jesus also wanted me to be baptised. I already am, I said, “in the church where I grew up.” “It’s not the real church,” they argued. “They might think they know Jesus, but are they sold out for Him? Not like the Bible teaches. Not like us.”
Alarm bells sounded. Jesus didn’t say anything about being saved by baptism in a special church. He said come to Him – and the rest follows. We learned it in Sunday school:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16).
I tried to ask questions and I tried to pull back. “The devil has got hold of you”, they told me. “You haven’t got enough faith. If you keep going, you’ll be cut off from the church.”
I was frightened and confused. I’d lost my old friends. This church was like family. They knew all my secrets. They loved me like no-one else. Without them, I was nothing.
In desperation, I talked to a Christian I knew from uni. “What do you reckon? ” I said. “Get out,” replied Glen, “It sounds like a cult.”
He met my discipler to tell her I was leaving. There were tears and then threats. Quoting Scripture, he fought my corner and led me out of the café and out of the church. He helped me to change my phone number and kept me going when my church friends cut me off. ‘God will not forgive you for this betrayal’, they said. Nonsense, said Glen (though in more colourful language). If God was who they claimed He was, I was already in it.
It took a long time before I could be persuaded to visit another church. But Glen got me along to his one: All Souls, Langham Place. For months, I hid at the back and fled from contact. Yet gradually I began to feel safe. The teaching there was simple and it made sense. We were encouraged to ask questions and to measure everything the ministers said against the Bible. They didn’t ask for my money or tell me to give up my job. They spoke instead about what Jesus had done for us. He does it all, they said. That’s the good news.
If people tell you’re saved by Jesus, plus anything else, they’re lying. Here’s some other warning signs of a cult;
– you’re not allowed to question the main leader or the church (and they may claim to get special messages from God)
– the church or group is seen as special; and only those in it are saved. If you disagree or threaten to leave, they cut you off
– you’re made to feel you always fall short of the church standards – but they also use flattery, saying you have a special calling or God is using you in a really big way
– new members are shown huge amounts of love and attention (which is taken away if you don’t agree).
– if you ask questions about leaders or the history of the group, it’s kept hidden or avoided
– they say the outside world is a threat and claim that anything negative about them is from the devil.
If this is you, then get help and get out. The gospel is not Jesus plus something. It’s just Jesus.
Galatians 5:1: It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.