CULTS & SECTS: ADVICE TO RELATIVES AND FRIENDS OF MEMBERS

Housetop, 39 Homer Street, London W1H 1HL

When someone has joined one of the New Religious Movements, anxious relatives or friends often approach us for help. At times we are able to be of specific use, at times not. On all’ occasions, however, a few general suggestions have been found helpful. We express them here in the form of this advice.

Appreciate the search

People who turn to the New Religious Movements do so because they believe they have found something good in them. They may discover an exciting way of praying. They may feel a sense of belonging they never had before. They may see more meaning in their lives. They may receive more personal guidance in moral and spiritual matters. They may sense they are really contributing more meaningfully to building up a world of joy and peace. You can be sure that your friend joined for one or more of such good reasons – however much the movement, in reality, may thrive on fraud or fantasy.

Your first response then should be to recognise the good intentions of your friend and the good he or she receives from the movement. Blaming his or her ‘weakness’ or ‘unfair recruitment’ on the part of the movement, even if partially true, will miss the point. Your friend is searching for something valuable so show your appreciation of that. Also, don’t be surprised if your reactions are confused and that you need to learn to cope with the new situation! You may feel angry at times, or make a wrong move; don’t worry: it’s part of the game.

Stay in touch

The worst thing you could do is to cut off relationships or to make these conditional on response. Whatever happens, and at all times, your friend must know that in you he or she has a person who really loves and tries to understand. More than ever before he or she will need your support. This is true even if your friend has suddenly decided to leave home – perhaps as the result of a row. In any way open to you, make clear that he or she remains welcome. If the only manner of contact is correspondence, write; as a matter of course and without recriminations. Go and visit him or her, if this is possible. In all this, be concerned about the person. You love your friend. That is all that matters. Keep in contact, even if you seem to get no response.

Study the movement

The religious vacuum in our secular world and, let us admit, inadequacies in our own Christian response have given the new religious movements an unprecedented chance to flourish. London hosts about seventy movements worthy of notice. Some are oriental in origin; some esoteric; others again proclaim the New Age; and a number arose as off-shoots from Christian traditions. There is an enormous variation between them: in what they believe and practice; in method and approach; in conditions of membership.

Pray with your friend

It goes without saying that we will bring our concern to God in prayer. In our intercessions we will, no doubt, feel the need of expressing our fear, our anxiety, our disappointment and worry in a personal way. God listens to the prayer of the heart, especially of the person who prays with love. Yet we must guard against one-sided prayer. Instead of only praying ‘for’ our friend, we should be conscious of the fact that he or she too may pray to God. Then, in spirit and intention we join him or her in prayer. This will bring us close – through prayer. Moreover, it will help us to translate our attitude into visible action. Whenever your friend does pray, why not join in? Even if it means sitting with your friend in silence. Of course, know where to draw the line: never yield in matters of principle.

Don’t preach, but bear witness
If you have an opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of the movement, remember that your friend probably based his or her decision on an experience. Preaching truths of doctrine or moral principles may be counter-productive. For your friend ‘knows’ from his or her own experience, that this or that has been good and helpful. The only really powerful argument that will make an impression is the testimony of our own Christian experience. It may not be easy to express this; love will supply the words. Better still, when words won’t do, simply be.

Argue with love

Obviously, rational arguments are not to be despised altogether. Faith rests on reasonable grounds. The new movements often have evident defects which it may be our duty to point out. But whatever we say should be fair and true. “The truth will set you free”, was Jesus’ advice (In 8,32). Muck-raking and cheap criticism could equally well be levelled against our beliefs! Rather, we should single out the essential points and argue them out with fairness.

Respect your friend’s feelings

Apart from the natural respect we should have for another’s feelings, we should be aware of the special emotional problems our friend may undergo. To begin with, there is the so-called ‘fishbowl effect’ – he or she will feel everyone is watching! The decision to join a sect or cult will produce a strain. There may be pressures from within the group itself. Moments of enthusiasm and rapture may alternate with depression, loneliness and indecision. Unreasonable irritation and a defensive lack of response will signal such emotions. People who ‘come out’ often need one or two years before they have found their former emotional balance! So don’t expect miracles. Genuine ’empathy’ is called for: the attempt to share your friend’s feelings from within.

Bring in outside help

At the right moment some external help should be invoked. If you are not able to cope with the intellectual arguments your friend brings forward, you may do well to enlist the support of an acquaintance who can meet this challenge. Against some of the more prominent movements literature has been produced that marshalls facts and rebuttals. They are available from a number of agencies. The same agencies keep a list of ‘ex-cult members’ who can advise and may be willing to talk to your friend. In some cases a pastoral or psychological counsellor may be called for. However, such outside help can never sUbstitute for the love and care which only family and friends can give.

John Wijngaards