13 Suggestions on Recovering from a Cult-Like Church
- Sarah Hamaker Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- Updated Jun 28, 2023
There is hope, both for those wondering if their church has crossed the line into a cult of personality rather than the bride of Christ and for those who have left a house of worship that focused more on man than God. Before we delve into how to recover or deal with the aftermath of cult-like churches, let’s first define what we mean by a cultist church.
First, cults tend to have very charismatic leaders who surround themselves with people who agree with them—and excommunicate those who do not. Second, in churches, those leaders distort what the Bible says, and at times, actively discourage followers from reading Scriptures for themselves. Third, the people fervently believe what the pastor says over what the Bible says. Fourth, the board (elders, deacons, etc.) does not contradict the pastor in anything. Fifth, members are isolated from others, including close family members, who do not agree or who question the minister or the church. (For more, read “What is a Cult?”)
If you’ve recently left a church that either was a cult or had cult-like practices, recovering from that experience will take time. Here are some general suggestions for helping you to deal with the aftermath—and get on the road to recovery. Depending on your personal situation, you may consider therapy with a Christian, licensed counselor to guide you along the way to a healthier place.
1. Feeling disconnected.
One of the things cults give members is a sense of purpose and togetherness. You might miss the intensity and collectiveness of the group and the friendships you developed while at the church. Realize it will take time to build new friendships and don’t be afraid to reach out to former friends or relatives you may have lost touch with because of the cult-like church atmosphere.
Sometimes, leaving a cult-like church will trigger situational depression or real grief at the loss of friendships and perhaps even family. While this is a natural reaction, please seek medical or psychiatric help if it continues beyond a few weeks and if you find yourself growing sadder or having thoughts of self-harm. These feelings can be very intense and having a trusted counselor to walk with you through them will aid in your recovery.
3. Guilt and anger.
Oftentimes, former members have overwhelming feelings of guilt over their gullibility or anger towards their former minister or fellow worshippers. Again, this is part of the recovery process. You should also give yourself a break from being deceived by someone who was very skilled in pulling the wool over people’s eyes. This can happen to anyone, so keep that in mind too.
When leaving a cult-like church, you might be extremely embarrassed by your former association. You also could feel something akin to culture shock when visiting other churches or talking with other Christians because of the isolation and closed environment you lived in for some time. Find one or two trusted individuals and share your experiences with them. That will help lessen your embarrassment and get on you the road to recovery.
5. Be kind to yourself.
Give yourself plenty of grace. We all make mistakes and misjudge situations. Don’t be too hard on yourself for getting involved in a cult-like church. Realize your recovery could take months or even years, depending on how deeply involved you were in that church—and that’s okay.
6. Join a support group.
There are plenty of groups out there designed to help Christians who have experienced what you’ve gone through. Ask your therapist or counselor for the names of some and try them out. You might not like the first one you attend, but keep trying and eventually, you’ll connect with the right group.
7. Read about cults.
Figuring out what cults are and what needs they met in you could be beneficial to your recovery. There are even podcasts devoted to cults, such as the Christian podcast “Cultish.” Gathering more information about cults and how they work could help you work through your own experience.
8. Don’t give up on God.
You might find yourself angry at God because your pastor deceived you. Work through it. Read the Bible directly. Give yourself time to recover but don’t toss out God with the bad teaching you received.
Sometimes, we know a family member or close friend who has recently left a cult-like church or is involved with one you suspect has cult-like tendencies. While the temptation might be to confront them if they’re still attending the church, that might not be the best approach. If you do know someone with current or former ties to a cult-like church, here are some suggestions for helping them to recover from the experience.
9. Don’t press them for details.
Give the person space to process what they’ve been through rather than asking for information they might not be ready to share. When they do talk about their experience, listen more than ask questions.
10. Give them grace.
When hearing about a cult-like church or experience, it’s easy to assume we wouldn’t have been deceived or we would have asked the hard questions if we’d been in a similar circumstance. None of us knows how we might have reacted. Don’t tell them they should have known it wasn’t a good situation or that they should have left earlier.
11. Pray for them.
It can be tough putting your life back together after such an experience, so praying for the person and their family (who may or may not have left the cult-like church with them) is important. Pray both with them and for them, but don’t ask for public prayer for them unless they’ve specifically asked you to.
12. Encourage them to seek professional help.
Sometimes, having a close friend or family member suggest counseling or support groups can be just the push a person needs to get outside help. Give tangible help too, such as offering to research therapists or groups; providing transportation to and from appointments; taking care of kids or pets during sessions; or providing meals on appointment days.
13. Withhold judgment.
We all think we’d never be taken in by a cult-like church, but in truth, it could happen to any of us. Keep that truth in mind when talking with someone who’s recently left a cult-like church.
Unfortunately, it’s not that uncommon to become involved in a church with cult-like tendencies. Remember Jesus’s words in Matthew 7:15-20 about how to evaluate those who claim to be servants of God: “‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits’” (ESV).
Use these suggestions as the starting point to recovery, and please don’t hesitate to seek professional aid to assist in that recovery.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/rodkosmos
Sarah Hamaker is a national speaker and award-winning author who loves writing romantic suspense books “where the hero and heroine fall in love while running for their lives.” She’s also a wife, mother of four teenagers, a therapeutic foster mom, a UMFS Foster Parent Ambassador, and podcaster (The Romantic Side of Suspense podcast). She coaches writers, speakers, and parents with an encouraging and commonsense approach. Visit her online at sarahhamakerfiction.com.