When people told me I was living inside a cult, I bristled with righteous indignation. And I was hurt. I just couldn't imagine how something as good and holy as my church could be associated with such a foul, dirty word like "cult." It seemed slanderous.
Part of the problem is that the word "cult" gets thrown around a lot and it conjures up lots of negative connotations. It's a loaded word and it evokes a horrified reaction.
It took me several years on the outside before I could finally identify the unhealthy, oppressive traits of my childhood church. Even then it was terribly difficult to admit that yes, by most definitions we were a cult-ish group. At least, for those of us living in the inner circle.
This is why if you're going to talk to someone still ensnared in an oppressive religious system, try not to use the word "cult." Most people living inside a cult-like group don't consider their group a cult and they will probably take offense to you calling it that. Also, it will put them on guard and the whole point of befriending them is to put them at ease.
It's sorta like being trapped inside the Matrix. Nobody realizes they're in the Matrix until Neo sets them free, right?
And here's the second misconception: cult-members aren't weak or stupid. They're just indoctrinated. It's really difficult for folks on the outside to understand why someone stays in an oppressive religious system. I mean, this is America, right? Just leave already!
Here's the thing: it has to get really bad on the inside before a committed cult-member (especially someone in the inner circle) decides to leave. The truth is, there are many benefits to living inside a controlling church group. It's not all bad.
For one thing, there's a powerful sense of community. I have found that it's nearly impossible to replicate the same depth of personal relationships "on the outside."
There is a special bond forged through multi-generational loyalty, intermarrying and shared history that creates a particular, unique identity. It is a compelling reason to stay and it's a bond not easily broken.
If your family and your church are part of this group, the outside world seems like a harsh, lonely place to be. Of course, inside the cult, there is a price to pay for the uniquely intimate communal lifestyle–but it's just not monetary.
You pay for it by sacrificing your very own self. Your own personhood.
And herein lies the crack in the armor of cult-like groups. Inside a group like this, there is no personhood. The individual means nothing (or very little). The community is everything. In fact, taking care of one's own interest is considered selfish.
Committed members are accustomed to forsaking all for the sake of 'the ministry,' 'the mission,' the 'work of the Lord.' And by forsake I mean: giving up good jobs, homes, livelihoods, family ties, social networks–anything that hinders full, absolute surrender to their higher calling.
This is why acknowledging the personhood of the individual is a powerful antidote to the soul-crushing machinations of an oppressive religious system.
So, when people "on the outside" treated me as an individual and vaidated my thoughts and words through respectful understanding–I was powerfully moved. Simple kindness was much stronger than someone trying to convince me that I was being victimized. People who listened to me–without always trying to correct my thoughts–set me free.
For a very long time I didn't even know how to think for myself because all my thoughts flowed toward the common good. I tried to reconcile every thought and feeling with the party-line of my church. I didn't even really know how to be intellectually honest because I had such a vested interest in convincing myself that what I believed about my church was, in fact, true.
I routinely squashed my gut instincts in order to become more conformed to the image of my grandparents' expectations.
It was a vicious cycle.
But those who appreciated me for being me finally gave me the courage to draw my own conclusions–without fear of repercussion or judgment.
So, here's my last, tiny bit of advice. It's very simple (but don't underestimate it's power).
Be a listening ear. Be a safe person to confide in.
You just might save a life.