Don't Let Your Teenager Get Hooked on the Cults

by James R. Spencer

When Carla Franklin, a high-school senior, missed church two Sundays in a row, I checked with her her parents. Carla had not missed church in the three months since one of our deacons led her and her family to the Lord.

When Carla’s parents told me she was attending church with a new boyfriend, and when they couldn’t identify the church ("Pastor, I don’t remember; but I think it has the word international in it"), I became concerned.

It turned out Carla was dating a young man from The Way International, an organization started by a disaffected pastor named Victor Paul Wierwille. Leaders of the group often deny it is a church, claiming it is a "Bible study society." Although The Way International uses Christian terms, its theology is far removed from mainstream Christianity. For example, one of Wierwille’s most famous books is called Jesus Christ Is Not God.

I asked for a meeting with the Franklin family to discuss Carla’s involvement with her new friend. When I talked with them, Carla was visibly shaken. As I tried to explain the doctrinal problems of The Way International, Carla appeared hurt and bewildered.

"Jim is such a swell guy. Are you sure his church is kooky?"

"I didn’t say it was kooky, Carla; I said it was wrong. The doctrines it teaches will eventually undermine your personal relationship with Jesus Christ."

"But, Pastor, you’d really have to meet Jim. I mean, he really impresses me as a Christian."

Carla is typical of Christian teenagers who get caught up with people who are members of groups frequently referred to as cults. A cult is a group or denomination which teaches a gospel substantially different from the gospel declared in the New Testament. Usually cults go wrong in one of four ways: (1) they teach an unbiblical definition of God; (2) they do not understand Jesus to be fully God and fully man; (3) they misunderstand the sinful nature of man; (4) their requirements for salvation are legalistic.

Cults communicate their ideas in Christian-sounding terms, but preach what Paul in Galatians 1:6 calls "another gospel." These groups are regarded by the evangelical Christian community as spiritually dangerous.

Cults are especially dangerous to teenagers because of the idealism and emotionalism of their members. They present their case with such confidence and enthusiasm that teenagers often are not mature enough to recognize the theological dangers in the cult’s doctrine. If a teenager becomes romantically attracted to the local cult leader or one of his disciples, the stage is set for a difficult time.

Cults feed on teenagers. Some groups–Mormons, for example–actively proselytize teenagers. Mormons build "seminaries" adjacent to high schools and colleges and boast that their sports program is one of their best missionary tools. Moonies practice what they call "love bombing": showering the potential convert with personal attention and positive reinforcement.

Cult leaders know that young people, in the natural process of "trying their wings," go through periods of estrangement from their parents. The Unification Church (Moonies) capitalized on this unsettledness to establish its foothold in the United States. Moonie missionaries recruited discontented students from campuses and off the streets near universities.

Knowing the tactics of the cults, I was able to ask Carla the right questions. She was one of the lucky ones. She was able to see the danger and decided to terminate her relationship with Jim before she got further involved emotionally or spiritually. Had we waited a few more weeks, it might have been a different story.

Most families could be spared disappointment and heartbreak if parents knew what to look for and how to communicate properly with their children about cults. Parents who take the time to put into practice a few preventive steps can be reasonably certain their children will not get hooked on the cults.

Here are ten steps parents can take to guard their children from the cults:

1. Recognize the fact of the cults. Some people find it hard to believe that nice people who look good can be spiritually deceived. If you find it hard to believe that Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Christian Scientists are fundamentally different from Christians, you need to do some research. Until you understand that the danger is real, you will not have the motivation to follow through with your parental responsibilities.

2. Talk to your youth before a problem arises. Being aware that they are in their formative years, determine to discuss the subject.

3. Explain that the differences are sometimes subtle. It’s not enough that your teen’s friend is nice,’’ or that he or she goes to church or reads the Bible. Explain that being religious is not the same thing as being Christian.

4. Take it upon yourself to know your teenager’s friends. Identify the church they attend. That, of course, is no guarantee they are Christians. But chances are, if they identify with a Christian church, you can reasonably assume they are not part of a cult organization.

5. If you do not recognize the organization, get help. Check with your pastor or Christian friends to see if they are familiar with the group. If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, contact one of the following organizations:

a. Walter Martin’s Christian Research Institute, P.O. Box 500, San Juan Capistrano, California 92693.

b. Bob Larson Ministries, P.O. Box 36-A, Denver, Colorado 80236.

c. Through the Maze, P.O. Box 3804, Idaho Falls, Idaho 83403.

d. Interfaith Witness Department, Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1350 Spring Street, NW, Atlanta, Georgia 30367.

6. Be cautious, but not paranoid. Realize that legitimate differences exist between Christian brothers in an area such as worship styles. Remember this motto: "In essentials–unity; in nonessentials–liberty; in all things– charity."

7. Look for trouble signs in hey doctrinal areas. Does the group use a book of scripture in addition to, or instead of, the Bible? Does the group vocalize doctrinal opposition to the Trinity? Is there an indication that Jesus Christ is not considered to be fully God? Is there extreme allegiance to the organization, or to the leader, rather than to Jesus Christ?

8. Does the group exhibit an extreme life-style? Unusual dress; communal living; peculiar attitudes about poverty, property, or sexual conduct? While there is leeway for diversity, the goal of Christianity is to make people whole and Christ-like. Does the group have an unusual tolerance for drugs, alcohol, or other questionable practices?

9. Is there an unusual stress on a day, a diet, or a doctrine? In other words, does the group major in minors? Anything, no matter how good it may be, that becomes the focal point instead of Jesus Christ, is suspect.

10. Does the group have difficulty articulating a clear salvation message? Is there evidence of legal striving to become good enough to be acceptable to God? Does the group fail to state the plan of salvation plainly and succinctly? The good news of the gospel is thatman is saved by faith in Christ–period.

You are not alone. Lots of resources exist to help you. Your local Christian bookstore will have volumes on specific groups, as well as books which deal with cults in general. Movies and videotapes can be especially helpful in communicating with teenagers.

Your responsibility may not stop with educating your own children. You can encourage your church to have a seminar on cults with a special emphasis on communicating the dangers of false religion to youth.

With teenagers, the key is education. They are vulnerable about what to believe. I’ll never forget the letter I received from a young man who wrote to say that he had read my book, Beyond Mormonism, and as a result had left the Mormon Church. This young man had recently served as a Mormon missionary. What was unusual about this story is that he had gone to a Christian bookstore to see what the "anti-Mormons" were up to. "I wanted to prepare myself," he wrote, "so I could better argue for Mormonism against born-again Christians." He went on to say that the questions I raised in the book had so challenged him that he began an independent study on Mormonism. The research led him to the conclusion that Mormon theology is contrary to the Bible.

If you suspect that your son or daughter is becoming involved with a member of a cult, you need to act immediately. With thoughtfulness, prayer, and dialogue, you can prevent your teen from getting hooked on the cults.