The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Keeping clear of cults

A counselor to deprogrammed cult members gives back-to-campus tips

A young man is sitting on a bench on campus. It's his first month of college. An attractive woman from his English composition class sits down next to him. "Can I sit here with you for a minute?" The shy young man agrees. "Where are you from?" she asks. When he mentions his town, she says she's from a small town too. She asks about his family. For nearly every fact she draws out of him she says, "That's just like me" (whether it's "I've got a younger sister in high school too" or "I'm a Lutheran too"). Soon she says, "Tonight I'm going to a Bible study near campus. Wanna come along?"

The young woman could be an innocent English student going to a legitimate Bible study. Or she could be a recruiter for a cult.

It's difficult to tell at first, says Amy Schifrin, a former campus minister at Iowa State [Ames] and North Dakota State [Fargo], who has helped deprogram former cult members. "We're all potential cult members," says Schifrin, now a pastor at Hope Lutheran Church, Fresno, Calif. "When all our supports are washed away and we become vulnerable, we could get sucked into all kinds of things from destructive behavior to cults. We're especially vulnerable when we're in pain--or when we're lonely--when we don't see ourselves in the image of God."

(Article includes two sidebars: "Seven rules for avoiding cults on campus" and "Nine characteristics of cults or destructive religious groups.")

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February issue


Embracing diversity