Many cult experts warn of deception in recruiting practices. Prospective members are not told the true purpose of the group and are kept on a “need to know” basis. One important thing to add is the dimension of changing dynamics within a group that would cause an evolution into a controlling cult when at its inception a particular group was not that way. That is what I witnessed in the cult I was in for sixteen years. My wife and I joined the group in March of 1992. Many of the practices were voluntary but, as the years progressed so did the pressures to conform and “be a leader” and “fulfill your call”. We were members of Grace and Truth; later called Word of Life, Greenville, SC that became affiliated and closely tied with Word of Faith Fellowship, Spindale, NC.
Jane and Sam Whaley were the self appointed – “apostles” leading Word of Faith Fellowship (WOFF). Gerald and Linda Southerland and the church -Word of Life evolved into a sister church as the leaders from Greenville, became closer to the leaders at WOFF. As a church, we would be gifted with sermons repreaching what the leaders had heard at WOFF. At times, we would listen to tapes of WOFF services to “stay in tune with what God was doing there..”.
The evolution culminated in January of 2002. Jane Whaley and a couple of her lieutenants visited the church in Greenville to announce that “God had said the Greenville church was to merge with WOFF”. It was evident that Gerald Southerland had a hard time with the “news from God.” However, as the weeks passed, he realized that his wife, son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter would move without him. He knew he had to give up his church and become a part of WOFF. Several of the members of Word of Life were asked by Jane Whaley if after hearing what “God said”, would they move to Spindale? As far as I am aware of, all said yes. Each one had a different situation with employment and housing. But, “God would work it out”..!
Consider the dynamics. People we had been close with for ten years; just about everyone was moving to a town 60 miles away to be “a part of the move of God!” We made the steps and moved with the rest. Thus we became closely involved in a very controlling religious group – Word of Faith Fellowship, Spindale, NC.
Our path into this cult and its practices was gradual. After six years, I left WOFF in July of 2008. A co-worker asked me how I could get involved in something like that? “You seem intelligent”. I told her “One lie at a time”. You turn your head and ignore the thing that seems weird or not right. You “go with the flow” until you are over the edge and it takes a miracle to get back! You stuff your doubts until they just all come out. You make choices to keep the relationships you have regardless of the unorthodox practices. Besides, as Deborah Layton said- “You really like the people”. That is how we got in the cult. Getting out was a whole big deal and a post for another day.
“Nobody joins a cult. Nobody joins something they think is going to hurt them. You join a religious organization, you join a political movement. Most of all you join a group of people you really like!” These are the words of Deborah Layton on the PBS Home Video- “Jonestown” (copyright 2007). Ms. Layton is a Jonestown survivor. She left about five months before the massacre. She was considered one of the leaders at the time of her departure. Her brother, Steve was convicted and served time for his role in the shootings at the airstrip on that fateful day- September 18, 1978.
My experience reflects the words of Deborah Layton. I did not join a cult. My wife and I joined a church in Greenville, SC – Word of Life. My wife had known the pastors- Gerald and Linda Southerland since she was in high school. We had a distasteful church experience in Summerville, SC in 1991 and were looking for a church home. We visited Word of Life (at that time called “Grace and Truth”, and though the practices were different in many respects from what we were used to; we moved in March of 1992 to be a part. There was a “training center” in the weekday mornings and we wanted to learn more. Many in the church took us in and “loved us”.
By May of 1992, we found out that this church was a sister church to Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, NC. At that time, attendance to the seminars held by Word of Faith Fellowship (WOFF) was strictly voluntary. However, soon one learned that in order to “grow”, you needed to get to Spindale! Over the months and years, the meetings in Spindale became more frequent. As a church we were expected to be there for Friday night fellowships, Sunday evening services and other special events. The drive was about an hour one way.
The pastors, Jane and Sam Whaley had been involved with Word of Faith in Broken Arrow, OK in previous years. However, in 1979(?), when they returned to Rutherford County, NC the ties to Kenneth Hagin Ministries were very weak. Jane and Sam were preaching deliverance for Christians and loud prayer as a means to accomplish this. Regardless of the seemingly unorthodox practices, the “love and fellowship” one felt among the people was a huge drawing card to continue with the group.
The words “Jonestown”, “Heaven’s Gate” and “Branch Davidians” are known by many people. The tragic end of these cults strikes fear in some and bewilderment in others. But what about the names of other churches that have been proven to exhibit just as much control? They are not nearly as well known because their practices have not been investigated or published. What makes a religious group or church considered a cult? What tests should we apply to a group to determine if a group is dangerous or cultish?
According to Steve Hassan, a leading cult expert and counselor; the beliefs of the group do not determine cult status. How does the group control individuals? That is the key. In his book, “Releasing The Bonds, Empowering People to Think for Themselves” He outlines four areas of control that can be questioned for any group. He calls it the BITE model.
Behavior– how are individuals controlled through time commitments and having to ask before making decisions?
Information– What are the restraints on non-cult sources of info? Is there spying on other members?
Thoughts– Is there a Good vs. Evil mindset? Us vs. Them? Use of thought-stopping techniques?
Emotional Control– Use of fear to control decisions? Fear of thinking independently? Fear of losing one’s salvation? Ritual and/or public confession of sins?
Using these keys and the others taught by Hassan, one can know quickly if the group they are joining or are a part of practices mind control and is a cult. The control practices are the ones that limit the individual and prohibit critical thinking. If any of these practices are present turn around and walkout.