Journalist Lauren Windle had two main takeaways from the latest cult documentary to hit Netflix, but they won’t be new information for Christians.


Source: Netflix

I used to be fascinated by cults. I listened to podcasts about drinking the Kool-Aid, read books by those formerly in Charles Manson’s “family” and Googled the criteria that was typical of one of these corrupt sects. I decided a few years ago that my interest had probably veered into the perverse so, in the name of surrounding myself with things that were noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable (Philippians 4:8), I stopped.

That is, I stopped until last weekend when a new documentary: How To Become a Cult Leader was released on Netflix and I decided to check it out. I wasn’t the only one as the show is currently one of the most viewed in the UK. The programme offers insights into cults and cult leaders under the guise of an instruction manual that will help you set up your own. As I watched the six-part series it dawned on me that we can draw two main points from their investigations – and neither of these will be news to Christians.

We, as humans, are designed to worship and if we don’t worship God, we will worship something else.

The first, is that we all need something to worship. Anyone who’s heard a preach on idolatry will be familiar with the idea that we, as humans, are designed to worship and if we don’t worship God, we will worship something else. The most common idols are often around success, relationships or money but ultimately we can put any number of things on the throne where Jesus should be.

In the case of a cult; vulnerable people, looking for somewhere to direct their devotion, were often lured into believing that a life of servitude to their cult leader would be fulfilling in some way. It seemed that with a combination of charisma, manipulation and careful targeting, the cult leaders were able to make themselves the focus of people’s adoration. They made grand promises about eternal life, more knowledge and fighting for the “greater good” – whatever they determined that to be.

The second unsurprising observation is that we all crave community. Plenty of people signed up to following a cult leader because they found a sense of belonging that had been lacking in their lives. This reminded me of a friend of mine who runs a boxing gym for young offenders in south London. He once explained to me that the club works because if you want to get youths out of gangs, you have to give them a new gang to join. 

It seems to me that Jesus offers everything cults claim to.

God designed us to live in community and to support and care for one another. He designed the Church so that we could come together, connect and meet him together. This means that when one person is weak the others will be able to rally around and scoop them up, and we all need that from time to time. It is hard to live without the contact and support of others so if people haven’t found this in the safety of positive spaces like the Church, it’s easy to look in less fruitful places. For some people, who have felt rejected and on the outside, the invitation to join a cult can be appealing. Some people may feel that being involved with a group that has some questionable practices is better than being in no group at all.

Throughout the six-episode series, I kept coming back to these fundamental and familiar principles; people’s need to worship and belong. It seems to me that Jesus offers everything cults claim to, only without stripping his followers of their dignity and autonomy – and amen to that.

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