The Cult Appeal-Susceptibilities of the Missionry Kid

Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 4, Number 1, 1987, pages 38-60

The Cult Appeal: Susceptibilities of the Missionary Kid*

Margaret W. Long, Ph. D.


Children of American overseas missionaries are especially vulnerable to the appeals of cultic groups. The typical missionary child's philosophical outlook, which consists of idealism, dissatisfaction with self, and disillusionment with the world, coincides with frequent periods of psychological vulnerability built into the overseas missionary system. This produces ready recruits for groups willing to take advantage of the situation. Traditional evangelical teaching about cults provides inadequate defenses against them because it concentrates on cults' heretical beliefs, which can be hidden or disguised for a dm, rather than on alerting the young people to deceptive and manipulative practices typically employed by cults.

Dispelling the Myths

As a teenager growing up in the 1960s, I heard about cults, mainly those defined by the traditional Christian perspective, such as the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Christian Scientists. I did not feel threatened by them thinking that my background as an MK (missionary kid) had immunized me against false doctrines.

In the 1960s, Charles Manson gained control over a group of middle-class young women (former cheer leaders and beauty queens) to the extent that they actually committed brutal murders for him. It never occurred to me to call Charles Manson's group a cult.

In the mid-1970s, amidst the turmoil of the Vietnam War and general unrest, all sorts of new gurus and "messiahs" seemed to appear out of nowhere. I heard a little bit about deceptive recruiting techniques and unethical fundraising tactics, but I did not feel threatened; I was certainly immune from the lure of any "weirdo" in an orange robe sporting a ridiculous haircut!

During this time, I learned that an MK with whom I had grown up had joined David Berg's Children of God cult. This concerned me, but I dismissed her joining as an isolated instance, attributing her vulnerability to the fact that she had not attended boarding school, with its strong emphasis on doctrinal training. Perhaps I would have been more concerned had I known that Berg's father had been a pastor for many years, that his mother was a radio evangelist for the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, and that Berg himself had been a evangelist for that church. Had I known all this, I would have been more appalled than I was when I learned of Berg's promotion of prostitution and all manner of incestuous relationships (Martin, 1980, pp. 142-201).

The 1976 kidnapping of Patricia Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army and her subsequent criminal activities did not particularly alarm me. First. the SLA was not a cult by my definition because it was politically rather than religiously based. Secondly, I concurred with the consensus that her brainwashing claim was simply a clever ploy by a well-paid lawyer. I was glad when that "spoiled rich kid” was sentenced to prison.

The November 18, 1978 mass suicide of 913 People's Temple followers and their leader, Rev. Jim Jones, grabbed my attention as it no doubt did yours. I began to ask more questions and do more reading, but my attitude was still one of casual interest and curiosity. Perhaps I would have been more concerned had I known that: the man who was second in command at Jonestown, Tim Stoen, was a Baptist and former student at Wheaton College; another leader, Bonnie Thielman, was the daughter of Assemblies of God missionaries from Brazil; a host of Jones's other followers had come from solid church backgrounds (White, 1979).

But my attitude toward the cult phenomenon was still similar to what Ron Enroth has referred to as amazement coupled with a smug confidence that none of my friends or family members would ever be duped by a cult (Bussell, 1983, p. 3). Ironically, less than eighteen months after the dramatic warning of Jonestown, I unknowingly steered my younger brother into a cult. I also started studying the Bible with a colleague who was a member of the same group. Fortunately, I moved to a new city after a time and escaped the group’s influence, but my brother became more deeply involved. Both our experiences, however, dispelled for us several widely held myths about who is vulnerable to cults. First was the myth that we and those we loved were immune. Second was the myth that we were immune due to our solid biblical training. Third was the myth that knowing the "real thing" guaranteed being able to spot the counterfeit. These myths were dispelled by the fact that we, with all our biblical training and knowledge of the “real thing," were in fact vulnerable. A fourth myth dispelled for us was that those who are susceptible to cults are either weak-minded, pathological "weirdos,” seekers who deserve what they find, or suckers who are extremely gullible (Singer, 1985). This myth was dispelled by the fact that we were none of these. That we were not totally weak-minded was evidenced by the fact that both of us were college graduates with full-time careers. And neither of us had a history of pathological behavior. We were both looking for a serious Bible study group rather than some exotic experience. Neither of us was unusually gullible or known as an inveterate "sucker."

The thesis of this paper is that, like us, the rest of the MK population is, in fact, highly susceptible to the lure of today's cults, especially aberrational Christian and secular ones. I also contend that aspects of the MK's background - family life, personal lifestyle, special environment, education, and reentry from the mission field into the parents' culture, make the MK prone to joining a destructive cult, which I define here as "a highly manipulative group which exploits and sometimes physically and/or emotionally damages its members and recruits" (Langone, 1982. p. 3). I begin by profiling the typical cult victim and then suggesting particular aspects of the MK's background which may make him vulnerable. I next discuss problems associated with the traditional evangelical approaches to cult study, and conclude with suggestions for sensitizing the MK to cult dangers and immunizing him from cult appeals.

The General Appeal of Cults

What has been said about cult members generally applies to MKs. Researchers have shown that there is no one personality type that is characteristically vulnerable (Dellinger, 1985; Enroth and Melton, 1985; Langone, 1982). The typical recruit seems to possess normal to above-average intelligence and education and appears to come from a solid church-related family background. Cult members also appear to have in common, when they become involved, an ignorance of the "bottom line" - the true implications of what they are getting into - and of the power of the mind control (coercive persuasion) techniques used to recruit and indoctrinate them (Andersen and Zimbardo, 1978); Langone, 1982; Singer, 1986. Frequently, a dramatic upheaval in the recruit’s personal life is contemporaneous with involvement (Clark, 1977; Minnesota Mental Health Center, 1981; Halperin, 1983; Dellinger, 1985; Singer, 1985 and 1986). Such upheavals, involving transient periods of depression and anxiety, are caused by events such as relocating, graduating from high school to college or from college to the workplace, the emotional distress of a romantic breakup, the death of a loved one, separation from one's family, and the like. And as Kinney (1984) states, "Everyone is susceptible for at least short periods of time, but it only takes a short period (even one day) to enter the pipeline into the cult industry." In my brother's case risk factors included being new to the community, being separated from his family, having a new job, the recent death of his mother, and the recent break-up of an engagement to be married.

Studies have shown that cult victims also tend to be idealistic, somewhat dissatisfied with their lives, and seeking purpose (Dellinger, 1985; Enroth and Melton, 1985; Langone, 1982; Singer, 1979. Cult recruiters capitalize on this by offering to satisfy these needs; the University Bible Fellowship provided my brother and me with a way to overcome what we felt was a lack of serious Bible study in our lives. We were attracted by the enthusiasm devotion, and commitment to Bible study shown by the members. The promise which membership appeared to hold for improvement of society also appealed to us, an appeal typical of cult recruits (Clark, 1977; Halperin, 1986; Langone, 1982). Having witnessed the enthusiasm and dedication of churches overseas, my brother and I were disillusioned by the apathy, lack of commitment, and "lukewarm" Christianity that we saw in North American churches; we wanted to change that.

The factors that draw one to a cult then, are very similar, if not identical, to those that draw an individual to a particular evangelical church. The primary appeals are to: identity - the opportunity to feel special and to increase one's sense of self worth; community - the opportunity to belong to a group characterized by closeness, love, caring attitudes and actions, a genuine sense of community, and avenues for meeting needs; group exclusivity - the chance to belong to a group characterized by truth, spiritual depth, and meaning; commitment - the opportunity to become deeply involved in meaningful service, study, and witness; and leadership - the benefits of submission to a benevolent "godly" authority, mentor, or parent figure who provides one with guidance, strength, security, answers, and solutions.

Why is an MK Prone to Cult Involvement?

The MK's Philosophies

Idealism. According to Dr. Phil Renicks (personal communication, 1986), "MKs are very supportive of their parents' profession ... [and] have very high ideals for career choice." In a survey of MKs, Hsieh found that they generally hold their parents' vocation in high esteem and regard it as the highest calling in life (Hsieh, 1976, p. 222). With missionary parents as their example of idealistic altruism (which includes the willingness to give up the security of family, the comforts of home, and the potential for wealth in order to serve mankind), it is little wonder that the MK is highly idealistic. This provides a fertile field for cult recruitment.

Dissatisfaction with self and present life. As one MK put it, "Many of us are plagued with highly sensitive consciences just as our parents were" (Stahl, 1981, p. 171). Most MKs have very high expectations of themselves and many feel a desire or sense of obligation to return to the mission field (Jordan, 198 1). If an MK is not living according to his idealized notion of how his parents have lived, and how he himself should be living, he harbors feelings of guilt.

The incongruity between his expectations of himself and his actions creates dissonance. Whenever dissonance occurs, the nann-9 tendency is to resolve the dissonance either by changing one's actions to fit one's expectations or by changing one's expectations to fit one's actions. Even the most rebellious MK is unlikely to change the esteem he has for his parents' vocation. He is, therefore unlikely to change the high expectations he has for himself. It appears that the only way left for the MK to resolve the dissonance is to change his actions. If he does not, the dissonance win continue, and as long as it does the guilt feelings will remain. In such a condition, the MX is highly susceptible to the cult and all its promises (implicit or explicit) to relieve the dissonance and guilt. My brother truly believed that he had finally found a way to resolve his dissonance. The cult enabled him to continue his career as an industrial engineer and at the same time have a mission in life. Idealism, and the need to resolve dissonance between his idealistic expectations and his actual lifestyle, played major roles in his becoming part of a cult.

Disillusionment. An MK's disillusionment usually centers around his parents' culture rather than the mission culture. Adler (cited in Giles, 1984) found that while missionaries often experience culture shock upon arriving on the mission field, the MK's culture shock occurs upon returning to the parents' homeland. Most MKs regard going to the parents' homeland as inevitable, but many of them also think of it as temporary (Jordan, 1981). As MKs struggle with the new setting, they condemn what appears to them as trendiness, selfishness, coldness, materialism bad language, ethnocentrisn4 too fast a pace, lack of commitments bad governmental policies, waste, poor values, and objectionable courtship practices (Campbell, 1985; Derning, 1983; Hocking, 1984; Jordan, 1981; Pollock, 1981; Schimniels, 1983; SLAM, 1981).

The MK feels alienated from the culture. Because he cannot easily accept both the negative and positive aspects of the culture as his own and live with the ambiguity which such acceptance creates, he is likely to remain an observer rather than a fully adapted participant (Campbell, 1985; Jordan, 198 1). The alienation that the MK feels toward his parents' culture and toward many of the institutions within that culture (including the church) creates a wide open door for any group that purports to condemn that which is causing the MK's alienation. My brother was attracted to the University Bible Fellowship because of its international flavor. He liked its emphasis upon sacrifice versus the materialism he found elsewhere, the warm feelings versus the cold atmosphere outside the group, the commitment it offered versus the apathy elsewhere, the idea of selecting a wife on the basis of spiritual attributes rather than physical assets.

Periods of Vulnerability

Transitions. Transitions as defined by Jordan (1981, p. 31) are "Passages or changes from one place, state, or set of circumstances to another." The average individual undergoes many transitions in his life: moving from one place to another, changing schools, or going from single to married life. The typical MK experiences more transitions than most other people. For example, he must make the transition from homeland to the mission field, from the mission home to the boarding school, from the mission home to furlough, from furlough to the mission home, from the mission home to college, and so on. That the MK is so accustomed to these transitions does not change the fact that each time he will experience grief, a sense of loss, and fear (Jordan, 198 1, p. 88). The trauma can be so great that Shiner, in his 1974 study of the MK's re-entry experience, likened it to that of a returning POW (cited in Jordan, 198 1). What often occurs is that the MK never accepts the homeland of his parents as his own. In 1976 Sprinkle (cited in Jordan, 198 1) asked MKs the question: "Has the U. S. become home for you?" Only 34% answered yes, 40% said no, and 26% were unsure. The study reveals, on the one hand, that the MK rejects his parents' culture, but on the other hand, as noted by Pollock (1981, p. 4), that the MK will never be fully a part of the mission field culture. Not belonging to either culture creates, in effect, a lifelong period of transition. This means that the period of vulnerability to the lure of a cult does not last just a few short weeks, months, or even years, as for most people. In the case of most MKs, it lasts for the rest of their lives. My brother still does not feel like a true North American; nor is he a true Guatemalan.

Stress and crisis. Separation is a major crisis that at times creates almost unbearable stress, and for the MK this is a frequent problem. The MK must deal with repeated and often long-lasting separations: from parents, friends, and relatives, from home, school, and native country, from the culture in which the mission is located, and from the mission community itself. Separation produces anxiety, feelings of insecurity, loss, and grief. As noted by White (1983, pp. 183-185), the MK may react to separation with depression, loneliness and withdrawal, anger, hostility, denial, denial through fantasy, and the refusal (or inability) to form meaningful relationships with other people. The reality of separation as a major recurring crisis in the MKs life is evidenced by the frequency with which it is mentioned in the literature (e. g., Campbell, 1985;Deming, 1983; Hocking, 1984; Jordan, 1981; Long, 1985; Pollock, 1981; Schimmels, 1983; Staffl, 1981; White, 1983).

The MKs vulnerability to the lure of a cult can be summarized thus:

Since the MK is always undergoing a separation crisis of some kind, regardless of where he is or with whom he is living, he is always vulnerable.

Because the NM is accustomed to separation, it may not even occur to him to react negatively when a cult leader induces him to break ties with family or friends.

The MK adjusts easily to the notion that he should extend his concept of 'family' since he has done so throughout his life.

The MK may actively seek a surrogate family or a new community to which he can belong, and may unknowingly select a cultic community or group.

The MK who has difficulty making social adjustments and forming meaningful relationships may welcome the opportunity to be part of a group that is characterized by instant oneness.

The MK is even less likely than other potential recruits to consult with his parents before joining a cult because he is often unaccustomed to doing so, and this reinforces the cult recruiters' typical discouragement of family consultation.

My brother did not actively seek a new family, yet involvement with the group made it very easy and natural to add "Missionary" Peter, "Missionary" Sarah, “Missionary" Samuel Lee, and all the other cult "missionaries" and their children to his already huge surrogate family of "Aunts" and "Uncles" from his parents' mission culture.

Appeals to the MK's Basic Needs.

Since the appeal of cults is the promise to meet very basic human needs, it comes as no surprise that the MK is susceptible to these promises. The MK's needs in certain areas, however, are greater than those of the average person due to his special background, to the peculiar stresses which the MK feels, and to the continuous transitional nature of his life. In addition, the similarities between his mission environment and the cult environment may impede the triggering of the MK's internal warning signals that something is amiss.

The basic MK needs to which cults appeal can be grouped under the headings of identity, community, group exclusivity, commitment, and leadership.

Identity. Human beings need to have a concrete sense of identity coupled with a sense of specialness and worthiness, and the MK is no exception. Although the MK is like anyone else in discovering his identity, he faces some unique problems. Rogers (1986), who was an MK, theorized that the more the MK has identified with the mission field culture, the more confused he is about his identity. Being a multicultural person - as MKs tend to be - can cause identity diffusion such that one does not commit to any particular and certain identity (Giles, 1984, p. 15).

When the MK returns to his parents' homeland, he feels 'out of it” (Hocking, 1984), p. 37), different (Campbell, 1985, p. 10), misunderstood (Deming, 1983), statusless (Pollock, 1981, p. 5), culturally backward (Schinimels, 1983, p. 9), unaccepted (Long, 1985), unappreciated (Jordan, 1981, p. 58), and worthless (Jordan, 1981, p. 88). These feelings all serve to make him experience identity confusion in addition to identity diffusion.

Ideally, the MK will transpose his identity in order to adapt fully to the culture in which he lives; however, Jordan (198 1) found that rather than doing this, the MK integrates one more identity into his already split identity. As a result, instead of fully adapting to the new environment he adjusts to it (Jordan, 1981, p. 225). Adaptation is "the process by which an individual fits into a new environment," whereas adjustment is "the process of maintaining an equilibrium among needs and environmental obstacles" (Jordan, 1981, p. 29). MKs see themselves as observers of their parents' home culture and look forward to returning to their overseas mission environments where they feel special and worthy.

Unfortunately, since the NIK lives in a state of identity confusion and diffusion, and does not adapt well enough to the culture of his parents' homeland to have a firm cultural identity upon reentry, he is particularly vulnerable to the "lovebombing" techniques of cults. The returning NIK is especially susceptible to the approach of someone who appears to understand sympathetically everything the NIK says to him, who seems unable to wait to hear more about the NIK's overseas experiences, who seems in fact to be in awe of and to revere the MK's background and training. Most MKs would find this sort of "lovebombing" extremely difficult to resisl

Community. MKs repeatedly mention that they belong nowhere, except perhaps overseas with their big mission family (Deming, 1983; Jordan, 1981; Long, 1985; Stahl, 1981). Lacking both a permanent place to call his home and a culture to claim as his own, the MK is susceptible to any community or group that offers stability and a subculture for him to claim.

From the point of view of community, a key to the MK's susceptibility to cult appeals is that he has grown up in a "third" culture environment, an environment defined as a "community of men which spans two or more societies with the purpose of linking or mediating between them. Such a community generates a composite of values, role-related norms, and social structures which set it apart from the societies it spans" (Jordan, 198 1, p. 30). Schimmels had the following to say about the third culture environment of mission stations he had visited.

There is a difference between the quality of life in most missionary communities and that of communities in this country. (In the former] people care for one another. Adults take time to make children feel worthwhile. Within moments of my arrival at a small base in the Amazon jungle, I am "Uncle Cliff” to every child in camp. (Schimmels, 1983, p. 9).

Third culture environments are characterized by: large surrogate families which employ terms such as "Aunt” and "Uncle" to emphasize the closeness of relationships; a group of individuals who understand, protect, and cooperate with one another; a group that is highly visible within the surrounding culture and which can be considered privileged, since the standard of living in the third culture is generally higher than that in the surrounding culture (Deming, 1983; Jordan, 198 1, p. 137). Leaving such an environment creates a great void for the MK which might be filled by a cult community.

The likelihood that this will happen is enhanced by certain negative features found in both the third culture and the cult environment which make the transition from the one to the other smoother. In third cultures there is a built-in temporariness - people are always coming and going - and there are few elderly people (Toffler, 1970, cited in Jordan, 1981, p. 76). The third culture is also basically an adult world; membership is derived solely from the parents, values come from adults, rules come from adults, and rebellion is not tolerated (Jordan, 198 1, p. 88). There is also a tendency for the adults to implicitly teach that third culture members are superior to people in the surrounding culture. Because the MK is used to living in an environment characterized by these features, his internal warnings may not sound when he is exposed to cults, which are similar. 'Me MK may not think it odd that the group is in a constant state of flux. He may not question why some individuals leave. He may not think it unusual that rules and values come from leaders and that rebellion is not tolerated. He may not spend time considering the pros and cons of being a part of the group since he is accustomed to automatic membership. And having achieved membership, he may then allow the leader, like a parent, to use the threat of expulsion as a manipulative tool.

Group exclusivity. Many Christians long for 1) greater purity in their personal lives, 2) a living commitment to the Word of God, 3) heartfelt obedience, 4) a full experience of the body of Christ, 5) freedom in Christ, and 6) enjoyment of diversity (Barrs, 1983, p. 24). But in trying to achieve the first four of these, Christians sometimes forget freedom and diversity, and in the overseas environment this is especially likely. Given the high visibility of the missionary community and the fact that the missionaries are the "elite," it appears too difficult to trust God to guide people who are given too much freedom or allowed to be too diverse. The exclusivity which results is reinforced, furthermore, by the belief that full-time mission work is a calling higher than any other. The respect that an MK has for his parents' calling may induce him to seek the same type of elite calling. And many cults offer such an elite calling.

The nature of an MK's Bible training also reinforces notions of exclusivity and renders him more susceptible to cult appeals. With so much emphasis on spiritual matters, the MK is likely to receive a lot of Bible training; training alone, however, is not enough to ensure that the MK will remain true to the faith. As Empson (1974) states:

It is possible that missionary parents can indoctrinate their children so that they can satisfactorily complete the doctrinal part of an entrance exam for almost any evangelical Bible college at the age of ten, but at the same time have them end up at sixteen or seventeen being completely enslaved by drink, hard drugs, and/or immoral living (p. 144).

The words "enslaved by a cuIt” could also have been added.

Bussell (1986, pp. 260-262) has outlined several similarities between an individual's experience in a cult and in an evangelical church, among them the failure to recognize that one's conversion experience is not what the Gospel is all about. When too much emphasis is placed on the person's experience of the Gospel rather than upon the Gospel itself, one develops confused and limited ideas about what constitutes spirituality. Indeed, when a mission community or cult becomes so concerned with spiritual purity, a spirit of separation or elitism can develop and get progressively worse (Barrs, 1983, p. 20). Spirituality degenerates to the level of conformity to a list of rigid do's and don'ts, many of which are man's rules rather than God's absolutes. The result, as Barrs (1983) has pointed out, is that man's rules are equated with God's, obeying them is seen as a sign of spirituality, and we are thus prevented from seeing our spiritually impoverished condition (pp. 21-22).

In the mission environment, people tend to use many terms such as "the Lord led me," "God's appointment" "coming from the Lord," and "being in the center of God's will," (e.g., Dirks, 1982, p. 6; Everswick, 1985, p. 3; Niemeyer, 1985, p. 6). As Bussell notes (1986, p. 261), terms like "the Lord led me," are seldom used in the Bible. In several instances when they are used, they are used by false prophets. Bussell warns against the overuse of such terms, and their employment either as a tool to manipulate others or as a "cop-out" phrase to get oneself out of taking responsibility for one's actions.

The tendency to spiritualize everything, and the ensuing tendency to regulate behavior, leads one straight into the group exclusivity of a cult. Relegating actions and thoughts to categories of "pure" and "impure" or "spiritual" and "unspirit"" causes one to forget Ephesians 2:8, "By grace ye are saved by faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God." (King James Version). The MK must genuinely understand that his status and the status of the entire mission establishment is one of righteousness solely by God's grace and "not of works, lest any man should boast (Ephesians 2:9). If the MK hears about salvation by grace, and yet everything he sees around him speaks for the position of salvation by works, he will not hear the internal warnings when a cult, claiming to believe in God's grace, demands absolute obedience in order to be accepted by God, thereby implying that salvation is by works. If the MK is not sensitive to the distinction between grace and works, he is easy prey for a cult that offers more spirituality than even the mission community does through its works-oriented agenda. Since a cult offers more spirituality than the typical Western church, failure to understand the difference between grace and works almost guarantees that the MK will find a cult more attractive than he finds a Western church.


Being fully committed to one's work is almost synonymous with being a missionary. Due to the respect that the MK has for his parents' calling and dedication, he is also likely to believe that he should engage in fun-time Christian work. Such total commitment also typifies the cult member. The full- time dedication expected by the cult would probably seem very natural to the MK.

Total commitment to one's work in the mission field sometimes results in neglect of spouse, children, self, and friends. Such neglect is also common in cult membership. The MK whose parents have demonstrated total commitment and subsequent neglect is likely to find the cult's demands for commitment acceptable and even satisfying; that is, he may feel that, finally, he is serving God properly, fully, and in the same manner as his parents have served.

It was "missionary-style" commitment that led my brother to devote so much of his income to the group to the extent that his diet became deficient. Commitment caused him to lose his job as an industrial engineer. Commitment led him to devote so much time to doing "God's work” that he almost never saw family and friends, and had minimal time to read or watch television. Commitment caused him to have no time to attend church. Finally, it was commitment that prevented him from taking time to reflect upon what was happening to him.


Having experienced an adult-oriented third culture environment and a rule-and discipline-oriented boarding school environment, the MK may have a greater than average need for the security of being guided by an adult authority figure. Jordan (I 98 1, p. 142) found that the typical MKs values have not been tested in an unrestricted environment When the MK returns to his parents' homeland, he struggles to test his values, and seeks a mentor. Jordan suggests that if adult mentors are not found in the environment to provide support, the MK experiences loneliness, and a sense of estrangement (198 1, p. 142). This need for an authority figure is a high risk factor, since all cults have leaders who seek to control followers and who are looking for individuals in need of mentors.

While differing vastly from one to another, missionary families are typically run in an authoritarian and sometimes totalitarian manner. For example, one MK father, describing the characteristics of his family, demonstrated that he expected obedience without negative attitudes, and did not hesitate to use strong discipline in order to ensure that obedience.

They [the kids] understood that when we had meetings, they were all to be there.

We had our problems; but as we grew together as a family, negative attitudes were tolerated less and less. A cheerful, "Isn't the Lord good?" or "Hey, isn't it great to be on the winning team?" often fostered a more optimistic outlook.

[After his sons had refused to sing an African song for an old lady dying of cancer, he said.]

On our way home, I stopped the car in a wooded area and told them to pick out their switches. What followed was an unforgettable experience - not least for me. But, praise God, in the end it yielded the "peaceable fruit of righteousness," Hebrews 12:1 1, and it always did [Everswick, 1985, p. 3].

With respect to boarding school, the unusual degree to which the MK is subject to school rules and regulations is illustrated by the 1984-85 Morrison Academy Dormitory Handbook, which lists "respect for authority and the rights of others" as a goal of the environment, and states that "Guidance will be given in decision- making skills," and "Students living in the Boarding Division are responsible to the administration of Morrison. At all times when students are under school jurisdiction, they are subject to school regulations" (Morrison Academy, 1984, p. 1). The second page of the handbook further emphasizes compliance and obedience, specifying that students must follow the directions and decisions of dorm parents. Following a detailed list of rules related to all aspects of dorm life is the statement, "Any willful disobedience, open defiance of authority, or conduct unbecoming a Christian are sufficient causes for disciplinary action" (Morrison Academy, 1984, p. 2).

A letter from an MK at Faith Academy in the Philippines states that dorm parents . . . "have the job of keeping us in line. They not only discipline us as need4 but they also help widi our individual problems" ("Boarding School" 1985, p. 4). Discipline was also named by a missionary parent as a major part of life at Sakeji School in Africa ('Missionaries and the Education Dilemma," 1979, p. 13).

While firm discipline, rules, and strong leadership are essential for the success of both families and boarding schools, there is a danger of substituting human power for God's freedom and legalism for the good news of Jesus Christ as saviour of sinners and not only the righteous. When the apostle Paul saw the people of Galatia substituting works for grace, he expressed his dismay (Galatians 1:6-9):

I am surprised at you! In no time at all you are deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are accepting another gospel. Actually, there is no "other gospel," but I say " because there are some people who are upsetting you and trying to change the Gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel different from the one we preached to you, may he be condemned to hell! (Today's English Version).

Doland (1983) characterizes the environment of an evangelical (fundamentalist) college which she observed as "totalitarian evangelicalism." She defined totalitarianism as "a society's desire to produce a standard, approved human product through a rigid control of thought and action" (p. 429). Since the totalitarianism existed in a closed evangelical setting, Doland called it "totalitarian evangelicalism."

While the school was not an MK school, it is significant to note Doland's comments, since many MKs have attended that college. More important, the school she describes resembles an MK school in some respects. Most important in this regard:

Order was maintained for the purpose of the control of the minds, bodies, thoughts, and actions of others and was not for the purpose of doing things in a decent, orderly manner. This type of control demanded both inward allegiance and outward conformity.

The system of control was not efficien4 since 50-75% of the school's energies had to be spent on controlling.

Spiritual growth was not a goal Spiritual control was the goal, while spiritual growth was stunted.

The methods used to enslave others were achieved by breaking down the individual's personality and by demanding complete dedication and unquestioning enthusiasm (Doland, 1983, pp. 429-430).

Breakdown of the individual's personality was accomplished by developing reflexive uniform behavior, instilling the idea that the individual and his needs were subordinate to those of the group, and by making unnecessary rules designed to condition the individual. An example of such an unnecessary rule was that bedtime was at exactly 11:00 p. m., not at 10:59 or 11:01 (Doland, 1983, p. 429).

Complete dedication and unquestioning enthusiasm were obtained by evaluating the individual's attitudes as well as his actions and using severe and humiliating punishments for disobedience. One means for enforcing attitudinal and spiritual conformity was through a hierarchical "spiritual police" system. Passivity was achieved by intolerance of critical thinking or of suggestions about how things should be done (Doland, 1983, p. 430). A major method for achieving the desired control over students and faculty was isolation from the outside world. The belief instilled in persons was that the outside world was bad or evil (Doland, 1983, p. 430).

Doland has speculated (1983, p. 430) that evangelicals have a penchant for a totalitarian form of rule because they worry about those who do not fit in; they are uneasy about questioners and doubters; they want order and regularity, and have preconceived ideas about how the ideal Christian should act, look, and think. Doland says that the kind of control she saw in the school made a mockery of God's freedom in Christ.

Even if the goals of an authoritarian or totalitarian style of leadership are worthy (e.g., to maintain order, to encourage maturity through discipline, to create commitment and community both by teaching and by example), the means for accomplishing them cannot be justified (Barrs, 1983, p. 4 1).

When an authoritarian or totalitarian system of control is used, there are dangers, as Barrs notes (1983, pp. 43. 43, 47). First the individual loses the freedom to make his own decisions. Second, the authority figures become like gods. Third, in this setting there are seldom any checks and balances; therefore, the leadership can step way out of bounds in its demands and in its methods of control. Finally, man's authority is mistaken for God's.

A cult is a totalitarian institution possessing all of these dangers. When exposed to a cult, an individual exposed to earlier schooling that used a style of leadership resembling the "totalitarian mode" would be unlikely to possess or heed internal warnings that might prevent him from being lured by deceptive promises. On the other hand, if the MK environment exhibited a more democratic leadership style, then the MK, when faced with a totalitarian style of leadership, would receive all sorts of internal warnings and would be more prepared to take steps to resist the lure of a cull What is needed in the mission environment is summed up well by Empson (1974, p. 144).

The children of missionary parents need to see a Christianity that has time for them as real people - people with many doubts and fears. As we look at our own lives, we missionaries cannot be seen to be immune from the sins of the world. We, therefore, cannot expect perfection from our children, be they Christian or non-Christian. We need to see the world as it is and to do our utmost to bring our children up to be able to live in it as useful Christian citizens. We need to pray very much, but in addition to praying we need to consider what practical steps we can take, and then go ahead and take theme

The necessity to consider ways to reduce the MK's susceptibilities to cult involvement is emphasized by his philosophies, his periods of vulnerability, and his needs: to have a concrete sense of identity; to belong to a group characterized by depth and meaning; to be committed to a cause; and to be under strong leadership. A reduction in the MK's vulnerability can be aided by reexamining the traditional evangelical approach to the study of cults.

Why is the Traditional Study of Cults Inadequate?

This section describes the traditional evangelical approach to the study of cults and suggests its inadequacies. In doing this I deal with the definition of a cult the standpoint from which people are taught about cults, the use of doctrine as one's defense against cults, and the attitudes toward cult victims conveyed by the traditional approach.

The Definition of a Cult

The word "cult” is a value-laden term that different people use to mean different things. Dictionary definitions such as "excessive or fanatic devotion," "the veneration of a deity," or "a group of followers" are so unspecific that they do not distinguish among the People's Temple, the Unification Church, Jehovah's Witnesses, Southern Baptists, United Methodists, and Presbyterians. And most evangelicals would find such definitions unacceptable.

A definition that seems to characterize the traditional evangelical approach to the study of cults is one used by Dr. Walter Martin:

By "cult" we mean a group, religious in nature, which surrounds a leader or a group of teachings which either denies or misinterprets essential Biblical doctrines (Martin, 1980, p. 16).

While it is a helpful definition from the standpoint of one who is analyzing a cult with a great deal of information available to him, there are three main problems with Martin's formulation as a way to teach the MK about cults.

First, the primary focus of his definition is upon the teachings of the group. This focus obscures the fact that individuals, particularly Christians, are not lured into cults by their teachings but by the fact that cults meet their basic human needs (Bussell, 1983, pp. 9-10; Enroth and Melton, 1986, p. 54). Second, Martin's definition excludes the great number of cults today which are not religiously oriented; for example, self-improvement therapy, and political cults, which exhibit the same destructive characteristics as religious cults but which do not claim to be religious. An MK could easily be lured into a group such as est (Erhard Seminars Training, now replaced by The Forum) since the traditional definition of a cult precludes the MK from thinking that it might be a cult. Indeed, est has been cleverly promoted as a way to improve oneself, one's business and one's school. Many organizations pressure their employees to take the training (also known as Transformational Technologies); some employers pay for the training, or require it. Dr. Martin has even included est in his latest book on cults, although it does not fit his own definition of cult. He says:

est cannot be considered a religious cult since its origins, main tenets, and most important objectives are not wholly religious. However, structurally and sociologically it fits the definition of a cult and the characteristics of cult followers are found in est supporters (Martin, 1980, p. 105).

Another problem with a definition of cult like Dr. Martin's is that it includes all of the world's major religions, such as Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, since their doctrines differ from essential biblical ones. The problems associated with including these as cults are noted by Melton (Enroth and Melton, 1986), who states:

Many groups are clearly outside the Christian framework, and doing a Christian theological critique of them seems superfluous. It's obvious that Hindus aren't Christians, and obvious that they do not hold evangelical Christian doctrines at any level. Reiterating that point continually does not seem to me to be of great value.

Measuring alternative religions is relatively simple when you are dealing with Christian deviations because they have deviated from a common base. When you are concerned with non-Christian groups there is no common authority to which each appeal [sic]. Buddhists don't just deviate from Christianity, they differ. They don't disbelieve a few essential doctrines or hold a few heretical notions, they don't believe anything we do. A search for a common ground from which we can begin to talk is very difficult. The average Buddhist is an atheist. Such a person does not believe in a God of any kind (pp. 4-5).

Another problem with the typical evangelical definition of cult is that it does not mention the deceptive, manipulative techniques that cults use to recruit, indoctrinate, and retain members. If the MK does not learn to watch for these techniques, he may become deeply involved in a cult long before he has any knowledge of its doctrines. When deception and coercive persuasion techniques (i. e., mind control techniques) are not taught, the implied assumption is that the victim is to blame for becoming involved in a cult; that is, he must not have evaluated the doctrines of the group properly enough to discern that they were misrepresentations or denials of essential biblical doctrines.

I earlier defined a cult without reference to doctrine in order to show essential similarities among groups whose stated goals may be very diverse. However a group fitting this definition is not in accord with at least one essential evangelical doctrine and that is the doctrine of salvation by grace. For a group to be called a cult, is must enslave the individual to a salvation by works point of view. Salvation by works may not be the group’s explicit doctrine, but it is certainly the implicit one. The enslavement one sees in a cult is also diametrically opposed to the biblical teaching of John 8:32 that “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Furthermore, a cult’s behavioral expectation of its members do not align with other basic Christian teachings such as the commandment to honor one’s father and mother.

A further reason for leaving doctrine out of the definition of a cult is the fact that the person may never know the doctrines of the group, or he may not know them until his ability to leave is hampered by psychological enslavement.

The Standpoint From Which People Are Taught About Cults

Bussell (1983, p.15) states that “Most available books, workshops, and seminars are built around the we/they mentality that contrasts their heretical doctrines against the truths on which we stand.” The major problem with the “We/they mentality,” which is grounded in doctrine, is that it creates a false sense of security in the evangelical. He feels that doctrinal certainty is enough to immunize him from the lure of any cult. The fact is that he is not immune, as many evangelicals, including my brother and me, can attest. Indeed, Enroth and Melton believe that evangelicals are especially vulnerable to Bible-based groups such as the Great Commission International, The Way International, Faith Assembly, University Bible Fellowship, and many other groups associated with the shepherding movement (See Enroth and Melton, 1985, p. 50).

Evangelicals cannot afford to continue their traditional approach to cults. The practical similarities between cults and traditional churches – similarities which account for the cult appeal – are just as important to mark as the differences. Given the special susceptibilities of the MK, it is crucial that two of Bussell’s statements in this regard be taken seriously.

It is easy for us, as churches and as individuals, to put on our doctrinal sunglasses and squint our eyes so as to block these issues from our sight. But in doing so, we only remove the reminder of our responsibility to face our own susceptibility to cultic deception (Bussell, 1983, p. 16).

If in our minds we think we are not susceptible to cults, we’re the most vulnerable (p. 108).

Another difficulty with the "we/they" mentality is that it ignores the fact that historically, many cults have come from traditional churches: Unification Church founder Rev. Sun Myung Moon and University Bible Fellowship leader Samuel Lee both had mots in the conservative Korean Presbyterian Church; Unity School of Christianity founders Charles and Martha Filmore had deep roots in the Methodist Church; Faith Assembly leader Rev. Hobart Freeman began his ministry in the Grace Brethren Church; Rev. Jim Jones, the People's Temple founder, pastored an interdenominational church and a Disciples of Christ Church; Children of God founder David Berg served as an evangelist for the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church; and Victor Paul Wierwille, founder of The Way International, began his ministry in the Reformed Church. All evangelicals, as well as MKs, must see that one's church is as vulnerable to cultism from within as from without. The MK needs to be taught to watch for cultic tendencies and needs to be prepared to challenge abuses of authority and the lack of accountability when he sees these in his church or any other group.

Doctrine As One's Only Defense Against Cults

Doctrine is the major defense mechanism given to the evangelical. He studies his denominational doctrine as well as the doctrines of various cults. The rationale for studying one's own doctrine is that knowing the "real thing" ensures that one will be able to spot the counterfeit; that is, immunization from cults in general comes from studying one's own doctrine. The purpose of studying the doctrines of various cults is to demonstrate how and why cult groups' teachings are heretical. Since the MK, or evangelical, does not want to join a heretical group, the study of cult doctrine will immunize him against that group.

The first and most obvious difficulty associated with such an approach is that it is impossible to immunize the MK against all the cults and their myriad doctrines. Estimates as to the number of cults in the United States vary, but a fairly modest estimate would still put the number at over 2,000 (Dellinger, 1985, p. 1). When a person says, "I know about all the cults. I studied them all in Sunday school class," or "I bought a book with all the cults in it" he is frighteningly susceptible.

A second problem is that just as the fastest growing churches in America today are the lesser known ones, the fastest growing cults are the lesser known ones. There is no way that one can possibly keep up with all the names of new cults, much less know anything about their doctrines!

A third inadequacy of the doctrinal defense is that it is impractical; many cults do not have doctrines that can be studied or examined by prospective members. Some cults do not have written doctrinal statements at all. Others have statements but these do not represent the actual teachings of the group. Still other groups may have doctrinal statements that are not revealed to a person until he has already been induced to join. Whatever the case, it is important to know that cults have an "ends justify the means" philosophy which means that it does not matter what is done in recruitment if the goal is salvation. Misrepresenting one's practices and teachings, then, is standard cult operating procedure.

When my brother was questioning whether or not he should study the Bible with the University Bible Fellowship leader, he dutifully asked the doctrinal questions he had been taught to ask. When the leader answered them with standard responses one would hear in a conservative evangelical denomination, my brother had no further defenses to muster. Actually, there are many doctrinal problems, but it took over four years for him to learn what they were.

Attitudes Toward Cult Victims

Given the "we/they" mentality of the traditional class on cults, one would expect to find a condescending attitude toward the cult victim. And indeed, when the general assumption is that a person is immune if he has enough doctrinal grounding, then joining the cult is his own fault. This view incorrectly presumes that the cult joiner did so with full information and consent. In other words, the traditional approach to cult study promotes the myths outlined by Singer (1985) that allow us to blame the victim. The "weak-minded” theory is promoted by thinking that the cult victim was not schooled well enough in his doctrine or was intellectually unable to distinguish heresy from truth. The "weirdo" theory is promoted by the idea that those who become involved are certainly not like us and that they are probably unstable psychologically. The "seeker" theory is promoted by the idea that the cult victim is one of those "rebellious types" who would try anything just to make a statement of defiance. The "sucker" theory is promoted by the idea that the cult victim is the type of person who would gullibly go along with anything just to be a part of a group. If the NM is taught about cults using the traditional approach, which these myths inspire, his resulting attitudes toward cult victims will make him feel immune. On the other hand, if the MK is taught to understand that the cult follower is a victim of deception, intensive thought reform, and enforced dependency, he will see his susceptibility and be able to take measures to protect himself.


As the international Conference on Missionary Kids emphasized, the MK is nurtured by a variety of communities, and my purpose has been to present a case for the MK's susceptibility to the negative nurture of a cult community.

The cult community my brother joined offered to nurture him and help him reach his full potential. The cult community took his idealism and missionary-style commitment and deceived him into thinking that they were just like the dedicated missionaries with whom he had been raised. They put him through a thought reform program that ate away at his self-esteem, shut off his emotions, distorted his sense of right and wrong, eroded his confidence in salvation by God’s grace, and exploited his material, emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual resources.

Steps can be taken to enhance the MK's ability to resist the lure of a cult community. First, he should see himself as susceptible. More specifically, he must understand how his philosophies, periods of separation and transition in his life, and basic needs may be subtly and effectively used to attract him to a cull Focusing on the Mk’s vulnerabilities will help also to dispel the myths about who gets involved in a cult and why.

A second important way to build up the MK's immunity is to teach the common characteristics of cults and then emphasize study of the kinds of contemporary cults that would be likely to appeal to him MOSL In order to do this, the traditional definition of cult must be broadened to include non-religious groups. It is especially likely that an MK might unsuspectingly join one of these because it promises to improve both him and the world around him. Aberrational Christian groups also need to be emphasized, for as Enroth states, "Those who get involved in such groups are looking for something better, something more exciting - the perfect church, the perfect pastor" (Enroth and Melton, 1985, p. 52). The MK needs to fully understand that churches and other groups are composed of sinners, that God does not expect us to be carbon copies of one another, and that he should always watch for abuses of authority.

All those who become involved in building up the MK's immunity and decreasing his susceptibility to a cult community need to keep in mind that my brother, ae many cult victims, never wavered in his desire to serve God. He never wavered in his desire to help others. He never wavered in his commitment to Bible study and witnessing. Together we must work to prevent the exploitation of the very dedication and commitment that contributes to the MK’s uniqueness. The life of even one MK is too valuable to waste!


Andersen, S. and Zimbardo, P. (1978). On Resisting Social Influence. Office of Naval Research. (Technical Report number 2-79-01). Arlington, VA: Organizational Effectiveness Research Programs.

Barrs, J. (1983). Shepherds and sheep: A biblical view of leading and following - Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Boarding school: Petals and Thorns. (1985, Spring).Wherever, 4-5.

BusselL H. (1983). Unholy Devotion. Grand Rapids, NU: Zondervan Publishing. Bussell, H. (1986). Why evangelicals are vulnerable to cults. Cultic Studies Journal,2, 256-266.

Campbell, J. (1985). MK re-entry. Wherever, Spring, 10-1 1.

Central Minnesota Mental Health Center (1981). A Statistical study of cult victims and their families. SL Cloud, MN.

Clark, J. G. (1977, November 1). The noisy brain in a noisy world. Paper presented to the New Jersey Psychiatric Association..

Dellinger, R. W. (1985). Cults and kids: A study of coercion. Boys Town, NE: Boys Town Center.

Deming, K. (1983, December). Some honest feelings from a missionary kid. In Other Words.

Dirks, D. H. (1982). Influences of socialization practices of evangelical parents on moral development of children. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Claremont Graduate School.

Doland, V. M. (1983, May 4). Totalitarian evangelicalism. Christian Century, 429430.

Empson, P. (1974). The care of missionary children - What priority? Evangelical Missions Quarterly, 10, 138-144.

Enroth, R. M. and Melton, J. G. (1985). Why cults succeed where the church fails. Elgin, EL: Brethren Press.

Everswick, N. (1985, Spring). Portrait of a missionary family. Wherever, 2-3. Giles, G. (1984). The relationship of cross-cultural experience to human development. Unpublished manuscript, Wheaton College, Educational Ministries Project, Wheaton, IL.

Halperin, D. A. (1986). Group processes in cult affiliation and recruitment. In D. A. Halperin (Ed.), Psychodynamic perspectives on religion, sect, and cult, 223-234. Boston: John Wright.

Hocking, J. (1984). The education of missionary children on the mission field. Unpublished M. Div. thesis, Grace Theological Seminary.

Hsieh, Y. (1976). Missionary family behavior, dissonance, and children's career decision. Journal of psychology and theology, 4, 221-226.

Jordan, K. A. F. (198 1). The adaptation process of third culture dependent youth as they re-enter the United States and enter college. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Michigan State University.

Kinny, T. (1984, May). Cults: What's happening to the kid next door? Madison Magazine.

Langone, M. (1982). Destructive cultism: Questions and answers. Weston, MA: American Family Foundation.

Langone, M. and Clark, J. (1983, July). New religions and public policy: Research implications for social scientists. Paper presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Pacific Division, Utah State University. Also published by the American Family Foundation, Weston, MA.

Long, M. W. (1985). Disadvantages of being an MK and going to an MK school. Paper presented at the Zanesville Christian Missionary Alliance Church, Zanesville, OH.

Martin, W. (1980). The New cults. Ventura, CA: Vision House. Missionaries and the education dilemma. (1979, OCL-Dec.). African Evangel, 10- 14.

Morrison Academy Dormitory Handbook (1984). Taiwan, Republic of China: Author.

Neimeyer, M. (1985, Spring). MKs take Qs from MPs. Wherever, p. 6. Pollock, D. (198 1). Ministering to the TCK. Inland Africa, 65, 4-5.

Rogers, D. (1986). 19 respond to July '86 "Reflections." SIM Roots, 3.

Schimmels, C. (1983, Winter). T. K. C. and T. L. C. = A. Ok. Wherever, pp. 8-9.

Singer, M. T. (January 1979). Coming out of the cults. Psychology Today. Singer, M. T. (1985). Keynote address presented to the Cult Awareness Network Conference, Dallas, TX, October 26.

Singer, M. T. (1986). Understanding mind control: Issues in diagnosis and treatment of victims. Paper presented to Akron Freeman Cult Prevention Seminar, September 22.

Stahl, J. D. (1981, Mar. 3). Missionary children: Where do they belong? Gospel Herald, pp. 169-171.

White, F. J. (1983). Some reflections on the separation phenomenon idiosyncratic to the experiences of missionaries and their children. Journal o Psychology and Theology, 11, 181-188.

White, M. (producer) (1979). Deceived. Mel White Productions (Gospel Films Release). [Film].

Margaret Long, Ph.D., who has taught at Southern Illinois University, Wheaton College, and Ohio State University, is a homemaker, educational consultant, and president of the Tri-Valley (Ohio) Local Board of Education. The daughter of United Presbyterian missionaries, she attended boarding school in Guatemala. Mrs. Long serves on the board of &rectors of the Cult Awareness Network of Central Ohio.

*This article is based on a paper presented to the International Conference on Missionary Kids, Quito, Ecuador, January 4-8, 1987.