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Messy but not messed up

Last week with the temperature above 30°C I noticed the Jehovah’s Witnesses outside Waitrose Café in the sweltering heat, with their familiar bookstand, handing out Watchtower Magazines to passers by. Sitting in Waitrose excellent coffee shop I wondered to myself ‘What is it like being in a cult like that?’

And then other questions came into my mind. ‘How do you manage to get caught up in a group like the JW’s or one of the many cults that exist today?’ And I pondered, what it might feel like to be part of a cult.

But then a more worrying thought occurred to me. ‘How do I know I am not in a cult? What is the difference between a cult and a true church?’ After all most cults don’t self-identity as a cult, they say they are the true believers just as we do.

Stephen Wookey, in his excellent book ‘When a Church Becomes a Cult’ suggests ‘…there is no really clear distinction between a church and a cult. There is only a continuum, a line that at some stage gets crossed’. He also goes on to say ‘……it is to the abiding shame of many who call themselves Christians that the line has so often been crossed’.

Wookey also gives some of the marks of a cult. One obvious one is that all cults distort the truth, particularly in relation to the person and work of Christ. They take the Bible and twist it. But other marks include elitism (the belief that we and we alone are right), psychological manipulation, financial abuse and the abuse of power by the leaders. For a cult and for cult leaders, the end justifies the means which how they justify there methods.

But what would attract someone to such a group? It does’t sound that good, right? What would cause someone to join and become fully committed?

A variety of reasons could be suggested – perhaps a deep unmet psychological need, maybe disillusionment with the materialistic culture, maybe disappointment with the experience of church.

People who join cults are often idealists, they want things to be ordered and organised with no mess or fraught dilemmas or difficult relationships – know how they feel?

Often what  attracts people to a cult is a sense of community. Perhaps they have gone to a church and found it shallow, the teaching weak and the fellowship superficial. A cult looks more real, more authentic, offering a genuine alternative to the culture around us. The problem is that there may be community and relational goodies which a cult offers but ultimately a cult is community gone wrong. The cult is kept together by false ideas and by manipulation and control by corrupt leaders. People may join a cult with naive idealism but they leave as cynical realists, once bitten but twice shy.

As I look at our church there is much to encourage us that we are living in the truth and do not display any of the signs that we are moving towards any of the above characteristics but we always need to be on our guard.

One particular encouragement for us is given in Wookey’s book. In our church there are people on the fringes, perhaps coming fairly regularly to the morning service but not committed or involved.  Don’t you sometimes wish that everyone would just become fully signed up members? But Wookey suggests that such a fringe of people is a healthy sign. He suggests that a  cult is a church without a fringe.

There is nothing messy or unresolved about a cult, you are either ‘in’ or ‘out’, either safely within the fold or outside and in the dark, either fully signed up or running away as fast as your legs will carry you. It’s all black and white with no messy ‘grey areas’. That’s why there is no fringe.

So the fact that people like to just come along and hang out with us and enjoy our meetings, the fact they don’t feel obliged or pressurised to ‘join up’ is a good sign.

If you look at the churches in the New Testament they are far from perfect. From Corinth to Colossi they are not what they should be and in fact Paul often writes to counter problems that have occurred in the church. In the case of the Corinthian church you could say on the basis of Paul’s letters to them that things were not  just messy, they were in a serious mess. Yet Paul writes to them ‘To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people . . .   ‘ They were still a true church loved by God.

Yes, when we meet on a Sunday morning things may seem a bit messy. People with various levels of commitment, people struggling with sin in their lives,  relationships yet to be fully resolved. But we can take encouragement. If Christ is held up and central in all our meetings and people are attracted to the sense of love and community as well as to the clear Biblical teaching we can be sure that for all our failings, God is at work amongst us.

Our church may, like the New Testament churches, be a bit messy but that’s the way it is going to be this side of heaven. We are at best recovering sinners, people who are work-in-progress in a church that is work-in-progress.. Oh it’s messy alright, but not messed up.


Written by Stephen Nicholls


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