Cult Recruiting Methods

David Henke

Why do people become susceptible to cult recruitment? Is there a time in anyone's life when they are more vulnerable? Is their religious background and knowledge of their faith a factor? Is a certain age bracket more vulnerable than another? I am sure that everyone who has lost someone to the clutches of a cult asks themselves these questions. What could they have done to prevent it? These questions, and the methods cults have found effective, will be examined in this article.

Who is Vulnerable?

The vulnerable person is someone who lacks something very important. That something can be a network of supportive people like family and friends. It can be someone who has suffered a significant loss like the death of a loved one, or a marriage, or a job. The sense of loss causes a person to seek something to fill the void. The college freshman who may be homesick, or out of contact with family and friends, is a good example of someone who is vulnerable. The motivations to find friends who will relieve the feelings of isolation are very strong and can overcome good judgment about finding the right kind of friends. The cults recognize this. One group that specializes in college student recruitment is the International Church of Christ (a.k.a. Boston Church of Christ and Crossroads Movement). If the sense of loss is from the death of a loved one the recruiting cult may point out how the bereaved person can see their loved one again. Jehovah's Witnesses may tell the potential recruit that in the resurrection the deceased may be resurrected and given the opportunity to respond to the Watchtower message. If he accepts it he will be given the opportunity to live in a paradise earth with his loved one. (If he rejects the message he will be annihilated, again.) The Mormon may point out to the bereaved that by becoming a Mormon he can be baptized by proxy for his deceased loved one, giving him the opportunity to advance in the spirit world toward Mormon heaven. Sometimes disillusionment can cause a person to lose faith. It could be the loss of a job, or a divorce.

The question asked is: "Where was God when I needed Him? Why did He let this happen to me?" At such a moment a cult, like Job's counselors, can offer a different view that will provide a rationale for their situation. The cults offer a performance-based relationship with God, or a works oriented gospel, that gives the person something to do to help fill the void of his loss. Another potential target of cult recruitment is the naïve idealist. The idealist has a poor understanding of the pervasive sinfulness of man and how it can corrupt, or weaken, even the best. This individual sincerely desires to be his best and expects others to do likewise so as to change the world for the better. When this individual meets the cult recruiter he meets someone, and an organization, that seems to exemplify that same idealism. The superficiality of their image does not become apparent until much later, if ever. In religion the warning "caveat emptor" (let the buyer beware) applies with double force.

Targeting the Vulnerable

A healthy support network of family, friends and church provide the resources to fill the void created by a traumatic sense of loss. The need may be emotional support, or information that a healthy network can provide. When it is absent a cult can provide a counterfeit replacement network. It is counterfeit because the effect is destructive in the long run. The relationship becomes one-way after the recruit is assimilated into the cult. A healthy relationship, or network, is two-way where accountability and truth are present. A cult will use "love bombing" as a means of recruiting people. Love bombing is an all-pervasive expression of caring for the individual and others. It sounds like the Christian concept of agape love. It is not the same. In a cult the love stops when the individual is being corrected. This is not so with Christian agape love. Love bombing also becomes a tool to keep people in the cult. The thought of losing the powerful sense of being loved by the group can dissuade the doubter from leaving. The person who hungers to know more about God, or the Bible, may be attracted to a group like the Jehovah's Witnesses. They seem to have so many answers.

A Christian caller to this ministry some years ago asked for information about Jehovah's Witnesses. She was studying with two of them. She assured us that she just liked studying the Bible and was not being influenced by them. However, after a brief conversation it became clear that she was indeed being influenced to believe their doctrine. She didn't have a basis of knowledge for comparison to know the difference. The Witnesses terminated the study after two more visits with a Watchman representative present that helped her discern between truth and error. With modern communication we hear the bloody details of all the wars and strife in the world. We see the degeneracy of man daily and wonder how long God will withhold His judgment. Surely, we must be in the very last days. The apocalyptic cults will play on this to create a sense of crisis. Don't be destroyed by God when He judges the world. If there is a crisis there must be decisive action taken. By joining the group the recruit feels he is doing his part to help himself and others. This is a fear-based message and it is the way the Watchtower Society has operated from its beginning. Some of the suicide cults that made a big splash in the media took their belief to the farthest extreme. By their suicide, or bloody confrontation with authority, they hoped to provoke the final conflict and the victory of righteousness.

Entering Into Bondage

When someone gives an opening to a cult recruiter they are in danger. Like the situation of the Christian woman described above the cultist knows his business better than the people he meets. The cultist is not consciously doing wrong, he is a victim who has been trained to recruit other victims, all the while thinking he is doing God's will. The techniques that the cultist has learned well put the potential recruit at a disadvantage. The methodology of recruitment involves subtle techniques of mind control and undue persuasion. For instance, the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons want to control the discussion by limiting the agenda. The Witnesses books and the Mormon missionary discussions are programmed to get the potential recruit to buy into a premise that will lay the groundwork for acceptance of each and every other doctrine. For most cults the starting premise is that God favors the group above all other groups. If that is true then it is God who is the Author of all the other doctrines that will be learned later. If many of the teachings were put on the table at the outset the recruit would not accept the premise. Therefore, some doctrines are kept back until the recruit is "mature" enough to receive them. The first step to being able to employ the techniques of mind control is to immerse the person in an environment supportive of the goal. To do that the cult will seek to separate the recruit from people outside the cult such as family, friends, his church, etc. They will replace those influences with their own.

Their group will provide a new peer group, and a new authority structure. These two elements are powerful enough in themselves. The next step is to control the information. Non-sanctioned information is to be regarded as dangerous to spiritual health, so the recruit is taught to refuse it. The only information that is approved is from the cult. It is administered repetitively. Doubts and disagreements are frowned upon, and usually punished, while agreement is approved and rewarded. In such a system the new recruit quickly adopts the "party line" as his own, and he believes it completely. With these two elements in place, he is now in bondage to men.

Effects of Bondage

The long-term effects of involvement with a cult are many and deep. The chief loss is a real relationship with Christ and an eternity in His presence. However, this side of eternity the effects are powerfully evident. Some of the characteristics include the loss of ability to trust. Followers can be easily manipulated by the use of guilt and shame. They often have an unusual fear of spiritual things with which they are not familiar. And, a distant look in their eye like they are not relating to their immediate surroundings and people. This reflects the damage done to their ability to relate to people on a normal level.

The Preventative to Recruitment

The most important protection against being recruited into a cult is awareness. Scripture tells us to beware of false prophets" (Matthew 7:15), but how can one "beware" unless he is "aware" of what is dangerous? Our knowledge of the truth is the starting place. If we know the truth of scripture, especially the basic doctrines of the Bible, we will be able to recognize error. Since most cults deny the deity of Christ and the gospel we should know those two doctrines thoroughly. Books on systematic theology and the doctrinal errors in church history would be an excellent resource for every Christian. Another protection against recruitment is to maintain a healthy network of family, friends, and church where two way accountability and information flow are present. Resist any group trying to separate you from those influences. Practice the art of critical thinking. Critical thinking is not being critical. It is an evaluative process whereby the mind judges the value, or danger, of an idea. The pros and cons of any idea are weighed. Outside sources of information are considered as well as sources long accepted. Comparison of an idea with the accepted standard of biblical truth should be the first and final measure. After submitting any idea to such an evaluation the conclusion will have the ring of wisdom. The cults do not allow such a process to take place. When someone does think critically they are punished. Jehovah's Witnesses call it "independent thinking."


When any of the signs described above appear in someone you love act quickly. Cult recruitment does not take long. The remedy in the early stages is quite effective. However, when the recruit is baptized, or makes formal his membership, the odds of rescue are poor. Watchman Fellowship is one of your best resources for help. Use us.

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