There are thousands of religious, spiritual, human potential groups, etc., that exist in our society and it is possible that at one time or another in your life you may either be looking to join a group or have been approached to join one.

Deciding what group is best suited for you may seem a difficult undertaking and often people call us wanting to know if there exists a list of "cults" so making their decision would be simpler.

Their concern is understandable as most people have heard about certain tragedies associated with groups that have been labeled (often after the fact) as a "cult" and want to avoid such a group.

Groups that have become violent or dangerous make up a very marginal number of the thousands of groups that exist.

Among things to consider is that a group having rituals, beliefs, practices, or clothing that may appear strange or bizarre to you or others may seem that way only because they are different and unfamiliar to you.

In reality, there is very rarely a simple yes or no response to whether a group is simply good or bad.

Some people can have a positive experience in a group that some might consider "bad" and inversely some people can have a negative experience in a group considered to be "good".

So to help you make an informed choice we encourage you to ask a lot of questions and think about some the following ideas.

Take your time and ask questions. The types of questions you ask depend on, among other factors, who you are, what you believe, and what you are interested in. For example, you might want to know what the group's views are on the role of women, clothing, diet, marriage, membership fees, time commitment, decision making, childrearing, education, healthcare, etc.

You may find after taking the time to research the group that it's an okay group but, not necessarily for you as it may not respond to your lifestyle, beliefs etc. Or you may find that it does respond to what you're looking for.

How can you find information on a particular group?

Information on groups can be obtained from:

When forming an opinion about a given group, it is always a good idea to use as many different sources of information as possible.

Take your time there's generally no rush and remember it's your choice and you're the one that will live with your decision, not others who may oppose or encourage your involvement.

Dysfunctional Churches*

As behavioral scientists remind us all too often, that most basic of social institutions - the family - is increasingly subject to frailty and failure. The label that is currently popular for unhealthy families is "dysfunctional". Unfortunately, sociologists of religion (as well as many ex-members) know that some churches are also dysfunctional, even to the point of being spiritually abusive. If truth in advertising standards could be applied to religion, some churches would be required to display a sign reading: "Warning: this church could be harmful to your spiritual and psychological health."

Sadly, spiritual and pastoral abuse is more prevalent than most people believe. Like child abuse, it often goes undetected, or else it is strongly denied. Spiritual abuse is inflicted by persons who are accorded respect and honour in society by virtue of their positions of religious authority and leadership. When such leaders violate the sacred trust they have been given, when they abuse their authority, and when they misuse the ecclesiastical office to control their congregations, the results can be catastrophic.

What are the hallmarks of unhealthy, aberrant churches? The key indicator is control-oriented leadership, ministers who have a need to "lord it over the flock". Abusive leaders demand submission and unquestioning loyalty. The person who raises uncomfortable questions or does not "get with the program" is cast aside. Guilt, fear, and intimidation are used to manipulate and control vulnerable members, especially those who have been taught to believe that questioning their pastor is comparable to questioning God.

Why does a pastor or priest sometimes turn into a spiritual tyrant? I believe it is because of the human desire to control others and to exercise power over people. Each of us has been exposed to the temptation of power, whether in the role of spouse, teacher, or parent. An excessive will to power, coupled with sincere religious motives, can lead to the misuse of spiritual authority.

More that any other age group, young adults are attracted to abusive churches, their seemingly dynamic programs, and their "take charge" leaders. Such churches often target young couples during the crucial child-bearing years. As a result, the energy needed by these young couples for legitimate family interaction is siphoned off into a high intensity cause. Family obligations are sacrificed, and children's developmental needs are neglected.

How can we recognize a healthy church? In addition to matters of appropriate doctrine, a healthy church is reconciling and restorative, not adversarial and elitist. Members of healthy churches seek to deepen and strengthen their family commitments. Legitimate leaders will welcome dissent and hard questions from members without threat of reprisal. Trustworthy leaders will encourage accountability, and they will establish checks and balances.

Choose a church carefully. Remember, not all religion is benign, and not all church experience is beneficial.

* Adapted from "Dysfunctional Churches" by Ronald Enroth, Ph.D., in the AFF's Cults and Psychological Abuse: A Resource Guide, with the permission of the American Family Foundation (AFF).

If you have any questions contact us:

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Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2V 4H2
(514) 274-2333, Fax: (514) 274-7576

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