Most of our time, energy and financial resources at MCOI is devoted to exposing and confronting the major cults, popular heresies, unbiblical worldviews and false “-isms” of our time. But over the years we’ve become increasingly aware of the fact that lurking in the shadows cast by the larger cults and movements are hundreds — perhaps thousands — of small, “hole-in-the-wall” groups with aberrant teachings and practices that definitely deserve our attention as a ministry of biblical discernment.
Some of them are no larger than a half-dozen people, while others might have memberships ranging from 200 to 1,000 or so. Some are very localized, while others have memberships scattered around the U.S., and even the world. If it was possible to catalogue all these groups and calculate their collective memberships, we believe their numbers might rival those of much larger cults or false religious groups like Scientology or the Watchtower Society. If all these little factions were to merge together, they’d be a major cult in their own right.
And yet these are the kinds of groups that both counter-cult ministries and the media tend to overlook — until they produce spectacular tragedies. Jim Jones’s People’s Temple (a.k.a., Jonestown), David Koresh’s Branch Davidian, and Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate are all examples of groups that fall into this category. Because of their relatively small size they usually evade both close scrutiny and serious consideration, but all the while they’re causing a multitude of local tragedies.
Many people are attracted to smaller cults because of their protest posturing. Just as the monastic movement started out in early church history as a protest movement against increasing worldliness in the church, small cults try to capitalize on that same approach by railing against various features of today’s established churches. Whether it’s sexual immorality, materialism, conspicuous consumption, or allegedly false doctrine, small cults spend a great deal of their time hunting it down in larger churches, denominations and ministries and denouncing them for it. It’s David versus Goliath, the small versus the huge in the battle for the Christianity’s soul, and the small cults imply (some of them explicitly declare) that “small is better.” To be big and have a large number of ministries (and thus a large budget), they imply, is to be corrupt. To be small is to be free from such temptations; to be pristine — unsoiled by the world.
It’s an old theme, as threadbare as it is time-worn. In the 1959 comedy, “The Mouse That Roared,” starring Peter Sellers, a microscopic country no one at the United Nations ever heard of — the Duchy of Grand Fenwick — tries to escape bankruptcy by declaring war on the United States so they can quickly surrender and be bailed-out by foreign aid. But the Duchy’s “invasion” of the US takes an unforeseen turn when the “invaders” capture the prototype of the “Q-Bomb” (along with its creator) while the entire population of New York is below ground for a civil defense drill. The “Q-Bomb,” it turns out, is a zillion times more powerful than the H-Bomb, and now the world gets a chance to see that if only the little nations of the world had all the nuclear weapons instead of the big nations the world would be a much better place.
Oh, really? Is the world suddenly becoming a nicer place as North Korea succeeds in developing a full-fledged nuclear arsenal? Would everyone sleep easier if the leaders of Iran, Serbia and Rwanda become nuclear powers?
Filmmakers (and filmgoers) were so naïve back then probably because rapid transportation and mass communication were not nearly as developed as they are today. These things have changed our perception of the world, surrounding us with the sobering realities of global hatred and violence wherever we go. But aside from the way in which technology has altered our perception of the world, little else has really changed. Threatening new international developments really aren’t new at all. For example: Islamic fundmentalists were just as potent a threat to mideast politics in 1959 as they are today. That very year Egypt’s President Nasser had to forcefully suppress them to protect his government. But throughout the 20th century there was always the danger that radical Islamicists would take over a major middle eastern nation. Just imagine if one of those countries had the bomb back then! We’d have learned the meaning of the word “jihad” about 30 years earlier than we actually did.
Smaller is not better. It’s not even less dangerous! Just as there came a time when world leaders realized they could no longer ignore Islamic fundamentalists (who account for a small minority within all Islamic countries), so also the time has already come when the church can no longer ignore small cults. They’ve been ravaging the lives of Christians, damaging the health of whole congregations — and occasionally even taking over local churches! — for far too long.
I wonder if many people are attracted to smaller cults simply because they crave intimacy and feel alienated from family and the people at large. So often I hear people say they just want to go to “a smaller church.” The “problem” with good small churches is that they tend to grow and multiply, which is a good thing, but I suspect that desire for close fellowship with a group of less than 30 or so is a common one.
And the danger of what VanVonderan calls “enmeshment” in the smaller groups. The smallness of those groups you mention makes that problem worse.