Going away to college is a heady experience. It's usually the first taste of freedom experienced by the average 18or 19-year-old. No more Mom and Dad looking over your shoulder, helping you make day-to-day decisions. No more high school teachers making sure your homework is done, and, if it's not, calling Mom and Dad to report you.
Most new freshman college students believe they are going to relish in their newfound freedom. But there is another side to going away to college. Many students experience feelings of loneliness and a lost sense of identity. For the first time, they don't feel a sense of community. No longer do they know most of the people in their classes. No longer do they feel comfortable with their teachers. Some students come to feel that they don't fit in, that they may not be "right" for their new home.
These are the college students that campus cults target. There is a rising epidemic of cults that recruit strictly from college campuses. These cults realize college students are experiencing feelings of total isolation from family and friends and are looking for a group to identify with and emulate.
The definition of a cult is a ministry group that uses overly aggressive authority structures (known as shepherding), exclusivism, subjective theology and the use of deliverance from demons as a means of control.
"The teachings of a cult group may seem mainstream Christian, but there is a heavy bent on controlling the lives of the members," said Kurt Goedelman, executive director of the Personal Freedom Federation in St. Louis.
"The leader makes all the decisions for the group, such as where they will work, what classes they will attend, and who the members will date. Campus cults have a major tendency to isolate their members from family and friends and anyone else not involved with the group."
Because campus cults have such strict control over their members, the result is a major loss of personal freedom for the students, who join what they originally believed to be a Christian group.
It is speculated that the two major campus cults have about one million members throughout America.
Since campus cults have grown to be such a prevalent problem, an ad hoc committee of cult researchers was formed in 1985 to investigate the aggressive proselytizing techniques and questionable theology being preached by these groups. Stephen F. Cannon, a reporter for the Personal Freedom Federation, was a member of this committee.
"We interviewed leaders, members and former members, studied literature, and listened to and watched tapes," said Cannon. "It was during this time that I made first hand observations on the tactics of intimidation and control used by campus cults."
The campus cults studied had many similarities in their teachings and methods of control. Members were told that the only access to God was through the group. If someone were to leave the cult, they would be walking away from God. Any impediment, such as family, friends, or loved ones, who comes between the member and the group was a tool of Satan. Any negative information about the cult is negative information about God and is labeled "spiritual pornography."
Further, cults preach that walking away from the group means leaving the one true church. Members are told they will wind up in Hell if they leave. This places a great emotional burden and a real psychological barrier on the Christian student who is looking for spiritual guidance and acceptance.
"This is why campus cults target kids who are spiritually hungry," said Phillip Arnn, a researcher for the Watchman Fellowship, a cult watch group. "These kids have a poor belief system; they are idealistic, and will believe what they are told."
According to Goedelman, members of a cult are never allowed to question the teachings of their leader and are challenged when doubts arise in their beliefs. "It's a form of spiritual terrorism," said Goedelman, "Questioning leaders is compared to questioning God."
There are two dominant campus cults existing in America today. One is known as the International Church of Christ (ICC) and the other is called the Maranatha Campus Ministries (MCM). While the two groups have opposing teachings of the Bible, they are very similar in the tactics used to control their members.
Robert Weiner founded the MCM in 1972. Weiner dropped out of Trinity College in Deerfield, Ill. to join the Air Force. It was there that he became a Christian minister and began his campus crusade.
In 12 years, Weiner's cult had grown from a single campus ministry, which began at Murray State University in Kentucky, to more than 100 campus chapters throughout America and in 16 foreign countries.
There is a strict authority structure and shepherding methods being used in the MCM, as with all cults. Weiner teaches that he is an apostle of God and tells his members, "You can leave or do it my way, but those who leave will be condemned to Hell by God."
MCM members are required to sign a statement of commitment. This document admonishes committed members to obey their immediate leaders at they would God. There is strict control exercised over all members in what they can think, say, wear and where they can go.
In addition, MCM members are taught that they are in God's elite ministry and that no one else has the type of total commitment that they do. There may be other Christian groups, but none could match MCM's level of dedication.
This type of elitism can lead members to believe that if, for some reason, they want to leave the group, they would be missing out on God's will and would be condemned to Hell. In fact, MCM leaders have been quoted as telling members who wanted to leave the group, "You will be destroyed by God because you want to leave. You will be out of God's will and out of the elect of God."
In 1979, Kip McKean founded the ICC. The group was first named the Boston Church of Christ, where it began, but the name was quickly changed as the campus cult grew in size and location. The growth was phenomenal and the ICC now has about 120,000 members internationally.
The ICC practices one-on-one discipling, which is where the charges of mind control have stemmed from. All members must commit themselves to one who is "more mature in the Lord," that is, one who has been in the cult longer than the new member. The submission to the elder must be complete and absolute. The chain of command continues, with each elder having a disciple, and so on until you reach the leader, McKean.
McKean, meanwhile, makes all of the group's decisions. He determines how far his congregation will go in obeying the scriptures as he interprets them. McKean corrects everyone's mistakes and decides the punishment. He demands obedience and is the only one who knows what it takes to achieve what God wants.
The ICC also teaches that their group alone is doing what God truly wants and that they are the true disciples of Christ. Only members of their cult will be let into the kingdom of Heaven. This elitism is a necessary factor of all cult groups.
In addition, McKean uses confessions as another means of controlling his members. Confessions in the ICC aren't kept confidential. Instead, confessions are used against members if they don't follow the teachings and do everything that their elders demand of them. It is these tactics of manipulation through submission and the unethical use of confession that give more substance to the serious charges of mind control.
McKean also manipulates members into changing their personalities to conform to the group's "norm." The members dress alike, talk alike and share the same outside interests, which are few. The goal is to become an exact replica of McKean.
Of course, there are members who begin to see campus cults for the mind control groups that they are and decide to leave. The key is that the student must want to leave the group. It has to be their decision in order for a disassociation to be successful, according to Arnn.
"There are many places for kids to get help when they are ready to break from the cult," said Arnn. "There are other Christian groups that can help, and even Internet sites that can answer questions and provide guidance. It is a means of getting information that the kids may not have seen before or had access to."
While some parents become rightfully concerned and hire "deprogrammers" to reverse the brainwashing experienced by their children, this method is not seen as successful. The member must have a desire to leave the group, otherwise they are likely to go back to it as soon as the "deprogramming" is completed.
"We take the position of an evangelically stand point," said Goedelman. "We don't deprogram, but rather provide information and hook students up with a good church and resources like books and newsletters."
While campus cults are fairly new, they are not surprising. College students throughout history have been seeking out meaning and truth. It's the age at which all are looking for their own identity and where they fit in in this world. Until this changes, campus cults will probably always be able to flourish.