Bear with me here. I remember how disconcerting it sounded when my Hebrew and Greek Bible professors in seminary spoke of “the Israelite cult” or ‘the cult of Jesus.” To me, cults were about madmen who literally forced followers to drink the Kool-Aid or commanded that they torture and kill starlets in LA.
But the historic and linguistic definition of “cult” is simply this:
A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object. Source.
Every house of faith is experiencing less participation these days. And it’s not necessarily because of a lack of spiritual hunger. Followers of Jesus, followers of Muhammed, followers of Moses, followers of Ganesh, followers of Guru Nanak have quite of bit of competition – although I’m not sure that “competition” is the right word.
Imagine that you are a 25 year old whose parents or grandparents grew up in The Church. It was an essential part of their lives and from cradle to grave, they belonged to a community of faith that brought meaning to them.
In the experience of a 25 year old living in the 21st Century, Roman Catholic priests have been found guilty of tolerating pedophilia to the highest levels. Church leaders in the news have shown themselves to being greedy, untrustworthy, and homophobic. Churches have seemed out of touch at best and dangerous at the worst.
Don’t get me wrong, there are “systems of religious veneration and devotion” that continue to thrive these days for many young people related to Jesus: Young Life. International Justice Mission. Montreat Conference Center. Elevation Church. The Cool Bible Study. Note: There is richness about allegiance in these organizations. And also – in the strictest definition of the word – they can be cultish.
Amanda Montell has written a brilliant book about Cults in terms of both the sinisters ones and the helpful ones that bring meaning and community to seekers. Again – forget David Koresh and Q-Anon (although she addresses those too.) Consider Soul Cycle, Noom, Dave Ramsey, Pelaton, Ted Lasso. All have their devotees. All have a special language and a sense of being on the inside.
Repeat after me: Roy Kent! Roy Kent! He’s here. He’s there’s . . .
We are devoted to many things in these days. Among other things, I am devoted to Ted Lasso. And also Giddy Goat Coffee, The Bento Society, Public Libraries, Fleabag (still), and British mysteries. And to Jesus most of all – I pray.
It used to be true that we were devoted to fewer things and one of them was Church. It was once something special to be a member of Big Steeple Church because it meant you were connected to Important Citizens in your community. We knew all the inside words: special music, narthex, circle meetings – not to mention words like Pentecost and Confirmation and Eucharist. Even if yours was Small Steeple Church, you were probably devoted.
I remember taking an unbelieving friend to worship with me several years ago and when I asked afterwards what she thought, she said this, “There were a couple of times, it felt like a cult.” She was referring to the mindless recitation of The Apostles Creed – with people staring into space and speaking words without much consideration for what we were saying.
One more time: I’m referring to “cults” according to the traditional definition. And yet, while we have often recited creeds and prayers and scripture passages mindlessly, we have displayed little devotion to Jesus. Devotion to the institutional church maybe, but not so much about God.
When I was co-leading the national denomination of the PCUSA (2016-2018) speaking all over the place about The Church, more than one person pointed out that I had swallowed the Kool-Aid. Yes. And I believe that the Church of Jesus Christ is doing extraordinary things to transform the world that rarely get any press – from disaster assistance to affordable housing projects to jobs training programs to youth programs that welcome kids who have never felt welcomed before. The Institutional Church is a hot mess. And, it’s also saving lives on our most faithful days.
As we are considering what the post-pandemic Church might look like, we need to remember that every human being wants to be valued. Every human being wants to belong. Every human being seeks community that’s meaningful and safe. Every human being is struggling with something. Every human being carries a measure shame with them. Every human being is made in the image of God.
Congregations that only perpetuate themselves offering programs that don’t feed anybody’s soul and filled with people who are gossipy and mean and spiritually immature will never be the community that people crave. And they will not survive the culture shifts that are upon us. And this is okay. Because Jesus calls us to be a Body of people who are different from the world, and if we aren’t then we indeed need to shutter our doors and allow something new to be born.
I’d love to hear about your favorite cults from Harry Potter to Accupuncture to Trader Joe’s. And – for what it’s worth – my deepest devotion remains “the cult of Jesus.” I still believe that the world will be saved through him.