Hi, there! Thanks for coming along with me on a weird journey. If you have ever been in a cult, are struggling to get out, or are simply fascinated by the story, here is a sordid and twisted tale of how I joined a cult, stayed for almost a decade, and then made the decision to leave.
I would love to hear from you, so please feel free to drop me a message or contribute to the comment section!
Religion, Rules, and Church
In 1996, I was a rule-following, fairly religious (but not a church goer), homeschool graduated, 18 year old ballerina.
I’m not sure that cult members go after this genre per se, since we’re a small demographic, but I was likely pretty ripe for the picking.
Religion for me was all about rules, and I liked it that way.
I was a good girl. I wasn’t just a member of the Good Girls Club, I was also the introverted, nerdy, non-smoking, non-drinking, never-cut-her-hair president.
As a kid, we had mostly gone to church in a tiny converted garage. This was an off-shoot of the Church of Christ, where the women wore head coverings when they prayed (oftentimes a napkin from the dinner table, if that was handy), and wore dresses (my mom thought that one was dumb, so I was allowed to wear pants. Thanks, Mom).
There were no instruments allowed in worship, and the 2-3 families who made up the congregation were taught to sing hymns with all the parts (I was an alto). The preaching could go on for hours, and to my recollection, it was all about hellfire and damnation, but it’s possible my memory is flawed.
My parents left that church when I was about 12 or 13, and it would be years before we would go to a church again, although occasionally we would have house church. Religious homeschoolers in the late ’80s/early ’90s know all about house church, canIgetanAmen?
Still, I was definitely religious. I had no intention of going to hell, and I liked God. He seemed like an okay guy, and was nice to talk to.
Moving to a large city at age 16, I was thrown into a whole new world. The performing arts world is not such a safe space for a shy, awkward ballerina. I started college early, and also worked on campus as a waitress.
Which is where the cult found me.
Joining a Cult: The International Churches of Christ
The International Churches of Christ (ICOC), led by Kip McKean, was at one time the fastest growing and largest cult in America. You can google it, or even find podcasts about it.
At one point there was an expose on the ICOC featured on one of those shows that came after Entertainment Tonight. Was it Access Hollywood? Someone chime in here.
Eventually, the “movement” toppled (more on that later), but Kip is still active and has renamed his cult International Christian Churches, or the Sold Out Discipling Movement. If you live in a city with a population over 100,000 or so, there is sure to be a church there – whether it’s the “new” ICOC, or Kip’s newest version.
The ICOC building where I first went met in a gym. The churches didn’t really believe in spending millions of dollars for a building when they could just rent someone else’s space.
Seemed smart to me! I loved that. No one likes money hungry churches, right? Spend that money somewhere else, like on, you know, widows and orphans (or your leader’s lifestyles … more on that later).
Step 1: The Warm Welcome
The group was aggressively friendly! There was zero hope or chance of sneaking in the back, sitting alone, and then leaving.
It didn’t matter if you were well dressed, attractive, smart, outgoing, or some random guy off the street. Everyone was treated like they were The Most Interesting Person on Planet Earth.
While this was disconcerting as an introvert, it was also pretty great. I had a couple friends, sure, but these teenagers and young adults acted like I was the greatest thing since sliced bread! I felt really special. People who left the cult oftentimes talked later about being “love bombed.” We would laugh at that, but it seriously was a real thing and it was quite intentional.
Worship was weird though, I had to admit.
Step 2: The Growing Intensity
There was a lot of snapping and clapping (but not really any lifting of the hands). The songs were new and fresh, and as a longtime Christian I was surprised I didn’t know any. I learned later the ICOC pretty much exclusively only sang “their” songs, as no one else in the religious world had a handle on the gospel.
When the preaching started, people would speak out constantly, shouting things like, “Amen!” “Preach it, brother!” or everyone’s favorite, “WE NEED THIS!” It was by far the loudest church service I had ever been to.
Everyone took notes, and I learned this was one of the rules.
(If you’ve never been a cult member, there are a lot of rules.)
Anyway, extensive note taking was required, in case there was some kind of follow up or a quiz, or just in case you wanted to go over the lesson again later. I filled up entire boxes of journals, and my Bible fell apart regularly from use.
I’m not sure if it was the first service or the second I went to, but someone asked me if I wanted to study the Bible. I said yes.
The ICOC has an extensive set of Bible studies, and they are never deviated from. They go in a certain order:
- The Word of God Study
- The Discipleship Study
- The Kingdom Study
- Sin and Repentance
- Light and Darkness
- The Cross Study
- Denominationalism and False Doctrines
- The Holy Spirit
- The Church Study
- Counting the Cost
Even though I was busy with school and performing and working, I got through my studies pretty quickly, as I was eager and ready to learn and also a very fast reader. The girls who studied with me were the people I wanted to be. They were cool without being intimidating, warm without smothering me, and would drop anything at the drop of a hat to help me. They would have given me the shirts off their backs, no problem.
I had never been baptized and I had been feeling secretly quite concerned over this character flaw. What if I got in a car accident the week before my baptism? Then you would most definitely go to hell, they gravely answered. That was another motivation to get through the studies as fast as possible.
Step 3: The Commitment
Before they will baptize you (which is the be all/end all), you have to meet certain requirements, besides going through each and every study and getting a passing grade. You cannot date anyone outside of the church, and if your family or friends don’t like the church, you should cast them aside. “Seek first the kingdom” was a scripture we used and abused again and again. Only the members of the ICOC were in the kingdom after all, so they came first.
Since my family (parents and little sister) were studying the Bible as well, and going through the studies, I didn’t have a problem with them holding me back spiritually.
But I did have a couple friends who were getting concerned, and an on-again-off-again boyfriend who seriously was beginning to hate what was happening to me.
Since he obviously wasn’t a true disciple, I broke up with him.
Anyone can be a Christian, is what they tell you, but only a disciple will go to heaven. So we used that word – disciple – constantly.
We would never call ourselves Christian. So passé! “Christians” were to be pitied. They were fakers, pew-warmers, or worst of all, they were “lukewarm.”
If you backed a disciple in a corner about this, they would politely say that perhaps there were other true churches in the world, but if so, they’d never seen them. This should have been a red flag, but I hadn’t had much luck with normal Christians being truly transformative anyway, so perhaps these guys really did know something the rest of the world didn’t know?
The ICOC began in the 1970s. Evidently, there were no true disciples before this time? That seemed a little weird, but I went with it.
A few years later, we had heard the story of the would-be disciples beginning in a living room SO MANY TIMES that we would secretly refer to those couple of families as The Would-Bes.
We all got a little sick and tired of the story that was reverently told, but hierarchy is the name of the game in cults, and those leaders were pretty much God Almighty. Pipe down, peasants!
When I was baptized (in a hot tub), I was finally content that should I suddenly pass away, I would find myself in the arms of Jesus. Not because of anything He’d done necessarily, but mostly on my own merits. It was good to have Him as a backup though, should I need Him, right? (If you can’t tell, this is meant tongue-in-cheek.)
I met my future husband at my baptism. While the cult was small, I was in the Campus ministry, and he, as a college graduate, was in the Single’s ministry, so we hadn’t crossed paths yet.
When you’re a disciple, your typical week looks like this:
- church services a minimum of three times per week: Midweek Service, Sunday service (most ICOC services would meet on Sunday evenings since they typically rented buildings. I think they also loved getting rid of invitee’s excuses of wanting to sleep in on Sundays!), and another thrown in for good measure
- meeting with your discipler (more on that later) every week for a few hours of confessing sins and prayer. At this point, you’ve done so much confessing and praying together during your studies that this is surprisingly easy
- door knocking at least one night a week. Being an introvert, I hated this part, but you know … seek first the kingdom, sister
- Bible studies with would-be disciples as often as possible but you’d best believe it was at least 2-6 times per week/person, and
- one night a week you would attend your Bible Talk Group
Step 4: The Isolation
This, of course, left scarcely any time at all for anyone who was not a disciple.
And that’s a cult 101 lesson: isolate. Just like an abusive partner, you’ll be removed, gaslit, and isolated.
At this point, most of your old friends are getting a little sick of your behavior anyway, and they might drift off. You’ll be sad, but not really.
Even the religious ones are looking at you like have grass growing out of your ears because you’ve become so extreme.
It’s okay though: you’re praying for them. Usually in front of a large group where confidential information is spilled under the guise of a prayer request. To this day, even though I’ve been out for over 15 years, I still don’t pray with people, not aloud. I don’t trust them in all honesty, and I don’t trust myself.
Step 5: The Pressure Towards Submission & Accountability
Traveling out of the area was strictly not allowed, or if it was, be prepared to get an ear full about your sin. Occasionally a disciple would fall back on the old adage, “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”
Missing any church service was greatly frowned upon, and your discipler would let you know if it was okay to take a new job, move to a different house, or socialize with anyone outside of the church. Getting advice was the name of the game, but really it was getting permission.
If you missed a service, you’d best be on death’s door! Didn’t matter if it was because you had a family commitment or needed to travel or were super sick.
Once you are baptized and nice and thoroughly soaked, you are given a discipler. Your discipler is someone in your peer group who has been a disciple longer than you.
Well, sometimes. Not always.
You HAD a discipler, and you were SOMEONE ELSE’S discipler. There were no exceptions. If you weren’t qualified to teach someone, you’d best learn real fast.
And if your discipler seemed a little wet behind the ears, or had nothing in common with you, or was a complete nut job, too bad.
Step 6: The Growing Fear
Not following the commands and rules set by your discipler was a huge risk: at best you’d be reprimanded for your “pride” and taken to leaders to convince you of your sinful ways, at worst, you’d be put in front of the church and called out publicly.
It was called “getting advice,” but you weren’t able to take it or leave it. You were to make your leader’s life “a joy, and not a burden” (Hebrews 13:17).
That was another scripture we used and abused, almost always to get someone back in line who might be questioning things.
Sometimes I had disciplers whom I loved and respected very much, other times it was a huge chore to meet with them and spill my soul. And being someone else’s discipler was a giant responsibility. If they “fell away” (cult speak for leaving the church), it was going to be on your head as well.
Falling away meant hell, no exceptions.
I had a few girls fall away in a short period of time and it made me very fearful, both of my status in the church and in heaven. I felt like a black widow, and was rebuked for not holding onto them harder when they wanted to leave.
“Speaking the truth in love” was a much thrown around phrase in the ICOC. This meant you could be blunt and honest to the point of rude and mean.
I remember women being told they were fat, smelled bad, or needed to change their hair or clothes. I can’t speak for the men and boys, but the women and girls cried a lot.
Dating only happened in the church and in groups. This was the height of the purity culture, remember? Couples who had an interest in being more than friends with each other had to get permission, which sometimes took a long time if the leaders didn’t want you two together (like with me and my now-husband).
Once they had permission, they became official boyfriend and girlfriend, but hand-holding was about all they were allowed to do unless they were really good at sneaking around, but who had the time and energy for that?
You were never never to be alone with a member of the opposite sex, couple or not. So, group dates were where it was at!
They would happen every Saturday night, and you were not allowed to skip out on this. Any brother who asked you out must be told yes.
Most of the time these were fun, but sometimes they were rough. The cult attracted all kinds of people, including former perpetrators. This was one time where being in a group was much appreciated.
The story continues: Read Part 2 here.