A year in a cult

This is a piece I wrote recently to discuss the damage done to me when I got caught up in religious extremism in my youth. I intend this to be the basis of articles I pitch to the media. A lot of young people who were passionate Christians like me get sucked into very intense, unbalanced environments, and it can be far more damaging than we’d realise. Being caught up in an intense, 24/7 religious world without any critical evaluation of what is going on around you can do a lot of harm. I ended up spending a year on a voluntary programme of mission, training and church work from 1992 to 1993, when I was a rather naive and inexperienced 18-year-old, and it was only years later I realised I’d basically spent a year in a cult, getting extremely messed up by the experience. Here is my story.

I was raised in a non-religious household, so it came as a surprise to everyone – myself included – when I became a Christian in 1990, at the age of fifteen. A friend at school had invited me to some mission events at his church, and I’d been surprised and impressed by what I found. The welcome was warm and friendly, and the debates and discussions made sense. At a youth event on 1st March 1990, hosted by Baptist minister Steve Chalke, I responded to an altar call, and devoted my life to God. I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for, but it all seemed to make sense, and it felt like it met real needs – I wasn’t particularly happy at home or at school, and here was something that seemed to have the answers to my problems.

I ended up regularly attending church services and becoming an enthusiastic member of the church youth group. This provided both a vibrant social life, and plenty of teaching, which I soaked up with great enthusiasm. I was so passionate about my new faith that I went to every Bible study and prayer meeting that I could. My school work began to suffer as a result, and my parents became quite concerned as I seemed to forget everything else, but I was so happy in church. I felt genuinely loved and cared for, I could have deep and engaging discussions about things that mattered, and it felt like I was involved in something important – indeed, it had eternal consequences. It was a welcome escape from my parents’ money troubles and my sister’s catastrophic mental health problems, and a world away from the bullying and ridicule I suffered at a brutally competitive boys’ grammar school.

I soon started going to some prayer meetings with friends who were very excited about “gifts of the spirit”. These are supposed supernatural gifts which God gave members of the early church, and are described in the Acts of the Apostles. These gifts supposedly died out, but in the early 90s there was a lot of interest in them, and a revival of their use. This involved things like speaking in tongues, being filled with the Holy Spirit, having visions and words of knowledge, and even things like being healed from serious health problems, physical and mental. Some exciting things happened at these meetings, which left us on a real high, feeling that God was channeling his power through us. I couldn’t get enough. I soon started going to a youth event called Interface, run at a local leisure centre once a month. It felt very radical and cutting-edge. Worship was led by a rock band, prominent charismatic preachers urged us to dedicate our lives to God, and often people would fall to the floor “slain in the spirit”. It was here that I found out more about TIE Teams. TIE stood for “Training In Evangelism”. These were outreach and training programmes for future church leaders. You could do a two-week summer programme, and there was also a year-long programme that was a popular choice for people on their year out. I did the short programme in 1991 when I was 17, and loved it. I decided I wanted to do the year programme once I’d done my A-levels.

I had to raise £3000 in fees to be able to pay for the training and accommodation over the course of the year. My parents had very little money and couldn’t help, but churches love enthusiastic young people, and I was soon absolutely swamped by donations, some surprisingly large. A few fundraising activities saw the coffers swell even more. Within a few months it was obvious I’d have the money – this was a sign that I was “living by faith” and doing God’s will. My fellow youth group members treated me as a hero. My parents were absolutely amazed that I managed to find the money. I don’t think they ever approved of what I was doing, but they supported me, and in September 1992, my dad drove me to a Christian conference centre in the Kent countryside, where a week-long induction for the 60 or so of us on the year began.

I found much of that first week pretty stressful. There was a lot of pressure to be outgoing and extrovert, and I didn’t really understand at the time that this is massively outside my comfort zone. I was nervous a lot of the time, and found it very easy to be socially awkward and a bit clueless. Everyone seemed to know each other already, and it felt hard to fit in. I felt judged for coming from a church no-one there had heard of. I did my best to get through it all, though, and soon began to make friends. The training, prayer and worship was hugely exciting. It was all in a slightly different league to what I’d been used to, though – I soon discovered that the radical, cutting-edge spiritual gifts side of things came with an extraordinary amount of social conservatism and policing of our behaviour.

After that first week, I was despatched along with five others to a church in Bognor Regis, where I was to spend the bulk of my year working. We were an odd bunch of people without much in common, and we didn’t always get on. I was given a mentor for the year – a leader in the church who was in his thirties at the time, married with young kids. He was a nice guy, but his mentoring turned out to be gruesomely invasive. I was forced to talk about practically every thought I ever had, and everything I did was ruthlessly analysed and torn apart. I didn’t have enough knowledge, courage or understanding to resist this brutal treatment – I had my privacy constantly invaded, and every one of my extremely natural human failings as a rather clueless 18-year-old away from my support network for the first time was treated as a giant cosmic battle between good and evil. Guilt and shame became constants in my life, as I was forced to change and do things that didn’t come naturally to me at all. I ended up keeping a detailed diary that was read and criticised at my weekly mentorship meetings. It was horrible.

I ended up working long hours as a dogsbody for the church, doing a bunch of tasks that clearly no-one else wanted to do. As a team, we were under pressure to deliver converts, and spent countless hours knocking on doors, handing out leaflets and doing stupid sketches in shopping centres. It was pretty hard going, and our team leader – a woman called Beccy who was only a couple of years older than me, was very hard to work with. She’d regularly snitch the rest of us up for supposedly being “rebellious”, and this resulted in our team getting aggressively yelled at by a church leader, and accused of blocking God’s will from being done. To be told this was incredibly distressing, and had serious negative consequences in my life for many years.

We had regular training sessions with other teams based on the south coast, and I often enjoyed those, although again they could be hard work. I don’t have any of the training material or my diaries any more, but the material represented a very particular form of Christianity that was brutally uncompromising and very dismissive of other philosophies. It encouraged a very paranoid worldview. I was once talking to a church leader about music, and mentioned that I had just bought Enya’s new album. I was immediately criticised for listening to this, as Enya’s music was full of New Age spiritual influences – the church was absolutely paranoid about this at the time, and it was seen as a potential foothold for demonic powers. I shared a large house with a number of other male church members, one of whom had a serious anger management problem. I only found out years later that he was gay, and was undergoing what we would now refer to as conversion therapy. He was pressured into marrying a woman, but the relationship predictably failed not long afterwards.

The church had a really high level of control over its members’ lives, and I remember on at least one occasion a woman was thrown out for “immorality”, and was never spoken about again. It was like she never existed.

I frequently had really difficult days, but was told to interpret these as God’s refining fire – he was making me stronger so I could better serve him in the future. I saw it as a sign of growth. While I did undoubtedly do a lot of growing up over the course of that year, and thought it was all a positive experience, as the years went on, I had to wonder.

I finished my year in the summer of 1993. It ended with various mission trips around the UK, and two weeks in Germany, which all felt exciting and encouraging. We spent a final week all together in the same conference centre before going our separate ways. In many cases, people went on to university, but in my case I went back home to an uncertain future.

I found adjusting back to normal life very difficult, and my faith ended up irrepairably damaged. I eventually rejected it completely. It took me a long time to realise, but this year was so intense and so abusive that it really damaged me. We lived 24/7 in an environment where God was everything. Before the internet, our leaders had complete control of the information we were fed, and we were kept so busy we had no time or energy to question what we were told. I wasn’t able to recognise that the dictatorial leadership stole my autonomy, made me think that every thought and desire I had was evil and wrong, and tried to force me into being a very different kind of person to the one I really was.

I eventually gave up going to church many years later, in 2015, because it was making me angry and depressed, and I no longer believed what I was being taught. I soon realised I was much happier, and that going into a church made me anxious because it no longer felt like the safe, welcoming space it had when I was a teen. It was now caught up with abuses of power, deceit, cruelty and harmful, misleading teachings I was desperate to run away from.

In 2020, I had some psychology appointments at my local hospital in an attempt to resolve an ongoing insomnia problem. My difficult religious experiences came out in the discussions I had, and I was soon referred to another psychologist to start dealing with the effects of religious trauma. It was only as these appointments progressed that I realised just how badly I’d been damaged by my year out. I’d inadvertently got caught up with a cult, and had been carrying around a toxic legacy for nearly 30 years. Only now was I able to see how much my self-esteem had been damaged, and how little confidence I had in my inner voice. It’s only now that I can see the unholy competition between Christian organisations desperate to get young people to give up a year to work for them for nothing. They exploit the passion and idealism people like me had, and our desire to make the world a better place. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for, and I was used and mistreated by people I should have been able to trust. I hope this might make some young people think twice before getting involved in something so harmful and dangerous.

2 thoughts on “A year in a cult”

    1. You’re welcome. It’s been therapeutic working through this stuff, and working out how and why things went wrong.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *