What the Cults Can Teach Us About Missions

Christians should witness to cult members the same way they evangelize to any lost person—through the power of the gospel.

At the Lausanne Committee’s Forum for World Evangelization held in Pattaya Thailand back in 2004, a few of the world’s preeminent missiological experts formed a task force to discuss how evangelical Christians could best go about reaching out to people involved in cults.

Their report1 shed light not just on how we can engage cult members with the gospel, but also on how we can best dialogue about the Christian faith with those who are not yet at home in it.

Perhaps the most poignant truth that the Lausanne report uncovers is the fact that most cult members aren’t committed to their group because they view its doctrines as particularly compelling. One doesn’t join a cult simply because they’re convinced of its truth claims—a person joins a cult because it meets their need for meaningful community.

Several of the task force members from Lausanne 2004 went on to compile a book entitled Encountering New Religious Movements2that same year. In it they report on case after case of cult members citing the meeting of their felt needs—rather than the answering of their theological questions—as their reason for having joined the cult in the first place. These missiologists reveal that while some apologetic argumentation can deconstruct a given cult’s doctrinal propositions, most of that cult’s members couldn’t care less about.

In his Christianity Today article3 from 2018, Jerry Root of Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center contends passionately that the most effective message any apologist can put forward to a cult follower is unsurprisingly the same one that Christians should offer to any unbeliever: the gospel itself.

The most effective message any apologist can put forward to a cult follower is unsurprisingly the same one that Christians should offer to any unbeliever: the gospel itself.

People will feel the sacrificial love of Christ, he insists, more pointedly than your most carefully crafted theological argument. What Root seems to be getting at here is that there is something primary in evangelism, and it isn’t watertight apologetic argumentation. Christ’s kindness, demonstrated through the tangible love of his body, the church, is often what points sinners toward repentance.

Last year, Joshua Ryan Butler did a talk4 for The Gospel Coalition in which he highlights the increasing need for good apologetic dialogue in the wider contexts surrounding our church communities. Butler acknowledges that one byproduct of apologetic discourse may be the encouragement of those who are already Christians—that is, the shoring up of our confidence in the pillars of our faith. Butler is mainly drawing attention, though, to the fact that our non-Christian friends have serious questions that need answering, and it is through apologetic discussion—good, patient apologetic discussion—that we can present those answers to them.

People who aren’t in Christ tend to have a hunger for belonging and a felt need for reconciliation to God that in some ways precede their theological questions. But, nonetheless, those theological questions are still very real. People outside the fold of Jesus, cult members or otherwise, need to receive Christ’s love through his flock, but they also need the truth. They need warm evangelism and strong apologetics. Many of our friends and neighbors, sadly, haven’t yet seen a good glimpse of either one.

In 2019, George Bannister of Liberty University showed in his PhD dissertation5 that several of our earliest models for apologetics in Christian history were clearly aimed at effectively counseling them toward Christ, not simply at proving non-Christians wrong. To be sure, the apologetic agenda is, by its very nature, aimed at showing the universal truth of Christianity’s belief tenets. There’s no reason, though, that apologists shouldn’t intentionally craft their presentations of that truth so people can really experience the love of Christ embedded in it.

Those outside our church communities need the gospel. They need the Holy Spirit to convict them of their sin and their need for grace. They need to feel that Jesus’ family truly is the place for them. But they are also smart, and they carry real questions that deserve serious attention. Let’s embody what the old timers called “winsomeness” by being attentive to the needs of those around us, but let’s also train ourselves in giving thorough defenses of the faith that’s within us. Let’s do the work of an evangelist, a work which—when rightly understood—goes hand-in-hand with that of the very sharpest apologist.

1. https://www.lausanne.org/content/lop/religious-non-religious-spirituality-western-world-lop-45

2. https://www.logos.com/product/129793/encountering-new-religious-movements-a-holistic-evangelical-approach

3. https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2018/june/what-are-christian-apologetics-and-how-do-they-relate-to-go.html

4. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/video/role-apologetics-play-mission/

5. https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/doctoral/1962/

Kyle Brosseau

Kyle Brosseau is a missionary with the International Mission Board in Prague, Czech Republic, and previously served in South Asia. He holds a D.Min. in Missions from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and is working on his PhD in World Religions from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @jkylebrosseau.