I was involved with a group called Young Life in high school. It is essentially a worldwide Christian outreach group based through high schools. The goal of Young Life is to reach the unreached teenagers or those who would never step foot in a church. So, it was different than most church functions. We met at people’s houses, had skits, sang pop music, danced, ate, did crazy games, and at the end, we had a bible message or testimony, this night was called Club. We also had another night we met where it was more of a bible study, where we could ask questions about and discuss life and God. I met some of closest friends through it and being in Young Life was some of my favorite high school memories.
Loving the group so much, I frequently asked my friends to come to Young Life with me. However, many often replied, “I heard Young Life is a cult and cults are bad, so no I won’t join you.”
The majority of the time when I asked them to explain to me what a cult was, and why it applied to Young Life, they would have no answer besides, “That’s just what I’ve heard.”
So to clear up any confusion I compiled a list of twenty characteristics of a cult and whether or not I thought it applied to Young Life. I tried to be as honest and unbiased as possible to give you a clear picture.
A Cult is a group that promotes false Christianity and is usually manipulative, demanding total commitment and loyalty from its followers. Converts are usually cut off from all former associations, including their own families.
- The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members. Yes, Young Life is focused on consistently and constantly bringing in new members.
- The group is preoccupied with making money. No, never once was I asked for money to support the group. The only time money was brought up was for special events, such as going to camp or retreats. None of the staff kept any money as 90% of them were volunteers
- Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished. No, questioning, doubt, and dissent were encouraged. The leaders encouraged us to challenge our beliefs and learn the truth. We were allowed and encouraged to challenge our leaders and debate with them on topics we disagreed about.
- Mind-numbing techniques (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, debilitating work routines) are used to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s). No, none of this was ever used.
- The leadership dictates sometimes in great detail how members should think, act, and feel. No, the leaders may encourage us to make certain decisions, but they are never forceful or expect us to follow their suggestions
- The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and members. No, we claimed to be just as average as everybody else. We only claimed to have a passion for showing love to those around us.
- The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which causes conflict with the wider society. No. We sought to bring community into our schools and communities, not division.
- The group's leader is not accountable to any authorities (as are, for example, military commanders and ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream denominations). No, there is a board of directors for each county of Young Life and a national board that the Young Life leaders are responsible to.
- The leadership induces guilt feelings in members in order to control them. No, never once has a group leader made me feel guilty.
- Members' subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family and friends, and to give up personal goals and activities that were of interest before joining the group. No, Young Life encourages family and friends to get involved with the group. Young Life hopes to bring the family closer to each other by its programs. Members are encouraged to stay with their family, friends, personal goals and interests.
- Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group. Sometimes, if you are a volunteer leader or student leader, you are expected to attend the two meetings a week, go to camp for a week in the summer, help with fundraising, meet with students individually to mentor them (if they want), and attend separate leadership meetings. That may sound like a lot to some people, others not a lot. However, if you just want to be a member of Young Life, you are able to devote as much or as little time as you want to.
- Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members. No, while we were encouraged to befriend those in the group, we were also encouraged to be friends with those outside the group
- Confession Sessions are used to build relationships. Full disclosure of all secret sins, thoughts, temptations, desires are expressed with those you know. These can become powerful tools to emotionally bond you to the leader or group. Yes, but only at camp and if someone chooses to. There is time at the Summer Camp if anyone wants to open up and share their story with their cabin mates.
- There is one standard for the followers and another for the leaders can do almost anything wrong while others will be rebuked and made examples of if they do the same things. No, the leadership team follows the same standards the members do, with the standards being the Bible and living a godly life.
- The Scripture is not rightly divided. Private revelations and interpretations are added to the Word and sometimes substitute it. Passages contradictory to the orthodox beliefs are being twisted and taken out of their context. Strong emphasis is placed upon certain passages making them their theme in ministry, while other pertinent scriptures on essentials and practice are completely ignored. Bible scholars who give a different interpretation from the cultists' are ignored or ridiculed. No, no part of the Bible is intentionally left out of discussions and nothing is added to the word of God. Looking back, most of the times we did only study the New Testament, but that was because it was relevant to high schoolers.
- Information control is practiced where members of the group are not allowed or discouraged to have contact with outside family members, other ministries or Christians that could influence them. This is done to prevent information that may expose what is going on internally. No, members are encouraged to continue contact and interaction with friends and family.
- Conversion into a cult is done by dynamic interactions. They look for those who are new to the town or school. The easiest way to involve someone is when they are weak and vulnerable they instantly become a potential recruit. This vulnerability can be enhanced by transitional situations in life or those who have had numerous bad experiences with love in their lives, feel rejected by people and insecure are attracted to cults. These groups make them instantly feel accepted and gives them assurance, confidence by friendship and acceptance. Many people who become discontent and disappointed in their prior church experiences are open to something new, even something. Sometimes. When looking for new people to bring to Young Life, we often look for the “farthest out kid,” which is someone who would have no intention of going to church or learning about anything church related. This is because we want to reach the lost for Christ.
- New inductees are brainwashed increment by increment until the convert identifies with the Church and its leaders and ties with family society are broken. Many claim no one can be brainwashed if they don’t want to be, but that is false. A lie is told over and over until it is accepted and believed. No, they are free to believe what they want to believe.
- Individuality is sacrificed for the group. The group's concerns supersede an individual's goals, needs, aspirations, Conformity is the key. No, members are free to have whatever goals, needs, and aspirations they want, even if they are unbiblical and are not what the leaders believe.
- CURSES and THREATS: Are put on those who leave the group or oppose them afterward. They are told there is nowhere else to go. Threats are made subtly or to their face. Once one is in there is no easy way out. No, anyone could easily leave the group for whatever reason. A leader may call to see why you have not been coming, but there is no punishment or threats to leaving the group.
So two yes’s and two sometimes. Looking at the characteristics of a cult, I would say Young Life is not a cult.