The Fine Line Between Culture and Cult

I’ve been in a lot of churches over the years, and not just ones that I have served on staff at or been a member at, but also visited alone or with friends, and there is a phrase I have heard quite frequently no matter the denomination, style, or location…and that is this:

To understand our Church you have to understand our DNA.

Or sometimes they simply say, “That’s just our DNA” in response to describing something about the personality of the church.

But what in the world do they mean by that??


What they usually mean by DNA is that their DNA is their cultural distinctions that have emerged in that specific local church body versus what you may find in other local church bodies.

For example, you may find a church that has…

  • Foreign missions as a major value and focus
  • Church planting as a major value and focus
  • Music as a major value and focus
  • Prophetic ministry as a value and focus
  • Healing ministry as a value and focus
  • Cultural engagement as a value and focus
  • And so on…

In other words, there may be aspects of Christianity or the Christian life that, as a local church body, they gravitate more towards and want members of their local body to adopt as a major value and focus in their own lives as well.

It is true…we tend to gravitate toward those we have the most in common with, as there is comfort there. As a result there does emerge a common bond or DNA among the members of that local church body that becomes quickly apparent as you attend more and more of their gatherings.

In the Church culture context, this DNA usually flows down from Church leadership.

Church DNA and culture can be wonderful things to help center and unify a body.

But there is a fine line between establishing a Church culture…and establishing a cult.


In some cases, the church DNA makes a serious shift away from simply making a focus out of an aspect of the Christian life or Church life, and moves towards something that is far more harmful than we may really understand.

If you’ve been in a church body like this, perhaps you know what I’m talking about. It’s usually not something that happens over night either…but starts off with good intentions and suddenly becomes something far more than anyone bargained for.

Here are some signs you may want to keep your eyes open for:

  • Suddenly, every person that leaves your church is an “enemy of the state”, and the church leaders, while they may never tell you to directly disconnect from them, will make it painfully obvious that remaining connected with this person is a real test of loyalty to the Church and pastor and not a wise decision.
  • Church leaders who don’t get on board immediately with the elders and/or pastor are suddenly seen as a dissident that needs to remember where their loyalty lies, or consider a new ministry and church to be part of.
  • All other churches not doing it like yours are just not as “faithful” to the calling of a Christian and a Church as you and your church are.
  • Money becomes a major focus. More specifically, it becomes something they speak more about “needing” but become less and less transparent about what is happening with that money once they get it.
  • Pastors start referring to the money the Church has gathered through tithes and offerings as though it is their own money.
  • Respectful challenges to leaders and even the spouses of leaders is suddenly seen as dissension and divisive, and is immediately squashed through direct “correction” or instant removal from your role.
  • Even the most loyal of members gets pushed to a distance by leadership and everyone’s words, actions, and motives become suspect. The pastor and leaders suddenly become very paranoid about these things.
  • HUGE decisions are made without the knowledge of the whole church, and even without the knowledge of some leaders who are seen as potentially disloyal, and are only presented at the last minute when nothing can be said or done to challenge or prevent them.

I’m sure I could keep going…I don’t just speak these things from observation…but also from participation. I did a lot of these things. And perpetuated a lot of these things in some of the churches I’ve belonged to and served in over the years…but in light of that I have to ask…

  • What happens when your local church body develops a DNA that is contrary to what the Bible tells us is the DNA of a Church and/or a believer?
  • What happens when a pastor moves from servant to dictator and demands you either adopt the DNA or see your way out of their body?
  • What happens when church leaders begin to sound more like hollow echo chambers and yes men and women rather than a body of accountability and wise counsel?

I’ll tell you what happens…you move from having a culture to becoming a cult.

But is there any way to prevent this from happening, or at least put up some safeguards to help detect when this is happening and confront and address this before it becomes too late?


I do think there are at the very least two steps that can be taken to help protect a Church body from becoming victims of cult mentality. Here are just some I think would make a huge difference:

  • Accountability: Pastors and church planters alike need to have accountability put into place with people who are personally given the authority to speak into the life of the pastor, the leaders of the church, and the church itself. Someone who is given the authority to give a hard check to the pastor and the churches leaders and even take steps to stop a pastor and the church leaders from being able to continue forward if they begin to exhibit cult like behaviors. More than just the pastor needs to be allowed to help determine the accountability. If this part is left up to one man, they will be more likely to bring people around them that are yes people and will be of no use to providing actual accountability. This accountability needs to be made of people both inside and outside of this local church body to provide internal perspective as well as outside unbiased perspective.
  • Plurality: A church does not need to be solely led by one person. This isn’t biblical and it isn’t wise. The picture of leadership painted in the New Testament is one of plurality. Christ is the head, and the rest of us are the body. But too often Pastors are made out to be the head, with Jesus as like…the hair or something…and the rest of us the body. The reality is, overseers and elders alike are joined together in the responsibility of leading and shepherding a local church body. There isn’t one person who gets more of a vote than another. They function in unity through careful examination and application of scripture (Ephesians 4), and they hold the feet of one another to the fire when necessary. They are vulnerable with one another and submitted to one another. They work together to equip the local church body, not rule over them like dictators and tyrants.

As with most things, there are plenty of other steps that can be taken, but I believe these two things specifically are foundational toward the development and health of a local church and helping to protect that body from moving into a cult like mindset.


I don’t envy you if you are, because I’ve been there, and I messed up with how it should’ve been handled. So what I’m about to tell you isn’t how I handled it at all, but after much thought, prayer, and regret…I believe this would’ve been the best approach (sometimes hindsight really is 20/20).

STEP 1: Pray and weigh out your concerns Explore with scripture and with God and the Holy Spirit what you are feeling and the concerns you have. Make sure that what you are seeing take place isn’t simply a reaction to an offense on your part. Then, if you have determined it’s not simply being offended…move to the next step.

STEP 2: Go to the Pastor and Church Leaders with your concerns The first step is simply to approach your pastor and church leaders with your concerns. Respectfully outline for them what you see as problematic. If they address them, and you see changes take effect…then this is wonderful. If they flippantly dismiss them, excuse them, or give you lip service and move on without even remotely considering your concerns, then you have cause to move to the next step.

STEP 3: Go to the outside accountability with your concerns If you know that there exists an outside accountability, then I would first recommend reaching out to them directly with your concerns. They will likely want to hear your side, they will then want to hear your pastors and church leaders side, and they may even want to bring you all together for a discussion. If it is determined by the outside accountability that nothing nefarious is taking place, but you still have a sinking feeling in your gut and you’ve given this over to lots of prayer and careful consideration (not simply jumping to conclusions and making irrational decisions), step 4 is the next and final step to take.

STEP 4: Find a new church You don’t want to do it. No one really wants to do it. But sometimes it’s absolutely necessary…hard…but necessary. You may be tempted to try and drag others out with you. Don’t do it. There is still a possibility you could be wrong about your understanding of the situation, and it would be unwise to pull others in to your corner unnecessarily. There may be times when it is necessary…but I would give careful thought toward that end, and seek a lot of wise counsel before deciding how to approach that.

Like I said, I didn’t do any of these things, and looking back I really wish I had. Don’t make the same mistakes I made assuming it will get better, and that it’s just the enemy who is trying to create division in the Church body. There may be very real concerns that need to be addressed, and if no one speaks up it may never get addressed.

Just make sure that when you act that you’re coming from a good spirit, with a right motive, and not acting on rumor, assumption, or offense.

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