That time I accidentally joined a New Age cult (and what I learned from the experience)

That time I accidentally joined a New Age cult (and what I learned from the experience)

Above Image: My Facebook profile pic in 2009, around the time of these events.

A few years ago, when I first wrote the summary of how I became Catholic, I conveniently evaded a certain portion of the tale by saying that I would “save it for the book." I wasn’t seriously planning on writing a book at that point. There were just some things I wasn’t ready to talk about yet—still too fresh and, frankly, embarrassing. But I always knew I’d have to talk about it eventually. And recently, something I saw on Facebook reminded me that I left it out, and inspired me to go ahead and add that chapter.

An old friend shared a post that featured some scenes from her “house church”—something Catholics would describe as an ecclesial community. She described the blissful chaos of good friends gathered in her home over breakfast, sharing laughter and lively chatter while children play all around. I recognized other old friends of ours in the pictures, people I genuinely still miss. And this, she said, was her church.

“Looks like a great bunch!” was the comment I went with. And I meant it! I admit, however, that another one had crossed my mind before I decided not to be an awkward jerk. That one was: “I’ve experienced something very similar before, only ours was a New Age cult.”

I’m so glad I didn’t go with that comment! I realized quickly that it might have come across as a little insulting. I would never mean to insinuate that they were a New Age cult—their activities and hearts were obviously Christ-centered. But at the same time, I remembered that I never really meant to join a New Age cult. I thought it was more like a “home church” at first. Honestly, the scene looked exactly the same.

When my husband, Josh, and I were in our mid-to-late-20’s, we considered ourselves among the many “Post-modern Christians” or “Post-Evangelicals” of our generation. In general, these are people who are former Evangelicals that still love Jesus, but disagree with a lot of the rigid fundamentalism of the Evangelical movement, and are very open to reassessing the best ways to follow Christ. One popular thing to do in this movement is to meet in each others' homes, instead of in a formal churchy setting.

Josh was a full-time youth minister then, working on his Masters of Divinity, so it was pretty much his job to study theology. We were deeply influence by teachers like Rob Bell with his Velvet Elvis and Love Wins, Donald Miller with his Blue Like Jazz and Searching for God Knows What, and Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian.

One way I intended to know Christ and make Him known at the time was through the arts. As I already described in my conversion story:

One of my dreams at that point was to become an indie filmmaker. The opportunity opened-up, so Josh and I both started working for this little indie film company that thought it was making the next Napolean Dynamite, or Juno, but what it really made was just a pretty cute little indie film that won some awards at film festivals.

(Now, for those who were around at the time, you may remember specific names and titles, but they will not be mentioned here. Nor will I confirm if you ask. And it should be noted that not everyone involved in the situation was involved at every level, so there should be no speculations. My goal is not to expose others, just myself for the sake of making a very important point.)

When production was over, I continued to work with the producers as a post-production assistant. Most of the producers had actually gone to the same Christian university as Josh in his undergrad studies, and they identified themselves as Christians still, so we all spoke the same theological and spiritual language.

We would talk about movies, and we would talk about God. They had these beautiful ideals of a life-giving, creative community that made the world better through art and unity, with God and with each other, and it all reminded us of a book called The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne, which my husband had recently read and become such a big fan of. It made him want to live in a commune and share everything with other families, which I thought was a terrible idea… until I met this bunch of folks. They were the most positive, entertaining, connectable people we had ever known! We became convinced that we had found our people, our tribe, and we completely opened ourselves to them and their vision of community.

In true Wanderlust fashion, "I drank the Kool-Aid.”

Josh left his full time job as a youth minister, and we both started working for this film company full time. Our professional lives, our personal lives, our spiritual lives—all integrated and immersed in this small, tight-knit clan.

And there we were, in the blissful chaos of good friends gathered at home over breakfast, sharing laughter and lively chatter while children played all around. It was the dream.

I honestly can’t tell you when the conversations shifted from being more about God and Jesus to being all about Energy and The Universe—as if those terms were actually just interchangeable words describing the same phenomenon. But we were still using words like light, power, and truth, so it still sounded like the same conversation.

I’m not sure how it started to make sense to me that we could find the answer to any question in the Universe by applying pressure to our arms a certain way and observing the arm's response, because God/The Universe speaks through our bodies. Was that somehow what it meant to be the Body of Christ? Sure! Why not?

I have no idea exactly at what point I stopped believing that Jesus was actually God anymore than we were gods, or how it became so easy to convince me that the leader of this group was so much more enlightened than the rest of us to the point of being on the same "energy plain" as Jesus and Ghandi…

But at some point, and in some insane way… all of this did happen, I’m afraid. In true Wanderlust fashion, “I drank the Kool-Aid.”

The whole experience was elating for a time, and I felt so free! Like I could do anything! Until it wasn’t anymore, and I realized that in the name of understanding deeper reality, I completely lost touch with it. Then, I just felt like a moron.

I know what many of you will be thinking: Why didn’t you cling to the Bible?? Honestly, friends, we did not dismiss it. We clung to it in the same way most people do, by picking and choosing the verses we liked and emphasized those while completely ignoring the rest, and simultaneously ignoring the wisdom of faithful scholars to explain the context and meaning to us. We decided what it meant. So really, what were we doing that was so different?

Ultimately, in an ironic turn of events, this little group that held sustainability as one of its highest virtues did not prove to be sustainable itself. The relationships went from co-creative and life-giving to codependent and manipulative. Those blissful breakfasts turned into heated arguments that all ended one day at a table outside of Starbucks. I was tearfully trying to communicate my heart to the group regarding major problems we were facing, and the others were trying to convince me that I didn’t understand myself. They were telling me what they wanted, but framing it as being what my heart was telling them I truly wanted. At that point, I got up in the middle of the conversation, walked away from the table, got into my car, drove home, and have never seen or spoken a word to them ever since.

Josh did stop by their house once to drop off some of their things, and pick up some of ours. To my husband’s credit, he was always a lot more skeptical of their ideas than I was (which is often the case as he naturally grapples with everything). Josh never fully bought into their world view, but let’s not forget that this was also a film company. It was our jobs. And suddenly, we were unemployed. And here we pick up at the rest of the story… The Army, the existential quest for Truth, etc.

So why am I telling you all of this really humiliating stuff about how stupid and naive we were at that point in our lives? Definitely not because I suddenly enjoy talking about this, and want to shout it from the rooftops. My personal pride is reeling right now! I’m sharing this, because I learned some very important lessons from this experience, and now—after years of spiritual direction and counseling—I’m ready to share those lessons in hopes of possibly sparing others their own Wanderlust experiences. You can just skip that step by knowing this:

One. What initially made me feel at home in this group was that they shared many Christian values such as love, peace, joy, hope, light, truth, creativity, freedom, inspiration, healing, etc. And while these values are important to any Christian movement, their presence doesn’t actually make the movement Christian. Even mentioning Jesus at all doesn’t make anything or anyone Christian. That sense of happy community can probably exist in any culture. The most essential element to Christianity is this belief that Jesus Christ is God who came to earth as a man, died for our sins, came back to life, rose to heaven and is now actively saving human beings from self-destruction. That is the fundamental Truth at the heart of all those other wonderful values we hold dear, and that is main thing to look for when looking for the real, essential Christ.

Two. Deep, healthy Christian relationships are extremely important for our spiritual growth. But we also have to be able follow Jesus in a way that doesn’t depend entirely on the health of these relationships. Other people will fail us, and we will fail them, because as much as we are supposed to be like Jesus, we aren’t Him. And we can’t expect others to actually be Him. We are still works in progress, which is why repentance and forgiveness play such major roles in Christianity. When we make relationship to others equal to our relationship with Jesus Himself, those relationships become idols, and that's how so many people stumble because of other people's sin. As it turns out, idols do not make good on their promises. So while interdependence is a good, healthy goal for godly relationships, codependence is a major red flag for a toxic, destructive social environment. 

Three. Post-evangelicalism is usually more of a transitional phase rather than a permanent way of understanding God. By virtue of its envelope-pushing nature, the movement fundamentally takes us from one paradigm to another—from modern Evangelicalism to… something else… which may not necessarily be a bad thing or a good thing. Just a thing. The difference lies in where it takes us once we grapple with all of the holes we find in our previous understanding. Are we looking to design our own faith? Or are we looking to have faith in God's original design? Some of us become New Age, while others become agnostic, or complete atheists altogether. I became all of these along the way. Mostly, I became unafraid to confront challenging questions, and then, think critically about the answers in a relentless pursuit of Truth. Anything worth believing can handle scrutiny.

And ultimately, I came back to Christianity five years ago, this time, through the Roman Catholic door. Because if the probing, inquisitive nature of post-evangelicalism is allowed to play all the way through it’s course, it will either take us completely away from Christ as the center of our lives altogether, or it will take us back to the first roots of the entire Christian movement. Not to an isolated, contemporary “home church” as if we can reinvent the wheel 2000-ish years later, but to the One Church started by Christ Himself and continuing throughout the ages—the original, authentic and true Home to all Christians, where we still gather around that same table as Jesus Himself is the One breaking the bread. 

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