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G12 Churches: Cults or discipleship? Part I4 min read

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NOTE: This post is part of a Series on the G12 Model

My wife and I spent our 6th, and best anniversary so far, in the San Luis Obispo area (SLO) last weekend, and enjoyed reconnecting with one of my missionary buddies from 15 years ago (YWAM).  We had a great time talking about life, faith, losing faith, and to a lesser extent, the problem with ‘church’ as it is practiced in evangelicalism.

While I was down there, I was asked by a friend to check out the local G12 church named Mercy Church because they were concerned that the church was exercising a little too much control over one of their friends who was attending.

So I checked it out, and here’s what I learned.  And that’s an actual pic from the worship (click to enlarge).

A.  My experience with abusive churches

I am the perfect candidate (IMO) to check out allegations of spiritual abuse and cultlike behavior in charismatic churches.  You see, I became a Christian, and was formed as a young Christian, in the now infamous Maranatha Campus Ministries, started by Bob and Rose Weiner.  After five years of that, I bailed and joined YWAM.  However, even the healthy spirituality of YWAM was not enough to keep me from later abandoning Christianity altogether.

Thankfully, after many years of healing and exploration, I regained a Christian faith, but this left me wary and aware of how serious spirituality can go bad.  I also found out what the healthy item looks like.  Many people who experience unhealthy faith not only never return to Christianity or faith at all, but can end up as anti-theists, such as John Lofton and Dan Barker (caveat: these men did not just have a negative emotional experience, but claim that their intellectual reasoning also led them out of faith).

B.  Characteristics of controlling churches

Just so you know what kind of thing I am looking for, here’s the characteristics and catch phrases and attitudes that are red flags:

  1. Overcontrol of finances (heavy emphasis on tithing)
  2. Overcontrol of relationships (emphasis against sensuality)
  3. Arminian emphasis (you have to maintain holiness to keep your salvation)
  4. Elitism (we are God’s elite, we only want people who are 100% comitted)
  5. Isolationism (come apart from your family and friends)
  6. Overemphasis on obedience to authority (disobeying leaders is a ‘rebellious spirit’)
  7. Militarism (sole emphasis on ‘God’s army’ and a preoccupation w/ spiritual warfare)
  8. Exclusivism (if you leave us, you are falling away from God)
  9. Healing and Deliverance ministry (casting spirits out of Christians)

Now, I’m not saying that these things are wrong, only that in cults, they are often applied without balance, with the intent to control instead of release, and often, misapplied in other ways (particularly, I am not fond of deliverance ministry, but am not entirely against it – it’s just way too easy to abuse).

C.  What I read when researching on the inet

There are definitely some disaffected and hurt people that seem to be fallout from the G12 movement.  I read their stories, and read the criticisms.  Here’s a smattering:

  1. Concerns about the G12 Movement (Joel Comiskey, 2002 – a very good article)
  2. More Concerns about the G12 Movement (Joel Comiskey, 2002)
  3. A Look at G12 (Reach Out Trust, 2005)
  4. Negative G12 Experiences (Reach Out Trust)
  5. G12 Portugal (Official position of the AOG Churches towards G12 in Portugal)
  6. Bigger Problem: This Sounds Like G12, a cult (
  7. G12 – The Government of 12 (
  8. Encountering G12 – The Encounter (
  9. G-12: A new system makes church membership grow exponentially (, WSJ)
  10. Generations Church cult (
  11. honestly: church

After reading all these and more, I was prepared for the worst.  It all sounded so familiar.  However, I had some hope because :

  1. There are always disaffected people, esp. when it comes to virile religion
  2. Often, high vision organizations vary from healthy to unhealthy just based on local leadership, not a problem with the whole enterprise
  3. I had heard some similar complaints about YWAM, but my experience was very positive, and
  4. I had seen some books and articles (like the 6th above) that showed a shift away from exclusivity towards decentralization and modification by others who I respect

Part II:  My experience at Mercy Church in SLO.