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How many sheep will the shepherds lose? An article in U.S. News & World Report indicated that, each year, scores of young Americans join upwards of 3,000 cults, often on college campuses. Many of these youth are Christians who lack maturity, and have not been taught to identify and deal with cult recruiters. But I didn't need a magazine article to tell me about the danger.

In 1984, an InterVarsity staffer on a California campus lost one of his sheep to a roving "Christian" cult called The Brethren. That lost sheep is my son Kraig. Kraig's "church" is the epitome of a Bible-based cult. It's nomadic. Members separate from the world (including all family and friends) and yield to the absolute control of the Elder, Jimmy Roberts. "Witnessing" is essentially recruiting.

Retrieving someone from a cult is very difficult. They adopt the group's beliefs. There's a breakdown in rational thought. Trying to talk them out is usually impossible. Unless members see someone as a potential recruit, they are reluctant to discuss their beliefs. They fear outsiders and are taught that leaving the group will cost them their salvation.

An ounce of prevention is worth a hundred-weight of cure. My 16 years of experience in the world of cults has revealed, time after time, how tough it is to prepare young people to identify and walk away from cult recruiters. If you've never talked with a cult member, prayerfully seek out a Mormon Missionary or a Jehovah's Witness and challenge their beliefs. It will give you some idea of how hard it is for young Christians to fend off spiritual predators.

Since thousands of cults exist, it's impossible to educate young people about each one. Kraig's "brothers and sisters" wear distinctive clothing. Others aren't as easy to identify. Many cultists dress as we do, making it impossible to single them out. And while some cults on campus are extremely open, they often use a palatable doctrine as bait until the hook is set and it's too late for their catch to realize they're being reeled in. Here are some effective, though not foolproof, means of preparing students to identify and fend off cult recruiters:

• Convince teens that they are no match for a well-trained cultist. Manipulative recruiters know the Bible better and can express their beliefs more forcefully than 90 percent of all Christians. Also, the truth is not in these people. They will lie and twist Scripture.

• If one of your sheep is approached by a stranger (or even a "friend of a friend") who wants to talk about Jesus or invites them to a Bible study, they should issue an invitation of their own. Have teens ask the stranger to visit with you, a senior pastor, a youth pastor or other mature Christian to discuss their faith. If the stranger attempts to put off such a meeting or says, "It's your decision, not another's," the teen should walk away. The stranger is probably a recruiter.

• If such a stranger uses Christ's words or Scripture to intimidate, produce guilt or attack mainline denominations, a young person should end the conversation. Chances are, they're being sized up by a recruiter.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that Christians immature in the Word (despite having studied it for years) are no match for most cult recruiters. The adolescent who nobly tries to confront such ideologies often ends up being the one enlisted.

My son Kraig left six pages of notes and questions he had written as the recruiter was working on him. In different colored ink he scribbled the answers, derived either independently or with the cultist's help. He even wrote down the question, "Is this group a cult?" His response: "No." It took the recruiter five days to ensnare his heart and mind. Kraig left on April 7, 1984. His mother has seen him once and I have seen him twice in the last 16 years.

Shepherds, prepare your sheep.

Jim Foster's odyssey into understanding cults and retrieving members has included service with the Spiritual Counterfeits Project in Berkeley, Calif. Jim and his wife, Pat, have also conducted seminars and organized the parents of cult members into a support/educational body. The couple's own heart-wrenching story was featured on ABC's Prime Time Live.

Published April 2000