A cult requires two things: one or more leaders–usually one–and a set followers.
If you have those two things, you’ve got the beginnings of what can easily become a cult.
In other words, ANYTHING can become a cult.
It can be a religious group; it can be a club; it can be a company (think multi-level marketing); it can be a gang; it can be a government agency; it can be a head of state.
But how does a cult typically start?
For one, it usually begins with a leader. More often than not, the leader has a substantial amount of charisma. He (in some cases she) is someone who inspires a certain loyalty. He is usually a dynamic speaker, with great people skills to boot. He may appear (or at least initially be) charitable, selfless, kind, devoted, and trustworthy. He may even be humble in his beginning stages.
As he begins his run, the leader is all that and change. He attracts a swath of people, he is likeable, he is providing answers that many people need (and that some people want to hear). The group is growing, people are happy, and some of the growth takes on a momentum of its own.
The problem is, at this stage, there are some critical, subtle switches–both within him and within the hearts of the people in the group–that people flip, and, as they flip those switches, they make fateful choices.
That critical stage where this occurs is early in the process, not later.
The leader may begin to see the devotion of the people around him, and that stokes his ego.
The people may get energized by the growth of their group and the dynamic nature of their leader, and they decide he can do no wrong.
Through that subtle process, the leader goes from a humble servant with charisma to a powerful leader who is never wrong. He starts believing that about himself, and the people in his group become HIS followers. They have made him their god; he has accepted the job.
You now have a cult. It may be large; it may be small. But it is a cult.
If you are in a church setting, here’s what it looks like:
(1) Most of the people come to church just because they like the pastor. They are less-interested in the Christian implications–or even the Biblical veracity–of his message; they are attracted to HIM.
(2) If you dare to question the veracity of anything the pastor says or does, you can count on ending up on the pastor’s–or his lieutenant’s–permanent doo-doo list. At best, you will be ignored for the rest of your time there; at worst, you will be called everything short of Satan himself and run out of town. Come to think of it, if they run you out, they may be doing you a favor…
(3) The pastor becomes very controlling and micromanagy. If he doesn’t think you are giving enough money, you’ll get a visit. If you take any initiative as a teacher, you may find yourself getting grilled by his lieutenants. If you cannot give him undying devotion, you will become persona non grata. If you tell him anything he does not want to hear, you are marked for life.
(4) As a counselor, the pastor becomes very domineering. He makes your decisions for you rather than guide you through the process of making those decisions yourself. (Sometimes, he starts doing that because people WANT him to do that, but–rather than force people to own their responsibilities–he becomes accustomed to that as the default for everyone else, and he begins doing this in ways that work to HIS advantage and not necessarily the best interests of the people involved.)
(5) As a husband, he may be controlling and/or abusive. That abuse may be physical, it may be sexual, it may be overt–or even covert–manipulation. That once charitable, selfless leader is now the most controlling, domineering, pathological mass of flesh that has no resemblance to the Biblical Jesus. At home, his wife and kids see him as a self-serving son of Belial–look that up in 1 Samuel–who puts on a costume every Sunday and Wednesday.
At this point, everyone knows what he is, but they are now afraid to call attention to the large elephant defecating all over the room. They will CRUSH dissenters, even though they know better. At this point, disaster is likely, and a peaceful resolution is close to impossible.
(6) In a worst-case scenario, the pastor starts taking sexual liberties that are not his to take. It may be with another woman; several other women; teenage girls; even members of the same sex. At this point, the disaster is imminent.
The best-case scenario: a nasty church split;
The medium scenario: a sex scandal that rocks the leadership and forces people back to their senses (think Jack Schaap).
The worst-case: mass suicide (think Jim Jones).