Saturday, July 26, 2008

The People of Praise and the Web: Misrepresenting Reality

Recently an article titled, The Internet as a New Place for Sects, was published by Luis Santamaria del Rio in the Cultic Studies Review. The article discusses how cults use the internet for spreading propaganda, proselytizing, countering dissenting websites, blogs, etc. and forming an idealized representation of the group.

Two notorious internet based cults include Heavens Gate and Scientology. For those of you who don’t recall, Heavens Gate was a cult that committed mass suicide in 1997. The group believed that a spaceship was following the Hale-Bopp comet and members needed to discard their physical bodies in order to be taken up by the spaceship and carried off to paradise. The PoP, believes they have been called by God to unite all Christians and build 200 cities in 40 years and have 200,000 members. Which is more absurd and unrealistic?

Furthermore, the parallels between Heavens Gate and the People of Praise are eerily similar. For example, Heavens Gate members created a web development company called Higher Source that was responsible for creating websites for the group. Similarly, the PoP has created a web development company called one:ten communications, which creates websites for the group and other companies. In relation to the size of the PoP the number of websites this group has is disproportionate and creates the illusion that the group is much larger than it really is. The PoP’s own website states that they are, “part of a global movement that has brought powerful new experiences of the Holy Spirit to more than 500 million people since the beginning of the 20th century…” For a group that has spent over 30 years maintaining an approximate 1,800 adult members, their multiple websites and misrepresentation of their size and significance should signal alarm.

The websites of the PoP include:,,,, individual branch websites and numerous member pages and blogs. The multiple websites coupled with the grandiose claims and unrealistic prophecies all come together to create an illusioned misrepresentation of a cult seeking to promote itself in the spiritual and religious marketplace.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Ignorance and Authority in the People of Praise

As a former member of the People of Praise and one who has academic interest in the group, I try to maintain open dialogues with current members and I periodically read the various blogs that current members keep. I find these blogs to offer a rich phenomenological view into the workings and ideology of the group. (see PoP blogs). I recently came across a young female members blog that expresses specific teachings and ideologies within the group. Her post is below:

"I've been thinking about our Father's plan for all of creation and where the People of Praise fits into it. (I'm going to presuppose some knowledge of the People of Praise here - for more information've always been different. Committing yourself to spend two hours of every Sunday afternoon with a group of people who are not necessarily of your denomination, using an evening every week to build friendships with a few people you might not otherwise have been drawn to, submitting your prayer life, your finances and all your major decisions to someone who is not related to you and may not even have been chosen by you - these are not things it occurs to your average American to do as a matter of course.But the Father wants us to be even more than that. We want to build real, physical cities that strangers walk into and know that they are in a different place. Our Father asks more and more and more of us for the People of Praise. He asks for our businesses, our work, our studies, our free time spent in homes that are ever closer together and more intertwined, our sleep, our eating habits, our creativity, our thinking, our 24/7, the clothes we wear, the people we love, and whether we like to keep the butter on the counter or in the fridge. He wants us all in. And every day, we see more and more clearly what the People of Praise always was as we become ever more what the Father has in mind for us; as the People of Praise becomes ever more itself.This is only a small piece of the whole universe as it comes to a point. The day will come when all things are either of the united new creation, or of that which has chosen not to be the new creation. There will be no more fence-sitting; no more neutral ground. Everything will become clear. It is more clear now than it has ever been. The light of the Lord grows ever brighter." (emphasis added by me)

Now, to anyone outside of the PoP, especially those with psychology backgrounds, this post is sure to raise a brow at the least. To anyone that has any semblance of knowledge concerning cultism or cultic characteristics and environments, this post is surely setting off alarms and red flags. There are two themes that come out of her writing, (1) the will of God and the PoP are equated and (2) this calls for the full submission of every aspect of the members life. At this point it is important to note that the PoP is largely led by lay leadership. Meaning that "heads" and "coordinators" and other leaders within the community are not required, or even expected to have any training in theology or pastoral care and most of them do not. What follows from this lack of training is a group and a leadership that teaches, and is given, far more authority than they deserve. Thus the potential for abuse, manipulation and coercion are greatly increased. One of the most potently dangerous mixes found in human nature is ignorance and authority.

Is the People of Praise a Cult?

Well, first things first: Is the People of Praise a cult? I subscribe to the following definition of cult, which is offered by members of the board at the ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association):

“A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.), designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.”

Based on this definition, for certain individuals and at certain times, the POP has been a cult. At the same time or at other times, for certain individuals, the POP has not been a cult. I very much dislike taking a relative stance on this issue, but I think we have to until a valid and reliable scientific tool used to identify cults and accurately distinguish them from mainstream religions is developed. Which, as of yet, there is no such tool.

I think it logically follows that POP is a cult and the subsequent argument offers my reasoning supporting this conclusion:

The POP board of governors is a charismatic unit that maintains excessive authority and control over the community, tactics of manipulation such as, guilt and fear arousal, excessive persuasion, induced compliance, pressure against dissent etc. have been consistently employed by lay leaders within the community and this has caused unnecessary psychological distress and has spiritually mislead members of the community. Therefore, although mostly benign, People of Praise is a cult.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

What is the People of Praise?

Former People of Praise slogan:

"The World's A Mess, Join the Solution. A People, A Place, A Revolution."
The POP is an “ecumenical charismatic Christian community” that was founded in 1971 in South Bend, IN. The formation of the group followed the Catholic Church renewal (not revision) of the early 60’s known as Vatican II. The group was created alongside similar communities such as Word of God (now The Sword of the Spirit). These groups are all offspring of what is known as the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. The POP is ecumenical in the sense that they accept members from all Christian faiths; although over 90% of the current members attend Roman Catholic Church’s. They are charismatic in the sense that they believe in, and employ, such things as speaking in tongues, prophecy and faith healing. The POP has had some trouble with growth – while being in existence for over thirty years they currently only have approximately 3,000 members; this number includes active/inactive members and also children. Some of you may be familiar with Trinity Schools. The POP owns and administers three private Christian High Schools, located in Eagan, MN, South Bend, IN and Falls Church, VA.
If satan is real, he created the POP in the pit of hell.
I was a member of what the group calls the campus division - a section of the POP that is composed of mostly, but not exclusively, college students. The campus division carries out evangelism and citybuilding work of the POP. That's right, citybuilding. The POP believes the Lord Jesus Christ has called the community to build 200 cities and recruit 200,000 members in the next 40 years. This citybuilding idea was originally presented to me as if it were a prophecy from God, but now the POP has lightened the divine influence of citybuilding and considers it a goal. I'm guessing they themselves realized how unrealistic and audacious the plan is, and saving themselves from being labeled as false prophets, chose the secular terminology of a 'goal' to describe their work.