Word of Life Church Was an 'Old School Cult' in the Digital Age

Religious cults are building their brands are recruiting fans online -- and some are online only.

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As details about life inside the mysterious Word of Life Church continue spilling out, former members of the church in upstate New York insist the group is not a cult.

But at least one expert in the field says the church’s insular behavior and power structure is perfectly tailored to the psychology of classic cult behavior, less likely to be seen as similar sects move into the digital age.

“This is an old-school group,” Rick Ross, specialist on destructive cults and movements tells Inverse. “It’s typical in many ways. They’re very isolated, they’ve cocooned their members and homeschooled the children. Besides a web site to sell pedigree yorkies, they were very isolated. That’s a common characteristic in cults to make sure they are the only ones influencing the member’s judgements.”

On Sunday night, two teenage brothers were brutally beaten inside the church in Chadwick, New York, and on Monday, one of them, Lucas Leonard, 19, was pronounced dead at a hospital. His brother Christopher was found by police in the church, suffering from serious injuries. Police think six people, two of which are parents of the boys, beat the boys.

“Both brothers were continually subjected to physical punishment over the course of several hours, in hopes that each would confess to prior sins and ask for forgiveness,” Chief Michael S. Inserra of the New Hartford, New York Police Department told the press on Wednesday.

Word of Life’s methods are time-worn, but practically quaint in the age of social media. It’s a mistake to think a recruit needs to be isolated from friends and family to be absorbed into predatory groupthink. More frequently, cults are building their brands the same way the rest of do, following people on Twitter, posting to Facebook, and setting up YouTube channels. Today a group that fits all cult classifications can operate without ever having its members together in one room.

“Some would argue that the web makes them more dangerous,” Ross says. “Look at ISIS. Obama’s called them an apocalyptic cult, they’ve been called a destructive cult, and they recruit through the web and they’ve been very effective doing that. And people are getting killed. Cults aren’t going away. But people have realized that its very effective, radicalizing people through the web, and that’s what we’re going to see more and more of.”

“There are some groups that want labor, some go for physical and sexual abuse, some engage in violent or criminal acts,” Ross says. “Some cults are more destructive than others who might have cult behaviors. A cult can be any group with a charismatic leader who molds the members mindsets. You could say Steve Jobs did that at Apple but other than driving stock value and selling some cool products, he wasn’t really destructive. These groups can be benign.”

And once these groups can cut themselves off to outsiders, as Word of Life is said to have done in New Hartford — neighbors who described them as secretive — members can reinforce bizarre behavior as the norm without any voice of reason questioning their actions.

“I did an intervention not long ago where the subject, a woman, had a master’s degree in information technology and worked and was married and had a kid, but was a member of a group through social media,” Ross says. “She would recruit for them, spend hours online working for them, send them money. The leader communicated with maybe 100 followers almost exclusively through social media. I don’t know he even had that many followers inside the U.S.”

Ross began studying cult behavior in the 1980s when a religious group targeting the elderly infiltrated his grandmother’s nursing home. He’s since done more than 500 interventions with people involved in dangerous groups, including the Branch Davidians, worked with the FBI, and lectured at universities. His book Cults Inside Out: How People Get in and Can Get Out, is a primer on how these groups manipulate recruits.

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