Many people have asked us about an academic paper that Dr. Stephen Hunt gave at the 2001 CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions) Conference and which was published on the Internet. It is entitled “Evangelism, Boundary Maintenance and Demonization: Some Strategies of a Christian Fundamentalist Anti-Cult Organization,” and concerns us directly.
There are two main ways that people unfairly criticise Reachout Trust – I say unfairly because we are always willing to listen and respond to fair criticism. First people simply say we are wrong and should withdraw certain statements but provide no evidence to support their claim. Second, we are criticised for saying and doing things that we have never said or done.
This work falls into the latter category. In some ways this is the hardest criticism to deal with because it concerns something that isn’t there, i.e. statements never made, actions never taken. The danger is that people may think you are changing your history because they already accept what someone else has said about you. However, as is often said in the movies, “we were framed!”
Stephen Hunt describes himself as,
“…a lecturer and researcher in the Sociology Department, University of the West of England.”
All I can say is the quality of his research, in this instance, is wanting. To demonstrate what we mean we reproduce below some paragraphs from the report along with our response. We can email a copy to anyone who wants to see the full context. In the paper he refers to us under the pseudonym The Omega Trust – it is a pity he did not get his alpha, beta, and gamma right. Not only is the name fictitious much of what he says about us is too.
The paper covers many aspects of fundamentalism in general, but especially as they relate to the work of anti-cult groups, Reachout Trust in particular. Dr. Hunt has many interesting observations to make on the subject and tells us that he has written “numerous articles on contemporary Pentecostalism and Christian fundamentalism”. Perhaps there will be time and space to address these wider issues later. Here we seek to address specifically how Dr. Hunt represents Reachout Trust.
Something should be said about the language used since language communicates implicit messages simply by the way it is framed. He accuses us of ‘stigmatizing’ groups with whom we take issue, applying ‘deviant labels’, and of using tactics that are typical of ‘groups of this ilk’. The tone is clearly disapproving and he breaks his own rules by describing us in a way that stigmatises Reachout Trust.
He uses derogatory language, words such as ‘ilk’ for instance. Once a word that meant ‘of the same type’, it is now more familiar as a term of derision. Fowler’s describes it as a word that arouses passions and we wonder if this is his intent. Of course, when you have a view for which you make a stand, which he does, you will inevitably take a position in opposition to competing views, as he does. What you say is simply bound to upset someone since, however you say it, you are telling people they are wrong, as again he is here.
We don’t mind people taking issue with us, indeed we welcome debate, and contend that we do a service in making debate possible for people who would never find opportunity in their own groups. Why is it stigmatising when we contend for a view but reasonable when he does it?
Dr Hunt frequently refers to Reachout personnel as “self-appointed”, “self-styled”, “self-assigned”, again, terms used in derision. But he is, himself a “self-appointed” arbiter of what can and cannot legitimately be done in addressing conflicting world-views. When he does it, of course, it is OK since it is done in the name of something he believes in. When he describes our doing it he somehow succeeds in making it sound thoroughly dirty and disreputable. Indeed, his contempt cannot in any way be described as disguised.
Dr Hunt observes that Reachout Trust “is not itself an easy [organisation] to penetrate”.
We are mystified by this remark. Reachout Trust is not at all secretive, and a simple letter, or phone call to Head Office would have gained our co-operation in explaining how we work. The Reachout Trust leadership team was not approached formally for interviews, neither are we aware of anyone else being approached. Dr Hunt writes,
“Interviews…constituted a key element of the research methods. This included, firstly, a number of interviews of those in leadership positions at a local level in London and other regional centres.”
If these interviews were a key element in his research why did they pass without our notice?
Dr Hunt tells us that,
“while many aspects of the methods used in research were direct and overt, some methodological strategies… did involve more covert research tactics”.
We begin to understand his “strategies”. We do see how he may have felt that making himself known might have deprived him of the spontaneity and candour he was seeking, although we would not adopt such tactics ourselves. However, he goes on to reveal that,
“some thirty interviews were conducted of individuals involved in alternative religions who had dealings with [Reachout] as a result of its evangelizing outreaches”.
Clearly, those people were fully aware of what he was doing. He further reveals that,
“early contact with those who had interfaced with [Reachout] led to subsequent contacts who offered themselves for semi-structured interviews”.
So, while Reachout was unaware that we were being interviewed and researched, others were being invited, indeed queuing up, to tell Dr Hunt exactly what they thought of us.
“The leadership and “gate-keepers” of [Reachout] are largely constituted by a number of vociferous activists with a self-styled mission. While their background is difficult to discern, they appear to largely originate from local church leadership positions or dedicated lay people.”
The leadership of Reachout Trust is transparent to all that care to know. Who are these gatekeepers, and what is their function? Dr Hunt seems to be describing a secret society. If anyone has been secretive it is Dr Hunt. Perhaps he is getting this view from our critics, with whom he was happy to associate openly. Had he been more frank with Reachout he might have been more accurate in his descriptions. As it is he seems to have passed among us totally incognito through goodness knows what secret portal.
“Although difficult to estimate, there are probably a few hundred active members who are operative through regional branches…”
Who are these “few hundred active members”, and where do they live? We would be glad of them. And where exactly are these “regional branches”? We do attempt to have contacts around the country to whom we send inquirers for local help and information, and we do try and organise them for prayer and mutual support, but there are no “branches” of Reachout Trust like branches of Woolworth. As for numbers – we wish!
“While the [Reachout] Trust is an autonomous organization, it nonetheless enjoys the endorsement of many evangelical missions in Britain…It also has attempted to forge links with similar organizations in North America and Europe and includes a “Council of Reference” with leading evangelical bodies and churches on an international scale.”
In other words we have a good reputation across a wide spectrum of the Christian Church, at home and abroad, and many Evangelical leaders, and others, endorse what we do. Of course, if he is determined to see this as evidence of how unscrupulously we wield influence there isn’t much we can do about it. Interestingly at present we do not have an official “Council of Reference” Although we did have one for the first few years of our existence not one member was from Europe.
“[Reachout’s] advertising in the media attracts those in the faith, and church-leaders are particularly encouraged to participate in the ministry’s specially organized events. Since 1976, the primary means of involvement has been through [Reachout’s] annual convention, which usually lasts for three days and constitutes a series of seminars and workshops, which will attract several hundred people. Advertised in the mainstream evangelical media, these conferences have come to enjoy a fairly high degree of respectability in conservative Christian circles. Informal interviews with individuals attending these events found them to be representative of most of the major strands of conservative Christianity in Britain with the impression, at least, that charismatic and the independent ‘New’ churches were over-represented. At the same time they also represent important opportunities to network with representative from the mainstream or even liberal churches.”
Again he seems to object to our enjoying “a fairly high degree of respectability in conservative Christian circles”. However what is evident is that he is actually attributing more to us than he should. We did not undertake any advertising in the media in this period for the simple reason that Reachout did not come into being under that name until 1985 with the roots of the work going back into 1981. The only on-going media advertising we have ever been involved with has been on Premier Christian Radio. As for attendances at our conventions once they began in the early 1980s it would not even have reached 100 at this time and not the several hundred mentioned.
“[Reachout] also has its own system of cult “de-programming”…Although the trust does not engage in anything so controversial as the forceful removal of individuals from alternative religions, the deprogramming of younger members, often with the expressed support of parents, can be quite rigorous and constitutes not so much an attempt to return the cult member to mainstream society…as to an alternative “Christian” world view. The familiar cultist strategy of “love-bombing” and the voluntary removal to some form of “retreat” or safehouse can provide the environment for fairly systematic indoctrination. Although relatively mild compared to the alleged strategies of some cults, and indeed anti-cultist groups, manipulative procedures including isolation, limited interaction and social exchanges for a number of days, as well as persuasive endeavours to remove individuals from their former environment, can be interpreted as a reasonably systematic and coerced attempt at recruitment.”
Reachout has no “de-programming” system. Dr Hunt seems determined to view the most innocent activities, such as a Bible study, as sinister. Given that approach, we are all condemned, Christians of every kind. Not to mention all the groups he seems so determined to defend against us.
So far as retreats, or safe-houses are concerned, we have no idea what he means. We do not have, nor have we ever had, such places. Indeed, one of our problems is not being able to offer such facilities to people who ask.
Dr Hunt criticises us for “not attempting to return the cult member to mainstream society…[but] to an alternative ‘Christian’ world view.” Here again we fail to see why it is alright for him to insist that his world-view, and the world-view of “mainstream society” is legitimate, and attempts to persuade people of that view commendable, while our attempt to promote our own, Christian, world-view is somehow reprehensible. We also wonder where he finds evidence that we isolate people, restrict their interaction, and use other “manipulative procedures”?
“Frequently, the strategy taken by [Reachout] is to appeal to the cause of environmental protection. Hence, the ministry’s campaign against the Mormon temple concentrated upon its construction bringing a blight to the local countryside.”
The “campaign” against the Mormon temple was based almost entirely on the belief that Mormonism is a counterfeit of true Christianity. People in the locality of the temple were offered an opportunity to “hear the other side of the story” before deciding how they view this major development in their area. There was no concerted attempt by Reachout to play the environment card, which is clear to anyone who reads the literature we handed out at the time.
“In campaigning against the building of Moslem mosques, Reachout has advanced its own line, that is, “to keep Britain Christian”.”
I do not know of one campaign ever undertaken with regard to building a mosque and as for the campaign “keep Britain Christian” it is laughable. Britain is not Christian and so we cannot keep what is not there. Beyond that we have always made clear in our literature that everyone is free to believe what they want but we want to be free to say that we believe there is a different and better way.
So often we are accused of shoddy research, misrepresentation and questionable motives. But here again we see the worse manifestation of these things in one of our detractors. Unfortunately, the pluralist and secular, anti-faith, view put forward by Dr Hunt is gaining ground and many will be impressed by the spirit of his arguments because hey echo the spirit of the age.
How many will bother to look deeper to find the flaws, and downright misrepresentations, in what he says? All the more reason for us to be sure of our ground, honest in our motives, faithful and wise servants (Matt.24:45) and workmen approved of God correctly handling the word of truth (2 Tim.2:15).