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  • Writer's pictureAbi Sims

The Cult of Charismatic Christianity

Updated: Jul 11, 2023

For people who grew up in Christian culture or identify as a Christian today, the words "Hillsong Church, Bethel, or Elevation Church" sound familiar to most. These mega churches (and more not mentioned) dominate the music world in Christianity, and their worship bands even go on tours, with tickets for Hillsong averaging anywhere between $70-$140 a ticket. This doesn't sound like much in comparison to a Taylor Swift concert ticket, however when thinking about people performing music "in the name of Jesus" that they're charging the public to attend, including adding on a VIP option for a hefty price where people can meet and get photographs with the bandmates and have exclusive seating (which, after much scrutiny from the public was no longer offered), it starts to raise questions about the authenticity of Christianity, or, at the very least, it raises questions about who is actually being worshipped.

Charismatic Christianity

Charismatic Christianity is a type of Christianity that focuses on the works of the Holy Spirit, which are supernatural in nature, such as speaking in tongues, signs and wonders, prophesying, casting out demons, and physical, mental, and emotional healings. Although it can be found in the majority of Protestant churches today, charismatic Christianity is placed in 3 separate groups: Pentecostalism, the Charismatic movement, and the Neo-charismatic movement.

Charismatic Christianity and Pentecostalism differ in that speaking in tongues is necessary evidence as baptism of the Holy Spirit in Pentecostalism, but that is not required as evidence in Charismatic Christianity.

Neo-charismatic churches often call themselves nondenominational, and although they wouldn't consider themselves Pentecostal or charismatic, they share a common emphasis on spiritual gifts, miracles, and the movement of the Holy Spirit.

Psychology Behind Charismatic Christianity & Mega Churches

When we're involved in any type of group event, whether it be attending a football game, a concert, or a church, we become a part of that crowd. Think back to a time when you attended an event like that, or something similar; do you remember feeling in sync with the people around you? Do you remember having an experience that felt almost...other worldly, or sacred? This isn't necessarily a negative experience; it can actually feel quite positive! However, when in a church setting, the crowd psychology of these church experiences can lead to abusive and traumatic practices within the church.

Something happens to our psyche when we're partaking in a religious experience: independent thinking is thrown out the window, and we're influenced by group think. Group think is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a group of people reach a consensus about something without critical reasoning or considering the potential negative outcomes. The goal is harmony and conformity. Everybody goes with the flow and follows the person in front of them. Group think easily occurs in charismatic settings because when you see other people having an intense religious experience, you want one, too. You don't question whether the experience is authentic or even how it's happening. And in an effort to not be the odd person out, you'll subconsciously do what you can to ensure you have some sort of spiritual experience.

You're encouraged to trust your pastors and leaders. If they have a word from God, you receive it as truth. You might find yourself going to them for major life decisions, because if they hear from God, then surely they'll know the decisions you should make! It's difficult to push back against these pastors because whether they intend to or not, they hold a position of power and influence. You, as the member, do not. There is a massive power dynamic at play.

Now, take the charismatic experiences and multiply that by 10,000: you get a mega church. Mega churches consist of sometimes hundreds of thousands of church members that meet in massive arenas or buildings, and they usually have satellite campuses in different states or countries. Their influence on the world is unmatched. They dominate the music scene in Christian culture, and because their upkeep is in such high demand, it's not uncommon for volunteers to put in anywhere from 30-60 hours a week, the majority unpaid. As a member, you're reminded that giving your time at these churches is time given to the Lord, and many are guilted with the false reality that giving their time in this way is a blessing; "can you believe we get to do this for *insert church name here*?" Members are encouraged to tithe 10% of their income (examples of Bible verses that encourage this viewpoint can be seen in Leviticus 27:30 and Proverbs 3:9), and if they're able to give more than 10%, they're encouraged to. Many of these mega churches exist in demographics and areas that aren't necessarily filled with people who have an exorbitant amount of wealth, like New York City.

Follow the Money

Let's follow the money of mega churches for a minute:

Steven Furtick, the lead pastor of Elevation Church, has a net worth of $55M as of October 2022. Yearly, Elevation church brings in $11.8M, and is registered as a nonprofit organization.

Brian Houston, founder of Hillsong Church, has a net worth of $10M. In 2023, Hillsong released their church salaries and revealed that Brian Houston makes at least $1M a year, his wife, Bobbie Houston, makes approximately $500,000 a year, and Carl Lentz, former pastor of Hillsong NYC, was making $340,000 a year. These were not including royalties. Their music pastor, Ben Fielding, was receiving royalties and a salary from Hillsong Worship sales, bringing in over $1,500,000 a year, not including tour bonuses. Global Creative Director, Joel Houston, who is the son of Brian and Bobbie Houston, was making $1.9M, not including his tour bonuses or book royalties. Remaining income information about staff members at Hillsong Church can be found here.

Joel Osteen, the pastor of Lakewood Church, has an estimated net worth of $100M and makes a salary of $10M. In 2017, it was reported that his church brought in $89M.

Bill Johnson, the pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, California, has a net worth of $10M. In 2018, Bethel recorded $60.8M in overall income.

All of the mega churches mentioned above are registered as nonprofits and do not pay taxes. Many of these mega churches mentioned above discuss or endorse political candidates or political ideologies and either boldly or subtly encourage their members to vote for specific politicians.

Why Is This Concerning?

Let's turn to Dr. Steven Hassan's BITE Model to help break down the cult-like financial and psychological behaviors that charismatic churches and mega churches have on their members:

  • Behavior Control - financial exploitation; discourages individualism and encourages group think; instills dependency and obedience; manipulation and deprivation of sleep (commonly seen in members who are volunteering for these church events); permission required and/or encouraged for major life decisions; major time spent with group indoctrination; restriction of leisure, entertainment, or vacation time

  • Information Control - distort information to make it more acceptable; deliberately withhold information; minimize or discourage access to non-cult resources (TV, movies, media articles, magazines, etc); manipulation of memory (gaslighting)

  • Thought Control - require members to internalize the group's doctrine as truth; instill black and white thinking; stop critical thoughts to encourage only "good and proper" thoughts; hypnotic techniques used to alter mental states; teaching thought stopping techniques that shut down that person's reality by chanting, meditating, praying, speaking in tongues, or singing/humming; forbid critical questions about leader and/or doctrine; rejection of constructive criticism or critical thinking

  • Emotional Control - problems faced are always the individual's fault, promote feelings of guilt or unworthiness ("you don't deserve any of the goodness in your life, but God loves you so much that He's given you such goodness!"), instill fear such as losing one's salvation, belief in an enemy/enemies, thinking independently, fear of the outside world or being shunned by the group; extremes of emotional highs and lows (love bombing and praising you one moment, and then declaring you're a sinner the next moment), phobia indoctrination (hell, no happiness outside of the group or belief system)

When placed up against the BITE model, it almost looks like copy & paste behaviors from charismatic churches. Not all charismatic churches are cults, but it's worth noting that religion in general has cult-like behaviors and belief systems that cause spiritual and religious trauma. Christians inside this movement have a difficult time seeing the indoctrination and cult-like behaviors due to their inability to think independently outside of the group.



Abi works with clients to unpack religious trauma and their spiritual experiences. She's passionate about exposing abusive and cult-like behaviors and beliefs in the Christian church to help individuals heal and hold systems like Christianity accountable. To schedule an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.

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