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Is NewFrontiers A Cult?

Hey Joshua,
My sister finally decided to start going to church! I’m really happy about that, but it’s a NewFrontiers church. Before she gets too settled there, I wanted to know what you thought of them. I heard someone say NF was a cult – is that true?


Big question! The short answer is a qualified ‘no’.

Now here's the long answer…

NF is a diverse movement - churches are self-governed. Just because one finds a good or bad church some place, doesn’t mean they’re all that way. So not everything mentioned here may apply to your sister’s congregation. For readers outside the UK, though NF is largely a British movement, chances are you have a church or network similar in your nation. So there are things here you may find relevant.

Let’s Start Positive

What’s good about NF? To begin, they generally have a strong commitment to mission. They want to plant churches/ campuses and reach the lost.

Secondly, they have a strong commitment to Bible teaching - at least in theory. That doesn’t mean all NF churches have great preaching. But it’s at least a stated value. Their high view of Scripture has allowed them to take on the Chalkites and other theologically progressive intoleristas who have sown confusion in the British Evangelical church for a while now. For that, we ought to applaud them.

Third, we should also commend the majority of them for their openness to pursue God in spontaneous worship and to exercise the gifts of the Spirit in a Biblical way.

Concerns to Address

But we must face some legitimate concerns that – as we don’t like to rustle jimmies here in the Evangelical world – are often left unmentioned.  They are issues that your sister should consider before she makes NF her spiritual home.

The first apprehension is the potential spiritual elitism that can subtly - but easily - come with the Restorationist Theology which NF espouses. At the risk of oversimplifying, it's the view that God is in the process of restoring to the Church things that were supposedly lost during the last 2,000 years, but which He is now bringing back in stages. They believe that God is now restoring the ‘offices’ of apostle and prophet and that their movement is part of God’s latest stage of restoration. It doesn’t take 20/20 vision to see where the tar pit lay. There can be the danger of spiritual pride in believing that your movement is the latest and best of what God is doing in the world. You may see all of God’s people as part of his arrow… but you’re the very tip.

In spite of this questionable doctrine, there are many NF leaders who maintain true humility. The next concern is greater – but may be connected.

Personal Story

Sadly, the NF church that I had the most experience with was unhealthy. 

Perhaps that’s a bit unfair - there are many great young men and women of God there who genuinely love Jesus. But in my experience the top leadership had – behind his whimsical speaking style – a dark side. No, I’m not speaking of the NF congregation we have here in Cambridge. I’m speaking of the one back where I used to minister. The lead pastor of that church is – in my own opinion – the most spiritually manipulative minister I’ve yet to meet in the UK.

As I was a local church leader in the same city, I talked to more devastated young lives bleeding out of that church than any other I’ve yet encountered or ever hope to encounter. Of course I met disgruntled people drifting around from other churches - but this was different. 

The stories here were traumatic and usually the same: the pastor would corner someone in a back room and seek to exercise control over them with certain canned speeches. I repeatedly heard about people being asked – when he was pressuring them to do something they wouldn’t otherwise have done - ‘Are you naïve, or a rebel?’ or if someone started asking questions or raised a concern they might hear, ‘I think you have trust issues. Submit to me and I'll help you deal with them.’ 

The lead pastor was sharp, confident, and…seductive. No, that’s not me being comical - looks have nothing to do with it. He was seductive in the way he would push someone down, and then draw them close again when they conceded to his will. It produced intense loyalty among those he led. When they submitted, they were rewarded by being told they were no longer rebellious – they were now 'humble'. It’s as if they were led to believe that if they submitted to him, they were submitting to God – that if they were his sheep, then they were Christ’s sheep too.

It was a form of leadership straight out of the book, The Art of SeductionI had two meetings with him. During the second, I told him that his actions were ‘spiritually abusive’. Sadly, he laughed at the idea.  

I’ve sat across from shaken former, younger staff members who dared to question the way things were being run. Sadly, I've seen many young adults who have been spiritually violated – ones whose optimism in God and the church has been nicked. 

_____

For those elders who persist in sin, rebuke them before all, so that the rest may stand in fear.
-1 Timothy 5.20
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From my experience, this was not an issue with the other main Evangelical pastors in the city who lead in a more Christ like manner. As spiritual leaders of the city, it would better - and from my understanding more Biblical - if they were to issue a public rebuke and distance themselves from this minister. This would be both in hopes that he would repent and to prevent local Christians from coming under the authority of one who wields it in an ungodly way - even if this risks ‘unity’.

It’s recently been heard that this congregation has left NF. (Others have said they were asked to leave - we're not sure.) Though this provokes concern for the people still in the church, you may ask how this then relates to your original question: why bring up this extreme, splinter element? Surely your sister’s congregation can’t be like this? Can it?


NF as a Movement

Unfortunately, Heavy Shepherding is an accusation that NF has been dodging from the beginning. No, not every NF pastor does it - probably most don't. But enough have to get the movement a reputation. The Wikipedia article on New Frontiers cites the Journal of Belief and Values saying of NF:

There is a toughness about this style of leadership that is unlikely to be distracted by opposition. The disadvantage is that this style of leadership can leave some individuals hurt and marginalised for what is seen by the leadership as the overall benefit to the organisation.’


Terry Virgo - the founder of NF – attempts to justify the movement’s heavy handed leadership in his book, Restoration in the Church. In the chapter ‘Flocks and Shepherds’ he allows room for this practice by arguing that an elder, ‘must have enough access into the lives of his people to speak directly to them about areas where they fall short.’ (p87). But an elder demanding this type of access into everyone’s personal life is beyond the authority that the New Testament actually gives him (see Should Christians 'Obey' Pastors?' ). Because of this, some senior leaders have even left the movement over the years, calling it to repent of its form of leadership. (See Here).  

Hope

In spite of all this, we may still be hopeful that your sister is in a good church for at least two reasons. For one, as the NF movement has grown and matured, it’s reasonable to think that there are NF leaders who have learned lessons from the excesses of the movement’s early days – even if the practice has yet to be fully and formally addressed and repented of.

The other reason we can be hopeful is that this type of spiritual abuse is harder to pull off nowadays - British laws have changed. There’s now a legal category called ‘vulnerable adults’. It puts leaders who act in psychologically abusive ways - and trustees who allow it - at risk of a lawsuit. In addition, the once overly timid, British Christian is starting to value those courageous enough to be a prophetic whistle-blowers – be they whistleblowing through legal means or their own attempts to raise concern through online channels. It used to be easy to silently send away an abused, guilt-induced sheep. Less so now.

So your sister’s church may be one of the many good ones - I’ve met people that have had great experiences in NF. Make no mistake, there are some really good NF churches and overall I think it's a good movement. 

Ask around. If the congregation is led by humble, godly leaders – then enjoy! I would never want anyone to leave a congregation simply because it was part of the NF movement. As we said at the beginning, in a movement where the congregations are all self-governed there will be good and bad eggs.

And to be sure, this isn't a problem exclusive to NF!

And if you – the reader – are part of the NF movement, please know there is much your movement can contribute to the wider church. You’re not a cult - but there have been some leaders among you that have adopted a controlling, cult-like understandings of submission and authority. Unless what is good in your leadership is willing to expel these elements within your ranks, then you risk disqualifying yourselves… and the British Church will be all the poorer for it. All this is written as a friend of the movement – with a desire that you succeed.

Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example.
-1 Peter 5.3
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