From "Children of God" to "The Family": Movement Adaptation and Survival

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Stuart A. Wright

Lamar University

At the same time that the touted "global village" moves closer to realization through satellite communications and advanced computer technologies, fragmentation and conflict across ethnic, religious and political lines remain firmly ensconced both within and between societies. One only has to point to a few recent episodes around the globe to be reminded of this fact-the "ethnic cleansing" taking place in Bosnia, the World Trade Center bombing by Muslim extremists, the growing disenfranchisement of Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. and the ensuing "culture wars" (Hunter, 1991). As a sociologist of religion, I am always concerned about the role religion plays in such conflicts. It is known that religion can be a powerful source of unification, cohesion or solidarity. Durkheim's (1915/1965) work on religion largely reflects this functional perspective. On the other hand, Marx (1964) and others suggest that religion may contribute to conflicts, promoting in-group solidarity while encouraging adversarial relations with out-groups (heretics, infidels, heathen). Predisposition to conflict may be heightened by absolutist religious ideologies that are intolerant of other traditions and practices.

Some of the new religious movements that have appeared in the second half of the twentieth century, while sharing characteristics of historical sects (Wilson, 1970), may demonstrate some innovative and even evolutionary adaptations to the social environment. Here I refer to a kind of globalization process which, in the context of a changing world order, links pluralism, diversity and toleration to movement adaptability and strength (Wuthnow, 1978, 1980). Wuthnow suggests that the transitional condition of the world order, characterized by political instability and uncertainty, lends itself to the proliferation of new religious movements that seek to fill the void by constructing overarching, universal religious ideologies. As governments fail, national boundaries are redrawn and new alliances formed, the perception of a world crisis may help to legitimate the claims of religious movements as harbingers of a new world harmony and peace. Movements that are able to adapt to international audiences and diverse cultural needs are more likely to be successful in voicing such claims.

The characteristics of such movements suggest a religious response to a perceived world crisis—international political unrest, shifts in world economic markets, fragmentation of the normative order—that work to forge unification based on an alternate worldview, a profound ideological reformation. With the increased mobility and communications of the modern world, these movements are distinctly less culture-bound, provincial and territorial. In-group/out-group differences are much less likely to be drawn along the lines of race, ethnicity or class. They tend to be more syncretistic, eclectic and universalistic with regard to religious beliefs and cultural values. They draw their members from all over the world and incorporate features from these different cultures as they develop and expand. New religious movements may reveal varying degrees of globalization, but some that exhibit these characteristics would include Elizabeth Clare Prophet and the Church Universal and Triumphant, the Unification Church, ECKANKAR, Transcendental Meditation (TM), and a host of New Age movements (see Melton, 1992). One movement that has borne many of these features over its short life-span, though it has rigid fundamentalist roots, is The Family, formerly called the Children of God.

The Family

The Family is now a world-wide movement with approximately 250 communities in over 50 countries and 9,000 members. The movement originated in Huntington Beach, California in the late 1960s as a countercultural, Jesus Movement group. In the early 1970s, the movement's leader, Moses David Berg, instructed his followers to leave the U.S. after predicting God's judgement on America. The initial prophecy contained warnings of the comet Kohoutek striking the nation and inducing calamity and chaos in the U.S., marking the Great Tribulation as recorded in the Book of Revelation. Subsequently, Berg revised the prophecy suggesting that the more figurative language in his prophecy was not to be taken literally. In the following years, adherents traveled the world establishing communities and recruiting converts in foreign countries. As the ratio of American converts to foreign nationals changed, the movement also changed. The influences of indigenous cultures and new converts began to transform the movement from a California-based, hippie, fundamentalist group, rigidly and centrally structured under the authority of Moses David Berg to a more eclectic, multi-ethnic, decentralized missionary movement of relatively independent communities dispersed all over the globe. Indeed, the movement of today bears only a few organizational semblances with the movement founded over twenty-five years ago. It may be argued that the ability of the Children of God/The Family to adapt to change over time has contributed significantly to its survival into the 1990s. It is suggested here that adaptation to change through cross-cultural expansion, leading to marked increases in pluralism and diversity, is a critical reason why the movement has survived.

Pluralism, Adaptation and Survival

With the dispersion of the Children of God (COG) in the mid 1970s into Europe and Asia, the American core of the movement was soon faced with the repercussions of its own success. New converts, of course, brought with them their own cultural baggage. But more importantly, movement recruiters were also faced with learning the language and customs of the countries in which they resided. Members were encouraged to blend in and cultivate a rapport with local residents in order to bring them salvation, and achieve what Roy Wallis has called a "favorable ecology" (1987:86). The thrust of this initiative culminated in the "Re-Organization Nationalization Revolution" (RNR), a concerted strategy to integrate with native cultures in order to better train leaders and eventually transfer independent responsibility for the missionary work to nationals. In a 1978 letter outlining the RNR strategy, Moses David announced that "Just as Jesus had to leave his disciples so they could go on to greater works.... so our N. American leadership is going to have to step down and out of the picture and push forward the nationals in order to integrate and nationalize the many countries we're in" ("The Re-Organization Nationalization Revolution," #659, January 1978). He instructed followers to make "(a) genuine endeavor of identification with the people.... including their language, adopting their customs and dress, eating the food they eat, sometimes even assuming their citizenship.... to actually become one of them like Jesus did" (#659, 1978).

Later in this same letter, Moses David described the failure of typical American missionary efforts when nationals were not brought into the organizational structure. "If we can't get enough converts ... to run their own colonies and their own country," Berg cautioned, "then I will be highly disappointed, because then we are not missionaries, we haven't established anything native and we're just a foreign colonial empire." Berg recounted "horror stories" about missionary efforts that languished and collapsed because they had not "prepared the nationals to take over." When the Americans were forced to leave or kicked out of a country, he argued, there was no "native church" left behind.

Of course, the RNR initiative was not without substantial costs to the movement, largely in terms of defections. It is estimated that as much as one-third of the membership were lost in this reorganization. Veteran or high-ranking movement leaders were replaced, new converts and friends were lost, conflicts over policy and lines of authority arose, incomes declined and COG homes ran into financial debt (Wallis, 1982:92-93). But the RNR plan probably helped to secure the long-term survival ability of the movement, even though there were serious short-term costs.

The first wave of American COG members who settled in Europe faced immediate challenges to their own cultural beliefs and predispositions. Van Zandt (1991:41) notes that the "anti-system" message carried by American converts played less well to European youth because "it was no great revelation to them that American society was far from perfect." The Americans were required to make a number of adjustments to European culture in order to fit in and be successful in their witnessing. Some of these adjustments included the formation of Poorboy clubs or discos, the upgrading of dress and lifestyle of members, the refocusing of recruitment efforts aimed at middle-class individuals rather than social dropouts, and the softening of the COG's worldview (Richardson and Davis, 1983; Van Zandt, 1991; Wallis, 1982, 1987). Van Zandt writes,

Instead of society's dropouts and young radicals, the COG pursued those who were employed or in school. The COG found that such people were more receptive to the message, made better long-term members, and required less time to be spent dealing with their problems. Potential members also tended to be somewhat younger than before, a fact which led to the creation of a new status, "catacomb member," to account for members who, for reasons of age or legal condition, were unable to live in colonies as full-time members. This innovation, of course, reflected the COG's growing flexibility in dealing with the System (1991:45).

Sexual unions through proselytization ("flirty fishing') and marriages with indigenous nationals, almost all of which produced children, tied them inexorably to these foreign cultures. What mere recruitment, litnessing or preaching couldn't accomplish because of formidable cultural barriers, intermarriage and familial ties could. Indeed, the marriages of the American core of members to foreign nationals was strongly encouraged by Moses David as a part of the RNR plan.

In those colonies established for two years or more, all colony servants (leaders) must be national or integrated with a national and speak the language. ...So a capable American woman could marry a native husband and train him, or a capable American man could marry a native wife and train her (#659, 1978).

By converting and marrying the nationals, the message of salvation was no longer tied exclusively to the Americans but allowed to spread along kinship and relational lines of family members. When COG members finally did pick up and leave, they often had established a native work that continued after their departure. Occasionally, adult children would even remain behind in these countries to assist the indigenous missionary efforts and to sustain familial ties and communication.

According to Van Zandt, flirty fishing was adopted as a strategy specifically aimed at Third World countries. As the movement "left more affluent parts of the world, its normal recruiting pool of young and unattached people started to dry up. Flirty fishing brought the Family into contact with people who tended to have more status and responsibility in the local community" (1991:29). It also "dictated better clothing, more concern for cleanliness, and even the use of makeup to facilitate members' participation in the nightclub and discotheque scene" (1991:29). Wallis makes a similar observation, noting that after the introduction of flirty fishing, the movement shifted its target of potential converts: "Thenceforth, a movement which had seen its purpose as proselytizing among the alienated of society, the hippies and dropouts, would begin to direct itself more to the respectable and influential" (Wallis, 1982:80).

Aside from the effective strategy of nationalization, the increasing pluralism of the movement had a distinct appeal to certain segments of the wider population, particularly the young and the humanitarian-oriented. The text and the substance of biblical preachments in conventional churches frequently emphasize the universality of the Christian faith ("In Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek. . ."). However, rarely does this amount to anything more than sentimental rhetoric and platitudes. On the other hand, the actualization of this message as embodied in a religious movement that offered living "proof," so to speak, by virtue of a highly heterogeneous membership certainly presented a marked advantage over other churches or sects in attempting to convince potential converts of the "truth" value of the message. It suggested consistency to a worldly, skeptical audience that is all too often cognizant of the numerous inconsistencies between religious belief and practice. Numerous converts to The Family that I interviewed expressed just such an opinion, indicating that they were more willing to listen to proselytizers and take their message seriously because the group's universal emphasis on "love" was expressed by members of such diverse nationalities.

The Miami Community

I was struck by this ethnic diversity upon first visiting the Miami community in the summer of 1993. My previous research on the Children of God (Wright, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1987) was conducted in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before the RNR initiative had produced any notable results. During the decade of the eighties, there were few communities in North America, so monitoring of the movement became difficult. Only recently, since The Family has begun to resettle communities in the U.S. has this aspect of the movement come to the attention of scholars.

A major task in the data collection during the Miami visit was to conduct a census of The Family's community there. At the time of the study, there were six nuclear family clusters and a separate group or cluster of Family Teens. Family Teens are mid-to-late adolescents who have expressed in interest in training and preparation for leadership. The Family encourages young teens to achieve independence from their parents so that they can serve the Lord more fully. Family Teens essentially function as young missionaries, travelling in small groups, and are assigned to specific communities. Not all teens aspire to be independent missionaries and separate from families.

Out of a total of 49 members of The Family's community in Miami, 11 are adults, 22 teenagers, and 16 children. These 49 members represent 22 different countries, as measured by their origin of birth. All of the adult members had lived in at least three different countries and were conversational in three or four languages. The most common languages spoken were Spanish and English. Five of the six nuclear family clusters in the community represented four different nationalities each. Predictably, the adult members were most likely to be North American (8 of 11, 73%). However, the children and teens were more likely to be native-born Puerto Rican (5) or Chilean (5). In fact, of the 38 children and teens in the community, only 6 were native-born North American (16%). Most were born in Spanish-speaking countries of the Carribean, Central and South America. The full impact of this rich, ethnic amalgam could be seen in the clear leverage and ease of access to Miami's minority communities enjoyed by The Family.

The dramatic population shifts in the Miami area in recent years posed few problems for members of The Family. Not only were they conversant with Spanish-speaking residents, they were well-suited to the highly pluralistic composition of the city. Indeed, they seemed more than comfortable with it. Their own community served as a microcosm of Miami's own ethnic and cultural diversity. The Family's experience in Third World nations made them familiar with many Hispanic and Latin customs, insulated them from culture shock, allowed them to avoid the pitfalls of American ethnocentrism or xenophobia, and gave them a degree of "street-wise" knowledge and demeanor in their interaction with low-income, minority groups.

The Family Teens moved freely within and between these communities, even at night, witnessing on the streets and challenging minority youth with their salvation message in local hangouts, places where few suburban, middle-class white youth would venture. Though they took certain precautions to safeguard themselves from harm, such as always travelling in groups, one sensed that their mastery of the diverse cultural landscape gave them substantial confidence and courage.


Is it suggested here that the adaptation of this new religious movement to cultural pluralism and diversity through global expansion, spawned by changes in the world order, can be linked to movement strength and survival. It seems unlikely that the same COG movement that originated in the countercultural sixties in California could survive as an international movement today. Indeed, many of the key leaders and members out of that period were lost to the movement during organizational shifts or changes in policy and leadership, epitomized in the RNR plan. But these same shifts underscore both the difficulty and the significance of adaptation. Difficult because the innumerable obstacles to change-the inertia of institutionalization, the resistance of entrenched leaders to relinquish authority, the anomie and turmoil of reorganization-involved painful choices and actions. Significant because the survival of COG and its success in foreign cultures, it seems safe to say, was contingent upon this pluralistic thrust. Such adaptation will likely fare well for the Family's success in the future, both here and abroad, as societies become more pluralistic and each continues to chart a new course in the shifting political structures and boundaries of the new world order.

Stuart A. Wright is Associate Professor of Sociology at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Connecticut and is the former recipient of an NIMH Research Fellowship at Yale University to study the social and psychological effects of cult involvement among former members. Dr. Wright has published a book entitled Leaving Cults: The Dynamics of Defection (1987), as well as numerous journal articles and book chapters in edited volumes on this controversial topic.