The Seven Signs That You’re in a Cult

A former member of a tight-knit college prayer group describes his community’s disintegration—and how one of its members ended up dead.

November 2, 2012, was a beautiful Friday in Kansas City—clear and cool and sunny. I had spent the afternoon reading in the library at an unaccredited college affiliated with the International House of Prayer, an evangelical Christian organization commonly referred to as IHOP (no relation to the restaurant). At about 6 p.m., I got a call from my friend Hannah*.

“I found out something that’s truly devastating. I didn’t want to tell you this way, but I want you to know,” she said. “Bethany Leidlein committed suicide on Tuesday.”

I was shocked. For seven years, I had spent hours every day with Bethany, eating and talking and praying. We had been best friends. She was 27, newly married; she had just completed her nursing degree. I had felt like she would always be part of my life.

Now she was gone.

For three weeks, Hannah and I had been trying to contact leaders at IHOP about a prayer group that we, Bethany, and many of our friends had been part of—a small, independent community that drew on IHOP’s teachings. In February, I had been formally excommunicated, and Hannah had left in June. Looking in from the outside, we both saw the group differently than we had when we were part of it: We saw it as a cult.

Several years ago, the founder of IHOP, Mike Bickle, created a list of seven ways to recognize the difference between a religious community and a cult. Written down, the signs seem clear:

1. Opposing critical thinking

2. Isolating members and penalizing them for leaving

3. Emphasizing special doctrines outside scripture

4. Seeking inappropriate loyalty to their leaders

5. Dishonoring the family unit

6. Crossing Biblical boundaries of behavior (versus sexual purity and personal ownership)

7. Separation from the Church

But when it’s your faith, your friends, your community, it’s not so obvious. For several years, roughly two dozen people, all younger than 30, had been living together in Kansas City, Missouri, and following the leadership of Tyler Deaton, one of our classmates from Southwestern University in Texas. In the summer of 2012, Tyler had married Bethany; by the fall, she was dead. What started as a dorm-room prayer group had devolved into something much darker.

* * *

I met Bethany and Tyler during the week of their freshman orientation in 2005. Small, with a heart-shaped face and bright blue eyes, Bethany had an effortless wit and warm presence that quickly attracted a devoted group of friends. She often spoke about the “glories of the world” and its wonders over brunch in the dining hall. We bonded over our shared love of stories and would often stay up late discussing our dreams of becoming great novelists and joining the ranks of our literary heroes.

One day during that first week, I found Tyler in the school’s chapel. He was seated at the piano, the late-afternoon sunlight illuminating his dark eyes and hair as he swayed back and forth, stomping the pedals and singing a popular evangelical chorus in a voice full of heartache and passion:

Your love is extravagant

Your friendship, it is intimate

I feel like I’m moving to the rhythm of your grace

Your fragrance is intoxicating

In the secret place

Because your love is extravagant

At the end of the song, he came over and introduced himself. Something about the nasally pitch of his voice made me wonder whether he was gay. A few months later I would work up the courage to ask him; the question offended him so much that I didn’t bring it up again until the end of that year, when he conceded that he had been “struggling with same-sex attraction” for years.

That semester, we became close friends. Early on, I felt as though Tyler often tried to manipulate people into doing what he wanted, but he was also a committed Christian, zealous and humble. Inspired by his sensitivity toward others and bravery in confronting his personal demons, I learned to ignore my initial reservations and trust him.

Two years later, in the summer of 2007, Tyler returned from a trip to Pakistan and announced that God was going to launch a spiritual revolution on our campus. Those of us who knew him well were surprised by the changes in his personality. He had always been extraordinarily perceptive, but now this ability had reached uncanny levels. He could describe conversations he wasn’t involved in that were taking place on the other side of campus. He said God was always speaking. He claimed he could tell what we were thinking, when we were sinning; he said he could feel in his own body what God felt about us.

When I found out that he and Bethany were meeting every night for prayer with their two roommates, June and Justin*, I begged them to let me join. It was discouraging to see some of my best and only friends at Southwestern sharing an experience from which I was excluded; I wanted to belong to their group. I was lonely and bored, and I wanted to experience something extraordinary before I left school: a mystery to solve, a battle to fight, a romantic quest, like the heroes in the stories I had read. All my favorite songs and stories ended with some powerful, and in many cases tragic, moment of catharsis. I wanted college to end like that. If it didn’t, my life would be boring, anticlimactic … normal.

I had always imagined my life in terms of a story, and now Tyler was offering me the chance to be part of one. He had developed a distinctly charismatic vocabulary of “spiritual warfare” and claimed he was communicating directly with God. He said the five of us had been chosen for a dangerous but important mission: changing the nature and understanding of Christianity on our campus. Like the character Morpheus or Hagrid, he became our escort into a secret community where evil was battled at close quarters and darkness lurked around every corner.

That first semester was exhilarating. Our prayer experiences were very emotional; sometimes we wept. Though I still secretly had doubts about the authenticity of the group’s beliefs, I was profoundly moved by the courage and loyalty my friends were showing toward one another. It felt like being in an epic adventure, in which each of the main characters bravely faces his or her own weaknesses while bonding together in the heat of battle.

Bethany continued to be my closest friend in the group. We confided in each other—including our mild doubts about the group. One night in early November, a few of the group members tried to “heal” a girl with cerebral palsy, even pulling her out of her wheelchair and dragging her around the chapel. Word quickly spread around campus that the girl had been miraculously healed, but I told Bethany I wasn’t convinced that anything really unusual had happened.

Near the end of November, she admitted she had feelings for Tyler. She said God had told her they were going to be married once he was fully healed of his struggle with homosexuality. During vacations, we would discuss this for hours. She cried regularly.

Around this time, Tyler attended an IHOP conference. At the four-day gathering in Kansas City, Missouri, where the movement is based, he joined 25,000 other young people to pray for spiritual revival on college campuses throughout America. He heard the evangelical leader Lou Engle share a dream he’d had, in which college students were cutting off the heads of their professors, suggesting the end of the “spirit of intellectualism” that gripped academia. He heard Bickle declare that God was raising up a prophetic generation that would perform “signs and wonders,” and numerous stories of angelic visitations.

After Tyler returned from the conference, his experiences with the supernatural seemed to intensify dramatically. As we walked across campus, he would see an army of demons carrying banners in front of the library. At the end of January, God revealed to him that his calling in life was to be an apostle and train God’s “final people.” When Bethany and June insisted that we find mentors who could train us and took us to visit a Christian couple who lived nearby, Tyler “discerned” that the husband was living in “graphic sexual sin.” Somehow, when he said this, the rest of us realized we had all been feeling the same thing. We never went back.

I was profoundly affected by IHOP’s teachings. I began to seriously consider the possibility that we were living in the last generation. The teachers and staff all had a message for the students: Everything we thought we knew about the world was wrong. We had been poisoned by a liberal culture teaching seductive lies about “love” and “compassion” that the devil was using to prepare his End Times deception.

Before joining the prayer group, I had been a fairly tolerant person. Now I was different. I was belligerent toward my gay and atheist friends. I picked fights and insulted them viciously. But I felt justified; I thought they were blind to God’s truth.

As the prayer group expanded, it became an enchanted sphere where supernatural things seemed to be happening all the time. I began having ominous dreams in which the school was flooded and taken over by monsters. Once, we found a candy wrapper in the ceiling of one of our members, Micah Moore; we burned it because God showed us that it had been used to practice witchcraft. In the everyday college world of exams and choir concerts and dining-hall meals, these episodes seemed outlandish—and to outsiders, maybe even disturbing. But within the Gnostic dreamworld of our small charismatic enclave, they seemed perfectly normal. By the end of the next semester, several of us were already making plans to move to Kansas City.

* * *

I was kicked out of the prayer group for the first time a year and a half later. Roughly two dozen of us were now living together in group houses in Missouri, sharing our money and working part-time jobs while we attended classes at IHOP University. Three nights a week, we worshipped together.

Tyler and other members of the group claimed I had a “wicked heart, prone to self-protection, anger, unforgiveness, and hate” and a “malicious, accusatory, group-rejecting, self-protective hatred towards most people.” After an intense night of confrontation in the fall of 2010, the group stopped speaking to me. I continued to live in the house, but I was completely isolated.

Why did I stay? I was conflicted. All of my friends said I had a serious problem—so serious that I had been effectively quarantined. These were my closest friends in the world. I began to wonder whether they might be right. Maybe I truly was hateful, malicious—wicked. I no longer trusted my own instincts.

“Hold on,” he said, in a very serious voice. “Are you being shunned as a punishment?”

With his guidance, I emailed Tyler and asked whether I could return; under pressure from IHOP University’s leaders, he consented. The group threw a huge party in my honor, but within a few days, I began to wish I had never come back.

Tyler now said he could sense when a person was sinning. “There’s nothing you’ve done for a long time that doesn’t have sin in it,” he explained to me. Under his mandatory system of “behavioral modifications,” as he called them, the entire group was being rapidly restructured. People were giving up their nicknames, distancing themselves from their romantic partners, and taking breaks from their music or families—anything to which they had developed “idolatrous attachments.” I was forbidden from reading and writing, prohibited from having serious conversations with the girls, and forced to wear new clothes, which Tyler picked out for me.

The group was being run like a military boot camp, with chores and activities to keep us occupied virtually every hour of the day. The girls would wake up around seven to clean their house before the guys came over for lunch. During the afternoon, some of us would go to class at IHOP University while others worked or prayed. Around five, we would reconvene at one of the houses to prepare dinner. We would eat between 6 and 7:30 p.m. and then spend several hours praying or singing. Once every few weeks, there was even a surprise evacuation drill.

We had prophecy time at least three nights a week. During these sessions, the group would sit in silence and listen for the whisper of God’s spirit. Everyone said similar things, although many of them ended up being proved wrong later. Those who disagreed were called out for being arrogant and rebellious and were forced to repent.

By the end of that summer, even the slightest gesture, no matter how innocent, could be misconstrued as evidence of demonic influence. One night in August, Tyler and June both had dreams in which God “revealed” that my individuality was endangering the community. As a precaution, I was isolated, and two of the boys kept constant watch over me. I could be reprimanded for scratching another man’s back, for sitting with a blanket over my legs, for looking at someone the wrong way. Once, Micah accused me of manipulating someone into coming over and hugging me.

The group decided I should be forbidden from reading and writing.

After a woman in the group had her bedroom door and Bible taken away from her, she complained to IHOP. The organization’s leaders met with Tyler and warned him that his group was becoming “cultlike.” Tyler began having regular meetings with them. He was ordered to quit punishing people and stop mandating that the students in our group attend his Saturday worship session rather than IHOP University’s mandatory meeting.

And I was beginning to face my own doubts. My questions about the group had been accumulating for years, but one night, I heard the group praying against me in the next room. That moment helped me admit something to myself, something big: They weren’t actually hearing the voice of God. My friends and I were all being whipped into a frenzy by the delirious tonic of prophecy and persecution fantasies.

The week after Bethany and Tyler’s engagement in February 2012, the men came to me and asked me to leave the community. At first I was distraught. If I moved out, I would be walking away from all my best friends. I had hoped I could push the group in a more positive direction. But the more I thought about it, the more I knew it was time for me to go. On the first day of April, I moved out. The rest of the group was forbidden from contacting me, and I wasn’t invited to the wedding.

* * *

Bethany Deaton and the author in 2008. (Boze Herrington / The Atlantic)

The weeks after Bethany’s death were among the blackest of my life. One of my dearest and best friends was dead, and I couldn’t accept the explanation that she had killed herself two months into a marriage that she had been looking forward to for years. Even the logistics of grieving were complicated; on the day of her visitation, Tyler tried to have me removed from the funeral home.

Meanwhile, IHOP sent several leaders to investigate the prayer community. It took them only a couple of hours with the group on the night after Bethany’s death to conclude that Tyler was leading a cult. The boys who still lived with Tyler were asked to move out immediately, and current and former members were questioned.

And then they interrogated Micah, the person who had been charged with guarding me during one of my periods of isolation from the group. During questioning, he broke down and confessed that he had suffocated Bethany. He later said Tyler had told him to commit the murder, saying he “had it in him to do it.” The next day—the day of Bethany’s funeral in Arlington, Texas—he drove to the police station and turned himself in. There, he told a lurid tale: He and other men in the group had sexual relationships with Tyler, and together, they had ritually assaulted Bethany. She had been killed, Micah said, because they were afraid she would tell her therapist about the assaults.

This raised intense questions in the IHOP community, and Bickle and others held information sessions to address them. When one student asked how this kind of dangerous group could have existed with hardly anyone noticing, they explained that my friends and I were transplants from Texas who had developed an intense loyalty to one another and a spiritual leader who operated in secrecy. “There were people there who should have had careers," he said. “They had degrees, law degrees. But they had given up their goals for the vision of this one man.” He reminded the students that Judas had spent three years in the company of Jesus and his disciples without anyone suspecting the wickedness he was capable of.

Though some of the group’s former members remained part of the prophetic movement, I mentally checked out after Bethany’s death. I joined a church in a liturgical tradition and formed a new circle of friends, many of whom had also left IHOP. I began to rethink my views on homosexuality and other marginalized groups. I also underwent counseling with IHOP leaders. During this process, I tried to renounce what I saw as harmful beliefs, including the conviction that our group had been messengers called to battle the forces of the Antichrist. To my surprise and dismay, they told me, “No, Tyler was right about that. You need to pray out loud for God to show you your calling.”

In other words, our group’s biggest crime wasn’t an excess of zeal—it was not being zealous enough. It seems to me that our community was not exceptional, given the high-intensity spiritual environment we were part of. Tyler was not an isolated individual, but the product of a phenomenally twisted system.

It’s unclear who is responsible for Bethany’s death. Micah’s trial is set for this November. He has recanted his confession; his lawyer said his statements were made by “a distraught and confused young man under extreme psychological pressure.” Tyler has not been charged in the case.

But it is clear that when Bethany died, she was part of a community shrouded in fear and hatred, a community in which those who spoke out were treated as though they didn’t exist. Their loves, desires, opinions, feelings, and whole personalities were invalidated, all in the name of God.

*These three names have been changed for privacy purposes.