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Is New Tribes Mission / Ethnos 360 a Cult?

It’s been a LONG time since I promised to write about the possibility of NTM being a cult. Life continues at a million miles an hour for me with the 4 children who are still in school, applying and getting permission for the 2nd adult step-son to join us in the US, and the most interesting work projects of my career. I also started to volunteer on a couple of projects related to accountability and helping NTM missionary kids, as well as a plan for safe housing for individuals/families leaving controlling and insular faith communities.

But, ideas for this article are always swirling around my head, and I want to give voice to some of those ideas…even if not in the most complete and organized manner because I’ve learned that survivors are at their best when collaborating with each other’s ideas. So please feel free to share your ideas, whether critical, supportive, or building and refining mine. Feedback and the process of rethinking, refining, or finding confirmation is really the best part of blogging.

In my last blog, I mentioned the powerful book Combating Cult Mind Control: Rescue, and Recovery from Destructive Cults by Dr. Steve Hassan, and how it improved my understanding of my own experience and that of others I was interviewing.

The word cult is loaded with negativity, despite an unclear definition for many. In my Evangelical world, I was taught that one necessary defining characteristic of a cult is that it had to deny or inaccurately teach about the trinity. Now as an atheist, that definition sounds ridiculous. I need a more comprehensive and universal definition which is what Dr. Hassan provides with his BITE Model. This model focuses on four main areas of control in behavior, information, thought, and emotion. I utilized his BITE Model form by ticking off every item on the list that I thought accurately represented NTM/Ethnos360. I wasn’t at all surprised that NTM/Ethnos360 would qualify as a cult, but I WAS surprised at the quantity of cult behaviors the mission agency reflects as I reviewed the items I had marked. Since filling out the form, I’ve seen evidence and heard from a variety of individuals that NTM/Ethnos 360 has long been guilty of corporate malfeasance in abuse of funds, misrepresentation of the organization, and more… which only serves to strengthen my belief in the agencies cult-status. I encourage all informed readers to review the form and to send feedback whether in agreement or not. (I refer to the agency as NTM which is the acronym used for the mission during my time as a missionary kid with them).

Behavior Control

In the first area of examination under behavior control, there were only several points that I did NOT think NTM qualified. These were:

· Threaten harm to family and friends.

· Force individual to rape or to be raped

· Imprisonment

· Murder

At least they weren’t openly endorsing these crimes in my experience. In the interest of time/space, I ask that readers look at the attached printed page. NTM had control over nearly every aspect of missionary’s and their children’s lives. How was this achieved?

The Executive Committee within NTM was responsible to accept applicant missionaries to their field, then to evaluate and place them in the position they thought best suited to those individuals. Missionaries with formal education outside of aviation, such as my parents, were placed outside areas of their expertise, based solely on the Executive Committees’ interpretation of the “Holy Spirit’s” leading, as I’ve blogged about before. Children therefore were placed in boarding school, subjected to oversight by dorm parents and teachers who had complete control over their physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. Missionary kids were governed and disciplined with minimal oversight of their caretakers and teachers who exerted absolute control over every aspect of life including meals, sleeping, education, socialization, and even contact with absent parents. MK’s could send letters to their parents and at times talk via radio with them on weekends, but all were read and supervised by dorm parents, so there was never a sense privacy or familial security for those children.

Adult missionaries could be moved into different areas of work at any time by the Executive Committee if deemed a poor fit for the team with which they worked, if they were too “independent minded,” or if they did not comply closely enough with the field committees rules and submit to their “spiritual leadership.” In this mission hierarchy, particular missionaries were shuffled around between the “lower-level” support roles while only those deemed worthy were allowed to work in leadership positions and directly in tribal locations. All aspects of where one lived, what work one did, receipt of monthly donations, ect. were under complete control of the Executive Committee.

Information Control

The second category in the BITE Model is information control which was clearly directed by NTM. All curricula used within NTM schools was selected by NTM leaders. For this reason, I was instructed by primarily Abeka and Bob Jones Curriculum. These curricula are created from an extraordinarily conservative Christian worldview that supported segregation and in which I learned almost nothing of the Civil Rights movement in the US. This void and understanding of black experience in the US continues to be of my greatest embarrassments and sorrows as I had no real teaching on the subject. To illustrate, Bob Jones University denied black students admission to the university until 1971, and then, only if they were married to someone of the same race. “In 1976, the school opened its doors to all Christian black students, but also strengthened their prohibitions on interracial dating and marriage. One of the most significant reasons for segregation was that if blacks and whites swam together and ate together and went to school together, they would eventually date and marry each other, mixing the two races.” It wasn’t until the year 2000 that Bob Jones finally dropped its ban on interracial dating. I was a freshman at BIOLA University by the time this disgusting and highly overdue change was made.

In addition to the curricula used to teach all NTM students, there was a clear effort to control information. This was led by the Executive Team of each country “field.” It took forms of withholding critical information from missionaries and their children, distorting of information, controlling who has access to which level of information and changing it accordingly, utilizing information provided by missionaries and others who reported on them, to impose a buddy system/spying, to ensure that leaders knew what each missionary was doing and what they were thinking about their current situation. All information from executives outside of a given field was filtered through this committee prior to being shared with the regular missionaries and their families. Within the boarding school context, any information provided by a student or their peers was utilized against them in forms of punishments, resulting in an environment of fear and distrust.

Our access to technology arrived much later than our peers in developed countries and it was a “big deal” just to learn how to type and send an email. With very slow internet, limited time on computers, and no teaching on how to utilize them for research, we didn’t even know how to find or utilize the outside content that was in theory accessible during my last year in the mission.

Thought Control The thing about thought control is just how ludicrous it sounds. If you have not been subjected to confined interaction with very limited individuals and living circumstances, this may sound impossible.

Yet, within a missionary agency such as NTM, this was easily achievable. Prospective missionaries all attended the NTM Bible School, Language School, and Bootcamp, prior to arriving on “the field.” While they were in the US or other NTM facilities in England or Australia, they were already accepting a life mostly cut-off from the outside world, education, news, science, and much more.

Once arriving on “the field,” outside interaction was often decreased due to children being placed in boarding schools on missionary-controlled compounds, and parents serving in remote settings with little opportunity to communicate with family, much less the outside world. A missionary’s entire life and ecosystem revolved around the missionary agency, the money they provided “through supporters” each month, and the information the agency provided.

An adult missionary received all their information from field Executive Committee and all the training to learn a language, create an alphabet, translate the Bible, create relationships, and start individual Bible studies to church meetings was provided by the mission. Effectively, everything a missionary received and did as part of their role, was provided by the sending agency.

It was even more oppressive for missionary children who had not yet developed. Since many missionary children were born or arrived at very early ages on mission fields, they never had the opportunity to develop properly due to living in a tightly controlled locations with all adults and authority figures imposing a system of beliefs and punishments based on their worldview. Children don’t actually develop and learn to think for themselves in these situations. They learn how to survive, and what words and behaviors are necessary to escape punishment…nothing more. For this reason, I wrote an article The Collision of Parental & Children's Rights within Religion specifically about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, explaining the large amount of parental control guaranteed in the convention, versus the very few restrictions on parental rights. If an entity such as Ethnos 360 cannot accept those few restrictions in this international document, it only serves to demonstrate the excessive desire to control children to the greatest depths, their own minds and souls.

Individuals of this persuasion cling dearly to their rights to raise their children according to their principals. The fear of state intervention in raising children within one’s own faith is so great amongst this community, that the US is the ONLY country that has not signed on to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, despite former Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s administrations participating in negotiations and offering amendments. Conservative Christians contend that signing this treaty would undermine US sovereignty, and parents’ authority in raising their children. They often use fear tactics citing rare stories of children being removed from a home by social services, or parents being unjustly accused of child abuse.

Emotional Control

I think emotional control is the most insidious of all the forms of control in the BITE model, because it continues to override your thoughts and will, even after physical separation from a religious group, and after changing your belief/thoughts. I have written about this form of control within the mission agency in several blogs. Rather than rehash all of that, I’ll just leave links to 2 of those posts.

To me, this is where NTM/Ethnos 360 shines the most as a cult. From my time within NTM and outside, the teaching and experience has been the same. What I consider one of the worst teachings is that you cannot trust your own feelings and emotions. NTM leaned heavily into teachings on human hearts being desperately wicked and the need to reject our own emotions as evil. For me, and I believe countless other Mks, this has created a horrendous cycle of blocking one’s own emotions and beliefs. What do I mean by this?

I have distrusted my gut emotions for as long as I can remember. This has resulted in more problems than I can convey here. It caused me to distrust my senses when they tell me there is danger and falsity. It made me think I must be imagining real experiences, because they do not match what I “should” be experiencing according to the mission’s/ Evangelical worldview teachings. This ranged from marrying an a narcissist abuser, to being employed by a highly abusive international Christian non-profit agency that left me traumatized, to attending churches that ignored the hurts and needs of and my children, to much more.

One example is that of my first marriage…something I’ve now learned is a commonality amongst many of my fellow female Mks. I did an informal outreach and discussion with my female contemporaries. Nearly all of us had a highly destructive fist marriage with much sexual, verbal, emotional, and even physical abuse. The consensus was that we all accepted it because it was what we were taught was godly and necessary to be “good Christian women.” One MK shared how her father walked her down the aisle to a man he knew was a physical abuser, because he thought it was better than the alternative of a daughter giving birth out of wedlock.

NOW, men reading this may think that’s not what they were taught. But how do you explain the number of young NTM MKs who end up in abusive marriages and struggle to find a way out? The obvious answer is that we MK women were taught to accept abuse and that it was our place. Because in reality, living in an abusive marriage was quite similar to living at an NTM boarding school. We were already well prepared for the emotional, physical, verbal, and for some…sexual abuse. We weren’t protected as children, so why would anyone care or help us now in the same system of belief as adults?!

If I had not been fully indoctrinated in the NTM/Evangelical theology, I would have left my husband shortly after discovering his abusive behavior. BUT he KNEW that in our worldview, he had the power and no one would believe me. He KNEW that women in my position do not speak out about these abuses because our theology does not support them.

One of the things I have finally learned and continue to research is how childhood trauma impacts the development of your brain and body connection. Put mildly, my brain and body are not properly in synch. I have a hypersensitive reaction to real or perceived danger, am distrustful of others, struggle with anxiety, panic attacks, and maybe even depression. I cannot control my body’s learned reactions to threats or stress because they have been ingrained since childhood.

I’m currently listening to The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, which is triggering in the sense that it explains so many of my issues and seemingly inappropriate responses/reactions in everyday life, and provides validation and a license to grieve in a way not heretofore experienced. It’s hard to articulate just how important the message and words of this book are. It also provides hope that this doesn’t need to be the end because therapy can help people like me overcome the trauma.

While there is hope of recovery for MKs like me, it requires extensive therapy, something most of us cannot afford. Essentially NTM has produced and released numerous highly damaged MKs into the world without accountability for the long-term mental and physical destruction they have wrought. There are numerous children who suffer horrific abuse worldwide due to poverty, war, famine, culture, and much more. My point is not to diminish those heartbreaking situations, but to express how the one in which I was raised CAN be held accountable and changed so that more lives need not be senselessly destroyed.

(An Aside) Why Do Individuals Stay in Cults and/or Retain their Beliefs after Leaving?

This is nearly impossible to explain to those who have not experienced coercion and mind control. But it impacts far more individuals every year than the general public, media, and legislators know, not only in the US, but worldwide. Some countries have implemented legislation to criminalize and combat mind control, but the US is not one of them. So we must continue to fight to expose and work to end the ability of individuals and groups to legally practice coercion and mind-control over others.

From the individual perspective, my entire life and lack of self-esteem was rooted in NTM teachings. Despite attending a Christian university, it was not nearly enough time or sufficiently different teaching to elucidate the NTM abuse. My entire worldview and life experience was limited to NTM’s teachings and mostly to living on the compound in rural Chame, Panama.

I essentially believed that all my thoughts, beliefs, and emotions were evil and that I had to ignore them to behave as Christ would command, and to bring unbelievers to salvation through the Gospel. While many NTM parents believe their children should only attend NTM institutions and became missionaries, my parents were educated and had a broader perspective. This is the main reason my siblings and I did not fall into the cycle of all family members becoming or supporting missionaries. BUT, I was very aware of this pressure exerted on my classmates and saw how some succumbed, and others sought “acceptable variations,” but none seemed to be fully endorsed without the missionary credentials.

One could provide many more examples of NTM’s emotional control, but I think another telling sign is that not a singe NTM teacher, administrator, board member has ever contacted me regarding the abuse I suffered in the mission agency since I’ve reported it and went public with my website. (except for the sham of an investigation by their attorney, Teresa Sidebotham).

Christians say those damaging theological teachings should be discounted because all are sinners and there are always those who fail biblical moral standards and do not represent the church. But what if the majority of Christians represent the failed moral standard and treat others worse than those who are not Christians? Should I still believe in this invisible Christian goodness and “lifesaving” teaching?

That is my experience across continents, genders, generations, and denominations (ranging from most extreme conservative Evangelical to moderate and mainline Protestants, to the more theologically sound Catholic and Orthodox Christianity of a variety of traditions such as Greek, Coptic, Russian, and Serbian. My personal observation and experience is that most Christians fail this standard of living so badly that their views are not only unattractive, but often repugnantly so as they are often less kind, less generous, less empathetic, more judgmental, and more retaliatory in practice. If any transformational power existed in the gospel and from following its teachings, that should be evident to all...not just to the miraculous stories told by pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders, who all have much to gain by believing them, or at last by promoting them. After my 35+ years as a Christian, I finally experienced true peace, hope, and love, after losing my Christian faith and becoming an atheist. I know this is distressing to Christians, and I wrote a blog, My Loss of Faith about it. I encourage all Christian who are feeling sad about a family member, friend, or acquaintance losing their faith, to read about my experience as it exemplifies the experience of many others and explains how and why individuals like me lose our faith. And it’s not for the reasons you likely assume!

My conclusion…not only does NTM attempt to control individual's beliefs and behaviors within the organization, but also when you leave, trying to gain your unqualified acceptance and support. And NTM is not unique in this. Nearly all Evangelical churches and institutions seek to recoup the lost, yet they don’t examine their very own teachings and behaviors that lead to the loss.

And so, NTM produced “bad fruit” like me. But I’m forever grateful that their arrogance, ignorance, and greed led me to see the truth about the mission agency, and provided a launching point to see and understand their bigoted, unscientific, cruel and judgmental faith that would abuse and control their missionaries and missionary children, not for a greater good, but for the personal accumulation of power, money, and prestige of the mission agency and its leaders.

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1 Comment

Spencer Quinn
Spencer Quinn
Dec 31, 2023

I was a victim of the cult-like environment of NTBI in Waukesha in the late 80's. It took me several years to figure things out, but similar to you I have grown to be an agnostic atheist and live a much more peaceful, guilt-free life! Good for you for speaking out.

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