How do they recruit?
Usually, the Holic Group members appear in groups of two in a youth group, a Bible study group, or a prayer group, and present themselves as interested participants (but generally only if someone asks). If people ask further questions (e.g., about which church they belong to, where they come from, or what their names are), either no answers or only evasive answers are given. If they give their name, only first names are shared.
In the group they’re visiting, the Holic members try to control the conversation, and explain to those present that they are not a proper Biblical fellowship. They point out all the things that are imperfect, and they clarify which characteristics of a true fellowship are missing. In the process, they observe who is responsive to this presentation, or who doesn’t seem to be well integrated socially into the group. The Holic members then address these indviduals outside of the meeting, and invite them to Holic meetings. Cases are known, in which the Holic meetings are deceptively presented as casual Bible discussions, and any larger organizational framework is denied.
Since the end of the 1990s, there is a new mail-based variation on recruitment: the potential recruits are ask to give their addresses, and also encouraged to write to the Holic member. This is, however, rare, because the address of a communal residence exposes the group. If the potential recruits don’t write on their own initiative, then they receive letters from the Holic member, in which they are pressured to make a decision for the group. In the meantime, however, more contact is taking place by means of email.
Since around 2001, the above-described form of recruitment has also been carried out by means of written and printed fliers. In them, the group attempts to address people who are spiritually seeking. The claims in these fliers (“without institution and organization”) deliberately veils the character of the community with its international organization.
Where a longer distance exists between the group and the residence of the new recruit who has not yet moved into the communal quarters of the group, contact can be maintained by daily Skype conversations, often for hours on end. These are not left to chance, but rather appointments for them are made in advance.
In conversation with potential recruits, the Holic group intentionally begins with negative experiences in the individual’s current congregation. These negative experiences lie partly in the present (too little missionary activity, laxness, too little spirituality, lifeless traditions, anonymity) and partly in the history of the church (Crusades, Inquisition, wealth, or the church’s relationship to worldly power). The individual is primarily asked about matters which he doesn’t like about his current congregation. The conversation touches on alleged or real grievances, and the Holic group enjoys presenting the dark sides of church history. While the group mainly busied itself with the Catholic Church in Austria, they concern themselves increasingly with the Protestant Church since the shift to the eastern parts of Germany. Intensively busying themselves with the history, teaching, and practices of Protestant Churches, the group members expect to find material which is useful to them. Luther, in particular, is depicted in the worst way (he was, after all, fat when he died, and they say, “whoever is fat can’t be a Christian!”). Such a critical view of church history isn’t an honest view of history, but rather an exercise in collecting ammunition for the group’s own arguments. They only look for negative experiences and mistakes. Positive trends are omitted, and a distorted image of the church in question arises: an image which serves well as a “straw man.” Against this sinister backdrop, the Holic Group appears to be the true and perfect community.
The new recruit is thereby encouraged to continuously look for errors in his previous congregation, in contrast to which the Holic Group appears to be perfect. Simultaneously, the previous Christianity of the new recruit is called into doubt. In light of various criteria (e.g.: missionary zeal, living according to Biblical standards), the group judges whether the new recruit was a Christian at all. In the case of most members, the feeling is that their authentic Christianity began only when they encountered the Holic Group. Their previous Christian life (by our standards usually a very committed one) they now view as half-hearted, incomplete, and not really Christian. So they are usually re-baptized. In contrast to their own past, the new community is presented as the true continuation of the original Christianity. The Bible passages, which seem like they’re directly tailored to the group, are impressive to the new recruits. The recruits get the impression that the first-century church, as described in the Bible, has somehow wonderfully become part of the present.
Previous social contacts become ever more alien. This is partially a logical consequence of the fact that the new
recruit hardly has any time for his other social connections because of the massive demands which the group imposes by means of meetings or phone conversations. The group (which usually approaches people who feel lonely anyway) then exploits this situation, to justify disinterest in the recruit’s previous social connections: “Who, aside from us, has called you on the phone since yesterday?”
The argumentation is often so uniform (the same historical facts are cited, the same Bible texts applied, and in some cases the entire presentation is completely identical), that a thorough training can be presumed to lurk behind this recruitment.
Two further topics which are discussed at length with the new prospects are ‘sin’ and ‘freedom.’ Under the theme ‘sin and its consequences,’ the group makes the prospect’s own sinful life explicitly and emphatically clear to him. The theme of ‘freedom,’ by means of emphasizing his own decision-making freedom, is supposed to present to him the necessity and ability of conversion. At the same time, the group protects itself against external criticism: any critique of the group and of the member’s new lifestyle is seen as an intrusion into the independent decisionmaking of the new member, and as an attack on personal freedom. Viewed from the outside, however, the group’s requirements gravely restrict the freedom of the new recruit. He becomes continually less capable of independent decision making. A Holic member, however, will not perceive the situation this way, and will not want to understand it. (Note: a sign of freedom and of independent decision making would be divergent ways of living. People arrive at various moral judgments and estimations and act therefore in different ways. When there is uniform daily life, then there is an implicit or explicit prescription behind it, and the individual must conform to it.)
An authentic conversation or discussion is not really possible with a Holic member. As in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, they enter the conversation with a clear plan, in which they want to instruct their listener. The other person’s contributions to the conversation, and the other person’s argumentation, are considered unimportant.
The group carefully and precisely rehearses with members ways in which to avoid listening to the arguments of others. Members are instructed to use a key word out of what the other person says, in order to further weave in the group’s own train of thought. To new members, the group says, e.g., “What others say is incorrect, don’t even consider what they say!” External arguments should have no influence on the Holic member. Even if some of the contributions which the other person makes to the conversation are correct, these “others” are basing their conclusions on false premises, in the group’s opinion. This means that their views and arguments will eventually take a wrong turn, and will have to be rejected. When conversing with Holic members, one has the impression that one’s own arguments have made no impression whatsoever with them. Still, on the way home, some Holic members will consider what an outsider has said. In most cases, however, the questions will be discussed in the group, until they think they’ve found a response. They sometimes consider discussions (e.g. about the appropriate interpretation of a Biblical passage) to be like a type of sport. If they can’t find an answer, then they eagerly discuss the topic afterward in the group, in order to find a solution which fits into their system of thought. Afterwards, they’re happy to have another line of reasoning they can use on outsiders.
If a conversation partner is stubborn, it can also be that the conversation ends abruptly.
A further method consists of answering through silence. This can best be shown through an example: a young woman who was recently drawn into the group was asked how she assessed her grandfather’s Christianity. She said that from her impression, but also according to the criteria of the group, he could actually be a good Christian. Her conversation partners in the group said that he wasn’t. But when she followed up with questions about why, she got no answer, but rather was challenged to find the answer herself. Finally she ‘recognized’ that he wasn’t a real Christian because he didn’t live with the group. In this way, the new recruit senses the superior judgment of the ‘older siblings’ and, on the other hand, the group gives the newcomer the feeling of having independently arrived at the conclusion (at which the group wanted her or him to arrive). The answer was already predetermined; the new recruit must only supply her or his own reasoning for it.
Potential recruits receive an invitation to visit the group during the conversation. They experience a very close community there, which impresses them again. For a long time, new recruits are intensively chaperoned (the ‘love bombing’ known from other cults). Cases are known in which a few members stayed in a camper/trailer in a different city for a few months, in order to be certain about a new disciple. It was reported from Poland that at the beginning of the 1990s, underage people were occasionally brought into the group against the will of their parents. One Holic member, it was reported, was sentenced to a year of probation in 1992 because of abduction of a minor.
New recruits are urged to spend as much time as possible with Holic members (even breaks during the school day). In general, it is reported, they get very little sleep. In this way, they are more susceptible to psychological influence because of their subsequent fatigue. This influence occurs also by means of the methods of ‘milieu control’ and ‘information control’ known from other cults (as little contact with outsiders as possible, shielding from critical information, insinuations about the illintent of critics); ‘thought control’ (almost never being alone, continuous contact with group members, subtle directing of one’s own thoughts by means of strategic conversations, the selection of Bible texts); the use of guilt and fear; as well as coercion toward continuous activity with its corresponding fatigue. The late psychologist Friedrich Wilhelm Haack coined the term ‘psychomutation’ for this psychological manipulation, often loosely described as ‘brainwashing.’ A more recent term is ‘mind control.’ (Steven Hassan describes these mechanisms very well in his book “Combatting Cult Mind Control” - second edition, 2015.) The transition into the group is completed in a relatively short time. Sometimes, merely a few days suffice, during which the individual changes radically.
In the initial phases, the newcomer is still suffering from doubt and uncertainty. These feelings can be very depressing and even lead to suicidal thoughts. As fascinating as the new group seems, the newcomer still finds the demanded break with her or his previous social circle, friends, and family, to be very painful. Externally, too, the new Holic member during this phase is rather conspicuous, and outsiders observe a radical personality change: the newcomer loses her or his original happiness and warmth and makes an increasingly antisocial and cold impression; he seems depressed, cries often, is fatigued, neglects his academic or professional efforts, and loses his sense of humor. These spiritual struggles manifest themselves also in physical symptoms (e.g.: weight loss, an unsteady gaze). After a certain stabilization phase, the new member finds inner peace and rest and feels happy in the community. The symptoms described lessen afterwards.
Training in the group happens largely through conversation at the long Bible discussions, and conversation while hiking. The cult also deliberately considers its pairings during hikes: who will discuss which topic with a new recruit. When they attempted, e.g., to persuade a young woman to give up her profession as a pastry chef (because the early morning work hours were an obstacle to late-night meetings), she was assigned to a young Austrian during the communal hike. He explained at length to her how he gave up his profession, because he recognized it to be unchristian. It is rare, however, that a new member is directly coerced into a certain action. Usually it happens that a newcomer is led to “discover it himself” by means of conversations as described above, or by means of the clever choice of Biblical passages for the evening meetings. The surrender of one’s own property into the group’s communal treasury is also not demanded, but rather, after a certain amount of time, the individual does it of his own accord. Members experience, therefore, an absence of coercion within the group, at least superficially. For the external observer, however, coercion manifests itself more subtly in the forms of social group pressure (“everyone’s doing it,” or “this is the way we do things in the group,” and the newcomer simply wants to belong), through the planned selection of Bible passages for study, and during the conversations on the hikes. One can speak here of a targeted psychological manipulation. One exception to the lack of coercion regards discontinuing church membership, which is explicitly demanded.
Holic members experience external criticism in their “missionary work” because of their elitist and intolerant
demeanor. This criticism, if anything, bonds the group even more closely together. They enjoy playing the role of the suffering martyr. As with other cults, criticism from the outside is used as a proof of their own correctness (“they have to oppose us, because we teach the truth”).
If one encounters recruiters from this cult in one’s own youth group, it is difficult to recognize them as Holic members. When asked who they are, they answer simply, “We are Christians.” Any denominational label is rejected. Sometimes they call themselves ‘New Christians’ or ‘True Christians.’ Generally the recruiters answer questions about themselves or their community very hesitantly, evasively, and with few words. They can be recognized therefore only by the rejection of any name or denominational concept, by the arrogantly elite self-estimation (they alone are real Christians, they alone live according to the Bible), and by their explicit hostility toward churches. Because a large segment of the members come from Austria (with corresponding license plates on their cars), that was sometimes a clue when they gathered in other countries. Since then, however, the majority of their vehicles in Saxony in Germany have domestic license plates (Dresden, Berlin, and Stuttgart – previously also Plauen and Rochlitz). Holic groups in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic may also have vehicles with corresponding license plates.