Understanding High-Pressure Religious Groups

Please note: The following religious organizations are not recognized by the university.

  • City of Angels ICC
  • Shincheonji (also known as the Church of the Mother)
  • The Harvest at USC
  • World Mission Society Church of God

High-pressure religious groups have raised concerns over the years due to their potential to harm members emotionally, psychologically, and even physically. Be careful of groups displaying some or all of the following methods and characteristics: 

Exclusive Beliefs

The group claims to have an exclusive understanding of the truth or hold a unique relationship with a higher power, often asserting that salvation can only be found within their group.

Authoritarian Leadership

The group usually has a charismatic leader who is regarded as infallible. This leader’s word is final, and questioning them can lead to punishment or exclusion.


The group wants to choose your friends for you. While all religions have moral standards, watch out for groups that encourage you to sever ties with friends and family who do not belong to their group. This isolation can make members more dependent on the group for their social and emotional needs.

High Commitment/Exploitation

Members are required to devote significant amounts of time, energy, and often money, to the group’s activities. If participation in a group significantly takes away from your study time, beware. A group or leader who cares about you understands that your studies represent your future and thus are your first priority as a USC student.

Fear Tactics

The group often uses fear of external threats, divine retribution, or the dangers of leaving the group to maintain control over members.

Manipulative Recruitment

New members are often targeted and brought in through deceptive or manipulative means.

Pressure and Deception

The group uses high pressure or is not up-front about their motives or affiliations when they first approach you.  They give you gifts or assistance seemingly out of kindness, but then strongly expect you to commit to their group in exchange.

Totalitarian Worldview

The group does not encourage critical, independent thinking. In contrast, higher education aims to enable students to think for themselves. Beware of groups or leaders who try to discourage you from thinking for yourself.

Restrictive Behavior

The group may impose strict guidelines on members’ behavior, dress code, diet, and personal associations.

Protecting Yourself

Educate Yourself

Before joining any religious or spiritual group, research its history, beliefs, and practices. Look for reviews or testimonies from former members.

Maintain Outside Connections

Keeping ties with friends and family outside of the group can provide a crucial support system and perspective.

Trust Your Instincts

If something feels wrong or too good to be true, listen to your gut. Seek outside opinions if you’re unsure.

Avoid Making Rash Decisions

If a group is pressuring you to make quick decisions about joining or investing money, it’s a red flag. Take your time and seek advice.

Seeking Help

If you are involved in a high-pressure group and want to leave, if you feel that you are being pursued aggressively or manipulated by a group or leader, or you have any other concerns about a group with which you’re involved, please contact Associate Dean Vanessa Gomez-Brake or Associate Dean Brandon Harris.