One Friday night a number of years ago, I had put my son to bed, was working on an icy 16 oz can of Budweiser, and reading an Easyriders Magazine. Spider, as usual, had written an excellent editorial, and in this particular one had opined that if an inventor had just obtained the first patent for a motorcycle today, it was very doubtful that his invention would ever come into production, knowing the government, insurance industry, and the general public's preoccupation with safety. The motorcycle had been grandfathered in from a much more naive, and vastly less sophisticated era in societal evolution, and that and only that was why we still have them to enjoy today.
The fact is, we could probably examine any number of practices, commodities, pieces of machinery, or ideas which we have today, but which were more specific to, and appropriate for times long gone. These relics from the zeitgeist past still exist, but not in the massive numbers in which they once did. Take the oil light, for example. It was totally appropriate for its day, and makes for a nice conversation piece, decorative touch, or auxiliary emergency equipment yet today, but who could be bothered with the sheer messiness, odors, and perhaps hazardous nature of the oil lamp in our modern age? The incandescent light bulb is self-contained, turns off and on at the flick of a switch, is easily regulated for intensity, and is readily available at the local store. Much better!
I am one of the baby boomers, a demographic whose disposable income every manufacturer, every marketer, and every investment counsellor, health care organization, and virtually anyone else who wished to exploit Keynsian economics at its zenith actively solicited. Although I spent the latter half of my youth in WCG, even at that time, I could not fathom how a thinking adult could possibly be so radically indoctrinated into what seemed to be an intoxication based on religious obsessive-compulsiveness (think Philadelphian as opposed to Laodecean). Clearly, the marketing approach of Herbert W. Armstrong was designed for my parents and their contemporaries! These people knew what the Great Depression, Hitler, and World War II were all about, and were just learning about the awful potential of the nuclear bomb. Television might have been a new phenomenon, but radio had been somewhat ubiquitous for several decades. And, of course, we all know the history. Here was a polished, authoritarian voice, seemingly in control of the air waves, warning of a horrible apocalypse which would soon befall all of those who did not repent of their sins, and become part of a small elite group which would be spared from what was soon to occur. Obviously, this technique was both believable, and successful. The booklet "1975 in Prophecy" was freely given, but had it been sold, it most likely would have become a best seller!
Using the same techniques, could a similar group be started, and could it enjoy the phenomenal growth (30% per year) that the WCG once did? I believe that the prospects for such an event would be slim to none. The very concept has been marginalized by a number of external factors, to say nothing of the destructive powers wrought by internal factors specific to that particular group.
Whether or not you personally define Armstrongism (including variants and splinter groups) as a cult, there is today a much greater public awareness of cults and the damage which they do. This was largely unexplored during the 1920s through perhaps the first half of the 1970s. The hip generation explored virtually everything, leading to a much higher level of sophistication. So,
call it cynicism, or perhaps hyper awareness, but the public's current immunity to cults would tend to limit the growth potential of any non-mainstream religious organization, and even make people cautious about the mainstream! Bottom line is, whatever the non-mainstream beliefs happen to be, nobody in their right mind wants to wake up one morning in some compound (or place of "safety"!) owned by the next Jim Jones, or David Koresh. Think this can't happen to an ACOGger? Koresh's movement was actually another offshoot from Adventism!
Let's also examine the topic of fear motivation. This is something which has really come into its own. The World Tomorrow broadcast, and Plain Truth Magazine blatantly and shamelessly created and exploited fear! Today, politicians, environmentalists, conspiracy theorists, and other callers to action have discovered the amplifying qualities of a good dose of fear. How many existential threats do we have today, in addition to the bomb? I believe at last count, the number fell somewhere between ten and twenty. HWA, of course, exploited the bomb, the Germans, and the end times. Later on, GTA introduced environmental concerns into his broadcasts and articles, a passion which he apparently shared with the hippies. Taken in today's context, because of the fear over avian flu, global warming, golden algae, terrorism, horrific disease epidemics, the reversal of the earth's magnetic polarity, fear based preaching is not going to produce the effect it once did. It is a turnoff. Mainstream Christianity recognizes this, and emphasizes God's love and protection, as opposed to deliberately fomenting fear. Subtle difference, but very effective. Perfect love casts out fear. Meanwhile, the Armstrong movement has figuratively shot itself in the foot, destroying its own credibility by continuously setting or approximating dates for the start of the tribulation, or return of Jesus Christ, in spite of Jesus' own words on this topic. It would be downright comical if their actions were not so detrimental to their members' lives, and the lives of the members' innocent children. Yet, time and again, we've witnessed the splinter groups attempting to fan the flames, co-opt the existential threats, and use every tornado, tsunami, or earthquake to cause prospectives to bow to their agenda.
Not everyone who entered Armstrongism was attracted because of the scare tactics. There were a number of people who were attracted because "he teaches from the Bible." I really can't vouch for what mainstream Catholics and Protestants were doing back in our pre-WCG days, because my parents dropped us off at Sunday School while they attended church. But, if TBN,
Christian radio, Internet sites, Barnes and Noble, and Berean Bookstore are a small indicator, it would appear that mainstream Christians of today are doing a much more effective job of documenting their teachings with scripture. The basic problem shared by most Armstrong followers was always that the bulk of them were relative Bible illiterates before HWA began influencing them. Most obtained their entire methodology, logic, and interpretive skills directly from HWA! That is why so many long term members experience such incredible immunity to the works of vastly more educated scholars.
Imagine, prior to the advent of the Internet, how difficult it would have been to check into such things as the so-called lost century of the early Christian church. This is the time period during which a minor character of the New Testament, Simon Magus, a gnostic, had according to Armstrong hijacked the original Christian church and morphed it into Catholicism. Even if a typical working person had been willing to spend countless hours in the public library, how would he have known how to refute this theory? Would he have known to investigate the works of Irenaeus, or even known what an "Antenicene Father" was? Would he have taken the time to read the real history that existed, or simply take HWA's word that there was a lost century? For most of us, when HWA, or his top researchers such as Herman Hoeh lifted a quote from an historical doctrine, ignoring its original context, and creating yet another spurious proof text, we would never have even known what the original work was, let alone where to find it. Footnotes were rarely used to authenticate their contentions. Today, in many cases, all a prospective member need do is to Google "British Israelism" (a common example), and these cults are all finished before they ever get a foothold to begin their dastardly influence.
One of the very wonderful aspects to today's charities and church groups is that they have discovered accountability. There are standards for such things as the loading costs which tend to detract from accomplishing the stated mission of the organizations. The salaries of administrators, one of these loading costs, are held to public scrutiny. It all ends up being good business, and facilitating due diligence, but unfortunately this accountability has been instituted because of past abuses, the reporting of them, and the public's normal and healthy skepticism. This skepticism has been fueled by horror stories regarding expensive art collections, palaces and mansions, sex for hire, thousand dollar dog houses, tithes gambled away in Las Vegas, alleged overseas accounts, and just about every type of fiduciary irresponsibility or mismanagement possible. This accountability, or the lack thereof, factors in very heavily as a potential member considers single sourcing his or her spiritual guidance to one church corporate.
The leaders of Armstrongism, past present and future would probably all give God the credit for the past successes within that movement. Yet, for some reason, none of them seem to be able to completely duplicate that success. Some of the more charismatic ones have attracted significant numbers of the old school, long term members. But, unless you have been prompted as to where to look, the work that these groups are doing is largely invisible. And, they are not growing, at least not on the same level experienced in HWA's heyday. It is not as it once was back in the 1960s when there was tremendous street buzz, and heavy name recognition for both HWA and GTA. Truly, this is a movement which would do well to heed the observations of Gamaliel! Herbert's denials to the contrary, the original WCG was largely based on his personal modifications of Adventism, which as we know today had sprung from the Seventh Day Baptist churches. HWA took a very radical approach, often adapting fringe doctrines from the reject bin of historic Christianity. Most extreme or radical schools of thought cannot be sustained or perpetuated. They die out. Their primary role, when all is said and done, becomes one of either stimulating or influencing the mainstream.