I was a part of the Victory Outreach church based in London, England for five years during the 90s. I am not a minister, but simply a believer who wants to see the truth become clear. People I know and care about understand that fine line of spiritual abuse that runs through the ministry of Victory Outreach International.
I have been a Christian for 13 years. I first came to know the Lord through the ministry of Teen Challenge based in South Wales. I abused drugs for 7 years and was involved in crime, violence and occult practices. I graduated the Teen Challenge program in the late 80s and moved to a small town before going back home. It was while I was in that small town that I heard about Victory Outreach through a friend of mine who was also at Teen Challenge. This friend was now in Victory Outreach and he gave me a good report about the work of this ministry in London. I then decided I was going to go to London and join Victory Outreach.
When I arrived in London I was very surprised to only see only a handful of people meeting in a run down shop. This straight away was a completely different from what my friend had said to me on the phone.
Within 3 months I was leader on a worship team. I also joined in on leaders meetings. At one of these meetings, the pastor made this point, which really shocked me, he said, "We are not here to become friends, but we are here to fulfil the vision." The word "vision" was to become a key word in my time there along with words like "sacrifice," "obedience," "rebellion" and "Pastor Sonny." During my time at Victory Outreach I became: an assistant worship leader, leader of the re-entry home, youth leader, cell group leader and I also went over to Dublin, Ireland to help pioneer a Victory Outreach church there.
Before I continue, I would like to make something very clear about Victory Outreach. I do not believe in anyway whatsoever that Victory Outreach is a cult. But I must also say that from what I have witnessed and experienced, that Victory Outreach does have a lot of "cultish" attitudes. The bible states that we should "have the same attitude of Christ" (Phil 2:5).
Here are three attitudes modeled by Christ, which I rarely saw in the ministry of Victory Outreach London
1. Christ's servant attitude: Matt 20:28; Luke 22:27; Phil 2:7
But what I came to expect was that the congregation was there to serve the pastor and the leaders. When I first joined Victory Outreach I shared with the pastor what I felt God's calling was for me. His answer shocked me, he said, "The best way to fulfil the call/vision that God had placed on my life, was to lay it down and serve someone else's vision (e.g. Sonny's)." By doing this I was told, "This was sacrifice, and only in sacrifice can God bless my call/vision." Sadly I believed this.
This attitude of service is also encouraged within the Victory Outreach homes. A director, counselor or head staff would demand respect at all times before even earning respect from the men/women on the program. If a student questioned a certain decision or a way of reasoning, they were rebuked sharply and then branded with some kind of character flaw. What I saw, and sadly was a part of, was that the leaders believe because they occupy a position of authority, people ought to respect them. Quite the opposite to what the bible states: "If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ" (Gal 1:10). The pastor said that the rehabilitation was "the backbone of the church."
2. Jesus was the Good Shepherd: Ps 23:1-2, John 10:11
One of the main characteristics of a good shepherd is his "selflessness." This is evident through John 10:11, which states, "lays down his life for the sheep." John 10:15 "I lay down my life for the sheep." Again, John 10:17 "I lay down my life." And further John 10:18 states, "No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own accord."
Just by this verse of scripture it seems pretty evident that a good shepherd willingly "lays his life down." This is certainly far from the "shepherds" who serve the vision of Victory Outreach. The sheep in Victory Outreach is to lay their lives down for their pastor, who in turn is laying his life down for the "bigger Vision." The "vision" whatever that may be, "United We Can," "Vision 2000" or any other dream or vision that Sonny has had from God, will always have priority.
I would like to ask Sonny a question here about vision 2000.
Why, if this vision was from God, (i.e. to have 1,000 churches by the year 2000) did this not come true? How much money was put into promoting this vision, printing T-shirts, baseball caps, diaries, banners etc. etc? And did the people who sacrificially gave, get their money back? As far as I know Victory Outreach today does not have 1,000 churches and it is now 2001. But they have got another vision. Did God get it wrong and change His mind? Or did Sonny not hear from Him in the first place?
An even clearer example of this heavy burden put upon the congregation, is to attend the Victory Outreach European and World conferences. My experience at Victory Outreach conferences is there is a heavy emphasis placed upon the congregation to attend whatever the cost and that this is the place to be. It is preached from the front of the church well in advance, along with words like "step out in faith," and "if you don't go you will miss out." I have personally known good honest people who borrowed money to go to these conferences, only to come back in debt and not be able to pay their way out. It seems the more people the pastor takes with him, the more recognition he receives. Success is measured in numbers.
I have been to two European conferences and one world conference. The only kind of preaching that I heard at the meetings was all about fulfilling the vision, and the up and coming visions. This kind of preaching didn't build me up to help me to fulfil my potential in God; it only helps to encourage everyone to fulfil the vision of Victory Outreach. The conferences are also a platform to push out any new vision that Sonny had received from God. This just goes to show that the vision is more important than feeding hungry people with the Word of God. Totally contrary to the good shepherd who lays his life down for his sheep.
When I led youth in London's Victory Outreach London I read an article from the "United We Can" update, that told the story of a "youth training center." It was called the "West Coast Training Center," which was where "young people will be trained." And upon graduation they will be equipped in "Spiritual leadership, full-time ministry, church planting and cross-cultural ministry.". This may sound very positive but sadly the young people's interest is not at heart. The article concludes, "Our youth are being prepared to fulfil vision 2000." This is very sad. Young people are being peer pressured to do something that doesn't have anything to do with them. And because Vision 2000 never came about, is it now the young people's fault?
3. Christ was also humble in nature: Phil 2:6-8
This to me, shows that Christ "who being in very nature God" exposed the most feared and unseen characteristic within Victory Outreach, which is individuality. Christ made it his own decision to become human, it was his own act.
Sadly my individuality disappeared when I took on Sonny's vision and made it mine. Going with the vision carries a lot of baggage. You all march to the same beat, you all do things in a certain manner, you say the same things and dress the same way. You lose yourself. This is what Victory Outreach calls being a "family." Again, from my experience in London Victory Outreach I can say that families were not valued unless that family was in ministry and fully serving the vision. The kind of family that I found in Victory Outreach was sadly a dysfunctional one.
Families are meant to be open and honest with each other in all aspects of "family life." When it came to finances Victory Outreach was definitely not open and honest with members. In my near 6 years in London Victory Outreach not once did I see any kind of meaningful financial accountability given to the church. There was no account written in the bulletin (i.e. what the last week's tithes and offerings were).
I once asked the pastor, "Why the big secret about the finances?" But again all I got was a rebuke. He replied, "If you can show me where it says in the bible that I should give an account to the congregation then I'll do it." He also said that Victory Outreach had "never done it before."
Financial accountability is a common practice within a high percentage of churches worldwide. Why doesn't Victory Outreach practice it? At times from the pulpit the congregation was accused of being "thieves and robbers" before tithes and offerings were taken up. I can only remember one meeting for tithe givers during my time at Victory Outreach. Those who gave tithes were told how much they were appreciated and that because of them and their faithfulness the church was doing well, but not once was anyone shown the financial records.
I would like to briefly respond to a couple of points made by B.J. Oropeza, Ph.D. in response to a letter by Peter Belaustegui. First of all, when I read Peter's letter and his experiences it confirmed a lot of the issues that I was experiencing and had experienced in Victory Outreach at that time. I have also seen similar, if not the same things that Peter wrote about.
But B.J. likes to use his degrees to show he is more qualified to talk about Victory Outreach and it's cultish and abusive nature, whilst missing the simple fact that people have and are being abused in that ministry. B.J. uses the Christian Research Institute as one of his back ups. I myself appreciate the work that CRI do, and I have nothing but respect for Hank Hanegraaff. But could B.J. let me know what he thinks about Benny Hinn and his presence as a main speaker at the Victory Outreach world conference, when CRI exposed this man and his ministry as nothing but heresy. Then there is the open pulpit that is extended to Morris Cerrelo, another man that has been exposed by the ministry of CRI. I believe that the people who make up the ministry of CRI would have nothing to do with these men, but B.J. is here defending a ministry that embraces them and gives them an open pulpit.
B.J. says that "Victory Outreach essentially uses the same drug rehabilitation methods as Teen Challenge." This statement is far from the truth. I myself graduated from Teen challenge, and there is a vast difference between the two ministries. Teen Challenge looks after its students, Victory outreach students look after the vision. The last thing that I want to do is to compare these two ministries against each other.
I just want to make it very clear that these ministries are completely different. The directors, head staff and counselors in Victory Outreach are usually students themselves and sometimes newly converted believers. This is not so with Teen Challenge, all staff are trained and directors and counselors are themselves ordained ministers. The teaching structures are completely different. Victory Outreach teaches on a "shotgun" basis. That is, they will teach on issues like rebellion, disobedience, lust etc. The vision and the life of Sonny are also key subjects that are taught in the homes. Unlike Victory Outreach, Teen Challenge has in place a structured teaching program, which will challenge and change the individual.
I attended a meeting in Barcelona, Spain, which was for European leaders, when an elder of Victory Outreach who was then a Worldwide Overseer of rehabilitation homes said that "Teen Challenge had lost it's anointing, and it is now Victory Outreach's time to take it over." The minister from London also said to me, "Why do I get all the Teen Challenge rejects?" Remember B.J. said that these two ministries were "related."
B.J. claims he has never heard Sonny accuse people of being uncommitted if they didn't give their dollar a day. I have heard elders and pastors accuse people though. During the 1997 world conference in Long Beach, the minister from London preached in an evening service for 15,000 and said, "I may get hit for heresy here, but I'll say it anyway. If you ain't giving your dollar a day I question your love for God." He then stated, "I even question that you even know God." The tape of this can be made available. Is this more tongue and cheek from Victory Outreach? Obviously not, because Sonny got up and endorsed this message saying that "We needed to hear that."
"United We Can" does not have any meaningful financial accountability whatsoever to it's members. In one of the "United We Can" updates a nice glossy poster was been sent out and the very first paragraph states, "The Victory Outreach headquarters is now the crossroads of the world." I believe that this is where most of the contributions have gone. But B.J. says, "'United We Can' is a worthy cause." And "United We Can has always been open to question." But it seems to me with its special badges to its members, and its lack of accountability, there is nothing "united" about it.
Sadly, B.J also makes the point that "Victory Outreach accepts the criticisms of those who honestly desire the ultimate success of this ministry."
From my experience with Victory Outreach this statement is far from the truth. Many have often spoken to the minister in London about certain debatable issues, only to be called "judgmental," "bitter," "critical" or just "not able to understand the situation." On many occasions the minister has used the pulpit to bring across his opinion on some issue that you might have been discussing with him only a few days before. The complete abuse and misuse of the pulpit was a common sight in London Victory Outreach. If you had some kind of Christian background prior to you coming to Victory Outreach, you were often looked at as an "outsider," and your opinions likely to be labeled "judgmental."
In 1997 about 20 people left London Victory Outreach. This was mainly due to the stubbornness of the pastor, who refused to listen to anyone else's opinion. The number of years committed to the cause of Victory Outreach by these people totaled 94 years all together. Surely these people were serious about the ministry, but left because they felt they had no say and were not being listened to.
My wife and I decided to leave Victory Outreach in 1997 too. I wrote a letter to the minister explaining that I was fed up going to his church and receiving spiritual black eyes from the preaching that he was sharing. In the letter I clearly stated that my wife and I were taking time out to seek the Lord as to whether or not we should stay or move on.
The nine-page letter I received back from the minister was judgmental, very critical and I still have it. The minister puts my change of heart down to some kind of pain "brought about by my father and family history." He goes on to say that this pain "manifests itself in a stubborn pride" and because of that "you have grown to think that you know as much as I." He also says "that you think you have the experience to air your proud opinion and aim criticism at anyone that has taken anything away from you." He finishes by saying, "that in your pain, bitterness and unforgiveness you have turned against me and now criticize me. This is very painful."
I would like to ask, is there anyone that is beyond reproach? Sadly, this minister could only respond to criticism by trying to attack my character. Not once in my time at Victory Outreach did this minister bring these things to my attention, as any good shepherd would have done. And why would he have me playing an important role in leadership if I was so messed up?
The minister from London Victory Outreach has been sent back to Los Angeles, where he is now working at the mother church in La Puente. I believe that he is just as much of a victim of the abusive nature of Victory Outreach as I am. I wish him and his family the best and that comes from the bottom of my heart.
I hope that all Victory Outreach survivors can constructively use our experiences to bring attention to the saving and changing power of our Lord Jesus Christ.