New Age, New Mission? Evangelism and the Rise of “The New Spiritualities”

Until recently, Christian literature on the New Age was not geared to equipping Christians to share their faith with its followers. This has been changing as Christians have come to view those involved in such spiritualities as people with whom we are called to share faith in cross-cultural evangelism. What are the issues this raises for evangelism in our day? How might we approach people involved in such spiritualities?

Changes in Culture and Spirituality in the West
Within the context of Christian countries, New Religious Movements were often based upon a revision of Christian understanding. The Latter-Day Saints or the Jehovah’s Witnesses would be classic examples. Others emerged from esoteric beliefs and occult practices. Christian responses to these sought to show their error or warn of their danger and were primarily geared to protecting the Christian majority from adopting them.

When the New Age Movement and Contemporary Pagan groups began to gain a following as part of the late 1960s counter-culture, it was very easy for Christians to view these in this way.

By the start of the twenty-first century it was becoming clear to many that something quite different was happening. These new movements, unlike others, did not define themselves from within a Christian framework, and while clearly influenced by other faiths and occult ideas, they did not actually adopt those systems.

Rather, they represented a new postmodern and post-Christendom approach to spirituality that was increasingly becoming mainstream. In the U.K., one sign of this was the way the “mind-body-spirit” section in bookstores containing titles on subjects ranging from self-help to meditation to tarot to complementary medicine became much bigger than the religion section.

  
Those doing evangelism as cross-cultural mission
have gained a number of insights, many of which are
likely to be applicable for other areas of our culture.

Surveys in the U.K. have also shown changing beliefs so that half of those who believe in life after death believe in reincarnation; and while twenty-six percent of the population believe in a personal God, forty-four percent believe in some kind of spirit or life force nearer to the force in Star Wars than the ideas of traditional religions.

However, it was also difficult to classify and measure the numbers of followers of these new movements. This has not been helped by the dropping of the label “New Age” by most of those who once would have identified with it with no real alternative emerging. One can talk of New Age and Paganism as two ends of a spectrum from which contemporary spirituality has emerged and this still offers some helpful distinctions.1

However, beyond that, one has to talk vaguely of “The New Spiritualities” or a similar phrase, there being no agreement among observers or practitioners on a term to use. Indeed, all this is an expression of the highly postmodern nature of such spiritualities, which means they tend not to be organised groups with clear doctrines but more fluid collections of people who tend to be focused on what works for them rather than developing belief systems.

Indeed, this style of spirituality has come to be seen as expressing the kind of client-based religions often found in countries like Japan where few people are members of a religion but most will consume the services of any and every religion they feel works for them.

In many ways, the success of the more New Age end of the spectrum has been that such approaches to spirituality fit perfectly with a consumer culture. The more Pagan end has been a source of counter-cultural activity against capitalism (although this is being threatened by the growth of a far more consumer-orientated Paganism on the internet, especially among teenagers).

The way these spiritualities work also means that they do not make exclusive claims on those adopting them. This means that while largely post-Christian Europe has seen many attracted to The New Spiritualities as an alternative to Christianity, in the U.S. with its much stronger Christian profile, these beliefs and practices are being adopted by churchgoers without them seeming to experience a conflict.2 Such styles of spirituality are therefore a mission issue of evangelism not just among a particular people group, but within a whole society that seems to increasingly approach spirituality in this way.

This is why understanding such spiritualities is far more important for evangelism in post-modernity than the numbers of those at mind-body-spirit fairs (probably about one percent of the population in the U.K.) might suggest.

Changing Understanding of Evangelism in the West
Much evangelism in the West has been based upon models developed within Christian countries. The classic mission meeting based upon proclamation of the cross is a good example. In the U.K., however, this approach has been in decline as it became apparent during the late twentieth century that most of those who came to faith this way had church backgrounds3 at a time when fewer and fewer people had such a history. The same difficulty in reaching those without church backgrounds seems to be true for the otherwise very effective Alpha Course.4

At the same time the insights of missiologists like David Bosch on mission at times of paradigm shifts were beginning to be applied to post-modernity. Evangelism in Europe is being re-thought as foreign mission rather than the tradition inherited from Christendom. Such thinking seems to increasingly make sense regarding other parts of the West, perhaps even areas of the U.S., especially among the young.

This thinking is shaping approaches to evangelism that begin not with the message we wish to proclaim but by listening to the beliefs and experiences of others and looking for connections to the Christian gospel. This approach requires the building of relationships and a willingness to go to where people are in mission rather than expect them to come to us. The story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10 is being re-discovered in contemporary experience.

Discoveries in Evangelism within the New Spiritualities
Those doing evangelism as cross-cultural mission within this culture, like those for instance in the Lausanne Group on New Religious Movements, have gained a number of insights, many of which are likely to be applicable for other areas of our culture. Below are five:

  1. There is a critique of Christendom and failures of the Church to address key issues effectively, what the Lausanne Issue Group report calls “the unpaid bills of the Church” that we need to hear. Christianity is often viewed as lacking spiritual reality, and bearing responsibility for environmental damage, violence, and the oppression of women and minority groups. We need to admit past failures as well as develop both effective apologetics and actions consistent with the Christian tradition to address these issues.

  2. The approach to spirituality is based upon experience rather than doctrine. Apologetic approaches seeking to show the gospel as true make little sense to the people we are evangelising; instead, they are far more interested in personal testimony and want to experience God for themselves. Things like prayer, meditation, and prophetic insights are ways to connect with people. However, there is a danger of simply adding to the range of spiritual consumer products if there is not also an attempt to open up issues of the transforming power of God in peoples’ lives and the place of Jesus as the one through whom this occurs.
  3. Understanding of concepts like sin and salvation are absent or often distorted so that traditional explanations of the atonement are not understood and are rejected. New language is needed that builds upon an often-present understanding that the way people live is harming the planet and is responsible for suffering in the world. The biblical imagery of redemption and Paul’s language of the death and resurrection of Christ as breaking the power of sin and death are the most likely to be understood as answers to this.
  4. Many people talk of spiritual experiences that are likely to be of the God we know through Jesus Christ. This is often hidden by the fact that people explain these experiences without having the language of Christianity and through ideas drawn from New Age or Contemporary Pagan thought. Showing how peoples’ spiritual experiences make sense within a Christian spirituality is an important part of evangelistic witness. We find ourselves in a similar situation to Paul in Athens speaking about the Unknown God.
  5. Those who come to faith often find it hard to be accepted by churches, and indeed would naturally express Christian faith in their own culture. Insights from the C1-6 explorations of evangelism among Muslims are likely to be helpful in this area and it is likely that longer term mission in this culture will be served by planting churches in that culture.

Moving On in Evangelism in a New Spiritual Landscape
This area of missions is at a place where it needs to both expand and deepen. While in some areas there are a good number of Christians engaged in this mission, in others there are few. In the U.K., we have developed a resource called “Equipping Your Church in a Spiritual Age” that has been helpful. We plan to make this available as a download as a response to increasing international requests.5

Training is increasingly available for those wishing to explore this ministry. For many of us already working in this field, there is a challenge in maintaining contact with those we are sharing our faith with, particularly creating communities that can become churches in this culture. It is often when a church exists within a culture that long-term mission can be sustained. We believe the same is true for the New Spirituality culture in the West.

Endnotes

1. For more on this see Hollinghurst, Scott. 2003. New Age Paganism and Christian Mission. Cambridge: Grove Books.

2. Successive World Values Surveys have shown the growth of such beliefs among churchgoers. There is significant information on this area in the Baylor Religion Survey 2006.

3. See Finney, John. 1992. Finding Faith Today. Bletchley, U.K.: Scripture Union.

4. See Hunt, Stephen. 2005. The Alpha Enterprise. Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate.

5. For information, contact me at s.hollinghurst@sheffieldcentre.org.uk


Rev. Steve Hollinghurst is a researcher in evangelism to post-Christian culture at the Church Army Sheffield Centre in the U.K. and a member of the Lausanne Issue Group on New Religious Movements. He came to faith in his late teens after involvement in the occult and alternative religions. He is also involved in Elemental, a venue offering Christian spirituality at the Glastonbury Festival and in running Christian stalls at Mind, Body, and Spirit fairs.