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New Religions, Subjective Life Spiritualities, and the Challenge to Missions in the Post-Christian West

By John Morehead
July 2008

Globalization has made the world a smaller place and introduced people to a wide variety of religious practices and ideas. Migration from one country to another, international travel for business and recreation, and a variety of communication technologies have contributed to an increasingly pluralistic context, bringing diverse peoples together, and providing an expansive pool of religious and spiritual options to choose from. This is particularly the case in the Western world.

One of the greatest
challenges the Church
faces in the modern
Western context is the
general turn away from
forms of religion.

The Western Subjective Turn
One of the greatest challenges the Church faces in the modern Western context is the general turn away from interest in and involvement with institutionalized forms of religion, such as Christianity, and the corresponding move toward an inward and subjective expression of spirituality. Robert Wuthnow has referred to this as a shift from a “spirituality of dwelling” in institutions such as churches to a “spirituality of seeking,”1 involving an individualized spiritual quest.

This spiritual seeking takes place in consumerist fashion wherein the seeker selects from an expanding “spiritual marketplace,”2 looking for resources that facilitate an inward development of the self with its desires for wholeness, personal development, and meaning. Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead have described the inward turn in Western spirituality as “subjective life spirituality.” They note that those forms of spirituality which emphasize a holistic personal life are far more able to thrive in the present environment than those which do not.3

Increasing Spiritual Options
These developments in the ways in which people pursue their religious and spiritual practices mean that the spiritual marketplace is made up of not only institutionalized forms of alternative spiritualities expressed in more familiar groups such as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, but also more fluid and individualized forms of spirituality such as Neo-Paganism and Western esotericism.

In addition, large numbers of people pursue their own unique forms of Do-It-Yourself Spirituality constructed in eclectic fashion and drawn from elements of popular culture and diverse religious traditions.

Although the total number of adherents of new religions is small in light of the overall religious population in the West, as Christopher Partridge has noted, “New religions and alternative spiritualities should not be dismissed as superficial froth or the dying embers of religion in the West, but are rather the sparks of a new and increasingly influential way of being religious.”4

The question remains, however, as to what might be considered the best ways for the Church to engage the new religions, as well as the broader Western turn to self and holistic spirituality.

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John Morehead is director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies, one of the senior editors for Sacred Tribes Journal, co-editor and contributor to Encountering New Religious Movements, and an adjunct instructor at Salt Lake Theological Seminary in Utah, USA. He is also part of the ongoing Lausanne Issue Group 16 that addresses alternative spirituality and new religious movements in the Western world.