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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
institutionalized
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.

Options for Engagement
The Church has responded in a variety of ways to this situation, from ignoring cultural developments in Western spirituality, to the expression of various forms of church that attempt to woo spiritual seekers to the church community and building in order to interact with the gospel, to apologetic refutation of doctrinal and worldview elements of those new religions and spiritualities considered heretical or “cultic.” The latter option has been most prevalent among evangelicals,5 primarily in the United States, where many ministries produce resources that seek to counter the teachings of various new religions in relation to Christianity.

While recognizing the biblical call for discernment and warnings about false teaching within the Church (Matthew 7:15ff; Acts 20:26-32; Ephesians 4:11-16), and the continuing need for the Church to engage in apologetics and the defense of the faith (1 Peter 3:15), some evangelicals have recognized the limitations of such approaches when used as evangelistic methods and have called for a broader and more holistic response that incorporates the insights of cross-cultural missions.

Cross-cultural Missions and Contextualization
Many evangelicals, particularly those associated with Lausanne Movement Issue Group 16,6 are reflecting on the biblical examples of communication of the gospel across cultures, particularly in the examples of Jesus (John 4: 4-26; 12:20-24) and the Apostle Paul (Acts 13:13-52; 14:8-20; 17:16-34), who modeled differing missional approaches when engaging Jews and Gentiles.

In addition, they are reflecting on the history of Christian missions with examples of those like Patrick among the Celts in Ireland, Matteo Ricci among the Confucian literati in China, and Karl Ludvig Reichelt among Buddhist monks in China. The discipline of missiology also provides an important resource, and all of these areas come together so that the lessons learned might be applied to the development of mission models to new religions and Western subjective life spiritualities.

Two aspects of a missiological approach stand out as most significant.

  1. This approach moves beyond viewing new religions as “cults” to considering them as dynamic religious or spiritual cultures or subcultures.7 While still recognizing doctrines and worldviews of these groups that are at odds with biblical teaching, a missiological approach seeks a broader framework for understanding and engagement that includes not only doctrine and worldview, but also other important considerations such as vocabulary, customs, rituals, sense of community, and social identity.

  2. A missiological approach involves a process of contextualization. As New Testament scholar and missionary Dean Flemming has defined it, “Contextualization has to do with how the gospel revealed in scripture authentically comes to life in each new cultural, social, religious, and historical setting.”8 As Flemming discusses, the biblical writers framed the gospel message and developed theologies that were appropriate for effective communication and living in different segments of the ancient Mediterranean world. This provides an example and pattern for the Church to emulate for successive generations, which then requires careful reflection by Christians as students of both theology and culture.

Practical Examples
Participants in Issue Group 16 at the Lausanne 2004 Forum for World Evangelization in Thailand, as well as the subsequent meeting in 2006 in Hong Kong, have been interacting carefully with these ideas and examples. As a result, participants have developed contextualized mission approaches to new religions. Some of these examples are highlighted in the Issue Group’s 2004 Occasional Paper. These and other examples have received more extensive treatment as case studies and practical, field-tested models in Encountering New Religious Movements,9 a book devoted to the exploration of a cross-cultural mission approach to new religions.

Moving Forward
It is our hope that the efforts of those of Issue Group 16, and others who are developing new models of cross-cultural missions and contextualized theologies to new religions and alternative spiritualities, can provide fresh starting places for Christians grappling with new ways to live and communicate the Christian faith in the West.

But the work has just begun. Representatives of the issue group will be meeting in October 2008 for a “Consultation on Post-Christendom Spiritualities: The New Unreached People Groups.” Many leading scholars and practitioners working in the field of new religions and spiritualities will present papers and interact with missiological methods of engagement. During the consultation, the issue group will meet to reflect on its past accomplishments, its present activities, and where it needs to go as we plan for the Lausanne gathering in South Africa in 2010. We invite the participation of others who are interested in this ministry context and its relevance to other areas of ministry and missions.

The Challenge of the Western World
Over two decades ago Lesslie Newbigin asked a question that has yet to be sufficiently grappled with. Having returned from India (where he had served as a missionary) to his home in the United Kingdom, he discovered that the Western world was just as much a valid mission field as the India he had departed from, and that Christians needed to be thinking missionally in the Western context just as much as outside of it. This prompted him to ask the question, “Can the West be converted?”10 a query that has consumed the thinking of increasing numbers of church workers in the Western world. Sadly, as Newbigin surveyed missiological literature for application to the West, he concluded:

The weakness, however, of this whole mass of missiological writing is that while it has sought to explore the problems of contextualization in all the cultures of humankind from China to Peru, it has largely ignored the culture that is the most widespread, powerful, and persuasive among all contemporary cultures—namely, what I have called modern Western culture.11

With the global shift of Christianity’s growth from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere, and the increasingly pluralistic and post-Christian nature of the West, the presence of new religions and subjective life spiritualities may provide us with a context by which we can work through answers to Newbigin’s question and experiment with the development of new approaches at contextualization and new theologies for the rapidly changing Western world.

Endnotes

1. 1998. After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s. Berkeley, California, USA: University of California Press.

2. 1999. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton, New Jersey, USA: Princeton University Press.

3. With Benjamin Seel, Bron Szernsynski, and Karin Trusting. 2005. The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell.

4. See Partridge’s complete discussion of these developments in Western culture and the place of alternative spiritualities in this milieu in his 2002 article, “The Disenchantment and Re-enchantment of the West: The Religio-Cultural Context of Western Christianity.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 74(3): 235-56.

5. Johnson, Philip. 1997. “The Aquarian Age and Apologetics.” Lutheran Theological Journal 34(2): 51-60.

6. The issue group’s website may be found at www.lop45.org.

7. Hexham, Irving and Karla Poewe. 1997. New Religions as Global Cultures. Boulder, Colorado, USA: Westview.

8. 2005. Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission. Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: InterVarsity Press. Cf. Richard N. Longenecker. 1999. New Wine into Fresh Wineskins: Contextualizing the Early Christian Confessions. Peabody, Massachusetts, USA: Hendrickson Publishers.

9. Hexham, Irving, Stephen Rost, and John W. Morehead II, gen. eds. 2004. Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Kregel Academic & Professional. Related issues are also explored at Sacred Tribes Journal, where many of this issue group serve as editors and contributors.

10. 1985. “Can the West Be Converted?” Princeton Seminary Bulletin 6(1): 25-37.

11. 1986. Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2-3.

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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.