Thursday, September 11, 2008

New Religions and Spiritualities: Engaging the Contemporary Religious West

Dr. Michael Cooper of Trinity International University published the following article in a recent issue of Lausanne's World Pulse:

In the spring of 2005 I presented a paper at the Midwest regional conference of the American Academy of Religion held at DePaul University in Chicago (USA). The paper addressed factors that contribute to the growth of a contemporary Pagan religion. After the presentation, several in attendance came to me with questions. One question stood out: “Dr. Cooper, are you a Pagan?” It was an honest question from an individual who assumed anyone speaking favorably about Paganism must be a Pagan as well. I was happy to respond, “No, I am not a Pagan. I am an evangelical Christian.”

With that response, a collective look of disbelief fell over the faces of those standing around. Such a look, as well as some individual comments, communicated the immediate respect that I gained in their eyes for demonstrating an understanding acquired from dialogue and observations.
Over the years, I have had people disagree with me on my approach to engaging religious others. In a recent email, one such detractor wrote: “Why in the world are you occupied with a study of Paganism? All the nonsense of communicating the message of Christ’s love and hope to make some adherents is futile.”

Others have responded less radically, such as: “I found your applications not only applicable to Christians reaching out to Pagans, but to all Christians attempting to reach out to anyone. Your principles were very universal and insightful.” While not all will share my particular academic emphasis on understanding other religions, most might agree that respect for religious people as created in the image of God is a necessary Christian virtue, especially when one is attempting to engage such people with the gospel.

At the very heart of Lausanne Issue Group 16 is the desire to understand and respect the people we encounter. In this vein, the Issue Group has partnered with Trinity International University (Deerfield, Illinois, USA) and the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies to co-sponsor an international conference addressing new religious movements and spiritualities. New religions are generally thought of in terms of religious groups forming out of the dominant religion of a culture. These often-called “deviant religions” break with the dominant religion and shape into new religious movements. Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses are most commonly associated with such movements.

However, recent attempts at understanding new religious movements in the West have included Western and non-Western religions surfacing as the result of immigration, globalization, and/or Easternization, as well as pre-Christian European religions that result from the revival of native, reconstructed religions.

Religion continues to play a significant role in the spiritual marketplace of the religiously unregulated West. The corresponding decline of religious fervor once associated with the secularization thesis is challenged by the notion that a significant majority of westerners identify themselves as religious and/or spiritual. Today’s Christian will be confronted with multiple religious worldviews, whether in ministry, in the workplace, or in their neighborhood. Developing the academic knowledge and practical skills to effectively engage these worldviews is a necessary part of equipping Christians to engage their local and global contexts.

Hosted by the School of Biblical and Religious Studies at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, USA, the 16-19 October 2008 conference is a gathering of practitioners and scholars addressing the decline of Christianity in the West and the concomitant growth of new people groups expressed in religions and spiritualities such as modern Paganism, Western Esotericism, New Age, and other alternative spiritualities.

Plenary sessions and parallel workshops will address the topics of the future of religion in the West, the make up of the alternative religious marketplace, and approaches in engaging adherents of alternative spiritualities. Because we believe this is an important conference, registration is only $60USD for the ten plenary sessions and twelve parallel workshops.

Graduate course credit can also be obtained through Trinity Graduate School. More information about the conference is online at:

The conference will be an opportunity to hear leading evangelical scholars address the growing significance of the religious shift in Western society. Plenary sessions include:

Sacred Rights: The Claims of Indigenous People to Their Sacred Places, Stephen Paul Kennedy (Trinity Graduate School)

From paganism to Paganism: The Continuing Evolution of Western Religious History and the Emergence of New Religious Identities, Michael T. Cooper (Trinity Graduate School)

From the Occult to Western Esotericism: Catching Up with Changes in the New Age Movement, J. Gordon Melton (Institute for the Study of American Religion)

Complex Identity, Christian Conversion, and Missiological Praxis, Terry C. Muck (Asbury Theological Seminary)

Evangelicals and the Emergent Church, James Beverley (Tyndale Seminary)

The C1-C6 Contextualization Spectrum Applied to Evangelical-LDS Conversations, Craig Blomberg (Denver Seminary)

From Cult to Sect? Theological and Structural Reformation in the Family: The Children of God since the Death of the Prophet, James Chancellor (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary)

The Primacy of the Pastoral/Subjective Evidential Apologetic for Post-Christendom Spiritualities, Ross Clifford (Morling College)

How Would the Church’s Earliest Theologians Respond to New Religious Movements? Gerald R. McDermott (Roanoke College)

Western Institute for Intercultural Studies Panel Discussion, John W. Morehead

In addition to the plenary sessions, the conference has scheduled twelve parallel workshops with sessions ranging from Buddhism in the West to a theology of the discernment of spirits.

We live in a cultural milieu not all that dissimilar from first century Athens. As Luke noted, the Athenians enjoyed hearing new ideas (Acts 17:21). Similarly in our context, the creation of thousands of new religious movements and spiritualities in the last half century testifies to the same. The Apostle Paul demonstrated how the Christian should live and act in the marketplace by respectfully engaging in dialogue while learning about people. As Christopher Partridge has reflected,

Christians will need to speak to their friends in other faiths as Christians and address the specific concerns and needs of the Christian community (e.g., provide reliable information for churches, theologians, pastors and missionaries). As such, the study of religion is part of the larger task of constructing a Christian worldview and responding to Jesus’ Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20).1

1. 2002. “The Study of Religion.” In Dictionary of Contemporary Religion in the Western World: Exploring Living Faiths in Postmodern Contexts, ed. Christopher Partridge, 144. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Intervarsity.

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