For the past several decades, evangelical Christian outreaches to members of new religious movements have largely taken the form of apologetic confrontation.1 Evangelicals—who tend to value doctrine and belief in correct doctrine above experience and practice—may try to classify new religious movements using primarily doctrinal categories and, in so doing, misread the actual meaning of these religions to their practitioners. When examining new religious movements, evangelicals may be wise to take Lesslie Newbigin’s advice to seek to understand each religion “on its own terms and along the lines of its own central axis.”2
The spiritual lives of many members of new religious movements revolve around experience, religious practice, and rituals.3 Paganism has no official doctrine whatsoever, though the various Pagan traditions share a reverence for the natural world.4 Missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encourage religious seekers to examine the feelings they have when reading the Book of Mormon and to ask God directly for confirmation that the Church is true. Of the questions Latter-day Saints are asked that establish their worthiness to enter the temple—where Mormons perform sacred ordinances and renew covenants—only a minority of the questions address belief, while the rest address issues of practice.
In part because new religious movements often emphasize praxis over doctrine, these groups generally are not static—nor, in most cases, do they aspire to be. Both Latter-day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses value progressive revelation, God’s ongoing communication of truths to his people. For Latter-day Saints, reforms to the Church come by way of divine revelations to the Church’s prophetic leadership, while Jehovah’s Witnesses have a Governing Body that makes alterations to doctrine.5 Within Pagan spiritualities such as Wicca, each adherent chooses a path or combination of paths that feels right to him or her; evolution in religious practice occurs more regularly at the individual level.6 When seeking to understand new religious movements, it may be as useful for evangelicals to learn how their practitioners think as it is to learn what they think.
Misconceptions abound regarding new religious movements. Perhaps most commonly, these movements are thought to all merit the designation “cult” and to be categorically different from religions with longer histories. But though this may be accurate of some new religious movements, such generalizations cannot be made about the category as a whole. Having no central authority figures or official rules, Pagans would be particularly difficult to classify as belonging to a cult, as within Paganism, control over one’s religious experience is situated firmly in the hands of the individual. And some Pagans believe in a plurality of spirit beings share many commonalities with Hindus, whose soft polytheism can look quite similar in practice. Many comparisons have been made between Mormonism and Islam: the founding prophet of each faith was visited by an angel, and both faiths prohibit gambling and alcohol, emphasize good works, have a history of polygamous marriages, and teach that the Bible has been corrupted to some degree. And the political neutrality, emphasis on eschatology, and commitment to lay leadership of the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been shared at various points in time by several mainstream Christian sects. It may be, in fact, that the only common factor present in all new religious movements is that they are, relatively speaking, new.
1Philip Johnson, Anne C. Harper, and John W. Morehead, eds., “Religious and Non-Religious Spirituality in the Western World (‘New Age’),” Lausanne Occasional Paper No. 45 (Sydney, Australia: Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and Morling Press, 2004), p. 7, available at http://www.lausanne.org/en/documents/lops/860-lop-45.html.
2Lesslie Newbigin, “The Basis, Purpose, and Manner of Inter-Faith Dialogue,” Scottish Journal of Theology 30, no. 3 (1977): 253–70.
3Johnson, Harper, and Morehead, “Religious and Non-Religious Spirituality,” p. 13.
4Patheos Library, “Paganism,” http://www.patheos.com/Library/Pagan.html.
5The Watchtower, “Our Active Leader Today,” September 15, 2010, p. 27; James E. Faust, “Continuing Revelation,” Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (April 1996).
6Wicca.com, “Various Wiccan Traditions,” http://wicca.com/celtic/wicca/wiccas.htm.