Evangelical Approaches to New Religious Movements

Global advances in technology, systemic social upheaval, and the vast increase in the exchange of ideas, products, and worldviews between cultures have increasingly produced spiritual seekers who do not identify with traditional religious institutions. Instead, modern spiritual seekers are turning to person-centered, buffet-style spiritualities typically termed “cults” or, more recently, classified as “New Religious Movements” (NRMs). At this time, three related approaches have characterized a vast majority of evangelicals’ interactions with NRMs. What follows is a brief summary of countercult apologetics, a cross-cultural mission approach, and interreligious dialogue.

Drawing from a rich tradition that includes the church fathers and the Reformers and deeply influenced by the works of Walter Martin (author of The Kingdom of the Cults), countercult apologists are historically characterized by a resolute commitment to the defense of orthodox doctrine and their specialization of doctrinal analysis. When confronted with other religious groups, countercult apologists often use an engagement model that Phillip Johnson has termed a “heresy-rationalist apologetic.” The heresy-rationalist approach views other religious groups through the lenses of Christian doctrine and uses apologetic disciplines to refute incompatibilities and delineate the lines between orthodoxy and heresy. Reconciliation or reintegration back into the church requires renunciation of error and acceptance of orthodoxy as defined by the countercult apologists.

Countercult apologists have often been remarkably successful in buttressing confidence and faith in the veracity and reliability of the Christian tradition. They are also responsible for providing the church with a plethora of tools and information of varying quality that have sounded warnings concerning heresy and that have also met with some success in reaching disciples of new religions. However, with the growing recognition that NRMs must be approached and understood on their own terms, and given the shortcomings of doctrinal and apologetic approaches, the viability of the heresy-rationalist model as a primary method of evangelization is being increasingly reassessed.

A significant number of scholars and missionaries, in part represented by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, have called for a shift away from confrontational methods and towards relational forms of evangelism called the “critical incarnational approach.” The critical incarnational approach draws from the life and ministry of Jesus, who took on human nature in order to communicate his truth through the cultural symbols, words, and actions of the time period in which he lived. Christ participated in the culture of his day and transformed lives through developing deep and meaningful relationships with those around him.

In like manner, the critical incarnational approach tends to view adherents of NRMs and other new religions through a cross-cultural lens—as unreached people groups living in Western nations. Viewing NRMs as unreached people groups shifts the emphasis from one of confrontation and doctrinal refutation to a focus on the NRM’s need to experience the transforming power of Jesus. NRMs can then be understood as complex, intricate subcultures that require missionaries and apologists to listen carefully to each person’s story in order to identify how the Spirit of God may be leading him or her to be open to the gospel. Perceiving an NRM as a unique unreached subculture also requires apologists and missionaries to love and respect the NRM adherents even when there is potentially great disagreement between them.

In related fashion, interreligious dialogue attempts to forge relationships between evangelicals and NRMs based on trust and genuine regard for the other. In addition, the interreligious dialogue attempts to clarify terminology in order to avoid bearing false witness of the others’ beliefs and practices and to clearly perceive where differences and commonalities exist. By offering the NRM the opportunity to engage in long-term, mutually respectful relationships, evangelicals intentionally create a safe place from which an NRM can observe genuine examples of Christian ethos and belief. In turn, this may allow for conversion and discipleship of previously unreached adherents.