Does the cross give us a bridge across the chasm? Or is the chasm only an illusion created by our fears?
“I used to go to church, but all they seemed to care about were rules and regulations, and everyone was always judging everyone else,” said one man. His friend responded: “Same here. Church was irrelevant to what was happening in my life. The minister’s favorite topic was hellfire. What a waste of time.”
I was perusing the shelves in a New Age bookstore and could not help overhearing the conversation between two men farther down the aisle. “Now I’m into this,” one of the men continued, holding up a book by a well-known New Age guru. “It hits the nail right on the head, as far as I’m concerned.” “I’ve been helped by so-and-so,” the other man replied (he named a local ‘trance channeler’). “The readings I get from her have really made a difference.”
I finally summoned the nerve to speak up. After all, New Agers pride themselves on being open to all points of view. So I decided to offer mine. “Excuse me,” I interrupted. “I overheard what you were saying, and I know where you’re coming from. I’ve had similar disappointing experiences with churches. But what you’re reacting against isn’t Christianity, it’s legalism. Christianity isn’t about judging and condemning, or threats of hellfire and damnation.”
The two men were typical New Age devotees. Many New Agers once attended traditional, mainstream Christian churches. But they were turned off by the dos and don’ts that are often attached to the gospel of Jesus Christ—legislation about clothing styles, hair length, musical preferences, financial contributions and the like.
They wanted to find ideas for leading a more spiritually fulfilling life. But instead, they found churches that took a heavy-handed, works-oriented approach to Christian living. These churches placed primary emphasis on knowing facts about God rather than knowing God, or downplayed personal hands-on experience of God’s love and power in favor of formalized liturgy and culture-based expectations. So they began looking elsewhere for deeper answers to life’s questions. The New Age was ready and waiting for them.
The New Age movement offers its followers a dazzling array of alternatives to conventional religion. Since it began taking shape in the early 1970s, the New Age movement has experienced phenomenal growth. It has become a major force, with millions of devotees. Uninformed observers often dismiss the New Age as quackery and mystical mumbo jumbo—an essentially harmless passing fad, a marginal diversion among a gullible and misguided few on the lunatic fringe. This is a naive and dangerous attitude.
Yes, plenty of New Age hucksters, crooks and charlatans are making extravagant claims—and a great deal of money. New Agers themselves admit that many “psychic phone lines” are out-and-out scams, and the trite “revelations” of some alleged channelers give patrons only a superficial illusion of insight. But frauds can be found in any field of human endeavor. That does not mean the whole movement should be judged by it.
We need only recall the much-publicized scandals that beset many televangelists. Just because certain individuals have shown themselves unworthy of the ministry of Jesus Christ doesn’t mean that all of Christianity is bad and should be avoided. The New Age is no mere fad. Ignoring it will not make it go away. It is a deeply entrenched cultural trend that will not quickly disappear. But it is possible to offer an alternative, through effective Christian evangelism.
A Crash Course on the New Age
New Age beliefs and practices differ from Christianity in several significant ways. Here are a few of the differences:
God: New Age view: God is an impersonal energy or force permeating the universe. Everything is of this one basic essence. (“All is one.”) As part of the universal oneness, humans are also divine. (“God is all, and all is God.”) The New Ager seeks God within the self. (“I am my own God.”)
Christian view: God is one divine Being in three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is maker of heaven and earth. He is both immanent (present in his creation) and transcendent (existing apart from his creation).
Jesus Christ: New Age view: Jesus was a great “spiritual master” who attained “Christ consciousness.” The “Christ” that inspired him is a divine energy available to everyone. (“I am Christ, you are Christ, we all are Christ.”) The “higher self” is the “Christ within.”
Christian view: Jesus Christ is the second Person of the Godhead, who became human through the Incarnation. He was God manifest in the flesh for our salvation, offering himself as an atoning sacrifice for sin. He dwells within Christians today through the Holy Spirit.
The Bible: New Age view: The Bible cannot be trusted. The apostles got Jesus’ message wrong and/or deliberately added teachings and requirements not endorsed by God. The Bible has been tampered with over the centuries, the victim of innumerable additions and deletions.
Christian view: The Bible is the book that God uses to reveal himself to humanity. It is the foundation of truth and the ultimate authority in all matters of doctrine. Its purpose is to reconnect us to our Creator through Christ. Its accuracy as a document is attested by thousands of ancient manuscripts.
Sin: New Age view: There is no concept of sin in the New Age. There can be no sin because there is no transcendent God to rebel against. There are no rules or absolute moral imperatives. Sin is merely ignorance of one’s “inner divinity.” Because sin does not exist, there is no need for repentance or forgiveness. Jesus did not die for our sins.
Christian view: Sin is a state or condition of alienation or rebellion against God. We are all sinners, but we are forgiven through Jesus’ incarnation, life, death and resurrection.
Salvation: New Age view: Salvation is not an issue. The soul is part of the universe and never dies. It is reborn or reincarnated in different physical bodies in a succession of future lives. The good or bad “karma” earned in the present lifetime determines one’s subsequent incarnation. Humans should seek to progress to higher states of consciousness and higher planes of existence. There are many different paths to the goal of spiritual perfection. No one path is the only correct path.
Christian view: Salvation is deliverance from the bondage of sin and death. Salvation is a gift of God, by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not earned by our own merit. Humans are alienated from God, “dead in transgressions and sins.” Since all humans are sinners, they need the salvation God offers through his Son. Christ is “the way” to salvation and eternal life (John 14:6)—the only name by which one may be saved (Acts 4:12). Humans are destined to “die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). The assumed cycle of reincarnation and karma presupposes a salvation by works, contrary to the principle of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Spiritual growth: New Age view: Humans can transform themselves spiritually—through meditation, hypnotism, yoga, creative visualization, past-life regression, channeling and other spiritual disciplines. Spirit guides and angels may help in this endeavor.
Christian view: Spiritual disciplines—“works”—cannot remake the inner person or wash the soul of sin. Jesus Christ lives in Christians through the Holy Spirit and transforms the hearts of his followers. Christians thereby “participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). The Holy Spirit is the Christian’s guide into spiritual truth (John 16:13) and the agent of change in human beings. Christians do not allow lesser intermediaries such as angels to take the place of the Holy Spirit or to push a personal relationship with Jesus Christ into the background.
The future: New Age view: The salvation of the world depends on human beings. When enough people harmonize their positive energy and turn their thoughts to peace, the world will be cleansed of negative elements and New Age ideals will be realized in an era of spiritual enlightenment.Christian view: Jesus Christ is essential to the survival of humanity. The “New Age” of the kingdom of God will be ushered in by the triumphant return of Jesus Christ, not by human effort. Christ ultimately will deliver the kingdom to God the Father, and both heaven and earth will be made new.
Ripe for harvest
On the whole, most New Agers are honest people searching for answers. Though some are merely dabblers looking for shortcuts to spiritual development, many have adopted New Age philosophies as a committed way of life.
Like most of us, New Agers are looking for love, healing and spiritual guidance. They are seeking to rid themselves of guilt, pain and emptiness. They want to change their hearts and their ways of thought. In an age of materialism, they want to more fully explore life’s spiritual dimension. The tragedy is they did not perceive that Christianity held any answers for them. People are more open to the spiritual today than at any time in living memory. Millions are desperate to fill the gaping spiritual void in their lives.
New Agers are winnable for Christ! They may be more open to a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ than any other segment of society. The fields are “ripe for harvest” (John 4:35)! Here are some suggestions for sharing your Christian faith with friends, co-workers and acquaintances who are involved in the New Age movement:
Educate yourself. New Agers use some of the language of traditional Christianity—referring to God, Jesus Christ, spiritual growth and other familiar Christian concepts. But these words are often used with a non-Christian meaning. To intelligently and effectively share our faith with a New Ager, we must understand the differences.
It is also important not to argue with New Agers over elements of New Age thought that are not in conflict with Christianity. Not all New Age ideas and practices are intrinsically hostile to Christianity. Books like Russell Chandler’s Understanding the New Age and Douglas Groothuis’ Confronting the New Age can provide insights and fill in details.
Do not condemn. Acidic language and confrontation do more harm than good, and they close off avenues for winning New Agers to Christ. Though we must not adopt a naive and uncritical approach toward the New Age, neither should we denounce it wholesale as demonism and satanism. Such blanket condemnation is irritating, alienating, unhelpful—and inaccurate. To evangelize effectively, we must first show respect for the views, experiences and motives of New Agers, not ridicule and demean them.
Identify shared values. If there is one thing that unites New Agers and Christians, it is a recognition of the need for more spirituality and less materialism in today’s world. Use this as a basis for initiating conversations about their beliefs and experiences. Highlight areas of agreement before exploring differences.
Objectively discuss differences. Many New Age concepts are radically different from Christian doctrine. Any of these divergences can provide a springboard for discussion and evangelism. Experience shows that many New Agers have not completely thought through what they believe. They fail to see the incompatibility of their New Age views with Christianity, which they may still claim to keep in a general way.
Point out the contradictions. Explain your reasons for belief in a transcendent God, in Jesus Christ as personal Savior, in the Bible as the authoritative Word of God. Ask their reasons for rejecting these beliefs. Also remind them that there is a dark side to the spirit world and occultism. Encourage them not to give up their minds to spirits alienated from God, but to “test the spirits” as the Bible advises (1 John 4:1).
Emphasize Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the center of true spirituality. He is superior to all angels and “spirit guides,” and is alone worthy of worship, honor and reverence. Only Christ can fulfill one’s unmet needs. Be open about what Jesus has done in your life. An enthusiastic faith is a contagious faith.
Be an example. Many New Agers reject Christianity because they fail to see Christ’s influence in the lives of Christians. The most effective way to share your faith with New Agers is to show them by your life what Christianity is. The Holy Spirit offers us the power to be different people. Show others by your example that the Christian faith can lead people into a new dimension of personal development and maturity. Reflect the love of Christ.
As John Drane writes in his book What Is the New Age Saying to the Church?, “In the case of every New Ager I have ever met, I have felt that God could give that person to the Church as a gift, if only he or she could meet Christians in whose lives the reality of Christ was an everyday experience.”
Intervene through prayer. Pray that the Holy Spirit will touch them and move them to worship and serve Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. In Jesus’ power we can intercede for them, through prayer, against the spiritual forces that are influencing them. Pray for their positive response to God’s call. Remember that your evangelizing efforts may not have an immediate effect. But what you say and how you say it may plant a seed that will one day bear fruit for God.
The name New Age movement implies a single, unified, cohesive group. New Age, however, is not represented by any one particular organization or institution. It has no headquarters, no authoritative sourcebook, and no religious hierarchy.
Rather, New Age is a loosely knit movement encompassing many diverse groups and belief systems. Under its umbrella lies an eclectic grab bag of techniques, practices and philosophies — a kind of supermarket of spiritual goods, from which one can select whatever meets one's particular wants and needs at the time.
New Age gurus spread their teaching through tapes, lectures, workshops and books. A survey of the subject labels on the shelves in a New Age bookstore provides a good overview of the diversity of ideas that make up the New Age movement: Reincarnation, channeling, spirit guides, hypnotism, yoga, meditation, crystals, dreams, witchcraft, shamanism, auras, natural healing, Eastern religions, I Ching, runes, tarot, voodoo, astrology, pyramids, UFOs, herbology, alchemy, angels, mythology, mysticism, numerology.
Obviously, much in the New Age is not new. Its critics label it "repackaged paganism" — a thinly disguised revival of ancient Gnosticism and pre-Christian religions, though some of the terminology has been updated ("oracles" and "mediums" are now called "channels," for example).
Critics also charge that the New Age movement encourages an obsessive interest in one's self and shows little interest in doing anything for others. The focus is on meeting one's own needs, in contrast to Christianity's mission of taking the gospel message to all peoples and helping alleviate human misery in tangible ways.
Meeting the challenge
Millions are searching for a deeper spiritual dimension to life. For many, that search is taking place outside Christianity. That places a weighty responsibility on churches to become more relevant, to address the real needs of people, to reassess what Christian fulfillment involves and to foster spiritual growth.
One of my acquaintances in the New Age bookstore observed: “I think Christianity is much bigger than many Christians realize. Churches limit God. They limit the ways he can work. They’ve got him neatly packaged inside their own little denominational boxes. Who’s to say God wouldn’t endorse some of the spiritual techniques and disciplines that we find here on these bookshelves?” The point is well taken, even though cautions are in order.
For Christians, much is nonnegotiable. Pantheistic ideas and demonic practices must be rejected, and the centrality of Christ consistently affirmed. But are all New Age ideas and practices hopelessly off track? The apostle Paul did not rule out the possibility of encountering elements of value and truth in non-Christian cultures, such as Greek philosophy (see Acts 17). Churches must not throw away the wheat with the chaff.
“Test everything. Hold on to the good,” Paul advised (1 Thessalonians 5:21). The discerning minds of biblically grounded Christians should be able to perceive what is true and of value in New Age thought, and integrate such truth into their discussion of biblical truth.
If Christianity is to meet the challenge of the New Age, churches will have to do a better job of answering questions about God’s existence, the nature of the mind and consciousness, the concept of the spirit, the reality of space and time, the reconciliation of science and spirituality, the compatibility of psychology with Christianity. They will have to more effectively guide their members in cultivating and exercising the gifts of the Holy Spirit, in opening up to the reality of God’s love, in prayer and in using meditation in a Christian’s devotional life.
Churches must not rule out powerful spiritual experiences. An overly intellectual church—closed to the supernatural dimension of faith—will be stifling rather than liberating, and will fail its members in their search for spiritual maturity.
New Age techniques OK?
“Is there no place for techniques like creative visualization and guided imagery in Christian growth?” my bookstore acquaintance continued. “Couldn’t visualizing Jesus Christ, for example, stimulate faith, worship and obedience? After all, didn’t Jesus himself appeal to the imagination by using parables?”
“Some Christians would probably agree with you,” I replied, “as long as the techniques remained Christ-centered. But why, then, do you seek the advice of channeled spirits instead of pursuing a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ?” He said it was because the channeled entities spoke to him directly.
“Yes, but who are these entities?” I asked. “And what are they telling you? You’d never trust a stranger with your money or your life, yet you faithfully act on advice from channeled entities of uncertain identity and motive. Does that make sense?” I also pointed out that God does communicate with Christians—through prayer, meditation and Bible study.
In the end, my acquaintances said they appreciated the fact that I was open-minded enough to set foot inside a New Age bookstore, which some of their former Christian friends scrupulously avoided as a “den of satanism.” My presence there predisposed them to consider the merit of what I was saying.
I wrote the address of my church on the back of a couple of business cards and wished them well on their spiritual journey, as they did me. The encounter would have ended on a much different note had I denounced them as “dupes of Satan” or “agents of deception.”