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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
322 pages
Jan 2004
Kregel Publications

Encountering New Religious Movements

by Irving Hexham, Rost, Morehead

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The end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries witnessed the continued growth and development of a variety of new religious movements. These groups are often called “cults” in popular evangelical discourse, but throughout this book we will use the term “new religious movements.”1 This choice of terminology is a carefully calculated one. There are a variety of differing definitions of “cult” in evangelical literature,2 but more importantly, there are serious problems with the use of the term. It can be argued that to speak of “the cults” is to engage in an overgeneralization that ignores the great complexity and diversity found in a variety of groups and movements. Perhaps more importantly, adherents within new religions consider the term pejorative. It is the desire of the editors and contributors not to add unnecessary stumbling blocks to the offense of the gospel, and this necessitates sensitivity in our choice of terminology. We also wish to move beyond the often confrontational and aggressive tone adopted by many evangelicals in formulating responses to new religions. Thus the terminology and tone in the chapters that follow reflect a more academically informed and missiological approach to the topic of new religious movements.

Another motivating factor is the recognition that Christianity is incarnational, unlike other world religions. This means that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, Christianity teaches that God came down into our world and lived among humans as a human. Put another way, the creator of the universe came to earth and got his hands dirty. We believe that the incarnation teaches all Christians that they are to mix with ordinary people, share their experiences, and attempt to understand their beliefs. Yet few Christians take seriously the reality of the incarnation and its implications for missions and evangelism. It is not enough for Christians to preach the gospel at people; we must share the gospel with people. If we are to reach those who are attracted to new religions, we must understand not only what they believe, but also sympathetically understand why they do the things they do. We need an incarnational approach to evangelism and apologetics that takes us into the world to proclaim the gospel in ways that are heard and understood, not ways that are rejected because they are not heard clearly and are therefore misunderstood.


New religious movements have been defined as “primary religious groups [or] movements that operate apart from the dominant religious culture (in our case the Christian West) in which they are located and, in addition, seek adherents from their new host culture.”3 As evangelicals committed to the importance of doctrine and sound teaching, we will add to this important sociological definition an element that involves belief systems and doctrine. This broader definition would encompass various alternative religions that “accept the basic dominant religious consensus while adopting a significant theological divergence or act in a different manner from the majority.”4

Of course, in many countries today there is no longer a clear religious majority. Therefore, instead of referring to a majority, we prefer to use the phrase “the mainstream historic traditions of Western culture.” With this aspect of our definition in mind, the historic tradition or the standard by which doctrines are measured is reflected in biblical revelation and the historic ecumenical creeds of classic Christianity. Thus, evangelicals have focused a great deal of their time on responses to certain new religions that claim in some sense to be Christian, or even a “restoration” of primitive Christianity, yet which have adopted a “significant theological divergence” that puts them at odds with not only Protestant orthodoxy, but Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy as well.

Estimates vary as to the number of new religions in North America. A conservative estimate would be somewhere between seven hundred and one thousand, depending upon how the term “new religions” is defined.5 Although new religions have a long history in the United States, far beyond their common association with a “cult explosion” in the 1960s, various factors have contributed to their growth and spread in the United States and around the world.6 Scholars debate whether the growth of new religions has been historically stable or whether there has been significant growth in times of social upheaval,7 but sociological and historical studies seem to indicate that new religions are more likely to form and spread in reaction to times of great cultural change.8 The continuing forces of modernization, secularization, and globalization may provide the social context necessary for the continued growth and spread of new religions around the globe.

Regardless of the continuing debate among scholars as to the definition, number, and growth of new religious movements, it is the perspective of the contributors to this volume that they represent global, cultural, and spiritual phenomena worthy of serious consideration by evangelical scholars and missiologists.9


Toward the end of the twentieth century, a new climate of opinion concerning new religions began to be expressed by Christian authors writing from different reference points in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia. Through various books, journals, and periodicals, they began to question the evangelical understanding of many new religious groups and movements, and the effectiveness of the dominant apologetic methodology in reaching their adherents. Many argued that the apologetic refutation of “cultic” teachings had not translated into effective communication of the gospel to new religionists in understandable terms. They indicated that this impasse might be overcome through an interdisciplinary methodology that would include the integration of contextualized mission principles into the apologist’s task.

A few apologists in both North America and Australia have pioneered some practical ways in which the twin disciplines of apologetics and missiology can be complementary practices in the effective proclamation of the gospel to adherents of alternative spiritual pathways. What these practitioners have discovered in the field is that methodology does not have to become an either-or polarization; instead, it can blend apologetics with contextual mission principles that are rooted soundly in the Bible.


The overall purpose of this multiauthor book is to bridge the gap between the disciplines of apologetics and contextual missiology. Because the phenomena of new religions constitutes a global missiological challenge, this book draws together the combined insights of theoreticians and field practitioners from the United States, Canada, and Australia who are on the cutting edge. In line with current secular scholarship in the discipline of new religions, this book casts a net that includes, but is not confined to, the United States. As Danish scholar Johannes Aagaard has noted, the central shift in the global paradigm has moved from the Atlantic to encompass the nations of the Pacific. This book, therefore, presents innovative trans-Pacific evangelical perspectives on the challenge of new religions, including insights derived from missions, religious studies, church history, and apologetics, all framed for specific application to the topic of new religions. Through this unique approach, this volume will present evangelical scholars and students with academic insights, as well as field-tested models, that will assist in both the understanding of new religions and also the evangelization of their adherents. This will be achieved by a threefold structure: Part 1 looks at biblical and historical perspectives; part 2 addresses methodological issues; and part 3 provides practical application.

In part 1, two chapters are presented that provide the necessary biblical and historical perspective for understanding mission to new religions. In chapter 1, the reader will find the necessary groundwork put forward through an overview of incarnational ministry reflected in the life and ministry of Christ. In chapter 2, we will see examples of contextualized mission in the history of the church and how this might be applied to new religions.

In part 2, four chapters are devoted to various aspects of methodology. Chapter 3 looks at the twin methodologies of the history of religion and missiology and argues that these varying perspectives can be brought to bear on the study of new religions. In chapter 4, a thesis is presented that conceptualizes new religions as global cultures. Chapter 5 discusses the apologetic and contextualized mission model of the apostle Paul in his message at the Areopagus in Acts 17 and its applicability to new religions. Chapter 6 discusses important issues of missionary communication of the Christian faith in both traditional and new religions.

Part 3 moves from issues of biblical, historical, and methodological perspectives to practical application. In the seven chapters of this section, the practical application of cross-cultural missions principles are demonstrated through tested field models applied to a variety of religious movements. The development of cross-cultural missions methodologies represents a new frontier for evangelicals. The models profiled in this section are the only ones we know of that have been developed and tested on the field.

Some movements included for study have substantial numbers of adherents. Others, though smaller in size, have forged significant niches in the religious landscape. We acknowledge that there are other new religious movements that need to be approached missiologically. Unfortunately, as yet there are no known evangelicals with the desire, field experience, and missiological competence to compose essays on other significant groups. We hope this book will inspire and stimulate others to transfer these concepts and applications to the many new religions that simply cannot be covered in this volume.

The book concludes with a chapter that summarizes evangelical responses to new religions and provides suggestions for the creation of a holistic model that might provide a more promising way forward beyond traditional approaches.

To facilitate the learning process and make this book more useful to missiologists, missionaries, apologists, and clergy, as well as to theological and university students, we have included brief discussion questions at the end of each chapter. These can be used in tutorials, seminars, or private study. It is our desire and prayer that this volume would inspire the opening of new doors of opportunity for evangelicals as we seek to grapple with the challenges and opportunities presented by new religious movements.


            1.      See Christopher H. Partridge and Douglas Groothuis, eds., “New Religious Movements (Definitions),” in Dictionary of Contemporary Religion in the Western World (Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2002), 286–90. Another helpful discussion on definitions of “cult” and “new religious movements” is found in Irving Hexham and Karla Poewe, New Religions as Global Cultures (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1997), 27–37.

            2.      Cf. Walter Martin, Kingdom of the Cults, 2d ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1997), 17; Harold Busséll, Unholy Devotion: Why Cults Lure Christians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 12; Ronald Enroth, The Lure of the Cults and New Religions (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1987), 20–22; Ronald Enroth, ed., Evangelizing the Cults (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Vine Books, 1990), 11; Paul Martin, Cult Proofing Your Kids (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 21–23; and Richard Abanes, Cults, New Religious Movements, and Your Family (Wheaton, Ill. Crossway, 1998), 10–11.

            3.      J. Gordon Melton, “Emerging Religious Movements in North America: Some Missiological Reflections,” Missiology 28, no. 1 (January 2000): 87. On the difficulties of defining “new religious movements” see George D. Chryssides, “New Religious Movements: Some Problems of Definition,” Diskus 2, no. 2 (1997): web ed.; retrieved 6 January 2003, from

            4.      J. Gordon Melton, “The Rise of the Study of New Religions” (paper presented at a meeting of the Center for Studies on New Religions, Bryn Athyn, Penn., 1999); retrieved 9 January 2003, from

            5.      Ibid.

            6.      Philip Jenkins, Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 4–5.

            7.      J. Gordon Melton, “The Changing Scene of New Religious Movements: Observations from a Generation of Research,” Social Compass 42, no. 2 (1995): 265–76; Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, “A Rational Approach to the History of American Cults and Sects,” in D. G. Bromley and J. K. Hadden, eds., Religion and the Social Order, vol. 3, The Handbook on Cults and Sects in America, Part A (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1993), 109–25.

            8.      Lorne L. Dawson, Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements (Toronto: Oxford University Press Canada, 1998), 42–62.

            9.      As an observer in the UK has eloquently stated: “Far more notice needs to be taken of the culture of re-enchantment which is beginning to shape the Western mind. In particular, new religious 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, a way of being religious which is shaping and being shaped by popular culture.” Christopher Partridge, “The Disenchantment and Re-enchantment of the West: The Religio-Cultural Context of Contemporary Western Christianity.” The Evangelical Quarterly 74, no. 3 (2002): 250.