Influence of New Age, Megachurches Grows Among US Worshipers

Attending the Willow Creek "megachurch" outside Chicago on Sunday is like going to Soldiers Field to watch the Bears: Get ready for a crowd. Or, for that matter, don't expect to find easy seating next time mind-body guru Deepak Chopra gives a local lecture.

Set against a 30-year decline in traditional churchgoing, two very different popular religious movements are emerging in contemporary America - causing a mixture of curiosity and concern.

Today, many of those turning to faith and spirituality are finding themselves part of either a sprawling evangelical movement, like Willow Creek, which routinely draws 15,000 worshipers on a weekend, or are locating themselves somewhere in the spectrum of a set of "new

age" alternative beliefs and practices.

The movements underscore a shift in what many people today define as religion - and are drawing people for a variety of motives.

Jeff Twane, a lanky baby boomer, was an "unbelieving Catholic" until a few years ago. Now, inside a packed auditorium in Framingham, Mass., where he has traveled from Connecticut with two friends he met as part of the "Promise Keepers" Christian men's movement, he looks forward to three 10-hour days of intensive singing and praying and "feeling the power of the Lord."

Judith Reed stopped going to her Protestant church after exploring a variety of "new age" ideas. She read H. Scott Peck's "The Road Less Travelled," and Joseph Campbell's "The Power of Myth," and now attends a variety of workshops in the San Francisco Bay Area that "put me in touch with a variety of spiritual traditions. I don't think God exists in just one faith."

Many believe, few attend

Mr. Twain and Ms. Reed point up a dichotomy in contemporary culture: While Americans say in large numbers they believe in God, most mainline denominations have been experiencing a decline in membership for decades. Recent surveys show that 70 to 90 percent of Americans have some faith in God; 40 percent attend church or temples on a regular basis.

The result is a confusing picture of the religious scene. Much of the change is among the 76 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1962. A 1993 study by Wade Clark Roof of the University of California at Santa Barbara showed 60 percent of the nation's baby boomers were on a spiritual search that often left their traditional faith behind. "New age and evangelical are the terms we're using to describe what has essentially become a culture of spiritual quest," he says. "People today are on a quest rather than in search of faith. They are walking, exploring, experimenting; they want to know the options. The quest itself has become in a sense a religious style."

Today's evangelicalism is not the "holy rolling" Southern Pentacostals of the 1950s, the "Jesus people movement" the more conventional Southern Baptist strain.

Rather, evangelicalism, which stresses expressive services, strong fervency, and close-knit communities, has become more mainstream. Followers include both "unchurched" Americans, and those in many large mainline "megachurch" congregations, also known as "seeker churches." A number of mainline churches ranging from Presbyterians to Episocopals, have, in response, transformed their services - using rock music, video, and theatrical shows to appeal to a younger audience.

Growth is also found in new evangelical subcultures, such as the Vineyard Movement and the Calvary Chapel churches, both charismatic movements spawning "plantings" nationwide.

The new age movement, which originated in the 1960s as a blend of Eastern and Western mystical traditions, has evolved into a host of holistic healing, natural child birth, new physics, and "earth-centered" alternative approaches. Unlike even the loosely organized evangelical faiths, such alternative forms of spirituality are manifest more as an influence on religion, psychology, science, and education rather than as an organization. Only 28,000 Americans in a recent study actually identified themselves as "new age" adherents - partly because they do not identify with the crystal-gazing astrological wing associated with the term.

But as a 1993 New England Journal of Medicine study showed, holistic healing centers, including acupuncture, mind-body, and nutritionists, receive about 425 million visits a year. Bestsellers by Mr. Chopra exploring mind-body connections and by Robert Bly on male spirituality have spawned workshops nationwide.

While very different, both new age and evangelical spheres share a common "this world" emphasis on personal growth and experience of the sacred. The new seeker-based evangelicalism in the US has often been described as driven by marketing techniques - particularly in megachurches that offer a veritable shopping mall of services such as day care and dating services aimed at baby-boomer congregants. The new age movement is often portrayed as the flaky and spiritually immature urges of congenital nonconformists.

A genuine hunger

Yet both indicate a genuine hunger for meaning and values, say a number of experts, and a desire to transcend conventional success-oriented goals and material rewards.

"People in the pews are disgruntled," says Os Guinness of the Trinity Forum, a religious think tank in Burke, Va. "People want some kind of spirituality, but they also want meaning. There is a return to meaning. In the past five years I have run into countless people who have everything in terms of money and power, but find that life is empty and they want more."

In recent years, the only traditional mainline denomination to gain adherents are the more liberal Unitarian-Universalist churches. Partly this is due to an increase in families attracted to the Unitarian tradition of local control and non-doctrinaire services. But partly the growth is due to Unitarians' willingness, fought out in a recent conclave, to include a growing wing in the church that is unabashedly new age - churches that put a worship of nature at the center of their service and whose members regard Diety as a kind of pantheistic "goddess."

"The Unitarians may be gaining from the flux we see," says Roof. "They get a lot of people for whom this is the last step before leaving organized religion entirely."

Not surprisingly, the growth of evangelicalism and new age spirituality is alarming many church leaders. Inside the traditional evangelical movement, the megachurch trend is under attack. Critics view it as a departure from a historic, Christ-centered message into a hybrid that looks like Christianity but is closer to the therapeutic, personal enrichment message of humanistic psychology and the new age.

"It's a sell-out," says David Wells, a theologian at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Hamilton, Mass. "Giving baby boomers what they want, shaping your message along marketing lines, is actually hostile to the real church, where there are people of all shapes and sizes, and where the message of redemption and understanding the character of Christ is something that has to be worked at and struggled with."

Pastor Bill Hybels of the Willow Creek Church, the largest of the megachurches, says the charge is unfair. "We don't market our church," he says. "We do seek out those who have not been raised in the traditional church, because they need the Gospel."

Some of the sharpest new age critics come from Protestant and Roman Catholic quarters - who worry that fellow church members are importing essentially alien ideas into the faith via sermons and study groups. "Christianity and the new age are totally at odds," says Richard Kyle, author of "The New Age Movement in American Culture." "It substitutes experience for cognitive learning. It's about feeling good."

Peggy Taylor, founder of New Age Journal in Watertown, Mass., counters that new age beliefs are so diverse that critics end up wrongly reducing it. "Many of us are interested in shifting our thinking of God toward a higher power rather than a corporeal deity."

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