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New and Alternative Religious Movements - Some Perspectives of a Missiologist

spacermissiology, David J. HesselgraveNew and Alternative Religious Movements - Some Perspectives of a Missiologist

New and Alternative Religious Movements - Some Perspectives of a Missiologist

by Dr. David J. Hesselgrave


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Several months ago I was guest lecturer in a two-week intensive course in a European seminary. Recently I received the student evaluations. Actually, they were quite encouraging-so much so that I almost wished that I could start my teaching career over again. But one evaluation faced me with stark reality. One of the concluding evaluation questions was, "Should we invite this professor back again?" In spite of having provided a moderately good evaluation of the course, one student answered this particular question very matter-of-factly by writing, "I don't think so. He's too old."

I'm not sure why you have accorded me the honor and privilege of speaking today and on this topic. I can say that numerous times down through the half century of my missiological sojourn I have wanted to address this topic but the appropriate occasion has not presented itself. Now that opportunity has arrived. I thank SSAR and EMNR leaders and congratulate them and all their colleagues who have initiated dialogue and cooperation.

As time has passed since originally invited to address the topic, my approach to it has changed. Originally I had intended to write concerning contributions that missiology might make to the study and understanding of cults and NRMs. However, as my thinking progressed various writings and happenings converged to think rather of the kind of contributions counter-cult scholars might make to contemporary missiology. I thought back over the experiences of fifty years and how dialogue and cooperation between our disciplines might well have aided missiologists as well as counter-cultists. With that in mind, I decided to proceed autobiographically and anecdotally with a view to encouraging the kind of dialogue to which we have been invited today. The title of this paper, then, might better be worded, "New and Alternative Religious Movements-Some Perspectives of a Missiologist." Though my experiences may be somewhat unique, the attendant observations are not necessarily so. In fact, very recent and incisive articles by Gordon Lewis, Paul Carden, John Morehead and others have already made important points that I can now but echo and reinforce.

For simplicity's sake, I will consider such terms as "cults," "new religions," "alternative religions," and "revitalization movements" to be more or less synonymous. And that, for want of a better designation (though there may be one), I will use the old terms "counter-cult" and "counter-cultists" to refer to organizations and specialists charged with the responsibility of researching and responding to religious movements such as these. As for the term "missiology," I propose that to think of it as the study of the world mission of the church.

Perspective #1:
Experiences old and new lead me to believe that the kind of approach counter-cultists take to the study of, and response to, NRMs might well inform the effort to define Christian orthodoxy and distinguish it from heterodoxy and/or heathenism. This undertaking is incumbent upon every successive generation of Christians and certainly upon younger missions people today.

Prior to moving from Minneapolis to Deerfield to accept the chair of missions at TEDS back in the middle 1960's the son of a long-time and stalwart couple in our church in Minneapolis suddenly announced that he had become a Mormon believer and left our church. I will never forget the agonizing prayers and pleas of his parents. Nor will I soon forget the seemingly fruitless efforts of their pastors and friends to reclaim him.

Some two decades later just prior to the launching of the Evangelical Missiological Society, members of the Evangelical Association of Professors of Mission met in an annual conference in Wheaton. Present for the first time was a distinguished gentleman who introduced himself as a missions executive of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He explained that his church was both Protestant and evangelical, and that he would very much like to apply for membership in the AEPM. He was most gracious and invited me as president to be his guest in Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah. There, he said, he would be delighted to introduce me to his colleagues and also to one of the world's most complete computerized banks of information on the cultures and peoples of the world. Providentially, AEPM membership was restricted to signers of a carefully crafted statement of faith. I tried to be as gracious and my Mormon friend, but at moment our AEPM statement of faith became both a basis for true Christian witness and a barrier against egregious error.

More years passed by. Just before my retirement in the early 90s I was invited to speak at an annual conference of the EFMA on overcoming obstacles to the completion of the Great Commission. In preparation I did a limited survey of evangelical students to discover their response to a body of literature aimed at the completion of the Great Commission by the year 2000. Along with pleas for broad cooperation in that endeavor, one major promotional piece urged cooperation with Mormons on the ground that they have both a "high view of Jesus" and a vision for the whole world. At that point, students proved to be more astute than their seniors. Almost instinctively students were stopped in their tracks. In fact, the proposal created such consternation in the classroom that, for the time being, the concern for world evangelization itself was lost in the shuffle.

It is safe to say that it is much more difficult to define the boundaries of evangelical orthodoxy and detect the marks of heterodoxy and heathenism today than it was thirty, forty or fifty years ago. Theological liberalism, philosophical relativism, religious pluralism, soteriological inclusivism, doctrinal obscurantism-all have conspired to chip away at the very foundations of a New Testament missionary faith. Being an eclectic and encompassing discipline, missiology is constantly challenged in this regard. If not abandoned, orthodoxy is often at least stretched to the breaking point. Ideas such as the wideness of God's mercy; the unreasonableness of a strict limitarianism; "no-fault" heathenism; the openness of God; transculturation of the gospel; moving boundaries of faith; radical holism-all of these and still other notions impact our view of both Christian distinctives and the very nature of Christian mission. Currently, all of these ideas are in process of being scrutinized and sorted out by missiologists. To a far greater extent than was the case a half century ago, it has become all too easy to set aside Jude's injunction to "contend for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3; NIV). In fact, it has become all too easy to misconstrue what that faith is. Consequently, missiologists often come up with very different assessments of prophet movements such as Kimbanguism and Zionism in Africa and certain charismatic movements such as Jesus Only in Latin America. Or, as indicated above, they sometimes find it difficult to assess relationships with cultic movements such as Mormonism in North America. Recalling those experiences vis-a-vis Mormonism referred to above, for example, we now know that one of the recommendations of a public-relations firm hired by LDS in 1995 was to redesign the church's logo so as to emphasize the centrality of Jesus Christ in LDS theology (U.S. News and World Report, Nov. 13, 2000). What does that say about the Mormon desire for recognition as another Protestant denomination and about their "high view of Jesus"?

Not all missiologists appear to share my concern, but it does seem to me that, insofar as dialogue and cooperation can be achieved, the biblical commitment and concern for orthodoxy that has characterized counter-cultists for generations might well serve to focus added light upon complex faith issues that plague missiology today. That light should be highly valued because, in the final analysis, (mission's) work without (biblical) faith is dead.

Perspective #2:
It seems obvious but nevertheless important to note that a missiological view of NRMs entails seeing them and their adherents as part of the world to whom the Lord has sent us as witnesses. In traditional terms it means to view members of the NRMs as part of our "mission field."

This is by no means a new perspective. A century ago, missionary Fredrik Franson, for example, gave considerable attention to understanding and reaching Mormons in Utah. But it could be argued that Franson was especially exercised in relation to Mormons because they were indigenous to his adopted, not his native, land. Sometimes we see challenges in our adopted culture more clearly than similar challenges in our own. Perhaps that is why, very early on in our missionary experience in Japan, we recognized that evangelizing adherents of the so-called new religions was going to be a significant part of our missionary task. So we frequently scheduled Japanese Christian apologists and specialists in Japanese religion for evangelistic meetings. What we failed to realize was the incipient challenge of the Jehovah's Witnesses. My first encounter with a large group of American Jehovah Witness missionaries led me to believe that their "Westernness" would never allow them success in Japan so we largely ignored them. Many years passed before that myopia at that point became evident. A very recent assessment by one Japanese observer is to the effect that, unless trends are reversed, it will not be many years until most Japanese will think of all Christians as being Jehovah Witnesses.

On a more hopeful note, it was not many years ago that a delegation of Worldwide Church of God leaders visited Trinity and, I understand, several other front-running evangelical schools. A crisis in WWCG leadership occasioned those visits. The visits were carried on without fanfare and with but little or no public awareness. But they were crucial in terms of the theological commitment and future direction of a large segment of the WWCG movement.

I was not a part of that very limited engagement, but some years later I taught a session of the Perspectives on the Christian World Movement course held in Nashville. To our surprise and joy, my wife and I discovered that several of the class members were WWCG leaders in Tennessee and that we were to be guests in the home of one of them. After the class was over we conversed with those two leaders and their wives until the wee hours of the morning even though one couple had to travel 80 miles to their home and had a full schedule the following day. The thrill of hearing how the Lord had led them to a biblical faith and was in process of leading them to a biblical understanding of Christian mission has not yet left me. God in his great grace and wisdom had once again made the "wrath of man" to praise him and had made the fall and foibles of a fallible cult leader to occasion a sincere search for truth on the part of his lieutenants.

Generally speaking, adherents of NAMs would be considered resistant to the gospel. Perhaps that is why we are sometimes reticent to reach out to them. But that is clearly a mistake. One never knows how and where the Holy Spirit is working. In that regard, I have noted that most references to our Lord's witness to the Samaritan woman point to our Lord's willingness to "reach down" to a socially despised and morally degraded woman. What commentators sometimes overlook is the fact that our Lord was also "reaching out" to a receptive member of a resistant "alternative religious movement" with its breakaway history and heretical faith and worship. The encounter with Christ did not necessarily change her social standing for the better. Indeed, it may have made it worse. What it did change was her religious commitment and spiritual state.
Rightly conceived, missiology ever faces the church and all in it, not just with the task of contending for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, but also with the task of disseminating that faith always and to all peoples. To stop short of that is to betray not only Christ as Lord but also missiology as a discipline. Theologically and missiologically, defense of the faith and dissemination of the faith go together. They are like Siamese twins. Separate them and the life of both is placed in jeopardy.

Perspective #3:
It seems important that we never forget the fact that we ourselves are viewed as parts of the "mission field" of NRMs and, alas, all too often as fertile soil in which their seeds can readily take root and grow. It is my experience that church leaders at home sometimes forget this or disregard its implications. And if that is the case here at home, it is even more so among our brothers and sisters in other lands.

My intentions were simple that day in 1960. Having traveled from Kyoto to Tokyo to take care of other matters, I simply dropped by Soka Gakkai headquarters to examine their most recent publications and audio-visuals. By design my visit was both unannounced and unassuming. However, in almost no time at all I was received with the utmost courtesy; surrounded by attendants; ushered into a spacious and beautifully appointed office; and introduced to the head of the Soka Gakkai Propagation Bureau. When I departed some twenty or thirty minutes later, I had been invited to a personally guided tour of the new Grand Temple at Taisekiji near the foot of Mt. Fuji; had been promised interviews with Soka Gakkai leaders; and held a business card that was in effect a carte blanche to continue my research.

While being escorted throughout the grounds and into the otherwise off-limits sanctum sanctorum at Taisekiji the next day, it dawned on me that I was being accorded all the graciousness that might be expected to attend the visit-not of a patient researcher-but of a potential convert!

Later on, when I requested that Soka Gakkai Headquarters staff send a representative to our city for a public dialogue on biblical Christianity and Soka Gakkai Buddhism, they responded to the effect that they would be happy to comply-but only on condition that I meet alone with an entire delegation of Soka Gakkai representatives!

The Apostle Paul wrote that he was not "ignorant of his [i.e., Satan's] schemes (2 Cor. 2:11 NASB). The Apostle Paul said that the Risen Christ gave certain "people gifts" to his church--apostles, prophets, evangelists and teaching pastors." He also said that they had been given in order to mature believers with certain goals in mind. One of those goals was that believers no longer be "infants, tossed back and forth by waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming" (Eph. 4:14; NASB).

One of our long-time missionaries to Congo who recently re-visited our Free Church churches in that land, reported her dismay with a situation in which the people in our churches were not at all prepared to prevent the inroads of the Jehovah Witnesses. Neither missionary nor national leaders had taken it upon themselves to prepare believers for an outreach to JWs, or even to prepare them to defend their faith and churches from their advances. Self-sacrificing and outstanding missionaries, prophets, evangelists and teaching-pastors had ministered in Congo for 75 years and yet our churches were unprepared for the inevitable challenge of this growing cult!

My perception is that, increasingly, NRM specialists are assuming the pastoral role of helping to equip our churches at this point. But not nearly enough is being done here in the United States and even less is being done in other parts of the world. American missiologists and missionaries have great responsibilities at this point. Why? Because, as I have intimated, some of the most aggressive and fast-growing cults abroad are products of American culture. My hope would be that the kind of dialogue and collaboration we are proposing here will serve to encourage and better prepare our missionaries for this type of ministry.

Perspective #4:
Missiological analysis necessitates investigation of the larger religious, historical and socio-cultural matrices out of which new and alternative religious movements arise and grow. Research into these various aspects of NRMs should add dimensions to our understandings that often escape notice.

One of my early sabbaticals was spent in research at San Diego State University. It so happened that counter-cult leaders had scheduled a conference on cults and new religious movements at that time on the San Diego campus and invited me to attend as a respondent. Since the conference was being held in California, there was a special focus on various Eastern movements prominent at that time-Transcendental Meditation, Divine Light, Zen, Soka Gakkai, Tong-il (Unification) and a number of others. Papers were carefully researched, well-written and effectively delivered. Nevertheless for those few of us present who had any significant background in Asian studies or in Asia itself, it was a frustrating experience overall. With few exceptions, the presenters proceeded as though these movements were indeed new and only tenuously related to their religious roots in Asia. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Guru Mahara Ji, Abhay Charan De Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada-it was almost as though these men had taken the chaos of an antiquated Hinduism and created something new and up-to-date. Actually, it would have been closer to the truth to say that these men had actually created nothing new and only succeeded in further polluting the already polluted stream of Indian spirituality.

It is indeed a challenging task to explore the long histories, worldview orientations and cultural developments out of which revitalization and revivification movements of various kinds have arisen whether in Asia or Africa, or South or North America. But, time-consuming though it may be, such explorations are necessary. And they constitute part of our missiological agenda. As soon and as sure as we cross over macro-cultural boundaries we are forced to ask new questions.
In oft-quoted words Paul said that he became a Jew to Jews, under the Law to those under the Law, without the Law to those without the Law, weak to the weak-indeed, "all things to all men to all men, that I may be all means save some" (1 Cor. 9:20-22 NASB). I once was invited to give the Bible messages at a Chicago missionary convention. I was not apprized of the rest of the program or even the precise theme until my arrival for the first meeting. Only then did I discover that the program featured missionary radio, literature distribution, Bible translation, and so on; and that the theme was "By all means save some!" Interesting, but hardly what Paul had in mind!

Friends, hardly anything connected with the evangelization of the whole world has ever been easy. But now when the world has become a global village in which everybody seems to know everybody else just enough to misunderstand them, the task of becoming Indian to win Indians, Japanese to win Japanese, a Jew to win Jews, a New Ager to win New Agers, underclass in order to win the underclass, weak to win the weak is one of the most difficult of all.

That is the sort of thing that missiology is concerned with when missiology is at its best. The gospel never changes. But it must be framed in terms that respondents of other worldviews, axiologies, institutions and behavioral patterns will find meaningful. Our gospel must answer questions those respondents are asking and even the kind of questions their culture does not prepare them to ask. This is difficult for us because the worldview glasses of Americans especially tend to be attached with superglue. For most of us our worldview glasses are exchanged for other worldview glasses only partially and temporarily and with considerable pain.
All of know that a thorough understanding of NRMs will entail more than a grasp of their recent history and present teachings. And it is with that "more"-with the larger religious, historical, philosophical, sociological and psychological dimensions and their ramifications--that missiology is concerned and where it can make some constructive contributions.

Perspective #5:
From a missionary point of view, it would be especially helpful to inquire carefully into the propagation strategies and methodologies of new and alternative religious movements. Of course, some NRM strategies will not lend themselves to Christian usages. But some strategies will prove to be not only useable, but also more effective than our own. These should be discovered, adjusted and employed.

What I am advocating here is very different from the mistaken endeavor of searching for truth and/or truths these non-Christian religions and movements. Hendrik Kraemer long ago (1938) made it clear that when it comes to their ideologies and teachings the various religions are indivisible "wholes." No single part can be extrapolated out or understood apart from its connection to the larger system that infuses it with its meaning and significance. However, if one asks what it is that makes a successful religious movement grow, for example, that often is an entirely different matter. That is the kind of question that we can ask with the expectation that we may be aided in winning converts and growing churches.

By the time I arrived on the Japan scene in 1950 the "new" religious organization called Nichiren Shoshu Soka Gakkai had emerged from its wartime miseries to some measure of recognition. During the next ten or fifteen years it became the fastest growing of all the so-called new religions of Japan, and the third force in Japanese politics. Without inquiring seriously into the matter, everyone was nevertheless asking why it was that the NSSSG was growing so rapidly. Several of us thought that the question merited more than an offhanded response and undertook more intensive study.

Similar revitalization movements were springing up in a number of places around the world. Older and newer religious movements were emerging out of post-war confusion to capture the attention and allegiance of large segments of various populations. Observers were asking why that was so and researchers-many of them missionaries or mission-related-were undertaking serious study in order to answer that question as well as possible.

Upon assuming the chair of missions at TEDS I discovered that in Latin America one Kenneth Strachan had become concerned about the paltry number of "converts" added to church rolls following the large crusades conducted by his father, Harry Strachan. Accordingly, his son Kenneth had carefully studied the methods of communists and a variety of growing cults in America. Out of that study, Kenneth Strachan had fashioned the widely heralded strategy of Evangelism-in-Depth. EID campaigns were inaugurated in various countries in Latin America, and similar "saturation evangelism" campaigns were held in Africa and elsewhere.
It was at that point that the eminent missiologist, Dr. George Peters of Dallas Theological Seminary, came into my circle of friends. Kenneth Strachan died prematurely. But Peters had been greatly attracted to Strachan and his strategy. So much so that he devoted an entire sabbatical to a study of the strengths and weaknesses of EID and saturation evangelism. His published findings were extremely insightful and constituted a kind of milestone in missiological studies because they grew out of one of the few cases in which a mission (the Latin America Mission) had actually encouraged such an intensive and objective scrutiny of its primary mission strategy.

We cannot be detained here by a consideration of Peters's findings, as rewarding as that would be. Suffice it to say that it was at the urging of Professor Peters that I gathered edited papers from mission scholars who had researched the propagation philosophy and methodology of greatly growing "new" religious movements around the world--Kinbanguism in Zaire, Iglesia ni Cristo in the Philippines, Tong-il (Unification) in Korea, Umbanda in Brazil, and Caodai in Vietnam, among others. Peters sold Baker Book House editors on the importance of such a publication. In fact, he was so persuasive that they published it in hard cover. But, though the book represented an investment of an almost incalculable time and energy on the part of some fourteen on-site researchers in eleven different geographic and socio-cultural environments, and though all of them were able scholars dedicated to discovering the causes of rapid growth among these movements, the book went nowhere. In fact, it elicited a more enthusiastic response in the counter-cult movement and even in secular institutions than it did in the the mission community. This at a time when the rapid growth of almost any single church in America was sufficient to evoke nation-wide interest, well-attended seminars, and a spate of how-to literature.

I would humbly suggest that even at this late date, at least a dozen propagation strategies noted in Dynamic Religious Movements: Case Studies in Rapidly Growing Religious Movements Around the World (1978) have inherent growth potential equal to or greater than those of any number of books growing out of the American experience. Moreover, they would enhance the effectiveness of entire denominations and missions, not just individual leaders and churches. To cite just one example, I am persuaded that the nature and disciplined uses of certain types of literature as in the cases of the Soka Gakkai and the Jehovah Witnesses are of such superior effectiveness that most evangelical literature and uses pale by comparison.

Our Lord had some things to say that may well apply at this point. On one occasion he said, "The people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of light" (Luke 16:8 NIV). Again, when sending out the Twelve to missionize the lost sheep of the house of Israel he said, "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; therefore be shrewd as serpents, and innocent as doves (Matt. 10:16 NASB). A careful study of the propagation strategies and methodologies of various successful cults and new religious movements around the world would reveal that in the final analysis they are shrewd as serpents and we are innocent as doves.


The Great Commission was given to all of us. It is to be carried out prayerfully, unitedly and wisely in obedience to the dictates of Scripture and in dependence upon the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, as Harry Boer (1961) has reminded us, is also the Missionary Spirit who unites, empowers and directs Christ's church in its mission to the world. Perhaps this is one of those times when He is directing us who take biblical faith, biblical unity and biblical mission seriously to come together in new and exciting ways to the end that the world may know that Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father.

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New and Alternative Religious Movements - Some Perspectives of a Missiologist
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