The Gospel and the New Spirituality

“I do not consider myself ‘religious.’ In fact, I have never wanted to be thought of as religious. Nor do I think it would be accurate to say that I am ‘spiritual.’ Those are two labels that I tend to resist. Instead, I would simply ask that you classify me – if you must – as a Christian.”

Confused? If so, rest assured that this is a fairly typical response to the preceding statements. I know this firsthand, because I have made those statements in the context of many conversations about faith, only to receive a quizzical look from the other person. Typically, a much-needed distinction between these three terms quickly follows, as they are not, in fact, synonyms. There are millions of “spiritual” people who do not yet know Christ. Some people are deeply “religious” about their attendance at sporting events. You get the idea.

For many, however, a confession of Jesus as the Christ and Lord over all creation – and over one’s life in particular – automatically carries with it the labels “religious” and/or “spiritual.” But as Charles Strohmer takes pains to point out in his book, The Gospel and the New Spirituality, there is very often much work to be done in defining our terms prior to having any meaningful conversation about personal faith, and this is especially true when approaching someone who carries with them either remnants of “New Age” belief systems or a full-blown lifestyle that gladly accepts traditions, thoughts and practices from sources clearly outside those of traditional, orthodox Christianity.

It’s no secret that we live in the age of Deepak, Oprah and Shirley. And there are countless other self-anointed prophets and priests of the new spirituality, so it is not at all surprising that much confusion has crept in and served to corrupt the meaning of several words we may have previously used to convey what we would call “traditional, Christian orthodoxy.” These days it takes more effort to paint for someone an accurate picture of what it means to be hopelessly lost in sin – without any possible means of self-redemption – and yet saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Many faithful Christians, in fact, might be surprised to find that they have unknowingly adopted some beliefs borrowed, for example, from Eastern pantheism, only to attempt to unsuccessfully graft them into their view of salvation.

I found Strohmer’s book to be a tremendous resource for anyone who grapples with a friend or loved one caught up in belief systems that are decidedly “New Age,” though Strohmer dislikes that label and its associated baggage, preferring “New Spirituality” instead. A former astrologer and transcendental meditator himself, Strohmer was converted to Christianity after the weight of his own sin relentlessly pressed in upon him. Convicted by the Holy Spirit that nothing he was doing would wipe away his sins and make him righteous before God, he ultimately gave his life to Christ after a cross-country road trip, on his knees and soaking a hotel room bedspread with his tears: “God, please forgive me…God, please forgive me.”

Read as part of the curriculum for a Covenant class I’m finishing up on evangelism, Strohmer’s book is a powerful tool for those seeking to potentially introduce Christ to an unbeliever caught up in astrology, numerology, reincarnation beliefs and so on. This is predominantly because Strohmer writes from the vantage point of having been a former adherent of New Age beliefs. Reading the account of his own conversion served as a much-needed reminder to me that it is the Holy Spirit alone Who is able to bring sinners to their knees and confront them with the Person of Jesus Christ. It is telling, for example, that his conversion did not take place after a series of debates with another person as they drove across the States. Instead, it was Strohmer alone, reflecting on his life and his past teachings, giving God time and space to speak to his heart, that brought about repentance. Words spoken to him about Jesus years ago, long “forgotten,” resurfaced and brought forth new life.

So what does effective evangelism look like when contending with differing belief systems?

According to Strohmer, as we seek to evangelize to those who are caught up in the new spirituality, we would do well to heed his admonitions against condemnation, and keep several other key points in the forefront of our thoughts: 1) steer clear of using Christian jargon; 2) remember that our primary job is to build bridges to the heart of the person; 3) truth is not meant to be kept closed up behind the “Christian castle” wall; and 4) learn to ask good questions. In particular, it was very helpful to me to have Strohmer point out those places in typical evangelistic efforts where the person on the other side of the conversation, especially if they do hold to some New Age belief systems, would be all too likely to shut down and simply stop listening.

Strohmer tells the story of a family of satanists who attended one of his sermons at the Fairlight Christian Centre in Tooting, London. His non-judgmental response to their all-black clothing and ritualistic jewelry helped drive home the point that one of the “traditional” Christian approaches to people who hold to radically opposing points of view is to shoo them away and encourage them to “clean up their act,” thereby conveying a strong message of condemnation and contempt. As Strohmer describes their acceptance of his invitation to lunch, I found that I was looking inward and honestly asking how I really might have behaved confronted with the exact same situation. Are certain people “not worth the obvious amount of effort” it will take? Obviously, Jesus never thought along these lines.

In that same vein, I was glad that Strohmer chose to discuss at some length the concept of “Personal Inreach.” As someone whose personal faith was shaky in the months and years immediately following my conversion, I find that I reacted to my own fragility by casting out anything and everything that did not end with a positive declaration of faith in Jesus Christ as the one and only true Son of God. In short, I was very dismissive of other belief systems, failing to find those aspects of personal belief that were good, right and God-affirming. As a result, I find that today I really don’t have any friends or associates who would claim to be adherents of any sort of New Age thinking or belief systems.

In other words, I’ve found that I’ve effectively eliminated relationships that would have given me an opportunity to put Strohmer’s advice to good use and share Christ with those who do not yet know Him.

My obvious need to spend more time outside “the castle walls” notwithstanding, I found much of value in this text and plan to hold onto it should my own faith mature to the point that God will entrust me with some new friendships and relationships. Also, I fully recognize that many of the folks circulating around me in church and ministry life (often unbeknownst to them) actually do carry with them several “remnants” of New Age thinking, even as they claim faith and allegiance to Christ. Again, the text was helpful in bringing this to light and will be useful should I find myself engaging in conversations around the origins of yoga, Zen, crystal therapy, and so on.

Coincidentally, then, I find myself lingering over two questions that Strohmer would ask any would-be evangelist; “How much are we cooperating with the inreach of the Truth into our own lives? How fully are we allowing Christ to transform us?” I suppose that it is the natural man who feels the need to vilify anything that does not immediately agree with one’s own belief system, and again I find Strohmer’s emphasis on all of us being “works in progress” immensely helpful. (The comment that God has not ever once chosen to deposit the sum total of His Truth into any particular Christian denomination was perhaps a much-needed antidote to the “castle wall” phenomena as well!)

As a final commendation for this book, I’ll share that I have dog-eared pages 198 to 207, a section Strohmer dedicates to the power of prayer. I came away from this text more convinced than ever that our most effective “weapon” in the battle for the souls of all unbelievers – “New Age” adherent or otherwise – is “Effectual Prayer.” As much as Strohmer’s prayer recommendations are more or less common sense, they nevertheless serve well, I think, to help us recall that our primary obligation is to pray for the other person to come to see Truth as it really is, and to assist us in praying for someone right on the heels of what may well have been a confusing/disorienting encounter.

While keeping in mind that it is God Who ultimately saves souls, there is much that He – by His grace – has given us to do. Our cooperation with God matters, of course. So does our ongoing commitment to the unbelievers in our midst, coupled with patience and a willingness to “allow” God to work out the desired result in His own timeframe. In and amongst all of this, though, it is helpful (I think) to forever be aware that it will not be our brilliance or our deep-seated knowledge of New Age belief systems that will “win the day,” but only God, Who may be well pleased to use our research, commitments and perhaps most importantly, openness…or not. I find myself exceedingly grateful that God chose to call Strohmer out of the darkness of his New Age beliefs. Now if I just had a few New Age friends to share him with!

2 Corinthians 10:3-5
For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.

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