By John W. Morehead

It is no secret that "counter-cult" ministries hover on the fringes of evangelicalism. Much of our time is spent in development, and precious little is done in terms of evangelism or mission to cults and new religions. This workshop will briefly assess the current status of evangelical "counter-cult" ministries, and emphasize the need to rediscover and apply a missiological paradigm for long-term stability for our ministries. A benefit of this approach will be a well-rounded response to the challenge of cults and new religions supported by a broader segment of the church.

      It has been my privilege to be a part of the evangelical "counter-cult" community for a number of years now. Over that period of time I have made a number of observations concerning the work that we do and have given time to reflecting on how we might improve our work for the Lord. None of the ideas that will follow in my presentation are necessarily original. I have simply been fortunate to benefit from the insights of fine individuals in this particular ministry specialty, many of whom I now work with as colleagues. I have also witnessed the successful efforts of others in differing areas of ministry and have seen how such efforts might be adopted and adapted for use in our portion of the mission field. I offer the contents of this workshop as a work in progress in the hopes that you and others might consider how we might see more fruitfulness from our labors.

Cults and New Religious Movements: A Continuing Challenge
      As you are all aware, "cults" and new religious movements (hereafter referred to as "NRMs") represent a continuing challenge to the evangelistic efforts of the Church of Jesus Christ. We note with concern that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has nearly 60,000 full-time missionaries working in the world's mission fields among 102 different language groups, and that 26,000 missionaries pass through their Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. We must also remember that, "Every week an average [of] 45 new Jehovah's Witnesses congregations are formed," . . . and that in the year 2000 this group spent "over 1.17 billion hours going door-to-door to defame Jesus Christ and lure the unsuspecting to a counterfeit hope-in 353 languages, in more than 230 countries."i Yet these two groups represent only a segment of the challenge before us. In a recent issue of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research in a chart compiled by David Barrett and Todd Johnson, the number of "New-Religionists" is calculated to be 103,313,000 as of mid-2001.ii When we consider these sobering statistics on a global scale our mission field represents a continuing challenge and opportunity well into the twenty-first century.

The Evangelical Response
      In response to this significant evangelistic challenge many ministries have come into existence. Indeed, a whole industry has arisen, the evangelical "counter-cult" community. While much good work has been and continues to be done, in my opinion, our overall response has been inadequate. While a few ministries have focused on an evangelistic emphasis, most have confined themselves solely to doctrinal critique and comparison with historic Christian orthodoxy thereby largely defining what is now known as the evangelical "counter-cult" approach to NRMs. In a January 2000 article from Missiology magazine J. Gordon Melton lamented:

    Of course, the counter-cult approach originated as an evangelism effort, but with that proving unfruitful, counter-cult spokespersons have now redefined their work as apologists and limited their public activity to boundary maintenance for the evangelical community.iii

     After summarizing his feelings on the results of a Christian response to NRMs, Melton concluded, "Thus we have, by default, left the task to amateurish counter-cultists."iv While we may be tempted to easily dismiss such criticism from a controversial figure in the sociological study of alternative religions, nevertheless, Melton raises a valid criticism. His words are echoed by fellow evangelical, Bryce Pettit, laboring in this mission field with us:

    Christian responses to the burgeoning growth of NRMs has been weak and ineffective. Most counter-cult ministries are absorbed with fund raising simply to remain active. Except for a few older and more visible organizations . . . , counter-cult groups have remained small and concentrated within the Unites States. Resources in languages other than English have been scarce, and are usually translations of older English works. In some areas this is beginning to change, but the need to go beyond the more highly visible groups such as the LDS church to indigenous groups who have never been analyzed is growing rapidly. Denominational responses to NRMs have generally been apathetic.v

     In Melton's critique cited above he takes issue with our research, writing and presentations on NRMs to evangelical churches, which he calls "boundary maintenance," or helping to maintain a clear definition of biblical truth in contrast with the error found in many NRMs. As I cite Melton's criticism it should no be misconstrued that I am advocating the "counter-cult" community's abandonment of "boundary maintenance," that is, it's efforts at warning the church of the spiritual dangers of the doctrinal heresy of NRMs while contrasting that heresy with sound teaching. This activity remains an essential part of our calling in obedience to the teaching of Scripture (Jude 3-4; Acts 20:28-31; 2 Cor. 11:3-4, 13-15; 2 Pet. 2:1-22; 3:15-17). But we must be willing to consider the possibility that in our zeal to defend the gospel, and to contrast truth with error, that we have become unbalanced and missed our proper focus out of which apologetics and preserving orthodoxy appropriately spring. In so doing, we may have unwittingly helped to define ourselves in such a way as to marginalize our ministries, thus hampering our own effectiveness.

Ministry on the Fringes
      As you know, "counter-cult" ministry receives little positive press, but this was not the case in October 1991 when Christianity Today magazine ran a story entitled "The Kingdom of the Cult Watchers." Even in the midst of a largely positive story, one sentence stuck out where Ron Enroth stated that "cult watching has 'step-child status' in official evangelicalism." Surely this was the case in 1991, and I'm sure most, if not all of you would agree that this is the case today. Even when a NRM does capture the attention of the media, including the Christian media, our ministries are usually bypassed in favor of a more academic treatment by sociologists and professors of religion at Christian and perhaps even secular academic institutions.

      Additional thoughts relevant to our status on the fringes are worth considering as well. In the fascinating book from 1985, Why Cults Succeed Where the Church Fails, Melton made the following observations that are still relevant today:

    Unfortunately, the development of ministries to what are perceived as marginal religious groups has tended to marginalize the ministries as well, and has delayed the recognition and acceptance by both mainline and evangelical denominations of the need for mission strategy toward Eastern-metaphysical and occult religion in the West.

    Small, poorly-funded, marginalized counter-cult ministries have had and can hope but to have but minimal overall impact upon the continued growth and spread of the alternative faiths. In the face of this significant cultural phenomena, the small ministries must be content with occasional and individual converts and divert a high percentage of their time away from ministry to fund raising and survival. Churches assign such ministries a low priority when judged by the enormity of other perceived world mission needs.

    In the face of this marginalization, leaders of the counter-cult ministries, and sympathetic evangelical and mainline church leaders, must pool their collective resources and develop a whole strategy which will engage the whole church in mission and ministry to non-Christian religions in the West.vi

Moving Beyond the Fringes
      Why is this the case? Why does the "counter-cult" ministry enterprise continue to hover on the fringes of evangelicalism despite the tremendous need for the church to respond to this challenge in a significant way? Undoubtedly there are many factors but at the risk of oversimplification I would like to make a suggestion to help answer this question. I submit that perhaps one of the greatest reasons we hover on the fringes and continue to tread water is that we have defined ourselves in a negative way, largely in refuting doctrinal error as the primary reason for our existence. As a result we have missed and neglected our greatest priority, that of missions and evangelism. Before you dismiss this idea as the mere foolishness of a young, good-looking Californian, please note that this criticism is not unique to this speaker. EMNR founder Gordon Lewis has raised the same concern. In the International Journal of Frontier Missions (IJFM) Dr. Lewis stated:

    The connotation of 'countercult' is too negative to represent missionary's loving outreach to unreached people in need of the good news of God's grace. It is not enough for evangelical leaders primarily to react against non-Christian religious world-views, epistemologies and ethics. We need to present a better way. Missions to Muslims would not call themselves CounterMuslims. This plays into the hands of those who dismiss any, even well-reasoned refutation of their views, as anti-Mormon, anti-Muslim, etc.vii

     I believe these words contain great wisdom worthy of our reflection. Consider for a moment the many titles we use to describe our work: cult watchers, investigative journalists, cult intervention specialist, apologists and the like. Certainly in the course of our multi-faceted ministries as we attempt to provide an all-encompassing response to NRMs there will be times where it is appropriate to engage in all of these tasks, and I am not suggesting otherwise. However, to allow these activities to become the focal point of our ministries does indeed put the emphasis on the negative and allow our critics to easily dismiss as divisive heresy hunters who are not even accepted in the mainstream of evangelicalism, let alone in the broader field of religious studies.

    What then should be our primary identity? In this same article from the IJFM Dr. Lewis suggested that we consider the following:

    Evangelical ministers to NRMs will remain alive and well insofar as they change their primary identity from mere counter cult agents to missionaries-frontier type missionaries to unreached people in alternative religions and cults.viii

     I believe this suggestion is a major step in the right direction. "Counter-cult" ministries struggling on the fringes of evangelicalism and spending large amounts of time on development and survival must work together and rethink their individual and collective identity. This new identity must be thought of in terms of frontier missionary activity to unreached people groups. Indeed, Evangelical Ministries to New Religions (EMNR) was formed with exactly this identity and purpose in mind. Formed under the leadership of Gordon Lewis, EMNR came about as a result of the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization that recognized outreach to people in NRMs as true mission work to unreached people groups. In the years that followed EMNR's founding it too has struggled with its self-identity and has moved away from its original missiological purposes. While still performing many valuable services on behalf of its membership, EMNR too may need to rediscover and reapply the missiological paradigm from which it was birthed.

      If we seriously consider the possibility of a new missiological self-identity and paradigm for ministry what results can we realistically expect? In my opinion it may be that we can then capture the attention and support of a broader segment of evangelicalism to consider the needs of millions of New Religionists desperately in need of the redeeming grace of Christ. Such attention, and access to a wealth of resources from evangelical churches and denominations can be accessed from within a missiological paradigm for reaching NRMs. I submit that the "counter-cult" model has proven largely unsuccessful.

Suggestions Toward a Better Strategy
      Surely a new missions emphasis alone will not be the panacea for all our frustrations and ills in "counter-cult" ministry. Additional steps must be taken. Recognizing the challenges faced by ministries to NRMs, I offer the following additional recommendations for consideration and discussion by my colleagues in ministry to NRMs, as well as church, denominational, mission and parachurch leaders.ix

      1. Concentrated Prayer Focus. Integral to the work of the proclamation and defense of the faith is the ministry of prayer. To stimulate prayer concentrated on NRMs, prayer resources, such as the Global Prayer Digest, might focus specifically on the prayer needs of these groups. The production of prayer resources such as this might bring increased prayer attention for NRMs by international prayer networks such as the Concerts of Prayer International, as well as increased awareness, interest and prayer at the local church level. It will surely result in greater effectiveness in evangelism.

      2. Broaden the Support Base Through Strategic Relationships. As noted above, one of the key challenges facing evangelism of NRMs is a shortage of financial resources threatening the continued existence of not a few organizations as well as researchers, apologists and missionaries within those organizations. As Gordon Lewis has argued in many forums, ministries among NRMs must seek relationships with home and foreign mission boards, perhaps attempting to serve as an accredited agency heading a special task force to address the challenge of mission to NRMs. Though forming such relationships will be difficult, the benefits that could be achieved would be great.

      Perhaps the first steps in such strategic relationships have been taken. At the November 2000 Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) national conference, representatives of the Evangelical Missiological Society (EMS), the Society for the Study of Alternative Religions (SSAR) and EMNR met to discuss the mission challenge of NRMs. The participants discussed how they might learn from each other and began discussion on efforts at working together as well.x It is my hope that the initial openness and enthusiasm expressed by the participants of this meeting can continue to generate positive momentum in formulating new missiological methods for reaching New Religionists.

      One item discussed at this initial meeting was the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach. Members of EMS expressed their desire to see members of ETS and EMNR seek membership in EMS as a means of working together to accomplish our task more effectively. I concur with their desires and strongly encourage members of EMNR to also apply for membership within SSAR and EMS.xi

      3. Information Dissemination and Specialized Training. As the non-Western or Two-Thirds World missionary movement continues to play a greater role in world evangelization, the North American mission community will need to respond by revising its role based upon its strengths. This is especially relevant with regards to the mission field of NRMs. Here, North America has an important contribution to make. A great opportunity exists to provide education and training on NRMs from the wealth of North America's informational resources in this arena. Many of our ministries maintain libraries of books, journals, videotapes, audiotapes and files touching specifically on many new religions from around the world. In addition, organizations such as these have experienced researchers and teachers whose expertise can prove invaluable in equipping pastors, missionaries and lay people in the U.S. and overseas, in concert with missions and denominational agencies. Bible colleges, Christian universities as well as seminaries should benefit from this information as well. This wealth of information in North America can be passed along through traditional "in-house" training, as well as through theological education by extension. Specific goals of such training would be to prepare international missionaries under siege on the world's mission fields, to equip resource persons in each Christian church and to mentor "apologetic interns" to equip a future generation. Given the lack of serious attention to this challenge within evangelical academic and missiological institutions, NRMs must become a high priority item on the agenda of evangelical theological education for this century.

      4. Consultation on Evangelism to New Religions Movements. Just as consultations on Islam helped bring attention to the need for mission to Muslims, a consultation on evangelism to NRMs would help bring needed attention to this mission field. A consultation could be held in North America sponsored by EMNR, perhaps in conjunction with Urbana, and in partnership with mission boards, as well as leading mission agencies. This North American consultation would be followed by an international conference, perhaps in Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union, where the growth of primarily American made and exported NRMs is especially problematic.

      5. Establishment of Endowed Chairs. The establishment of an endowed academic chair of studies in new religious movements at an evangelical university such as Trinity International University or Biola University is an idea worthy of exploration. Such a position would serve as a further catalyst for the scholarly study of new religious movements from a distinctly evangelical perspective. The results of this academic study would help counter the scholarly apologetics of some NRMs, such as the Latter-day Saints, and would also filter down to benefit evangelicals at the parachurch as well as the popular apologetics levels. The chair's endowment would also help bring much-needed financial stability to this area of ministry.

      The tremendous task before us, that of completing the Great Commission to millions of adherents of New Religions, has its difficulties and continuing challenges. I have only presented a thumbnail sketch of possibilities that we might consider to overcome our challenges together. To move ahead and see further fruit and greater stability will no doubt be difficult. But most things worthwhile usually are. I humbly ask that my colleagues in ministry would disseminate these ideas, deliberate and pray over them, discuss and debate their merits or demerits, and see what the Lord might have in store for us in future blessing.

i Paul Carden, "January 2001 Prayer Update" newsletter (emphasis in original). Readers are encouraged to contact The Centers For Apologetic Research for information on the global challenge of NRMs to missions: P.O. Box 1196, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92693. return
ii David B. Barrett and Todd M. Johnson, "Status of Global Mission, 2001, in context of 20th and 21st centuries," International Bulletin of Missionary Research (January 2001), Internet edition www.gem-werc.org. According to the authors' classification system groups such as the Latter-day Saints and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society were not included in this figure. return
iii J. Gordon Melton, "Emerging Religious Movements in North America: Some Missiological Reflections," Missiology: An International Review, Vol. XXVIII, Num. 1, January 2000, pp. 93-94. return
iv Ibid., p. 94. return
v Bryce A. Pettit, "New Religious Movements and Missions: An Historical Overview," International Journal of Frontier Missions (IJFM), Volume 15, Number 5, July-September 1998, p. 130. Dr. Pettit is the director of the Rocky Mountain Frontlines Forum in Colorado Springs, CO. Interested readers will also benefit from his doctoral dissertation, "Evangelizing Cults and New Religions: Issues and Strategies in Global Context" (D. Min. diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 1993). return
vi Ronald M. Enroth and J. Gordon Melton, Why Cults Succeed Where the Church Fails (Elgin: Brethren Press, 1985), pp. 130-131. return
vii Gordon R. Lewis, "Our Missionary Responsibility to NRMs," IJFM, p. 116. return
viii Ibid., 118. return
ix The material that follows is adapted from the article "Hidden in Plain Sight: The Mission Challenge of New Religious Movements," by Everett Shropshire and John Morehead, IJFM, pp. 141-145. return
x The EMS website has a brief report on this meeting available on the Internet at www.missiologiy.org/ems/Reports/nrm.htm. return
xi Those interested in reviewing membership requirements and requesting applications should contact the following: Society for the Study of Alternative Religions, Dr. Craig Hazen, Biola University, 13800 Biola Avenue, La Mirada, CA 90639-0001; Evangelical Theological Society, Dr. James Borland, 200 Russell Woods Dr., Lynchburg, VA 24502-3530; Evangelical Missiological Society, Box 794, Wheaton, IL 60189, www.Missiology.org/EMS. return