Influence of New Age, Megachurches Grows among US Worshipers

Article excerpt

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. …