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New religious movements

There are thousands of new religious movements (NRMs) worldwide. We look at how to spot them and ways to engage with kindness and wisdom.

Read time: 7 minutes, 38 seconds

Introduction

New Religious Movements (NRMs) are also called minority religions, but some people might refer to them as ‘sects’ or ‘cults’. The range of NRMs varies from larger, well-established and well-known groups, to all kinds of niche spiritualities, therapies and practices which might be found online. There are thousands of NRM organisations in the UK and many more thousands across the world, some of which have offshoots in the UK. Some of the many questions people ask about them are: why are NRMs on the rise; are any NRMs ‘Christian’; what are the concerns about them; what does the Bible say about NRMs; and, what principles help with deciding how to engage with NRMs?

Why are NRMs on the rise?

One of the features of the spiritual search today is a more individualised, personal enquiry. Research shows that many people want to feel happy, lucky, good about themselves, hopeful and positive about their choices and above all, in control of their spiritual lives and the ability to choose and discard what they explore. NRMs often market themselves as deeply attractive to this kind of exploration. They can be fast-changing and adaptive and some offer what is called ‘DIY’ or ‘pick and mix’ spiritual exploration in which a number of different kinds of belief or practice from other religions may be combined. So there might be elements of healing, spiritual elevation or progression, rituals, prayers, courses or therapies all put together to guide a person to some sort of enlightenment or exploration of spiritual gifts. Many NRMs are good at detecting what people are looking for and design their pitch accordingly. Some NRMs market themselves as environmentally friendly or interested in social justice to attract followers. Others trade on anxieties and fears, such as about Covid, or about immigration. One of the important things to notice though, is that many NRMs only ‘work’ for people when things are going well. Often when people meet a life crisis such as illness or a death in the family, they discover that there is no contingency for pastoral care and it’s then that people very often come to the Christian Church and ask for help and for what the Church teaches about dealing with suffering, about hope, and what Christians believe about life after death.

Are any NRMs ‘Christian’?

Most NRMs have little impact on the local Christian church other than being present in the local community. Some others are actively interested in becoming part of an inter-religious conversation. A few are actively hostile and seek to attack, denigrate or belittle Christian faith.

A number of NRMs are called ‘Christian-derived’. Those groups and organisations can be confusing because they appear based upon traditional Christian teaching but add to it their own special teachings or revelations, or they may have leaders who are said to have special insight or have been chosen by God to carry on the work of Jesus or have been given a special task by God or Jesus in some way. Sometimes those NRMs can also be confusing because they refer to themselves as churches and it may not be obvious that they are not traditional or orthodox Christians. So it’s important to remember that if a group or organisation studies the Bible, preaches sermons, calls its leaders ‘Reverend’ or ‘Bishop’, says prayers and sings hymns, it might not actually be the same as an established Christian denomination.

Sometimes NRMS approach local churches to ask if they can hold their meetings on church property such as in the church itself or the church hall. That can also be confusing for people trying to find out about Christian faith if they think that such meetings are endorsed by the church. Usually, however, the hall or premises have simply been hired through an administrator.

A few NRMs actively seek out Christians for recruitment and sometimes if a person has been exploring Christian faith and open to thinking more deeply and seriously about a relationship with God, they may become susceptible to groups trying to enthuse them into joining without taking time to reflect. A technique which is often used in this context is called ‘love-bombing’ in which the person feels suddenly that they have a lot of friends taking an interest in them and offering kindness and hospitality.

What are the concerns about NRMs?

There is no doubt that some NRMs do harm, which is why anyone considering joining an organisation or group should do proper research about the group before getting involved. The internet is a very bad place in which to do such research, as information is often outdated or material is deliberately placed to make the group look wonderful and suppress bad comments about it. Some NRMs change their names as well, so that events and behaviour that would give concern are less easily found. Conversely, a few individuals might want to give a group a bad name. One trustworthy place for information is INFORM at King’s College, London www.inform.ac. The staff at INFORM can give enquirers the most up to date information known about a group.

There are some well-known signs that a group or organisation may be doing harm to an individual:

  • A person is required to cut off relationships with family and friends (sometimes told that the world is evil and to advance spiritually they must keep away from contaminants).
  • A person is asked to give more money than they can afford, or to sell valuable items or hand over property or other financial assets to the group.
  • A person is asked to provide sex or labour to the leader of the group or other individuals within it as part of their spiritual commitment. Sometimes people are pressured into giving up their jobs to work exclusively for the group for little or no pay.
  • A person is asked to study the Bible or other religious text for long periods, to recite prayers or receive physical punishment for sin. They may be assigned a person to oversee their behaviour who controls what they do and/or say.
  • A person who leaves such a group may be traumatised and require counselling, but it is important to remember that sometimes their worst experiences also include positive things that they want to keep and build on, even if they have been hurt and lied to. Christians need to remember that ‘forget all about it and come back to church’ is not a solution.

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Christianity New religious movements

What does the Bible say about NRMs?

The Bible is full of different groups of religious people at war with each other. There is a famous story about the prophet Elijah in the Old Testament challenging the prophets of a god called Baal to a contest. Yahweh, the God of the people of Israel, brings fire to the sacrificial offering, whereas nothing happens for the prophets of Baal. In the New Testament, Jesus outrages people by suggesting that a neighbour, to whom one owes hospitality and care, could be a hated Samaritan, a sect the Jews had nothing to do with if they could help it. Of course, in the New Testament we hear about Christianity when it was a new religious movement, and perhaps one of the most important events is a story about the wisdom of a leader called Gamaliel in Acts, when he says that a new religion should be left alone rather than its people persecuted, because if God is really behind it, it will prosper and flourish. If not, if it is just a construct of human beings, it will wither and die.

What principles can we use when engaging with NRMs?

Christians and others are encouraged to engage with sensitivity and kindness towards others of different beliefs and practice, while being alert to any hostility or possible abuse. Here are some principles which Christians should be using:

  • Finding up-to-date, accurate information about the groups they engage with and being ready to hear people’s own stories about their beliefs and practices.
    Offering respect and understanding for the spiritual explorations and choices made by others.
  • Reserving outright judgement: looking for evidence of God’s work in others and not trying to second-guess what God is doing.
  • Being humble and remembering that Christianity was once a new religious movement and was tested in the same way as new religious movements are tested today.
  • Recognising that Christians have often been (and still often are) persecuted, misunderstood and vilified as some new religious movements are today.
  • Being cautious and wary in engaging with movements and groups which are unknown. In particular, looking out for false claims which could harm others and being aware that some religious movements do destroy lives.
  • Providing care and help for those who may have suffered through contact with new religious movements, including families who have other family members in those groups. Where appropriate, making sure vulnerable people receive help and protection.
  • Using discretion to find out what a group wants and how it behaves.
  • Being clear about the distinctiveness of Christian faith. The richness, variety and depth of what is offered in Christ should satisfy every part of a person’s spiritual need and life pathway. Christians believe that God wants every person to experience life in all its fullness.