More than eight in ten Americans hunger to experience spiritual growth, according to a 1999 Gallup poll.
Sounds good. But the spirituality they hunger for often is "free-floating and vague," observes Michael Lindsay, a Gallup consultant in religion and culture. Another survey says one in five Americans now considers himself "spiritual" rather than religious.
A woman who teaches high-priced, trendy seminars for seekers of something or other certainly fits that category. She started out Pentecostal, but has since sampled Santeria, Hinduism, and "white voodoo." Currently she practices Tibetan Buddhism.
"Don't worry about which method you use" to seek a higher power, she confidently advises. "Just pick one. They all lead to the same place."
Hence, many Americans now seek enlightenment from the Dalai Lama, not the Bible, and cleansing of sins from the waters of the Ganges, not the blood of Christ. Or they design their own religion, made to order like a personal pan pizza.
This new breed of pluralist "spirituality," American religious historian Martin Marty observes, is religion with the things people don't like about religion taken out. Like personal commitment. And absolutes. And the call to proclaim truth. This, Marty says, "is the context in which we work and it's not going to go away."
Ted Turner, billionaire founder of CNN and famed Christian-basher, is delighted with the trend. He helped dream up last year's Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, held at the United Nations. The U.N. organizers invited some 1,800 participants from nearly 100 countries - almost none of them from evangelical Christian circles.
Turner told the assembled notables that he turned away from the "intolerance" of his Christian upbringing - and his own early intention to be a missionary — when he studied other religions. "We thought we were the only ones going to heaven," he said. "Now I believe there may be one God who manifests himself in different ways to different people."
Numerous speakers at the summit, including former National Council of Churches head Joan Brown Campbell, denounced proselytizing in any form. Targets of the assembly's disapproval included not only Southern Baptist mission efforts, but also Roman Catholic evangelization of Hindus in India and Muslim missions in Africa.
Bottom line for the pluralists: It's time for historically missionary faiths to pack up and shut up. Respect and tolerance for the beliefs of others now means keeping your own beliefs to yourself. Waive your right to proclaim your faith — locally and globally — or risk moral (and possibly legal) indictment as a bigot or worse.
"I am utterly opposed to sending missionaries to so-called backward countries," insists a Unitarian theologian I occasionally debate via e-mail. "If you believe in converting the world, it follows that you believe in power and empire ... . People who are certain of divine truths really scare me. Democracy is incompatible with any perspective that claims to be uniquely right. There is no such absolute truth on this old earth of ours."
That is the postmodern critique of missions in a nutshell. Spreading the gospel to the nations, it contends, is not only imperialist but arrogantly irrational. Since there is no absolute truth, we dare not attempt to share it.
My theologian acquaintance is honest, articulate, and unapologetic about his views. Like many postmodernists, he openly challenges the missionary movement. Perhaps a more serious challenge, however, comes from within the church: Christians cowed into silence by the culture of postmodernism.
More than two-thirds of evangelicals sense the culture's contempt for them, according to a survey of religious attitudes by the secular research group Public Agenda. They essentially say, "We expect to be looked down upon because we talk about God," reported research director Steve Farkas.
That sense of marginalization takes a toll on those who don't understand that biblical faith has always been opposed by the world. Many teenagers raised in church, meanwhile, are complacent about their faith, according to evangelical researcher George Barna. They claim to understand the Bible but accept distorted religious ideas from relatives, friends and entertainment media that "lead to ... spiritual confusion."
Someone has said it's hard to pass your faith on to your children, and almost impossible to pass it on to your grandchildren. Sustaining a commitment to missions from generation to generation is even more difficult. We need to teach our children this prayer:
"Almighty God, Father of All Men:
To thee we raise thankful hearts for deliverance from forces of evil... . Deliver us also, we beseech Thee, from the greater danger of ourselves... . Awake us each time to a sense of our responsibility in saving the world from ruin. Open our minds and eyes and hearts to the desperate plight of millions. Arouse us from indifference to action... . Fulfill in us and through us Thy glorious intention: that Thy peace, Thy love, and Thy justice may enter into the regeneration of the world."
For revisionists who believe American freedom grew from secular, pluralist roots, a reminder is in order — those words were written by George Washington, on Christmas, at Valley Forge.