Crystals, astrology and pendulum-dowsing; Manchester's Mind, Body, Spirit festival is an annual gathering that encompasses almost every element of New Age and alternative spirituality and draws 15,000 visitors over three days. Among the maze of exhibition stands at the G-MEX centre people offer every kind of therapy, from Tibetan singing bowls to acupuncture; lifestyles and personalities can be read, analysed and altered by anything from iridology to angel-painting. In their midst a stall called 'Regenerate' advertises healing. A single Celtic cross is the only outward sign that this is, in fact, an outpost of the church.
Rev Steve Hollinghurst is running his stall for the third year. When people wander up and ask his team, as they inevitably do, "What are you about then?" they reply that they are exploring spirituality from the Christian tradition. "We think carefully about how we put ourselves across - lots of people here are quite prejudiced against Christianity and having a stall that advertised it too boldly would mean they ran the other way." And yet his popularity at the event is growing. This year for the first time he was invited to give a Sunday morning talk, 'Discovering Meditation with the Christian Mystics' - and on any one day the stall will have between 50 and 100 visitors.
No longer on the fringe
Matt Frost, leader of City Gates church in London, has been taking the gospel to New Age festivals for 10 years. When he first began, he remembers, "it would be one woman on her own - and people wouldn't always be keen on the idea". Now churches are joining together to take pan-denominational mission groups to these events. At this year's Vitality Show, a health and lifestyle exhibition at London's Olympia, Frost's team encountered more than 1,000 people over the course of four days.
New Age has become a trend that the church, it seems, can no longer afford to ignore. "The theme of new spirituality has become a mainstream one and for that reason Christians had to think about it more seriously," says Scottish-based theologian and author, Professor John Drane, who explores the subject in his soon-to-be published book 'Do Christians know how to be Spiritual? The Rise of New Spirituality and the Mission of the Christian Church'. "Ten years ago it was a fringe element, left over hippies; now it's your grandma or the man next door."
As gatherings have become more commercial affairs there has been an explosion in opportunities to engage with this new kind of spiritual seeker. Specialist ministries have begun to emerge. The Eden People, a Guildford-based ministry led by Colin Brice, began running venues at green fairs since 1998 and has now expanded to music festivals. Brice's volunteers offer things you might expect - prayer for healing, a listening ear - alongside things you might not, such as massage and free fruit, in tents designed to be restful retreats, full of sofas, cushions and low-level lighting. "This year at Glastonbury we were right next to a stage," says Brice, "but people would come into our tent and say 'Isn't this peaceful?'" The effect is to draw in those seeking an oasis from everything else on offer and Brice has seen God working among festival goers and performers alike. "There was a musician at one of the music festivals who got terrible anxiety about performing and usually had to take drugs before he went on," he remembers. "He came back after we'd prayed for him and said 'I felt a real peace and I didn't need to take anything.'"
Eden People grew naturally out of Brice's own environmental interests. A member of Friends of the Earth, it began simply as a recycling collective with other members of his church homegroup. Then he began organising evenings on environmental concerns, meeting people with similar interests on their own territory without pushing an overt Christian agenda. For Brice, two things are crucial. First is knowing and understanding his subject - people can soon see through you if you are putting on a front. Second is treating those he meets lovingly "as part of God's creation". And that means listening to their beliefs.
"For a lot of people it's their faith and if they've built their life on that we can't roll up and knock their whole foundations away, because they' re going to fall down, they're going to crumble." He describes his work as "pre-pre-Alpha". "We're going so far back that we're meeting people as they're still walking away from God, and it's about getting with them and trying to show them there's another way to go."
A significant ministry
The significance of meeting spiritual seekers where they are is two-fold. Firstly, the very nature of alternative spirituality means they are unlikely to walk into a church. And secondly, it recognises and responds to a growing trend in belief systems. Recent research shows that even as UK church attendances fall, more and more people are describing themselves as spiritual.
"Despite predictions that we would become more secular we are becoming more spiritual," says Rev Yvonne Richmond who has spearheaded research for the Coventry Diocese 'Beyond The Fringe' report and recently co-authored Equipping Your Church in a Spiritual Age. "People are still asking the big questions and willing to talk about them." A growing percentage describes having had some experience of God; but there is a "huge gulf" between people's sense of their own spirituality and their perceptions of the church. "They do not see the connection. We have to claim the spiritual ground again."
In a post-modern, pluralist society, that means being seen in the marketplace. For those who have grown up with no Biblical background, many are completely unaware of what the church has to offer in terms of the supernatural, from the awe and mystery of the Anglo-Catholic tradition to the prophetic giftings of the charismatic church. And as magazines fill up with adverts for Reiki healing or yogic meditation, Brice is keen to draw attention to the more obvious cross-over. "It's good to hear what these people are saying because nine times out of 10 there's such a correlation with a Christian practice," says Brice. "Like meditation - yeah, I meditate on God's word. We can come alongside people and build a bridge."
What are seekers looking for?
Many of the seekers are looking for something experiential; Frost noted that he encounters large numbers of lapsed Jews and Christians for whom synagogue or church had simply become too ritualistic and dull. His group began offering 'life readings', in which they asked God for words of prophesy, as well as healing. "We saw some remarkable stuff. These sorts of people are expecting those things to happen so they're very open. We had one show when every sick person we prayed for was healed."
You certainly can't expect the norm. For one thing, says Brice, people won't close their eyes as you pray - they will stare at you, waiting for something to happen. "They'll be giving a running commentary, saying this is happening, or no that's not right. Sometimes other people actually spectate." There is also a different language to be learned and understood - for instance, people often ask for healing when they are not sick. "They mean they want a spiritual experience, and that's something we' re having to learn how to deal with."
Engaging with spiritual seekers also calls for tolerance. "People object strongly to people wanting to convert them," says Richmond. "The environment needs to be one where the Christian says, 'I'm interested in your views, I have something to learn from you. You have to respect them for their beliefs and expect they will be spiritual and that God will be doing something." Drane cites a theological precedent for this kind of mission - Paul preaching in Athens, where the cult of Diana had taken hold. "The notion that there are unknown gods out there can be used," says Drane. "Instead of rubbishing stuff he didn't like there Paul saw God already at work and used it to introduce Jesus. This is a theology that assumes that God is to be found at work in the world and that there are no no-go areas for God." He notes with irony that often the organisers of alternative festivals have been far more open to Christians running a stall than local churches have to being there. "In every example I can think of the response of the organisers has been 'What took you so long?'"
It is a form of outreach relatively simple to replicate on a local scale, as Andrea Campanale found when she and her husband decided to take a stall to the Kingston Green Fair in London. When they booked the stand they had no idea what to do, but armed with a book on dream interpretation and psalm-reading, they set up in 'the healing field'. A small group of church volunteers massaged people's feet while praying over them in tongues. "By the end of the day we had queues of people to be prayed for," she says. "That's something I've never experienced as a Christian before." For them, it was about witnessing in any way possible. When the Hare Krishnas' tent blew away they rushed to help: "We wanted to be a blessing to people, to the stallholders as well. We wanted to be Jesus to them whether we agreed with them or not." Campanale believes that churches should not be afraid to be present amid the tarot readers and crystal healers. "We have given Satan too much power; we shouldn't be worried about harm being done to us," she says. "One woman said to me, 'I've already got crystals in my pocket' and I said well put this holding cross in the other one and see which one works better. We're trusting that God is bigger than anything else she is into."
Some elements of the evangelism have raised concerns. "I do believe it's something that those capable of doing should be doing," says Doug Harris of the Reach Out Trust, an international evangelical ministry that specialises in the cults, the occult and new age. "My biggest concern is if we don't show a distinctiveness. People can become too much like the New Agers and that's a particular concern for young Christians."
David Jackman, president of Bible-teaching the Proclamation Trust, agrees. "It's good to be in the market-place of ideas, but we need to ensure that we are not endorsing error by our presence," he says. "There's a need to recognise that it is a spiritual battle: you are on enemy ground and should expect subtle attacks on your faith. It would be very easy for only one or two Christians to be worn down and become very threatened or disheartened. This is not for beginners."
Brice hopes to keep an open ministry, but concedes that there are certain requirements. "In most Eden teams the average age is mid-20s upwards because you need a spiritual maturity. There is a need for wisdom and discernment, especially at the music festivals. We're going to come across stuff that's difficult." He himself has been in spiritual danger zones, once when praying for a Reiki healer. "I suddenly felt that she was turning the tables," he says. "She said, 'There's something wrong with you, you need healing,' even though there was nothing wrong with me, and I knew there was something going on."
But he maintains that can be a faith-building experience for those Christians who take part and Hollinghurst, on the front line in Manchester, has found the same thing. "The people you meet have quite well thought-out beliefs, and finding ways to express what you believe in a way they can understand is a challenge, but one that helps you become more confident in your own faith." In an open-minded environment where all paths, seemingly, can lead to God, Christianity is the one thing about which spiritual seekers remain sceptical. "If people go away having met a Christian and had a good experience, we are breaking down some of the barriers."