As I sat on the free shuttle bus which was taking me to my first-ever Mind Body Soul Experience, I said a prayer. “God, I don’t know if I even need to pray this…” I began, slightly amused by the strangeness of the words coming out of my mouth, “…but if I need protection, please protect me.” They call it an ‘experience’ but really it’s just an exhibition – albeit a vast one inside Alexandra Palace in north London. Most would consider this a harmless, if slightly odd, event for people interested in everything from veganism to connecting with higher spiritual forces. But for Christians, anything even vaguely ‘New Age-y’ tends to be viewed with suspicion and occasionally, fear. Many such Christians urge caution in and around these events and reference spiritual warfare passages in the Bible. Other Christians disagree, believing that once you place your faith in Christ, you have a kind of automatic and immediate insurance that protects you from dark forces. After all, perfect love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18). But with seconds left until I walked into my first-ever New Age fair, I didn’t have time to figure out which side of this theological conundrum I land on. Hence the prayer. Better to be safe than sorry.
New Age is a broad movement which includes a range of alternative beliefs and a loose network of spiritual teachers, healers and seekers. The typical interests of those associated with the movement include meditation, channelling, reincarnation, crystals, psychic experience, holistic health and environmentalism. Many date the movement’s origins to 1970s Britain and interest has grown significantly ever since. Glance at the shelves marked ‘spirituality’ in any bookshop, and you’ll likely see more books about New Age ideas than titles about traditional Christian belief. It goes to show that people are still hungry for spiritual answers, but they aren’t looking in familiar places. Mainstream religion is out. New Age spirituality is in.
The first thing I saw as I walked through the doors of the Mind Soul Body Experience was an advert: “Win a platinum healing retreat worth £899”. Before I had the chance to consider any of the 100 or so questions that this one sentence raised, I was bombarded with information on physic evenings, astrology and aura photography. Many of these words meant nothing to me and I imagine this is how an atheist would feel if they went to a typical church service for the first time. Everyone looks fairly normal, but the language doesn’t make sense and everyone seems fascinated by stuff you haven’t the first clue about. These negative feelings weren’t helped by my first conversation.
The woman is animated and wide-eyed, explaining how she offers Jyotish Hindu readings inside a place called ‘Watkins bookshop’. Although I’m here to report on how my fellow Christians are evangelising spiritual seekers, I don’t want to reveal that yet. My deliberately vague cover story is simply “I’m a journalist”. But as this woman talks excitedly about her shop’s location, I stare blankly. Gasping, she exclaims, “You don’t know Watkins bookshop!? And you’re a journalist?!” She explains, and I diligently write “London’s largest and oldest esoteric bookshop” in my notepad, before excusing myself in an attempt to avoid any more awkwardness.
The crowd is more diverse than I’d expected. Hundreds of people of all ages and ethnicities seem interested in what’s on offer. Thousands will pass through this vast space over the next three days. As well as a plethora of stands to visit, there’s an Experience Zone where delegates are encouraged to “open yourself up to experiencing the peace within you”. As I wander by, the person leading the session says in a soothing voice “imagine an unlimited space of light”. I don’t stop.
Next I pass The Feminine Protocol. They have a banner which states “Our purpose is to make the fifth dimension accessible to everyone”. By now my hundreds of questions have turned into thousands. I want to stop and ask some of them but I feel a bit strange. There’s a heaviness in my chest. Should I read something spiritual into this or is it down to the unusually large Starbucks coffee I guzzled on the way here?
I’m told to close my eyes, clear my mind and picture white light flooding my body
Seeking an experience
Deciding I need to dive in and get more of a sense for what’s going on, I stop at a random stand and pick up a book titled Divine Guidance, intrigued as to what it might offer. Within seconds a friendly lady has wandered over. “Would you like me to show you how it works?” she asks. “Yes please,” I reply, expecting her to give me a chapter outline or summarise the main points. Instead I’m instructed to put the book in between my hands and hold it out in front of me. Without thinking, I oblige. But then I’m told to close my eyes, clear my mind and picture white light flooding my body. I start to feel uneasy, but I can’t quit now! I’m told to let all my stress out – which is hard to do as this situation is itself becoming increasingly stressful. Who knows what I might be asked to do next? “
Call your guardian angel forth,” I’m told. At this point I’m inwardly panicking. If I’m honest the curious part of me wants to feel something. But most of me is wary and actively resisting what’s happening. My brain is working overtime: If I’m cautious about this, surely I won’t experience anything, because in order for something to happen, I’d need to psych myself up to feel something that isn’t really there? But what if it isn’t psychological mumbo jumbo? What if there are evil forces intertwined with all this? I’m suddenly grateful I said that prayer on the bus. Perhaps it wasn’t such a silly thing to pray after all.
Eventually, the woman tells me to open my eyes. I’m instructed to open the book I’ve been holding the whole time and flick through the pages. “When you feel it’s right, stop. Your eyes will be drawn to a paragraph. That’s what you need to know today,” she says.
I’ve come this far, I can’t walk away now. So I do as I’m told and read the paragraph. I read it again. And again.
I breathe a sigh of relief. It’s something vague about “ruling your own mind”. It definitely doesn’t mean anything to me. But out of politeness, I smile and say thank you. When she follows this up with the question, “Are you a healer?” my already-active-caffeine-fuelled-inner-monologue goes into overdrive. I believe God heals people. I believe I’ve seen God heal people and I believe this has happened after I (along with others) have prayed. So maybe I am? No, that’s not right. God’s the one healing people, not me. And I'm pretty sure this woman and I would hold very different definitions of what constitutes a 'healer' anyway. After what feels like a lifetime, I finally answer. “No, I’m not.” “You should be,” she replies, referencing my aura. I stumble away feeling like the world’s worst evangelist. I’m keen to meet fellow Christians who actually know what they’re doing in this strange world. It doesn’t take me long to spot them.
The Jesus Experience is one of the larger stands at the event. ‘Free prayer’ is being offered along with a table of Christian literature (not that they’re calling it that). The titles are deliberately ambiguous – Love is the Bridge and Reach Out for Him. I also spot an Alpha leaflet. Many of the booklets have menorahs on. I’m told by one of the volunteers there’s a lot of Jewish people at the event so they place “an emphasis” on reaching them. This is later contradicted by another volunteer who appears uncomfortable with this phrasing.
I’m told that many who attend the Mind Soul Body Experience have a negative view of organised religion, including any mention of church. By branding itself The Jesus Experience, the team are deliberately avoiding terms (such as ‘Christian’ ‘church’ and ‘religion’) that might be off-putting to spiritual seekers.
As people stop by the stand, the volunteers ask if they’d like prayer. “We pray to Jesus, what do you think of him?” is a common opening line. Many of the responses are along the lines of “he’s a higher power, on a par with Buddha”. But rather than entering into a philosophical debate, the approach is to pray and ask Jesus to touch the person with his love. Everyone here is open to having an experience.
People respond to the intimacy of testimony, not to preachy lecturing conversations
Ten top tips on reaching spiritual seekers
1. Recognise that people are looking for spirituality and celebrate the opportunity – “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”.
2. Question how you respond to someone who is spiritually seeking. Do you have a barricading mentality – protecting yourself from contamination – or an openhearted attitude?
3. Allow people to talk about their spiritual journey. Ask questions and really listen to them.
4. First impressions count. Spiritually minded people tend to be sensitive, emotionally attuned and insightful. They will pick up on attitudes of superiority, condemnation, authoritarianism or defensiveness – so remain self-aware.
5. Focus on sharing your testimony, sharing with a level of honesty and intimacy, not focusing on church or preaching your favourite doctrine.
6. Build connection and relationship so that you may have the opportunity to offer to pray for them. Be bold in prayer and passionate for their lives and destiny. Always express the love and compassion of Jesus and create an atmosphere of trust and faith.
7. Avoid Christianese! Learn to speak the language of the spiritual marketplace. Think about how to share biblical truths without directly quoting scripture.
8. Look for signs of what God is already doing in people’s lives and affirm it. Honour all that is good.
9. Cringe-free evangelistic material is desperately needed. You may want to design leaflets that are attractive and creative.
10. Reaching people has two key elements – connecting with people’s hearts and correctly understanding and responding to any dimension of spiritual warfare. It is important to always keep in mind that the person we are trying to reach is the victim – deceived and at risk from the power of an enemy they cannot recognise. Always remember that love overcomes and the greater one lives in us.
A short distance from The Jesus Experience is another stand which on first glance, is less-obviously Christian. Lumina offers ‘free life readings’. Their banners state: “If God could do one miracle for you, what would it be?” George Osborn, who experienced demonic possession before becoming a Christian and setting up Lumina, explains this question is a great conversation starter. The life readings are given by a Christian volunteer who lays down a card which has a Hebrew symbol on one side and a Bible verse on the other. These cards are designed to look like Tarot cards. The aim is to use the symbols and words to start a spiritual conversation with the person opposite.
While volunteers at The Jesus Experience placed an emphasis on giving people an experience of God, the team at Lumina want to go further. They’re aware that this event offers a multitude of various ‘experiences’ (although many require you to pay up first) and they don’t want to merely compete with what’s already on offer. They’re upfront in telling people they’re praying to God in the name of Jesus and through the Holy Spirit. This Trinitarian language doesn’t appear to be putting people off. But when it comes to sharing your faith in this context, most Christians are agreed there’s no such thing as ‘one size fits all’.
Almost every Christian I speak to at Mind Body Soul cautions me to “be careful” when reporting their words and writing about the event. They worry that those who dabble in New Age practices might read this article and either be tipped off about these Christians who you could argue are ‘working undercover’, or be offended at the negative spiritual language that’s used. While I sympathise with what's always termed “the sensitivities” surrounding this subject, it’s hard to get away from the facts: Christians who care about reaching those in the New Age do tend to believe the movement is to a greater or lesser degree influenced by negative spiritual forces. Words such as “deception”, “counterfeit” and even “satanic” are used – albeit in hushed voices while we’re at the event. But rather than these words being used as a stick to beat others with, the reality is, many of the Christians here would use these same terms to describe their own background.
Simone Cable has been involved in evangelism to those within the New Age for the past 20 years. Before becoming a Christian she was heavily involved in alternative spirituality, including transcendental meditation. “I was looking for answers and ways of finding peace,” she explains. “I felt like I was connecting with some higher spiritual force.”
After giving her life to Jesus, Cable was disturbed that so few of her fellow Christians were reaching her old world. So she decided to do something about it and has since been to many New Age events with the aim of bringing people to Christ. She’s employed many different methods of reaching people, believing that when it comes to methodology “there isn’t one way”.
“We started off wanting to expose everything back in 1994. We had some complaints. We looked at it again and reviewed what we were doing. The way I’ve felt led is going more into the experience of the Holy Spirit. I’ve come to the conclusion that where there is spiritual deception, you have to have revelation. Often that impartation of the Holy Spirit creates a seed in someone. Other people are brilliant at teaching the gospel and doing evangelistic teaching. All I would say is, don’t be dictatorial or dogmatic, do it in a relational way.”
The most important thing to remember is “people respond to the intimacy of testimony, not to preachy lecturing conversations,” she says.
While Cable is very open about the spiritual realities of the New Age movement, she is adamant that love must drive any outreach: “When you meet someone you’ve got to recognise they are the victim. They are not openly or wilfully saying ‘let’s find the darkest, most satanic-looking thing’. I was for some years involved in a spiritualist church. It didn’t ever feel wrong or bad. It was a kind of a comfort and peace. But until you know the real thing, the counterfeit is good enough for you! I had a revelatory encounter which resulted in me getting saved, then I could see the difference. I think we have to have such compassion for people who are involved in things that look good to them and yet they’re targets of the enemy without knowing it.”
Why aren’t more Christians interested in this kind of outreach? “We can have this fear and want to barricade ourselves from anything that might contaminate us when we meet someone who says they’re mediating or into yoga or a reiki healer or whatever. But what God is showing me is we need to honour that search. Yes, it may confront us or unnerve us, but our communities are full of this, so we need to get used to it and have tools and be equipped,” she says.
As I leave the event, I’m delighted that Christians are showing up here and reaching this world which still seems so alien to me. Conversations about spiritual matters with those who don’t believe in Jesus can often be a hard slog. That’s not the case here. In theory this should be an easy environment in which to share your faith because everyone is already open to the supernatural. If more Christians could get past their fears and come here, they would meet people who are genuinely searching for God. As I make my way back to that shuttle bus, the words of a Christian volunteer on the Lumina stand ring in my mind: “Where would Jesus be – protesting outside, or reaching people inside?”
Sam Hailes is deputy editor of Premier Christianity magazine