St. Petersburg -- Blame Oprah. The Beatles. And Deepak Chopra.
They have fueled Americans' fascination with the New Age movement, says Watchman Fellowship Inc., a Texas group that focuses on new religious movements, cults, the occult and New Age beliefs.
The organization, described as an independent Christian research and apologetics ministry, recently presented a series of talks about "Counterfeit Christianity" at five Tampa Bay area churches. ("Apologetic" refers to a biblical verse commanding Christians to defend their faith.) Watchman Fellowship has lectured locally about Scientology, but this time, the organization targeted Jehovah's Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and the New Age movement.
Those are groups that deviate from essential Christian doctrines, "who is God, who is Jesus Christ and how does a person have their sins forgiven," James Walker, president of Watchman Fellowship, said during a telephone interview.
"I think that it's too bad that they are splitting people up and putting them in boxes instead of saying, "Isn't it wonderful that we all have an approach to God's presence in the world and that we are all seeking to bring a greater expression of God in the world?' " the Rev. Alan Rowbotham of First Unity Church said.
Unity is a New Thought religion, Rowbotham said.
"Sometimes, people call it New Age," but New Age often conjures up images of crystals and channeling, he said.
"Unity and other New Thought groups focus on the realization of the Christ within. ... We never put down other approaches. There are many paths to God. Unity is very Christian-based."
Walker, the Watchman Fellowship president, said his organization doesn't want to pick a quarrel with other religious groups but wants traditional Christians "to understand the differences and develop a strategy for reaching out and building bridges," he said.
"Oftentimes, even Christians don't have the best approach when they have the Jehovah's Witnesses knock on their door," Walker said.
"We're trying to go beyond that. We're trying to say, "What's the correct Christian response? Can we invite them in and make a pot of coffee?' "
Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormon missionaries appear at front doors "with an agenda," he said.
"What they are doing is, they are trying to help us. They are not being mean-spirited. So we should return the favor. Try to be a missionary to them."
Traditional Christians who adopt Watchman Fellowship's strategy are encouraged to arm themselves with accurate knowledge about alternate groups. During its visit to the area recently, the organization set up an extensive display of manuals and tapes at Northside Baptist Church. Included was the Parents' Handbook for Identifying New Age Religions; Beliefs, Psychotherapeutic Techniques and Occult Practices in Public School Curriculums; Changing Doctrines of Watchtower; and Witnessing to Mormons With the Book of Mormon.
The Rev. Dennis A. Wright, director of Utah Missions Inc., a division of Watchman Fellowship, spoke at Northside Baptist for four days. "Friends, you can talk to a Jehovah's Witness. You can talk to a Mormon," said Wright, who referred to Watchman Fellowship "tools" for easing such encounters.
The Jesus of Mormons and of Jehovah's Witnesses is not the Jesus of the Bible, he told a congregation of about 40 meeting for Northside Baptist's casual Saturday evening service Sept. 6.
Those whose beliefs have been labeled counterfeit are not terribly dismayed by this type of talk.
"We absolutely believe that we are Christian," said Joseph Meyers, president of the St. Petersburg Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"We generally figure that those who don't understand or are misinformed may take the label of "Mormon church' and misconstrue us. The correct name of our church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and our fundamental doctrines and beliefs are centered in Jesus Christ."
A Jehovah's Witness spokesman, Robert R. Mackey, said he refuses to be drawn into "doctrinal discussions that lead nowhere."
"We focus only on one thing and that's emulating Jesus Christ in our attitude and conduct, and we accept the responsibility he outlined in Matthew 24:14," Mackey said.
"Our work is a positive one, enlightening people of the times in which we live and of the promise contained in the Lord's Prayer that "thy kingdom come, thy will be done' will one day become a reality."
Jehovah's Witnesses "deny the doctrine of the Trinity" and have a concept of Jesus that's different from that of traditional Christianity, Watchman Fellowship's president said. They believe that God "created an angel called Michael, who was born in Bethlehem and became Jesus," he said.
Watchman Fellowship also points to the group's aversion to blood transfusions and its prophesies about Armageddon.
Walker, 48, one of five Watchman Fellowship speakers who came to talk at churches from St. Petersburg to New Port Richey, is a former Mormon. He said Watchman Fellowship helped him to make the transition to traditional Christianity. He first worked for the organization as a volunteer, then joined its paid staff in 1984. Ten years later, he became president.
Mormons believe that God was once a man on another planet who worshiped another god, Walker said.
"After his death, he was such a good man that the other gods allowed him to be a god," he said.
"He's God of planet Earth. There are other gods and other Earths. They teach that he is married, that there's not only a heavenly father, but there is a heavenly mother, and they teach that God and his wife have billions of spirit children through procreation."
Meyers, the local Mormon spokesman, said: "We do believe in a corporeal God, meaning a god that has a tangible body.
"We believe that Jesus has a tangible body today, a glorified resurrected body, and believe that the father also has a glorified resurrected body and that they will never die. We believe that the Holy Ghost is a personage of spirit."
As for New Age spirituality, Walker said it "borrows a lot from Asian religion, the belief in past lives and reincarnation."
He said the Beatles helped make these beliefs popular. More recently, he said, it has been Oprah and her promotion of "key New Age movers and shakers."