The People's Republic of Boulder

Twenty-six miles northwest of Denver is a mysterious, exotic place that many people call the People's Republic of Boulder.

Baby Boomers in Boulder are more likely to evolve into Buddhists than Baptists. Visitors to the downtown Pearl Street Mall may think they had strolled into an impromptu meeting of the World Parliament at Religions.

So some people chuckled back in 1991 when Bill Honsberger was appointed as a Conservative Baptist missionary to Colorado, and, in particular, to Boulder's new Age flocks. Obviously, the former deputy sheriff wasn't going to be a typical home, or even foreign, missionary. He was going to work in an alternative state of mind.

Today, the man that New Age Journal once labeled "Missionary Impossible" labors on, attending Hindu workshops, metaphysical fairs and meeting one-on-one with apologists for every imaginable brand of religion. But one of the toughest parts of his job is getting ordinary church leaders to realize that Boulder isn't all that unusual anymore.

"You can't find anyone, anywhere, who will admit to being a New Ager," said Honsberger. "Now, everybody's got their own brand of what's called `spirituality.' ... You have feminist spirituality and gay spirituality and environmental spirituality and people-who-pick-their-toes spirituality and you name it. It's one big pot of pluralistic soup."

Leaders of what were once mainstream religious groups haven't noticed that this potent blend of spiritual symbol and substance is soaking into daily life, he said. It's easy to joke about places such as Boulder or Berkeley, while ignoring seeds of religious change in shopping malls, schools and mass media.

"If the face of what was called the New Age movement has changed, that's because it has become the face of America," said Honsberger.

Truth is, missionaries everywhere work in an upside-down world. In the Third World, American movies, television shows, music and consumer goods rain down on eager consumers. And back at home, the world's religions are moving in next door or being channeled into the family room.

In Boulder, church leaders have to think like missionaries. They expect to have to defend their faith and to listen carefully as others freely defend their beliefs.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that one of America's fastest growing and most aggressive movements -- the Promise Keepers conferences for men -- began in Boulder. This week's National & International Religion Report carried news of another effort: a fellowship for Boulder clergy called "City Vision." The goal is to break down denominational barriers and to inspire Christians to pray for their city, instead of just condemning it.

The time for business as usual is past, said Honsberger. But out in middle America, many people haven't grasped that. Recently, he spoke in a rural Baptist church near of Omaha. He was surprised when, during a session with third and fourth graders, many eagerly said that they believed in magic spells, extra-sensory perception and spirits that dwell in the earth and sky. The children were surprised that he was surprised.

"The church has rules. Kids today reject rules. The church rejects immorality. Kids don't believe that immorality exists," he said. "What they want is a kind of faith that says you can be a spiritual person and literally do whatever you want -- no limits. After all, that's what they say on MTV."

Adults had no idea what he was talking about. Traveling back to Colorado, Honsberger said he was more "confused and depressed" than he had been at any point during his work in Boulder.

"Most people out there in our churches are happy in their ignorance -- even blissful," he said. "You can just see it in their faces. They're saying, `Naw, not around here.' For them, this is a non-issue."

Honsberger paused to think, then urgently continued: "We're not even asking the right questions anymore. Our churches are not in Jerusalem. It's like we're back in the world of the Greeks and the Romans. ... If we're serious, it's time to start asking people to promise that they'll forsake other gods."