May 30 2024

Field Trips in the Course on New Religions

by W. Michael Ashcraft, Truman State University

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946


In the fall of 1979, I was an MDiv student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and enrolled in a course taught by Dr. Bill Leonard entitled The Church and American Utopianism. One of the course requirements was a field trip on a Saturday morning to Pleasant Hill, a restored Shaker village near Lexington, Kentucky. I knew very little about the Shakers, and don’t remember being too enthused about the field trip, but once I was there I was overwhelmed by the reality of Shaker social life. The residential buildings had separate stairs for men and women. The dining room had tables for lots of people, and the kitchen was as institutional as antebellum culinary technology could get.

And then it hit me, hard: they lived this alternative lifestyle in the midst of an America that was heavily influenced by Protestant Evangelicalism, which did not approve of the Shaker way of life. How was it that these people could see such a countercultural arrangement as “normal”?

That question eventually led me into research on new religions (hereafter NRs), and became the guiding theme of my dissertation on another alternative religious movement. But it was the experience of the field trip that got me there. Had I not seen the restored Shaker buildings, and the furniture and other paraphernalia of their daily existence placed within those buildings, it’s quite possible I would not have been affected so deeply by the sheer otherness of Shakerism.

The experience of seeing, of being present bodily, was crucial to my transformation. Like many people, I learn visually. Although I was merely looking at the material remains of their community, that was enough, and the more that my other senses could be brought into play— smelling, tasting, hearing, touching—the more actively my imagination was engaged. As I walked up and down the stairs in communal homes, I thought about Shakers walking up and down those stairs, heading toward their jobs or to a meal or to worship.

Teaching Strategy

Field trips (or excursions or site visits) are journeys made by instructors and students to locations where they can interact in meaningful ways with subjects associated with a specific NR. Visiting NR sites raises some fundamental questions about what is acceptable religion and what isn’t. The field trip experience compels students to attend to what is in front of them. That act of attending then opens them, hopefully, to reimagining people or places, replacing whatever stereotyped images they had before the trip with more powerful, and usually more accurate, images.

I’ve led students on field trips for many years, visiting a variety of groups classified by scholars as NRs: Eckankar, the Unification Church, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Church of Scientology, Baha’i, Soka Gakkai, the Vedanta Society, Ahmadiyya, African American Spiritualist churches, Unity School of Christianity, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Transcendental Meditation, and Mormonism. I’ve taught at a private liberal arts college and now at a public liberal arts and sciences university. The majority of students at these institutions have been white, middle- and upper-middle-class, and from Roman Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, or Liberal Protestant backgrounds. They’ve been sheltered from the diversity of religious groups that comprise the American religious landscape. My course on NRs might be their first (and only) sustained and critical exposure to religious groups often portrayed in the media—as well as by the authorities in their own religious traditions—as strange and potentially dangerous. And so they embark on the field trip with understandable reservations and fears. Common questions students have before a field trip: What should I expect? Will they try to convert me? How can I avoid offending them? What do I do in the ritual or worship session?  What should I wear? Is it all right if I leave early?

Most NRs are fairly benign, especially when receiving visitors. The most danger that a student might be in, based on whatever distorted images of NRs they may possess, is that they’ll be “brainwashed” and their ability to make their own decisions rendered impotent. Proactive efforts on the part of NR members to connect with visitors can easily be misinterpreted through the brainwashing lens. That is a learning opportunity, however. If they have those fears, then before, during or after the trip are good times to open up assumptions about brainwashing prevalent in popular culture.

In answering these questions, I’ve tried different strategies. At times I haven’t told them anything in advance of the field trip, other than a few basic items of information like what to wear. Of course, with access to the Internet, students will probably find information if you don’t give them any. So I usually tell them the things I want them to know. You can’t control how much they might find online, and some of that online information may not be very reliable. So I give them what I consider reliable information. I ask them to read about the group or groups from scholarly sources. Sometimes we read and discuss online sources together. Comparing what the group says about itself with what their critics say about them can be very instructive.

I also tell them what I expect of them while on the field trip. Each instructor will have different expectations, but it’s reasonable to have the following at a minimum:

  • Keep an open mind.
  • Be respectful.
  • Ask questions.
  • Listen and observe.
  • Participate only as much as you feel comfortable, based on your own understanding of what comfort is.

I usually structure the field trip as a one-day journey to one or two, perhaps three, field trip sites, all located within the same urban area. It’s important to arrange these visits in advance. Most groups are prepared to welcome visitors and will provide a brief introductory lecture and perhaps a tour of their facility. Usually they also want to engage the students in conversation, not only to inform the students about their organization, but also to convert students to their worldview. Sometimes the field trip includes a ritual or worship experience that students are invited to observe and participate in. Before the field trip I stress several times that they do not have to participate any more than they feel comfortable.

After the field trip we debrief in class discussion for at least one or two sessions of an hour or so apiece. I encourage them to share whatever impressions and questions they have, from the most mundane to the most intricate. I’ve learned that different students react differently to the field trip.  I usually also assign a written piece of some kind. I’ve tried reflective essays and short term papers with notes. Anything that allows them to share their thoughts in a systematic way through writing is better than none at all.

Background and Theory

The field trip resembles ethnographic field work, though it is nowhere near as sustained as professional field work. In recent decades ethnographers have come to appreciate the reflexive nature of their work: Their presence in a setting impacts that setting— relationally, culturally, perhaps politically and economically as well. In turn, the subjects whom they observe and study impact them. The researcher is changed by the research experience, and these insights should be part of the written results of study.

The reflexive nature of the field trip can be illustrated by comparing it to other types of learning experiences commonly employed in college teaching. On a spectrum of learning activities used in college classes, the field trip is at the opposite end of the lecture. The lecture is instructor-controlled. The instructor directs the learning, at least formally, in the class, by controlling what is said in the lecture. Moving along the spectrum toward less instructor control, the learning activity that is used most commonly is in-class discussion. Students and instructors share in the course of learning. Then there’s the field trip, which could be characterized by the phrase “control dispersal.” Control is shared among the instructor, the students, the subjects or group being visited, the local social and cultural environment, even the relational context governing interactions between students and subjects. The environment of the field trip alters all who participate, including the students, who as infant ethnographers will be impacted by the field trip experience.

Another way I think of the field trip is through the idea of confession. People often want to tell you about their lives. They are eager to. Members of NRs are no different in this respect. If you care enough to visit them, they typically respond very favorably, even enthusiastically. In taking the field trip, you hope to hear what the lives of the subjects are like. That is, you hope that they will confess something important that you do not know. Just as confession happens within certain social or institutional settings, so the field trip usually occurs within certain boundaries, as well. Normally the trip includes observation of a ritual—perhaps attending a lecture or presentation—and definitely time spent, one on one, with people involved in the NR you’re visiting. The confessions you and the students will hear are somewhat apparent in rituals or other communal settings, but the most valuable ones come from individuals who reveal the selves they want you to see, and perhaps the selves they don’t want you to see, in individual interactions. These interactions are typically unscheduled: while waiting for the ritual to start or mingling after the ritual has concluded, while sharing refreshments or a meal, during chance encounters while searching for a bathroom or heading toward an exit or saying goodbye in a parking lot. During such experiences the students may have some of their most meaningful moments of the entire trip. They engage with NR members on a human scale, face-to-face, voice to ear, close enough to read nonverbal cues. The NR member might depart from their script in such moments and reveal intimacies to total strangers—the students—because they fear to reveal those intimacies to fellow members.

Here, then, lies the deepest value of a field trip: the near accidental, but always significant, encounter with someone whom the student assumes is an Other before the trip, but may discover afterward is startlingly human and known and familiar. For most of us, including our students, that requires seeing, tasting, smelling, hearing, touching. The more we are in face-to-face, real time contact with another, the more likely we are to drop the stereotypes we normally use to keep others boxed away from our familiar world.

Conclusions and Extensions

I hope that the field trip will rattle my students’ cages. There are two reasons for this. One is that I find it sheer joy to visit and talk with religious people whose worldviews and commitments are perceived by larger society as bizarre. When I was growing up, I felt like I never fit in. I thought that feeling was unique to me, but have since discovered it’s a common feeling. It’s reassuring and invigorating for me to discover others who don’t fit in either and seem content or happy (or not) in their alien status. I want my students to feel some of that joy as well. The other reason I hope a field trip will be unsettling is because I believe that discomfort can be a useful emotion for learning. I don’t want my students to feel pain, but I do want them to feel the ground shifting under their feet—“Here’s a group that thinks and does incredibly countercultural stuff, and they think it’s normal!  How can this be?” If the field trip can discombobulate them even a little, then maybe they will be inspired to learn what makes these NRs tick.

As an instructor, it’s my job to be on hand to help them move from unsettled to intellectually curious, and then from intellectually curious to tolerant and broad-minded. Early on in my teaching career I wasn’t very good at that. Students would return from field trips upset about some aspect of the NR they’d observed, and I would simply allow them to verbalize their feelings without further investigation. Later in my career I’ve improved somewhat. I require students to write a reflective essay on their experience, and in the debriefing sessions in class we focus on learning opportunities resulting from negative impressions that students had. Although I don’t recall doing this in a course on NRs, in the future when I teach this course I will capitalize on students’ discomforts and alarms, asking them to explore their feelings and pushing them to see the world from the viewpoint of the subjects they visited and apply any analytical and interpretive tools that could prove helpful.

How would a field trip to visit a NR be any different than visiting a synagogue, a church, a mosque, or any other religious site considered normal or mainstream by society today? Drawing on an adage that was useful when I was a pastor, and now a professor, the goal of a course like one on NRs can be summed up to some extent as “to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.”  The strangeness of NRs is far greater than the strangeness of more familiar religions for most students. An instructor teaching about NRs faces higher hurdles, I believe, than an instructor teaching about a more socially accepted religion such as Christianity or Judaism. Students tend to bring not only more stereotypes about NRs to a NR course than they do stereotypes about accepted religions, but the stereotypes are more volatile, more dramatic, and more distancing. Our culture has embedded the most violent of NR-related incidents, such as Jonestown and Waco, into a discourse that divides religion and religious people into dyads: safe vs. dangerous, sane vs. insane, healthy vs. unhealthy, kind vs. unkind, free will vs. determinism. NRs usually are located in the more negative components of these dyads. These influences from larger culture can be challenged using tools of critical thinking, and one of the ways to put those tools to use is by taking a field trip. To actually go to a NR site, meet NR people, talk to them, share a meal with them, share worship space and time with them—at the very least will complicate the student’s impressions of NRs, and perhaps even dispel some of those impressions.


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W. Michael AshcraftW. Michael Ashcraft is a professor of religion at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. He received his PhD in American religious history from the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. His first book was entitled The Dawn of the New Cycle: Point Loma Theosophists and American Culture, published by the University of Tennessee Press in 2002. He has edited and contributed chapters to collections and is the book review editor for Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. He is currently working on a book about the history of the study of new religious movements. He regularly teaches undergraduate courses on ethics, world religions, religions in America, gender and religion, method and theory in the study of religion, new religious movements, and peace studies. He is married to Carrol K. Davenport, an Episcopal priest and hospice chaplain. They have two daughters.

Header Image: Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky, September 15, 1946 (National Archives and Records Administration ARC Identifier 541335). Photo by Russell Lee. In the Public Domain.