New Ministries for Millennials

April 13, 2016
HDS students Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile
HDS students Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile / Photo: Justin Knight

Millennials hungry for deep connection are creating new spiritual communities even as they turn away from organized religion, the authors of two new studies said recently at Harvard Divinity School. As a result, secular groups are discovering the value of religious resources, and faith communities are innovating in new and unexpected ways.

The remarks by HDS students Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile—authors of the studies "How We Gather" (PDF) and "Something More" (PDF)—came during the morning session of the 2016 Dean's Leadership Forum. The event, held annually at HDS, brings thought leaders together with faculty, students, alumni, and friends of the School to explore issues in religion, ethics, and contemporary life.

Thurston and ter Kuile told the crowd in Andover Hall that "How We Gather," looked at secular organizations that provided an experience of community traditionally associated with religion. These groups included Daybreaker, an early morning dance party held in seven cities on three continents around the world; the Dinner Party, which convenes young men and women over potluck dinners to talk about the recent loss of a loved one and the ways in which it continues to affect their lives; and CrossFit, a fitness community that Thurston described as "a combination of agony and laughter."

Each group has similarities to traditional religious communities, Thurston and ter Kuile said. CrossFit's members are "evangelical" in their efforts to recruit friends to the group and also ritualize grieving with workouts named after the deceased. The Dinner Party is in many ways a reenactment of the Eucharist, with a focus on healing and spiritual accompaniment. Another group, the Millennial Trains Project is a kind of pilgrimage that actually launched with a blessing.

When Thurston and ter Kuile observed the parallels between these groups and religions, however, the leaders pushed back hard. The strongest reaction came, ironically, from the organization that had the most overtly religious name.

"We got a 'Hell no!' from [the fitness community] SoulCycle," ter Kuile said, eliciting laughter from the crowd. "We're like, 'Your name is SOULCYCLE. Your motto is 'Find your soul.' They said that it was more of a brand concept. It was remarkable how ill at ease they were."

The groups in "How We Gather" had something more in common than their aversion to religion: All worked in isolation from one another. As a remedy, Thurston and ter Kuile brought 50 leaders of these new secular communities together for a conference at Harvard Divinity School last fall so they could build relationships, learn skills, and share wisdom. The student researchers also brought ministers into the conversation from different religious traditions to share their own experience and best practices. The result, Thurston said, was that group leaders were able to move past their "knee-jerk reaction to religion."

"Over the course of the conference, leaders of the secular communities began to use, unbidden, the language of faith," she said. "At the end of our time, we did a closing circle. Usually people would name the things they were hopeful, afraid, and proud of. Person after person replaced the word 'hope' with 'faith'."

Angie Thurston, Casper ter Kuile, and Derek Van Bever
Angie Thurston, Casper ter Kuile, and HDS alum Derek Van Bever during a Q&A session. / Photo: Justin Knight

Inspired by the ways in which the members of these secular groups expressed a desire for spiritual community, Thurston and ter Kuile undertook a second study, "Something More," which explored innovation within organized religion. The students reached out to leaders across traditions and discovered Relevant, an online media hub for Christians in their 20s and 30s; Pop-up Shabbat, a kind of "movable feast" for millennial Jews; Buddhist Geeks, "an online community of Buddhist practitioners exploring how a 2,500-year-old lineage intersects with rapidly evolving modern technology"; and many other innovations as well. Thurston said that religious entrepreneurs are thinking creatively about how to invite the divine into everyday life.

"Across the board we noticed that these organizations are very adept at engaging and speak into people's lives with whatever language is resonant for them around God," she said.

Thurston, the president of the HDS Religious Nones, said that "How We Gather" and "Something More" had "unearthed a deeper yearning for spiritual practice," among their millennial cohorts. What's often missing, however, is not only a community to support that practice, but also a language with which to discuss it.

"There's not much cultural permission to open up a conversation that would include articulating something like spiritual practice," she said. "Millennials lack words that feel up to the job of articulating what they're going for and aren't fraught with baggage."

Ter Kuile, who came to HDS with an interest in activism more than religion, said he could identify with leaders of secular groups who don't think of what they do as ministry. After taking courses like "Introduction to Ministry Studies" and "Meaning Making," however, he realized that he could work more effectively for environmental justice within the context of the Unitarian Universalist community and also satisfy his own hunger for connection. He told the audience that, in this way, the increase in religious disaffiliation among millennials actually provides an opportunity, both for divinity schools and for the leaders of the groups that he and Thurston studied.

"The people we've been building relationships with are doing ministry," he said. "They would never have considered coming to Harvard Divinity School, but the core of what we offer is exactly what they need. In fact, some of the people who came to the conference last fall are applying to HDS because we're able to have conversations that people want to have, but don't know how to. We just need to talk about what we offer in way that people can hear."

Thurston closed by observing that, while they are turned off by organizations that demand adherence to a particular creed, millennials highly value the kind of diverse community she and ter Kuile have found at Harvard.

"HDS has created a microcosm of the world's religious traditions and asks us to engage with it," she said. "That couldn't be more imperative and relevant. It's an honest promise that you have a shot at being part of this community regardless of what your background is."

—by Paul Massari

See also: Religious Nones, Yes