Video: Religion for a New Generation

April 2, 2020
Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston
Casper ter Kuile, MDiv '16, MPP '16, and Angie Thurston, MDiv '16

Casper ter Kuile, MDiv '16, MPP '16, and Angie Thurston, MDiv '16, map and convene the Millennial leaders of spiritual communities at the forefront of religious change.

From CrossFit to dinner churches, Muslim small groups, and maker spaces, their work illuminates the rapidly shifting generational patterns in American religious life today.


Links Shared During the Webinar:

https://sacred.design/insights

https://formationproject.io/

https://soundcloud.com/harvard-divinity-school/noon-service-hosted-by-the-hds-episcopalanglican-fellowship

https://www.nunsandnones.org/

https://www.thesanctuaries.org/

https://hds.harvard.edu/news/2019/03/05/gomes-awards-honor-spiritual-innovation

FULL TRANSCRIPT:

Welcome, everybody. I'm Lori Stevens. I'm the associate dean for development and external relations at the Harvard Divinity School. And I'm so glad that you're all joining us tonight. I wish we could be together in New York like we originally planned. But I'm really glad we can gather virtually.

And we have the added benefit-- as you can see in the chat, by gathering virtually, we have friends joining us from Pakistan, Italy, and Denver, and farther away than we could have all gathered in New York. This is our first external relations webinar. So thanks for trying it with us. We welcome your feedback afterwards. I just started at HDS just over a month ago.

And already from day one was really struck by the strong sense of community here, but have particularly seen that through all the change and uncertainty in the past month and past several weeks. And just appreciate and admire the strong sense of community among our students, and faculty, our alumni, our friends, our staff. And thank you all for being part of that.

For tonight's gathering, we're thrilled to have Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile here to lead our discussion. They are Ministry Innovation Fellows at Harvard Divinity School as many of you know. And they are the co-founders of the Sacred Design Lab, which is a research and design consultancy working to create a culture of belonging and becoming. We hope that tonight will be an engaging conversation with all of you about the changing landscape of community and spiritual life.

Before we begin, I just want to put out the disclaimer that this webinar is being recorded just so you all know. And as soon as we're able, we'll share it more broadly through HDS website and our networks so that you can refer back to it. And with that, I will hand it off to you, Angie and Casper. Thank you so much.

Thank you so much, Lori.

Thanks, Lori.

And welcome. Yeah, welcome, everyone. It's so good to be here with you. And for all those who may be new to Zoom, it's very good to be with you here on Zoom virtually today.

For those who haven't yet discovered it, there is a chat box that's on the side of your screen. So you'll see a chat button at the bottom. And if you click that, there at the side will open up a panel where you can see people greeting each other from all over the United States and the world. And this is also a place that you can write questions or thoughts throughout the presentation.

So you'll notice that all of you are muted at the moment. And that's just for the sort of virtual hygiene of the space. It helps with the sound and everything like that. But we'd love to hear from you in the chat box, and we'll have a little time at the end of the presentation for some questions and responses. And we have an addition that if you'd like to make sure your message goes to the rest of the attendees and panelists, be sure to select all panelists and attendees when you make your comment. Is there anything else logistical, Casper, that we need to say?

Oh, I will just say it's lovely to see some familiar names here. We've got our Margaret, Ned, and Eileen, Kristen, Sheila, Nancy, Laura. Lovely to see you all. And for those of you who we haven't met before, I hope we'll leave this evening as friends. So, so glad to have you all here. Thank you.

Beautiful. So you'll see a change now as I start sharing my screen which has the presentation. So welcome, everyone. I know that we are here together under surprising and challenging circumstances.

So as we get started, I just want to make sure that everybody is able to ground themselves where they are. Maybe you put your feet on the floor if you're sitting or standing or your head back for a moment if you're lying down and just take a good breath wherever you are to ground yourself into the space that we're sharing together across distance but at the same time. And I will do the same.

Thank you and welcome. This is Religion for a New Generation. I'm Angie Thurston.

And I'm Casper ter Kuile.

[LAUGHTER]

And we are both proud graduates of Harvard Divinity School and Ministry Innovation Fellows.

In fact, Angie and I met in our very first seminar as graduate students way back in 2013 in, for those of you familiar with the curriculum, the compulsory class for MDiv students, Introduction to Ministry Studies. And for those of you who might have been through that class yourselves, you'll know that we start that class by telling our spiritual autobiography, kind of the story of your life seen through the window of the spiritual life. And as soon as Angie and I heard one another's, we said, oh, we should be friends little knowing that nearly a decade later we'd be working together still. So we've been forged by HDS in wonderful ways.

Exactly. One of the many great gifts of Harvard Divinity School has been our friendship and partnership in this work. So we're first just going to take you through some of the trends that may be familiar to you regarding shifts in generational religious identity and community. Whoops.

So as many of you may know in the United States, religious disaffiliation has been the trend generation over generation. So this graph shows that the younger you are in America, the less likely you are to be affiliated with an organized religion. And so you'll see there on the left side is the youngest Americans there at almost 40% unaffiliated. And that's really where our work has been located is getting to know millennials and members of Generation Z who are growing up and exploring meaning making, identity, religion, trying to understand what is driving them.

So here's just another graph that shows the percentage of each generation who identify their religion as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. Again, you'll see the younger millennials even higher than the older millennials. And that nothing in particular bracket is particularly important because it's actually quite a minority of these young Americans who self-identify as atheist or agnostic. The majority are in this broad and kind of nondescript category that's here written as nothing in particular. And we've really tried to understand what some of their leanings are.

And so the result of this huge shift is, first of all, an institutional crisis. We have more than 3,500 churches closing each year across the United States, 70% of non-Orthodox Jews who are marrying outside of the faith. And we don't have to tell you that trust in institutions of all kinds has been declining for quite a while. And so there's a real havoc within the institutional world of trying to understand and address these changing trends.

One of the things just to say about these trends is that very often when people look at religious decline, it's easy to tell a story of failure, of things that weren't done, or strategic missteps. But what we rarely point to are the broader trends within the culture that are pushing people away from institutions and towards a kind of individual pursuits in various ways. Now I will say in this moment, it feels like expertise is more important than ever. And so we might actually be at the beginning of a counter shift back towards trust within larger institutions. But within kind of the bigger trends over the last couple of decades, this is definitely the case.

Exactly. And so in addition to the institutional crisis, we have a series of cultural crises. So among the unaffiliated, there is a great deal of what might be called spiritual homelessness or a kind of spiritual longing, folks being unmoored. And so we have two and three of them believing in God or a higher power but not having a place to go to express that belief. We have 1 in 5 praying every day but doing so on their own, right?

And that's connected to a much larger cultural trend around isolation and loneliness across America. And as we're in this particular moment that's bringing us to be online instead of together in New York, of course, people around the world are contending with the realities of social distance in new ways. But even before the coronavirus, we were at a time when 1 in 4 Americans had nobody to talk to about what really mattered to them. 1 in 5 had only one confidant. So our distance from each other, our disconnection from each other was already rampant.

And, of course, this is connected to crises in people's personal experience, so climbing rates of stress, anxiety, and depression, suicide rates at a 30 year high. I promise the story will change after all of this. But we have loneliness at such a rate that it is reducing life expectancy at this point more than obesity or smoking. So there's a real crisis in terms of people's sense of personal disconnection and the toll it's taking on their mental health.

So one of the core arguments that we want to offer to you all, again, is not necessarily that the content of religious tradition, that these beautiful traditions that we inherit are somehow not fit for purpose. But that the distribution system no longer matches our cultural moment. And, in particular, when noticing a real generational difference just like those pew statistics that Angie shared right at the beginning illustrate, that there's a real, kind of a gaping chasm honestly between the traditions as we've embodied them within religious institutions and more and more young people. If you want to go to the next slide, Ang.

But the thing that we want to anchor for you is that the longing that was expressed in these religious traditions is as strong as ever. And the way that we talk about those longings are threefold. And we want to share with you and linger on these three words in particular because we found that these have been very effective words that conjure the kind of eternal wisdom and tradition that still resonates far beyond the kind of traditional religious sector.

So when we work with organizations that are inherently secular, whether they;re companies or civic organizations, these kind of words are safe to say but, nonetheless, unlock something much deeper. So the first word that will not be surprising to you is belonging. It feels more important than ever now to have rich relationships. We talk about being fully known and fully loved, that experience of feeling really richly enveloped in relationship.

And belonging isn't just about necessarily relationship with other people, but it's also relationship to place, to story, to a lineage across time. We think also about how belonging doesn't necessarily have to mean intimacy. It can also mean just a sense of comfort, familiarity with your neighbors, for example, or people who sing in the choir or play on the baseball team. So there's a real sense of belonging that is central to the human experience.

The second word that we like to think about is becoming. And this is really the idea that we grow our capacity to become the people we are called to be. So in a Christian context, this might be the word formation that some of you will be intimately familiar with. And in many ways, our culture is very, very focused on growth. You talk about kind of life hacks and all sorts of ways in which we can become the best version of ourself.

So it's very important for us that we place the belonging first and then becoming second so that we affirm people's existence and their goodness as they are. And then from there, there's this invitation to growth. As my favorite inner Southern Baptist likes to say, God loves you just the way you are, but too much for you to stay the same. So if you think about that sense of affirming and then invitation, that's really at the center of really how we're mapping what we see people's souls yearning for.

And then the final one, and you'll notice that they all do start with a B so they're easy to remember, is this idea of beyond, experiencing ourselves as something more. It's really striking from our research how often, especially people outside traditional religious communities, when they describe an experience of great kind of mystical power or the sense of transcendence, how often people will negate their own experience in their language. So they'll say things like I felt like I was connected to something bigger, or I felt like we were all one, or something like that, or whatever, right? There's this real lack of confidence in expressing these moments of ultimate meaning.

And so one of the things that's really important for us is using words like this to resource people so that they can name their own experience because as neuroscience has told us, if we don't have the words to describe our experience, we actually negate it. So for us, these three kind of eternal longings are really at the essence of what people yearn for, whether it's inside or outside of a religious tradition. And for us, what's been really interesting to see as one of these kind of big trends is how people are unbundling and remixing the gifts of tradition.

So by that I mean, for example, just as you might look on your phone, rather than having everything in one app-- for example, if you think about an old newspaper-- if 50 years ago you looked on train, people were commuting into work. They would have the daily news, the sports headlines, the markets. You'd have perhaps some personal ads, secondhand items that were for sale, all sorts of services that were fulfilled by that one object.

Well, today, all of those kind of offerings have been unbundled into specific apps so that you can build exactly the kind of iPhone that you want with all the different services. So say, example, you're a big puzzler. You can have all the puzzled things on there that you want. And if you don't care about sports news, well, you don't have to put the sports up in your phone. So what we're seeing is people are doing the same thing with their religious and spiritual lives.

So if you think about what religious communities perhaps used to provide and still do of course for many, many people is the idea of obviously spiritual practices, moral education, prayer, worship, rites of passage, all of these things, and in some contexts even education, health care, certainly a sense of shared story. But, nowadays, we're seeing especially younger people finding all of these different kind of value offerings in different places.

So we hear endless stories of people saying, well, really the place where I find connection with the great beyond is in hiking. I love being in nature. That's really the place for me. But I also do yoga.

And, sure, for the high holy days, we go to my husband's parents' house and celebrate by going to services. Or I'm married to someone who was brought up Hindu, but we celebrate Christmas. And, also, really where we experience connection is in mahjong club, whatever it is. So you're seeing a kind of mixing and kind of remixing of these different places to form an individual unique set of experiences and communities.

However, the downside of that is the more it becomes personalized, the less it's shared. And so that's one of the drivers for us that's been pushing towards this theme of social isolation.

And I'll just add the way that that's really shown up. We've seen it amongst our peers at Harvard Divinity School and since graduating. That increasingly as students come into HDS, either they don't have a clear identity that they can name on their application when it comes to their religion, or they have multiple religious identities. Or they have multiple religious identities, and those identities don't fully capture the extent by which they're drawing on different streams in order to fill their spiritual lives. So that's become a real challenge.

If you speak with Kerry Maloney, who's directing the religious and spiritual life, it's like, well, how do you have a noon service if you don't have the Methodists, and the Lutherans, and the Baptists? If it's a whole bunch of people who have this whole mixture of things, what is it that brings them together? How did they cohere, and how did they form community?

So I'm curious. If you have access to the chat box, I'd love to hear if this is resonant in your experience, whether you're seeing this perhaps your own life, the life of your children, or other friends and family that you recognize. And in the meantime, we'll keep moving through.

So our work really started by looking at-- as these major trends were happening, Angie and I were really interested in saying, OK, well, then maybe young people are not going here, but where are they going? And so we spent a number of years really looking around into it, first of all, of friends, with friends of friends and, then much further beyond, looking at what were the places where people were going to find belonging, becoming, and this connection to beyond. And so here are just some logos of some of the communities that we encountered.

And you can even see just by the logos, and the color palettes, and the shapes that there's a very kind of consistent visual language even within these trends. So we're going to tell you about a couple of communities like this. But you see adult summer camps like Camp Grounded. You see fan communities like the Harry Potter Alliance. You see fitness communities like November Project and SoulCycle.

But more than any when we ask people where do you find belonging, there was one very surprising answer, which was CrossFit. Now I wonder if any of you are CrossFitters. This, of course, is a sort of fanatical fitness community that's famous a little bit for its evangelism. I always like to say how do you know if someone does CrossFit, went to Harvard, or is vegan? They tell you.

[LAUGHTER]

People are not afraid to tell you about CrossFit. CrossFit is not just a place like a gym where you go and use the kind of fitness machinery. It's oriented around classes that happen same time every day. And so people will show up here not just once a week but 3, 4, 5, 6 times a week. It really becomes the social hub of people's lives.

The workouts are inherently social. You often start, for example-- before the class begins, everyone introduces themselves, just says hello. This was the highlight of my weekend. People work out together in pairs. Often the workouts are designed to be shared.

But what's really striking is the kind of religious elements that happen within a CrossFit class. So, for example, different workouts are named after fallen soldiers or service people, so an individual workout that will happen across each of those fitness communities of which there are now 15,000 CrossFit gyms around the world. There's a sort of culture of honoring the dead.

When people care for one another, if someone needs a ride to the hospital or someone is diagnosed with breast cancer, people organize GoFundMes. People organize moms and babies workouts. There are talent nights. There's beers on a Friday evening. There's going away parties if someone's moving to a different city.

And when we interviewed one of the co-founders, Greg Glassman, he came to the Divinity School, and we provocatively called the event CrossFit as Church?! He used the most remarkable language, talking about I'm not trying to build a skyscraper. I'm trying to shepherd a flock. I'm trying to tend an orchard.

And so even though this is a private company, he used very pastoral language to describe the responsibility he felt. And, of course, they all gather in one kind of pilgrimage-esque experience once a year for the CrossFit Games. So once we started to put these lenses on of looking at these communities, and this is just one example, we started to see a lot of sort of religious behavior come through. And so much so that people are getting married and having their funerals in spaces like this.

When a loved one dies, they are approaching their fitness trainer to ask about guidance that really you would expect to ask a spiritual leader. And, of course, none of these folks have been trained for that kind of experience. So I'm sad to say that sometimes it goes horribly wrong in terms of the relationship between a trainer and a congregate.

One example that still sticks with me is we interviewed a SoulCycle instructor who said, well, just this Sunday someone texted me at 4:00 PM in the afternoon and said, should I divorce my husband? That's not what you expect to do when you're training to be--

Not what she was trained for.

No, exactly, exactly. So all of this to say we know just how more and more that especially younger people were bringing that kind of religious spiritual lives to these secular institutions.

Right. And that's important to note that all of those-- all of these communities that we're finding, these are all secular communities. So despite the fact that there are places filling these eternal longings, the longings of the soul, that they're nominally secular. So that's part of what made it so remarkable to Casper and me as we started doing this work together is reaching out to these leaders, asking about their work and what people were finding in these spaces and more and more discovering that both the language they used for it and the content of what was actually going on felt so deeply religious. Go ahead.

Oh, I was moving on to The Dinner Party. Is that right? So one other example, just a very different structure, is The Dinner Party. This is a community again for people in their 20s and their 30s mostly who are gathering around the table to share a meal, having experienced significant loss. So often it's younger people who've lost a parent, perhaps a sibling, or another loved one.

And Lennon Flowers, who co-founded this community with friends, said for her bringing up the fact that her mother had died when she was in her early 20s was kind of a conversation killer, especially around the holidays, Thanksgiving, Mother's Day, things like that. She just wanted to talk about life through this lens of loss. And so she got together with some friends who had a similar experience, and, very quickly, the idea spread to hundreds of tables as they describe it now.

So there's hundreds of these micro communities that gather usually once a month or so to share a potluck meal, gather at someone's table, and just be together. And it's not necessarily a sort of grief group. It's really a space for people to talk about their life after loss. That's the phrase they use, life after loss. So if you maybe have a new job, maybe you have a new partner, what does it look like through that lens of the experience of loss?

And The Dinner Party, I mean, you'll see the echoes already. Of course, elements of small group ministry. You'll see a lot of ritual sharing of food, spiritual accompaniment, again, memorializing of the dead, but, also, kind of in moments of distress.

For example, one of the host of one particular table very sadly took their own life. And Lennon, who was running the national and now global network, suddenly was flying out to be in the city where this table met. And very much in a sort of priestly, rabbinic role, accompanying people through a second loss.

And what's really interesting-- and The Dinner Party has been particularly good at this. Just as you'd expect congregations to look beyond themselves towards the wider civic landscape, so, too, The Dinner Party amongst others is doing the same. So after the election in 2016, The Dinner Party joined with a couple of other organizations to launch The People's Supper wanting to use the same sort of technology of dinner to bring people together across the political divide.

So they've done incredible work bringing people across the red, blue landscape to sit down and share a meal and to connect as human beings first before talking politics. And you see this too with other organizations getting involved whether it's advocacy around housing in the cities where they are. CrossFit famously is very active on countering the sugar lobby, so especially the soda industry, and even having politicians come and give stump speeches in their physical gyms to mobilize their communities around particular bills that are passing through legislative. So it's really interesting to see that these are not just communities that look inward. They're really engaging with questions certainly of charity and sometimes of justice as well.

So this was so remarkable for Casper and me to kind of become aware of. And we found ourselves suddenly getting to know all of these community leaders who were leading, again, these nominally secular communities that were doing these religion like things and these leaders being treated as essentially pastoral figures in their communities. And the more we went looking for innovative things happening, especially along generational lines, the more we also got to know leaders who were holding a religious identity, and yet we're doing things that were a little bit outside of the mold of their particular tradition. So whether that was online Buddha sanghas, or Muslim small groups, dinner churches, something called Pop-Up Shabbat, these very innovative expressions of tradition.

And so the more we got to know these folks, the more they started articulating how because they were doing things that were either outside of the box or in a box they didn't even know they were in, they were feeling lonely in their leadership. And so we started gathering them. And so here is one picture of some of these community leaders at Harvard Divinity School on steps that you probably recognize. And we just started asking them what do you need in your work? Because, again, we had this heart for rising generations.

We were seeing these large scale trends and changes in people's religious affiliation, seeing the loneliness that resulted from them cobbling together a spiritual life without a community context. And so we really had and have a lot bested in these leaders who are bringing people together and allowing them to explore those soul needs, right, those belonging, becoming, and beyond as we discussed. And so it was fascinating to learn some of what they needed and what they were experiencing.

So we learned from them that they're basically creating what they don't have and can't find. Oops, sorry. That so many of them founded communities because they themselves were going looking for whatever their community turned out to offer. And so that's part of what made it so tricky that they ended up filling these pastoral roles is because people would come bringing their whole lives to these communities, right?

So many of these younger people being cut off from community in their own lives are suddenly like, great, as Casper said, right, I'll go to my SoulCycle instructor with this question about one of the biggest decisions in my life. And so here you have all of these really good hearted leaders who are filling roles they were not trained for. And yet what was also fascinating to find is that part of what put them in a position to even be able to imagine the communities they then created was that many of them themselves had grown up in religious contexts experiencing the best of religious community.

So they were the pastor's kids and the kids who had grown up going to Jewish summer camp, right? These were leaders who had what we talk about as the spiritual imagination to actually build community beyond what their peers were experiencing. And so, basically, they need all the things that someone in a role like that would need as we know from getting trained in ministry. And they don't have access to it. So they need not to be alone, right?

They need peers along this journey. They need training and authorization as Casper said. Often things can go very wrong when you have those kinds of power dynamics and you're not anticipating it. They need mentors and elders. That's ended up being a huge part of our work that we would never have seen coming is just the extent to which we've tried to facilitate intergenerational relationship and particularly relationship centered around spiritual accompaniment of young leaders.

They need water from the well in the sense of spiritual formation, in the sense of being able to nourish themselves spiritually so that they can then nourish others. And they definitely need financial models that work. And this comes up again and again when there are no denominational structures to support what they're doing or when the denominational structures as they are are not fit for purpose as a match for what these new communities are creating. And then that also, of course, has impact on what's needed in terms of institutions.

So Casper and I coming at this work ourselves as unaffiliated millennials had the great surprise and ultimately the great gift of getting to know many religious leaders within institutions and denominations, theological schools, and foundations because folks were interested in what was happening in rising generations. And so we learned a few things in those contexts too. We learned that many of these folks in leadership positions are afraid that what they love is disappearing and ashamed or experiencing a whole range of other emotions about not being able to protect or preserve it, right?

And so that can lead to this challenge of-- it can be tempting to double down on what we know and to try to improve what we know because that at least can lead to a sense of making progress, whereas what's often needed in relation to this whole landscape that we've been exploring is to actually create things that are new in the sense that we don't know how to do them and they're serving people that we don't already know. And so that's the challenge of improving versus creating that is very difficult for many institutions to unravel. And, of course, insofar as they are institutions, there are then structural obstacles to change.

And so it's been really interesting because at the same time, it's become so evident to us just the depth and necessity of the riches of tradition that are bound up within these institutions and within these streams of wisdom that have come down through centuries. And when there are leaders who are stewarding those riches who have themselves very deep spiritual lives, we've been astonished at what can happen, what can happen when there is transformative generosity in relationship to these fledgling and emerging forms. And so that's ended up being in many ways kind of our rallying cry and part of our mission in our work is how do we bridge ancient wisdom that is so desperately needed in these times with all of these emergent expressions of what's happening now?

And that is the challenge we face in our work. It's a challenge that Harvard Divinity School is facing and that so many other entities and institutions that are part of this landscape are trying to contend with. Casper is there anything else you would want to add to that?

Well, I want to leave lots of time for questions because I know all of you will have insights that will stimulate thoughts for us as well. But maybe one thing just to say about what this looks like for HDS in particular. We've been extremely lucky that when nearing graduation we went to the dean and said, David, if we find the money, can we stay and continue this work? Because it was started as a research project. And the dean very generously said, yes, absolutely.

So we could then go out into the world and say, hello. Harvard would like to partner with you. Give us some cash, which was wonderful to be able to really just continue where this thread was leading us. And what it's led to since is a really wonderful collaboration between various members within HDS and us. We've involved faculty in our gatherings.

Students I think are often very engaged with these kind of questions because it's very much about taking what people learn in the classroom and applying it then into this world that we're living in. And as Angie said, more and more students are coming to HDS like me, either without a religious tradition as a background or kind of a mishmash. And HDS is still unique, absolutely unique when you look at the landscape of divinity schools.

Angie and I always say we would never have met anywhere else. It's just very unlikely we would have been there. And so it really feels like our job titles are somewhat invented. We call ourselves Ministry Innovation Fellows. But our job is to kind of scout into the landscape and try and bring some of those insights into the curriculum, into I think questions about how to attract new students, how to meet the needs of those students.

Honestly, it's a great honor that we get to be part of the HDS family out in the world. So I know each of you have been involved with the school in different ways. So thank you for that. But why don't we open it for questions, Ang. And then we can talk a little bit more.

Yeah, let's do. So maybe if you want, you can just take a moment to reflect on this monologue that we've delivered together and just what it's brought up for you in what we've shared resonates with you or experience or maybe the experience of people you know. What about it do you find provocative? And then, certainly, what questions you have now? I think I may actually stop sharing my screen for a moment just to take a look at what is going on in the chat.

Great. In fact, I see a very, very interesting question from Melinda who asks as a Gen Xer working in organizational development, seeing how more and more especially younger employees are coming to the workplace with perhaps unreasonable demands of their workplace-- they're looking for values driven, connection to meaning. They're looking for social relationships, safe spaces for nearly therapeutic care.

This is very, very resonant with our experience as well, Melinda. And, in fact, in our work now-- as I said, we started out as a research project, started to develop some of our own kind of small projects. And now we do some consulting to try and apply that wisdom at scales that we would never achieve on our own. And we're working, for example, with-- one client is Pinterest.

In the middle of Silicon Valley, very cool, sexy brand to which a lot of young people are coming to work. And they're in the midst of building their new headquarters and have asked us to work with the architects to design physical spaces that would enable more social connection and meaning-making. So we've been thinking about rituals in the workplace. We've been thinking about how do you help people come into small groups of where they have more of that social safety, social connection outside of their team.

Because exactly as Melinda saying, as people don't find that elsewhere in third spaces outside of their workplace or their home, there's a real hunger for that wherever people can find it. And so you see it in whether it's meditation and mindfulness programming that's coming more and more in the workplace or even if you think about ethical formation. Where do most Americans learn about questions of gender and race? It's in trainings from HR in their workplace.

So I think the workplace is going to continue to be a real site of spiritual activity if you can use that phrase. I think it's a very astute question. Absolutely.

Yeah. And it's a philosophic question, right? Because a lot of our work has just been to notice what is happening. And then with a sort of ministerial orientation toward wanting people to flourish, it's been, OK, how do we strengthen what's happening so that they can find it, so hence the work at Pinterest. But, of course, it is a very real question about whether those things should be happening at a workplace.

The reality is just that it is. So part of our inquiry has been, well, where could this all be happening? And if not there, then where else? I think that connects to Edwards question about what impact COVID-19 isolating may have on the emergence of other virtual communities?

Because that's been another real area of interest to us and certainly something that is happening in rising generations already is so much of their time and their life and their relationships are happening in virtual spaces so much so that we ourselves ran a pilot for a year that I can put in the chat called The Formation Project, which was all about trying to help support people in spiritual formation at distance. And that ran all the way through October. But what we've noticed in the time since is just how much more acute even before COVID-19 but then certainly since it has been people turning to online spaces not as a replacement for real-life spaces but because in many cases, they don't have a real-life space, real life as it were, an in-person space.

And so more and more communities that are just taking distance to be a reality are saying, OK, let's just use the medium of the internet to facilitate from the start. And that was how our pilot was. It just started being online, and more and more are doing that. So I think absolutely it's kind of creating a mass kind of familiarizing with these tools. And then our hope is that people will apply their creativity to using them in service of their spiritual lives.

Wonderful. I'm going to draw on Harlow's question. Harlow asks, are there common elements of organized religious traditions that mean that people don't seek them out? What draws someone, for example, more to a CrossFit for their spiritual needs than a Methodist church? And thinking in generalities, not those specific examples.

That's a really great question. There's definitely some trends that we've seen in that case. One of them is that there's a real-- the ultimate millennial word is authenticity. And so one of the things that contributes to that feeling of is this an authentic thing is the idea of not just consuming something but co-creating it. So we've seen really effective designs that allow people to be part of creating the thing that they're experiencing.

Now that doesn't just have to be in secular spaces. One of the most interesting kind of religious communities around at the moment is in Denver, which was set up by Nadia Bolz-Weber, of course, famous Lutheran preacher and pastor called the House for All Sinners and Saints. And the way they do their liturgy is very, very, very participative even though it is a very ancient liturgy. So that's one of the things that people often look for is how can I be part of creating it? It shouldn't be too perfect. It shouldn't be too ready-made.

But there's also a really interesting theme, and I think the fitness communities are important to look at for two reasons. One is that they are much more financially sustainable than many other of these new communities that we've seen because they essentially sell something that people know that they should want, right, this idea of being healthy, being fit, having a hot body. That's something that our culture really prizes.

And so people know that that's something that they should want. But the more interesting theme is that they push us beyond our daily niceties. And I think one of the kind of hesitations for a lot of people outside of religious institutions is this sense of shallowness or fakeness. It's not really real or gritty. And when you've been sweating next to someone for an hour and you're absolutely disgusting, there's not really any hiding anymore.

And the most famous example of this is the hill climb, the penultimate song in the spin class at SoulCycle where everything's dark. There's little candles on the stage. The music is overwhelmingly loud. It's kind of battering your senses. And you're absolutely physically exhausted.

Then they turn on a ballad. You dial up the resistance on the bike, so you're cycling really slowly. You're pushing really hard. And everyone starts crying. And it's just this moment of kind of catharsis, of release.

And there's an experience for people of intimacy and connection with one another through their physical bodies, which is much, much harder to get to just through our intellects or unless we're really moving our bodies. So I think one of the themes definitely that I would point to Harlow is this sense of embodiment. Are there practices that are really physical?

And, of course, there's many, many religious traditions that have those elements, whether you think of walking and pilgrimage or the aesthetic disciplines. So in the Jewish context, for example, you've seen the re-emergence of the mikvah, of the ritual bath in a very interesting progressive way not just marking kind of ritual purity around menstruation but also now allowing people to mark a gender transition, or a graduation from college, or a divorce. And it's become enormously popular within the kind of progressive Jewish sphere. So just really thinking about that embodiment I think is another theme to look at.

Absolutely. I will turn to Jennifer Cleveland's question. She asks how Harvard offers those noonday prayers when people come from so many backgrounds and also just identifying the challenge of being caught in the improving versus creating? And I imagine others may be there as well. I will put in the chat here the latest noon service which is now being recorded as a podcast because like everyone else, HDS is now going online.

And so it'll give you an example. But as many of you know, the noon service-- it's offered from a different religious tradition every time. So they just go all in on that tradition.

And that's part of what's made it challenging lately when you have so many people with a multiplicity of traditions. So Casper and I co-founded the Harvard Divinity School Religious Nones, N-O-N-E-S, student group while we were there, which was attempting to create community around that multiplicity of identity. But that is definitely a work in progress.

The other thing I'll put in the chat is this is a link to our website and the six reports that we've written over the last five years or so. And one of them is called Faithful. And Faithful is about-- its face is religious institutions, and it's very much about that challenge of improving versus creating. So for anyone who's kind of sitting in a religious institutional role and trying to navigate change, this is some of what-- we worked with some folks who were in that position in writing that piece to try to give examples and lift up ways that people were approaching it in different contexts.

I might just jump on that, Angie. Henry asked the question about can mainline or mainstream churches respond programmatically to build their membership? And, Henry, this is one of the difficult answers I'm afraid that we'll have to give. But that orientation of seeking to bring people into what exists is a really, really difficult thing to do. In fact, I would say it's fundamentally flawed.

And the invitation that we always offer to congregational leaders and denominational leaders is instead about thinking to come alongside what is happening out there because when we orient kind of the locus of what we want to build as what already exists, there's a reason people rejected it in the first place. So it's very, very hard to persuade people that this is going to be what they want. And instead what we would recommend is to go out into a local community and see what are the places of new and unexpected meaning-making, communities, spiritual practice.

Just look up the Meetups that are happening, for example, in your town or local neighborhood. And you'll see an explosion of things that are happening that often are desperate for spaces to meet, are a hungry for mentors let alone the kind of resources that can come with a trusting relationship. And we see really wonderful collaborations and new things come out of that.

Most famously, a project called Nuns & Nones that brings together unaffiliated millennials with Catholic sisters mostly in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. And there are now groups across the country that bring these two groups together who you would never think had something in common. And, of course, within meeting one another over the course of a couple of hours, completely fall in love with each other because they share a vision for the world, a hunger for justice, a passion for community.

And there's all sorts of great projects that have started out locally where each of those groups meet out of that kind of connection. So it's really about shifting the orientation from come and join me to how can I be of service to you. That's a really fundamental shift.

So Katie Seltzer is asking the million dollar question, no pun intended. I'm curious if you have found some of your for-profit clients commodify religion, which can lead to loss of authenticity because these practices are in a for-profit setting instead of their setting of origin? And, Katie, I think this will be a dynamic--

Yes, Indeed.

--tension in our culture and our work probably for the rest of our lives. I mean, on the one hand, absolutely, right? I mean, SoulCycle is $34 a class. CrossFit is no joke in terms of what it costs to have a membership. And, of course, whether it's Pinterest or what have you, right, we have this for-profit landscape that a lot of these religion-like practices and experiences are showing up in.

And, of course, that means that that can be experienced by some and not by others. And then on the flip side, you have a situation where we have all of these religious traditions and institutions that are losing membership, right? And so there are all of these people who are trying to figure out where to go. And that's where the tension lives for us is out of this sense of we want people to experience that which is going to help their soul to thrive across the board.

And we're existing in a context at least in the United States of capitalism which has been entangled with religion all along. But we're seeing that kind of express itself in new ways. It's one of our favorite questions actually to try to explore is what will be the financial models of the future that will make it possible to actually create the world we our hearts dream of, right? Because at this point, we haven't figured it out, as it were.

There are a lot of beautiful expressions. There are a lot of complicated expressions. There are a lot of problematic expressions of spiritual life going on right now. We would love for more of the population to have access to what is going to help them to thrive. And that's going to take some serious innovation and probably some serious reshaping on a structural level.

One of the things Casper and I talk about a lot is the desire for the religious infrastructure of the future. Right now, so many of these community innovators do not have health insurance, do not have sustainable financial models. So we're really eager to figure out what wisdom we can bring to bear from across our traditions and from the current moment that will allow for a sustainable future for people to be able to access religious life.

Ned raises a really important question. Do these innovative initiatives bring people together across class, racial, and ethnic boundaries? Very, very often, the new projects start when someone experiences a need, goes looking for it, doesn't really find something that speaks to them, and then creates it themselves. And the first person they draw in-- well, the first people they draw into the project are their friends.

And as everyone is very familiar, most of us have friends that look, and sound, and are from places like us. And so very, very often, these new community start and having energy and having lifeblood. And maybe after a year look around and say, oh gosh, everyone looks and sounds the same. We don't want it to be like that. How can we make it better?

And it's often already too late because you've then created a culture to which other people who look at this community will say, oh, that's not for me. Or like, oh, wow, that's really for me. So this is a real, real challenge.

I think some of the best examples of people who've done this very, very well-- one of them, Ned, you'll be very familiar with was The Sanctuaries in DC. This was what they called a diverse arts community with soul led by an HDS graduate who was a Unitarian Universalist minister but was very, very expansive in building that community and very intentional about not having one physical place where he brought the community together across the DC area. Because knowing that if you choose this place, those people are going to know it's not for them.

And if you choose this place, these people will know it. They'll know it's not for them. So he was very intentional about building a very multiracial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-everything leadership team and places to meet. Now, sadly, The Sanctuaries really struggled to build a financial model that worked. And so for us it's particularly sad because it's one of the best examples of a multiracial organization.

I think class might even be more difficult. So you're absolutely right to ask that question. And I think, again, this is one of the things that communities can learn from religious traditions because at their best, a congregation is really a place where we sit next to someone we would otherwise never meet. It's absolutely a challenge for a lot of these new community leaders.

Well, I know we have only a minute.

Ang, I can't hear you. But now I can.

OK, great. I know we have only a minute left or so. So we have such a beautiful question from Ann Braude about who will be the mentors of the next generation when those trained within traditions have passed. And that connects to Nicole Wood's question, just more about this infrastructure and how do we empower more people to receive spiritual care and belonging. I can certainly say that those questions are at the heart of what we're dedicated to.

So I hope that we will have things to point you to in the coming years as examples. We did an elder pilot for instance as one for Ann that was just an experiment in connecting elders and mentors to these rising generations. But we know it's going to be vital in everything that we do going forward. And we hope that so many of the communities we try to support will do as well.

So sacred.design is the website where we can be found in that ongoing work. We have a newsletter that we put out once a month or so that will keep you apprised of everything that we're up to. And I will turn it over to Lori.

All right. Thank you so much, Angie and Casper, for leading this presentation, this discussion. And thank you to everyone for being part of this. We'll share the recording of this webinar as soon as we're able. And we're also going to send out a survey in the next few days just to get your feedback on what you thought about this discussion, what you're interested in hearing more about through our virtual events.

And then I just also want to encourage you to stay connected to the HDS community virtually during this time and always, but especially during this time. On the HDS website, there are links to spiritual resources that might be valuable to you and that you could share with your communities. For alumni, there's a new Facebook group for alumni and alumnae that you can join and stay connected. And just stay connected with all of us and with Casper and Angie. And more to come. Thank you very much, and stay well.

Thanks so much, everyone. Have a good evening.

Thank you, everyone. Be well.

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