How We Gather

Dec 18, 2018

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The fastest growing religion in America, is no religion at all! Religious disassociation is a trend being led by Millennials - the most plugged-in, racially diverse, and (apparently) least religiously affiliated generation in American history. So if they aren’t showing up in churches, then where are they gathering? To answer these questions, we talk to Angie Thurston, the Director of Formation at the On Being Impact Lab about “How We Gather,” a groundbreaking report she co-authored profiling new forms of social and spiritual connection.


Angie: I guess have been spiritual from the youngest age I can remember, and I've always been guided by these questions of what does it look like to become closer to the sacred or to that experience of connectedness to all and what does it mean to become more useful to other beings along the way. So, those have been some of the guiding questions throughout in terms of who I am. I don't know that I have answers to them, so much as a deepening of the questions and what they mean.

And then, I am currently the Director of Formation for the On Being Impact Lab, so I get to focus a lot on the very things I just described of what is the nature of spiritual deepening and how do we foster it. I'm also a Ministry Innovation Fellow at Harvard Divinity School, and I got into that by virtue of kind of asking these questions in the midst of all these changes that we're seeing in the religious landscape and in the community landscape. Especially in the United States, where we have a crisis of isolation and a lot of emerging communities rising up to try, and meet people as we contend with so much change.

Jeff: We live in this place of great global connection, but local isolation. I know that you've taken kind of a deeper look at the millennials and their disassociation with more typical institutional religion, but at the same time, they're feeling the same needs for spirituality and connection. Can you unpack a little bit of that for us and maybe talk a little bit about the "How We Gather" report that is just fascinating?

Angie: So for context as you noted, at least in the United States, there is an every accelerating phenomenon of religious disaffiliation, which is to say, people more and more are identifying themselves as outside the boundary of any clear religious community or identity. And so, when asked on a survey about which box do you check, which religion do you identify with, more and more people are saying, none of the above. So that's part of why this phenomenon is sometimes called the Rise of the Nones, the N-O-N-E-S. On a national level, the younger you are, statistically in the US, the more likely you are to be unaffiliated.

And so, that phenomenon, sometimes it's portrayed as one of secularization, which is to say, "Oh, well everyone is just becoming more and more atheist or more and more agnostic in their beliefs." And to some extent this is true. Certainly amongst the "Nones", there are quite a number who would self-identify with that language.

But there's a much more nuanced story here, which has to do with people's disaffiliation from organized religion, not necessarily meaning a lack of spirituality or a lack of interest, particularly in meaningful community and meaningful experiences of belonging.

And so, the "How We Gather" report that I wrote with Casper Ter Kuile a few years ago, was really an exploration of where are people finding meaningful experiences of belonging, particularly outside of a religious context, explicitly, and what are some of the experiences that they're having there. And so, we spoke with leaders of communities from across sectors, so whether that was fitness communities like Crossfit and SoulCycle or makerspaces like Artisan's Asylum or communities around grief and loss like the Dinner Party or justice movements or gaming communities or even morning dance parties, adult summer camps.

Just all these proliferating, emerging communities that had a lot of DNA that we started to see in common and that we really started to identify as coalescing around six themes. That basically came down to personal transformation; social transformation, the way those two interact; the activation of creativity; a sense of purpose finding; accountability, which was an interesting one we could explore just around people holding each other accountable to being who they want to be; and then this community.

Jeff: So we’re disassociating from religious institutions, but at the same time we're wired for connection, right?

Angie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeff: But now we kind of don't have that place to go, that maybe our parents or our grandparents did, right?

Are you seeing the rise in some of these other kinds of community groups, in a way of addressing that need to be connected around shared values and shared practices in a way that actually also provides some continuity, the way people went to church on every Sunday?

Angie: Totally. I think what's been fascinating is just the extent to which those needs they're showing up. So after writing how we gather, we started gathering the leaders of the communities that we were getting to know.

One of the startling things that we noticed across the board was that even if the people in leadership had gone into the work, as they often did, trying to meet a need in their own lives, right?

Feeling disconnected, desiring greater connection, usually around something in particular. And had expected to take on this leadership role that would allow them to experience community and connection, they ended up in a leadership role that became more and more pastoral. Because people were bringing their whole lives into this community.

So you have people asking their Soul Cycle instructors to officiate their weddings, and holding their funerals in the Crossfit box. And texting the director of the Maker Space at 3:00 AM to ask him about if he can come in because you're thinking of self-harming. I mean, it's the highs and lows across the board that these leaders were coming up against.

What I was moved by was the sincerity on their part to say, okay, this isn't what I trained for. It isn't what I expected, but I want to be able to go deep into myself, so I can go deep with these people who are now in my care. So a lot of what our work has ended up oriented around lately, and what we're starting to see more and more of in this landscape as well, is right around that question of consistency and of deepening.

The idea of where do I go again and again, and where can I find nurturance over time? So more and more efforts that are really inviting people into close knit community over time, that's oriented around deepening the well, that's oriented around cultivating connection. In a way that can help them to, both nurture their inner life so that they can subsist, and nurture their outer life. So they become more adept at, at serving and being there for people.

Jeff: I want to ask you though, a church is different in the sense that it is grounded in theology and in training. And it has a real sort of spiritual tradition to it. And so do you think it's fair to equate Crossfit and Soul Cycle with a religious institution?

Angie: So on those grounds, ultimately, no. Religious community like at church, and especially historically, when things were a lot more place based for many people, was kind of bundled together.

So it was your theology, or how you made meaning of your life. And it was your community, the place where you met your partner and raise your children. It was the place where you had intergenerational relationships and elders. It was the place where you ... even in some cases, it was the place where you went to school or at least were raised with a certain religious education. So all that stuff, and the identity that went with it were bundled together.

Now, what we've seen is a kind of unbundling, and this is kind of across the board, whether or not you're affiliated religiously. Because you can still be Christian, for instance, but you could also be drawing upon your yoga practice and your meditation app. And going to Shabbat dinner with your friends. So there's a kind of unbundling of the offerings that were once all held together in a single religious institution. And an attempt to remix them in an individual life.

So Soul Cycle can be part of that life, right? Much as your yoga practice can be part of that life. But there's a real conundrum that can arise when somebody is like, "Okay, I'm drawing from all these different streams, but then where's the river?" Right? "How do I make progress here? How do I go deeper here?

So, that's a lot of where we're trying to, um, really ask some questions, and get creative about what it might look like to support people in that next step.

Jeff: Then also, just as you alluded to, the teachers themselves, who, maybe they did a 200 hour yoga teacher training at Core Power, or something. Then all of a sudden now, they're the religious guru for a group of local millennials. But really They're not trained in spiritual leadership.

Angie: Right. Well, and the inspiring thing they say might be the only source of that kind of language that somebody has in their life, right?

Jeff: Right. Have you seen growth or evolution, since your report? I mean, how has the landscape changed even since 2015?

Angie: Yeah, definitely. We've now written five reports in total, including, how we gather. I mean, when we first got on the phone with a marketing director at Soul Cycle back in, 2014 here we were like, "We're calling from Harvard Divinity School. And what do you mean by soul?" Right?

Jeff: Yeah.

Angie: And it was a lot of wariness on the other end. In the time since then, it's been remarkable to see the way that an organization like Soul Cycle is embracing, like, "Yes, this is a spiritual journey." That has started to be something that is marketable, and we've been finding that meaning making as it were, is basically ... it's a growth industry.

There's the wellness industry. There's a sort of subsidiary parts, but that big question of, how do we make meaning of our life?

Jeff: I mean, part of it is obviously your own spiritual growth. But it's also, in a way to connect with the part of yourself that is your infinite soul that feels much more connected to the world around you, and to God, or whatever you want to call it.

Angie: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I think there's a few ways to think about that. It's been remarkable because in the last year, especially, the same kind of mapping energy that we applied to getting to know communities, and exploring this question of belonging, we've now been putting a lot of energy into the question of becoming, right? So how does that belonging intersect with growth?

Growth, not just in the dimension of, how am I getting in touch with my authentic self? Although that's core, but also the dimension of how am I attending what is sacred in other people? And how am I cultivating a sense of connectedness to something more? Right? Which we could call the sacred, we could call God, we could tell the bigger story we're part of.

So those three dimensions of exploration, it's remarkable to see how much it's proliferating to explore that. So, yeah, I would definitely affirm that, that seems to be where a lot of things are headed.

Jeff: Are you cool with the general commercial expropriation of the spiritual, if it does actually provide community? I asked that sort of with the Soul Cycle, but then I don't want to pick on them per se. But, in sort of the, "Okay, we're going to sprinkle in some Sanskrit because we know there's a lot of people go into yoga and that feels kind of quasi spiritual, and that's okay.

Because generally spirituality has dwelled in the nonprofit realm, I would say. I'm, I'm part of the whole thing in some ways, creating commercial enterprise around creating a spiritual growth and community building. Does that feel true and authentic to you?

Angie: I would love to see part of the paradigm shift that we seem to be experiencing around spirituality and meaning-making to also include a paradigm shift around the way that this entire economy of meaning-making is operating. Like what does it mean to actually cultivate a spiritual economy? What would be the motives of that? So, I'm certainly not just happy that on the one hand you have $35 a class for SoulCycle and on the other hand you have these communities that are doing extraordinary and life-giving work that are shutting down 'cause they don't have funds. I don't think that's how it should be. At the same time, if people are going into a CrossFit box and they're thinking they're going there for the muscle. And they're coming out with a sense of connectedness to themselves, other people and God, that's pretty awesome. I'd rather it be there than not.

And I think, I don't want to also just give a blank check to our religious institutions of old 'cause something like the front row at SoulCycle that you'll pay your $10,000 to be able to sign up early. People paying for pews in New England was essentially the same thing. You bought your way to the front, no question about it. I also want to be clear that it hasn't all just been altruism in our institutions along the way.

Jeff: Yeah. I think, my wife started a yoga studio at Ground Zero in early 2002. And it was very much focused around healing that community that had gone through a tremendous amount of grief. And her little studio became the center gathering place for that community.

But her little tagline back then, which I hadn't thought much about, was "Spirituality through Sweat." But this of course is yoga. It's actually a spiritual tradition. It's not a spinning fad, it's been around for 4,000 years. And I do believe that through physical practice you can begin to unlock the spiritual. And that's why at the end of yoga class and you have this shavasana which is this beautiful meditation moment. And to be honest I have a very, very hard time just sitting and meditating any old time. But at the end of a yoga class I am just ready to go. You know?

Angie: Yeah. Yeah, right.

Jeff: I have one last question for you which is: is all meaningful connection happen in real life? And I mean, non-digital. Or can you have actual, real community connection digitally?

Angie: Well, I am certainly banking on the possibility that you can. And this is another area where I get very excited about what the future portends. But at the moment it appears to be a large discrepancy. Between real life and virtual life. And the result of that has been a real emphasis on meet ups, tagline of going online to get offline, right? That there's a real value to being in real life. And I certainly affirm that.

I've been meeting with a spiritual small group since 2010. And at that time we met on the phone. And then Skype became good enough to use. And now I spend half of my life on Zoom video calls. And the project I'm building now, called the Formation Project, is going to be built off of small groups that make sacred space on Zoom. And I wonder in 10 years what will the Zoom equivalent be? 'Cause it's going to be more like being with people than it is now,

And even as it is, I feel very clear that the relationships I have begun with people that I spend online time with are real. And that being with them in person makes it deeper, right now, because our technology isn't sufficient to have that full-on experience.

But I get excited about what the developments in technology that we have so far say about the nature of the divine. What we've manifested in the Internet is invisible connection made visible. And whatever it is that we are in the image of must at least be that interconnected, right?

Obviously there's 1,000 places you can point to look at how our lives online are making us more depressed and more disconnected and more isolated and more ... Don't get me wrong that I'm just rosy about that. There's a real crisis to be weathered here. But part of why I'm convicted around trying to build a real spiritual infrastructure online is because I think we haven't been focusing on that potential.

Jeff: In all your study what have you found that are the essential ingredients for connection and belonging?

Angie: One of my mentors, whose name is Killian Noe, she talks about how to be known without being loved is a very painful thing. But to be loved without being known is also crushing. And to be deeply known and deeply loved is transformational.

And I think when you look at these communities, Paul Born writes about, in Deepening Community, the act of bringing chicken soup to a neighbor it seems almost cliché, but it's actually rather profound. Because you have to know your neighbor. You have to know them well enough to know they're sick. You have to know if they're a vegetarian. You have to know if they're home. There's so many layers of knowing and then there's the act of showing up and caring. That's layered on top of that knowledge and that relationship.

And in the deep communities that we've gotten to know through this work there is relationship over time and then there's investment in the lives of those with whom one is in a relationship. To show up in the highs, to show up in the lows, and to show up in between. Whether it's online or offline, whether it's calling itself religious or not, that's what it comes down to.

There's a lot of other words like loyalty and devotion and, of course, love. But something about that trustworthiness engendered over time and of course, yes, the vulnerability and the opening that can occur under those conditions, I think, is vital. I think we all need it.

Jeff: Yeah. Angie, thank you. God bless you for the work you're doing.

Angie: Likewise.

Jeff: And if I'm ever in Boston I'll bring you some chicken soup, I promise.

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