(RNS) – Among clergymen and sociologists, film directors and songwriters, it has practically become a matter of cliché that Americans seek to listen wholeheartedly and do not meet their needs – the phenomenon, in short, behind the expression “spiritual but not religious. “
These Americans embark on an open search, on their own or with trusted friends, to find meaning. More than a third have changed their religion of record in search of what they could not find in their faith of origin. Others find their way to humanistic communities where they study, reflect, and find fellowship in modes other than those of churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples.
However, failure in the American religion is not a failure of faith, but of institutions. The result of a growing mismatch between the needs of modern Americans and the religious organizations that are meant to serve them. Now, even as those institutions falter, new centers of spirituality and community attract those who have fallen from their houses of worship.
These movements are not based on established teachings, spiritual hierarchies or grandiose buildings, but on new formulations of faith, identity, hearing and leadership. They are often organized by marginalized people who have abandoned old structures of faith and who dare to ask big questions and ask more of their spiritual communities. After being subjugated for a long time, they choose not to hide in the shadows, but instead create brilliant new forms of religious community.
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A century ago, clergymen like us – two rabbis who serve Reformed Jewish communities in the heart of a large city center – were indispensable in many ways. The leaders of the American Jewish community are leading an effort to build synagogues, community centers, and day schools. We brought together large organizations, centralizing information and power to help waves of mostly Eastern European immigrants accumulate in American life.
Today, as we document in our forthcoming book, “Awakenings: American Jewish Transformations in Identity, Leadership, and Belonging,” the roles we inhabited belong to that past era. Jews no longer need such spaces to mediate between the American and Jewish part of their identity. Instead of finding new goals to unite American Jews, organizations like ours have become goals for themselves, draining resources and enthusiasm from individuals who remain remarkably proud of their identity.
Our communities can counteract the trends of decay because of our remarkable lay leaders, because of a lasting sense of purpose and because of the very spiritual and social infrastructure that our ancestors built. But our synagogues will not come out of this awake unchanged.
The decline of these legacy institutions does not foresee a death spiral of assimilation for American Jewry, as much as an overdue account of the changing needs of our community. No longer a marginalized community of immigrants, we have not only acculturated ourselves, but are slowly coming to embrace a surprising number of converts, such as people inspired by Jewish ideas and rituals who have no intention of becoming permanent members of the community. After the grief of the pain of change, we will come to see the abundance of a Jewish awakening that is reshaping the largest diaspora community of our people.
When we shared the hypothesis of our book with colleagues from other traditions, we came to realize that awakening is not limited to the Jewish community. White evangelical Christian communities are (in the words of one pastor) “in free fall”, while many Protestant churches are down the main line. Catholics, whose growth in many areas can be attributed to immigration, hope to maintain self-sufficient herds by seeking new leadership roles for women. Black churches continue to flourish, but are looking for ways to share their wisdom and inspiration with people of other faiths and skin colors.
Many American Muslims, meanwhile, feel deeply connected to the faith but are “unmosqued” for lack of access to communities that empower women as equals or embrace LGBTQ people. Hindus search for American expressions of a faith that grew out of South Asia. Seekers who practice in multiple traditions infuriate many clergy, but merge into an increasingly holistic community of practice.
Over the next few weeks on Religion News Service, we’ll be exploring some voices from those studying, sowing and leading the emerging awakening, both from major organizations and some of the mission-driven startups that have appeared on the religious landscape. While we affirm that the status quo of religious institutions is not sustainable, we will see how these organizations overcome changes in demographics, mentality, technology and social organization.
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The future lies with lay leaders and houses of worship that support innovation, focus on empowerment instead of power, and sow (or become) their own successor organizations. It lives with people who are absent from our largest pulpits because of gender, country of origin, mother tongue or skin color. The future lies in clarity of purpose that can unite people and bring them together in hope, not in fear of condemnation, judgment or social outcry. It sits in organizations that bring people together for a reason, but keep them there by fostering a sense of community as a whole.
As we have seen before in American history, a bright wake-up call comes from the remnants of religion. We work with you to learn about what comes next.
(Joshua Stanton is a rabbi at East End Temple in Manhattan and a senior fellow at CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Benjamin Spratt is a senior rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan. Of Religion News Service.)