It’s the Lenten season, which means mainstream news organizations are in the midst of their annual monthlong featurettes on the country’s oldest and most popular faith.
So, appropriately enough, PBS News Hour interviewed a bespectacled British Harvard researcher about how he’s interested in spirituality, but not religion:
Producer A: “Hey, it’s Lent. Let’s run a feature on Christianity during Lent.”
Producer B: “How about a feature about how Christianity can be replaced by CrossFit?”
Producer A: “Yeah, that works.”
If you aren’t able to watch the video above, here’s what Casper (because of course that’s his name) says:
I grew up never going to church.
And as a 30-year-old married man, I still don’t, not because I don’t value reflection, community, even the experience of the divine. I do. But traditional religious congregations don’t appeal to me. And I’m not alone.
Millennials are turning away from religion faster than any other age group. And according to the Pew Research Center, more than a third of Americans between 18 and 35 are now unaffiliated, meaning, when asked on a survey what religious identity they hold, they answer none of the above.
But what’s really interesting is that the overwhelming majority of us nones aren’t necessarily atheists. Two-thirds believe in God or a universal spirit, and one in five even pray every day.
We aren’t young people who hate religion. It’s a growing group that feel like they have been left behind by religious institutions.
In a move that confused a lot of my friends and family, I have found countless examples of other millennials creating new forms of community that often fulfill the same functions that a traditional religious group would have.
And they come in all shapes and sizes. It might be a regular meal with strangers to share honestly one’s experience after losing a loved one, like the organization The Dinner Party. Within a few years, The Dinner Party has spread to 116 cities across the U.S. hosted by volunteers who create sacred spaces for their guests.
It might be lifting weights and climbing ropes five mornings a week like at CrossFit. And if you have a friend involved in a CrossFit, you will know how evangelical that community is.
Or it might be experiencing healing and forgiveness through movement and meditation at Afro Flow Yoga.
Each of these communities and others like them shape participants’ world views, ethics and behaviors. And in a culture where many are hungry for connection, these communities offer the experience of being part of something bigger than themselves, what some theologians might describe as experiencing the divine.
Now, you may dismiss these communities as simple entertainment, but we’re convinced that this is the new face of religious life in America. Just as you would expect in a religious congregation, people in these communities build friendships and drive one another to the hospital when they need a ride.
They help each other raise money to fight cancer. And some are even getting involved in struggles for more affordable housing. While a few thousand churches close every year, many fewer open. So, as you drive through your town and notice an empty house of worship, pay attention next time you see a community workspace, a climbing gym or a micro-brewery.
They may just be the new center of soulful community that you have been looking for.
Casper says that Millennials are disregarding traditional religious congregations because they “don’t appeal to him,” and that he’s not alone—a high percentage of Millennials are doing the same.
Casper’s right. His equation of a local church and CrossFit or yoga is unfortunate and inaccurate from our evangelical perspective, but in the eyes of many Millennials, finding community in a Sunday morning “Afro Flow Yoga” class is not really all that different from finding community in a local evangelical church—in fact, it’s better because their yoga friends don’t judge people.
Honestly, it makes sense how an irreligious guy like Casper and his friends could see dinner parties or CrossFit classes as parallel to religious communities.
How does that make sense?
He says, “In a culture where many are hungry for connection, these communities offer the experience of being part of something bigger than themselves, what some theologians might describe as experiencing the divine.”
For many Millennials, community alone, even if that community is built upon the superficial foundations of workouts or meals, is what provides the transcendental experience their souls so desperately seek.
For many Millennials, the community is the end in itself. The feeling of “belonging to something greater” is simply derived from hanging out with more than one person. “Greater” is almost used as a quantitative term, not a qualitative one. Even at it’s best, non-Christian Millennial community does service work that might be “something greater” but is ultimately temporary.
For Christians, community is not the end itself. The feeling of “belonging to something greater” is actually derived from belonging to something greater, something better, something eternal.
Unfortunately, what irreligious Millennials do not understand is that communities build around yoga mats or dinner tables cannot parallel Christian communities because, while they may look similar, their foundations are different.
The foundation for an irreligious Millennial community is the dinner table or the CrossFit gym. The foundation of an evangelical Millennial community is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and this community simply works itself out around dinner tables or church buildings.
What Casper points to as the foundation of Millennial communities ought to actually be the fruit of Millennial communities. No cause or interest unites people like the gospel truth that we were sinners yet Christ died for us all.
Further, it is telling that, as Casper describes the ways Millennials are interacting in “spiritual” communities, spirituality is virtually non-existent in the reasons he gives for why Millennials get together.
Unsurprisingly, the reasons Casper gives for why Millennials get together in community are all focused on the self. Religious “nones” among Millennials aren’t atheistic. They believe in a god, and this god is ultimately found in themselves and the good work they can do in their own power, like benevolent deities helping the less fortunate.
He says, “Now, you may dismiss these communities as simple entertainment, but we’re convinced that this is the new face of religious life in America.”
Indeed it is; the religion of the self.