The future of spiritual practice

The first six stops of my book tour under my belt, I’m starting to get a sense of some recurring questions audience members are eager to have answered after I speak about (and read from) the religious exploration I write about in A None’s Story. One common inquiry is something along the lines of, “What do you think the future is for religion in the United States?” (For book tour updates, “like” my author Facebook page.)

Many people, I believe, are expecting me to declare religion dead—or, at the very least, dying. I know some of the audience members are people of faith, a few have been current or retired leaders of religious congregations, and they fear what’s in store for their communities in the next decade or two. Others are concerned for the growing number of citizens who appear to be operating in a world increasingly devoid of spiritual grounding or guidance.

I understand the worry but, from where I stand, the view is not so bleak. I honestly believe that the core of religion is as relevant today as it has ever been because, despite all the changes we and our society undergoes, something fundamental remains the same. Each of us struggles to come to grips with being here on earth, and with the knowledge that we will leave—as if these realizations are a fresh new thing just added to the human experience. We are driven to makes sense of this knowledge, to come together with others who are also striving for greater understanding, and to work together to find ways to better care for ourselves and others. No, the basic impulse from which religion is born is intrinsically tied to our beings. The growth in the population of Nones does not spell the end of religion. But it does herald a change.

Before my reading in Washington, D.C. a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to join an evening of improvisation or “improv” as some like to call it. This is the theatrical act of spontaneous scene-making usually associated with comedy. Now, I have never in my life participated in improv. I have seen it being performed and simply imagining being up there among the performers would send my heart into a spasm of terror. Improv is most definitely not “my thing.” (I’m a writer—words take full minutes, hours even, to come out of me. It is very boring to watch.) But this improv experience piqued my interest because I had heard it mentioned on NPR’s On Point during an episode about religious affiliation and the growth in Nones. (It aired March 22, 2016 and is fascinating. I recommend it. Listen here.)

This particular evening of improv is part of something called “The Sanctuaries,” a community with this mission statement: “Empowering creative people to claim their own spiritual voice and collaborate on artistic projects that promote social change.” It’s a safe bet that some of its members are religiously affiliated in a more traditional sense and that others are Nones like me. The “lead organizer,” Rev. Erik Martínez Resly, graduated from Harvard Divinity School. He formed The Sanctuaries with his neighbors from various walks of life whose most common denominator appears to be that they are all relatively youngish (post-college and up). They invite the community at large to join them in coming together to tell stories—through art, music, conversation, and performance—with a purpose. The one event scheduled for when I would be in town was the “Soulful Improv” that takes place the 2nd Monday of each month at 7 pm. No experience required.

Improv as spiritual practice? The writer in me was more curious than the would-be comedian was terrified. I dragged along my good friend, Cassie, who had been my downstairs neighbor when I lived in D.C. She was even more reluctant than I about improv. Soulful Improv is held at a place a couple blocks from the apartment building where Cassie and I had lived called the Potter’s House, which in itself has an interesting history of being a meeting place in a secular setting, but infused with religious ideals.

In a large back room, men and women of every shade gathered. Cassie and I were among the oldest; several teenage girls in hijab were the youngest. It was soon apparent that most people present were not any more skilled at improv than me. The leader, a woman named Brittany, started us off gently with warm up exercises: in a big circle, after introductions, we “tossed” words or phrases to one another. They might be the same words said a little differently each time or new words inspired by what came previously. As nervous as I was, I could tell others felt the same—that and the initial brevity of our individual contributions put me at ease. Brittany eased us into longer “scenes” by degrees.

Surprisingly, I was having a darn good time, but what did any of it have to do with religion or spirituality? I had no idea at first, but as the evening progressed, it got clearer. Brittany helped by dropping hints as we went. “It’s about building trust,” she called out at one point. Or, as interactions grew more involved, she shouted, “To react, stay in the moment.” She also said that participating in these impromptu interactions forces us “to assess the situation from the other players’ eyes.”

Thinking back on all the worship services I attended during my religious explorations I realized, in these exercises, I was having similar feelings. The initial fear of being the outsider and idiot transformed slowly through group activity—communal prayer or singing—into something that more closely resembled teamwork or community. Each of us takes a risk in coming together, everyone shows up despite feeling vulnerable, to get on the same page for a shared goal for an intangible reward: a sense, however fleeting, of connection. How quickly one’s isolation can flip into expansive belonging! To suddenly become aware of one’s being present in the room, alongside the presence of others, to contemplate the world anew and then to consider it through alternate perspectives. Worship can help us do this and more; an evening of improv was having a similar effect.

Could improv be the new face of worship? Maybe. Or at least one of them.

So when someone asks what I think will become of religion, I tell them I feel hopeful about its future. Many of its teachings have seeped into our culture in ways we are only beginning to understand. The cross-pollination between the religious and the secular continues and I’m excited to see what blooms.


11 thoughts on “The future of spiritual practice

  1. 🙂 Love it. This reminds me of an article I wrote for our town newspaper, The Chronicle under its Clergy Corner. You’re take on the Harvard Divinity School reminded me of it.:

    OMG ! The World Is Changing
    I am among the many who follow the t.v. show, “Downton Abbey” on PBS. It has given us a wonderful window into the changing world of the early 1900’s when the invention of the telephone, the automobile and social status changes began to change the world they had been born into. Imagine the horse drawn carriage repair folks who lost jobs, and the opportunity to talk on the telephone as opposed to writing a letter, or to lose your job in service to a wealthy family and having to wonder what else you were trained to do. Ever since the invention of the computer we have found ourselves in a similar evolving world. How life is lived is changing.
    Those born after the second world war we referred to as the Baby Boomer generation have watched their world change too. These days we have two new generational groups known as Millenials and Nones who are in the process of changing our world just as generations before them have done. The Millenials are the college age folks embracing social change and the Nones are people who may report feeling spiritual but have no identified church.
    One of the biggest changes I’m noticing is being reported on by the Harvard Divinity School researchers into religion who are reporting that 3,500 churches are closing each year. The question being asked is, “How might they transform to meet a rising generation?” Can we move from crisis to transformation?
    The researchers have identified a few of the transformative things that are taking hold and replacing traditional Sunday services:
    1. Dinner meetings where everyone helps prepare the food and the clean-up with high quality conversation in a familiar context.
    2. Living School where elders and companions share stories of their spiritual journey combining readings of medieval mystics with contemplative practice.
    3. Online communities with in-person gatherings and retreats moving toward social change.
    4. Sunday Assembly is a group that celebrates life welcoming multiple theological perspectives and volunteer work in the community.
    5. House for Sinners and Saints where congregants lead part of the liturgy from where they sit.
    The report goes on to say, “Without permission, people are rejecting and changing their inherited religious structures.” Is it possible that these communities bear the fruit of tradition – offering the chance to serve others, experience beauty, practice love, and come home to our true selves – all while embracing a spirit of inquiry into something more.
    “Downton Abbey” is showing us what the British world was like at the turn of the century. Regardless of the dislike of the social changes of the time they had little or no choice but to move forward with the changing world. Much the same thing is happening in our world. There are many things we may not like but who would have thought five years ago that there would be Google and Tweeting and texting and iphones and a social media that shows us moment by moment history in the making.
    We may have to find new ways to demonstrate Moses, Jesus and Buddha and the wisdom of the ages.
    Rev. Frank Maitoza is a retired minister working with the Center for Spiritual Living at the corner of Stetson and Girard.

  2. It’s good to hear that you are finding engaged audiences. That’s another indication that spiritual thirst continues, and that Nones and “religious” alike have aspirations in that aspect of human experience. Improv spirituality? Of course – aren’t we all improvising?

    I may just have to re subscribe to Facebook so I can see where you are speaking. That’s another aspect of my spiritual path- spending so much time on Facebook that my face-to-face relationships were suffering, then realizing I couldn’t taper off. Maybe that’s a spiritual discipline I can learn now.

    Continued good wishes.

    • Hi Val, Yes we are! I think it’s a spiritual practice to face our vulnerability and to work through it–in any form. I understand about Facebook and finding that right balance.

  3. For a liturgical church-goer like me, improv would be a little too much of a change, I’m afraid! But I see your point, Corrina. One of the reasons the Anglican Church was created was to bring Scripture and the faith to the people in their native tongue. That was way too radical a change in the 1500’s, but nowadays, saying the service in Latin is considered anachronistic and stilted. If improv gets the core message across to some people, then that’s as legit as saying the Mass in English was in 1549.

    • Hi Tim, But you’re hilarious and you’d be so good at it! It is a tiny bit terrifying, though…which I think is part of the lesson or experience. I don’t know if it will catch on, but I love that The Sanctuaries exists and is experimenting with such things.

  4. Very interesting, this notion of community (communal spirituality?) shaped (enhanced?) through creative practices. I remember you mentioning “The Sanctuaries” during your reading at Small World Books in Venice a few weeks ago. Thanks for the link to their site and best wishes for continued success on your tour. We are so enjoying “A None’s Story,” and look forward to more posts.

  5. Thanks for this post!
    Are you familiar with Fresh Expressions? It seems to be a movement started in the Anglican church and now crossed the pond here to America. It is about meeting unchurched and dechurched (probably, I fit in one of those categories) folks where they’re at. Not church plants, but being Christ like outside of the walls of a building and in different ways.
    Are you familiar with renaissance fairs? I have “acted” in one for 8 years and have directed a cast for 7. Hadn’t done a lick of acting outside of childhood before then. Improv is scary. It’s also a bit of a misnomer for what I do because what we’re talking about here is interaction. I say this for Tim C’s sake, because I am seriously not good at improv with the majority of people. But I ROCK interaction, which is why I direct. 🙂 You probably rock at interaction, too. *nods* It used to be called manners, or social graces. Anyway, this performer rocks the genre, too and has written about it for street performers as well as businesses, professionals and just plain, ol’ humans in general:
    So, the two go together for me like peanut butter and jelly and your post screamed YES AND!! in my head.
    Have a great week! 🙂

  6. Hi there! Thanks for writing. Improv is scary but that’s also what’s so wonderful about it. “Interaction” is all about being vulnerable and present in the moment (very Buddhist, BTW) and what could be more lovely than two souls taking a breather from regular life and saying “hi” to each other? (It’s funny how that can be so hard for us). I haven’t heard of Fresh Expressions, but I will check it out. The Phoole is doing God’s work!

    • Improv is Also wonderful because the mechanic works best with folks who are very used to working with each other. 🙂
      So you have individuals who share brain cells, so to speak, but are still spontaneous. They’re in it to keep you (and the game) safe, because otherwise everything stops.
      Interaction still has the benefit of “polite society” hesitation, but it’s the hesitation that keeps it from next-level Improv.
      Both are necessary and wonderful in their own right.
      I love what I do. I also really love people. Life is exciting! 🙂

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