An awakening is coming to American religion. You won’t hear about it from the pulpit.

The future of American religion resides with innovative lay leaders who focus on empowerment, rather than power.

Photo by Mario Purisic/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — Among clergy and sociologists, film directors and songwriters it’s become practically a matter of cliché that Americans are searching for wholehearted belonging and not finding their needs met — the phenomenon, in short, behind the phrase “spiritual but not religious.”

These Americans are setting out on an open-ended quest, 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 are finding their way to humanist communities where they study, reflect and find fellowship in modes not dissimilar to those of churches, synagogues, mosques and temples.

The failure in American religion is not of a failure of faith, however, but of institutions. It results from a growing mismatch between the needs of modern Americans and the religious organizations intended to serve them. Now, even as those institutions falter, new centers of spirituality and community are attracting those who have fallen away from their houses of worship. 

These movements are based not on established doctrines, clergy hierarchies or grandiose buildings but on new formulations of belief, identity, belonging and leadership. They are often organized by marginalized people who have been left out of old structures of faith and who dare to ask big questions and demand more from their spiritual communities. Having long been underserved, they choose not to hide in the shadows but instead create brilliant new forms of religious community.

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A century ago, clergy like us — two rabbis serving Reform Jewish communities in the heart of a major urban center — were in many ways indispensable. The leaders of the American Jewish community led an effort to built synagogues, community centers and day schools. We convened major organizations, centralizing information and power to help waves of mostly Eastern European immigrants acculturate to American life. 

“Awakenings: American Jewish Transformations in Identity, Leadership, and Belonging" Courtesy image

“Awakenings: American Jewish Transformations in Identity, Leadership, and Belonging” Courtesy image

Today, as we document in our forthcoming book, “Awakenings: American Jewish Transformations in Identity, Leadership, and Belonging,” the roles we inhabit belong to that bygone era. Jews no longer need such spaces to mediate between the American and Jewish parts of their identities. Rather than finding new purposes to unite American Jews, organizations like ours have become purposes unto themselves, draining resources and enthusiasm from individuals who remain remarkably proud of their identities.

Our communities may buck the trends of decline because of our remarkable lay leaders, because of an enduring sense of purpose and because of the very spiritual and social infrastructure our forebears built. But our synagogues will not emerge from this awakening unchanged. 

The decline of these legacy institutions doesn’t portend a death spiral of assimilation for American Judaism, so much as an overdue reckoning with our community’s changing needs. No longer a marginalized community of immigrants, we have not only acculturated ourselves but are slowly coming to embrace a surprising number of converts, as well as people inspired by Jewish ideas and rituals who have no intention to become permanent members of the community. After grieving the pain of change, we will come to see the bounty of a Jewish awakening that reshapes our people’s largest diaspora community.

As we shared our book’s hypothesis with colleagues from other traditions, we came to realize that the awakening is not confined to the Jewish community. White evangelical Christian communities are (in the words of one pastor) “in free fall,” while many mainline Protestant churches are emptying. Catholics, whose growth can be attributed in many areas to immigration, are hoping to sustain homegrown flocks by seeking new leadership roles for women. Black churches continue to thrive but search for avenues to share their wisdom and inspiration with people of other faiths and skin colors.

Many American Muslims feel deeply connected to faith, meanwhile, 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 dabble in multiple traditions befuddle many clergy but are coalescing in increasingly holistic communities of practice.

Over the next few weeks on Religion News Service, we’ll explore some voices of those studying, seeding and leading the emergent awakening, both from within mainstay organizations and some of the mission-driven startups that have appeared on the religious landscape. While affirming that the status quo of religious institutions is unsustainable, we’ll look at how these organizations are overcoming changes in demography, mindset, technology and social organization. 

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The future resides with lay leaders and houses of worship that support innovation, focus on empowerment rather than power, and seed (or become) their own successor organizations. It resides with people absent from our biggest pulpits because of gender, country of origin, mother tongue or skin color. The future resides in clarity of purpose that can unite people and bring them together in hope, not in fear of damnation, judgment or social ostracism. It resides in organizations that bring people together for a reason, but keeps them there by fostering a sense of communal belonging.

As we have witnessed before in American history, out of the remnants of religion a bright awakening rises. We join you in learning about what comes next.

(Joshua Stanton is rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and a senior fellow at CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Benjamin Spratt is senior rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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