Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Intersection of Community and Spirit

I just read How We Gather by Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile. It's an intriguing analysis of how millennials (people currently aged 18-34) see the world and what they're seeking. As someone in the process of turning over his life's work to a younger generation this is compelling stuff.

Of particular note, the authors reported:

[Researchers] found that millennials are not “the spiritual consumers of their parents’ generation, rather they are seeking both a deep spiritual experience and a community experience, each of which provides them with meaning in their lives, and is meaningless without the other.” In other words, when they say they are not looking for a faith community, millennials might mean they are not interested in belonging to an institution with religious creed as the threshold. However, they are decidedly looking for spirituality and community in combination, and feel they can’t lead a meaningful life without it. 

This is an important insight to me, as it provides a bridge that I was having trouble seeing among all four key elements of the Ecovillage Design Education curriculum that the Global Ecovillage Network developed as the essential componanets of sustainability: ecological, social, economic, and worldview (or spiritual). While I had no trouble seeing the interconnections among the first three, I have struggled for years to see the relationship of those to spirit. It worked better for me to think in terms of mindset; where we needed to understand the imperative of engaging in cultural change—moving from a dominant competitive, hierarchic culture, to a cooperative, egalitarian culture. That at least I could grok.

To be clear, Ms. Thurston is based at Harvard Divinity School and Mr. ter Kuile is undergoing ministerial training, and the point of their article is to explore the trend among millennials to be less religiously affiliated than older generations, even as they hunger for spiritual connection and meaning. 

The article offers this summary of millennials:

According to the 2012 Pew Research Center report, “Nones on the Rise,” nearly one in three do not belong to a faith community and of those, only 10% are looking for one. Though many millennials are atheists or agnostics, the majority are less able to articulate their sense of spirituality, with many falling back on the label ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’. The General Social Survey of 2014 shows that the disaffiliation trend is only growing.

The point that grabbed my attention is not the decline in religious affiliation among the young (I would have guessed that there are way more nones than nuns); it's the idea that the hunger for spirituality and community are joined at the hip. That I didn't expect.

In probing this more deeply, it makes sense to open the aperture to the lowest possible f-stop when looking at spiritually. Let's move beyond organized religion to focus on basic cosmological questions, such as:
o  What is the meaning of life?
o  What role do humans play in it generally, and what role do I play in it specifically? 
o  If there is a purpose to my life, what is it, and how shall I know it?
o  What is right relationship to other humans? To other species? To the planet?

These questions are timeless, and it only makes sense that millennials will be asking them, too—just like all who have preceded them in this vale of tears. So of course spirituality matters.

Approaching this from the other end, it doesn't take King Solomon to figure out that we need to start plowing through fewer resources per person if humanity is going to avoid splatting against a brick wall, and it's a relatively small number of dots that need connecting to take you from Point A—the realization that the Club of Rome was essentially right when it published its controversial landmark work, The Limits to Growth, back in 1972—to Point B—we need to learn how to share more and create a high quality of life that is not so defined by consumption and material acquisition, which, ta-duh, leads to community. 

That said, it is not enough to parsimoniously ratchet down consumables and minimize our carbon footprint. There needs to be a point to it all—a reason why humanity is worth saving. And that's where spiritual inquiry comes in. Community may be a safe haven, but it has to be more inspiring than a bunker with triple glazed windows and R-60 walls.

Thurston & ter Keile go on to say:

The lack of deep community is indeed keenly felt. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among youth. Rates of isolation, loneliness and depression continue to rise. As traditional religion struggles to attract young people, millennials are looking elsewhere with increasing urgency. And in some cases, they are creating what they don’t find.

The disillusionment of millennials with organized religion extends to organized politics as well. They're looking for something more personable and immediate, both with respect to what they can do and what they can receive.

The authors have identified six themes that are recurring qualities among the innovative organizations that they profile in their article—all of which are finding ways to connect with millennials:

Valuing and fostering deep relationships that center on service to others
Personal transformation 
Making a conscious and dedicated effort to develop one’s own body, mind, and spirit
Social transformation 
Pursuing justice and beauty in the world through the creation of networks for good
Purpose finding 
Clarifying, articulating, and acting on one’s personal mission in life
Allowing time and space to activate the imagination and engage in play
Holding oneself and others responsible for working toward defined goals 

The article continues:

[Savvy organizational leaders] assume that for institutions to work, they must become values-led, sustainable networks; that for idealism to work, it must yield measurable and scalable results; that for success to work, it must affect some kind of transformation, beginning with the inner life of the individual and radiating out to touch the world. 

What does it mean to touch the world in 2015? It’s a moment when virtual interconnectivity is more immediate than the "real" world, so that an American millennial feels more comfortable setting up a Kiva loan to a farmer in Kenya than bringing chicken soup to a neighbor. Is it possible to harness these new tools of global engagement to deepen our everyday experience of community as well?
The innovators in our report say yes, not just possible, but necessary. They speak to millennials as friends, offering positive and practical advice through clean and personable websites. They encourage an ethos of care for self and others and a mindset of abundance. They argue, explicitly or implicitly, that each person is a change maker with the opportunity—if not the responsibility—to make change for the better. And making change means making connection, both broadly in the world and deeply at home.

The contention of Thurston & ter Keile is that millennials are changing they way we gather, and they invite a dialog across the generations to discuss this. This is a provocative piece, asking all of us to be  more aware of the various settings and portals of access to engaging people under 35. Better yet, be mindful of the synergy possible when portals are combined. (Don't just offer an opportunity for creative experession; offer art that's community building and in service to social change work all at the same time.)
They end the article by posing three excellent questions, suggesting that all organizations hopeful of staying vibrant and meaningful—to millennials of all ages—need to keep in their consciousness:

—Who are we serving?
Healthy groups are obsessed with "who is our constituency?" which can be a moving target. More than that, it is paramount that organizations are doing something useful in the world and serving real needs. How does our work build community?

—How are we leading?
This is especially potent in the context of building cooperative culture, where the healthy use of power looks quite a bit different than in hierarchic settings. In cooperative settings, there is as much attention given to how you do things as what you do; in the mainstream culture everything is slanted toward the bottom line. How is our leadership building community?

Taking this a step further, how are intentional communities (as a specific kind of organization) taking advantage of their common values and the ability to focus resources to focalize conversations in the neighborhoods in which they're imbedded about how to have more meaningful lives, more resilient local economies, and a greater sense of community?

—What is right relationship to (divine) spirit?
How are the individuals who are touched by this organization becoming clearer and more centered about who they are and what they want to do in the world? How are we supporting spiritual inquiry and personal transformation? How is the spiritual grounding of our people inspiring our work and thereby nurturing community?

You may have noticed that these are the kind of questions that can be asked again and again. Don't let that dismay you from the attempt to address them. (It turns out that all the really great questions are 100% recyclable.)

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