In a recent episode of “Inspired” by Interfaith Radio, Varun Soni, dean of religious life at the University of Southern California, spoke about the increasing feelings of alienation among college age students. They have hundreds of online friends, he said, but they don’t have the skill set necessary to make lasting in-person relationships. In particular, they lack skills to connect with older people who could serve as mentors and guides in life. Soni attributes this to the growth of online communities such as Facebook and Twitter, but even more to the decline of multigenerational religious communities of all faiths gathered to find meaning and purpose in their lives. In the same episode, former Harvard and Yale humanist chaplain Chris Stedman spoke about non-religious communities gathering to do the same work.
As a Christian pastor, I have watched faith/spiritual community attendance and participation drop off a cliff in the past 30 years. The causes vary from region to region, faith tradition to faith tradition and person to person, but the reality is that people of no particular faith are a growing percentage of American society at a time when our two youngest generations need real, connected and purposeful community more than ever. I’ve come to the realization that I don’t care what tradition people find comforting, as long as that tradition does three things well: affirms the dignity of each individual regardless of any differences; affirms that human beings have the power and ingenuity to resolve the biggest global problems when we work together (especially climate change and all that comes from it); and empowers people of all ages to take helpful and hopeful action against greed, hatred, oppression and violence wherever and whenever these arise.
Every major faith tradition has some alignment with these three tenets. So does secular humanism, adherents of which are starting to build communities that resemble congregations, particularly in England. Human beings need community to be healthy, happy and whole. Studies show that people who belong to communities that share spiritual affinities are physically healthier, emotionally more stable and longer lived than those who do not.
Belonging to a spiritual community can help families to cope with the stresses of raising children. I hear the concerns raised by those raising children of elementary and secondary school age today that are both similar to the concerns of my childhood and so very different from them, as well. We worried about fitting in with our peers and how to deal with bullying at school, but my biggest fear as a military child in the waning days of the Cold War was nuclear bombs. Today, fitting in is still a worry, but bullying comes from the classroom and schoolyard right into homes on phones and computers. Every child-care center and school needs to have lockdown drills today to protect their students and staff from a bad actor with a lethal weapon, something that is far removed from my student experience. Add the pressures of standardized testing, teaching content requirements that constrain teacher creativity and student imagination, and the high-stakes assumption that achievement is all that matters for post-high school life while our youth are swimming in a sea of deep anxiety. The support of a community where children and caregivers are loved just as they are can be life-saving in both literal and metaphorical ways.
The need to belong is not limited to youth. Many people drift away from the spiritual communities of their youth and family-raising days, feeling no need to attend when beliefs have changed or close friends in the community have moved or died. But later in life, as circumstances bring changes to personal relationships through divorce, death, empty nests and becoming grandparents, joining a community that provides opportunities to explore meaning and purpose as older adults can make a tremendous difference in quality of life. According to the Alzheimer’s Association website, “A number of studies indicate that maintaining strong social connections and keeping mentally active as we age might lower the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s.” I have not necessarily been joking when I’ve described choir practice or book groups as “Alzheimer’s prevention classes.”
The Mount Washington Valley is blessed to have a number of spiritual communities that are ready and waiting to welcome people into relationship. Each one is different and beautiful, with opportunities to serve in and with the people who make up these communities. Their leaders are women and men with big hearts who have shaped these communities within varying faith traditions.
If you need the stability and companionship of people who care about others, there is a spiritual community here for you where your gifts and talents can be lifted up even as your concerns and worries can be shared. I can’t promise it will be the first community you visit, or the second, or even the third, but don’t give up if it takes several tries to find the right fit. Figuring out what you like and don’t like is an important part of becoming part of a community, especially when it comes to spirituality, worship and service. Wherever you land, you will be a blessing to that community as much as they will be a blessing to you.
Rev. Dr. Ruth E. Shaver is the interim pastor of the First Church of Christ, Congregational, United Church of Christ in North Conway.