Redesigning worship to reach the unchurched

Spiritual Manifestos Edited by Niles Elliot Goldstein Skylight Paths 338 pp., $21.95

Niles Goldstein was a nice Jewish boy who grew up in a kosher home and attended Hebrew school for years. He felt close to God, yet found in the Jewish community little of the spiritual nourishment he sought.

But one summer on a mountainside in Alaska's coastal wilderness, his faith was grounded: "The rapture I felt on that ridge ... was unlike anything I'd ever experienced in a house of worship. It centered me, made me feel like I'd come home from some great journey.... God was real."

In what Rabbi Goldstein calls "an age of intense spiritual yearning," that transformative moment became more than inspiration for his personal journey. He felt called to find a home in the world of organized religion where he could share that message with others. In the decade since, he has found his place on the "frontier" of Judaism, working to revitalize and transform its institutions - and to reach out to those turned off by past experience. He runs a cybersynagogue, shares squad cars with federal agents as a chaplain, and works with others on new models for Jewish life.

"Spiritual Manifestos: Visions for Renewed Religious Life in America" introduces 11 young religious leaders from various faiths who share that passionate perception of the potential of religious life and the great necessity for change.

"The third millennium is the Rubicon for mainline Christianity, and for Judaism as well," says the Rev. Greg Kimura, an Episcopalian priest. "Either we will become a place that is relevant to the needs of the coming world or we will decline, fading out, Eliot-like, with a whimper not a bang."

The essays by six men and five women - Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, and Jewish - ask, in effect, "How can formal religion reach the hearts of a largely secular public?" They focus on how to infuse new vitality into houses of worship so they become "welcome sanctuaries for the spirit where our deepest longings and common needs might be met."

This is where we have gone astray, they say. Too much cerebralism, too much emphasis on doctrine and not enough experience of the Spirit. Experience more than perhaps anything else informs our sensibilities and shapes lives, Goldstein says.

"Religion must explore and care for the human heart," says Roshi Norman Fischer, a Zen Buddhist priest in San Francisco. Both men have found that "immersion experiences" - retreats of various kinds that draw deeply on one's spiritual heritage - can have a profound effect on people's lives, and they are developing retreat centers for their traditions.

A husband-and-wife clergy team in Michigan finds that embracing new forms of music can transform congregations.

The Rev. Brad Braxton, pastor of a large African-American church in Baltimore, emphasizes deeper prayer and disciplined Bible study to inspire integrity and "living with wholeness."

But Americans need not only a deepening of faith, these leaders say. There is also "a hunger for community." "The hunger in our deepest heart is not just for some sense of spirituality," says Fr. Brett Hoover, a Catholic priest in New York City. "We were made ... for loving each other." Yet the US may be the loneliest place on earth today, he adds, "the dark side of our obsession with individual freedom."

While church may be the natural place to find true community, they say, today that demands a greater, lived openness, a fuller embrace of diversity, and engendering dialogue between people and races. "The secular and political worlds tend to reward glibness in our communications," says Father Kimura. But our world needs sustained dialogue. "Church may be one of the few institutions that can lead the world to a more humane place."

These leaders are exploring many different "spiritual entry points" for people (programs for Gen-Xers, campus ministry, cultural reconciliation). They call for inclusiveness, such as welcoming gays and lesbians. To reach post-modern seekers, feminist and environmental concerns must be effectively incorporated into worship, says Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow.

Articulate, funny, moving, frank, and full of life, these young leaders (most in their 30s) practice what they preach. Their "manifestos" express the rich warmth of lives touched by daily interaction with their communities.

"Authentic spirituality is not just about inner peace and personal healing," says Sister Theresa Rickard, a Dominican nun working in the Bronx. It's about being a "contemplative in action." The church is called to change the world. "We must use our gifts to defy the modern pharaohs and bring forth the reign of God."

*Jane Lampman is the Monitor's religion writer.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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