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Finding Community Outside of Religion

With participation in organized religion on the decline, more young people seek community at the workplace, in fitness classes, and through social causes.

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I recently received an email from a friend inviting me to a gathering with 10 other guys to talk about what it means to be a man today. The invitation explained why he was calling this group together:

“There was a gap in my life for a place to come together specifically to be challenged, influenced, and learn from a trusted source about issues that were the most meaningful to me in my life as a masculine, ambitious, spiritual man. As we grow and are introspective, I believe sharing our knowledge between like-minded individuals is necessary and can only bring us more peace and success. I’m always a fan of anything about which I can say, “If I do this, my life will only be better.”

I do not receive emails like this every day. It was heartfelt and it resonated not only with me but also with much of my broader research on what people are craving in their lives today.

I have spent the last eight years researching and talking with people who are building careers at the intersection of purpose and money, and in a simple email my friend had captured an important element of what we all want: community.

Rutgers University, in partnership with the non-profit organization Net Impact, produced a research report entitled “What Workers Want in 2012” that captured this transforming sentiment in our workplaces. The report found that 87% of college students ranked the ability to grow personally as very important in their next workplace.

Workplaces are adapting to this need. They ensure both purpose and growth by providing people avenues to gather and find likeminded communities. Companies such as Eli Lilly have pioneered the idea of affinity groups where, within large companies, employees are encouraged to self-organize into groups around a shared interest. There are LGBT affinity groups, new mother affinity groups, and cultural affinity groups. These groups provide employees a chance to advocate for their specific interests and even more importantly connect with each other and tap into that deeper sense of purpose and meaning from common interest.

Purpose finding and self-development are natural extensions of the regular meeting of like-minded people. The need for this type of gathering and personal development is a fundamentally human one that has historically always had a role in our life. In the past the need had been fulfilled by organized religion. Our community center was the church while the counselor, the pastor, and the congregation were our accountability partners.

The backdrop on how we address these needs is evidently changing. In the report “’Nones’ on the Rise,” the Pew Research Center documents this shifting backdrop and explores the fast growing segment of 46 million Americans who identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated. The rate of growth has been increasing at a substantial pace with one-third of those under 29 years old claiming to be unaffiliated. As this move from religious to unaffiliated grows, we are losing the place that we originally turned to for personal development, growth, purpose, and meaning and are now seeking new options in both our workplace and our life.

In the report “How We Gather,” Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston explain the shift in backdrop does not mean that desires of a new generation are changing. “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.”

Kuile and Thurston map out a new group of companies and organizations that fill this need. The response is coming from a diverse set of companies and organizations beyond workplaces.

Exercise communities like SoulCycle and CrossFit are among a new wave of businesses. Classes have become journeys and cathartic workouts have become invitations to heal. A new generation of exercise class specializes in filling the need that people have for accountability, for partners, for community, and for personal transformation. Individuals come together and make public commitments to changing their body, mind, and spirit. They are held accountable and develop a shared language and often “evangelical enthusiasm.”

“How to Gather” categorizes the types of services these new communities provide into six different areas: community, personal transformation, social transformation, purpose finding, creativity, and accountability.

What connects this diverse range of companies and organizations is the fact that they are all addressing a need to humanize and connect with one another—something that may be lost in the non-religious and increasingly digital age.

The human needs to grow, learn, and gather are strong and alive. Without organized religion we still turn to each other and find new ways to do so. We find each other in exercise classes, classrooms, and around dinner tables.  As this shift happens and more companies and organizations rise in response to this challenge, important questions will be answered about how commerce, class, and race intersect with one’s ability to pursue and access these new organizations and classes.

But for now, together, we continue to grow and learn. Whether it is through evangelical exercise, tackling social issues with an affinity group, or coming together with a group of guys to talk about the real issues, the backdrop before which we gather shifts but the experience and the human relationships remain the same.

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