Fridays at dusk, Casper ter Kuile, 28, begins his “tech Sabbath.” He puts his iPhone away. He lights a candle and sings a song. From sunset to sunset, he unplugs from technology and reconnects IRL, “in real life.”
This ritual is how he resets after the work week. It’s a time to walk, read, and meditate. It’s also part of his training as a minister for non-religious people. In conversations and relationships, ter Kuile, a master’s candidate at Harvard Divinity School, seeks substance and depth beyond the digital realm.
Like nearly one in three millennials, ter Kuile is not affiliated with an individual house of worship. He loves to create communities of meaning and belonging, but hasn’t found a home inside an established church. He might find fulfillment in reading Harry Potter as a sacred text, as he will at a book club he’s leading every Wednesday starting Sept. 30 at the Harvard Humanist Hub. Or discussing the significance of gratefulness at Thanksgiving.
The number of young adults unaffiliated with any religious group is on the rise. About 35 percent of millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, consider themselves religious “nones,” that is, atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular,” according to a May survey by the Pew Research Center.
However, a report called “How We Gather” by ter Kuile and fellow Harvard Divinity student Angie Thurston, 30, found that unaffiliated does not mean uninterested. It can mean spiritual, but not religious. Their study, released in April, highlights 10 secular organizations where young adults seek fellowship and purpose.
For a year and a half starting in 2014, ter Kuile and Thurston interviewed leaders of these nonprofits and businesses across the country and found millennials adopting personal traditions. Some kept elements of religious faith such as prayer, while others ditched old belief systems and discovered new sanctuaries that fit their worldview. They sought spirituality and community in activities like volunteerism, storytelling, camping, dinner parties, even CrossFit.
“Nearly all of them had manifestos,” ter Kuile said. “All talked about movements and transformation. . . . [T]here’s a lot of spiritual behavior and language happening outside the religious world.”
On Nov. 5, the duo will convene 40 leaders from these groups for face-to-face conversations. They’ll look at how they might collaborate and what they should call this cultural shift. Past generations sometimes met at Moose lodges and Rotary clubs for social gatherings and philanthropy. But those organizations never replaced church on Sunday. The modern equivalent of these groups seems to be drawing people from the pews.
Between 2007 and 2014, a Pew survey of 35,000 adults found the number of people who identify as Christians, specifically mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, dropped from 78 percent to 70 percent. The number of “nones” increased more than 6 percent to nearly 23 percent.
Thurston is the president of the Harvard Divinity School’s Religious Nones. She is a Urantia Book reader. (The Urantia Book is a 20th-century work that, in part, blends philosophy, cosmology, and spirituality.) Today, as part of her spiritual practice, she tries to learn to love one new person each day. She communes with God each morning, does yoga, and every night thinks about three things she’s grateful for.
“Our hope [with this report] is for people to develop relationships that support and challenge each other,” Thurston said. “We are attempting to bring people together on the journey of being human.”
With each case study in “How We Gather,” ter Kuile and Thurston list ancestor groups that set the stage for groups popular with millennials today. Camp Grounded in California is in driving distance of Silicon Valley. It appeals to millennials seeking to unplug from their devices and spend time in the great outdoors.
Its antecessors? Burning Man and Woodstock.
The Dinner Party is a circle of strangers who come together and share a meal during which they talk about life after the loss of someone close to them. The organization began in Los Angeles with a group of close friends. Since launching in 2013, these “tables,” have popped up in more than 30 cities.
The first in Boston was held in May. Allison Bard, 28, of Cambridge and Rosy Hosking, 35, of Jamaica Plain met when each applied to host a table. Bard’s mother died of cancer five years ago. Hosking’s
father was killed in a car accident when she was 3. Bard and Hosking have hosted two parties so far with five at each dinner.
“Talking about death is a conversation-stopper,” Bard said. “The Dinner Party provides a place for people to share . . . to come together about a tough experience.”
The Dinner Party also gave them an opportunity to be vulnerable. Both recognized healing or achieving resolution isn’t the goal. These experiences are part of their lives.
“I was bowled over at how we jelled,” Hosking said. “It was like when I opened the door, I felt like saying, ‘Oh, it’s you.’ Even though I didn’t know them, I did.”
Another gathering point for millennials is CrossFit, an exercise regimen that draws people from different backgrounds. The report describes its most striking aspect as its “evangelical enthusiasm and accountability.”
In many CrossFit settings, participants cheer for everyone who takes part, no matter how long it takes to finish a workout or whether they finish at all. In some cases, members are expected to call each other if they don’t come in at their regular time and let each other know if they’re out of town.
Ali Huberlie, 26, of Cambridge wasn’t athletic. But she found her flow, a new boyfriend, and some of her best friends at CrossFit Boston. She joined two years ago. There have been five weddings to come out of the gym in the past five years and five babies born to members this spring. Six out of seven days a week, Huberlie said she is there lifting or socializing.
“I definitely like the spiritual aspect of pushing yourself further than you ever thought you could go,” Huberlie said. “I don’t think I can put my beliefs behind any particular religion right now . . . but something I missed [about church] is if you really need something, your church community will be there. For me, my CrossFit family has become that community.”