Blurred photo of praying people in the church for abstract background

Commodifying Faith

70 years ago, religion was America’s heart.  Church gave spiritual significance, social responsibility, and a sense of community to the average American, serving as a hub for all layers of life.  On any given Sunday morning, half of all Americans attended church, and 95% of Americans identified with a religious tradition.  Today that number hovers at 70%

Instead, new centers of society now bloom to occupy the spaces once dominated by religion.  Meditation studios have grown into a $1.2 billion industry, and apps, rituals, and searches on spirituality surged during the pandemic.  Instead of going to synagogue for prayerful reflection, more than 4 million paid subscribers turn to the mobile meditation platform Calm, now valued at more than $2 billion. Instead of turning to the local mosque or temple for a sense of social accountability, millions now turn to their CrossFit gym to receive that accountability while getting fit. As the wellness industry grows to more than $52 billion, we see Americans finding salvation in personal care rather than in the pews. 

Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice, the co-founders of SoulCycle, have now stepped in to capitalize on another segment of religion: spiritual community.  “We realized that connection should be its own product,” one of its founders told Katherine Rosman of the New York Times. “We are modern medicine for the loneliness epidemic.”  Their new venture, Peoplehood, utilizes small group gatherings for intentional conversations around hopes and fears.  It is “a place to grow personally, together.”  It is the latest attempt to commodify community. 

We applaud Cutler and Rice and believe they have named both the most pressing modern issue (loneliness) and the right medium (intentional community).  The plummeting affiliation rates of religious organizations illustrate well that much of the meaning and benefit of religious belonging can be found in other, often more convenient, spaces.  

Yet it is problematic and fallacious to suggest that commercial enterprises should replace religious community as the bedrock of civil and social life. Cutler and Rice have fallen prey to marketing myopia – in which a nearsighted focus on selling products can mean missing the larger picture of what people really need. The desired outcome of belonging requires more than a paid seat at the table. Community and a sense of belonging require responsibility for ideals and people beyond oneself.   

The transformations that can be so successful in Alcoholics Anonymous and other support programs arise when participants become creators of community.  As participants become sponsors, as classmates become friends, there is mutual accountability to values and behaviors that deepens through repetition. Belonging comes from being needed and necessary – not commodified. 

Christine Emba captures this in her recent reflection. “The religious structures Peoplehood is attempting to emulate kindle purpose by asking things of their adherents — hard things. They cultivate meaning by providing ethical frameworks and moral visions to strive for that are not solely opt-in consumables. Ideally, they push us to think outside of ourselves, to not be ruled solely by our own desires, to develop a sense of obligation toward others.” 

For decades, faith communities cultivated small groups of shared responsibility as the bedrock of belonging.  Christianity Today sparked to give immediate access and tools to those looking to use Christian frameworks as a way of cohering circles of community.  Much of this work then inspired similar thinking within American Jewish communities, notably captured by Rabbi Nicole Auerbach and Rabbi Lydia Medwin.  However, many faith communities frame the purpose of such small groups as an inherent obligation of religious belonging rather than an opportunity for life fulfillment. In the process, spiritual seekers may come to see the driving purpose of religion as an organizational structure rather than for the well-being of people. 

As we look to the future of American religion, we note that venture capital investments and for-profit entrepreneurs see verdant opportunity within the customary domains of religious community.  Just as we believe these corporate endeavors can learn from the collective accountability and empowerment necessary to cultivate real belonging, so too do we believe that American religion can learn how to better center their offerings on the driving needs of humanity. While profits and prophecy can create a noxious mix, the business of belonging could spur religions to better serve their adherents. 

Rabbi Benjamin Spratt is Senior Rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City. Rabbi Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple and Senior Fellow of CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. This article draws from their forthcoming book, Awakenings: American Jewish Transformations in Identity, Leadership, and Belonging

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