CHOOSING MY RELIGION

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You hear it everywhere from spiritual seekers and true believers, five words that are rapidly becoming the mantra of the new millennium: "I'm into spirituality, not religion."

You hear the refrain, not surprisingly, at all the trendy venues of the new American spirituality-places like the New York Open Center, in Manhattan's SoHo district, or the Esalen Institute, the granddaddy of growth centers, on California's spectacular Big Sur coast. But variations on the theme are now ringing out across the American religious landscape, at Catholic retreat centers, Presbyterian churches, Pentecostal congregations, Conservative synagogues, and Buddhist temples, as the shift from "religion" to "spirituality" takes hold in the mainstream of faith in America.

Behind this shift is the search for an experiential faith, a religion of the heart, not of the head. It's a religious expression that downplays doctrine and dogma, and revels in direct experience of the divine-whether it's called the "holy spirit" or "cosmic consciousness" or the "true self." It is practical and personal, more about stress reduction than salvation, more therapeutic than theological. It's about feeling good, not being good. It's as much about the body as the soul.

But it is a shift that goes far beyond the realms of religion, transforming health care, education, and the search for new forms of community. This being the United States, where consumerism is the closest thing we have to state religion, it's very much about marketing, packaging, and promotion.

Some marketing gurus have begun calling it "the experience industry," and it is a growing multibillion-dollar business.

Sociologists note that personal spirituality, practical religion, and the marketing of faith have long defined the American religious experience. Robert Bellah has documented how "utilitarian individualism" underlies most aspects of American life, including religion. R. Laurence Moore traces the roots of the experience industry to the publicity-driven religious revivals that swept the United States in the first half of the 19th century, which shattered authoritative interpretations of scripture and transformed American religion into a commodity transaction. The decline of institutionalized religion accelerated after World War II with the spiritual seekers of the baby boom generation.

Today, at the dawn of the new millennium, religion and spirituality have become just another product in the broader marketplace of goods and services; congregants care as much about a church's childcare services as its doctrinal purity, pay more attention to the style of music than the pastor's theological training.

At the Sausalito Presbyterian Church, an affluent congregation just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, worshippers who'd rather watch football or go to the beach on Sunday morning do church on Saturday evening, at a rock and gospel music service called "Saturday Night Alive." What's particularly revealing about this gathering is the way it's advertised on the church's Web site, www.SausalitoPresbyterian.com. Saturday night worship, it seems, is very user-friendly. "Following the service," the Web page reads, "there is plenty of time to go to dinner, the movies, attend a party or other activities." It's a small but significant disclaimer, revealing how worship must now be marketed as just another diversion in the busy lives of folks in Northern California.

Church leaders across the nation are using computerized demographic studies and other sophisticated marketing techniques to fill their pews. "Mainline churches don't have to die," says church marketing consultant Richard Southern. "Anyone can learn these marketing and outreach techniques. You don't have to change your theology or your political stance."

Southern encourages "an essential paradigm shift in the way church is done," putting the needs of potential "customers" before the needs of the institutional church. "Baby boomers think of churches like they think of supermarkets," Southern observes. "They want options, choices, and convenience. Imagine if Safeway was only open one hour a week, had only one product, and didn't explain it in English.'

Amid the crumbling foundations of organized religion, the spiritual supermarket is on the rise, fueled by this free market of faith and spiritual practice. Numerous surveys show that Americans are as religious as ever-perhaps more than ever. According to a 1997 survey from the Pew Research Center, 71 percent of Americans say they "never doubt the existence of God," up 11 percent from 1987.

But what is on the decline is American loyalty to particular denominations or traditions. The old brand names-Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran-are falling away, and congregations are resorting to marketing studies before renaming their congregation to target specific groups of spiritual consumers. First Baptist Church becomes the Family Christian Center, while the Lutherans across town are reborn as Grace Community Church.

We have entered the post-denomination era of American religion. In 1958, for example, only 1 in 25 Americans had left the religious denomination of their upbringing. Today, more than one in three have left or switched. And nearly half of all people raised as Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians have left the faith-or at least the denominations-of their forefathers. Most still believe in God, but now they are looking for a personal spiritual practice, mixing and matching religious beliefs and practices that resonate with their own life experience. According to a recent survey from the MacArthur Foundation, seven out of ten Americans say they are religious and consider spirituality to be an important part of their lives. But about half attend religious services less than once a month, or never.

Of course, many congregations continue to thrive. But they tend to be the ones that provide a firsthand sense of the sacred, whether it's a Buddhist meditation retreat or a roof-raising Pentecostal service. Attendance at the Assemblies of God, for example-lively churches where emotional worship is said to lead to direct contact with the divine-grew 41percent from 1978 to 1997, according to Sherri Doty, statistician for the general counsel of the organization, headquartered in Springfield, Missouri. Meanwhile, half the baby boomers raised in the mainline Presbyterian Church have dropped out of that denomination.

Experiential religion and its marketing are most apparent in the New Age aisles of the spiritual supermarket. Ground Zero for experiential spirituality in Manhattan, if not the whole East Coast, may be the New York Open Center. At a recent open house, nearly 1,000 seekers and practitioners crammed into introductory classes on Kundalini Yoga and spiritual career counseling.

"I came to the center because there's a wide variety of cultures and outlooks here. And they're all catering to the individual," says Mark Froncek, 27, who is waiting in line for a class on polarity therapy, which blends Eastern and Western methods of healing. "We need to tailor these teachings and traditions to the individual, because we're all different."

The center, which drew 25,000 people to its programs last year, demonstrates how the experiential approach to spirituality can be applied to a whole range of secular activities. The center's thick catalog offers not only courses and lectures on mystical Christianity, Yoga, the Kabbalah, and Buddhism, but also on the arts, music, health, and sexuality.

The turn to the experiential dimensions of health is a central concern at the Open Center, and in the broader New Age movement, which looks beyond rational and empirical methods of research. Instead, the focus is on the experience of "naturalness" and "wholeness," linking body, mind, and spirit. Practitioners view alternative healing as less impersonal and bureaucratic than conventional medicine.

Holistic health has spread far beyond its core supporters. It's estimated that one in three Americans have engaged in alternative health practices. The Clinton Administration has established an office on alternative medicine. There is also evidence that the medical establishment is becoming more receptive to holistic and alternative health: JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association recently devoted an entire issue to alternative medicine to examine the scientific basis of these practices. At the same time, a growing number of physicians agree that spirituality-alternative or traditional-is good for their patients. A 1996 Yankelovich survey of attendees at the American Academy of Family Physicians' annual meeting found that a remarkable 99 percent of them thought religious faith helps patients respond to treatment.

In another Open Center class, teacher Thomas Amelio led a hundred cross-legged students in the basics of meditation. Amelio teaches self-inquiry meditation, which stresses finding one's "true nature." But those taking up the practice nowadays are not always interested in finding a spiritual path. "I'm seeing a lot of people coming for stress reduction as well as spirituality," Amelio says.

Paul Rush, a spokesman for the Open Center, says the trigger that inspires many people to try alternative spirituality is often the loss of a job or other type of crisis. Many sample the practices and teachings, eventually find something that suits them, and develop a regular practice. Others become perpetual students, mixing practices and techniques from a wide range of traditions.

These new forms of continuing education often separate spiritual experiences and practices from religious traditions and congregations. This is especially the case in continuing education programs sponsored by the public schools, where bringing in actual religious teachings might jeopardize church-state separation.

While the shift to experiential spirituality is a nationwide trend, the West Coast is still the Mecca of grow-your-own religion. Surveys show that attendance at traditional religious services is much lower in California and the Pacific Northwest than the rest of the nation. According to a 1995 survey by the Princeton Religion Research Center, 47 percent of those living in the South say they attended church or synagogue in the last week, compared to only 35 percent on the West Coast. In the Midwest, 45 percent claim to be regular church-goers, compared to 41 percent on the East Coast.

Most people on the West Coast come from somewhere else, and one of the roots Americans tear up when they relocate are religious connections. At the same time, those living on the edge of the Pacific Ocean are most influenced by Asia religions and the more experiential practices of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism.

Spirituality California-style is notoriously eclectic. New Age spiritualists fill hotel ballrooms for $300 weekend seminars. Jews flock to workshops on the mystical Kabbalah. Catholics fill retreat centers where the mystery of the Eucharist is packaged with psycho-spiritual study of the enneagram. Protestant megachurches have become the evangelical answer to The Home Depot, marketing such services as worship, child care, a sports club, 12-step groups, and a guaranteed parking place.

San Francisco may be the capital of "none-of-the-above" religion. New revelations roll out every season like the latest software upgrades from Microsoft.

At a recent gathering of the New Age tribe-the Vision Quest Expo-a small crowd of women wait to hear Nick Bunick give a lecture entitled, "In God's Truth.' Bunick, a real estate developer in the Pacific Northwest, launched his revelation in late 1996, test marketing it in Portland and Seattle. Then he moved on to Northern California and elsewhere in a massive, self-financed advertising campaign. Signs announcing the arrival of "The Messenger' appeared on billboards across the Bay Area. His revelation is a mix of angel messages, past-lives claims, and a radical reinterpretation of Jesus and the Apostle Paul.

Vikki Albers drove three hours just to hear Bunick. She heard about him from a spirit channeler she worked with in Oregon, bought Bunick's book and signed up for his newsletter. Albers was baptized into the Presbyterian Church and went to a Lutheran congregation when she was a child. "In my teenage years, I took it on myself to become a Mormon,' she says. "That lasted a few years. Then after that, nothing. I haven't been involved in religion in years, but spirituality is something that is very personal to me, something that I can have every day, all day.'

Inside the auditorium, a trio of New Age musicians-a harpist, a flutist, and a keyboardist-are warming up the crowd with soothing sounds. Bunick, an ordinary-looking guy with a ruddy complexion, slight paunch, and a Boston accent, walks onto the stage, stepping over some Tibetan bells and brass bowls. He preaches an upbeat message-Christianity without hell, original sin, and other unpopular doctrines. "Some are preaching that the end of the world is coming, but I say it is the beginning of a new world,' he tells the crowd. "As we enter the millennium, we can make it on earth as it is in heaven.'

It costs $20 to enter the millennium, or at least to get a ticket to hear Bunick speak. Those with the $100 "Visionary Pass' can get into most events at the two-day expo, everything from "emotional alchemy' workshops to "secrets of a multi-orgasmic man' lectures.

Of course, many mainstream religious leaders bemoan the rise of personal spirituality and what they see as the undermining of religious traditions. The Rev. Alan Jones, dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of California, has derided the phenomenon as "wine-tasting spirituality." Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten also bemoans the consumerist approach, which "replace[s] the excess baggage of tradition with the garbage of today's pop culture," he writes in "Theology for the Third Millennium."

"In America, the consumer is always right," Bratten observes, "and if the consumers want 'Christianity Lite,' then get rid of the vintage traditions."

In the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II has devoted much of his 20-year papacy to reining in what he sees as liberal excesses inspired by the sweeping church reforms of Vatican II, including "cafeteria Catholicism"-the pick-and-choose approach to the faith. In his latest encyclical, the pope warned that this "erroneous eclecticism" has caused a "crisis of meaning" in today's world.

Pollster George Gallup, Jr., a conservative Christian and executive director of the Princeton Religion Research Center, expresses similar concerns in his 1998 report, "The Religious Life of Young Americans." His study of American teens shows that while belief in God is stable over time among young people, the percentage of teenagers attending weekly services has dropped from 55 percent in 1986 to 42 percent in 1997. Meanwhile, teens express rising belief in angels and astrology.

"Most young Americans believe it is 'very important' that life be meaningful and have a purpose," Gallup concludes. "Yet a high percentage of these same people believe that 'most churches and synagogues today are not effective in helping people find meaning in life.'"

According to another recent survey, cited in the book American Generations: Who They Are, How They Live, What They Think, 19 percent of Generation Xers said "none" when asked their religious preference, compared to 12 percent for baby boomers, 7 percent for the Swing generation (1933-45), and only 4 percent for older folks. Author Susan Mitchell believes that the high percentage who list their religious preference as "other" reflects a growing interest in unconventional forms of faith, such as the New Age.

One of the differences between New Age workshops and traditional congregations is that purveyors of New Age spirituality often charge a fixed fee for their services. But fee-for-service spirituality of the 1990s reflects deeper changes than how the bills are paid. Designerreligion, the whole search for a personal spirituality, is at its core a very practical approach to faith. So much of the self-help industry is about fixing something-whether it's your sex life, your soul, or your cardiovascular system. It's spun under the mantra of "holistic health,' and it can be an obsession for consumers in the experience industry.

Comparing the size of "the experience industry" to the business of traditional American religion is difficult, since the lines between these two sectors (and within them) are extremely fuzzy. Still, some figures provide a sense of the scope: researchers John and Sylvia Ronvalle of Empty Tomb, Inc., estimate that traditional religious giving in America, for example, totaled nearly $48 billion in 1996. Meanwhile, according to the Book Industry Study Group, consumer expenditures on religious books totaled $982 million in 1997, up from $519 million in 1992. The "Inspirational" category has been the growth leader, up from $74 million in 1992 to $268 million in 1997, a five-year compound annual growth rate of 31 percent. And last year, consumers spent $27 billion on alternative medicine -on everything from acupuncture to massage-according to a Harvard University study.

While alternative health care is among the most obvious growth markets for the experience industry, education is another important sector that is also being affected. Just as Americans are seeking spirituality and religious practices outside of congregations, the emphasis on choice and the importance of personal experience is helping transform the nation's schools. Rising numbers of families don't want to leave their children's education up to the state, as in public schools, or the church, as in private religious schools. More than 1.5 million children now receive home schooling.

The movement received much of its early strength from conservative Christian families, but today those with other or no religious orientation now make up a large percentage of home schoolers. Home schooling has a do-it-yourself quality that blends well with the experiential lifestyle; just witness the many how-to books and Internet sites exploring the intricacies of educating children at home. And since today's parents often have educations that rival those of many teachers, they feel competent to take on this new role.

The explosive growth of charter schools -with up to a quarter of a million students since the early 1990s-is another way that Americans want education customized to their own experiences and choices. Charter schools are public schools that are organized by parents and/or teachers, often targeted to specific concerns. Some provide an Afrocentric education; others focus on specific subjects, such as music and art. Now, churches and other religious organizations are talking about starting charter schools with officials in New York and Chicago-even though religious instruction would be taught only before or after school hours.

But it's not only the curriculum that draws parents and students to charter schools. "Parents feel that their children are noticed. A lot of the schools' missions are geared to those with special needs," says Mary Kayne Heinze of the Center for EducationReform, an advocacy group. "Parents are also strongly involved."

The similarities between experiential and personal spirituality, alternative health, the growth of school choice, home schooling, and charter schools are more than coincidental. "Americans are becoming fussy consumers rather than trusting captives of a state monopoly," said education specialist Chester Finn in a Newsweek story on home schooling last November. "They've declared their independence and are taking matters into their own hands."

Of course, independence has a price. After all, schools and religious congregations have traditionally served as important centers for community life. What happens when Americans grow their own faith or turn to educating their children at home? Where do contemporary Americans who have rejected organized anything find community? Just look to the engines of experience.

In what is perhaps the most dramatic example of people creating a community where none existed before, a growing number of Americans are joining the "cohousing" movement. Cohousing, which first emerged in Denmark in the 1970s, is a form of cluster living in which residents have their own homes but share meals and other activities. There are close to 50 cohousing communities in the United States, and 150 to 200 more are in the planning stages.

Cambridge Cohousing, the first urban project on the East Coast, was founded in 1998 by several Quakers and other like-minded people and viewed as an extension of their spiritual beliefs. Other cohousing developments also show a high degree of spiritual interest among their members and organizers. Another planned cohousing project outside Washington, D.C., was also inspired in part by Quaker ideals, although, like most of the others, it is interfaith in makeup, according to Gwendolen Noyes, an architect and one of the founders of Cambridge Cohousing. Noyes adds that "most people who have made a commitment to cohousing have thought a lot about better ways of living, and that often comes out of some kind of philosophy or spirituality." While Noyes doesn't think that most cohousing projects in the future will be organized around a common spirituality per se, her assessment of the movement speaks to the blurring of the lines that will increasingly characterize faith in America in the 21st century: "It's more like a secular religion," she says. "It's about living in a healthy community."

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