50 experts on emerging religious communities

A laundromat in Walden, New York (Daniel Case via Creative Commons)

Want to worship while eating dinner? There’s a church for that.

Want to worship while doing laundry? There’s a church for that.

Want to worship in a rocking chair? There’s a church for that, too.

Across America and around the world, people are rethinking what worship should look like. They’re launching innovative religious or spiritual communities in bars, restaurants, cafes and the great outdoors, prioritizing human connection over established routines.

These communities often aim to revitalize organized religion or, at the very least, fill the hole left when church attendance falls. They meet people where they are and reject the notion that worship needs to be formal, serious or reverential.

They may begin due to the leadership of a single person, but they rely on the wisdom of all comers to flourish. Many are service-oriented and more interested in making a difference in the short term than lasting forever.

Scholars who have studied these emerging groups note that traditional houses of worship shouldn’t view them as a threat. They enrich the spiritual ecosystem and gain knowledge that can benefit all kinds of religious leaders.

This edition of ReligionLink is all about new communities. It looks at how they form, what they do and who you should interview if you want to learn more.

For more information on how the religious landscape is changing, check out this ReligionLink guide on religious demographics.

Examples

  • Lower Lights Sangha: This meditation community in Salt Lake City trains participants, many of whom are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to integrate new spiritual practices into their established religious routines.
  • Laundry Love: On its surface, Laundry Love has nothing to do with faith. The program partners with laundromats to help low-income individuals clean their clothes. On a deeper level, it’s a starting point for transformative relationships and spiritual growth.
  • The Dinner Party: The Dinner Party treats loss as a starting point for new connections. It brings together people mourning a loved one for meals and tough conversations.
  • Wild Goose Christian Community: Do you want to be part of this relaxed, inclusive faith group? Just pull up a chair. A rocking chair. Wild Goose Christian Community meets on Thursday evening and prioritizes potluck suppers and conversation over traditional rituals.
  • Gastrochurch: This worshipping community treats shared meals as a spiritual experience. Participants listen to a short reflection and receive a new discussion question with each course.

Background reading

U.S. sources

  • Bener Agtarap

    Bener Agtarap is the executive director of community engagement and church planting for the United Methodist Church.

  • Nancy Ammerman

    Nancy Ammerman is professor of sociology at Boston University and a leading expert on congregational dynamics, especially in mainline Protestantism. She is the author of Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life and Pillars of Faith: American Congregations and Their Partners. She is also an expert on religious movements and has written about the rise of fundamentalism.

  • Elan Babchuck

    Elan Babchuck is the founding director of Glean Network, which supports entrepreneurs seeking to create new ministries. He also serves as director of innovation for Clal, a think tank focused on the future of religion.

  • Courtney Bender

    Courtney Bender is a professor of religious studies at Columbia University and sociologist. She studies new religious movements, religious pluralism and is currently writing about the religion of the future.

  • Teresa Berger

    Teresa Berger is a professor of liturgical studies and Catholic theology at Yale Divinity School.

  • Usama Canon

    Usama Canon is the founder of Ta’leef Collective, an organization for converts to Islam. He also serves as spiritual adviser to the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago.

  • Nikki Collins

    The Rev. Nikki Collins is coordinator of the 1,001 New Worshiping Communities initiative in the Presbyterian Church (USA.) The initiative, which began in 2012, aims to launch 1,001 new Presbyterian churches or ministries by 2022. Collins previously led one of these communities: Bare Bulb Coffee in Georgia.

  • Kenda Creasy Dean

    The Rev. Kenda Creasy Dean is a professor of youth, church and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. She is also an ordained United Methodist pastor and co-founder of Ministry Incubators, a consulting group that works with pastors and faith communities to launch new ministries. She is the author of several books on youth ministry.

  • Ruben Duran

    The Rev. Ruben Duran is the director of congregational vitality for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

  • Kendy Easley

    The Rev. Kendy Easley is the executive pastor and head of staff for Bethany Presbyterian Church in Seattle. She serves as an adviser for Ministry Incubators, which offers coaching to religious entrepreneurs.

  • Karen Erlichman

    Karen Erlichman is a spiritual consultant for The Dinner Party, which creates connections between and hosts dinners for people who have experienced the loss of a loved one.

  • Kara Faris

    Kara Faris is the director of resource grants and consulting for the Center for Congregations in Indianapolis. She is the co-author of Divergent Church: The Bright Promise of Alternative Faith Communities.

  • Richard W. Flory

    Richard Flory is a sociologist and senior director of research and evaluation for the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. He studies religious change, the spiritual practices of young adults and religion in Los Angeles. He is the author of Spirit and Power: The Growth and Global Impact of Pentecostalism and  The Rise of Network Christianity: How Independent Leaders Are Changing the Religious Landscape.

  • Lennon Flowers

    Lennon Flowers is the co-founder and executive director of The Dinner Party, which facilitates conversations about loss over shared meals. She also leads The People’s Supper, which addresses ideological, political and racial divides.

  • Susan Goldberg

    Rabbi Susan Goldberg is on staff at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. She leads Nefesh, the temple’s community-driven ministry that’s redefining what Shabbat service should look and feel like. Contact her through her assistant, Ashley Sullivan.

  • Niles Elliot Goldstein

    Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein leads Congregation Beth Shalom in California’s Napa Valley. He’s also co-founder of The Napa Center for Thought and Culture, which hosts events for people who are interested in Judaism but don’t want to attend traditional synagogue services.

  • Sara Hayden

    The Rev. Sara Hayden is the director of apprenticeships, residences and leadership cohorts for 1,001 New Worshiping Communities, a Presbyterian Church (USA) initiative. She also hosts the podcast New Way on religious innovation.

  • Dusty Hoesly

    Dusty Hoesly is a lecturer in North American religions at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He studies new religious movements, secularism and how minority faith groups shape American culture.

  • Zach Kerzee

    The Rev. Zach Kerzee leads Simple Church, a faith community centered on shared meals.

  • Abby King-Kaiser

    The Rev. Abby King-Kaiser is associate director of the Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice at Xavier University. She leads Church-ish, a new worshipping community affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA).

  • Brie Loskota

    Brie Loskota is the executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. She researches religious change and facilitates partnerships between faith groups and the government.

  • Elsa Marty

    The Rev. Elsa Marty leads St. Lydia’s, a food-focused faith community in the Brooklyn borough of New York.

  • Thomas McConkie

    Thomas McConkie is the founder and director of Lower Lights Sangha, a meditation community in Salt Lake City. He is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and trained in Buddhist meditation.

  • Terrell McTyer

    Terrell McTyer is the minister for new church strategies for the Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation, a ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ.)

  • Gretchen Mertes

    The Rev. Gretchen Mertes is an associate pastor for Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church in Seattle. She previously led Luther’s Table, a unique faith community based in a bar, and continues to host theology on tap events.

  • Meredith Mills

    The Rev. Meredith Mills leads Gastrochurch, a worshipping community built around shared meals and spiritual discussions. She is an ordained United Methodist pastor.

  • Jessica Minnen

    Rabbi Jessica Minnen is a spiritual leader for One Table, an organization that coordinates Shabbat dinners for people who don’t regularly take part in the Jewish ritual but want to learn more about it.

  • Zack Nyein

    The Rev. Zack Nyein is the associate rector of  All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Atlanta. He helps coordinate Warrior Church, an opportunity for community members to work out and worship together.

  • David L. Odom

    David L. Odom is the executive director of leadership education at Duke Divinity School.

  • Moses Penumaka

    Moses Penumaka is the director of theological education for emerging ministries at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. He was previously a youth minister and educator in India.

  • Sue Phillips

    The Rev. Sue Phillips is an expert on religious innovation and works with the How We Gather project to understand how and where young people find community amid a decline in organized religion. She previously served as the Unitarian Universalist Association’s regional lead for New England.

  • Aaron Potek

    Rabbi Aaron Potek helps lead GatherDC, an organization for young Jews in Washington, D.C., who are searching for their spiritual home.

  • Stephanie Price

    The Rev. Stephanie Price leads The Land, a worshipping community that meets in the great outdoors. She is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church.

  • Erik Martinez Resly

    Erik Martinez Resly is a visual artist, community organizer and minister. He is the founder and co-director of The Sanctuaries, an art-focused spiritual community in Washington, D.C. Contact him using the form on his website.

  • Greg Russinger

    Greg Russinger is the co-founder and board president of Laundry Love, a ministry run out of laundromats across the country.

  • Timothy Shapiro

    The Rev. Timothy Shapiro is the president of the Center for Congregations in Indianapolis. He’s also an ordained Presbyterian pastor. He is the co-author of Divergent Church: The Bright Promise of Alternative Faith Communities.

  • Sean Steele

    The Rev. Sean Steele leads St. Isidore Episcopal Church in Houston. His community has redefined what it means to be a church. Rather than focus on a shared space and traditional rituals, members split their time and resources between a variety of ministries, like Taco Church, Laundry Love and Pub Theology.

  • Bryan Stone

    Bryan Stone serves as associate dean for academic affairs, director of the Center for Practical Theology and a professor of evangelism at Boston University’s School of Theology. He researches congregational development, urban ministry and theology and popular culture.

  • Dan Stone

    The Rev. Dan Stone is the pastor of Central Flora-Bama, which meets at a bar straddling the Florida and Alabama state line.

  • Anne Williamson

    Anne Williamson is the founder and director of WAYfinding, which leads discussion groups on spiritual topics and organizes service projects.

International sources

  • Marion Bowman

    Marion Bowman is a senior lecturer in religious studies at The Open University in England. She studies people on the edges of and outside organized religion, with a particular interest in nontraditional pilgrimage.

  • Stephen Bullivant

    Stephen Bullivant directs the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St. Mary’s University in London, where he also teaches the theology and sociology of religion. He previously served as co-director of the international Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network.

  • Laurel Dykstra

    The Rev. Laurel Dykstra leads Salal + Ceder, an Anglican ministry in Vancouver, British Columbia, focused on connecting worshippers with nature and inspiring environmental activism.

  • Matt Hills

    Matt Hills directs the Center for Participatory Culture at the University of Huddersfield in England, where he is also a professor of journalism and media. He researches fandom.

  • Wendy Janzen

    Wendy Janzen leads Burning Bush Forest Church, a faith community that worships outside. She is an ordained Mennonite pastor.

  • Sanderson Jones

    Sanderson Jones is the co-founder and creative director of Sunday Assembly, an organization that facilitates churchlike gatherings of nonreligious people around the world. He’s also a stand-up comedian. Contact him with the form on his website.

  • Clive Marsh

    Clive Marsh works at the intersection of religion and popular culture, researching how being a fan of something relates to being religious. He also serves as chairman of the Theology, Religion and Popular Culture Network and leads the Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of Leicester.

  • Tineke Nugteren

    Tineke Nugteren is an associate professor of humanities and culture studies at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. She studies religious diversity and religious behavior, with an emphasis on rituals. She serves as treasurer for the European Society for the Study of Religion.

  • Oliver Steffen

    Oliver Steffen, who is based at the University of Bern in Switzerland, studies religion and the media, with an emphasis on the spiritual aspects of digital games.

  • Steve Taylor

    Steve Taylor, who works at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, researches new forms of Christian practice.

Related research