DIY religion

It’s Saturday night. I’m on my way to Genesis, a 7:30 p.m. service at Kensington Community Church in Troy. It’s not the time, or day, I’d expect to head to church, but that’s what sets apart this particular event.

"We knew that young people would want to stay out late on Saturday night and wouldn’t want to get up early on Sunday to go to church," explains Steve Norman, 25, the director of Genesis.

He felt that the spiritual needs of people aged 18 to 30 weren’t being met, and so he set out with his peers to design a spiritual place for young people – many of whom have had bad experiences in more dogmatic or organized religion.

Entering the church, I’m struck by how much it doesn’t look like a church. It looks like a theater. Scanning the crowd, I see many young faces: Teens and 20-somethings who look like they should be out at the mall or waiting in line at Motor, not in church.

Tonight’s topic: The Fear of Death. With electronica humming from the sound system, it sounds more like something off 89X than something from a musty hymnal. A casket with flowers is the focal point of the moodily lit set. There’s a short dramatic video montage about death, the Holocaust, drug-related shootings and the Columbine massacre. The pastor’s sermon, which is more of a lecture, is a meditation on death and its power over the living.

This is church? I was raised Baptist, which is like Catholicism without all the fun. Where were the dark wood-paneled walls and the robed ministers shouting at the congregation about damnation and punishment? Since when did church adopt casual day?

Multimedia message

"Culture is shifting," Norman says, trying to explain the discordance between his and more traditional approaches to spirituality. "The way we communicate what we believe in has to shift, too."

At the close of the service, a scene from the Anne Heche/Vince Vaughn movie Return to Paradise is played to illustrate the main theme. It is multimedia with a message.

"Video is a non-negotiable for our culture," explains Norman. "If you can’t speak in that language, you have forfeited your right to an audience."

All this flash and dazzle with a message is nothing new. It has its roots in the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, where morality plays were used to teach spiritual lessons because most of the audiences were illiterate.

Those in today’s audience were raised in front of televisions. The traditional approach to religion just doesn’t hold their interest anymore.

In a recent study conducted by the graduate school of the City University of New York, the number of Americans who identified themselves as nonreligious (8.2 percent of those polled) was higher than those who identified themselves as following Judaism (1.8 percent) or Islam (0.5 percent), nearly doubling what it was in 1975.

The disaffected flock is wandering away from the shepherd in droves. Many younger people have been disenchanted by too many paradoxes.

"I’ve had a bad taste of religion," says Mike Gula, 30, of Birmingham. His mother converted from Judaism when she married into a Catholic family, and Gula found himself turned off to both religions. He didn’t like "all the contradictions. This religion says one thing, this one says another."

And yet, he, like many others, still feels the need for some sort of spiritual life. Steve Norman finds that young people come to his church when they reach a point of watershed in their lives.

"There are a lot of people who are like: ’You know what? My life is crap. I’m strung out or whatever. The party scene just wound down for me or I’m coming off a divorce or a bad relationship and I’m not finding the answers I was supposed to be able to find in my career or dating.’ For a lot of people, church is a last resort."

Finding the way

"I believe that people that weren’t raised with religion turn to religion," offers Ferndale resident Peter Artemas, 30, who was raised in the strict Greek Orthodox faith but now doesn’t make church a major focus in his life. "And people who were raised with religion turn against it."

For many people in their 20s and 30s, the need for a set of beliefs to live by is tempered by a skepticism toward the more fundamentalist doctrines. The apathy of the children of believers of fundamentalist Islam, Christian and Judaic faiths has eroded their adherence to those religions’ stringent laws and doctrines, leaving only the core beliefs. As a result, these young people begin to realize that the core beliefs of one religion are very similar to those of other religions.

With easy access to the Internet and television from all over the world, today’s spiritual searcher can look at Christianity, Judaism and Islam in context with other world religions, thereby picking and choosing in their search for their own religion. Perhaps the rise of multiculturalism, global economics and the concept of the world as global village is causing people to seek a spirituality that is not exclusionary.

"I think that most organized religions are too strict, but then, most alternative religions are too permissive," says Artemas. "They don’t want to judge people because they don’t want to chase them away. Whereas the old churches say everything is wrong and that’s not right either."

"Pray where you are"

Ironically, it’s when the apparent contradictions of various religions come together into something new that young people can feel the most comfortable. Gula has found that synchronicity for himself at the Church of Today in Warren.

"The Church of Today is more spiritual than religious," he says, an important distinction. To those seeking alternatives, ’religious’ implies doctrine, while ’spiritual’ is a more vague notion of the holy.

"The message of the Church of Today," says Gula, "is that God is in you. Pray where you are."

Gula also likes the way the church incorporates various ethnic backgrounds and beliefs – there are elements of Hinduism, Buddhism and many other religions. This kind of spirituality isn’t about knowable truths fed to true believers. It’s about discovering your own path to what you feel is worth believing. If it’s Hindu-Judaism, so be it. If it’s Buddhist-tinged Christianity, fine.

Lately, Gula has been reading the Kabbalah, a popular text among many young people searching for their own spiritual truths. Hinduism, Shinto and, most evidently, Buddhism have also crept into the mainstream Western consciousness over the last decade, infusing themselves into popular culture and bringing about an awakening to Asian religions.

Ralph Williams, former director of U-M’s program on studies in religion, suggests there are several reasons for this. "One is increasing and more contact with these faiths," he says. "Most people in Western Europe and the U.S. earlier in this century learned of these faiths from reports of exotic interest and looked on them as ’other.’ But with so much visual contact through the media it’s become increasingly more difficult to dismiss them as such."

Popular figures such as the Dalai Lama have also given these religions a more visible presence.

Leaders of traditional faiths may find that if they don’t change with the times, their well-educated congregations will find a new church, perhaps one that believes a common thread of truth runs through all the world’s major religions, and that at base all religions teach the same thing.

Followers of the Baha’i faith claim to have this universal religion, and believe there is only one god, whose messengers include Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Krishna, Muhammad and Baha’u’llah. It is one of the fastest growing religions today, recruiting members into the many Baha’i clubs cropping up at major universities around the United States.

To the Baha’i, the world is currently in the course of crumbling old orders and establishing new traditions such as the unity of the human race, unity of religion, reconcilement of science and religion, the equality of the sexes, and the elimination of prejudice.

It’s easy to see why people searching for some kind of spiritual home, especially progressive Gen-Xers, would be interested.

"I was first attracted intellectually," says Ted Amsden 48, a spokesperson for the Baha’i Faith Macomb County, in Clinton Township. "I was intrigued that there was some underlying unity to all religions." And unlike the more fundamentalist faiths, with clergy telling people what to think, Baha’i has no designated clergy and encourages people to think for themselves.

"Baha’is believe in the independent investigation of Truth," says Amsden. "Not to accept something just because you’re told. It’s up to each individual to search for the truth for themselves."

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