A few months ago, two researchers from the Harvard Divinity School, Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile, asked to interview me for a report they were writing on a range of new organizations that they believed represented a sea change in millennial attitudes toward community, personal transformation, and — to my surprise — religion.
The organization that I founded three years ago, the Millennial Trains Project (MTP), was one of the ten entities that Thurston and ter Kuile chose to profile in their compelling and thought-provoking report, How We Gather, which was published last week.
I was initially surprised by Thurston and ter Kuile’s observation that MTP, which leads crowdfunded train journeys for young innovators to grow as leaders by connecting with communities and advancing purpose-driven projects across America, was analogous to the religious pilgrimages of certain faith-based communities.
Nearly all MTP projects over the past three years have focused on non-religious topics, such as entrepreneurship, education, disaster preparedness, sustainability, public art, and creative placemaking. And yet, I must admit that there was a spiritual element to our last journey, especially thanks to one of our participants — Brandi Harvey of Atlanta, GA — whose MTP project (“Spiritual, not Religious”) examined millennial attitudes toward faith across America.
At the beginning of our journey, at Portland’s Union Station, I invited Brandi to lead our community in a prayer — our first ever — to bless our journey, prepare us for the challenges ahead, and keep us safe.
We all held hands and lowered our heads as Brandi asked that angels watch over us. They did, and over the next week, despite my own lack of religious conviction, I became convinced that she was one of them as she periodically led our community in rousing, impromptu motivational speeches that urged us to remain conscious, and be the change we wanted to see in the world.
The spirit that had brought our community together from all corners of the country and planet was a spirit of adventure, discovery, community, connection, and wonder — and the practice of celebrating the uniqueness of that spirit made our community stronger.
Part of me would like to think there is something special about our train journeys that brings forth this inspiration and connectedness, but the reality is that our journeys are a mere microcosm of a broader sea change taking place throughout millennial America — one of many vehicles being used by my generation on our journey toward the most impactful, connected, purpose-driven lives we can possibly create.
What Thurston and ter Kuile’s report helped me to realize is that MTP is part of a growing movement of seemingly unrelated new organizations that satisfy commonly-held desires for personal transformation, community, and inspiration that in prior times might more likely have been met by religious institutions.
This new cadre of organizations includes exercise communities like SoulCycle and CrossFit, purposeful community event platforms like CTZNWELL, the Sanctuaries, and the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, inspirational digital detox retreats like Camp Grounded and Summit Series, mindfulness programs like Juniper Path, and societies for the promotion and development of work/life balance such as Live in the Grey.
Each of these organizations elevates to a more authentic plateau the aesthetic attributes, vernacular, and digital marketing tactics of the highly-considered corporate cause-based marketing campaigns that are continually directed at our age demographic.
They are almost a form of protest, pushing back against such campaigns and saying: “we don’t just want to buy stuff, we want come come together, care for one another, and live engaged, purposeful lives.”
These organizations are diverse, interfaith communities, first and foremost, but they are also brands that impart meaningful experiences and symbols to their devotees, which are then used to signal values via social media and in-person storytelling.
Beyond our loosely unifying style, the substance behind the millennial tribes profiled by Thurston and ter Kuile is decidedly more focused on the attainment and broadcasting of inner well-being as opposed to the affectation of affluence afforded by so many old-school consumer brands.
In one form or another, the organizations profiled by Thurston and ter Kuile are platforms for personal transformation, and this is where the authors’ comparisons to religious communities ring true.
According to the Pew Research Center, nearly a third of Millennials — roughly 25 million Americans aged 18–34 — are religiously unaffiliated, and only 10% are looking to join a religious community.
In the absence of engagement with traditional religious hierarchies and rituals, unaffiliated Millennials are gravitating toward values-based organizations that satisfy common human desires for personal improvement, inspiration, and community while also remaining accessible and inviting to the two-thirds of Millennials who are religiously affiliated.
At the same time, churches, synagogues, and mosques are racing to rebrand themselves to appeal to the next-generation.
The interplay between these trends, traditional religious hierarchies, and the new organizations profiled by Thurston and ter Kuile should not be seen as a challenge to religious, faith-based communities, but rather as a flourishing of community, connectedness, and personal growth being initiated by Millennials.
25 million religiously-unaffiliated American Millennials may be turning away from traditional religious movements and institutions, but it clearly doesn’t mean that they are turning away from the quest to live lives of purpose, depth, meaning, and service.
Organizations that can empower them to undertake that journey — and then guide them towards their own most authentic and deepest truths — are not only playing an important role in the lives of those Millennials. They are also ensuring that the world benefits from vast numbers of lives lived with purpose, passion, commitment, and spiritual wisdom and strength.