Are We Losing our Religion? Searching for Spirituality in Seattle

We explore how yoga has become the new church, the legacy of Mark Driscoll and more
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

On Sunday morning, it’s time for yoga church.

At 8 Limbs Yoga Center in West Seattle, 35–55 students attend a class called bhakti yoga, described by owner and studio director Anne Phyfe Palmer as having a “devotional, heart-centered” approach. At the studio’s flagship location on Capitol Hill, 25–40 people attend a similar class.

Attendance numbers are on par at the Phinney Ridge outpost, as well as at the studio’s Wedgwood location, where the students actually refer to their class as “yoga church.”

Meanwhile, at All Pilgrims Christian Church on Broadway, attendance is less enthusiastic. “We probably have 200 members, and we are closer to 90 on a Sunday for worship,” says the Reverend Greg Turk. For Turk, attracting more people has become a focus, and he envisions the worship service as theater. For instance, he labeled one of the pillars in the sanctuary as “Strength,” and invited people to share what makes them strong on Post-It notes, which they attached to the pillar. Their statements came from the heart: “Connection to others during hard times,” “Be better today than I was yesterday,” “Forgiveness.”

Call it a tale of two churches: In that moment, there were more yoga students communing with a higher power on the mat than in an actual house of worship.  At Christian denominations across the city, particularly Protestant sects, low church attendance is common, and indicates a downward trend in engagement with formal religion. But 8 Limbs, founded in 1996, boasts a newsletter with a distribution list of 20,000, with 3,000 readers accessing it on various devices.

What does religion mean to 21st-century Seattleites? Many of us are craving connection with a higher power. But common denominators are hard to find. For some Seattleites, the draw is the charisma of a Mark Driscoll, the fallen former pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church, in the megachurch of the moment. For others, it’s a church or synagogue that’s become less about a leader’s performance and more about community than congregation; more about celebration than service. Our melting-pot city is becoming increasingly diverse—in some churches, it doesn’t even matter if you believe in Jesus.

And whose Jesus is it, anyway?

In terms of religion, Seattleites defy categorization. “The region has been distinctive in that there has never been a dominant religious reference group,” says Patricia O’Connell Killen, who co-edited Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone and is academic vice president at Gonzaga University. For instance, Salt Lake City has its Mormon community, so you’re either actively Mormon or you’re defining yourself as not Mormon.

Because there’s not a singular religious community here, Killen says, there’s not as much social reinforcement to attend church or synagogue. It also means that when challenges of church versus state emerge, such as when a high school football coach in Bremerton wanted to pray on the field at football games, controversy brewed and tensions escalated. “We are moving in two directions: a place where you can be comfortably secular and you can pursue a wide range of paths and communities,” Killen says, “and a place where people who want clarity can find organized communities with strong boundaries.”

Our city offers variety—theological diversity—with both long-established houses of worship and up-and-coming alternatives. People who are active in religious life have lots of options, and there’s creativity here in what kind of religiousness to pursue.

Want to pray at St. James? Worship the powder gods at Crystal Mountain? Flow at yoga class? It’s all available.

In a parallel trend, members of the clergy are rallying to court millennials, a huge cohort that’s notoriously secular, often with a spiritual bent. The upside: Religious leaders are grappling with how to provide more relevant, engaging and participatory services and programs. That’s a bonus for people of all generations. 

According to the public religion research Institute, 33 percent of Seattle residents are religiously unaffiliated. For people in the field, “affiliated” refers to someone who is participating in a religious organization or institution, and doing so frequently enough for the officials of that group to count them. A 2010 study that measures religious congregations in the United States found that, among cities with more than 1 million people, Salt Lake City is the most religious, and Portland is the least. Seattle was ranked 49 out of 51.

“The Pacific Northwest has always been a region which has had a relatively meager religious affiliation,” says James K. Wellman Jr., professor and chair of the comparative religion program at the University of Washington, who describes Seattle’s religious landscape as composed of “pockets” of denominations, lacking a center.

Wellman says that, although the numbers of people who claim to be Christian are equal to the rest of the country, those who actually join a congregation are minimal. “This has been the case from the very beginning for the Pacific Northwest, even with those who had religious affiliation when they hiked across the Cascades,” says Wellman. “However they get here, they often let their affiliation, religion and culture fall out the wagon, or the door of
the plane.”

Why?

“Far away from their family and heritage, they feel the breath of fresh air, with the outdoors so exciting and so new, with a sense of possibility,” Wellman says. “It’s so beautiful, no one wants to be inside.” He gives a nod to the “Seattle freeze”: People here seem friendly, he says, “but they leave you alone.” The impact of the “glorious” physical environment, past and present, is paramount. The wildness and sense of abundance, which Native Americans also felt, contributed to the sense of possibility. Then as now, he says, “That aura of openness led to the explosion of entrepreneurship. That allows for a lot of creativity in terms of what you might do with your religion.”

In Wellman’s view, the trend of secularization is on the rise. With the tech boom, the greater Seattle region has drawn talent from around the world, particularly an influx of young professionals. “This cohort of high-tech, millennial culture is more secular than any other generation that’s come before,” says Wellman. “Between 32 and 35 percent of millennials have no interest in religion at all.” Contributing to disaffiliation are parents who don’t insist that their kids attend church, synagogue or mosque, he says.

But many Seattleites find religion in diverse and assorted places. Palmer, who grew up actively Episcopalian in New Orleans, says that for students at 8 Limbs, “Yoga replaces church in a spiritual context and also as a community.” Not all the practitioners seek that kind of communion, but for many, “it keeps them coming back,” she says. “Religion is your ethics, your ways of being and your faith, but also your community of people who have similar belief systems and are inquiring in a similar way.”

Russell Paul has found a similar kinship at All Pilgrims, the Christian church on Broadway. Two years ago, he relocated from New York, where he had been spending 90–100 hours a week at work. “I was looking for a kinder, gentler life than New York City,” he says. “I knew Seattle was one of the most secular cities in the United States and very liberal, so perhaps I could find a church that would not preach that because I was gay, I was going to hell,” he says. What sealed the deal for him at All Pilgrims were “messages of acceptance, forgiveness and social justice.”

Paul visited churches around the city and searched online, using the phrase “open and affirming,” an official designation of congregations in the United Church of Christ (UCC) affirming the full inclusion of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender persons (LGBT) in the church’s life and ministry. As it happens, All Pilgrims is the church where Macklemore filmed his video for “Same Love.”

While Paul has found inspiration and a sense of belonging from his church community, his friends do not. Paul, who is 40, wishes his younger friends could give religion—any kind of faith community—a chance. “They’re throwing Baby Jesus out with the bathwater, without realizing there are so many kinds of churches and different ways of worshipping.”

At a recent bar mitzvah, a male rite of passage in the Jewish tradition, Rabbi Daniel Weiner of Temple De Hirsch Sinai (TDHS) gave kudos to the parents of the celebrated 13-year-old for raising their son in the Jewish faith in the Pacific Northwest, “where religion is considered an option, not an obligation.”

If any rabbi in Seattle could be a magnet for millennials, it’s Weiner, who plays guitar, rocks out and tweets under the handle
@rocknrabbidanny. TDHS is the area’s largest Jewish congregation, with campuses in Seattle and Bellevue. Weiner is keen to address the needs of young people and pre-parenthood professionals, enticing the millennial generation with creative programming designed to engage them in the time period prior to the life-cycle events that are part and parcel of life with children.

At TDHS, Weiner’s colleague Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen oversees programming for “The Tribe,” a social, spiritual and educational experience for ages 22–35. On Rosh Hashana, the community celebrated its ninth annual “Appletini,” a social event in connection with the Jewish New Year (one of the signature rituals is eating apples and honey).

This year, it was held at Rachel’s Ginger Beer in Pike Place Market.Rabbi Cohen created Refresh, a Rosh Hashana service for unaffiliated people in their 20s and early 30s, which was held last year at the Palace Ballroom in Belltown. Refresh is an informal event that includes discussion, food and drink—and a little praying, says Weiner. “It’s an accessible, inviting experience, especially for those who may be resistant to coming to a conventional synagogue experience.”

From 2001 to 2014, Seattle’s Jewish community experienced a 70 percent increase in its numbers—as many as 63,400 Jewish residents. Weiner’s own congregation has grown considerably, a trend he attributes to both the Jewish population boom as well as growth in the Seattle area. With its success in growing its membership, Temple De Hirsch Sinai bucks some of the trends of declining affiliation and attendance seen in the Puget Sound area. A 2014 study published by the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle highlights the challenges of retaining Jewish continuity in the community at large. Only 34 percent of the area’s Jewish households include a member of a synagogue. One-third of Jews here don’t attend religious services.

Weiner is cognizant of the need to engage the next generation. He says of millennials, “They want a religion that is more responsive to who they are. They don’t want the same thing their parents wanted. So we are more nimble, responsive and creative in how we reach and engage these folks.”

Many of the threads of Weiner’s plan echo elements of alternative faith communities, which are creating diverse options for engagement, whether through prayer, cultural connections with their heritage or spirituality. The Kavana Cooperative is an “emergent” Jewish community that was created by tech professional Suzi LeVine and Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum, who envisioned a “pluralistic, nondenominational, cooperative Jewish community” outside the typical synagogue paradigm.

As of spring 2014, Kavana had 92 partner households and was attracting 300 participants a month to its programs. More than 1,000 people were participating in a Kavana program at least once a year. One of them was Karen Hartman and her husband, who, along with their 8-year-old son, moved here in August 2014 from Brooklyn, New York, so both could work in the University of Washington’s drama department. She was raised Jewish, and her husband considered himself Jewish by birth only and had no interest in learning more. As a “functionally interfaith family,” Hartman says, Kavana was ideal because “there was an opportunity to go to a traditional-ish service, an opportunity to do meditation, and child care. We can come as a family and have a spiritual experience.”

Meditation was one option offered at a recent Sunday-afternoon service at Valley & Mountain Fellowship, a Christian community in South Seattle’s Hillman City. Valley & Mountain also founded a collaborative work space that currently “incubates” 30 social service startups. The community’s tagline summarizes its three core values: “Deep listening. Creative liberation. Radical hospitality.” All of this, says Olivia Smith, a Seattle University senior who interned with the church last summer, is about its unique spiritual ethos and genuine dedication to its neighborhood. “Valley & Mountain is more than just church on Sundays: It’s spiritually divine.”

Smith appreciates being part of a ministry that offers the kind of camaraderie with which people enter the room and greet one another with hugs, wash the dishes from potlucks together, and grapple with how to resolve issues of social and economic injustice.

Rather than a top-down experience from a sterile lectern, the fellowship’s Sunday-afternoon “Celebration” service is highly participatory and sensory. Instead of priest-only leadership, “co-creators”—a dozen or more community members—share and lead a variety of thoughts and prayers. The choir, accompanied by instruments, sets an uplifting tone with folk and gospel tunes.
The aroma was homey during the warm, welcoming service: Chocolate chip cookies for the “love feast” potluck were baking in the oven. But in providing a New Age–style vibe, the Reverend John Helmiere, a Yale Divinity School grad, backs this style with substance. He is an activist priest who walks the talk on social change. In 2011, when Valley & Mountain began, he launched an annual Lenten season campaign to protest economic injustice. In 2015, the effort focused on mass incarceration and racial inequality in the King County Juvenile Division’s detention system.

Valley & Mountain has about 100 individuals who are involved on a regular basis, and it’s adding a second Sunday service to accommodate its growth. Helmiere doesn’t think of expansion in terms of affiliation per se; he sees growth as qualitative, not quantitative: He’d like to inspire other communities to grow in ways that are germane to their own neighborhoods.
Smith says the church is compatible with her generation. “I know several students my age who don’t really want to be confined by certain religious traditions, but find themselves spiritual. Valley & Mountain is a home for those folks.”

In its beginnings, Valley & Mountain received seed money from the United Methodist Church (UMC). The Methodist denomination has 54 churches and approximately 7,000 members in its Seattle district. Methodists have been in Seattle for about 150 years, says the Reverend Rich Lang, the UMC’s Seattle district superintendent, who has acted as a mentor to Helmiere. Lang says that Valley & Mountain’s success contrasts with other urban Methodist churches, where only 15–75 people might show up on Sunday. The numbers are better in the suburbs, which might have 150–300 members, but those churches still lack the vitality he sees at Valley & Mountain.

The Methodist movement is more established, Lang says, but its roots may have hindered growth. “The decline had to do with the cultural changes of the ’60s and families who went to the evangelical churches, which were able to adapt to the changing culture more rapidly,” he says.

It’s ironic—and intriguing—that until recently, Seattle was known as an epicenter for megachurches. Killen of Gonzaga University says that research suggests that megachurches are no longer on the rise. But for a time, in the Seattle area, they were red hot. Seattle was home to one of the nation’s largest and most influential megachurches, Mars Hill, which, by many accounts, imploded after cofounder Mark Driscoll was accused of plagiarism, bullying, misogyny and brash communication. Mars Hill was founded in 1996, and at the time of its downfall in March 2014, had grown to an estimated 14,000 members across five states and 15 locations. Those locations offered coffee shops and free Wi-Fi, and if they couldn’t come to see Driscoll in person, followers could watch him on the big screen.

With Driscoll as the public persona of Mars Hill, church became cool. He resembled an indie rocker: sporting a hoodie, ripped jeans and a certain swagger. The faithful came to the church turned warehouse in their own hoodies and ripped jeans. Before Mars Hill, many said, they had never affiliated with organized religion.

But, “that’s the ethos of Seattle,” Wellman says. “Religion has a tough time staying.” In the case of Driscoll, Wellman says, Mars Hill “popped up with his charismatic personality, and then died.” On one hand, entrepreneurs like Driscoll can do well here, exploding onto the scene and succeeding. On the other hand, there’s our city’s Nordstrom-esque culture of returning previously worn items.

In Wellman’s view, Driscoll’s downfall was predictable. Having interviewed the pastor, Wellman says, “I came away thinking he was the funniest, most intelligent leader I have come across. And the most crude person I’ve come across. I’d been predicting for years this guy would implode.”

Memorably, in one Q&A with his followers, Driscoll took a potshot at yoga. Asked by a congregant, “Should Christians stay away from yoga because of its demonic roots?” He replied, “Totally. Yoga is demonic.” In fact, in 1989, Pope John Paul II himself warned against the dangers of yoga, according to an article in The Atlantic, claiming it “can degenerate into a cult body.”

Yet, these days, many view yoga as a bridge to spirituality, one that offers infinite layers and interpretations. It is one option among many on Seattle’s religious-to-spiritual continuum, our city’s myriad-piece puzzle of places where we can contemplate our path and purpose. And for Seattleites who are seeking to commune with a greater power, whether it’s in a church, synagogue or mosque, in the cathedral of the great outdoors or on a sticky mat, finding that higher ground could be right beneath their feet.