What Value Does Religion Offer, Anyway?

 In The Tide

By Rabbi Elan Babchuck 

As you’re reading this post, there’s an 85% chance that you’re crouched over your smartphone, which means that I’ve got fewer than 15 seconds to convince you to keep reading. So here goes: about a dozen companies and agencies are currently tracking your location, movement, taps, and clicks on your phone, and your life might actually feel enhanced because of it. 

After all, how nice is it to sign into Amazon and see friendly reminders like: “Hi Elan, how are you enjoying that fair trade coffee you ordered two weeks ago? Might you be ready to order some more?” Or: “Want to tell your friends about the Walter Brueggemann book you’ve been reading on your Kindle and highlighting nonstop? By the way, make sure to check out his other titles!” 

And how about when you open your Facebook app—like I did this morning—and are greeted with reminders of friends’ birthdays, or sharable moments from the past? Elan, we care about you and the memories you share here. We thought you’d like to look back on this post from 7 years ago.” They care about me!! 

We ignore all the warnings about the dangers of giving up access to our data. We never get around to changing those privacy settings. And the reason is clear: because we’re willing to trade our privacy for the spirit-nourishing experience of feeling known. So deep is our yearning to feel known that we will give up our data, make public our private actions, and overlook that it is merely artificial intelligence driven by venture capital making us feel this way. 

Imagine how desirable and transformative it would be to have our fellow humans seek to make us feel so known, so cared for, so beloved. In a world growing increasingly anonymousisolated, and disconnected, what could possibly be of greater value than that? 

This is just one of many emerging opportunities available to religion today, and one that religious leaders are uniquely poised to fulfill—if we’re able to adapt to these dramatically changing times. But adapting isn’t easy, because it demands faith leaders be willing to shelve their accustomed offerings (worship, sermons, classes, rituals, etc.), and approach our communities with greater curiosity and openness than ever before. 

Religion’s Value Proposition 

As the American religious landscape continues to shift and faith leaders strive to reimagine their ministries and transform their institutions, a critical question must be addressed: What is the value proposition of religion today, especially for young people who are largely opting out? Stated more simply: what service, product, feature, or offering can religion uniquely deliver that lifts up rising generations and helps them live better lives, become better people, and build a better world? 

To be sure, many faith leaders will respond to that question by reflecting on their own experiences growing up in faith. “Worship helped ground me during my teenage years, and humbled me in my young adulthood.” Or “Without youth group, I never would have developed the leadership skills that I put to use every day in ministry.” 

While such responses might be entirely true, one of the key principles of innovation is to shift your perspective away from the product side and toward the customer side. For example, while the clergy experience of any given worship service may center on building community, cultivating humility, and experiencing the divine, a young person might attend that very same service and be struck by how unbearably long it is, how uncomfortable the pews are, and how turned off they feel from what they experience as oppressive and exclusive theology in the liturgy. Same service, but entirely different experiences at the opposite ends of the lectern. 

The Sacred Art of Asking 

At Glean Network, we train, coach, and learn from faith leaders all around the world who are working to reimagine their ministriestransform their institutions, and build new social- and spiritual-impact organizations (applications are open now, by the way!). And while these leaders all have different projects and communities to serve, their success almost universally depends upon their willingness to learn more about their constituents by asking them questions to identify their core needs. What keeps them up at night? What inspires them to get out of bed in the morning? What brings them joy? What pains them? The deeper their understanding of their constituents, the better that faith leaders can meet those constituents’ needs in innovative ways that also honor tradition, feel authentic, and are mission-aligned. After all, just as worship is a sacred act, so too is the practice of asking great questions. 

About Rabbi Elan Babchuck: 
I’m a rabbi and an entrepreneur, and spend much of my time exploring the rich intersections between these two traditions and the abundant possibilities therein. I’m committed to leaving behind a world that is more compassionate, connected, and just than the one I found. In pursuit of that commitment, I am the Founding Director of Glean Network, an incubator and network for faith-rooted leaders who are reimagining the role of religion in America, and Director of Innovation at Clal, a think-tank focused on the future of faith in America. I’m blessed to live and learn with my wife and our two children in Providence, RI. I read broadly and voraciously, cook adventurously, and find sanctuary on the rock climbing walls of New England. 

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