This is not your mom’s synagogue or your daddy’s church.
Leaders of two young religious organizations in Chicago are finding creative ways to build their faith communities.
At Mishkan Chicago, participants host house parties, where amid food and wine they discuss issues of the day and bring Jewish text and tradition into the conversation. Soulful music- and prayer-filled services that have taken place in synagogues, yoga studios and at the lakefront, spark people to move and dance. They’re designed to be a source of spiritual invigoration and intellectual, emotional and social stimulation for people who haven’t necessarily found homes in the usual Jewish spaces, says Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann, 33.
Chicago-based Root and Branch Church holds dinner services in the basement of St. John Church in Chicago. They begin with the breaking of bread during a service that, besides a meal, includes helpings of bible text, poetry and religious and secular music. The services, put together with input from attendees, are designed to engage, spark discussion, reflection and questioning. It’s not sit and get there or at its more traditional services that take place at Gorilla Tango Theater in Chicago.
“I am part of the generation that demographers are looking at and saying, ‘Oh no, they’re not participating in organized religion. This is the beginning of the end of organized religion in America,’ ” Heydemann said. “It’s not just happening in Jewish circles. It’s everywhere. But we are spiritually seeking, intellectually seeking. We are seeking community, purpose, and if we are not finding that in synagogue space, it is totally understandable that that is not where we are hanging out.”
The key is creating the right space where people can be spiritually moved, said Heydemann, a guitar-playing rabbi who grew up in a Jewish home on Chicago’s South Side.
Heydemann, a Stanford University graduate with honors in religious studies and philosophy, led the launch of Mishkan Chicago three years ago, and growth has taken off. Mishkan had 65 people at its first service and this year attracted more than 1,400 during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
“This is a place where the heart is addressed in addition to the head,” said Jacob Kaufman, who hosted the first Mishkan service at his home. “It’s a place of experience rather than just thinking. When I go to a service, I want to feel something, have some moment of transformation. I always feel uplifted in some way, opened, strengthened, more aware of my inner being” at Mishkan.
Mishkan Chicago, which holds services at Anshe Emet, the Bodhi Spiritual Center and other sites, made the 2013-2014 Slingshot Guide of most innovative Jewish organizations in the U.S. It focuses on making Judaism accessible. The prayer book it uses is in Hebrew and has an English translation and transliteration. It also includes commentary, said Heydemann, who takes care to explain the history and significance of traditional Jewish prayers.
The Torah procession during Rosh Hashanah services. | Eric Sales photo
“We don’t make any assumptions about where people are coming from and therefore what they know,” said Heydemann, who has studied Buddhism and “every flavor of Judaism.”
The key is to meet people where they are on their spiritual journey, she noted.
At Root and Branch Church, a Christian spiritual community, founders Timothy Kim, Neil Ellingson and Andrew Packman said their church has attracted people who identify as Christians and those who once did and wonder if they could again. It also includes people who are spiritual but not religious, those who are skeptical of religion but broad-minded, as well as atheists.
“The goal is not to say you have to call yourself this,” Ellingson said. “Our goal right now is to say we’re glad you’re here. We all have stuff to learn from each other. We think that’s what the essence of Christianity is, this kind of humility that’s also passionate and alive. We’re going to challenge each other and question each other, and when we feel strongly about something, we’re going to share it. But we’re also going to listen to each other and be willing to change. A lot of people think religion means holding firm no matter what, but if you really have faith, you’re more open to flexibility and change.”
The three friends come from diverse backgrounds. Packman, 30, grew up in an interfaith home in southern Illinois, while Ellingson, 33; was raised in a secular Minnesota home. Kim, 30, grew up in southern California attending a conservative Evangelical church.
They met at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where Packman is working on his doctorate in theology, and Ellingson and Kim are working on Master of Divinity degrees. They launched Root and Branch in March 2013.
The church has received funding from and is part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It has more than 500 likes on Facebook and has an email list of more than 200, Kim said.
Tanya Lane, 32, is among attendees. Her previous church experiences “didn’t have space for me to have questions or come up with answers that worked for my experience of life,” she said. At Root and Branch, “maybe we all think the same, maybe we don’t. But, we’re here to work with each other and take care of each other.”
Christal Willliams, associate regional minister for the Disciples of Christ church in Illinois and Wisconsin, said she felt fulfilled after attending a dinner church service.
“The level of conversation we were able to partake in was a reflection of what the kingdom of God is supposed to be,” she said. “The message was intellectually stimulating and theologically correct.
“Root and Branch advises you to take what you hear, investigate it and examine it in a way that we haven’t really been given permission to do in the past. To me that’s what faith in God is all about. It’s about hearing a message and asking how does this affect me and how do I affect it. If you don’t ask that question, how does one faithfully live out his or her call as Christians,” Williams said.
The dinner church services, which take place two Saturdays a month, are rooted in tradition.
“It models what we think the first Christians were doing,” Packman said. “They were gathering around dinner tables, sharing their lives together.
“It’s also an entry point into Christianity that’s not so imposing. People who are a little bit unsure about Christianity, they walk into this space and it feels like a dinner party. This doesn’t look traditionally church, but in some ways it’s also the most Christian thing to do, which is to break bread, to open the Bible, to read stories, to read poems, to engage each other and try to love each other better.”