Students of New Thought spirituality often study the works of Joseph Campbell. In fact, The Power of Myth is an accredited class in the Centers for Spiritual Living curriculum for Practitioners.
The students who take the required lessons and keep digging will find an interesting dichotomy in the writings of Campbell and the impulses of organized New Thought denominations, specifically; Campbell’s oft-shared lesson on the role of teachers or gurus.
“You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path. Where there is a way or path, it is someone else’s path. You are not on your own path. If you follow someone else’s way, you are not going to realize your potential.” ~Joseph Campbell
As organized religion undergoes great transformation across denomination and belief systems, we see the emergence of our children’s generation (millennials) as a great force for change, and it’s important to examine the cross-section of these forces.
Organized religion, especially in the Western traditions, has been built on the premise that there are teachers, and followers; that there are those with the MOST wisdom, who should be consulted and the rest of us who need to defer to these wise men (usually) and women. Traditional corporate religious organizations are built on this paradigm.
The millennial generation has grown up not only plugged into the Internet with access instantly to news from every corner of the world, but they have also grown up as the world has exposed many religious leaders as mere mortals who not only lack the answers they once promised to others – often in exchange for monetary donations – but whose moral failings have been in stark contrast to all that they have taught and demanded of others.
In my previous blog I wrote about the importance of authenticity with millennials, and I want to expand on that issue with the help of Joseph Campbell and a few others.
In an article titled “The Age of Authenticity“, the author uses marketing research to point out a few key points about engaging millennials. According to the article, millennials represent $200 billion of spending power each year, and 25% of the (U.S.) population.
This is a demographic that cannot be ignored by any organization that wants to survive. The author states it in clear terms: “...[millennials] are fast-becoming the most powerful and influential consumer sector. They set buying trends across all industries, and have great influence over older generation consumers. Brands who are either unable, or uninterested in connecting with Millennials should just take a seat on the bench now. If you’re not reaching Millennials, you’re not in the game.“
The question that must be asked inside withering religious and spiritual organizations is whether millennials are even on the radar. Clearly some individual churches and centers get this, and are finding grand success, but I attribute this to excellent local leadership; not to the doctrines that come from the top.
“Millennials are relentless and obsessive in their quest for authenticity. ” ~Roger Dudler, Frontify CTO
Understanding the obsession for authenticity in this large demographic segment should lead New Thought leaders to look hard at the principles being taught and promoted, and many are doing just this. What does this mean at the local level, though?
I’ve spoken with a handful of millennials who have been exposed to organized New Thought. Most of them consider the teachings to be useful, helpful and worth keeping in their “life tool box“. The criticisms I have heard fall decisively in the authenticity category, and it was enlightening for me to find the terminology that helped to explain this disconnect.
Here are some of the things I have heard from the millennials I have chatted up about this issue (I am fortunate to have access to discussions with young people in my continued affiliation with a local community college where the average age is smack in the middle of the millennial demographic and where I have encountered people from several states with diverse experiences).
Truth in advertising: many millennials have pulled away from the religions of their parents and family, but remain interested in the spiritual aspects of life. However, when they wander into a center or New Thought church, they are told about prosperity and healing – staples in these organizations. The message shared is that the New Thought path can help them find success and wholeness, and yet so often the regulars are not icons of success, and continue to struggle with prosperity, health issues and more. There are wonderful things to be shared vis-a-vis healing and prosperity from the New Thought canon, but we’ve been terrible at communicating it. These are spiritual journeys; not recipes for recreating the success of the latest millionaire guru, and yet we’ve not figured out how to communicate this effectively and keep recycling the 20th century millionaire gurus to the point that it comes across as a get-rich-quick scheme or as others have termed it, “vending machine spirituality“.
Same old thing: millennials aren’t interested in the Sunday morning church shuffle. I’ve seen this in Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian churches (when I worked as an organist) and see the same patterns in New Thought centers and churches on Sunday morning. Millennial families are often 2-job families, and their children are engaged in multiple activities. They don’t need to run one-more-place on what may be the only weekend day where there’s an opportunity to wake up without an alarm, enjoy a leisurely family breakfast, and simply “be” without a deadline or agenda (a practice promoted in New Thought).
Values-driven: millennials are also not interested in giving their money simply to keep a church or center open. They want to know (and see proof of) how their contributions are helping the larger community and society. They are less likely to support a capital campaign to buy a building, and less interested in ensuring that the minister has a pay raise than in contributing to easing hunger in the community and caring for homeless pets. This presents a challenge to the infrastructure realities for many centers and churches.
Walk the talk: millennial students are much less likely to take the teacher’s word as gospel – in any subject! Having worked as an academic dean and a professor at a university and several community colleges, I knew that I better show up with proof of any statement I made because the students were going to ask, and demand more than “because I said so” – and that’s a good thing!
This reality presents a challenge in New Thought because if millennials are interested enough to show up in New Thought, they’re going to actually read Ernest Holmes, Joseph Campbell and others and they’re going to ask the hard questions that in many cases, we cannot answer.
Here are a few:
- Holmes taught that the movement should remain “open at the top“. Why all the resistance to change?
- If this is a singular journey as Campbell suggests, why are ministers granted so much power? Shouldn’t they be guides instead of the final answer?
- If Holmes is the founder, why are there so many variations that ministers impose on treatment and present as the “right way” when it is clearly stated in print and attributed to Holmes in a different way? (or is it open at the top only when personally convenient?)
- Why the need to present proven fictional tales as fact? The book, Mutant Messenger Down Under has been shown to be fiction and yet still taught in some corners as a true story. The 100th monkey is oft repeated in classes and services when it, too, has been proven to be fiction and not an academic study. A perfunctory Google search should provide ample evidence to tame any claims, and yet these (and other) stories continue to be shared as “evidence” in the spiritual doctrine.
Millennials aren’t going to kowtow to a minister (or a teaching) that clings to these – and other – inconsistencies. If New Thought wants to prevent the graying out into obsolescence described by others, it needs to understand how current practices, doctrine and dogma are being perceived by this powerful demographic and adjust because,
“if [we’re] not reaching Millennials, [we’re] not [going to be] in the game [for long].”
(C) 2017 Practitioner's Path