The Sacred Design Lab: Experiments with Finding Spirituality in Secular Spaces
Religion offers not only beliefs that help us to understand our place in the world, but also tools and practices for flourishing in it. Templeton World Charity Foundation is embarking on a journey of empirical inquiry into how spiritual exercises and disciplines work and how they may be adapted to serve contemporary communities. At the forefront of creative thinking about how ancient practices can be understood and adapted to meet the spiritual needs of people today is the Sacred Design Lab. We caught up with co-founder Casper ter Kuile to talk about the origins of the lab and how it brings authentic spirituality to the secular world today.
TWCF: Where does something like the Sacred Design Lab fit into society?
Casper ter Kuile: More and more people are less and less religious. Younger people especially are looking for meaningful community, but there are significant declines in traditional community organizations. They are participating in gyms and in farm communities and in online forums and in drag cons and in makerspaces. It’s all of these really interesting, ostensibly secular spaces where people are finding a sense of meaning, a connection and a purpose.
In what way?
Once we started interviewing those leaders and people participating in these communities, what we found were very religious patterns. So a sense of seeking pastoral care when someone’s parent was diagnosed with cancer, for example, and mutual support in the shape of taking each other to the hospital or looking after a dog if someone goes on vacation. Raising money and getting involved in local causes. In other words, things that you would expect to see a congregation doing were happening in these very secular spaces. For us, that was an illustration of the way in which religion is now declining, but it’s transforming. You’re seeing religious things happening in secular spaces and innovation in how spiritual practices are being shared and taught.
Can you give some examples of that?
There’s been a rise of a whole new field of apps, for example, not just in meditation, but far beyond that. I recently was looking at something called Meditative Story, which is essentially an unbundling of a sermon with a little bit of music and a reflection practice. Essentially, it’s an audio liturgy, but it’s entirely secular in its presentation.
After studying these trends for some time and convening leaders who are responsible for many of these communities, we realized that we wanted to do more than just convene and name what was happening. We wanted to shape the future of spirituality and community in the United States, and so we try to find partners with whom we can build what we think about as the spiritual infrastructure of the future.
What do you mean by spiritual infrastructure?
The traditional model for the last couple of hundred years, certainly, has been a place-based congregational model. We know that’s no longer culturally or financially even possible and that the traditional idea of a leader going to seminary and then going to a parish—those structures are not working.
The apex of religious engagement was in the 1950s and those congregations relied on free women’s labor. The simple fact that women entered the paid workforce in massive numbers since then means that as people have less time, they literally can’t run these communities in the way that they used to. And then in the 1990s when you had right wing Christian institutions like Focus on the Family and the Moral Majority politicizing Christianity, it really damaged the brand of religion. That was a brand piece.
The final massive factor was the rise of the internet because it really challenged how we understand power and authority to be shaped. Rather than a top-down system where one person is in charge and they impose that view onto a hierarchy, the internet has moved us towards a network model of authority where we follow the crowd. And so you see that hesitancy paired with things like the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, for example, where hierarchies and power structures of old cannot be trusted. So people are making their own was and struggling to crowdsource or create their own sense of meaning and spirituality. It’s a clash of paradigms.
How does this translate to the Sacred Design Lab?
We talk at Sacred Design Lab about the yearnings of the soul. What we want and look for as human beings are consistent, and there’s ways of framing them. Those longings are enduring. The way in which we think people are meeting them is different.
Casper ter Kuile is a founder of Sacred Design Lab and holds Masters of Divinity and Public Policy degrees from Harvard University, where he was a Ministry Innovation Fellow at Harvard Divinity School. His book, The Power of Ritual (HarperOne) was published in 2020. For more, watch ter Kuile and co-founder Reverend Sue Phillips discuss why their work matters today.
In practice, what sort of services does the Sacred Design Lab provide? Who uses this?
For example, a major tech company approached us. There were two teams within a leading tech company, one that oversees all of the buildings and physical spaces, and another that handled internal leadership development. Both of them had been interested in questions that are adjacent to spirituality, if I can put it that way. For example, in the physical spaces, in addition to the future of the buildings being more environmentally sustainable and being ‘people friendly,’ they are also really interested in questions of beauty and questions of how culture and space interact. The people on the development team were interested in cultivating internal qualities of collaboration and resilience.
So when we connected and we started explaining the kind of things we’re interested in and especially this trend that we’ve noticed of how the workplace is increasingly becoming a site of spiritual reflection, if not necessarily outright conversation. Everything from wellness classes and yoga classes at work to white people being educated about race in a moral sense or the response to national tragedies like the Tree of Life shooting or the George Floyd murder. Our analysis is that the workplace has to be more responsive to those yearnings.
In this company’s case—in any case—no one ever knows what they want when they come to us. There’s just a sense of ‘we’re interested in this’ or ‘I like what you’re talking about and I feel like we can learn something.’ So we have to do a lot of alignment work to find the right project, both in terms of scope and alignment.
You work with religious institutions as well.
Yes, definitely. For example, we are working with a Methodist foundation. They are a religious client, and I’m really excited about their vision because they really made this shift in the last decade of moving from an identity as a foundation that supports the Methodist Church to being a foundation that is there to support the Wesleyan ecosystem or the Wesleyan movement. So it’s not about just supporting the institution, it’s about supporting a much broader kind of spiritual ecology in the language that they use. It includes congregations, but it also includes a vaster array of different expressions of that Methodist spirit. And so what they needed was process designers who could bring into conversation a large number of people from very different parts of the Methodist ecosystem, from the most senior bishops to queer people of color or small group innovators who are far at the edge of the system. We’ve already been engaged in a year-long process. We’ve been in conversation about what does the future of the Wesleyan movement need? How can the foundation respond to this invitation of what’s emerging? We are always learning, spotting patterns and then translating insights into a way that’s actionable by a partner organization. We also try to bring people together who would otherwise never be in the same conversation. For instance, a partnership with the Episcopal bishop in Chicago where we connected Espicopal liturgists—the people who create worship services—with secular experience designers, including choreographers, museum curators, and theme park designers.
How do you envision this approach altering the world in the future?
One of the ways in which we’re thinking about how to design for a flourishing future is literally asking what are the experiences and structures and organizations and rhythms of life that help people live lives of courage, commitment, beauty and all the good things. Traditionally, at least in a Christian context in U.S. congregations, that was all place-based and met on Sundays. That was the traditional structure. That structure, though, does not work for more and more people. So what then will replace it? It’s probably not just going to be religious institutions. So then who else is responsible for the kind of soul care in the future? How are those people receiving the kind of education and theological foundations that they need in order to be good pastoral presences when someone’s mother dies? How do you think about what suffering means? What are the ways in which people are invited into community to bring them outside of only an individualistic mind frame? What are those organizations and structure and incentives going to be? And then how do you support the people who are trying to build that? That’s our guiding question.