Published April 30th, 2023 at 6:00 AM
As various branches of American Christianity suffer declines in membership and financial support, an intriguing new effort to counter the slide can be found in Independence.
The Center for Living Water has found a home in the Community of Christ’s world headquarters there. The center’s sister-brother leaders are optimistic that they can find a way for spiritually hungry but religiously disconnected people to experience personal renewal and then move into the broader community to help meet needs there.
“Our deep hope,” says Katie Harmon-McLaughlin, who helps lead the center with her brother, center director Daniel Harmon, “is that anything happening that’s formative in this space is also impacting the way that we view ourselves and others in the world around us.”
(Daniel was a full-time pastor for several years in northern California while Katie was a full-time pastor in southern California.)
The center was created about the time the COVID-19 pandemic slammed into faith communities. So Daniel used the forced timeout to imagine a way forward for the center and to talk informally to the masked visitors who continued to show up at the temple and at the nearby Mormon Visitors Center so he could gather ideas to make the Center for Living Water effective once it opened.
“I stepped into this role,” says Daniel, “with the background and experience of seeing ministry that’s birthed out of the context of relationship, with the neighborhood being a primary emphasis.”
(The Community of Christ used to be known as the Reorganized Church of Latter-day Saints, and then was a branch of Mormonism. Although it continues to use both the Bible and the Book of Mormon as scripture, in recent decades it has moved closer to traditional Christianity and has emphasized a peace and justice mission. Its global membership has held steady at 250,000 for years.)
The new center is designed to attract people who’ve become inactive in church life or who have never found a spiritual home.
Katie says she hopes the center can “have accessible entry points” for people who probably would not “come and sit in a formal service on a Sunday morning.”
One of those entry points is a meditative musical gathering called “Sacred Pulse”. It meets once a month in the evening in the temple’s meditation chapel to offer original music and reflection. (Daniel plays the guitar and composes music.) You can watch a video of this year’s Ash Wednesday Sacred Pulse here.
The question for the center is whether it can help participants move from a focus on individual spiritual wellness to responding to the needs, wants and injuries found in the surrounding community.
“We see this,” Katie says, “as tapping into the heart and depth and richness of the Christian tradition but in a way that we’re trying to make it accessible to new generations of seekers who are yearning for meaningful ways to live in the midst of all the complexities and realities of the world today.”
Through exposure to several sources, Katie says, she has “found myself really intrigued by the trends that have been occurring and what that means for the future of Christianity and what that means for the future of churches.”
It’s a question many branches of American Christianity have struggled with for decades. Protestants, for instance, used to make up an overwhelming percentage of the American population, but in recent decades they have slipped below 50%, with some estimates ranging as low as 43%.
The Catholic population in the U.S., by contrast, has held fairly steady in that period primarily because of immigration. Indeed, recent estimates have found that former Catholics now make up 13% of the entire American adult population.
That’s the stream against which the Center for Living Water is swimming.
Daniel Harmon says that among early participants in the center, he and Katie already are seeing some spiritual renewal “both at and beneath the surface and we don’t know where it’s all going to lead.”
The one gratifying surprise is that those taking part have been willing to help shape the center and its programming by rejecting some ideas its leaders propose.
For instance, in Sacred Pulse gatherings, Daniel says, newcomers “will say, ‘Hey, this language doesn’t feel real invitational to me as someone who doesn’t necessarily identify in the way you do in terms of Christianity.’ So I recognize that I am truly an insider, and this group of musicians is pushing against these assumptions on a regular basis. It’s been provocative and healthy. What I have found time and time again is that their voices and wisdom have really shaped the experiences to be deeper and more meaningful than they would have been if I had planned them from my perspective… That has surprised me and been a gift.”
Katie adds: “It’s a really exciting time of reimagining and experimenting with language and forms. I have been surprised and delighted to see people come who self-identify as agnostic or who have been highly suspicious of Christianity because of previous experiences. It’s been good to see a space that seems safe and open.
“For me,” she adds, “it’s all about incarnation. Where is the Spirit seeking fresh forms of expression in the world today? What are some of the significant spiritual and theological concepts that come from those places of deep wisdom in the tradition that we can reclaim, re-language, reinterpret, reimagine?”
If what this new center is doing draws in people willing to explore their spirituality (perhaps doing that soon under licensed spiritual directors the center hopes to attract) and then move what they’re learning into a hurting world to help heal it, faith communities around the country will want to know how and why it works. And that would be a true measure of success.
Bill Tammeus, an award-winning columnist formerly with The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website, book reviews for The National Catholic Reporter and for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is “Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.