The landscape of religious and spiritual practice continues to change dramatically in the United States. Not nearly all spiritual gatherings take place in traditional congregations, nor is spiritual care provided only by clergy. The fastest-growing portion of the American religious population is those without religious affiliations, often called the “nones.” As the Pew Research Center has reported, they increased from 16% in 2006 to 28% currently. The impact of this disaffiliation is reflected in declining church attendance, congregation closure, and the renovation of traditional religious buildings into recreational centers, housing, and other community structures. Perhaps you have seen this shift in your congregations and neighborhoods.


In the midst of such monumental changes are questions like: Where is everyone going? Are people using their religious and spiritual backgrounds to engage with their communities outside of traditional religious institutions? What are they doing?

“Where is everyone going? Are people using their religious and spiritual backgrounds to engage with their communities outside of traditional religious institutions? What are they doing?”

The Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at Brandeis University and Glean Network, in partnership with innoFaith and Faith Matters Network, are working to answer these questions. We are studying spiritual innovators or those who are inspired by the world’s religious traditions to create social change. For some, these innovative efforts are rooted in existing congregations and religious organizations, while others are creating new efforts and relationships across religious boundaries. Regardless of origin, these spiritual innovators are providing access to aspects of religious traditions and translating them in new ways.


Spiritual innovation is closely related to social innovation and is taking many forms. Malkut, a Jewish spiritual community in Western Queens, aims to connect NY residents across a wide variety of backgrounds using principles of Judaism. Existing outside the institutional structure of a synagogue, Malkut combines traditional Jewish concepts like Shabbat with spiritual practices like mindfulness to bring together those who are curious about Judaism, from interfaith couples to LGBTQ+ individuals. In doing so, the group creates a space where people can find belonging and community support without having to identify themselves as strictly Jewish.


In California, a nonprofit organization called the Boundless Freedom Project draws on Buddhist teachings and mindfulness practices to supply mental health care to people experiencing incarceration across 15 different prisons. Through meditation programs, access to both in-person and online sanghas, and emergency financial assistance to those newly released from prison, Boundless Freedom aims to connect marginalized members of society to a greater sense of community.


Other spiritually innovative projects seek to help congregations engage with their communities through new channels. The FaithX Project, an organization founded in 2016 by Episcopal faith leader Ken Howard, partners with current faith communities to assess opportunities in their surrounding neighborhoods for missions and outreach. One of their tools, the Neighborhood Insights Report, equips congregations with data about the people and communities in their areas, including a Housing Instability Index (predictive of homelessness) and religious affiliation statistics. The ultimate goal of FaithX is to increase the vitality of existing congregations by helping them see where they can be most of service to their local communities, using new technologies to fulfill the centuries-old call to “love your neighbor.”


We intend for this research to create a map of spiritual innovation efforts across the United States, and, in doing so, facilitate learning about spiritual innovators. Our goal is to amplify spiritually innovative work and increase collaboration among innovators by coordinating regional convenings and designing educational materials.


We are currently conducting a nationwide survey of spiritual innovators – if you know of anyone who is engaged in this kind of social change work, or are involved in this work yourself, please pass along the project description and/or take this 10-minute survey. We are also eager to remain in conversation with you about spiritual innovation – if you have any questions or insight, please reach out to Research Specialist Hannah Petersen at We look forward to hearing from you!

This project is made possible with support from The Henry Luce Foundation, John Templeton Foundation, Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, Fetzer Institute, Hemera Foundation, Unitarian Universalist Association, and Wesleyan Impact Partners.