Feature

A Religious Experience

We wanted to know: What do Coloradans believe?

April 2012

This article was a finalist for the 2013 City and Regional Magazine Award in the reader service category. 

Religion is on the wane in America—at least that’s the most recent wisdom. It’s something of a surprising claim, however, considering the United States has long been thought of as one of the most pious of the world’s developed nations. But in the past decade or so, a number of credible surveys and studies have concluded that our devotion is slipping. Religious affiliation—across nearly all faiths—is down. Americans aren’t going to church or synagogue or prayer services like they once did. And our belief in God is diminishing as baby boomers die and the millennials come of age.

But these polls may be overlooking a crucial phenomenon: Although participation in organized religion is declining, religiosity and spirituality may not be on the same downward trend. After examining the national research and thinking about life on the Front Range—an area that juxtaposes the Christian stronghold of Colorado Springs with cosmically in-tune Boulder—we began to wonder how the people at our lofty elevations really feel about a higher power.

The American West is historically religiously unaffiliated. Whether that’s a result of a deep-seated independent spirit, a lifestyle that deems being outside on a Sunday to be more holy than being inside a sanctuary, or a holdover from a bygone era when there simply weren’t enough clergy west of the Mississippi, religious organizations have had a difficult time settling here. That’s not to say they’ve been entirely unsuccessful: Focus on the Family found fertile ground in Colorado Springs in the early 1990s*; the Catholic Church has been the dominant dogma in Denver County for more than a century; more than 60 percent of Utah’s population identifies as Mormon; and more than a handful of mystical western locations (the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado; Valley of the Shining Stone and the town of Chimayó in New Mexico; Cathedral and Bell rocks in Arizona) engender religious and spiritual fervor.

But the question is, in A.D. 2012, what do the residents of the Front Range truly believe? Are we religious or spiritual—or neither? Are we averse to organized religion? Are our habits of worship in flux? And, if religion is truly disappearing, then how do we explain the 14,000 people who visit a nondenominational Lafayette-based church every Sunday; a progressive Jewish organization experiencing a surge of interest; and a host of other groups that are finding devotees in these allegedly secular times?

To find some answers, we asked these questions—and many more—of you, your friends, and your neighbors. With the help of market research firm Resolution Research, we surveyed 408 people in the Denver-Boulder-Colorado Springs triangle. We inquired about your religious affiliations and practices, spiritual beliefs, and how these things influence your life. So, along with insights from local theological scholars, essays that examine personal belief, and profiles of religious practitioners, we present the results of our survey. We hope you’ll find it all just as enlightening as we do.

*An earlier version of this story said that "Focus on the Family found fertile ground in Colorado Springs in the late 1970s." 

The Survey

5280 partnered with Denver-based Resolution Research, a full-service market research firm specializing in qualitative and quantitative research designed to gather market intelligence and opinions, to conduct our Religion Along the Front Range survey. Resolution Research conducts online and telephone surveys, focus groups, product tests, taste tests, clinical trials, mock juries, and more. For more information or to participate in panels, visit resolutionresearch.com.

On Talking to God

It’s a constant conversation that helps me navigate my life.

I pray. A lot.

I pray when I shower in the morning, and I pray when I walk to my office. I pray before I interview someone, and I pray afterward. I pray when I’m waiting in traffic, and I pray at night when I go to bed.

I pray for health and happiness. I pray that I become a better person. I pray about decisions I’m making. I pray for my wife and my two children. I pray for friends.

I’ve talked to God every day for much of my life. That’s not to say I’m some holy person—far from it—but prayer has been good for me. A few minutes here and there keep me focused and balanced and thankful. My son puked in the car on a family vacation? Thanks, God, for giving me a humorous story to tell my buddies. I’m having a hard time writing my latest story? Thanks, God, for giving me this learning experience. Someone in my family has a health emergency? Thanks, God, for showing me what’s important in my life.

There’s no pretension to my prayers. When it’s just God and me, it’s all out there. I don’t ask for wealth. I don’t pray for my next success at work. I don’t bargain for favors. I look at whatever is in front of me at that moment in my day, and I talk to Him about it. With God, I’m just Robert, one guy out of billions who’s trying to survive and thrive. And for those opportunities, I’m thankful.

Am I naive? Is God really listening to my daily discourse? I guess I’ll eventually find out. For me, though, I like the idea that a higher power is riding shotgun on my life’s journey. It’s comforting, and I’ve come to rely on that open connection I think I have with God to help me make the right choices and become the best version of me that I can. —Robert Sanchez

Doctrine Deconstructed

Nadia Bolz-WeberLutheran pastor. House for All Sinners and Saints, houseforall.org

Nadia Bolz-Weber is not your typical pastor: In an hour-long interview recently, she unloaded at least three F-bombs and explained that “the Jesus business pays for shit.” She sports a dramatic A-line bob of salt-and-pepper hair and enough ink to rival a Hells Angel. (Her tattoos, however, are debatably more pious—she has Mary Magdalene on her right forearm and the Christian calendar on her left.) But it’s not only the profanity and her striking look that makes her different among most leaders of church: It’s the fact that a little more than three years ago, Bolz-Weber opened House for All Sinners and Saints, an alternative Lutheran church that she simply calls “House.”

Bolz-Weber counts about 160 people as House-affiliated, but says about 90 show up each Sunday evening to hear the traditional Lutheran liturgy. From there, the similarities to more typical Lutheran churches end. The uncharacteristically late services (“because no one likes to get up at 7 a.m. on Sundays,” Bolz-Weber says) are just the beginning of her unusual routine. Her flock is mostly comprised of young, overeducated, and, as she puts it, often voluntarily poor parishioners, who might be homeless, gay, married with young kids, or the owners of a local business. They meet in the round in the parish hall at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, since House doesn’t have its own home. The liturgy* is often led by “whoever feels like it,” Bolz-Weber says. The pastor displays art—sometimes ancient Christian paintings, sometimes modern abstracts—as inspiration. There is chanting. Hymns are sung a cappella by everyone. The mood swings from joyful to reverent to, at times, irreverent. • Bolz-Weber’s innovative way of presenting Lutheranism is not only gaining favor with potential new members, but also with higher-ups in her own denomination and international groups. Indeed, the pastor gave the 2011 Easter sunrise sermon at Red Rocks Amphitheatre for nearly 10,000 people. “The way church has traditionally been done is uncomfortable,” she says. “We’ve deconstructed all of that.”

*An earlier version of this story said that the "sermon" is often led by "whoever feels like it."

The Vow Factor

By the power vested in…ourselves.

After my boyfriend pulled a diamond ring out of his pocket a few months ago, we gave ourselves some time before we jumped into the planning. There was the where, the when, the who, and the how—a decision-making bonanza that would consume us, in a good way, for months. We happily indulged in the frivolity of cake browsing and gown shopping…and then a friend asked if we were going to get married in a church.

It was a profound question that punctuated all the fun. The thought had never crossed my mind. We had visions of an outdoor ceremony with the Rocky Mountains as the backdrop—no chapel necessary.

The truth is, I don’t even remember the last time I set foot in a church other than to attend someone else’s wedding. My parents would tell you we’re “nondenominational” Christians, but religion—Sunday services, saying grace before dinner—wasn’t part of my upbringing, and it wasn’t a big part of my fiancé’s either. It’s never been a factor in my decision-making process, so naturally, it hadn’t influenced my thinking on marriage.

But as I was about to reply to my friend with something to the effect of “Uh, have we met?” it dawned on me that it would never occur to a lot of people to not get married in a church. Traditionally, wedding ceremonies are structured around religion. In fact, upward of 80 percent of Americans tie the knot in a place of worship. Really, her question wasn’t that preposterous. And in that moment I started to wonder who would execute the ceremony if not someone from the clergy.

So as my fiancé and I tossed out ideas for an officiant, I couldn’t help but consider the implications of having someone other than a pastor marry us. For many, getting married is not only a milestone that needs the church’s stamp of approval, but it’s also a union sanctified by God. In our case, the only approval we’d been concerned with was that of our family, our friends, and our own. But without the authority and reverence that underlies religious ceremonies, would ours lack a certain sacredness—that special, official feeling of being ordained by some greater power?

It’s not that I don’t believe in a higher power or that I don’t understand how faith can be the glue of a marriage. It’s just that these things haven’t been meaningful to our relationship. When I think of what we’re about to begin, I don’t see us seeking guidance from a church or a god; I see us finding those things in each other.

My friend’s question made us reflect on a decision about which others don’t even have to think. In the end, though, it helped us appreciate our situation all the more. After all, in Colorado we can marry ourselves if we want to—meaning we have the choice to create a ceremony that’s as short on religion as we’re comfortable with. So we’ll find our mountaintop and get married—not under the auspices of any Bible verse, but under a wide-open sky in front of the people who’ve made us who we are. And that’s all the blessing we need. —Julie Dugdale

Christianity according to...

Scott Nickellteaching pastor, Flatirons Community Church, flatironschurch.com

If church attendance is down across the country, you wouldn’t know it to see the people filing into Lafayette-based Flatirons Community Church. Each Sunday the nondenominational church welcomes 14,000 congregants through its doors. Scott Nickell, the church’s teaching pastor for the past six years, thinks Flatirons has figured out a method to deliver the Christian message in a way that speaks to a 21st-century audience. Here, Nickell talks about megachurches, the message, and religion in Colorado.

— We don’t like the word megachurch—although we understand our numbers put us in that category—because the concept has the connotation that we’re here to conquer a city, to swallow everyone in our path, instead of to tend to a city and offer our services.

— There are a lot of assumptions about so-called megachurches—that they’re too big to be challenging to their congregations. I just don’t think that’s always true. And I know it’s not true here.

— People in the church world have a tendency to want to continue to use methods that may have worked at one time—say in the 1950s—but may not work now. We want to keep the message the same, but we know that the methods of delivery must change.

— We work out of an old Wal-Mart; we don’t use a lot of religious iconography; we play loud, secular music; and we avoid flowery religious language. But we’re not trying to be fashionable, and we’re not trying to be relevant because what Jesus said is always relevant. We’re just being intentional about making this a comfortable place for people to come in and take part.

— Our motto is: “Me too.” Meaning we don’t rank sins. We’re all sinners. You messed up? Well, guess what, me too.

— Here in Colorado, religion is not a compulsion like it is in the Bible Belt. In a way, reaching people here is easier than in places where they might have a lot of religious baggage. We’re often starting fresh with people here.

— Mainline churches tend to talk a lot about grace, but don’t talk about the truth. Or they’re all about the truth and offer no grace. Here’s what I mean: Grace means that we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The response to grace is not to try to be good enough because, well, you can’t be good enough—and it wouldn’t even matter because God has already forgiven you. When I say truth, that means learning how you should respond to grace.

Baptism by Desire

Why I felt I should christen my daughter—even though I don’t truly believe.

At my core, I suppose I’m Christian. I believe many of the religion’s tenets are central to becoming a moral and compassionate person, but I don’t believe, for instance, that Jesus Christ literally died on the cross to atone for our sins. Instead I freely explore and interpret Christianity’s ideals on my own (and I revere the Bible as one of the greatest stories of all time). My parents, who are not religious, gave me this gift of autonomy as I was growing up. They baptized me as an infant, and then allowed me to discover my own spiritual path.

When my husband and I welcomed our first daughter, Ella, into the world almost five years ago, there wasn’t much discussion about whether we would baptize her; it was more a question of when and where. This, I’ll admit, might seem like a paradox—after all, baptism is often considered the first step toward salvation and aligning a person with Christ. Yet I’m comfortable with the contradiction. I’ve rarely felt like there’s a right or wrong answer when it comes to navigating life—religion and parenting being just two of the more murky concepts I’ve encountered.

Although I’ve decided the traditional Christian creed isn’t for me, I still take heart in the fact that my parents loved me enough to baptize me, to do something for my future. And, so, I found myself walking a similar path when Ella was born: I thought only of her future here on Earth and, maybe, in heaven. I considered how baptism would offer her opportunities—like belonging to a church or being able to take communion—if she chooses them. I reflected on how being baptized could envelope her in a community that champions acceptance, respect, and love—all qualities that I hope to instill in her. I knew that I wanted to introduce a religion that she would be able to unfold, build upon, and interpret as she grows. And, quite honestly, I contemplated how my personal beliefs could ultimately affect Ella. If a fatal tragedy were to occur and my convictions turn out to be wrong, at least she will be protected and welcomed into an afterlife I didn’t believe in.

I’m the first to admit that my personal beliefs are nonlinear and could be construed as inconsistent. And I can see how my rationale for baptism may come across as a crass abuse of faith. But I can live with that. I want nothing more than to give Ella a solid foundation for a happy and successful life, and I would do anything to protect her—in the here and now, and forever on. As I see it, this is the very essence of parenting, and a birthright for my child. —Amanda M. Faison

Discussion Point

Islam in Colorado

Change can be slow, especially within organizations steeped in tradition. Although some groups are contemporizing Christianity and Judaism in the Denver-Boulder area, it appears that Islam is struggling to adapt. Unlike other worldly cities, there is a dearth of progressive mosques—and very few if any alternative communities—here along the Front Range that would appeal to Muslims with North American sensibilities.

“There is a very American Islam that exists,” says Denver resident Ausma Khan, who was the editor-in-chief of the now-defunct Muslim Girl Magazine. “But I’ve found it difficult to access a community of North American Muslims here.” Khan says she’s visited a couple of the area’s mosques, but that many of them have ethnic or sectarian populations—and sometimes hold very traditional Muslim views—that she doesn’t relate to. It’s a common complaint that local theologians are aware of—and experience themselves. “I was born in Boulder and I converted to Islam 10 years ago,” says Sophia Shafi, Ph.D., an assistant visiting professor of Islamic studies at Denver’s Iliff School of Theology. “I’m a progressive Shi’a and I’m generally on my own—meaning I pray at home—because I feel like I don’t have anywhere to go here in Boulder.”

Ibrahim Kazerooni, an Iraqi-born imam who once led a metro area Islamic center and is now working on his Ph.D., says he believes Islam needs to change to grow here in Colorado. “The format is not creating interest in people,” he says. “It’s boring and predictable and doesn’t speak to young people. We need to be more flexible with the formality of our message.”

Kazerooni, along with others like Shafi, have considered starting their own progressive communities. But with work and families, those plans have yet to solidify. For now, they’ll continue to bemoan the void—and pray alone.

_____

Seeking Western Muslims

Nabil Echchaibi is the associate director of the Center for Media, Religion and Culture at CU. He and a team of researchers have been working on a project called Muslims in the Mountain West, the first study of its kind, which explores the presence and experience of Muslims in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. The team has interviewed hundreds of Muslims, asking about how they practice and interpret what it means to be Muslim in America. Echchaibi is also using the project to document the history of Islam in the American West. “We’ve learned that a camel herder from Syria was likely the first Muslim in Arizona and that Colorado’s first imam likely arrived in 1914,” he says. The project’s results will be available at muslimsinmountainwest.org.

Pastor of the Pub

Jerry Herships, Methodist reverend, AfterHours Denver, afterhoursdenver.org

Jerry Herships is funny. Really funny. He’s so amusing, in fact, that his first career was as a stand-up comic—for 28 years. He did a good bit of his funnyman years in Los Angeles, but when the mudslides and earthquakes got old, he and his wife moved to Florida. She got a job with Disney; he worked as an entertainment manager for a nightclub. “It was a pastor friend in Florida who asked me if I’d ever thought about going into the ministry,” Herships says. He reminded his buddy that with his history of late-night frivolity he probably wasn’t the right guy for the job. “But he looked at me and said, ‘Maybe that makes you just the right guy.’ He essentially told me I didn’t have to be perfect to be a good pastor.”

Herships considered the idea—and then began searching for a way to make it happen. Denver’s Iliff School of Theology, which offered a progressive seminary program, was the answer. After completing a master’s of divinity degree and becoming ordained, he was hired as an associate pastor at a large Methodist church in Highlands Ranch. However, Herships was interested in exploring nontraditional ways of worship. “Church is intimidating,” he says. “That’s where the idea for AfterHours came from.”

AfterHours Denver is an alternative church’s kind of alternative church. With slogans like “God Doesn’t Suck” and mantras such as “We believe in doing good—and God—differently,” it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Herships’ flock doesn’t meet in a sanctuary. “My services are doled out over wings and pitchers of beer in local bars,” he says. Herships brings God to more places than bars, though. Six days a week, Herships and his small alterna-church serve lunch—as well as give communion to—Denver’s homeless population in Civic Center Park. In less than three years, AfterHours has fed more than 15,000 people for whom a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich is a godsend. “We talk about the gospel once or twice a month over beers,” he says, “but we live it daily.”

The types of people who gravitate toward AfterHours struggle with religion’s rules and dogma, Herships says. His parishioners, of which he counts about 70 at each “service,” want something different from church or have left church altogether. “Mainline churches want people to come to them to learn about God,” he says. “We take God to where people already are—and like to be.”

Taking Religion Outside

Jamie Korngoldrabbi, The Adventure Rabbi Program, adventurerabbi.org

Although the name sounds like something from an Onion news story, Boulder’s Adventure Rabbi Program has been using outdoor recreation as a tool for teaching Jewish concepts with great success for more than 10 years. “Most people who come to religion are looking for a community to be part of,” says Rabbi Jamie Korngold, who founded the organization, “but in traditional synagogues that’s not always easy.” Korngold has found that monthly Shabbat services in the form of day hikes in the Flatirons or skiing at Copper Mountain, and trips to Moab to celebrate Passover, have a way of offering the feeling of community that a Friday service at temple may not. “Grabbing someone’s hand so they can pull you up over a boulder is a more tangible, real-life way of connecting to another person,” she says.

But that’s not the only reason Korngold founded her nonconforming synagogue in the shadow of the Flatirons. People who live here often seek to be enveloped by raw, unadulterated nature. Korngold gets that—and draws on it. “Being in the outdoors helps people connect to something larger than themselves,” she says. “It can make them feel small but also a part of something larger.” Korngold adds that the sense of awe she sees people experience on a moonlit hike is the same kind of awe that people can experience with religion, if someone teaches them how to translate that sentiment.

Korngold wants to help Jews and their families connect—and sometimes reconnect—with a religion that, according to studies, is only reaching about 30 percent of its potential following. And she wants to do it in a way that makes people love being Jewish. So far, she’s done that for nearly 5,000 Adventure Rabbi participants each year. “The echo of their outdoor experiences with Adventure Rabbi can follow them back to their daily lives,” she says, “and, maybe, create a better connection with Judaism.”

 

Digital Dogma

A Colorado-based website brings belief to your screen.

According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 80 million Americans who are religiously active are Internet users. And according to Leo Brunnick, cofounder of Denver-based Patheos.com, nearly 2 million of those Americans visit his site every 30 days. That makes Patheos.com the largest multifaith site on the Web.

Launched in May 2009, Patheos.com aims to be to faith what ESPN.com is to sports. The site caters to seemingly everyone: atheists, Buddhists, Catholics, evangelicals, Hindus, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, pagans, and progressive Christians. But Brunnick and Co. make it clear that Patheos.com is not an interfaith site. “We are a marketplace of ideas,” Brunnick says. “There may be people on our site who will say, ‘As a Christian, I believe atheists are going to hell’ but we do moderate the site in a way that we avoid people directly telling each other to go to hell.”

Brunnick and his staff also ensure Patheos.com teems with well-written columns, online symposia, and a library of world religions. And at six million page views a month and growing, Patheos.com is closing in on the competition. This year, the site is poised to overtake Beliefnet.com and Christianpost.com to become the largest religion media site.

Sermon in the Mountains

When geography serves as a conduit to God.

As a teenager, I couldn’t always hear God. Maybe I wasn’t listening—or looking hard enough. At 16, what I was searching for was adventure. I wanted to see what the world outside my Chicago suburb had to offer; I wanted to discover new places and experience new things. But I never expected to find faith during those explorations.

The summer before my junior year of high school, Young Life (a faith-based nonprofit that leads youth groups) was offering a weeklong backpacking trip into the Colorado wilderness. The overt mission of the trip was to provide us with some quiet time, a respite from the everyday distractions of being 16. The implied hope was that some altitude would shorten our distance from the man upstairs. The true objective of the trip wasn’t at the forefront of my mind; instead my focus was set on going and doing and exploring.

I didn’t feel God’s presence on my first day in the Rockies—my 45-pound pack weighed too heavily on my mind (and my back). Instead, He whispered to me in the following days as I padded along trails, tried to fall asleep in the silent darkness of night, and watched the most electrifying lightning storm of my life. His craftsmanship—the grandeur of the mountains and the beauty of a trickling stream—was on display everywhere I looked. For the first time in my life, God presented Himself in an approachable way. Out there, I could talk to God as opposed to at God.

One faith-focused week in the woods and I was hooked. Sitting beside an alpine lake at 10,000 feet, I found the same comfort many find during Sunday service. That made returning to Illinois a problem: Instead of feeling His presence in a sunset or in the thin air of a mountain peak, all I could see and hear were buildings, cars, and people. How was I supposed to find God in Chicago?

Before I even had my high school diploma in hand, I plotted my move west to Wyoming. Many call the state God’s Country, and for good reason. The wide-open spaces, soaring mountains, and lack of crowds speak to those who hear our higher power in the wind instead of in chapel hymns. After all, it’s hard not to imagine there is a god when you see how beautiful Medicine Bow Peak is at midnight, bathed in moonlight and surrounded by millions of stars.

I lived in Wyoming for five years, and I talked to God every day. But life changes, and I had to return to city life. As I prepared to move to Denver, the thought of buildings, people, and traffic made me claustrophobic. But my worries were unfounded; Denver was just another place to explore. I settled in and realized I can see the foothills from my backyard. I can view a sunset on my way home from work. And when I crave some alone time with God, a short drive into the hills west of Evergreen helps me hear His voice a little clearer. —Lindsey R. McKissick

Expanding Faith

Brian Field, rabbi, Judaism Your Way, judaismyourway.org

For the past eight years in an unassuming storefront in Cherry Creek, a different style of Judaism has been flourishing under the tutelage of Rabbi Brian Field. With a mission to keep Judaism resilient and relevant, Judaism Your Way (JYW) has been experimenting with methods to increase the engagement of local Jews.

What was the impetus for Judaism Your Way?

There appeared to be an increasing disconnect between the lifestyles, life choices, questions, and spiritual vocabulary of Jews and what organized Judaism in the Denver-Boulder area was offering. People were being invited to do Judaism a denomination’s way, an organization’s way, or a rabbi’s way; we wanted to send a signal that instead of trying to bring people to Judaism, we were trying to bring Judaism to people.

So what does that look like?

Our thesis is that somewhere along the way, the Jews who are disengaged have heard some kind of a “no.” So we wanted to expand Judaism. That means finding Jewish ways to officiate a wedding between a Jew and a non-Jew; that means finding Jewish ways to create a naming ceremony for a baby born to a mixed-faith couple; that means finding a way to Jewishly solemnize a ceremony for a same-sex couple. We are here to find as many Jewish ways of saying “yes” as possible to as many Jews as possible.

Can people be involved with JYW regularly?

We have large-scale events throughout the year for High Holy Days, Hanukkah, Passover, and Tu b’Av, which is the Jewish evening of love. We do Jewish things in non-Jewish settings, such as holding High Holy Days at the Hudson Gardens or Passover at the Wellshire Event Center. We also do classes like introduction to Jewish spirituality and support groups for interfaith couples. We help with life-cycle events like weddings and baby namings, and we have a bar mitzvah program. And we are here for people to talk about their spiritual paths.

What do you mean by finding a “Jewish way”?

To participate in the rituals of Judaism, you need to be Jewish. But we see that 50 percent of weddings involving a Jew in Colorado are marriages that involve someone who’s not Jewish. Do we say Judaism can’t be part of your wedding, or do we find Jewish ways of being there for them? Our mission is to do it the second way.

One of my favorite biblical stories is the story of Moses. He led the people out of slavery. He received the Ten Commandments. But he was married to the daughter of a Midianite priest. After Moses knew he was to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, God met him and his family along their way and threatened to kill Moses. His wife took out a sharp stone and circumcised their son—and God left them alone. Moses hadn’t circumcised his son; he hadn’t brought his son into the covenant. His non-Jewish wife did. Why is this powerful? It shows a non-Jew can take charge of the ritual of Jewish covenantal continuity. When Jews were just marrying other Jews, that story wasn’t needed. Now, most of us are marrying outside, and the question is: Can Judaism follow them to this new place? The answer is yes, and we have a story in the Torah to explain why.