Finding shelter for the soul



Rabbi Neil Goldstein, of New Shul, Alban Institute discusses “finding shelter for one’s soul” in religious communities:

One thing that has become crystal clear to me is that men and women are looking for communities, not congregations. Most people care very little about denominational labels or theology. Some don’t even care about the institution of religion itself (I know some individuals who actually belong to two or more different congregations of different faiths and move with ease between their respective worship services and programs).

The icons, symbols, and images of the past no longer hold power for this new generation of Americans. Some of the largest and most dynamic megachurches, for example, do not even have crosses in their facilities, let alone fixed pews or pulpits. What people seem to crave is a sense of community, a feeling of being wanted and known.

Ultimately, we want to be loved, and to find protection through that love. I believe that we need to rethink our congregations today less as houses of worship than as sanctuaries in the true, etymological meaning of the word—a place of safety and security. These are troubling times, and offering Americans a safe haven amidst the maelstrom around us is a very appealing gift. A sanctuary is different from a church or a synagogue. A sanctuary is not about symbols, rituals, sacred texts, or holy days—it is more about, as the Jewish evening liturgy states, being “guarded under the shelter of Your wings.” We have a military to guard our bodies. Who will protect our souls?


In this post-9/11 context, nothing will ever be the same—or, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed thousands of years ago, nothing ever is. That ought not be a cause for us to despair. Rather, it represents an opportunity as well as a challenge. As religious leaders for this new millennium, our task is to provide authentic spiritual anchors that will make the members of our many and varied faith communities feel safe and secure, while simultaneously offering them exciting, eclectic, and innovative approaches to living religious lives that will speak to them in a language that they will find accessible, enriching, and, in the end, transformational. We owe them no less.

Read it all here

This is a very different idea about congregations from Congregations Gone Wild by Jeffrey MacDonald in the NY Times that is receiving a lot of discussion.

What do you think?

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4 Responses to "Finding shelter for the soul"
  1. I found myself a little troubled by this idea of the congregation being, first of all, a sanctuary. I admit that I, and everybody else around me, need security. But I need more. I need challenge, and mission -- a reason for being Christian.

    A few years ago, our parish was planning to print t-shirts, and we held a somewhat playful contest for a slogan. The winner was the tried and tested "We welcome you...." But the runner-up slogan caught my fancy: "St. Thomas - base camp for the spiritual journey." We need refuge and we need nourishment. But it's nourishment to give us strength for the climb.

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  2. Rabbi Goldstein certainly makes excellent points. If there is a problem to be found in his argument, I think, it is one of emphasis. Our religious congregations should absolutely be the kinds of communities Rabbi Goldstein calls for. But I wonder if calling them "sanctuaries in the true etymological meaning of the word" in the way he does, that is, as sanctuaries for broken human beings needing comfort and protection, forgets that houses of worship, called "sanctuaries," were meant to be sanctuaries for the presence of God first and foremost? Rabbi Goldstein's overemphasis on the need for religious congregations to become primarily human sanctuaries may have the unintended side effect of moving toward the consumerist version of religion rightly criticized by Jeffrey MacDonald. To my mind, our churches are sanctuaries for broken and needy people precisely because they are first and foremost sanctuaries of the presence of the Living God. And the kind of true and authentic communities that Rabbi Goldstein so eloquently and so rightly calls for come into being by worshipping God in that presence, within that holy sanctuary, creating the very human sanctuary Rabbi Goldstein thinks is so crucial. I think emphasizing the priority of the divine sanctuary as the foundation for human sanctuary would likely require a slight re-framing of Rabbi Goldstein's argument, but would support entirely the rabbi's impassioned plea for congregations that take community very seriously.

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  3. "Ultimately, we want to be loved, and to find protection through that love."

    With some of the kids I work with --that is precisely why there are gangs.....

    There are 'sanctuary' church models which this author seems to describe, but they are certainly not for every stripe of Christian --and is deeply troubling when one considers that the Gospel can inspire those who are comfortable to be uncomfortable.... to seek something and someone "other."

    Margaret Watson

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  4. Scott, I see your point, but I think you ask too much of the good Rabbi. He notes in the article that he writes from a Jewish standpoint, and in the Hebrew Scriptures, at least, there is only one sanctuary of God, in Jerusalem. Certainly, that is not, as far as I know, how the synagogue is seen today.

    Rather, he refers to the cities of sanctuary established in Deuteronomy, places of safe haven for those who have sinned but without intent. I would suggest that in that context it was their designation and function as such safe havens that identified them as sacred; for that was literally their God-given purpose.

    In the same sense I think we can consider how our congregations might function as such safe havens, not as an alternative to worshiping God, but in fact as the means. We appreciate an integral relationship between loving God and loving neighbor as self. So, establishing such a sense of community would seem both means of and conducive to the (liturgical) worship of God.

    In fact I think the Rabbi does raise later in the articles the sort of questions you raise, because they are certainly important.

    Marshall Scott

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