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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Thomas McConkie of Lower Lights leads a group in mediation and discussion in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 14, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — Thomas McConkie sits in a tall, straight-backed chair, the sleeves of his crisp, button-down shirt rolled up to his elbows. He smiles at men and women in sandals, T-shirts and summer dresses, who watch him from two sections of chairs, four rows in each, placed to face the center of the room.

“We’re just a bunch of adults out on the town doing a little mindfulness,” McConkie jokes, referring to the activities he’ll soon lead. “Nothing unusual about it.”

Thomas McConkie of Lower Lights leads a group in mediation and discussion in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Meditation groups may not be unique, but this gathering is. McConkie, an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who is also trained in Buddhist mindfulness, is pushing the boundaries of traditional religious practice, helping people of varied faith backgrounds use meditation to deepen their spiritual lives.

"We are not here to tell people whether they should continue in their religious tradition or not. We want to provide space and practice where they can come to a new level of honesty and truthfulness within themselves," McConkie said in an interview, referring to his meditation community, Lower Lights Sangha (pronounced suhng-guh.)

McConkie’s group meditation work recently caught the attention of a couple of Harvard Divinity School scholars who invited him to apply to a conference they hosted in December. He was one of 80 leaders gathered there to discuss the future of faith and community building at a time when organized religion is on the decline.

Thomas McConkie of Lower Lights leads a group in mediation and discussion in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 14, 2017.| Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“Someone described it as the ‘Silicon Valley of religion,’” said Casper ter Kuile, one of the event’s organizers. “That felt true to us because there was such a sense of deep honoring of history and tradition, but also such openness to how religion is changing.”

The conference was part of a broader effort by ter Kuile and Angie Thurston, who are ministry innovation fellows at Harvard, to understand where millennial Americans go to find community and how leaders like McConkie can expand the spiritual offerings of traditional churches.

"We're really thinking about how to help build bridges between what has been and what is coming into being," Thurston said.

Millennials' (lack of) faith

McConkie, 37, didn't set out to create a spiritual haven for millennials in Salt Lake City. He arrived a year too early for that generation, but grew up with the same sort of discomfort with organized religion that's linked to Americans born between 1980 and 1996.

Attendees leave after taking part in Lower Lights group mediation and discussion in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 14, 2017.| Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Born into a blue-blooded LDS family with relatives that included high-level church leaders, McConkie left the faith as a teenager, spending his 20s traveling and working in Europe and Asia while studying Buddhism and developing a meditation practice. It took more than 15 years for him to make peace with his Mormon upbringing and to realize he wasn't done with the faith.

"It was my Buddhist meditation practice that helped deepen my understanding of Christianity and deepen my Christian faith," he said.

McConkie moved back to Salt Lake City almost five years ago, ready to reconnect with family members and old friends. Some expressed interest in learning more about meditation, and Lower Lights Sangha, which launched formally in September 2016, grew out of years of smaller gatherings in McConkie's home.

The meditation community is open to anyone, but around two-thirds of the 80 attendees at a recent meeting in June appeared younger than 40. McConkie said his efforts to deepen faith by drawing on diverse religious practices likely resonates best with millennials.

"There's a huge need, especially in the millennial generation, to start to explore what's beyond partisan and religious divides," he said.

Around 1 in 3 millennials are religious "nones," meaning they don't affiliate with a particular faith group, according to the Pew Research Center. Many of these religiously unaffiliated Americans believe in God and pray regularly but don't want to stick within the limits of a single faith.

"Various practices are being unbundled and remixed in people's individual, spiritual lives," Thurston said.

McConkie begins Lower Lights Sangha's monthly gatherings with a brief breathing exercise. Chairs squeak and groan as people adjust their posture and clear their minds.

People meditate as they listen to Thomas McConkie of Lower Lights in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

"I want to invite you for a moment to do absolutely nothing," McConkie says, the words delivered slowly and deliberately in a deep, soothing voice.

Next, McConkie offers a brief description of his meditative philosophy, which blends Buddhist practice with developmental psychology. He asks people to introduce themselves to their neighbor, encouraging them to share what made them want to meditate.

The main event during the two-hour meeting is a group meditation. McConkie asks people to move their chairs into circles of four or five, then provides speaking prompts.

Participants complete sentences like "Something you don't know about me is" with stories from their own lives, describing their siblings, favorite vacation spots or how lost they've felt for the last 12 months.

Community builders

As people sit in their circles, sharing and listening, McConkie strolls around the room, a smile playing on his lips.

A calm has settled over the room since he cracked his mindfulness joke. He's successfully ushered another group into deeper awareness of themselves and others.

McConkie said nurturing new connections and growth is one of his strengths. The spiritual side of Lower Lights Sangha's work comes naturally to him; the business aspects of community building are a little trickier.

People meditate as they listen to Thomas McConkie of Lower Lights in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

"What I noticed at the December gathering (at Harvard) is that some people are brilliant social entrepreneurs (and) killer marketers. At Lower Lights, I would not say our strength is our business model or marketing plan," he said.

All 80 leaders invited to the Harvard conference lead some kind of community, which ter Kuile and Thurston define as a group of people who know each other, care for each other and work together to weather life's storms. These leaders came from sacred and secular contexts, including art cooperatives, fitness studios and faith groups that meet at bars.

Samantha Nielsen takes part in discussion as Thomas McConkie of Lower Lights leads a group in mediation and discussion in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

"The focus in putting that gathering together was trying to understand what these leaders need," Thurston said.

Conversations centered on issues like funding, overcoming conflict and maintaining relationships even as a community grows. People leading secular groups were encouraged to think about how they could support members spiritually, while leaders from religious contexts like McConkie brainstormed ways to track membership and increase their impact.

"I came back from Harvard in December and said we have got to tighten up the organizational side of what we're doing," McConkie said.

Over the past six months, he and his team have designed a website and debated as to which type of nonprofit corporation they should register as.

McConkie also had the chance to pick the brains of other leaders, who continue to support him from across the country. Although they were only together for a few days, the 80 leaders and others brought in to advise them quickly became their own community, listening and responding to one another's needs.

These relationships "provide for them what they're providing for others," said the Rev. Sue Phillips, a Unitarian Universalist clergy member who helped organize the conference.

Authority shifts

Ter Kuile and Thurston's work, including the December conference, grew out of their shared sense that reports on the decline of organized religion were missing the real story: the rise of new types of communities.

"There's such a sense of doom and gloom within religious institutions. But we see an inspiring story of how people are coming together. We want to tell that story," ter Kuile said.

The pair have published a series of reports outlining how millennials build communities at their gym or through regular dinner parties, and offering tips for how established faiths can evolve in order to attract younger members.

"We're trying to navigate between institutions and the growing number of young people who are finding different ways in which to bring belonging and meaning to their lives," ter Kuile said.

Olivia Knudsen listens to Thomas McConkie of Lower Lights as he leads a group in mediation and discussion in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 14, 2017.| Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

New developments at the fringes of a faith group can sometimes create a crisis of authority, as more established religious leaders worry about shifts in practice. Denominational leaders must search for a way to welcome new initiatives like a social justice group or service-oriented gathering without compromising on leadership training or core teachings.

"What's emerging asks us to be different, a new 'us,'" the Rev. Phillips said. "The truth is that a lot of denominations focus on propagating the 'us' that they currently are."

The Rev. Phillips urges clergy members to embrace novel ideas and to be patient when there are bumps in the road.

Thomas McConkie of Lower Lights leads a group in mediation and discussion in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

"The most powerful things traditional leaders can do is come alongside these innovators and say 'yes' at every junction," she said. "That's what I am trying to do and that's what I believe we have to do to become all of who we can be."

Lower Lights Sangha is not linked with the LDS Church, beyond McConkie and some participants' personal involvement in the religion.

McConkie said Mormon doctrine and practices inspire his meditation and vice versa, and he believes his meditation community calls to younger Mormons looking for new ways to express their faith.

"We're discovering new truths together in community. I hope how we evolve is in service of what the church is trying to do and how it's trying to grow," McConkie said.

At the end of June's Lower Lights gathering, McConkie invited people to shout out what they were feeling. They said they were grateful, happy and feeling connected to everyone around them.

"I'm feeling like I should have come months ago," one woman says.