top of page

The Spiritual Infrastructure of the Future

Stewards of religious assets should embrace spiritual innovators.

 by Sue Phillips

This article was originally published by The Harvard Divinity Bulletin for the Spring/Summer 2024 issue.

THERE’S AN OLD STORY, part legend and part truth, that the “exceedingly odd” 4-foot-8.5-inch standard width of modern-day railroad gauge in the United States derives from the width of Roman war chariots. The story goes that the first roads in Europe were laid by empire-hungry Romans to serve imperial expansion. Ages of travelers then followed these roads and ruts or risked damaging valuable wagon wheels. The trams and railroads of succeeding generations relied on tools already calibrated to the shape and size of these wheels and axles. The newer U.S. system imported tools and tradespeople from Europe, who did what they knew in the way they knew how to do it, and the rest is history.1

This story survives because it tracks how infrastructure develops across landscapes and centuries. But there’s more to technologies of connection than ruts and rails. Immigration pathways, guild lineages, resource stewardship, colonization, industrial competition, entropy, empire, and innovation all tread these tracks too. Infrastructure has always both reflected and created human relationships in all their complexity.

To understand what this might mean for the future of religion and spiritual life is to explore relationships among legacy systems, imperial economics, emerging technologies, and changing social realities. It is to explore how humans make way—and fail to make way—for what is emerging.

We tend to think of infrastructure in technical terms and via physical structures like cisterns, aqueducts, canals, highways, electric grids, telephony, international space stations, and data centers. These physical systems are created to produce broad public benefit by helping households, communities, and commerce function. Because they are so capital intensive, governments or public-private partnerships often build, own, and maintain them.

Infrastructure uses standardization and access protocols to connect disparate places and people even as local customizations flourish. Japan’s interplanetary research missions are independent, but its spacecraft modules connect to the International Space Station (ISS) using shared docking specifications. Same with the Michigan Public Services Commission’s autonomous maintenance of an electrical grid that interconnects with those in other midwestern states. Infrastructure enables relationships, but it also impedes them, on purpose, to control access and flow through the system. Only countries that have agreed to certain commitments are allowed to dock at the ISS, and only paying Michigan consumers are allowed to tap into the MPSC’s electrical grid.

Infrastructure doesn’t necessarily change the things passing over or through it, but it might create new markets or constrain the size or format of what it carries. Consider how the Union Pacific Railroad opened up Eastern markets for Western beef, or how APIs sitting between iOS applications and Amazon Web Services require credentials to pass data through.2 There tends to be mutual adaptation between the “cargo” and the systems that carry it.

The mechanics and motivations of mutual adaptation are easier to understand when driven by market economics. But what happens when the purpose of the infrastructure is to serve souls? And what happens when it breaks down?


RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES GROW, disperse, diversify, and evolve just as other communities do. Many have designed and built infrastructure to create, collect, distribute, and control resources traveling through complex systems. From canonizing texts to blessing pilgrimage paths, from creating monastic communities to establishing portable credentials for leaders, religious communities of all kinds have clarified and codified the pathways across which their wisdom, authority, and practices travel. These have been no more benevolent, benign, or effective than other human creations, so let’s not assume religious infrastructure is good just because it is “good.”

Softening the infrastructure analogy a bit, I’m going to explore a specific example of how religious communities, especially in the West, have chosen to distribute wisdom and resources: through denominations and related organizations.3 Looking at these networks provides clues about how religious communities have organized themselves, using what means, and to what ends, because they do an astonishing number of jobs.4 Denominations

  • Establish and enforce creeds and statements of belief

  • Standardize and sacralize liturgies and rites of passage

  • Canonize texts, create hymn and prayer books, design education curricula

  • Identify and amplify elders, saints, and wisdom teachers

  • Commission and proliferate imagery, icons, songs, and stories

  • Establish and enforce community standards, accountabilities, and consequences

  • Authorize leaders

  • Financially subsidize religious life in otherwise unsustainable areas

  • Build website templates, marketing campaigns, and branding

  • Build, own, and maintain physical plants; fund the expansion and care of buildings

  • Credential professionals and create mechanisms for the portability of those credentials

  • Create professional associations for networking, continuing education, and accountability

  • Sponsor theological education, chaplaincy, and clinical pastoral education programs

  • Train lay leaders and offer leadership development programs

  • Support monastics and religious orders

  • Organize collective social justice and policy efforts

  • Gather member communities and leaders at local, regional, and national events

In short, denominations have done what individual members and congregations could never do for themselves. From the prayers in the prayer book to training for the synagogue treasurer to the logo on the website, almost everything congregations do relies on help from denominations and related organizations. In mainstream U.S. Protestant Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, and Unitarian Universalism, these resources are the water, electricity, and recycling plant of religious life. Denominations are the utilities.

The problem is that, like railroads, many of these functions depend on odd track sizes derived from outdated assumptions, needs, and technologies. While religious communities still need help, as they always have, the solutions being delivered are increasingly unhelpful. At best, there are mismatches between form and function. At worst, the assumptions around which denominational services were built are now mostly out of date.

Consider these assumptions: That religious communities are local, neighborhood based, and have physical buildings.5 That congregations are the basic unit of denominational membership, and that individuals want to access religious experience through congregations.6 That clergy have a single job, and that it is housed at such congregations.7 That religious leaders are paid enough to support a family and pay off debt from theological education.8 That there’s a pipeline for and surplus of educators, liturgists, and religious professionals, and that they need a denominational hub to find and get jobs.9 That religious identity is transmitted generationally and that beliefs are inherited.10 That age-segregated classroom-style education models work well for spiritual formation.11 That institutional mediation and leadership is essential in religious landscapes.12 That it is desirable for authority to be held by a few on behalf of the whole.13

Of course, some of these assumptions are still sometimes true in some places, and of course, some communities defend against change as a matter of theological principle. But almost every one of these assumptions is severely challenged in the religious marketplace of younger generations. Sociology scholars write that the hallmark attribute of infrastructure is that it only “becomes visible upon breakdown.”14 Infrastructure is very visible right now.

There seems to be a death spiral going on in many religious communities, where declining membership reduces available resources, diminishing resources can no longer serve the needs of members, and local groups weaken and collapse, thus further reducing resources.15 Political schisms, abuse scandals, and changes in how people access information and experiences all contribute. So does the growing mistrust in institutions, suspicion of authority, aging local congregations, time-bound services and “in real life” meetings, static messaging, and long-format everything—all of which fail to attract and even repel youngers. While there is much anxious studying and speculation about why membership in religious communities is collapsing, in a way the causes don’t matter. We don’t have to share the same diagnosis of the causes to observe the unmistakable results.

We are accustomed to thinking about infrastructure as enabling flow and connection, but the primary reason religious infrastructure is failing is because it impedes the nimble dissemination of wisdom in formats that younger generations receive and share every other kind of information. The old, timeworn responses to this reality—that religion is countercultural by design, and that forcing people to engage in the old ways is good for them—don’t work that well anymore. This isn’t about youth group leaders learning to use social media. It’s about wholesale disruption in how people engage other people.

Many have written about the propensity of younger generations to “unbundle and remix” the jobs of traditional religious organizations. Instead of looking to their local synagogue, Millennials and GenZers tend to assemble strategies like apps on their cell phone home screen, one function at a time.16 They get encouragement to meet their goals from their YMCA, teaching from Headspace, connect with friends on Discord, and experience transcendence in nature. People are doing old things in new ways.

There’s a concept from landscape architecture that might help us understand what’s going on. “Desire paths” are unplanned trails that are trampled as people navigate routes between where they are and where they want to go. These are often the shortest or easiest routes, even in the presence of other, deliberately planned paths that have been laid out by official path-makers. Even when these new routes wreak havoc, they can teach planners where people want to go and how they want to get there. The makers of official paths can complain all they want about the unauthorized routes, but they can’t deny that’s where the trampled dirt is.

Seeking people are trampling a lot of dirt these days.

There is no evidence that people’s fundamental soul needs have changed. If anything, collective awareness about the importance of belonging, mental health, and connection to deeper meaning is growing, and the democratization of access has hugely expanded available spiritual and religious content. It turns out folks still want to visit landscapes of religious and spiritual wisdom. They simply aren’t following the old paths.

We need only look to yoga, meditation, and psychedelics to see how ancient religious practices are thriving beyond traditional religious communities. TikTok is replete with creators who teach about “manifesting.” Instagram meditation teachers have hundreds of thousands of followers. Headspace and Calm each have valuations of more than two billion dollars. Spiritual innovators are creating new efforts to meet very old needs.

The problem is, none of the old infrastructure jobs are getting done. There’s almost no one to form new leaders, help innovators access health care, subsidize services in struggling areas, commission art, authorize leaders and hold them to account, uplift the wisdom of elders, or develop new physical spaces for new purposes. The community of communities—denominations and organizations—used to hold this center and provide these services, but there is no center in this new world. People still need water, electricity, and recycling, but the utilities are working with legacy systems. The infrastructure has broken down.


APPS LIKE HEADSPACE and Calm may be thriving, but spiritual innovators trying to operate outside capitalist markets struggle to survive. Of the hundreds of spiritual innovations that have arisen in the United States in the last 10 years, only a small handful have survived beyond 5 years, partly because there is so little infrastructure to support them.17 There’s virtually no training, no mentors, few examples of success, and almost no peers. There’s no incubation and acceleration pipeline, virtually no access to spiritual formation, little writing about the field, and no comprehensive systems to identify promising people and ideas.

Basically, innovators have a choice either to enter theological education, graduate business education, or commercial markets, each of which may require shearing off vital strategic or vocational elements. For-profit sectors enjoy a mature and dynamic ecosystem to cultivate up-and-coming entrepreneurs, much of which is funded by investors looking for disruptive ideas that will return 100x on their initial investment. Social innovation tends to be well supported within academic institutions but not beyond.

Even in the rare instances where individual leaders overcome these challenges and create something promising in the real world, there are few sustainable business models. Spiritual innovators face a tough choice. They can market themselves as entrepreneurs in for-profit sectors and hope that well-meaning venture capital will support them. Or they can create nonprofits and hope to be supported philanthropically. Or they can go the coaching/consulting route and hope to generate enough income to keep themselves afloat by selling their time to solve recognizable personal or business problems.

If this sounds grim, it is. The few cases of genuine spiritual or religious innovations surviving at any kind of scale over the long term tend to do so because they are generously supported by the dominant foundations within their tradition.

There are few shared docking stages in the religious world. And there’s virtually no money. The world of religious funding is siloed by tradition; almost no one is willing to fund innovations beyond their own tradition. Meanwhile, nonreligious funders hoping to avoid political fault lines remain cautious about supporting even vaguely spiritual efforts even as they embrace other well-being strategies. And individual consumers expect social interactions to be free and tend not to understand the value of spiritual support.

Unlike many traditional religious communities, consumer markets are generally not designed to offer services free of charge. They are definitely not designed to provide social service safety nets, a traditional function of religious communities that even the federal government relies on. An estimated 40 percent of social services in U.S. cities are provided by faith-based organizations.18 The volunteers upon which many of these organizations rely are aging out, and their denominations are withering.19 What happens when the infrastructure behind those services collapses? People are literally dying from despair and loneliness,20 but there is no market for the care and community formation that could help remedy this.

Six years ago, Sacred Design Lab gathered more than a hundred innovators within, beyond, and on the edge of traditional religious communities.21 About a third were active within their tradition through ordination or lay leadership, a third were active as children and youth but left the tradition behind in young adulthood, and a third were unaffiliated. They ran maker spaces, led grief groups, offered Bible study at brewpubs and fitness studios, hosted sober raves, sang sacred songs, and convened small groups to reflect on beloved texts. They fostered social connection, hosted meals, sought meaning, connected intergenerationally, offered rites of passage, and helped people grow strong in spirit. In short, they did “religious” things.

But most didn’t know it. Many wept when we told them there was a name for what they were doing and that it was called spiritual leadership. Most literally had no idea that there are hundreds of years of human wisdom about building and supporting meaning-oriented communities. Or that this wisdom is their birthright too.

Denominational websites are chock full of content about everything from running small groups to dealing with crises among members to setting professional boundaries. There are elders from every religious tradition who have entire careers of experience to share, and there’s a staggering range of professional literature on meaning making. There are a thousand strategies for opening and closing gatherings and reflecting on texts in groups. In short, there’s wisdom awaiting translation into new languages, but there is no distribution system to deliver that wisdom to these spiritual innovators. There is no infrastructure to deliver those resources to our bruised and hurting world.


THERE MAY BE LIBERATION underneath this breakdown. The old docking stations are broken, and along with them the old protocols and specifications. We can already see signs of the breach. Secular entities like app developers are doing some of the jobs religious entities used to be good at. Chaplains are among the most engaged religious leaders; almost all work in secular settings.22 Technology has reduced barriers of entry into “religious” spaces—the API between a person’s mobile phone and YouTube might be the only threshold they cross on their way to synagogue. When billions of people can access meaning-oriented content from their homes, the line between what is “spiritual” and what is “secular” becomes thin.

Gone are the days when a queer youth in a small town had to choose between going to the local Pentecostal church or not going anywhere to live their spiritual life. An elder in Indonesia can watch livestreamed Tawaf at the Kaaba in Mecca any time of the day or night on YouTube. The primacy of physical space and presence has been broken. Video now allows asynchronous access to billions of stories, songs, and teachings. Syncing in time is no longer essential, and wisdom is no longer as trapped behind institutional walls or as controlled by gatekeepers. Access has exploded and barriers have fallen. Anyone with a phone or computer can access virtually anything, anywhere, anytime. The fundamental links of the old religious infrastructural chains have become obsolete. Desire paths are everywhere.

New technological infrastructure is agnostic about identity, time, and physical location. People of course still look for, practice, and develop all possible particularities in their seeking lives, but tech infrastructure doesn’t require people to forgo particularity to access the grid. Unlike religious infrastructure of old, tech platforms like Pinterest are trans-religious, trans-local, and trans-synchronous. They platform content from distributed networks of networks. And they are agnostic about the content being distributed.The religious infrastructure of the future will be too.

These platforms will not care what content is passing through them. Instead of being afraid of this inevitability, faithful stewards of religious assets should run toward this problem as if our collective vocational lives depend on it. Because they do.

We need to stop being paralyzed by the existential threat and start taking our faith seriously enough to believe it will survive in the wild.

Yes, there are a million hard questions to address. Polity will need to adjust. Theology will be in play. Authority will be questioned. But religious people thrive on these questions and always have, no matter how painful the process can sometimes be. We need to stop being paralyzed by the existential threat and start taking our faith seriously enough to believe it will survive in the wild.

There are success stories in this wilderness, like the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), Glean Network, and Wesleyan Impact Partners.23 They’ve each deployed context-sensitive strategies that are unique to their traditions but have also managed to achieve escape velocity from many of the constraints. They use design-thinking principles to explore emerging opportunities, refresh existing commitments, and inspire funders to do new things.

The LCWR does so in part by acknowledging that the ways twentieth-century Catholic women religious organized themselves is coming to a close, and by knowing in their collective soul that they are called to usher in God’s new ways. Glean Network integrates design thinking and product innovation theory to support entrepreneurs who believe their “purpose is too powerful to be left in the past.” And Wesleyan Impact Partners has the audacity to partner in Spirit-led movements toward love, generosity, and belonging beyond United Methodism. They are delivering identifiably Wesleyan water through other people’s pipes.

Religion is the greatest distribution mechanism for meaning making in the history of the world. These stories, songs, images, relics, holidays, wisdom texts, artifacts, architectural styles, rites of passage, teachers, commandments, saints, spells, and icons have transmitted meaning since the dawn of human time. And they still can, if only we refit the old systems to carry the gifts of God to the people of God where people actually are.


Sue Phillips is on the founding team of the Workshop for Emotional and Spiritual Technology, a tech startup working to help people live more meaningful lives. After serving as a denominational executive for the Unitarian Universalist Association, she co-founded Sacred Design Lab, a nonprofit that interprets innovation to the religious world and ancient wisdom to the world of innovation. Clients and partners have included Pinterest, Google, Logitech, the Obama Foundation, and the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General.


  1. See David Mikkelson, “Are U.S. Railroad Gauges Based on Roman Chariots?,”, for an entertaining take on which elements of this story are true and which not so much. The bottom line: the legend “has significant elements of both truth and falsity.”

  2. “Application programming interface” protocols determine how (and if) applications recognize and respond to each other.

  3. Similar trends may be impacting communities outside the United States, but this analysis must be considered limited to the U.S. context.

  4. “Denomination” refers to a religious group with similar beliefs, typically sharing a history, organization, and leadership: think “Episcopalian,” “Presbyterian.” Branches of Judaism in the U.S., such as Reform or Conservative, are also referred to as denominations, while in Muslim communities people often talk about “branches.” By “related organizations,” I mean associated foundations, clergy groups, camps and conference centers, training and education programs, etc.

  5. Michelle Boorstein, “Does a Religious Community Need Its Own Building to Flourish?,” Washington Post, November 23, 2018.

  6. Daniel A. Cox, “Generation Z and the Future of Faith in America,” Survey Center on American Life, March 24, 2022.

  7. Israel Galindo, “The Times They Keep a Changing: Bivocational Ministry as the New Norm?,” Columbia Theological Seminary, May 24, 2022.

  8. C. Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler, “What Pastors Get Paid, and When It’s Not Enough,” The Christian Century, June 19, 2019.

  9. Junno Arocho Esteves, “Vatican Statistics Show Decline in Number of Consecrated Men, Women,” Global Sisters Report, March 25, 2020.

  10. Tim Keller, “Inherited Faith Is Dying, Chosen Faith Is Not,” The Gospel Coalition,, January 19, 2017.

  11. Phyllis Moen and Kate Schaefers, “Long-Life Learning and the Age-Integration of Higher Education,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, April 12, 2021,

  12. Pew Research Center, “Millennials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends,” March 7, 2014,

  13. Michael Lipka, “Why American ‘Nones’ Left Religion Behind,” Pew Research Center, August 24, 2016,

  14. Jorg Niewöhner, “Infrastructures of Society, Anthropology of,” in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, ed. James D. Wright (2d. ed., Elsevier, 2015), 12:119–25, doi/10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.12201-9.

  15. Jonathan M. Pitts, “Churches Merge, Close,” Baltimore Sun, October 10, 2017.

  16. See Sacred Design Lab’s reports and writings at, including How We Gather, Design for the Human Soul, A Call to Connection, and Care of Souls.

  17. Based on How We Gather and then Sacred Design Lab’s experience working with spiritual innovators in the United States since 2014.

  18. Jeri Eckart Queenan, Peter Grunert, and Devin Murphy, “Elevating the Role of Faith-Inspired Impact in the Social Sector,” Bridgespan Group, January 28, 2021,

  19. Bob Smietana, “Faith Groups Are Vital to the Social Safety Net. But Volunteers They Rely on Are Aging and Their Denominations Are Shrinking,” Washington Post, November 20, 2020.

  20. Elisabet Beseran et al., “Deaths of Despair: A Scoping Review on the Social Determinants of Drug Overdose, Alcohol-Related Liver Disease and Suicide,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19, no. 19 (2022), doi/10.3390/ijerph191912395.

  21. For more detail, see December Gathering, Sacred Design Lab,

  22. Lydia Saad, “One in Four Americans Have Been Served by Chaplains,” Gallup Blog, December 14, 2022,

  23. For more, see:;; and


bottom of page