DIY religion: In spiritually fickle Marin, change is in the air

The congregation sings during a candlelight Winter Solstice service of the Macrina Church, in the Community Room at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Belvedere. The service occurred on the eve of the Winter Solstice on Sunday, December 20. (Special to the IJ/Jocelyn Knight)

Last Sunday at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Tiburon, a few dozen people gathered to celebrate the winter solstice with a liturgy focusing on “finding light in moments of darkness.” The service drew from traditional sources such as the New Testament, and there were some decidedly modern elements such as a sing-along to Grammy-winning rock band Jars of Clay’s rendition of “Love Came Down at Christmas” and a reflection session where participants shared relevant stories aloud.

And then they all walked outside, lit up sparklers and held them aloft.

“We took our light out into the world,” said the Rev. Betsy DeRuff.

Three years ago, DeRuff created the Macrina Community, an offshoot of the Episcopal Church that celebrates the traditions of that faith while incorporating modern elements like YouTube videos of U2 singer Bono and clips from “The Simpsons.” Sure to generate some eye-rolling from its counterparts, the service is designed to reach out to those who have become disillusioned with their religion but who still consider themselves spiritually curious.

And Macrina is by no means alone. It is emblematic of similar efforts being made across Marin at churches and synagogues hoping to fight off a drop in membership because of demographic changes and an ever-growing variety of distractions. The movement – Marin Interfaith Council Executive Director Rev. Carol Hovis calls it a “tectonic shift” – comes in the wake of two surveys on religion in Marin that, although they are several years old, continue to have an impact on perceptions of the county’s spiritual disposition

The first, conducted by the late Gary Tobin of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, found that while 82 percent of the survey’s 604 respondents said they were religious or spiritual, only 43 percent were members of a congregation, a stark contrast to the 68 percent membership rate nationally. Regular attendance of service was even more at odds with the rest of the country, as 22 percent said they never attended services and another 40 percent said they went less than once a month. Only 10 percent of the national population never attend services, the report found.

The second report, “Marin County Religious Attitudes Survey,” was conducted in 2006 for the Marin Leadership Foundation. It found similar numbers, with 45 percent of the 502 respondents saying they attended services once a year or not at all.

“I think about living in the least churched county in America,” DeRuff, of Ross, said about starting Macrina, named for St. Macrina the Younger of the 4th century. “There are a lot of couples, families and individuals who can’t make up their mind about what they believe, so they don’t choose anything at all. A huge opportunity to nurture a spiritual life is lost. We are trying to create a place where you don’t have to make up your mind.”

Sandy Mendler of Mill Valley was drawn to Macrina through a series of “Taste and See” dinner parties DeRuff held at her home a few years ago. Mendler grew up in a Presbyterian family in New Jersey and had tried a handful of other religious communities since moving to the West Coast eight years ago, to no avail.

“I wanted to be a part of a spiritual community but had so many points of discomfort with traditional religion,” said Mendler, 50, a mother of two teenagers. “I was looking for a combination of a comfortable spiritual practice with a group of people who really wanted to connect, and Macrina was it.”

For 44-year-old Evan Marquit of San Anselmo, his disconnect from the theology of his Jewish faith came despite his strong ties to his cultural and ethnic background.

“I never found myself really believing in the theology and the religious teachings,” he said. “I thought it was pretty arbitrary that I should believe in this whole set of information just because my parents and grandparents did. I was never opposed to it, but I never found it framing my life in any significant way.”

Along came Nita (Hebrew for “we will grow/plant), a project of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, where Rabbi Noa Kushner landed a one-year grant to reach out to “grow a more meaningful Jewish life in Marin,” using the slogan “do Jewish stuff.” The grant came from Synagogue 3000, which provides seed money to synagogues seeking to tap into groups of unaffiliated Jews.

“These are people who want to do the things you might do at a synagogue but without connecting to a synagogue to do it,” Kushner said. “It’s do-it-yourself, and informal – like Burning Man or something. People are wanting to connect. They’re just not willing to walk in the front door.”

“(Kushner) gets it,” said Marquit, whose wife Laura grew up in a largely secular household but has advocated finding a spiritual practice for their two young children. “(Kushner) understands that there are plenty of people like us where it’s not totally crystal clear that we’ve bought into the religious teaching. And she doesn’t give us the impression that that is a negative thing. It’s more than just some schedule of services and events.”

Kushner has been spreading the word on Nita through little cards called Dealbreakers that ask and answer questions her target audience might posit: “What if I don’t believe in God?” “What if I’m not Jewish?” “What if my partner isn’t Jewish?” “What if I don’t agree with the prayers?” The answers might surprise devout Jews. The reply to the last question draws a distinction between a prayer and a contract, encouraging people to skip the words they disagree with: “Seriously, it’s fine.”

Hovis said Macrina and Nita are exactly the kinds of communities that religious author Phyllis Tickle described in her 2008 book, “The Great Emergence,” which claims that the major religions are in the midst of a period of soul-searching not seen since the Reformation.

“Congregations in Marin are continuing to absorb what it all means for their relevance, their mission, and their future, especially with Marin’s aging population and the economy being what it is now,” Hovis said. “These religious leaders are trying to deal with these huge changes, particularly the fact that people are no longer willing to take Scriptural authority as the only authority in their lives.”

Not all outreach efforts are as audacious as those of Macrina and Nita.

At Novato United Methodist Church, the Rev. Rebecca Irelan is trying to grow membership despite an aging congregation and “a lot more people in the (membership) rolls than we are seeing in the pews.” One of the ways she’s doing so is by fostering small gatherings based around a subject like knitting or missionary work, and hoping to bring people into the church through those groups.

Other churches are growing through changes in their liturgical presentation. Since the Rev. Sam Alexander arrived at First Presbyterian Church of San Rafael three years ago, attendance has risen 25 percent.

“We’re identifying ourselves as a congregation that is more interested in asking questions than in espousing doctrinal answers,” he said. “We recognize that there is value in the stories of the Christian tradition but we see them as stories, not as factual accounts of Christian history. We’re trying to be an accountable community that is about intelligible faith. I’m tired of sounding stupid when I talk about God.”

The church’s weekly contemplative service features several minutes of silence with attendees gathered in a circle, and Alexander on a stool instead of a pulpit. DeRuff also has sought that sort of departure from the traditional service.

“For post-modern people, this hierarchical, patriarchal approach where one person has all the answers and everybody else is in the crowd – it just doesn’t speak to them,” she said.

But in a community as religiously diverse as Marin, there is plenty of room for both the nontraditional, like ever-growing Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, and Saint Raphael Church, one of the oldest Catholic churches in the Bay Area, to continue thriving. At the Dec. 12 celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, more than 1,000 people turned out for morning prayers.

“What Catholicism offers is Scripture and tradition, and tradition by its very nature tries to bring the gospel to light given the historical moment in which one lives,” said the Rev. Paul Rossi. “If other religious practices or modern day sort of things help people come closer to God and become more living people, terrific. But in the Catholic faith, the tradition is living.”

Alexander said that at a time of year when more people than usual are attending church and services, Marin’s spiritual community is rejecting its reputation as nonreligious.

“The church went through a period where modernism called the veracity of the stories into question, and I think Marin is ripe for that moment when all that may be true, but what about a spiritual stake in our lives?” he said. “This area seems ready for that. People are thirsty for something real and very open here, beyond just getting angry at the old moralistic narrow church.”


In an effort to break down barriers and build trust between the estimated 150 religious communities in Marin County, the Marin Interfaith Council offers regular forums, interfaith retreats and clergy luncheons, giving particpants a chance to experience one another’s prayers and philosophies.

For information on the council, call executive director Rev. Carol Hovis or program manager Alison Hendley at 456-6957, or visit