Former pastor David Hayward has succeeded where most active pastors are experiencing their greatest challenge. In an era of rapidly declining church membership and religious affiliation in America, Hayward has founded an online community to provide interaction and resources for people in search of 'spiritual independence'. He calls his website The Lasting Supper and says the number of users is now in the hundreds.
Hayward, a resident of Canada, became a Presbyterian minister in 1986, but later switched to the Vineyard tradition in 1995 and served there until leaving ministry in 2010. He left the ministry when his religious perspectives started to evolve, and has continued to evolve spiritually ever since. He says that he is no longer comfortable with religious labels. It's his need for continued personal spiritual expansion that has helped him to cultivate an online space for the spiritual-but-not-religious, atheists, agnostics and other "unaffiliated" community-seekers.
Hayward founded The Lasting Supper in 2012 when online interactions surrounding his controversial blog and artwork revealed an unfulfilled need among his social media followers. "I was blogging, cartooning, and doing art, and I kept running into people online who wanted to pioneer their own spiritual paths."
Those online acquaintances were unsure where to begin their journeys and there was nowhere to refer them. "When you're in [church]," he explained, "there are tons of resources to help you, but when you're out there's nothing. My job is to help people get resources to help them achieve their own spiritual independence."
Asked if The Lasting Supper is a church, Hayward explained that the word "church" is a misnomer. "It doesn't look or feel like church. It's an online community-- a place to gather together-- but there's no liturgy, no schedule. Besides, most of us are opposed to the word 'church' because it carries so much baggage... The urgency to define this movement has caused people to make it fit into a paradigm they already possess. They call it 'church in modern dress' because they need to understand it. However, we're in the midst of a changing paradigm; new things are cropping up that are totally alien and don't fit the labels. That's why it's so new and fascinating; there's no manual for it."
There are other differences between The Lasting Supper and "church" as we know it. For instance, Hayward resists the titles "leader" and "pastor," explaining that he is more of a moderator or facilitator than a "leader" in the traditional sense of the word. The community itself is not hierarchical in structure and has no ministers or "gurus" of whom to speak. There are no building funds to support or tithes to pay; there's just a flat monthly membership fee.
Hayward conducted a survey one year ago and found that nearly all of his registrants have come from Christian backgrounds, though more than half are now agnostic or atheists. The group is mostly comprised of Americans, but also includes some Canadians, people in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Holland, South America, Africa and the Middle East. Most are young women who have achieved some level of higher education. Almost all say they have left the church and have no intentions of going back. All are attempting to establish a sense of spirituality without the constraints of organized religion.
Asked how traditional denominations can address their challenges with declining affiliation, Hayward explained that traditional churches have limited their ability to reach people by focusing too heavily on preserving brick and mortar institutions. "Churches must change their understanding of 'membership'. Today's world is simultaneously more connected and more disconnected than ever. Christians are organizing themselves into alternative communities, but their organizations now meet online, and the 'members' of those communities reside in locations all over the world. Churches are missing an opportunity to broaden their 'communities,' simply by losing pace with what the word 'community' means to today's world."
Hayward explains that a better model for "church" could involve a more egalitarian structure that empowers 'members' to meet on their own terms. The Lasting Supper has found success with deepening connections among members by using this approach-- members of the website have organized themselves into Meetups in places all over the world.
The future of The Lasting Supper is bright, but there are challenges. The response to his idea has been "overwhelming" and often presents greater demand than he can meet, Hayward says. He now splits his limited time between moderating TLS, blogging and publishing. (His latest book, "Questions Are The Answer," hit the market last week.) "I need an assistant moderator," he said, while also admitting that he is not entirely sure how to expand the web monitoring team. To complicate things further, some of his challenges ironically parallel those of churches. "People are afraid of exposing themselves, even online; they don't trust any gatherings around spirituality."
Despite these hurdles, Hayward says the rewards associated with cultivating this community far outweigh the challenges. "I get to hear stories every day of people who are so thankful. They immediately realize they're not crazy and they're not alone." He plans to continue dreams of expanding his own website and hopes to see others crop up in the future.