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A church where wellness meets spirituality

With today’s emptier church pews and fuller yoga studios, churches like The Well are attempting to bridge the two worlds for spiritual fulfillment.

People attend a session titled "Moving Through Emotions | Somatic Healing" during The Well Church NYC holistic wellness retreat at the Tata Innovation Center, Saturday, June 8, 2024, on Roosevelt Island in New York City. (Photo by AnnAnn Puttithanasorn)

New York (RNS) — A holistic wellness retreat in a glass-sided building overlooking the East River began on a recent Saturday with hot tea, an opening keynote and a meditation. After brunch came an afternoon of workshops with themes such as “eat your way to calm,” “somatic healing” and “intuitive artmaking.”

All was about what you’d expect, except that instead of concluding the opening meditation with “Namaste,” the leader wrapped up with, “In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.”

The Well Church NYC — more often simply called “The Well” — describes itself as a “church where wellness meets spirituality in community.” The congregation, which worships on Sunday mornings in rented space at the Scandinavia House on Park Avenue, also hosts wellness retreats, rooftop dinners and pop-up meditations across the city throughout the year. While rooted in the Presbyterian tradition, Well Church NYC hosts events that are aimed at people on a broader spiritual search.

“A normal New Yorker is not a Christian,” said Pastor Aaron Bjerke. “A normal New Yorker is probably driven by success or money but ultimately trying to find purpose in life. I thought if I were ever to plant a church, it needs to be a church for the normal New Yorker.”

Bjerke, 41, founded The Well in 2018 but had his first glimmers of the idea in the early aughts, as he watched the popularity of spin classes turn into the quasi-spiritual self-care of brands such as SoulCycle. Meanwhile, Buddhist practitioners such as Sharon Salzberg were bringing meditation into the mainstream. In 2011, Bjerke began his own study of Christian meditation under the guidance of a spiritual director.

Bjerke, who was working in public relations but was still figuring out his true purpose, was then attending Redeemer Presbyterian Church, part of the network of churches planted by the late Tim Keller. Bjerke was inspired by Keller’s project of spreading Christianity in the secular mission field of New York by meeting the city’s seekers where they were.

Pastor Aaron Bjerke addresses The Well’s holistic wellness retreat at the Tata Innovation Center, Saturday, June 8, 2024, on Roosevelt Island in New York City. (Photo by AnnAnn Puttithanasorn)

Bjerke was ordained in 2013 and became an assistant pastor at Redeemer. Worried about what his new congregation would think, he kept his ideas about wellness and Christianity hidden for several years. Eventually, as church members started asking questions about whether practicing yoga and meditation was compatible with their faith, he began to share his spiritual practice with his community.

The Well isn’t the only place to combine traditional faith with holistic health. With church membership declining and yoga studios more packed than ever, some religious spaces have begun to emphasize the elements many look for in the wellness world: community, support, peace, stillness, breath, wisdom and song. The Well takes this a step further. A 10-minute meditation follows each Sunday sermon. Along with a prayer team, there’s an in-house health coach. A church app offers guided meditations.

The post-sermon meditation came about after Bjerke noticed that people, including himself, struggled to remember what the sermon was about. “The Protestant version of church services is about the sermon,” said Bjerke. “It’s boom, boom, done.” Adding the 10-minute meditation afterward helps people “transfer what’s on their mind into their heart.”

But The Well’s innovations don’t simply import modern wellness techniques into the church. Bjerke said that as he began studying what a spiritual Christian community might look like, he was struck by meditation’s long history in the church. The Desert Mothers and Fathers, early Christian hermits and monastics who lived in Egypt, Palestine and Syria, combined prayer and meditation as long ago as the third century.

“The church was Eastern before it was Western,” said Bjerke. “I thought, let’s modernize some of the theologians and thinkers from way back when. Instead of 30 days in the desert, it’s 30 minutes in a meditation studio.”

But whereas modern Western meditators go into themselves alone, Bjerke said, Christians bring in God because “we need help seeing ourselves.” His technique is inclusive: “Maybe I’ll quote Buddha and Jesus, but I’ll always quote Jesus,” he said. “The Buddha has insights; Jesus’ spiritual path has insights. They all overlap, but they’re different.”

The Rev. Matt Reeves, national coordinator for the World Community for Christian Meditation, who said his “heart swelled” when he learned about The Well, said that some Christian churches have been incorporating Christian meditation and contemplative prayer but that typically only a small part of a congregation will adopt the practices. The WCCM works to find ways that these techniques can become the whole character of a church, as they are at The Well.

“When people start to meditate, the practice leads them to ask different questions about their lives,” he said. “It makes sense you would want to have more connection with your body. The Well seems to be an embodied response to the question we (WCCM) are asking.”

People attend a session titled “Cultivating Mindfulness | The Sacred Art of Calligraphy” during The Well’s holistic wellness retreat at the Tata Innovation Center, Saturday, June 8, 2024, on Roosevelt Island in New York City. (Photo by AnnAnn Puttithanasorn)

Rina Raphael, author of “The Gospel of Wellness: Gyms, Gurus, Goop, and the False Promise of Self-Care,” said that whereas the goal of commercially driven exercise programs is to keep the participant exercising, a church’s main reason to integrate wellness activities is to connect members to help them live healthier lives.

“Faith has had centuries to perfect their systems, so they’re oftentimes more immune to some of the issues we see in the wellness industry,” said Raphael. “They have community built in, purpose, meaning and guidance.”

Bjerke is encouraged that of the 115 people who came to The Well’s retreat in early June, half were not congregants, while nearly 90% of the retreat was subsidized by volunteers. And Bjerke is careful, he said, to let newcomers “come to their own conclusion,” he said. “All I care about is that, if we’re a part of the same spiritual community together, then let’s just walk with each other in some way, shape or form.”

David Zahl, author of the 2019 book “Seculosity,” about the many replacement religions in today’s society, warned: “A spirituality of wellness can fall into ‘prosperity’ theology fairly easily, once you start equating physical health, or even mental health, with holiness. What hope is there for the sick and paralyzed and declining and dying folks among us, or those who cannot seem to get well no matter how hard they try?”

But Zahl hesitated to pass judgment in a world where people are hurting more than ever. “We need more than just a new diet or exercise regime to address our pain. A true integration could be really cool.”

The Rev. Daniel Castelo at Duke Divinity School said churches like The Well could catch on as people take more seriously what a holistic approach to caring for people can look like. “Christianity does not have a running theme of self-care in its orbit, apart from the language and notion of Sabbath,” said Castelo. “But in a culture like ours in which people are spent, stressed and burned out, this approach has a logic and appeal to it, especially for urbanites.”

By Ellie Davis, Religion News Service