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A Market for Meditation

The Catholic smartphone app Hallow has found a way to appeal to the nonreligious—and investors

by
Maggie Phillips
October 04, 2021
David Kasnic
Hallow founder Alex Jones David Kasnic
David Kasnic
Hallow founder Alex Jones David Kasnic

Investors, people of faith, and the technology sectors are converging—despite data suggesting that, for the profit-minded, faith is a losing bet.

According to Morgan Stanley Research, millennials are poised to overtake baby boomers as the most populous generation. They are currently entering their “prime spending years,” a spectrum that Morgan Stanley defines as ranging from 22 to 39 years old. That’s good news for app developers, since between nearly two-thirds to three-quarters of this age group’s time online is spent on mobile apps. Given that one-third of American adults under 30 identify as nonreligious, however, religious apps might not seem like the kind of thing investors would want to gamble on.

In 2020, 36% of Americans ages 18 to 29 identified as religiously unaffiliated, up from 10% in 1986; this group—popularly known as the “nones”—includes atheists and agnostics, as well as those who say they are spiritual, but not religious. It would stand to reason that the ranks of Americans, particularly young people, interested in spending time and money on religious-oriented purchases would dwindle. But that might not be the whole story.

The “nones” have not all given up on religion altogether. While their ranks include atheists and agnostics, in fact, the majority of nones actually identify as either religious (18%) or spiritual but not religious (37%). While estimates say one-half to two-thirds of the spiritual but not religious seldom or never attend religious services, their continued interest in some of the trappings of religion present an opportunity for entrepreneurs and investors aiming to bring ancient prayer and ritual into the 21st century.

One indicator of this trend is the success of the Catholic prayer app Hallow—which, in addition to paid subscriptions, has raised $15 million since its launch two-and-a-half years ago. According to the company, that number includes seed funding, as well as $12 million in series A funding from venture capitalist firm General Catalyst. The app boasts an average rating of 4.9/5 with over 33,000 ratings on the Apple App store. Together with the rise of other tech-based faith initiatives, Hallow indicates to people of faith and free marketeers alike that while younger people may be leaving organized religion, they aren’t necessarily giving up on faith.

A faith with thousands of years of liturgies and traditions, it turns out, comes with a proven track record that appeals to investors.

With its focus on meditation, the Hallow user experience will be recognizable to fans of secular mindfulness phone apps. Using colorful graphics, it offers a lengthy menu of audio content, from novenas (prayers of petition traditionally repeated over a nine-day period) to chanted rosaries, ancient prayers and litanies both to and by various saints, and the Psalms; clips last from a minute to an hour, in English and (some) in Spanish. There are morning prayers with readings from the daily Gospel, music and meditation routines for midday breaks, and Bible stories to help users fall asleep at night. “Hello, and welcome,” says the voice on a rosary meditation (users can choose between Abby, a woman, and Francis, a man, while their fingers work through their beads). “Find a comfortable and alert position. Take some deep breaths. And as you breathe out, close your eyes.”

Katherine Boyle, early stage investment lead at General Catalyst, believes the quick growth of Hallow proves what she considers a controversial thesis: “For a long time we’ve been, probably for 30, 40 years, we’ve been hearing from Pew Research Forum and we’ve been hearing from the media that religion is dead. And the metric that Pew uses is the ‘butts in seats’ metric, which is that on Sunday, are Catholics going to church, and what demos are going to church. And what I think Hallow is showing is that there is just this, in some ways like this desperate consumer need that is manifesting itself, I say it’s manifesting itself in the data room, they’re growing extremely fast.”

The company agrees, describing Hallow’s mission in part as addressing what they see as “a pretty big hunger for spirituality.”

By attempting to point users to eternal realities through a sleek user experience with a contemporary secular feel, Hallow aims to be a “best-in-class” app. But it’s hardly alone. Other popular nondenominational Christian prayer and meditation apps include Abide, Pray.com, and Soulspace. Like Hallow, they are aimed at reclaiming meditation in the name of religion. Abide, for example, has meditations on various Bible verses addressing different emotions and needs. Other religious app initiatives include All Daf, one of a proliferation of Talmud apps, the 929 app (aimed at “creating a global Jewish conversation around issues that unite and divide us, but always inspired by the text”), and Torah study app Sefaria. Even tech juggernaut Facebook is starting to court the faithful. Indeed, funding for religious apps more than tripled between 2015 and 2019. And the popularity of various prayer and faith-based meditation apps received an additional boost from COVID-19 restrictions that shut down houses of worship.

A faith with thousands of years of liturgies and traditions, it turns out, comes with a proven track record that appeals to investors. Additionally, centuries’ worth of free content and inventory ideas are a godsend for founders and CEOs seeking to revive religious traditions to satisfy a new century’s needs and aesthetics.

Hallow’s origins are intertwined with the faith story of its founder, Alex Jones, a Stanford Business School graduate and former engagement manager with McKinsey & Co. Having graduated from Notre Dame in 2015, his experience with religion was at first fairly typical for a 21st-century young person. “I was raised Catholic, fell away from my own faith, and got fascinated with this idea of meditation in the secular context,” Jones said. He used mindfulness apps like Headspace and Calm. Calm bills itself as the No. 1 sleep and meditation app, while Headspace exclaims that its mission is “to improve the health and happiness of the world” with its three-minute meditations.

Feeling what he said was a “pull” toward “something spiritual,” he began asking around with various Catholic clergy whether there was any intersection between religious faith and meditation. “They were like, yeah, we’ve been doing this for 2,000-plus years,” Jones said. “You probably should have heard about it.”

This insight into his faith’s tradition of meditative and contemplative prayer was the catalyst for a revived interest in the Bible, Catholicism’s liturgy, and its sacraments, which ultimately drew him back to an engaged life of religious faith. That kind of journey is reflected in Hallow’s motto: “Find peace. Find God.”

Jones said Hallow is a “super-personal mission,” since the spirituality of meditative prayer has “changed my own life dramatically.” The prayer app resulted from a single question: How do we bring this life-altering practice to as many people as possible?

The Augustine-with-an-MBA quit his job as a consultant to find the answer.

Recognizing that there was already a lot of what he calls “really beautiful, really rich content,” Jones said he looked at existing religious apps, especially as it related to user experience and interface design, to see what kept them from playing much of a role in the lives of the young and religiously disaffiliated. “You would go and look up some of the big religious apps and I’d ask my little sister to download it, and she’d just say, ‘No, that looks like it was built a while ago, I don’t want to download it,’” Jones said.

David Kasnic

David Kasnic

Jones knew that if he was going to add something new and dynamic to the existing faith app ecosystem, he needed to build “a world-class technical team” that would bring in talent from places like Google and Facebook, while preserving Hallow’s core mission of popularizing meditative prayer. To do that, Jones said he realized that a for-profit model would open Hallow up to a broader pool of capital than the smaller one of philanthropy, where the company would have been competing with actual churches and other nonprofits for much more limited resources. They structured as a public benefit corporation, which means the company has a charter requiring it to do more than simply create value for shareholders; it has to stay committed to its social mission—in Hallow’s case, helping users grow in their faith.

When asking clergy about whether there was any link between faith and meditation, Jones said he was told that the link was prayer. Jones said he was used to the concept of prayer as asking for something, or reciting something memorized and rote, and it didn’t give him the same sense of peace he got from meditation. Jones spoke with a priest, who likened the interplay between prayer and meditation to a relationship with a spouse. “What if you came home every day to your wife and said, ‘Hey honey, I’m thankful for these things, I’m sorry about these things. And could you help me with these things? Good night.’ How healthy of a relationship would that be?”

Jones observed that his conversations with his wife also consisted of a great deal of listening.

“Exactly,” the priest said. “Now, what if your wife was the person who created the universe—wouldn’t you really want to listen then?”

Jones said he began to learn about “these really beautiful, really powerful contemplative and meditative prayer techniques within the Christian church that I honestly had never heard of before.”

Early in the process of getting Hallow up and running, while attending graduate school at Stanford, Jones met Katherine Boyle. With a portfolio that includes Airbnb, Snapchat, Warby Parker, Classpass, and many other decidedly secular brands, General Catalyst is the kind of dynamic, high-profile investment group that might not seem like an intuitive fit for a mission-driven, faith-based app. A practicing Catholic herself, Boyle was and is enthusiastic about Hallow and its mission, which first came to her attention when she was judging a pitch competition at Stanford Business School.

“I’ve always had this question: Why has tech not touched religion?” said Boyle. “Usually when you judge these pitch competitions at business schools, it’s everything that’s hot. It’s fintech, it’s driverless cars, it’s crypto, it’s you know, we’re going to be the Airbnb for something. And [Jones] stood up and he said, ‘I’m building the best Catholic meditation app.’”

People in the audience, said Boyle, “were stunned.”

“The instinct,” Jones said, “is to say, ‘You’re spiritual, but not religious—well, let’s tell you all the reasons you should be religious, and these are the things you should believe.’ What if instead you could lead with the spirituality and peace of our faith? And I think that is the thing that people are hungry for, and then use that as the starting point to bring them much deeper into the fullness of the faith, with the sacraments and community and beliefs and philosophy.”

Boyle says the team at General Catalyst saw the value in this approach when she brought Hallow to them as a prospective investment. “We are a team of many faiths. Many practicing Jews, many Christians, nondenominational Christian, agnostics, I’m a practicing Catholic,” said Boyle. “So I would say we’re a group that represents, I’d say, what the country looks like.”

Moreover, Boyle said, “so much of Silicon Valley is based on the religious story. There is religious ritual in Silicon Valley. Where does meditation come from? It’s a religious practice. It’s been secularized, but it comes from ancient religions, and every major world religion has a meditative practice and a contemplative practice. I think Alex understood that in a way that a lot of investors maybe didn’t.”

Boyle said she believes America is on the cusp of a religious revival as people exploring spirituality “realize that actually these ancient religions are good for something.”

This prospect animates Jones and his team. “There was somebody who wrote us just a week ago who said you know, ‘Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I haven’t been to church in 30 years and I started meditating with your app, and I went to confession after a few months of meditating with it, and then I went to Mass the next day, and I just wanted to let you know it felt like a cinder block has been lifted off my shoulders,’” Jones said. “We have a ton of examples of that of folks who are finding their way back into a life of faith through spirituality. It’s something that gets us pretty excited.”

There may be reason for a small dose of healthy skepticism when it comes to seamlessly blending faith and the secular.

Kieran Halloran recently spent two years teaching at a Catholic high school and is in the midst of the yearslong formation process to become ordained as a Jesuit priest. Halloran has looked at life from both sides now, having been deprived of electronics as a novice Jesuit, then going to teach in a modern high school environment with a 1-to-1 laptop ratio for each student.

Nearly half of the religiously unaffiliated believe in God with some degree of certainty, 26% meditate daily, and 20% say they pray daily.

On the one hand, he sees the value of marrying ancient ritual and routine through a smartphone app. “That’s a very common thing of wanting to sanctify the day,” he said, “So now when you have prayer sort of mediated through your phone, what does your day look like when the first and last thing that you touch is your cellphone?”

On the other, Halloran wonders whether an app with a sleek user experience and interface, rather than enculturating faith practices into the modern, digital arena, runs the risk of flattening the experience of ritual, making it simply one of many behaviors and metrics we track on our devices, along with water intake or exercise. “With all of the distractions that come with that, the habits that people build around phones, how does all of that baggage influence this experience of prayer, or the context of this prayer?” said Halloran. “I don’t think it does that. But I think that’s the risk.”

It’s a concern shared by Stina Kielsmeier-Cook, author of Blessed Are the Nones, a memoir of her journey as a practicing Christian whose husband disaffiliated from the faith they once shared.

Among Hallow’s features is the ability to view your prayer activity and create weekly prayer goals. Users can even sync Hallow to Apple Health to track mindfulness minutes. “I could see it becoming potentially unhealthy,” said Kielsmeier-Cook. “It’s all about moderation. Any of these things could be beneficial, it’s all about how it’s used if you’re in relationship with a real community.”

Halloran agrees. “Religion by its nature is communal. You walk through this journey with others, that’s liturgy, spending time with God, with others,” he said. “That’s where I see the potential there.”

This emphasis on community is a key insight into the “spiritual but not religious,” that segment of the much-discussed religiously unaffiliated “nones.” Like most survey categories, self-identifications like “none” and “spiritual but not religious” leave little room for nuance, which can sometimes lead to elision, mischaracterization, or broad generalization in discussions. The Pew Religious Landscape Survey breaks out the “nones,” atheists, agnostics, and “spiritual but not religious” into their own separate categories, however, which reveals just how much diversity of belief exists among those who profess no traditional religious belief. Nearly half of the religiously unaffiliated believe in God with some degree of certainty, 26% meditate daily, and 20% say they pray daily. Such insights are worth keeping in mind when cultural critics and even casual observers refer to popular movements and trends as “like a religion,” or “like a cult,” whether it’s critical race theory, cancel culture, multi-level marketing schemes—even exercise programs like CrossFit or SoulCycle. They might be onto something.

Researchers at Harvard have released “How We Gather,” a study on how non-religious Millennials continue to seek the community traditionally afforded by organized religion in other, untraditional contexts. In the 2015 study’s executive summary, authors Angie Thurston and Caspar ter Kuile point to rates of suicide, isolation, and depression among Millennials (whom they defined as people between the ages of 18 and 34 at the time of publication) as the backdrop against which younger people are searching for spirituality and community outside of traditional religious structures.

They looked at the way organizations like CrossFit, Soulcycle, and adult summer camps are filling that void, using “secular language while mirroring many of the functions fulfilled by religious community.” Thurston and ter Kuile include in those functions “fellowship, personal reflection, pilgrimage, aesthetic discipline, liturgy, confession, and worship,” with the goals of building friendships and “the betterment of individuals and society.”

Kielsmeier-Cook refers to this as the “unbundling of religious practices from specific traditions,” a term that comes from the work of ter Kuile and Thurston.

“If you can find a ritual that maybe you didn’t grow up with in your tradition,” she said, “but that allows you to see religion or experience God in a way that is fresh, it can be a grounding thing, it’s something that you do, something that you’re participating in versus just, the mental checklist of what do I believe or not believe in the given moment.” Kieslmeier-Cook refers to her own religious identity as “kind of an ecumenical blend,” attending an American Baptist Church, but also attending Morning Prayer services with Catholic sisters at a nearby monastery.

“We are really not trying to do anything new,” Jones said. “Our big thing is just going back 1,000 plus years to, you know, the rosary or Lectio Divina, or scripture. Things that have been done a hundred times before.”

As for community, Jones and the team at Hallow aren’t trying to be the next frontier in religion. Jones said his desire is simply “to connect people back to their local parish communities and in-person sacraments.” “We’re just trying to be a tool,” he said, “for folks to build a personal prayer life in between Sundays.”

Father Steve Grunow is the CEO and Executive Producer of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, a popular Catholic multimedia entity that partners with Hallow. Word on Fire’s founder, Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron, has emerged as something of an online apostle to the “nones” through his ongoing dialogue with polarizing cultural secular figures like Jordan Peterson. By contrast, Father Grunow sees Hallow’s value as avoiding the controversy Bishop Barron often courts through his engagement with figures of the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web.”

“In a time where the digital space is riven by so much antagonism and strife and religion is often positioned a source of contention,” Grunow said, “where criticism and complaint seem to be the favored form of discourse, Hallow offers a route of access to an essential element of authentic spirituality that has the potential to unite, rather than divide—offering a common experience of prayer and access to the wisdom of sacred texts and tradition.”

Jones agrees that Hallow’s goal is not to wade into culture wars or interfaith debate with their content, which he described as “nothing that we’re going to get into super heavy debates on.”

While Grunow said that while believers can certainly use Hallow as an aid to help them grow in their existing faith, the app presents an opportunity to the seekers and to the religion-curious “to learn and deepen their understanding of religious practices and traditions that are unfamiliar.”

“Prayer is not only particular to each religious tradition,” he said, “But it is also a practice that characterizes all those who believe. The common human experience of prayer can indicate a positive desire for God that is shared by all humanity.”

While the app “presents the particularities of how one prays in accord with the Catholic faith,” Grunow said, “it also has the potential to open up these patterns and practices of prayer to all so that others might listen and better understand those who have different beliefs. This is a great value and can contribute to dispelling mistaken perceptions or the reduction of religion to the conceptual or abstract.

Ultimately, the app’s founder puts its mission the most simply: “Just try to help people find some place of peace amidst what is a pretty busy and stressful and anxious world.”

This story is part of a yearlong series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.

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