Quakers and our young people—are we teachable?
May 11, 2012 § 23 Comments
A few weeks ago I had a freelance writing job reporting on the discussions in two breakout sessions at a conference for leaders of Jewish camps. The two sessions I covered were titled Connecting Camp to College and Beyond and Keeping Up with the Changing Face of the Jewish World. In both sessions, the attendees were preoccupied with the process by which young people form their religious identities and with the problem of how to serve young people in that process when their young people don’t care a hoot about the institutions and traditions that sponsor and support their camps. I could have been listening to a discussion at a Quaker yearly meeting or conference center—the same heartfelt concerns, the same conflicts and confusion in the face of forces both within their institutions and their traditions and in the wider world, that are hard to understand and even harder to deal with creatively.
Just a couple of weeks later, I had a long conversation with my younger son, who is 38, has a young family, and was raised Quaker. For many years, he and his brother went to New York Yearly Meeting sessions and its Junior Yearly Meeting program and to the youth programs at the Yearly Meeting’s conference center, Powell House. They loved it. In fact, it was their love of NYYM sessions that brought me into Quakerism. They both self-identify as Quakers. Neither one attends meeting or participates in Quaker institutional life, which they find boring and irrelevant to their lives. Specifically, Adam mentioned meetings for worship in which the same blowhards could be expected to say the same things week in and week out and meetings for business obsessed with process and with trivial concerns, while the world around them burned.
Adam exemplifies the issues with which both Quakers and those Jewish camp leaders are struggling:
- young people who are forming personal and spiritual identities seemingly independently of their religious traditions, and often in reaction to those traditions;
- who have formed very strong bonds with their peers in the bosom of religious institutions, and with those peers, have been exploring what their spirituality is, having rejected the identities offered to them by those very institutions;
- who, under the circumstances, are cobbling together spiritual identities with elements pulled from here and there, using whatever beliefs, ideas and practices they’ve come across more or less accidentally in their journeys so far;
- who clearly embrace “spirituality” and often clearly reject “religion”;
- young adults who feel disconnected from their original religious homes for lots of reasons, many of these reasons merely a result of their life circumstances, and who are drifting farther away from their religious homes the older they get;
- and young adults with young families who want to raise their kids in a community that is at least values-based if not religious, who I think trust Friends meetings to do right by their children in this regard (since it did right by them), but who find that meeting does little to nurture them as adults.
- Meanwhile, they call themselves Quakers—at least they do so selectively, when it seems to properly identify them in a given situation—but they aren’t actually being Quakers in community.
I felt very similar things about the Lutheran church that I grew up in. I left the Lutherans mainly for two reasons: most of the parishioners (including my father) supported the war in Vietnam; but more importantly, I didn’t know a single person in that church who was having the kind of transforming religious experience for which I yearned. Well, there was one: Pastor Harmony, the associate pastor, who was, fittingly, our organist and choir director. He was an uninspired sermonizer, quiet and uncharismatic, unlike our main pastor. But he loved Bach. He was really getting off on those Bach preludes. And he described to me mystical experiences that, at the time, I didn’t fully understand, but I knew that something real had happened to him.
I think that’s what’s behind our young people’s dissatisfaction. The adult Quakers around them are just going through the Quaker motions and those motions are not visibly getting them off. They don’t see anybody having profound religious experience as Quakers. They want something more, something real and relevant.
A big part of the relevance problem is the relative inexperience of youth. When you’ve never owned property, or managed a large, complex budget, or had employees, or tried to organize the collective life of a community, especially without the help of professional staff, then the business of all that management holds no interest. But this does not account for the glaring lack of items on the business agenda that address the woes of the world. Often the best that it gets is a too-long and often whacky and belabored discussion that finally leads to a minute—just a minute, words on a piece of paper that are lost to memory by the next business meeting.
More problematic, though, is the apparent lack of genuine religious experience, especially when the history of Friends is so full of such experience—George Fox having visions, John Woolman working against slavery, Elizabeth Fry in the prisons, the emotional depths of Thomas Kelly. Our kids hear these stories and then wonder what happened. Why isn’t the same thing happening today?
Why are so few meetings being gathered in the Spirit with enough frequency, in ways that are truly palpable, that would demonstrate to our young people that this tradition is still alive with that Spirit? (Maybe it isn’t.) Why are those among us who are prophetically led so few and so invisible that our young people don’t know about them? Why do we so consistently resist prophetic leadings among us?
Meanwhile, I think the Holy Spirit may just be moving among our young people—or about to be. The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the fervor and anger evinced when Philadelphia Yearly Meeting cut its Young Adult Friends staff position, the tiny bit of buzz that reaches my aged ears here on the periphery of our youth community—I believe these events and trends suggest that something is happening, or is trying to happen, anyway, among the young people of the world, including our own.
Will our young people, who are putting together spiritual identities that they call Quaker, but which don’t look like anything we elders would call Quaker, bring those gifts back to us? Or will they split, like I did, and try to figure it out on their own? Will young adult Friends give birth to a movement for renewal, as young adult Friends have done so many times before in our history? And if they do, will we resist it or nurture it? Will we recognize and welcome spiritual identities that they’ve cobbled together from here and there (just like many of us did), even though none of it reflects the Quaker tradition? Does our tradition have anything to offer them that would work for them?
We will resist whatever they do, of that I’m certain. We have every other time in our history that young people have tried to move us in a new direction. But some of us might try to nurture it, as well. And in the past, we often have finally said “yes” to God’s new direction.
In the meantime, in anticipation of the rising of the Spirit, we have work to do. First, we have to listen and keep our eyes open. We have to go beyond the anguished insistence that, yes, young people are the future of Quakerism and we do love you, claims that are both empty and lame when nothing else happens. I’m not talking, necessarily, about restoring funding to YAF staff positions or other purely institutional responses. The institutions themselves are the problem here. I am talking about the kind of openness to leadings that we bring (theoretically) to meeting for worship, brought in humble attention to our young people, to their lives and words, to their yearnings and their anger and disappointment.
Second, we must experiment. We must open ourselves to new forms of Quaker faith and practice, if only to keep ourselves nimble and in the habit of entertaining new ideas. This means challenging ourselves, forcing ourselves to let things go. Can we focus specifically on the things that turn young people off and try to do something about them? About blowhards, for instance, or boring business agendas?
Third, and most important, I think, we need to learn, explore, teach and practice techniques for deepening our spiritual and religious lives. I would start with Richard Foster’s A Celebration of Discipline and start playing with Quaker versions of all of the disciplines he discusses. I would focus especially on meditation and fasting, two disciplines that, for thousands of years, have reliably led to genuine religious experience. Specifically, I would start with centering prayer: make sure every meeting and every member and attender knows how to do it (it could not be simpler) and has had a chance to experience it. We already know these things work. Just sitting quietly in a meetinghouse once a week doesn’t seem to deliver spiritual experience that is transforming enough often enough to convince our young people. Or to attract many newcomers, for that matter.
And how could it? Attend meeting just one hour a week and then pepper that hour with a blowhard or two, and your chances of meeting God are pretty slim.
Now an awful lot of Friends do not “believe” in a “God” you could “meet.” Many Friends have drastically lowered the bar for what constitutes “religious experience.” One only needs to listen to the vocal ministry in our meetings: messages that are simply personal, heartfelt, and uplifting qualify as “religious experience.” Very heartfelt and uplifting messages are as good as it gets. The warmth of shared community is evidence enough of the Light.
Don’t get me wrong. This is great stuff and absolutely necessary for healthy religious community. But comfortable sharing amongst ourselves will not bring religious renewal to the Quaker movement. And we’ve already taught our kids how to do it. They have sharing down solid. Do we have anything else to teach? And, more importantly, are we ourselves teachable, if the Holy Spirit should light a fire among them? I am praying that it does, and I am praying that we are.