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.

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§ 23 Responses to Quakers and our young people—are we teachable?

  • Emily says:

    Spiritual decline in meetings–and in all religious institutions–is cyclical. We’ve been through this before and we learned. In the 18th century, there was as much sleeping as seeking in meetings, and in the Christian churches, as well, from which came the evangelical awakening, to which many Quakers turned for inspiration. Eventually, to find themselves again, as they lost their primacy in British meetings, the evangelicals turned to missionary work, while the moderate Quietists turned toward Quaker education. In America and Canada, the rigidity of the evangelical ideology created the splits in Quakerism as they had created decline in membership in Britain, and we need to watch out for this when we advocate how all of us should behave in the right way.
    More of us could perhaps spend more time preparing for meeting. Unfortunately, I think the Hicksite tradition downplayed this in its opposition to evangelical intellectualism, as there’s a tendency to think that if we focus on developing ourselves we’re not in the moment. When I’ve prepared myself beforehand through reading and study I can focus on my own development better than focusing on what the meeting isn’t giving.
    There are a large number of meetings around the world which are called “lively,” probably because they’re focusing on moving forward, not on what they’re losing.
    Listening to a blowhard doesn’t have to make meeting God slim, however tiring the experience. Each of us–even the blowhard–has some piece of the truth, something we can learn from if we treat it as an intellectual exercise. Or with humor–the Gurney and the Barclay kids mocked those blowhards over 200 years ago, and their mockery had a wonderful effect on me when I read it even this year. The blowhard is a part of the whole experience of Quakerism.
    Really inspiring messages can happen, and in my Meeting there are many very inspired and inspiring individuals who seem to have a deep sense of religion, many of whom have much to say in individual discussions about various messages. An older Friend who moved away who came by recently vastly inspired just by being there, and making me remember how to focus on my development, not on wishing the meeting were different.
    I remember now how many little messages continue to inspire.

  • Tom Ceresini says:

    Thanks for this essay, Steven. It brought to points to mind:

    1) Asking if we are teachable raises another question: who is our Teacher? For me, the right response is that “…Jesus Christ has come to teach his people himself…”, but I know that I have been brought to that knowledge over time and through discipleship. I am learning to be more comfortable calling it Truth or even not calling it anything as long as it helps people remain open to begin to learn from it.

    2). I’m wondering lately if we are seeing new wine poured out which would require new wineskins. What parts of early Friends’ faith and practice are to be kept and what parts should be laid down? So far, I only have the question and a sureness that the answer must come from our Teacher, and that attending to that Voice within meeting for worship seems like a reasonable place to start.

  • “Do not try to educate the wise.” ~George Fox

  • Interesting comments. Appreciate the thread, Steven. Has anyone else had trouble reading the content on this site? http://www.hallvworthington.com/teacher.html I think the content may contribute to this discussion. Maybe today’s eclipse is causing connectivity issues for some.

    • treegestalt says:

      Someone listening to the Spirit should not need so much flailing verbiage, nor so many quotes. Someone who knew Jesus would not be raging at us to worship the name of “Jesus”, but to grasp his meaning… in which being “perfect” is not to see “sin” in everything (though certainly there is much room to know and follow God better) but ‘like’ our Father, to bless, help, and pray for “the Just and the Unjust” alike.

    • Barbara Harrison says:

      STILL cannot get through to site

  • Barbara Harrison says:

    interesting article

  • Flo Fflach says:

    just wanted to say thank you for this post as it made me look at a few things. Most importantly that Meeting for Worship needs to be just that – not meeting for counselling, for discussion… that there is a fire that I can feel, but definitely more like a breeze over charcoal – I see that as a very positive thing.

  • Equally applicable to all mainstream Christian churches. I’m ‘Church of England’ but am not much bothered with labels, I live in Singapore but situation in UK same. Ezekiel 33: 1-20 comes to mind. It is not just the young who are called to listen but more so their elders and leaders for each of us bear a duty to be and not simply to belong.

  • There have been times in my life when there seemed to be a barrenness. Emotionally, occupationally, financially, it happens in many ways. And so often, this has been because my attitude in that arena of life has been “It’s OK God, don’t need your help here, I’ve got this one.” And until I changed, until I said, “OK God, I don’t have this one. I need your help. I can’t do it,” the barrenness persisted. And then when I got out of God’s way and let Him lead me, things changed, in ways I would not have foretold. Certainly not what I would have planned. Better.

    So, while I understand the concern — living in uncertainty is never comfortable — I question the solution. There is no “solution,” at least not one that you or I need to find. I don’t need to change my Meeting, nor my Yearly Meeting, nor the Religious Society of Friends. Just me. If I am faithful and continuously seek to let the Spirit work through me, doing my part as servant, then I will have done all I can do.

    The story of Gideon (Judges 6-8) has some very inspirational information in this regard. It also has a dire warning at the end. Good reading there.

    God can redeem any situation. I try to stay out of His way as best I can, and let Him do what He does. He may ask me to do many things, as his hands and feet and eyes and mouth, but He has the plan in hand. Until then, what if faithfulness meant bearing the weight of uncertainty with patience?

  • Being teachable is being willing to admit that we were wrong and change our minds (repent). It is so much easier to surround ourselves with like-minded opinions to justify our positions and block out any opposing views with rhetorical devices such as ad hominum stereotyping and other labels. It is also easier to let ourselves be led by traditions of men or doctrines of demons rather than an earnest sitting still in the light that reveals all truth.

    The questions is not just about being teachable, but also teachable by whom? Are we really willing to be taught by Jesus (aka the Inner Light) as George Fox, William Penn and the original Quakers who transformed the world were? Or would we rather stay comfortable listening to people conform to the vain fashions and changing morality of this world? Does Jesus really want to teach us Himself? See: http://www.hallvworthington.com/teacher.html

  • I loved this post, Steven; it touched my heart, which is often full of sadness that so many Friends seem comfortable living at a distance from God. (This may reflect an unhappiness with my own often lukewarmness; I also confess that I have emotional agendas that may not correspond to God’s will: for example, I want my meeting to become irresistably attractive so that my two adult children will find themselves drawn back to the meeting they grew up in, and then I’ll see them more often.)

    But until or unless the Holy Spirit catches us all on fire, it remains my duty to stay in my meeting anyway, in spite of the worldliness and the lukewarmness and the blowhards, because it’s the faith community the Lord seems to have assigned me to. There I can do my best to help it be a loving community of the faithful. And I can pray for the Holy Spirit to catch us all on fire. God will certainly answer that prayer, for if we ask our Father for an egg, will He give us a serpent? But He alone knows when the right time for that will be.

    And when our baptism of fire comes, I think we needn’t expect that it’s only the younger Friends who’ll show signs of it. Will He not pour out His Spirit upon all flesh? When our sons and our daughters prophesy, and our young men see visions, won’t our old men dream dreams?

    • I feel the same way you do about my meeting, John: I am here, so here I am called. Though I love my meeting. But not always. For a long time, I secretly (and not so secretly) bemoaned what I perceived to be its lack of spiritual depth and epecially, its weak vocal ministry. But I was overlooking the deep sea of love in my meeting, a fellowship that any Friends would hope for in their meeting. And I — I don’t know, I guess I became more tolerant or something. It would be really different for me if they did not appreciate my ministry, but they do. So I am in love with my meeting.

      And yes, I too pray that all flesh will catch the fire. But in the meantime, I hope to be faithful to my calls to minisrtry, and to have faith that God will do the rest.

  • treegestalt says:

    “Spirit is real, and that changes everything.”

    Putting together various spiritual traditions does not necessarily result in spiritual ice cream stew; so far as the Spirit is behind such explorations (and it is behind each human being!), traditions can be mutually illuminating. (Alan Lew’s _One God Clapping_ is good one example among others.)

    I agree that the main problem is having our Meetings soaked in lack of belief, in lack of belief that there exists Anything to be rightly believed in. But how to effectively ignite them ourselves?– except by the guidance of that very Spirit, according to Its wisdom and timing?

  • Steve, I am not clear why the teaching of “techniques for deepening our spiritual and religious lives”, and especially meditation and fasting, should be desirable, in place of the pathway to the Divine that our movement grew up around, and that has been setting Quaker souls on fire for three centuries, but has lately been neglected.

    I speak, of course, of attentiveness to that Voice in our hearts and consciences that identifies what is good and what is wrongful, reproves us when we do amiss and leaves us disquieted afterward, but confirms us when we do what is right and gives us peace of mind for it, and that always calls us to itself. That itself is the voice of God, who has a high purpose for our lives and for the life of every creature, and who uses this means within us to communicate His purpose to us.

    As Robert Barclay wrote in his Apology, “…It is … even because this Light, Seed, and Grace that appears in the heart of man is so little regarded and so much overlooked … that so few know Christ brought forth in them.” The original function of the Society of Friends was to redress that problem of disregard and oversight.

    So why should we abandon that function now? Given the lack of any moral compass in the business, the politics, and the private lives of our society’s leaders, and the damage being done by that lack of compass, it seems fairly clear to me, at least, that the world needs us to learn, practice, and teach the same wonderful thing that the founders of our Society learnt, practiced, and taught.

  • Flo Fflach says:

    It’s a tricky one. And I do understand some of what you are saying – agree too! I know people who like the fairly silent worship but hate the business – but even if you only rent a room, money is handled and business needs to be discussed.

    I am the youngest member of my meeting, but I am not young – except by comparison. We do have an attender younger than me sometimes. I think she seeks support and a place to express her confusion and spiritual life. The meeting supports her in this. We don’t attract many new people but we change and grow in our tiny meeting. I am definitely following a spiritual path and it is deeply serious, but it is not very outward moving. Before I became a member I had lunch with the two eldest of our members, I was surprised but also pleased to hear one of them say that I brought silence to the meeting, that my silence was a strength. But how would that help any younger members – if hey came? How would my thoughtful spiritual path inspire anyone? I am not shy in saying that I am a Quaker, wherever I am in what ever sort of company. Sometimes people ask me about it – that seems to be my small ministry.

    I use meditation – both christian and bbuddhist breath/mindfulness based. I use movement as prayer – I do a six hour annual event using movemnt as prayer/contemplation. fasting often makes me ill! The six hour annual event is massive in my internal life, and yet the shifts and moments of deepest prayer are never something that is obvious externally – but I am willing to talk to people of my experience – MY experience. It is coming up soon and I wonder how on earth I will do it and what I will gain from it – but even if it is mundane it will be important. It is a commitment, the commitment is important.

    For me this path is one of duty it is not of fire and zeal, it is steady small step by step progression. I would love to see others follow a path but I feel that prothletising my path is not the way. Worship is my daily life and ministry is when people witness that daily life – one day I hope to shift from doing everything as if for god to doing it for god. If people young or old want to see something powerful and externally firey thay will not find me an example of that. My meeting is often saying they are glad of younger people and they include me in that – but if I am to be any sort of inspiration it will be of a quite nature. It could change – I am aware of that, I am open to that.

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