What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Spiritual Nurture

November 2, 2013 § 1 Comment

First, a question of scale

The question of what is Quakerism for got me thinking about answers right away and, now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I realize that I had zoomed past the question to the answers without thinking about the question itself very much. It’s pitched in the largest possible scale and the answers we could give for the whole “Religious Society of Friends” would necessarily be correspondingly general. Like “bringing people to G*d and G*d to the world”, my first and very global answer.

But as soon as I got down to specifics, I found I was talking mostly about individual Quaker meetings, a very different matter. Furthermore, we would have a slightly different set of answers for regional and yearly meetings, and again for the macro-organizations like Friends General Conference and Friends United Meeting, not to mention our publishing houses, conference centers, and so on. So at some point I will reorganize my original set of answers to include these other levels of Quaker life, but for now, I want to stay focused on the level that really carries the load—the local meeting.

So what is the “mission” of our local meetings? I want to start with . . .

Bringing people to G*d—spiritual nurture.

The local meeting has a profound responsibility to (according to my original post):

“nurture people’s growth in the Spirit, to nurture their spiritual gifts, to help them answer faithfully G*d’s call to service and ministry and the call to witness on behalf of the truth that has been awakened within them, and to give them confidence in their faith.”

We could be doing much more to nurture our members’ and attenders’ spiritual lives. We have at our disposal several avenues for doing this:

  • vocal ministry in meeting for worship,
  • meeting-sponsored programs outside of meeting for worship,
  • the rich Quaker tradition of written ministry and spiritual literature more generally, and
  • conferences and programs outside the meeting.

What a meeting needs to serve its members and attenders in the life of the Spirit.

This kind of spiritual nurture does not just happen. Someone has to do it. We are a “do it yourself” religion, meaning (in my opinion) not that every Friend is free to do whatever they want, but that, without paid professionals, it’s up to individual Quakers to take responsibility for each aspect of meeting life, including the roles required for spiritual nurture. I am asking you, my reader, to consider whether you are called to such a ministry of spiritual nurture yourself, or at least, whether you are called to help build the necessary capacity for such ministry in your meeting.

Addressing the bullet points above, this means that each meeting needs Friends who have a gift for vocal ministry, who can lead programs on Quakerism, who know our tradition, and who are familiar with the resources available in their region for spiritual nurture. Both Friends United Meeting and Friends General Conference are a good place to start for the latter. Most meetings, I suspect, have a committee whose charge includes these roles, so that’s the place to start, presumably. The Friends serving on these committees should take it upon themselves to ensure their meeting has the human and other resources needed to meet the spiritual needs of its members and attenders and children.

I think there are certain benchmarks that such committees should strive for, goals that would indicate whether the meeting is equipped to faithfully serve its members with meaningful spiritual nurture. If a meeting doesn’t have what it takes in one of these areas, it should work towards fulfilling the missing roles. But a meeting’s ministry committee should not confine its efforts to itself; it should encourage all its members and attenders to ask themselves whether they might be called to some aspect of spiritual nurture.

Here are the benchmarks that I think are important:

Knowledge and teaching.

Meetings need at least two people in the meeting who know Quaker history, faith, and practice well enough to teach it. Hopefully they also have the gift of teaching, but spirit-led willingness is all you really need. At the least, a meeting needs Friends who are willing to “study up” on a topic so that they could lead some kind of program on it for your meeting. Over the years, if you have people who are willing to study up in this way, you eventually end up with a broad, reliable capacity for religious education. My own meeting is doing it this way and it’s working out pretty well.

Children and families.

Meetings need at least two people who are willing to work with children, who are not parents of those children, and whom the meeting encourages to actually teach Quakerism to them—I mean real Quaker content, including the Bible, not just Quaker “values” and the testimonies, but also history, faith, and practice.

Liberal Quakerism has come to the point where we identify ourselves almost exclusively in terms of our practice, especially silent worship and the lack of professional ministry, and our values, usually expressed in terms of our testimonies. In terms of content, we have made a creed out of not having a creed. A creed is a belief system used to control the thought of a religious society. We sometimes use our creed of non-creedalism to suppress the transmission of the contents of our tradition, to keep people from teaching, or sometimes even talking about, the essential tenets of our faith, out of a fear of dogma, proselytizing, and the divisive effects of “theology”.

As a result, we have members and attenders who have no real idea of what Quakerism is about, who cannot confidently talk about our faith with others, or even with our own children. This is a grave disservice to the spiritual lives of our members and attenders, and our children.

Spiritual disciplines.

Meetings need someone who has experience with the spiritual disciplines— or at least enough interest in them to explore them for themselves and share the results with their meeting. By “spiritual disciplines” I mean those treated so beautifully in Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, that is, prayer, meditation, fasting, study, etc. Historically, and in my own experience, nothing quite beats Bible study, as both a personal and a corporate practice. Alongside Bible study, I would place the classics of prayer and meditation.

I know some of my readers disagree with my emphasis on the importance of altering consciousness—deepening, we Friends call it—and methods for achieving it, feeling that true religion really only requires faithful turning toward the Light, toward God, toward the Christ within, however you experience it. And I agree: that is all true religion requires. But there is more to religious life than just its bare requirements.

Very few of us are gifted with a natural capacity for deep communion with the Divine, as George Fox was. On the other hand, every one of us can develop this capacity through practice. It’s just silly to leave unused the powerful tools available to us for deepening our own spiritual lives and the worship of our meetings. Why would we do that, when these techniques are so effective and so simple?

I am thinking especially of centering prayer. Nothing could be simpler or more congenial to the rest of Quaker faith and practice than centering prayer, and it is so powerful! Even simpler than centering prayer is simply watching the breath. Try it for ten minutes; you will, I think, be quite surprised.

And that is just to speak of meditation’s benefits to the individual practitioner. I believe that it’s one of the most important keys to fostering the gathered meeting for worship, as well: to have a critical mass of Friends who know how to deepen, really deepen, the way you can when you meditate regularly.


Meetings need at least two elders. By elder I mean someone who has a gift for recognizing what’s going on inside other people, picking up clues from what they talk about, what they do, what they seem interested in, coupled with an interest in helping them along. The elders in my life have picked up on some aspect of my inner life and then recommended a book, or a conference, or a committee, or a person. They have spoken words of encouragement, thanked me for my contributions, urged me to act, asked me out to lunch or just sat next to me at a potluck to engage in conversation.

Most of our members come to us without much knowledge of our tradition and its resources, or, for that matter without much knowledge of religious faith and practice of any kind. Without paid professional ministry, we have to take it upon ourselves to raise up the level of knowledge and understanding in the meeting to a level that can sustain the spiritual life of the meeting. More important is the spiritual life of each of our members. People join a religion because they are looking for something. It’s our job to help them find it. That means that we need leadership, people who have found some of what they themselves are looking for and along the way have discovered some of the resources that foster this kind of religious self-discovery.

The only thing remaining to build a culture of eldership in the meeting is for these Friends to be on the lookout for others who are seeking and to share what they know—and to be proactive about it.

In the next post, I want to return with a little more attention to the role of vocal ministry in  a robust culture of eldership.

§ One Response to What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Spiritual Nurture

  • “Bringing people to G*d and G*d to the world:” that just about says it all, doesn’t it? It’s not the business of the Religious Society of Friends alone, of course, but of every person and group called by God to spread the good news: Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, Muslims and pagans are all eligible; the good news is of God’s infinite good will toward His/Her/Its creation and the creatures that make it up. It’s the news of God’s infinite love, and forgiveness, and will to heal and save anybody and everybody from all this darkness and suffering. In order to bring it we must embody it by being loving and forgiving ourselves, and we have to refrain from contaminating it with false portrayals God as capricious, cruel, or indifferent to the well-being of any part of creation.

    But let me tell you about the dream I had the other night: in it someone was arguing the importance of regular attendance at gatherings for worship — or “church,” as he called it. Why? Because at church, he said, we give one another exhortations and encouragements to regular prayer at home. Without those exhortations to regular prayer, we live without prayer, or fall away from it, or become lukewarm at it and just go through the motions.

    When I woke from this dream, I thought, (a) “if only we Friends did this for one another at meeting for worship! We need to change that!” — but then I also thought (b) “But that’s not all: we also need to gather for worship as a collective body, as a people of God, because that’s our only opportunity for us to say ‘Here we are, Lord, Your people, assembled together to be of use to You if You have need of us as a body.'”

    Now you’ve reminded me, Steve, that there’s a third item that belongs in this list: (c) bringing God to the world, or what Christians call the Great Commission: to bring God to a world that forgets God. The world seems to be drunk-driving its way toward a cliff of no return now, as individual players great and small — governments, corporations, individuals — pursue private advantage without regard to the common good, most of them seeming deaf to warnings that atmospheric carbon dioxide is about to soar past the 400 ppm level and the pH of seawater to sink below 8. It’s one thing for an apostle of Truth to call a sinner to repentance whose only besetting sin is salacious fantasies or fibbing on his tax return. But who will call a seventy- or eighty-trillion dollar global economy to repentance of almost all its ruling assumptions? Yet what may happen if no one does?

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