January 27, 2015 § 24 Comments

I want to start a new series to which I expect I will return from time to time, though I may not sustain it like I have some of my other posting series; in those previous themes, I have written until I felt I had shared everything I thought I had been given to say. I am less sure where I’m going with this one. Here’s what I’m up to:

I want to analyze and address the Quaker-pocalypse, the seemingly irreversible general decline of Quakerism.

In subsequent posts, I want to look at the causes of this decline in its various aspects, propose some efforts to stem the tide, and—here comes my own predilection for apocalyptic thinking—suggest how we might reorient ourselves toward our virtually inevitable though not imminent demise.

For I believe in the Quaker-pocalypse. I retain my faith in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit among us, but I have lost my faith in our ability to answer that of God among us with the faith and practice, the attitudes and processes and structures that we use today. That is, I believe that G*d is deconstructing our current structures and challenging us to listen up in new ways. Our job now is to open ourselves to the new world G*d is trying to inspire.

The good news is that the Holy Spirit is at work among us. So I bring with me into this apparently gloomy undertaking the joys of the Quaker Way that I’ve been celebrating in my more recent posts.

Here’s my outline of our general decline:

  • the decline of our membership;
  • the decline of support for meetings in terms of money, time, and engagement;
  • the now spotty but increasingly common collapse of Quaker meetings due to lack of people and resources, including existential challenges to some yearly meetings;
  • the erosion of gospel order, defined in this case as the three-tiered structure for meeting life established by George Fox in the 1660s, so that many quarterly and regional meetings are on life support and most local Friends and local meetings feel quite disconnected from their yearly meeting; this is a problem especially for those yearly meetings big enough to have staff and relatively extensive committee structures;
  • the steady shift
    • toward a community defined by values and process rather than by substantive content, until all that most of us are able to say in answer to the question, What do Quakers believe? is that we believe in that of God in everyone, plus perhaps some reference to the testimonies, thereby balancing a rich, centuries-old tradition on one slender column that’s been hammered into a new shape that is quite foreign to its original materials;
    • toward secularization, increasingly replacing our processes of discernment with the world’s ways, including decision-making by consensus rather than the guidance of the Holy Sprit, the use of standing committees organized around concerns rather than the faith and practice of Quaker ministry, and of visioning exercises and brainstorming rather than prayer, meditation, and worship, especially in our committees and non-meeting para-structures, like Quaker Earthcare Witness, AFSC, etc.;
    • toward individualism, accepting and even encouraging all modes of personal spiritual expression while thoughtlessly abandoning our own shared traditions, deliberately resisting any form of collective discipline, and sometimes embracing a perverse kind of anti-traditionalism;
    • away from our roots in the Christian and biblical tradition and toward every direction conceivable, but most notably toward atheism and nontheism, leaving us a tattered and misunderstood vestigial vocabulary and no coherent message or shared framework for approaching the life of the spirit;
  • the steady loss of Friends who know the tradition well enough to practice it, let alone teach it, so that more and more meetings don’t really know what they’re doing any more, especially in certain areas, but still think they do;
  • the corresponding selective redefining of our tradition, usually in ignorance and almost always without real thought, epitomized by redefining the phrase “that of God in everyone” in neo-gnositc terms as a divine spark in everyone;
  • the decline of personal spiritual practice and of family devotional life, so that most Friends now come to meeting for their spiritual life rather than with their spiritual life, because meeting for worship is all there is to their practice;
  • correspondingly, the increasing shallowness of meetings for worship and, especially, of vocal ministry, and thus
  • the corresponding decline in the frequency of gathered meetings for worship, so that many Friends have never experienced one and do no know what it is.

My questions:

  • Why are we declining?
  • What can we do about it?
  • Most importantly, what is G*d trying to awaken in us?


§ 24 Responses to Quaker-pocalypse

  • pilgrim52 says:

    Reblogged this on Take What You Need and commented:
    Again, Steven outlines exactly how I feel about Quakers in Britain. At times I feel I have no right to criticize an faith group that I’ve only been part of for only 2 years now. But another part of me feels that as one coming in from the ‘outside’, I can more readily see what the problem is. This is well worth pondering.

  • treegestalt says:

    I’ve been increasingly thinking of AA in this connection. There’s a religious movement that is growing. People don’t come to it because they’d like to be a little more spiritual; they don’t necessarily have any sense of God as a reality they’d want to contact, or some ideal way of life they’d like to take up — They show up because they’ve gotten desperate and they start to treat God as real, without worrying about the theological niceties involved, because they need to depend on God — and stay with it, when they do, because they find they can.

    I don’t know if I’d like this or not — but I’ve known at least one person to find it a strong influence for spiritual awakening. Trouble is, I can’t just go in & say, “Hi, I’m Forrest and I’m not an alcoholic; and I’d hate to have to start drinking just to belong.” But this reminds me of what Jesus was telling the Pharisees of his day: “The hookers and tax accountants are getting in ahead of you.” That is, you’ve got a movement of people who have considerable love and sympathy for each other, but who are afraid to let the normies in because they’ve come to expect contempt from outsiders. Many of the people following Jesus were willing and able to do that because he didn’t make them ashamed; while the society around them did.

    Is it that many people need to be brought very low before they’ll look for God? Or is it harder to find God if you’re contemptuous of any group of people, if you think of yourself as innately better, if you feel free to condemn anyone?

    Does this suggest anything about how and why Friends might benefit from certain changes? What changes, how?

  • Religion (re-lig, to bind together again) must serve its community’s needs. Our current national overarching needs are as follows:

    1. We live in a pretty violent world. The execution of a billion people is on hairtrigger alert; it would take about an hour. Our government is rather war-crazy to the point of overborrowing from the national treasury, so that our own nation has no money left. Jesus taught us to love our enemies, and to do good to those who persecute us.

    Friends are possibly the religious denomination that most wants to address war. For example, Friends House Moscow is teaching AVP in Russian-leaning parts of Ukraine. QUNO looks for diplomatic breakthroughs. Friends are all over Peace Studies, and they care about many types of equality.

    2. We’re destroying most of the species of the earth, most of God’s creation, so that a handful of people can become wealthier. Our oceans are becoming too acid. Our forests are becoming collections of dead sticks waiting for a forest fire. This is an abomination committed against all of our future generations. Noah would save all of the animals from extinction, along with his own family.

    I don’t think that too many Friends see catastrophic climate change and long-term carcinogenic pollution as a terrible moral evil. I do, and I’ve seen the movement grow. I’ve seen scientists go through bouts of utter despair and anger over the issue. I expect the issue to spread in importance. Moreover, I expect Friends to grow a comprehensive movement around the issue, much as their antiwar effort has grown in quite a few separate directions.

    3. Our elections are corrupted by campaign contributions. Our national and world community requires an honest government to work so that our community’s needs are met. The walls of Jerusalem were only rebuilt because the prophet Ezra convinced the wealthy Jews not to persecute the debtor Jews while the poor were volunteering their time on building the walls. The reading of Jerusalem’s law to the public every seventh day was part of a social covenant, that not even the king could break God’s law.

    I’m not sure that Friends realize that we’re sitting on our own alternative form of government. Yearly meetings don’t have anything resembling elections filled with bribery. When a yearly meeting writes a book of Faith and Practice people respect the process. Can you compare a Faith and Practice book with the IRS tax code that Congress has written?

    I believe that the original Quaker movement grew insofar as it served that society’s overarching needs, that the Quaker movement shall grow insofar as it serves the community’s overarching needs, and it won’t grow insofar as it doesn’t serve the community’s overarching needs. To put it concretely, I like to eat cookies after meeting for worship, but that’s not why I’m a Friend. Nor do I set up altars just to worship and go home, and not be changed..

    Friends have a tendency to become quietist. “Quietist” is almost never described as a virtuous state, unless it’s a reaction to activists getting the Religious Society of Friends in great amounts of trouble. Sometimes quietism is simply an ignoring of your personal spirit guide’s entreaties. Yes, you can live that bland life, but perhaps you shouldn’t.

  • Thank you for this very clear diagnosis Steven, which resonates a lot with my experience of Britain Yearly Meeting too. I am looking forward to seeing where you go with ways out (or through, or under…) In the UK we are starting to discuss possibilities for ‘Quaker renewal’. Is that something you see as a possibility?
    In Friendship,

  • Howard Brod says:

    Quakerism in Europe and North America is suffering along with all religion in general. Not just Quaker Meetings/Churches are experiencing a downturn.

    I have noticed that when new ones come to my meeting, they are enthralled and quickly identify themselves as one of us; as a Quaker. And they continue to support the meeting financially and with their physical presence in times of personal need or stress, or on occasion. Few, after their initial “honeymoon” period, come regularly though. Yet, they seem to cherish the meeting community, even if they are not regularly associated with it in a physical way.

    I have pondered this phenomenon of the last few decades. I think several things are at play here. The internet age, with its active social media venues, allows people to interact with one another without being physically present with one another. I believe that has definitely affected worship attendance, because the sense of community among Friends is available in cyberspace and not just at the meetinghouse. Then, we Quakers are notorious or famous (depending on your perspective) for not laying on guilt about anything. I know in my meeting NO ONE is ever made to feel guilty for not attending worship. And that’s how Friends at my meeting like it (including me).

    Even so, I do think we liberal Quakers are in a good position to offer 21st century spiritually-minded persons a place to connect with the divine spark without a lot of unnecessary trappings. But first we need to abandon politicizing our spiritual experience, idolizing Quaker history and culture, and being obsessed with Quaker terms and ways that really amount to establishing “doctrines of pettiness” within the meeting. All of these are a REAL turn-off to the typical 21st century spiritually-minded person – as it should be.

    Instead, we need to JUST return whole-heartedly to the core message of the earliest Friends without all the crap that we have added after hundreds of years of existence as a religious society. All the earliest Friends were doing was resurrecting the simple entreaty of Jesus in order to heal the world: “Love your neighbor”, “Love your enemies”, “Forgive one another”, “Do good unto the least of these”, “Return evil for evil to no one”. There is an old Quaker saying that these words “are not true because Jesus said them; rather, Jesus said them because they are true”. Do we still believe that?

    Most people who might set foot in our meetinghouses would respond to this same early Quaker message of love, forgiveness, and compassion – even if they do not call themselves “a Christian”. Again, this is because the power behind this message is compelling and really is the only way this world will ever be healed. Rather than being consumed with the person of Jesus and Christianity per se, liberal Quakers were once consumed with this simple message that Jesus brought us some 2000 years ago. We viewed Jesus as a universalist who was reaching out to everyone because he was reminding everyone of what was truly needed to heal ourselves and the world. Many of us have forgotten that, however; and instead we have become consumed with Quaker etiquette, Quaker history, Quaker tradition, Quaker committees, politics, and yes our testimonies.

    We would all do well to remember that our Quaker testimonies are nothing more than actions that manifest that simple message given to humankind some 2000 years ago.

    Are we as a spiritual group willing to let all the crap go and resurrect that original message of love, forgiveness, and compassion in our own hearts? To quote William Penn: “Let us see what love can do.” If we do that we just might be surprised at what happens.

    • treegestalt says:

      What is evidently less ‘compelling’ to you is that commandment that Jesus put first: to love the Lord your God will all your heart, mind, strength and spirit.

      So how does the second part of the message — which Jesus said was merely ‘like’ the first — suddenly become the whole of ‘this simple message that Jesus brought’?

      That message isn’t all so simple then!

      To do the second part of it successfully, we’ve first got to make our peace with a Being we don’t generally know all that well — which we’ve even heard some bad things about — as well as many good things we’re overall afraid to believe. Being able to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ — as something more than an ideal one tries to emulate — is going to take divine help. How to ask for that if you don’t believe there’s anyOne to provide it?

      Hope is a scary place to jump to — when people really don’t have any (and especially now, after whatever hope they’d ever put in political leaders has been so blatantly hijacked and betrayed.)

      • Howard Brod says:

        Yes, Loving the Source of existence (whatever one labels it) is loving our true self. It is indeed important.

    • barbarakay1 says:


  • Jon Watts says:

    Thanks for the thought and clarity you put into naming all of the different elements of the current downturn of Quakerism, Stephen! I have to say, I have a positive connotation for the word “apocalypse”, so “Quaker-pocolypse” sounded like a good thing. Of course, the downturn might be a good thing too… we can’t assume that our faithfulness means maintaining our current infrastructure and numbers when the opposite might be true!

    I look forward to going on this journey of examination and prayer with you, about the current state of Friends, and where we are headed.

  • Don Badgley says:

    Thank you Friend Steven. As you know, I have been laboring with similar concerns for quite some time. It is true that 21st Century “Quakerism” is but a pale remnant of what once was. You point up the failings and they are clear. As for the growth of African experience I know little of it except that it feels very Protestant to me and that 19th Century Quaker branch is not where I find comfort. Fox was attempting to renew primitive Christianity. That work is unfinished.

    The faith and practice of Friends can be as radical, as vital, as exciting and as relevant as when it was first practiced in the 17th Century. When the power and authority of Experiential Faith is revealed, it is just as potent as it ever was – precisely because it is not dependent on ancient doctrine, dogma, scripture, creed, hierarchy and fear mongering. It is powerful because it depends entirely on that which is unchangeable, infinite, eternal and accessible to all who seek it. We are not called to “preach” this Truth as the right religion. We are called to live into the Light as it as it inspires our witness in and to the world. The shadows cast by that which obstructs the light are only there to give us perspective. As Jesus demonstrated, our call is to simply and gently reveal The Light with calm certainty that it will speak to the condition of everyone upon whom is shines.

    If the un-programmed tradition of the Religious Society of Friends does not return to and share with the world an active ministry of Experiential Faith it will fade to justified oblivion. Friends can and should be doing more than we are at present to share our experiences of the Light and the principals that arise from those experiences. Such ministry should not be to recruit new Quakers but rather to gently point out a Lighted place of inward Peace; a place of immeasurable Compassion and infinite Love. No other goal is necessary.

    The “Lamp” is already burning on the lamp stand. It always has been. We are simply challenged to point toward that Light in our daily labor and in our interactions with the people of the world. We do this by freely sharing the power of Experiential Faith and of course by example, as we order our lives by the imperatives the Light reveals. Let us worship together.

    Don Badgley

  • Bill Rushby says:

    Hello, Stephen! I appreciate your post very much, even though I would take issue with some of what you wrote in the comments section that follows.

    You assert that the Society of Friends is shrinking, but the membership trends for Third-World Quakerism do not (IMHO) support your claim. Yes, Third-World Friends repackage the faith in terms of their own culture, and we may find the results inconsistent with our take on George Fox and the early Friends (not to mention our own uneasiness with how they see the faith). It helps very much to get to know some Friends from Kenya, Guatemala and Bolivia, and other areas where Friends are flourishing.

    I look forward to reading your future offerings!

  • Steven,
    Thanks for your ongoing brilliant and thought-provoking exploration of the condition of Quaker-dom today. You do not belong to my monthly meeting, but you very precisely examine issues that confront us constantly.
    In friendship,
    Chris Japely

  • Jim Schultz says:

    Would you like the good new first or the bad news? The good news is that God still works among all of us who diligently seek Him. The bad news is fewer people find it necessary or relevant to their lives to do so. While membership at our local meeting hasn’t grown those who come expect to find Him there. We try to be open to the needs of those who are on a spiritual journey. While our surrounding area used to be a hot bed of Christian revival it has been swallowed up by politics and partisan activism because many got off the Train bound for Glory before it reached its destination and sadly weren’t taught there was a destination on earth and they should stay on board for the entire trip because their ticket was good for the whole ride. We Quakers are not alone. We just start with a smaller membership so we reach a tipping point sooner. The only solution I see is for Quakers to forget loyalty to specific local meetings and gather with those of like values and mind so they can be a source of life. When people are failed by the World systems they will seek real life and we have to be there to give it and to guide them to their own wells that never dry up.

  • Thanks for this post, Steven. I really do believe that, just as Jesus teaches that we must lose our lives to gain them, we must lose Quakerism if we ever want to be a part of a movement that embodies the spirit of the early Friends.

    • Well, I’m not so sure about “losing Quakerism”. But I am sure about losing forms without power. And I also suspect that the changes being asked of us will leave us with something that will be so distinctive from contemporary Quaker forms that we will be have to consider calling it something else if we are faithful to our testimony on integrity. In fact, I think we’re already there in some ways. The lines between the faith of George Fox and both atheistic liberal Quakerism and East African evangelical Quakerism are anything but straight. Still, the lines exist.

    • Also, I’m less interested in what “Jesus teaches”, since that really boils down to how I read the parts of Christian scripture that I consider authoritative, than I am in where Christ leads us in the new revelation.

  • John Cowan says:

    This is a necessary work! May I suggest you lay out all your thoughts on this before you bother to argue with any of us? I, for one, would appreciate your filling in your large picture before getting sidetracked. Unless of course someone blows you out of the water, which I doubt will happen.

  • treegestalt says:

    Much of your list is symptomatic rather than causal. (Though there is some vicious circling involved.

    Some of it is strictly ‘spirit of the age’ stuff. We are 21st Century people living in the 21st Century; and things that worked among 17th Century people living among 17th Century people simply won’t work as well. Some of that ‘decline,’ this implies, is a Spirit-led response to a radically changed situation.

    And some of it is not ‘decline.’ That ‘Divine spark in everyone’ is simple truth, regardless of how various 17th Century Christians may have thought about it. (I know, it’s not ‘simple’ in the sense that we easily reconcile it with our finititude and flawed manifestation of it — and as an Article of Faith it can come out pretty vacuus.)

    Hanging out on some free-for-all religious discussion sites has given me a new appreciation of atheism. That is, atheism is an incorrect belief — but it involves the destruction of traditional beliefs that mistake and slander God. Traditional Quaker beliefs are far from being the only traditional beliefs being defended with great zeal… almost in defiance of any trust in God Godself as the living and active force in the world.

    Lack of faith can so readily disguise itself as ‘traditional Belief’ that I can’t even be sure whether collective human knowledge of God has been diminishing… Doubt and dismissal have become the overt norm; but what is growing beneath the surface? — I’m not being rhetorical here; I really don’t know — though I suspect that people are finding their way back from atheism, merely not finding easy ways to sort-out or express that progress.

    The use of silence in worship needs to be incorporated in any tradition that is to ‘grow in wisdom and in stature’. But I think we’ve been mistaken in treating silence as an end in itself, or as sufficient to lead anyone to God who isn’t ripe. It’s a method of worship that only flies with God’s cooperation — and while that likewise applies to any such method, it makes lack of life all too obvious when silent worship goes stale. If we want people interested to come back and keep trying, it makes sense to include modes that recognize and value God’s embodiment in other modes of experience: mental, emotional, and physical as well.

    What are the obstacles that are interfering with people’s awareness of God’s presence? What means are we given to address those obstacles?

    • I don’t think you can say that the divine spark thing is truth without a string of caveats, for instance, at least, “my truth”. It seems like simply an article of faith to me. At least, I do not have personal experience of such a divine spark. It seems to me to be quite enough and quite hard enough to just be truly human. Anyway, we can’t prove that spark exists and when I ask people what they mean or what the experience of such a spark is like, they almost never have a meaningful answer. And that’s not even getting into how “that of God” might be said divine spark.

      Meanwhile, I think it’s an elegant idea, however speculative. I have been a serious student of yoga and the whole atman-brahman concept in Hindu thought is much more beautifully and fully worked out than even that of Plotinus and the rest of the Neo-Platonists. But it’s still an article of faith, it seems to me.

      I agree, though, with our tendency to idolatrize the silence. I sometimes think of the silence not even as a tool but rather as a non-tool, that in our effort to remove all outward and inward obstacles to true communion, we are left with only the silence.

      • treegestalt says:

        The divine spark thing is subject to misinterpretation like any truth worth the trouble. I would call it a truth to be realized rather than a doctrine to be swallowed whole; but some of us find it squirreled away in every religion from Judaism to Zen. You don’t ‘prove’ it by observing each person but by understanding what’s implied in the fact that the only observer you could ever prove anything-whatsoever to is present and at work in your own self and life.

        To say anything ‘meaningful’ about it would be to take one idea and translate it into another poetically-related formulation, which may or may not be helpful toward getting to that realization that this is a how-it-is. It’s as good a conceptional-flag as most, probably one of the more benign ones so long as it doesn’t degenerate into absurdities — but probably the best use of it is to wrestle it until one says uncle…

        If we’re talking to people whose real Article of Faith is: “It ain’t Real unless you can prove it logically or show it from peer-reviewed replicated laboratory experiments by somebody who doesn’t believe that woowoo stuff is possible — and if he starts to believe it, you have to throw out his experiments” then it’s probably going to be heard as ‘another silly belief I’ll just need to tolerate if I want to stay in this Meeting.’ But since people aren’t ever totally consistent, even so it may serve to start some useful thinking…(?)

        What do you think of Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s efforts to reframe Judaism? I’ve been reading a lot of him recently, reaffirming the idea I’d picked up via Rodger Kammenetz that Jews (and our rival Christian brands) have been experiencing the same kind of crisis Ursula Jane O’Shea described among Quakers.

  • Looking forward to the series. Thanks.

  • I agree: G*d is calling us to listen up in new ways.

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