Quaker-pocalypse—Advancement

May 16, 2015 § 2 Comments

In my first post in this series I listed among the signs of Quaker decline the steady decline in our membership. This has been going on for decades. We keep dying off. And most of our kids, though they often retain a Quaker identity (when asked what religion they are, they are likely to answer “Quaker”), most still do not remain active in a Quaker meeting when they become adults. And these two forces consistently outstrip our rates of convincement of new members in many of our meetings.

The intuitive response to this problem is more and better outreach—letting the world know who we are in a way that might encourage seekers to check us out. I like the broader rubric that New York Yearly Meeting uses for this aspect of meeting life—advancement. Advancement includes all efforts to advance Quakerism, and this includes “in-reach” efforts as well as outreach. For, to grow our membership, we have to actually have something valuable waiting for these seekers when they do finally find us.

But, while advancement in this broader sense is important, I don’t think growing our membership ought to be our primary goal. Our goal as meetings should be to bring people to God and to bring God into the world, not so much to bring people to Quakerism and make Quakerism more visible in the world.

Nevertheless, we do have something uniquely spiritually valuable to offer people in this age, for those people anyway who want a shared path, a tradition, a community—a religion—as their way to commune with the divine and channel their desires and efforts to heal the hurts of the world.

So, to do this—to advance Quakerism—we need three things:

  1. A vital religious life—we need the goods:
    1. worship that offers true communion with God,
    2. fellowship that is welcoming and caring, and
    3. spiritual nurture for individuals and families, including
      1. recognition of spiritual gifts,
      2. support for ministry,
      3. religious education for adults, and
      4. a First Day School, or readiness to provide some religious education for children on the spot if a family comes.

  2. A message—we need a clear, truthful, articulate message:
    1. a confident, simple, but not dumbed-down answer to who we are, what we “believe”, and what we offer; and
    2. a vision of a world rightly ordered in God’s shalom.

  3. Vehicles for outreach:
    1. a decent website (doesn’t have to be great),
    2. a social media presence, not necessarily very active, but with proper attention having been paid to the social media platform profiles, so that when seekers land there, they can actually find out who and where you are;
    3. a listing in the web portal(s) for churches in your area;
    4. a sign at the street, well lit at night, big enough, and readable at the speed limit;
    5. parking—clear indications on the website and at the street as to where to park;
    6. witness engagement, as led, in your neighborhood, your municipality, your region;
    7. a modest, consistent advertising presence.

So the next questions are:

  • Have I missed anything?
  • Does your meeting have all these elements in place?
  • If not, do you agree that you should?
  • What about that last one—advertising: do you agree that you should be advertising your meeting, and if so, what media would you use?

In the next post, I plan to unpack each of the items above a little bit with queries.

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§ 2 Responses to Quaker-pocalypse—Advancement

  • isaacsmith says:

    Good outline, Steve. To home in on Item 2 on your list: I think Ben Pink Dandelion offered a good “elevator pitch” on what Quakerism is about in his Swarthmore Lecture, one that I have been using myself: (1) Direct, inward encounter with the divine; (2) Corporate worship based on this encounter; (3) Corporate discernment that seeks divine guidance; and (4) Our testimony to the working of the divine in our lives through our outward conduct.

    What I am less certain about, perhaps because I simply haven’t read enough about it, is what a Quaker vision of shalom, as you put it, would look like. There are certainly touchstones, like the Peace Testimony, but not much that offers a systematic view of a rightly ordered society. (And yes, I’m aware you’re writing a book on the subject.) Consequently, I’ve resorted to filling in the blanks with elements from elsewhere in the Christian tradition, Catholic social teaching particularly. The person-centered nature of Quaker theology, like Catholic theology, could serve as the basis for a trenchant critique of contemporary society, in which the demands to conform to the needs of capitalism are becoming ever more insistent, but it would need someone better placed than me to develop it.

  • Item 1(a) is “A vital religious life… worship that offers true communion with God.” But what if this true communion is absent or deficient? Then what value have fellowship, message, vision, outreach, and all the rest?

    If God denies communion to us who would be God’s people, either because of our failings or because God deems it best for us to endure a Dark Night of the Soul, or a “famine of hearing the words of the Lord” (as in Amos 8:11), then shall we achieve that communion by storming heaven? The story of Babel should teach us that that only leads to confusion of tongues. The best we can do is try to do our part right and pray that God is merciful to us. Your blog posting, Steven, omits mention of our absolute need for God’s grace.

    And what if it’s we who deny communion to God? I’ve seen it in my meeting! We break the silence by speaking of our creaturely selves and from our creaturely selves. We fill God’s hour with news of our thoughts, our feelings, our theories, clearly giving God the message “You’re not welcome here; we’d rather hear from one another.”

    Why would we do such a foolish thing? Perhaps because we’re afraid of God and of what God might ask of us – whose words are like a fire, and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces. If we say in our hearts, “Let no one speak to us of Christ, of sin, of hell, of our need to pray for our enemies, to forgive everyone everything, to pray without ceasing, to repent, to be born again,” then we enter the meeting room with an invisible shield up; our unspoken agreement puts a bubble around us, impenetrable to the winds of the Holy Spirit. So what rises is often only our own stale flatus. Our agreement to be cheerful at rise of meeting generally keeps us from fleeing in tears.

    We’ve also agreed, at least in New York Yearly Meeting, to be a non-creedal fellowship, where Christian Friends, non-Christian Friends, non-theist Friends, and atheist Friends worship and enjoy fellowship together. This seems like a noble experiment; at least, it shows the kind of broad tolerance that initially got me in the door. But what if God finds our mutual politeness too hard to work with and does all the serious teaching in some other faith community that really agrees to seek God? “Don’t let yourselves be unequally yoked with the faithless,” warns Paul, “for what fellowship has fair-mindedness with lawlessness? Or what community has light with darkness?…Wherefore come out from among them, and be separate, says the Lord,” 2 Corinthians 6:14-17. We’ve been gambling on the theory that Paul was wrong here, and that God really wants more inclusiveness rather than more separation. But what if we’re wrong?

    I’ve been warning Friends that I see our society turning from a Religious Society of Friends into a Secular Society of Friends, and it’s possible that this is what our noble inclusiveness has led to. We rarely mention God in our documents and public statements. We set up a working group to investigate what God would want of our yearly meeting, and it sets about asking, instead, what Friends in the monthly meetings would want of our yearly meeting. At both monthly and yearly meeting levels there are many Friends acutely aware of the many social evils plaguing the world, who advocate political action, petitions, demonstrations, lobbying, litigation, donation of money, boycotts, civil disobedience, and community organizing for transition — but rarely prayer. God seems to be no longer thought of as almighty, our Monarch, our reliable Judge, Protector and Avenger. Are we saying in our hearts, like the people in Zephaniah 1:12, “the Lord will not do good; neither will He do evil?” Then why worship Him, Her, or It? Or were we only pretending to?

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