Teaching Quakerism to Our Youth

August 3, 2016 § 6 Comments

More than 50 Young Adult Friends attended the annual sessions of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting held this year July 27–32 at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA.

Their epistle contained a witness about their place in the life of their local meetings and the Yearly Meeting and about the Yearly Meeting more generally.

Many of us seek spiritual community because we need support in our work in the world. For some of us, while we live Quaker faith and practice every day, monthly meetings are not offering the depth and groundedness we are seeking. And so, we are finding meaningful communities outside of traditional Quaker structures, but we’re still searching for ways into our powerful spiritual tradition. We are searching for Truth as early Friends did, making our own spiritual paths. Though some of us are active in monthly and yearly meeting leadership, many find membership inaccessible or undesirable. Our yearly meeting structures exclude those of us who aren’t members or regular attenders—even when we have a calling to service. Young adulthood often entails transience—geographically, financially, and spiritually. This can preclude our membership in a Meeting, even when we feel at home there. YAFs who became members as children can feel trapped in the meeting where they grew up—no longer feeling part of that community, but not connected enough to a new meeting to transfer their membership. Some of these Friends long for direct membership with the yearly meeting.

. . .

Many of us still feel alienated, patronized or unsupported. . . . We have experienced ageism and misogyny this week.  Some YAFs are not able to be present for business sessions because many of them happen during the workweek. Our gifts are essential to our yearly meeting, but we have felt blocked from full participation—discouraged, frustrated, and ignored.

I have heard similar concerns from young adult Friends in New York Yearly Meeting. Feeling invisible, marginalized, and patronized. An inability to relate to the life of their local meetings. Seeking a meaningful entree into the life of the yearly meeting against subtle and not-so-subtle obstacles. Groping toward a Quaker identity without preparation, resources, or support from the wider Quaker community. Turning therefore to each other out of necessity and cobbling together an identity peer-to-peer with whatever is at hand, or just out of thin air. While at the same time older Friends wring their hands over our inability to hold onto our youth when they become young adults.

The primary institution for preparing young people to be active Friends is First Day School. Some yearly meetings also have camps or conference centers with youth programs, and some have youth programs during their sessions. But the most important place for Quaker religious education of our youth is the First Day School room.

But do our local meetings provide any meaningful Quaker religious education for their kids? I suspect that many do not, though they might deny this because their programs are, in fact, pretty good at passing on “Quaker values”.  But there may not be any Quaker or religious content to speak of.

This fits right in with the trend in liberal Quakerism more generally to define Quakerism in terms of culture and values rather than with the content of the tradition. We have become so specifically post-Christian and so generally post-traditional that leaders in these programs often don’t feel safe teaching Quaker tradition and may be uncomfortable with the tradition themselves, especially with its Christian character and biblical language—if they know the tradition at all.

Meanwhile, our children mostly learn their values, not from our youth programs but from their parents. Of course, we don’t want our youth programs to undermine the values we teach our children as parents, so—first, do no harm, I suppose. But most families bring their kids to a religious community, not just to reinforce these values, but to get a religious education, and they turn to us in part because they often don’t feel equipped to pass on a religious education themselves. This is especially true of families who have just joined a meeting.

So lots of our kids graduate from high school and from First Day School knowing basically nothing about Quakerism. Why, then, would they stay? They don’t even have what many of us older Friends had—a tradition that they know . . . and don’t like. Many of us, especially us baby boomers, found Friends because we were so unsatisfied with the traditions we grew up with. But at least we knew what we didn’t like and had some sense of the broader religious landscape. That is actually a gift.

For the purpose of religious education is to awaken a person to the life of the spirit, in the first place, and to provide some context for spiritual formation—for discovering your  identity as a spiritual and/or religious person. And identity requires content, not just values

Furthermore, if you want to participate in the life of a meeting, you have to know how. You need to understand how Quaker process works, and the structures we use to organize our work. You have to understand the dense and opaque Quaker vocabulary—what is FCNL? what does “discernment” mean? what is a clearness committee for membership? what is a gathered meeting?

More importantly, you need to see that something real is happening here. Young people—all people—yearn for real spiritual/religious experience. Are they getting it in First Day School? Do they see the adults around them sharing their own joy and fulfillment in the Spirit? Do they ever hear first-hand what that joy is like? Or do they feel, as one of my own grown sons does, that meeting for worship is “the same blowhards saying the same things each week” and that meeting for business in worship is boring and about matters that don’t really matter?

Most importantly, adult Friends of any age will participate in meeting life in a meaningful way when they have internalized the essentials of Quaker spirituality in terms that work for them. When they are awake to the Light within them, and when its inner guidance gives them direction, meaning, and identity. When they can speak with confidence about their faith to their friends. When they know they will receive the spiritual nurture they need because they have been getting it all along.

We should not make young adults, especially, but anyone new to the meeting, put all this together on their own. The direction our young people take may eventually lead them out of the Quaker community. That’s fine. We still will have done our job and they will be better prepared for whatever path they do take. And if they stay with us, they will step confidently into the life of the Spirit and the life of the meeting as Friends already mature in their tradition.

Our institutions for the religious education of our youth should teach Quakerism.

§ 6 Responses to Teaching Quakerism to Our Youth

  • Irene says:

    Alex Miller, Downingtown Friends Meeting, offers a well-designed program on Quakerism — both the faith and the practice aspects. Has attracted not only new Friends, but also a couple of Young Friends and many long-time Friends who never had the benefit of such a class. Next one scheduled for this fall.

  • Christine Greenland says:

    Steve — Thanks for this. An immediate sharing.

    One of our young adults is in her second year in college and attending a larger meeting. She came back with a request for Bible study and advice, since she’s been doing Bible study with other students — mostly evangelical. What a wonderful opportunity! Three of us have been meeting before our usual mid-week worship and working our way slowly through the gospel of Matthew. Tonight her mom came. Her college friends have been invited.

    I’ve been sharing a lot of resources from NW YM in particular. Mostly Paul Anderson, but also Howard Macy and Arthur Roberts. She’s ready for the clarity and depth these Friends offer.

    • When I joined Friends, I kept my meeting’s First Day School from teaching my kids the Bible. I was hostile toward it and toward Christianity in general, then. Now, leading Bible class is one of my most fulfilling things to do.

      My point is that ten or so years later, I heard one of the women who had been in my kids’ First Day School cohort, now a young adult, complain that she had received no introduction to the Bible from us and what a disservice that had been. She was taking a class in Milton and had no idea what was going on, and was encountering biblical references elsewhere in school and in the wider culture, and didn’t recognize or understand them. So I have had first-hand personal experience from both sides of our misled rather than Spirit-led failure to give our youth meaningful religious education.

      • Steve — I went through a period of agnosticism — “wistful non-belief”, until I heard Howard Macy speak on the Psalms, and went back to reading the Bible again. Thankfully, I had the background from my mother, who had been a worship leader in Church of the Brethren.

        We were reflecting at prayer group this morning that all of us seemed to gain depth as we studied the Bible this summer. We were joined by another Friend, our young adult’s mother and the friend with whom she is studying while at school.

        The sharing was exceptionally deep.

  • Jillian Smith says:

    I am inspired by what Quakerism wishes it actually was. I’d love to be a part of a society where there is no authority structure & there is no corruption. I’d Love to be a part of a seeking group of people who grapple to find a peace with the ebb and flow of their faith. However, I feel as though Americans are trained to respect authority and our interpersonal relationships are flawed and human. As college age friends gather together and attempt Quakerism while reading the manual, friends can feel overwhelmed. So… How can ‘Older’ friends inspire Young Adult Friends? Have you had one to your house for supper? Have you helped anyone with a job, or the feelings of the roller coaster of relationships? Have you sponsored a Young Adult Friend to go to Powell House or Pendle Hill or FWCC. I’m glad to say that I have recieved all of these offers, and they continue.

    How can the Young Adults Concerns Committee of any Yearly meeting truly serve the human needs of being between the age of 18 and 40? Can it be done with out expecting any YAF to put in hundreds of hours into event planning? Can it be done with out any YAF having to ‘marry’ a small town monthly meeting inorder to gain an identity title that they already claim?
    For friends that have committee burn out and feel as though Quakerism used them all up what do we as a community have to give in order to replenish them spiritually; and how can we welcome them back?

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