What Should We Teach Our Youth?

August 8, 2016 § 4 Comments

In my previous post, I made a case for teaching Quakerism—and I would add the Bible—in our First Day Schools and in our other institutions for youth ministry. Teaching not just Quaker values, but the basic elements of our tradition—what we believe, how we work, and what our experience is of the Divine, as individuals and as a movement.

Most important, though, we should be using our time in First Day School to help young Friends discover what the life of the Spirit means for them. We should be doing this for the adults, too, of course, so this aspect of our religious education can very often be multigenerational. We should be answering that of God in our members of all ages.

This is especially important for us as (non-pastoral) Friends because we have no paid professionals to do it for us, as I had when I was in my Lutheran confirmation classes. Our meetings will be strong in direct proportion to how well equipped our members are to practice their Quakerism, and our youth should not have to play catch-up when they decide to participate in meeting life more fully. Nor—worst case scenario—should we take the chance that their lack of knowledge would prevent them from even trying.

So—what to teach?

First, a plug for the Godly Play and Faith and Play programs. In my previous meeting, a number of parents and Friends concerned for the health of our First Day School program took this training and it completely transformed our youth ministry. Those Friends gained confidence, a sense of direction, and excellent curriculum materials. I didn’t do the training myself, but my sense is that it would be a great framework for pursuing the goals I’m outlining below. I highly recommend it.

I would like to approach the larger question of what to teach our children—and all our members, for that matter—by defining what I think our goals are:

  1. Spiritual formation: awaken our youth to the Light within them. I said in my series on What Is Quakerism For? that I thought the purpose of a Quaker meeting was to bring people to G*d and to bring G*d into the world. For our youth, this means creating a safe, inviting environment in which to explore the Quaker approach to the spiritual life, some exposure to the other paths that we trust besides our own, and especially, to explore their own experience of the Spirit in a Quaker context. In practical terms, I think this could work on three channels:
    1. older Friends telling stories about their own direct experience of the divine;
    2. stories from the Bible and other religious literature of epiphanies, guidance, healing, consciousness raising, witness, etc.; and
    3. discussions that seek to help young people recognize and understand the spiritual experiences they have already had.
    4. None of this requires any curriculum materials or elaborate planning, though number one requires willing adults, number two requires some knowledge of Scripture, or at least, a Bible with a decent concordance, and number three requires a little skill at listening and encouraging young people to open up.
  2. Quaker faith: equip our youth to talk about their faith with confidence. That is, teach the basic elements of Quaker faith. What are they? Very simply:
    1. the Light—everyone can experience G*d directly;
    2. the covered meeting—the meeting can also commune directly with the Divine;
    3. continuing revelation—the Spirit is always there with guidance, insight, healing, forgiveness, personal transformation, and love; and
    4. the testimonial life—that our lives should speak, that we should be guided in our journey through this life by the Light within us, listening always for promptings to leave the world a better place.
    5. You can unpack these four to discuss all the rest of our tradition—why we don’t practice the outward sacraments, why we don’t program our meetings for worship or have priests, why we don’t vote to make decisions, how we feel about the Bible, why we pursue justice, equality, earthcare, etc.
  3. Quaker practice: prepare our youth to practice their Quakerism and participate in meeting life.
    1. Worship. Begin and end each session with some silence. Gradually extend this time, as it seems to work for the youth. Talk about their experience, what’s been going on in their heads during that time and share your own practice and experience in worship, seeking ways to deepen theirs. Encourage their vocal ministry. Take them into the meeting’s worship, eventually and gradually, for more than just a few minutes at the beginning or end, whatever your meeting’s practice has been. At some point, encourage those young Friends who want to to join the meeting in worship instead of attending First Day School. Share the conventions that we use as guides for behavior in meeting for worship.
    2. Business. Explain your meeting’s committee structure (and at some point, regional and yearly meeting structure) and invite committee members to talk about what they do. Explore what the youth’s own business might be. For instance, look at your First Day School room and see what improvements you might make and discuss how you might bring ideas to the property committee. Talk about their ambitions for life as adults and discuss clearness committees. Explain the conventions that guide our practice of meeting for business with a concern for the life of the meeting. Explain what clerks do. Watch for business agenda items that might interest the youth and bring them in for at least that segment of the meeting. Explain both the faith and the practice of what Friends have traditionally called “gospel order”—in this case, how concerns start with an individual, go to the meeting, then to the quarterly meeting, then to the yearly meeting. Always be thinking of how the discussion and the openings in First Day School might come before the meeting as a whole for attention as business.
    3. Ministry. Talk about what “Spirit-led” means. Talk about leadings and especially, the leading to speak in meeting for worship. Bring in Friends who are pursuing leadings to talk about what it’s like. Explore how the youth might feel led in various ways already and help them understand these promptings in the context of our faith and practice of Quaker ministry. Explain why we don’t have a separated ministry and what “releasing into ministry” means, referring to those Friends who serve as pastors and any Friend who receives support from their meeting that allows them to follow their leading. Talk about discernment, clearness committees for discernment, and the other ways we support people with leadings and ministries—minutes of travel and service, endorsement of these minutes, committees for care, support, and oversight. . . .
    4. Pastoral care. Talk about how the members of the meeting try to take care of each other. Though this seems like an extremely delicate matter, seek ways to encourage them to consider coming to the meeting with their own concerns, as long as you are confident that the meeting could respond effectively; some meetings aren’t so good at this. Talk about the life of the community and the meaning of fellowship.
    5. Witness. Emphasize that the heart of the witness life for Friends is being led inwardly by the Light in how we walk through the world. Explore their own impulses to make the world better in their own terms. Present the traditional “testimonies”, not as outward rules for living, but as things Friends have been led by the Spirit to do through history, both inwardly and collectively, so consistently that we now have settled principles that we call testimonies. Tell stories about the origins of our traditional testimonies. For God’s sake, don’t limit their understanding of the testimonies to SPICES. I wouldn’t even bring SPICES up.

This approach involves a lot of talking. In my experience, many Friends think young Friends would rather be doing something than talking. That’s true for some kids, for sure, and especially for younger ones. But in my experience as a First Day School teacher, many kids are ready to do something pretty substantive when they reach middle school, at least.

My confirmation classes as a Lutheran youth began in the summer before (or after—I don’t quite remember) seventh grade. And those classes were purely didactic indoctrination. I loved it. Some of my fellow students didn’t. And to be honest, I was shooting spitballs the next year myself. But I know from personal experience that religious discussion can be very engaging by at least the age of 12 or 13.

The point is that the program should always be looking for opportunities to explore Quakerism at the youths’ own level and to explore the young people’s own emerging spirituality.


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.

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