The Not-Quite-So Young Quakers

It was five years ago this week that I sat down and wrote about a cool new movement I had been reading about. It would have been Jordan Cooper‘s blog that turned me onto Robert E Webber‘s The Younger Evangelicals, a look at generational shifts among American Evangelicals. I found it simultaneously disorienting and shocking that I actually identified with most of the trends Webber outlined. Here I was, still a young’ish Friend attending one of the most liberal Friends meetings in the country (Central Philadelphia) and working for the very organization whose initials (FGC) are international shorthand for hippy-dippy liberal Quakerism, yet I was nodding my head and laughing out loud at just about everything Webber said. Although he most likely never walked into a meetinghouse, he clearly explained the generational dynamics running through Quaker culture and I finished the book with a better understanding of why so much of our youth organizing and outreach was floundering on issues of tokenism and feel-good-ism.

My post, originally titled  “The Younger Evangelicals and the Younger Quakers,”  (here it is in its original context) started off as a book review but quickly became a Quaker vision manifesto. The section heads alone ticked off the work to be done:

  • A re-examination of our roots, as Christians and as Friends
  • A desire to grow
  • A more personally-involved, time-consuming commitment
  • A renewal of discipline and oversight
  • A confrontation of our ethnic and cultural bigotries

When I wrote this, there wasn’t much you could call Quaker blogging (Lynn Gazis-Sachs was an exception), and when I googled variations on “quakers” and “emerging church” nothing much came up. It’s not surprising that there wasn’t much of an initial response.

It took about two years for the post to find its audience and responses started coming from both liberal and evangelical Quaker circles. In retrospect, it’s fair to say that the QuakerQuaker community gathered around this essay (here’s Robin M’s account of first reading it) and it’s follow-up We’re All Ranters Now (Wess talking about it). Five years after I postd it, we have a cadre of bloggers and readers who regularly gather around the QuakerQuaker water cooler to talk about Quaker vision. We’re getting pieces published in all the major Quaker publications, we’re asked to lead worships and we’ve got a catchy name in “Convergent Friends.”

And yet?

All of this is still a small demographic scattered all around. If I wanted to have a good two-hour caffeine-fueled bull session about the future of Friends at some local coffeeshop this afternoon, I can’t think of anyone even vaguely local who I could call up. A few years ago I started commuting pretty regularly to a meeting that did a good job at the Christian/Friends-awareness/roots stuff but not the discipline/oversight or desire-to-grow end of things. I’ve drifted away the last few months because I realized I didn’t have any personal friends there and it was mostly an hour-drive, hour-worship, hour-drive back home kind of experience.

My main cadre five years ago were fellow staffers at FGC. A few years ago FGC commissioned surveys indicated that potential donors would respond favorably to talk about youth, outreach and race stereotyping and even though these were some of the concerns I had been awkwardly raising for years, it was very clear I wasn’t welcome in quickly-changing staff structure and I found myself out of a job. The most exciting outreach programs I had worked on was a database that would collect the names and addresses of isolated Friends, but It was quietly dropped a few months after I left. The new muchly-hyped $100,000 program for outreach has this for its seekers page and follows the typical FGC pattern, which is to sprinkle a few rotating tokens in with a retreat center full of potential donors to talk about Important Topics. (For those who care, I would have continued building the isolated Friends database, mapped it for hot spots and
coordinated with the youth ministry committee
to send teams for extended stays to help plant worship groups. How cool would that be? Another opportunity lost.)

So where do we go?


I’m really sad to say we’re still largely on our own. According to actuarial tables, I’ve recently crossed my life’s halfway point and here I am still referencing generational change.
How I wish I could honestly say that I could get involved with any committee in my yearly meeting and get to work on the issues raised in “Younger Evangelicals and Younger Quakers”. Someone recently sent me an email thread between members of an outreach committee for another large East Coast yearly meeting and they were debating whether the internet was an appropriate place to do outreach work–in 2008?!? Britain Yearly Meeting has a beautifully produced new outreach website but I don’t see one convinced young Friend profiled and it’s post-faith emphasis is downright depressing (an involved youngish American Friend looked at it and reminded me that despite occassional attention, smart young seekers serious about Quakerism aren’t anyone’s target audience, here in the US or apparently in Britain).

A number of interesting “Covergent” minded Friends have an insider/outsider relationship with institutional Quakerism. Independent worship groups popping up and more are being talked about (I won’t blow your cover guys!). I’ve seen Friends try to be more officially involved and it’s not always good: a bunch of younger Quaker bloggers have disappeared after getting named onto Important Committees, their online presence reduced to inside jokes on Facebook with their other newly-insider pals.

What do we need to do:

  • We need to be public figures;
  • We need to reach real people and connect ourselves;
  • We need to stress the whole package: Quaker roots, outreach, personal involvement and not let ourselves get too distracted by hyped projects that only promise one piece of the puzzle.

Here’s my to-do list:

  • CONVERGENT OCTOBER: Wess Daniels has talked about everyone doing some outreach and networking around the “convergent” theme next month. I’ll try to arrange some Philly area meet-up and talk about some practical organizing issues on my blog.
  • LOCAL MEETUPS: I still think that FGC’s isolated Friends registry was one of its better ideas. Screw them, we’ll start one ourselves. I commit to making one. Email me if you’re interested;
  • LOCAL FRIENDS: I commit to finding half a dozen serious Quaker buddies in the drivable area to ground myself enough to be able to tip my toe back into the institutional miasma when led (thanks to Micah B who stressed some of this in a recent visit).
  • PUBLIC FIGURES: I’ve let my blog deteriorate into too much of a “life stream,” all the pictures and twitter messages all clogging up the more Quaker material. You’ll notice it’s been redesigned. The right bar has the “life stream” stuff, which can be bettered viewed and commented on on my Tumbler page, Tumbld Rants. I’ll try to keep the main blog (and its RSS feed) more seriously minded.

I want to stress that I don’t want anyone to quit their meeting or anything. I’m just finding myself that I need a lot more than business-as-usual. I need people I can call lower-case friends, I need personal accountability, I need people willing to really look at what we need to do to be responsive to God’s call. Some day maybe there will be an established local meeting somewhere where I can find all of that. Until then we need to build up our networks.

Like a lot of my big idea vision essays, I see this one doesn’t talk much about God. Let me stress that coming under His direction is what this is all about. Meetings don’t exist for us. They faciliate our work in becoming a people of God. Most of the inward-focused work that make up most of Quaker work is self-defeating. Jesus didn’t do much work in the temple and didn’t spend much time at the rabbi conventions. He was out on the street, hanging out with the “bad” elements, sharing the good news one person at a time. We have to find ways to support one another in a new wave of grounded evangelism. Let’s see where we can all get in the next five years!

  • http://jeremiah-fireinthebones.blogspot.com/ Jeremiah

    Good post Martin, and good new serious ‘Public Friend’ look to your blog.

    I agree entirely with you and Micah about the UK Quaker week outreach website. I’ve listened to the first six talking heads so far; no one has mentioned Jesus/Christ and the references to the Christian church are overwhelmingly negative. The presentation is good, and Quaker Quest does seem to be attracting new people to Quakers in Britain if my local meeting is anything to go by. But the ‘sales pitch’ is overwhelmingly post-Christian, post-faith as you put it, so insofar as it succeeds it’s likely to push British Quakers even further down this road than they’ve travelled already.

    Post-Christian Quakerism clearly speaks to the condition of many seekers, and if we judge it by its fruits it has much that’s good in it. Through my involvement over the years in the peace movement, the green movement and in organisations offering sanctuary and support to refugees and migrants I’ve met a disproportionate number of Quakers among their most committed and compassionate supporters.

    But it doesn’t convince a pessimistic MacIntyrean post-liberal like me and l feel like I’m swimming against the Quaker tide. I think a post-liberal, Convergent conversation may just be starting among British Quaker bloggers, and I’m keen to nurture it. But a conversation isn’t a community.

    Your to-do list looks excellent – I’ll see what I can do in ‘Convergent October’. I’m looking forward to ditching my pseudonym and going public, but that’ll have to wait until I’ve sorted out my family’s immigration problems…

    • http://gatheringinlight.com Wess

      Here’s more info on Convergent October — http://snurl.com/3qe04 [convergentfriends_org]

  • http://gatheringinlight.com Wess

    Martin, thanks for continuing to press this and giving some direction to what needs to be done. I can’t believe it was only 3 years ago that I first sent you that email looking for feedback on the article that later became the Quaker Life piece on Convergent Friends. It seems like so long ago! From where I sit, I do feel like we’ve made some progress, and we’re moving forward. There is so much to be done, but I think together God will continue to use us to help not only the Friends but also the World.

    This also reminds me to post the convergent october info – thanks.

  • Laura

    Thanks for the renovation, both in format and focus.

    In Christian Friendship,

    Laura

  • http://onequakertake.blogspot.com Timothy Travis

    I have been watching from the edge of all this and have some sympathy for your “agenda” although I do see your movement as one of reaction rather than renewal.

    I am as sure of the truth of the Society suffering from Friends’ lack of commitment to the transformation of themselves, their meetings and their world as I am about the falseness of renewal through oversight and (external) discipline as ends (remember, there are no means). My study tells me that’s how we got the fractured Society that we have today, with the separate domains whose witness has become a whisper.

    I appreciate your call to step outside the current domains, but for what? To set up another? If that is not where you want to be in five years then you are not expressing yourself very clearly. Perhaps I have a log in my ear that causes me to hear much I appreciate from within your movement and yet much that causes me to wonder how, in Gamaliel’s scheme, it will come out.

    A radical inclusiveness of the kind that I find expressed in early Friends literature–the kind that Joel and Hannah Bean looked back on–abides in patient humility with that which contends with it. Expressions like “screw them” doesn’t seem consistent with such a faith and practice and that makes it harder for me, as I say, to hear. Perhaps the spirit underlying such a response makes it more difficult for others to hear, as well. Or perhaps you’re not on the right side of Gamaliel’s dichotomy. I don’t know. In the course of time it will be known.

    The inclusiveness of which I speak does not see or seek a day in which everyone says the name Jesus/Christ, but, rather, one in which I can say that name as the ground of my faith and the “post Christians” and those otherwise grounded will be accepting of that. The day I see and seek is one in which all the names of God will be included as elaboration on the Light which is, as you know, what Fox, Penn, Woolman and others experienced–the “movement” that, heeded and obeyed, conformed people to it regardless of what forms or theology they claimed.

    Right now in the part of the Society in which I find myself planted–never intended to become a domain but rapidly approaching that condition–people do say negative things about Christians–going so far as to rename us, to give us a cute (perhaps less threatening?) pet name–Christo-centric.

    No, of course that’s not right. It’s a name imposed on us (sometimes from within our own number and perhaps even starting there) to remind us that we are not the only geese on the lawn.

    The negative comments about the Christian church will stop, I think, at some point after those of us who are Christians stop making negative–or at best conditional or qualified or oh, so tolerant positive–remarks about other people’s spirituality. We may accept the reality of other geese but we are making the biggest mess on the lawn. We bring on the reaction we find so painful.

    “How does it feel?” goes the old song.

    As you look outward–while not advising folks to leave their meetings (yet?)–I entreat you to look inward; both at the husk you apparently consider your meeting to be and at yourself. When asked why he did not leave his yearly meeting after it was converted from his beloved Orthodox faith and practice to that of American Protestantism, Joel Bean responded:

    “I was directed to His own perfect example. He never separated Himself from His people in all their opposition and enmity toward Him. He did not disown the Church of His Birthright, though it disowned Him.” (letter to R. H. Thomas, 2nd Month 8, 1899)

    Godspeed, Martin.

    Don’t let it wear you down. God has great work for you to do.

    • http://www.martinkelley.com/ Martin Kelley

      @Timothy: my “agenda,” as you so politely put it, is to share the good news of Christ’s presence and love and guidance, and to share hundreds of years of Quaker/Christian know-how of how to hear and act on it. Everything else is distraction.

    • http://gatheringinlight.com Wess

      I agree with you that we may be guilty as Christians, but I think it has more to do with unfaithfulness and not putting forth a “Quakerism worth believing in.” I think this is largely due to our own compromises and inability to read “the signs of the times.”

      Otherwise, I fail to understand why reaction and renewal need to be separate things. In fact, I’d argue one without the other is misguided.

  • http://onequakertake.blogspot.com timothy travis

    Martin

    May I please write to you off line?

    Please send me an e mail.

    Thanks

    Timothy

  • maurine pyle

    I have been reading your blog for a few months now, Martin, and have found so much wisdom there, even for an old grey-haired Quaker like me. I share your understanding of what I have called “the other Quaker silence.” By that I mean an emptyness of faith and purpose which is eroding our meetings. What can fill the open space? I find myself returning to read Matthew Arnold’s famous poem “Dover Beach” which references receding faith. He writes,
    THE SEA OF FAITH
    WAS ONCE, TOO, AT THE FULL, AND ROUND EARTH’S SHORE
    BUT NOW I ONLY HEAR
    ITS MELANCHOLY, LONG, WITHDRAWING ROAR….

    We are called to renew our roots as Christians and as Quakers. An Adult Young Friend at FWCC recently asked me what would bring us Friends back together? My reply was, “Christ called us together in the beginning, and Christ will call us back together.”

    Keep up the good fight, Martin. I pray for you and other Friends to come together in Love.

  • http://www.friendlycirclecincinnati.blogspot.com/ Mary Kay Rehard

    The Convergent October info is now posted on “Friendly Circle – Cincinnati,” a cyber space designed for inter-meeting sharing, and linked to the news & events blog for the Greater Cincinnati area, http://www.quakersincincinnati.blogspot.com/, neither of which are “approved” by any single meeting… Finding our way, or trying to, by hosting midweek worship and circulating among the three meetings here! Cheers, Mary Kay Rehard