Emergent Church Movement: The Younger Evangelicals and Quaker Renewal

A look at the generational shifts facing Friends.

I’m currently reading Robert E. Webber’s The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World, which examines the cultural and generational shifts happening within the Christian Evangelical movement. At the bottom of this page is a handy chart that outlines the generational differences in theology, ecclesiastical paradigm, church polity that he sees. When I first saw it I said “yes!” to almost each category, as it clearly hits at the generational forces hitting Quakerism.

Unfortunately many Friends in leadership positions don’t really understand the problems facing Quakerism. Or: they do, but they don’t understand the larger shifts behind them and think that they just need to redouble their efforts using the old methods and models. The Baby Boom generation in charge knows the challenge is to reach out to seekers in their twenties or thirties, but they do this by developing programs that would have appealed to them when they were that age. The current crop of outreach projects and peace initiatives are all very 1980 in style. There’s no recognition that the secular peace community that drew seekers in twenty years ago no longer exists and that today’s seekers are looking for something deeper, something more personal and more real.

When younger Friends are included in the surveys and committees, they tend to be either the uninvolved children of important Baby Boom generation Quakers, or those thirty-something Friends that culturally and philosophically fit into the older paradigms. It’s fine that these two types of Friends are around, but neither group challenges Baby Boomer group-think. Outspoken younger Friends often end up leaving the Society in frustration after a few years.

It’s a shame. In my ten years attending a downtown Philadelphia Friends meeting, I easily met a hundred young seekers. They mostly cycled through, attending for periods ranging from a few months to a few years. I would often ask them why they stopped coming. Sometimes they were just nice and said life was too busy, but of course that’s not a real answer: you make time for the things that are important and that feed you in some way. But others told me they found the meeting unwelcoming, or Friends too self-congratulatory or superficial, the community more social than spiritual. I went back to this meeting one First Day after a two year absence and it was depressing how it was all the same faces. This is not a knock on this particular meeting, since the same dynamics are at work in most of the liberal-leaning meetings I’ve attended, both in the FGC and FUM worlds–it’s a generational cultural phenomenon. I have never found the young Quaker seeker community I know is out there, though I’ve glimpsed its individual faces a hundred times: always just out of reach, never gelling into a movement.

I’m not sure what the answers are. Luckily it’s not my job to have answers: I leave that up to Christ and only concern myself with being as faithful a servant to the Spirit as I can be (this spirit-led leadership style is exactly one of the generational shifts Webber talks about). I’ve been given a clear message that my job is to stay with the Society of Friends, that I might be of use someday. But there are a few pieces that I think will come out:

A re-examination of our roots, as Christians and as Friends

What babies were thrown out with the bathwater by turn-of-the-century Friends who embraced modernism and rationalism and turned their back on traditional testimonies? This will require challenging some of the sacred myths of contemporary Quakerism. There are a lot that aren’t particularly Quaker and we need to start admitting to that. I’ve personally taken up plain dress and find the old statements on the peace testimony much deeper and more meaningful than contemporary ones. I’m a professional webmaster and run a prominent pacifist site, so it’s not like I’m stuck in the nineteenth century; instead, I just think these old testimonies actually speak to our condition in the twenty-first Century.

A Desire to Grow

Too many Friends are happy with their nice cozy meetings. The meetings serve as family and as a support group, and a real growth would disrupt our established patterns. If Quakerism grew tenfold over the next twenty years we’d have to build meetinghouses, have extra worship, reorganize our committees. Involved Friends wouldn’t know all the other involved Friends in their yearly meeting. With more members we’d have to become more rigorous and disciplined in our committee meetings. Quakerism would feel different if it were ten times larger: how many of us would just feel uncomfortable with that. Many of our Meetings are ripe for growth, being in booming suburbs or thriving urban centers, but year after year they stay small. Many simply neglect and screw up outreach or religious education efforts as a way of keeping the meeting at its current size and with its current character.

A more personally-involved, time-consuming commitment

Religion in America has become yet another consumer choice, an entertainment option for Sunday morning, and this paradigm is true with Friends. We complain how much time our Quaker work takes up. We complain about clearness committees or visioning groups that might take up a Saturday afternoon. A more involved Quakerism would realize that the hour on First Day morning is in many ways the least important time to our Society. Younger seekers are looking for connections that are deeper and that will require time. We can’t build a Society on the cheap. It’s not money we need to invest, but our hearts and time.

I recently visited a Meeting that was setting up its first adult religious education program. When it came time to figure out the format, a weighty Friend declared that it couldn’t take place on the first Sunday of the month because that was when the finance committee met; the second Sunday was out because of the membership care committee; the third was out because of business meeting and so forth. It turned out that religious education could be squeezed into one 45-minute slot on the fourth Sunday of every month. Here was a small struggling meeting in the middle of an sympathetic urban neighborhood and they couldn’t spare even an hour a month on religious education or substantive outreach to new members. Modern Friends should not exist to meet in committees.

A renewal of discipline and oversight

These are taboo words for many modern Friends. But we’ve taken open-hearted tolerance so far that we’ve forgotten who we are. What does it mean to be a Quaker? Seekers are looking for answers. Friends have been able to provide them with answers in the past: both ways to conduct oneself in the world and ways to reach the divine. Many of us actually yearn for more care, attention and oversight in our religious lives and more connection with others.

A confrontation of our ethnic and cultural bigotries

Too much of Quaker culture is still rooted in elitist wealthy Philadelphia Main Line “Wasp” culture. For generations of Friends, the Society became an ethnic group you were born into. Too many Friends still care if your name is “Roberts,” “Jones,” “Lippencott,” “Thomas,” “Brinton.” A number of nineteenth-century Quaker leaders tried to make this a religion of family fiefdoms. There was a love of the world and an urge for to be respected by the outside world (the Episcopalians wouldn’t let you into the country clubs if you wore plain dress or got too excited about religion).

Today we too often confuse the culture of those families with Quakerism. The most obvious example to me is the oft-repeated phrase: “Friends don’t believe in proselytizing.” Wrong: we started off as great speakers of the Truth, gaining numbers in great quantities. It was the old Quaker families who started fretting about new blood in the Society, for they saw birthright membership as more important than baptism by the Holy Spirit. We’ve got a lot of baggage left over from this era, things we need to re-examine, including: our willingness to sacrifice Truth-telling in the name of politeness; an over-developed intellectualism that has become snobbery against those without advanced schooling; our taboo about being too loud or too “ethnic” in Meeting.

Note that I haven’t specifically mentioned racial diversity. This is a piece of the work we need to do and I’m happy that many Friends are working on it. But I think we’ll all agree that it will take more than a few African Americans with graduate degrees to bring true diversity. The Liberal branch of Friends spends a lot of time congratulating itself on being open, tolerant and self-examining and yet as far as I can tell we’re the least ethnically-diverse branch of American Quakers (I’m pretty sure, anyone with corroboration?). We need to re-examine and challenge the unwritten norms of Quaker culture that don’t arise from faith. When we have something to offer besides upper-class liberalism, we’ll find we can talk to a much wider selection of seekers.

Can we do it?

Can we do these re-examinations without ripping our Society apart? I don’t know. I don’t think the age of Quaker schisms is over, I just think we have a different discipline and church polity that let us pretend the splits aren’t there. We just self-select ourselves into different sub-groups. I’m not sure if this can continue indefinitely. Every week our Meetings for Worship bring together people of radically different beliefs and non-beliefs. Instead of worship, we have individual meditation in a group setting, where everyone is free to believe what they want to believe. This isn’t Friends’ style and it’s not satisfying to many of us. I know this statement may seem like sacrilege to many Friends who value tolerance above all. But I don’t think I’m the only one who would rather worship God than Silence, who longs for a deeper religious fellowship than that found in most contemporary Meetings. Quakerism will change and Modernism isn’t the end of history.

How open will we all be to this process? How honest will we get? Where will our Society end up? We’re not the only religion in America that is facing these questions.

Traditional
Evangelicals

1950-1975

Pragmatic
Evangelicals

1975-2000

Younger
Evangelicals

2000-

Theological
Commitment

Christianity
as a rational worldview

Christianity
as therapy Answers needs

Christianity
as a community of faith.
Ancient/Reformation

Apologetics
Style

Evidential
Foundational

Christianity
as meaning-giver
Experiential
Personal Faith

Embrace
the metanarrative
Embodied apologetic
Communal faith

Ecclesial
Paradigm

Constantinian
Church
Civil Religion

Culturally
sensitive church
Market Driven

Missional
Church
Counter cultural

Church
Style

Neighbourhood
churches
Rural

Megachuruch
Suburban
Market targeted

Small
Church
Back to cities
Intercultural

Leadership
Style

Pastor
centred

Managerial
Model
CEO

Team
ministry
Priesthood of all

Youth
Ministry

Church-centred
programs

Outreach
Programs
Weekend fun retreats

Prayer,
Bible Study, Worship, Social Action

Education

Sunday
School
Information centred

Target
generational groups and needs

Intergenerational
formation in community

Spirituality

Keep
the rules

Prosperity
and success

Authentic
embodiment

Worship

Traditional

Contemporary

Convergence

Art

Restrained

Art
as illustration

Incarnational
embodiment

Evangelism

Mass
evangelism

Seeker
Service

Process
evangelism

Activists

Beginnings
of evangelical social action

Need-driving
social action (divorce groups, drug rehab

Rebuild
cities and neighborhoods

See also:

On Quaker Ranter:

  • It Will Be There in Decline Our Entire Lives. There’s a generation of young Christians disillusioned by modern church institutionalism who are writing and blogging under the “post-modern” “emergent church” labels. Do Friends have anything to offer these wearied seekers except more of the same hashed out institutionalism?
  • Post-Liberals & Post-Evangelicals?, my observations from the November 2003 “Indie Allies” meet-up.
  • Sodium Free Friends, a post of mine urging Friends to actively engage with our tradition and not just selectively edit out a few words which makes Fox sound like a seventeen century Thich Nhat Hanh. “We poor humans are looking for ways to transcend the crappiness of our war- and consumer-obsessed world and Quakerism has something to say about that.”
  • Peace and Twenty-Somethings: are the Emergent Church seekers creating the kinds of youth-led intentional communities that the peace movement inspired in the 1970s?

Elsewhere:

  • From Evangelical Friends Church Southwest comes an emergent church” church planting project called >Simple Churches (since laid down, link is to archive). I love their intro: “As your peruse the links from this site please recognize that the Truth reflected in essays are often written with a ‘prophetic edge’, that is sharp, non compromising and sometimes radical perspective. We believe Truth can be received without ‘cursing the darkness’ and encourage you to reflect upon finding the ‘candle’ to light, personally, as you apply what you hear the Lord speaking to you.”
  • The emergent church movement hit the New York Times in February 2004. Here’s a link to the article and my thoughts about it.
  • “Orthodox Twenty-Somethings,” a great article from TheOoze (now lost to a site redesign of theirs), and my intro to the article Want to understand us?
  • The blogger Punkmonkey talks about what a missional community of faith would look like and it sounds a lot like what I dream of: “a missional community of faith is a living breathing transparent community of faith willing to get messy while reach out to, and bringing in, those outside the current community.”
  • I looked at the chart. WOW. I didn’t know I could res­onate so much with a move­ment in the church until now. As a friends pas­tor, I have iso­lat­ed in my desire to bring life to old school Quak­erism (paci­fism, social action, the inner light of Christ, etc.). I’m encour­aged.

  • Hi Kev­in,
    I’m just sit­ting here with some goose­bumps. Did you read my piece on “post-liberals and post-evangelicals”:/martink/postliberals_postevangelicals.php? Here I am, a Philadel­phia Quak­er about to co-lead a Chris­tian­i­ty work­shop (“Strangers to the Covenant”:http://​www​.non​vi​o​lence​.org/​q​u​a​k​e​r​/​s​t​r​a​n​g​e​rs/) for high school­ers and young adults at the Friends Gen­er­al Con­fer­ence Gath­er­ing, head­quar­ters of flaky lib­er­al Quak­erism. And here you are teach­ing young adults ‘old school Quak­erism’ at First Friends Can­ton? And yet it sound­ing like may­be we’re not so far apart? Encour­aged? Oh yea! I’m not sure where this old tired reli­gion is going but there’s a lot of us ask­ing a lot of good ques­tions. Christ may not be through with us yet!
    Hey, do you know C Wess Daniels of “Gath­er­ing in Light”:http://​gath​eringin​light​.blogspot​.com blog, he’s a fel­low Ohio EFI’er now at Fuller, doing a lot of inter­est­ing stuff mix­ing up old school Quak­erism with Emer­gent Church the­ol­o­gy. And to com­plete the cir­cle, he blogged recent­ly about “meet­ing Zac Moon”:http://​gath​eringin​light​.blogspot​.com/​2​0​0​5​/​0​6​/​s​o​m​e​-​q​u​a​k​e​r​-​t​h​o​u​g​h​t​s​.​h​tml, my co-leader for the Strangers work­shop.

  • Robin M.

    Hey Mar­t­in,
    I want to say thank you for your amaz­ing set of links. Com­ments like the above, along with the new column on the Ranter home page, con­tin­ue to amaze and enlight­en me. Here I am slog­ging away in my own lit­tle Meet­ing, with lit­tle glimpses here and there of what “this old tired reli­gion” could real­ly be and then you come along and broad­en my hori­zons. What’s a girl to do? Some­times I feel like I will nev­er be able to keep up with the gale force winds of the Spir­it and the great peo­ple to be gath­ered and some­times I feel just clear enough to keep my eyes on the prize and hold on. Just to mix a few metaphors.
    Any­way, keep up the good work.

  • I’m just an atten­der with an eclec­tic back­ground. I came to Friends because I believe Jesus was a mor­tal man, still son of God and Mes­si­ah. I think the the­ol­o­gy aris­ing from this pre-Nicene doc­trine holds the key to peace in Palestine, and there­fore in this series of US wars. But no one will lis­ten. Got any ideas?

  • I am the Gen­er­al Super­in­ten­dent of Iowa Year­ly Meet­ing. This web­site just land­ed on my com­put­er today, the day before my annu­al address for the Year­ly Meet­ing ses­sion. I don’t believe it was an acci­dent. Much of the words, phras­es and ideas speak to the frus­tra­tions that I sense and see in our Friends Church­es. I just returned from four inten­sive days at FUM Gen­er­al Board Meet­ings. We did not seem to reach any help­ful con­clu­sions and we remain divid­ed on cer­tain issues with FGC/FUM dual­ly affil­i­at­ed Year­ly Meet­ings. While we debate, argue, cry and attempt to coerce, the young peo­ple move on and out. It is phe­nom­e­non­a­ly drain­ing, spir­i­tu­al­ly, physcial­ly and emo­tion­al­ly. Feed me some more info, I am obvi­ous­ly need­ing to tap into a new source of infor­ma­tion.

  • Hi Ron: the most star­tling obser­va­tion in all of this blog­ging has been just how unex­pect­ed­ly sim­i­lar many of the­se issues are across the Quak­er bound­aries. Here I am, an East Coast lib­er­al Quak­er (even if not exact­ly a main­stream one) talk­ing about the issues I’m see­ing and you’re read­ing it as an super­in­ten­dent of Mid­west­ern Friends Church­es and think­ing it sounds famil­iar. This irony is part of the rea­son some of us have been band­ing togeth­er under the “Con­ver­gent Friends” label. This four-year-old essay can be seen as an ear­ly post in that move­ment. My lat­est thoughts “are here”:http://​www​.quak​er​ran​ter​.org/​c​o​n​v​e​r​g​e​n​t​_​f​r​i​e​n​d​s​_​a​_​l​o​n​g​_​d​e​f​i​n​i​t​i​o​n​.​php
    Check out “ConvergentFriends.org”:www.convergentfriends.org (from a EFI sem­i­nary stu­dent) and col­lect­ed “Con­ver­gent post”:http://​quak​erquak​er​.org/​c​o​n​v​e​r​g​e​n​t​_​q​u​a​k​e​rs/ at Quak­erQuak­er for more. Also: I returned to this essay in an arti­cle in the Octo­ber 2006 issue of _Friends Journal_ focus­ing on the future of Friends. If you have a copy around you’ll see an updat­ed ver­sion of the­se ideas.
    I real­ly don’t know how to resolve the real issues involved in the dual affil­i­a­tion debate. I do know that Chris­tian love, ten­der­ness and patience need to be part of the solu­tion. The integri­ty through which we move through this thick­et is per­haps more impor­tant than the places we all end up. I had the luck to attend Great Plains Year­ly Meet­ing last year, a body that almost shouldn’t exist given it’s dif­fer­ences and found it fas­ci­nat­ing and instruc­tive to see how they held togeth­er, giv­ing and bend­ing much like a fam­i­ly, moti­vat­ed by some clear desire to move for­ward togeth­er as a body despite the per­son­al costs.
    The only oth­er thing I’d say is that I know a lot of younger Friends who are excit­ed about inter-visitation, delv­ing into Quak­er roots and seri­ous­ly engag­ing with oth­er types of Friends. Johan Mau­r­er “recent­ly likened them”:http://​johan​pdx​.blogspot​.com/​2​0​0​7​/​0​7​/​f​u​m​-​r​e​t​r​e​a​t​-​w​h​a​t​-​d​i​d​-​w​e​-​a​c​c​o​m​p​l​i​s​h​.​h​tml (us) to scuba divers pass­ing qui­et­ly under­neath the estab­lish­ment struc­tures. While gen­er­al board meet­ings fuss and fight the old bat­tles over turf, the more inter­est­ing sto­ry is play­ing out over din­ner tables, blogs and vis­its. Some of the young Friends have moved out and are gone for good (I’ve called it “the Lost Quak­er Gen­er­a­tion”:http://​www​.quak​er​ran​ter​.org/​t​h​e​_​l​o​s​t​_​q​u​a​k​e​r​_​g​e​n​e​r​a​t​i​o​n​.​php) but oth­ers are there, keep­ing in touch, wait­ing and watch­ing.
    Thanks for post­ing here, Ron. I’ve been hap­py and grate­ful to see you engag­ing with blogs.
    Your Friend, Mar­t­in

  • maita jones

    Hi Mar­t­in,
    Thanks for such a can­did assess­ment of the Friends​.My hus­band & I are very new to Quakerism.We both have been on staff at evang/charismatic church for 5 years and Chris­tians for years, and it seems the Lord has turned us into Quak­ers :)We live in South­ern CA,so we have had no expo­sure to Quak­ers at all or their beliefs (truly,the oat­meal box is about it.) We recent­ly read a book by Frank Vio­la called “Reimag­in­ing Church” we loved it & my hus­band said “wait a second,this sounds like way the Quak­ers have been doing church for years!” We then have been hunger­ly eat­ing up any­thing we can find on the Friends.I found the Con­ser­v­a­tive Quak­ers & what the Lord has shown us com­plete­ly lines up in every way (Dis­aplines etc.)Which made us cry with joy to find like-minded folks out there.We have been hav­ing a group of 30 some­things and their kids for the last year in people’s hous­es. My hus­band Joel has a huge pas­sion for street evan­ge­lism & has been lead­ing a home­less out​reach​.To us,Quakerism has it all,intimacy with Jesus,community,amazing works,beautiful his­to­ry etc. & we want to share it! Peo­ple in SoCal would be so open to it,if they just knew about it.Problem is,there are no Con­ser­v­a­tive Quak­ers any­where near us.There’s a big Evan­gel­i­cal Quak­er church about 25 miles away,but we are con­vinced that evangelical/pastoral Quak­erism is not us-we are com­ing out of that (the pas­toral part for sure)How does one (or two)become a Quaker?We feel we ARE Quakers,but we haven’t gone to a meeting.I’ve tried con­tact­ing the Ohio Year­ly Meet­ing but I haven’t heard any­thing back.We don’t want to be “rebels” and buck the way things are done by Quakers,but my sense is to be a part of it we may get bogged down by some of the stuff you wrote about.Our expe­ri­ences in our church have def­i­nite­ly drilled those points home.We could be folks who “scuba-dive” under­neath all of that stuff,but we would like to be affil­i­at­ed somehow.Sorry this is such a crazy-long email! You just seem like some­one who can help us in some way.We feel such a fire for what God wants to do here we don’t want to get dis­cour­aged by folks that would think we were out there 🙂 Thanks so much for lis­ten­ing & for shar­ing what you see.
    Maita & Joel Jones (& our 4 kid­dos)

  • James Bor­ton

    I am the last of an unbro­ken line of Quak­ers in Amer­i­ca that goes back 350 years. My direct ances­tors migrat­ed West from New Jer­sey with the open­ing of the “wilder­ness” of North East Ohio. My ances­tors remained fol­low­ers of the Quak­er Faith, but the Faith evolved dur­ing the rise of Mid-West Evan­gel­i­cals. My Father grad­u­at­ed from Cleve­land Bible Col­lege and spent his life as an Evan­gel­i­cal Pas­tor with var­i­ous Friends church­es in Ohio and Michi­gan.
    In spite of this back­ground, I grew up hav­ing very lit­tle aware­ness of the roots of that faith. I saw very lit­tle dif­fer­ence between our Church and oth­er Evan­gel­i­cal denom­i­na­tions and I grew to iden­ti­fy God as a very crit­i­cal Father who hand­ed out sev­ere pun­ish­ment but lacked an inter­est in nur­tur­ing such an imper­fect soul such as I. Along with many oth­er young peo­ple in the 60’s, I left home to attend Col­lege and among oth­er things, I left God back at home. I went through the phas­es that many Baby Boomer’s were expe­ri­enc­ing; try­ing to “find myself”, look­ing for answers in New Age Reli­gions and feel­ing spir­i­tu­al­ly lost.
    In the 80’s I began to research the his­to­ry of my Fam­i­ly and as a result I became exposed to the ear­ly teach­ings that my Ances­tors brought with them from Eng­land. I came across Quak­er writ­ings, such as the jour­nal of John Wool­man, a dis­tant rel­a­tive, and I was thrilled and amazed at his moral strength and com­mit­ment to fol­low­ing the “inner light” with such con­sis­ten­cy through­out his life. Even in those very ear­ly days of our Nation, they had a deep under­stand­ing of social and moral prin­ci­ples that are still out of reach of most of Amer­i­ca.
    I have tried grasp a vision of a mod­ern move­ment that would reflect the faith of the ear­ly Quak­ers, so I appre­ci­ate the chal­lenges that your express relat­ing to heal­ing the var­i­ous schisms and achiev­ing this goal. It is encour­ag­ing that oth­ers are out there hav­ing the­se same thoughts and desires to build a lega­cy of Quak­er ide­als.

  • Ken­neth G. Horne

    Would Jesus Christ or George Fox be wel­come in your Meet­ing for Wor­ship?

    • Jesus makes week­ly vis­its. Some­times we may not notice him. He may be there in the back. We might be too busy recap­ping the morning’s NPR com­men­tary or get­ting lost in the weeds pars­ing out ancient Ara­maic gram­mar that we think is sup­posed to mean some­thing. But he’s there. Some­times he spends the whole hour qui­et­ly hold­ing one of our griev­ing mem­bers. Some­times he taps us on the shoul­der to notice the sun­light on one another’s faces. And some­times he push­es one of us out of our seats to stand up and min­is­ter the good news in his name. It’s all good. 

      George Fox? Would he real­ly be wel­come any­where? He was a rab­ble rouser. His job was to make us uncom­fort­able, to get us out of our lan­guor and point to the pres­ence, right here right now, of that one that can speak to our con­di­tion. I don’t think he would ever be sat­is­fied and for good rea­son. I’d love to see him stride in wear­ing his leather breech­es but it would be pan­de­mo­ni­um!