This weekend was the long-prepared New Monastics and Convergent Friends weekend at Pendle Hill, co-led by myself and Wess Daniels, with very helpful eldership from Ashley W. As I posted afterwards on Facebook, “I feel we served the Lord faithfully, navigating the hopes and fears of the members of the church who gathered into this short-lived community. Not the conversation we expected, but the conversation we were given, which is enough (always) and for which we feel gratitude.”
This week I received an email from a young seeker in the Philadelphia area who found my 2005 article “Witness of Our Lost Twenty-Somethings” published in FGConnections. She’s a former youth ministries leader from a Pentecostal tradition, strongly attracted to Friends beliefs but not quite fitting in with the local meetings she’s been trying. Somewhere she found my article and asks if I have any insights.
The 2005 article was largely pessimistic, focused on the “committed, interesting and bold twenty-something Friends
I knew ten years ago” who had left Friends and blaming “an institutional Quakerism that neglected them and
its own future” but my hope paragraph was optimistic:
There is hope… A great people might possibly be gathered from
the emergent church movement and the internet is full of amazing conversations
from new Friends and seekers. There are pockets in our branch of Quakerism
where older Friends have continued to mentor and encourage meaningful and
integrated youth leadership, and some of my peers have hung on with me. Most
hopefully, there’s a whole new generation of twenty- something Friends
on the scene with strong gifts that could be nurtured and harnessed.
Hard to imagine that only three years ago I was an isolated FGC staffer left to pursue outreach and youth ministry work on my own time by an institution indifferent to either pursuit. Both functions have become major staff programs, but I’m no longer involved, which is probably just as well, as neither program has decided to focus on the kind of work I had hoped it might. The more things change the more they stay the same, right? The most interesting work is still largely invisible.
Some of this work has been taken up by the new bloggers and by some sort of alt-network that seems to be congealing around all the blogs, Twitter networks, Facebook friendships, intervisitations and IM chats. Many of us associated with QuakerQuaker.org have some sort of regular correspondence or participation with the Emerging Church movement, we regularly highlight “amazing conversations” from new Friends and seekers and there’s a lot of inter-generational work going on. We’ve got a name for it in Convergent Friends, which reflects in part that “we” aren’t just the liberal Friends I imagined in 2005, but a wide swath of Friends from all the Quaker flavors.
But we end up with a problem that’s become the central one for me and a lot of others: what can we tell a new seeker who should be able to find a home in real-world Friends but doesn’t fit? I could point this week’s correspondent to meetings and churches hundreds of miles from her house, or encourage her to start a blog, or compile a list of workshops or gatherings she might attend. But none of these are really satisfactory answers.
Gathering in Light Wess sent an email around last night about a book review done by his PhD advisor Ryan Bolger that talks about tribe-style leadership and a new kind of church identity that uses the instant communication tools of the internet to forge a community that’s not necessarily limited to locality. Bolger’s and his research partner report that they see “emerging initiatives within traditional churches as the next
horizon for the spread of emerging church practices in the United States.” More links from Wess’ article on emerging churches and denominations.
A few weeks ago a newsletter brought written reports about the latest round of conflict at a local meeting that’s been fighting for the past 180 years or so. As my wife and I read through it we were a bit underwhelmed by the accounts of the newest conflict resolution attempts. The mediators seemed more worried about alienating a few long-term disruptive characters than about preserving the spiritual vitality of the meeting. It’s a phenomena I’ve seen in a lot of Quaker meetings.
Call it the FDR Principle after Franklin D Roosevelt, who supposedly defended his support of one of Nicaragua’s most brutal dictators by saying “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Even casual historians of Latin American history will know this only led to fifty years of wars with reverberations across the world with the Iran/Contra scandal. The FDR Principle didn’t make for good U.S. foreign policy and, if I may, I’d suggest it doesn’t make for good Quaker policy either. Any discussion board moderator or popular blogger knows that to keep an online discussion’s integrity you need to know when to cut a disruptive trouble-maker off – politely and succintly, but also firmly. If you don’t, the people there to actually discuss your issues – the people you want – will leave.
I didn’t know how to talk about this until a post called Conflict in Meeting came through Livejournal this past First Day. The poster, jandrewm, wrote in part:
Yet my recognition of all that doesn’t negate the painful feelings that arise when hostility enters the meeting room, when long-held grudges boil over and harsh words are spoken. After a few months of regular attendance at my meeting, I came close to abandoning this “experiment” with Quakerism because some Friends were so consistently rancorous, divisive, disruptive. I had to ask myself: “Do I need this negativity in my life right now?”
I commented about the need to take the testimonies seriously:
I’ve been in that situation. A lot of Friends aren’t very good at putting their foot down on flagrantly disruptive behavior. I wish I could buy the “it eventually sorts out” argument but it often doesn’t. I’ve seen meetings where all the sane people are driven out, leaving the disruptive folks and armchair therapists. It’s a symbiotic relationship, perhaps, but doesn’t make for a healthy spiritual community.
The unpopular solution is for us to take our testimonies seriously. And I mean those more specific testimonies buried deep in copies in Faith & Practice that act as a kind of collective wisdom for Quaker community life. Testimonies against detraction and for rightly ordered decision making, etc. If someone’s actions tear apart the meeting they should be counseled; if they continue to disrupt then their decision-making input should be disregarded. This is the real effect of the old much-maligned Quaker process of disowning (which allowed continued attendance at worship and life in the community but stopped business participation). Limiting input like this makes sense to me.
The trouble that if your meeting is in this kind of spiral there might not be much you can do by yourself. People take some sort of weird comfort in these predictable fights and if you start talking testimonies you might become very unpopular very quickly. Participating in the bickering isn’t helpful (of course) and just eats away your own self. Distancing yourself for a time might be helpful. Getting involved in other Quaker venues. It’s a shame. Monthly meeting is supposed to be the center of our Quaker spiritual life. But sometimes it can’t be. I try to draw lessons from these circumstances. I certainly understand the value and need for the Quaker testimonies better simply because I’ve seen the problems meetings face when they haven’t. But that doesn’t make it any easier for you.
But all of this begs an awkward question: are we really building Christ’s kingdom by dropping out? It’s an age-old tension between purity and participation at all costs. Timothy asked a similar question of me in a comment to my last post. Before we answer, we should recognize that there are indeed many people who have “abandoned” their “Quaker experiment” because we’re not living up to our own ideals.
Maybe I’m more aware of this drop-out class than others. It sometimes seems like an email correspondence with the “Quaker Ranter” has become the last step on the way out the door. But I also get messages from seekers newly convinced of Quaker principles but unable to connect locally because of the divergent practices or juvenile behavior of their local Friends meeting or church. A typical email last week asked me why the plain Quakers weren’t evangelical and why evangelical Quakers weren’t conservative and asked “Is there a place in the quakers for a Plain Dressing, Bible Thumping, Gospel Preaching, Evangelical, Conservative, Spirit Led, Charismatic family?” (Anyone want to suggest their local meeting?)
We should be more worried about the people of integrity we’re losing than about the grumpy trouble-makers embedded in some of our meetings. If someone is consistently disruptive, is clearly breaking specific Quaker testimonies we’ve lumped under community and intergrity, and stubbornly immune to any council then read them out of business meeting. If the people you want in your meeting are leaving because of the people you really don’t want, then it’s time to do something. Our Quaker toolbox provides us tool for that action – ways to define, name and address the issues. Our tradition gives us access to hundreds of years of experience, both mistakes and successes, and can be a more useful guide than contemporary pop psychology or plain old head-burying.
Not all meetings have these problems. But enough do that we’re losing people. And the dynamics get more acute when there’s a visionary project on the table and/or someone younger is at the center of them. While our meetings sort out their issues, the internet is providing one type of support lifeline.
Blogger jandrewm was able to seek advice and consolation on Livejournal. Some of the folks I spoke about in the 2003 “Lost Quaker Generation” series of posts are now lurking away on my Facebook friends list. Maybe we can stop the full departure of some of these Friends. They can drop back but still be involved, still engaging their local meeting. They can be reading and discussing testimonies (“detraction” is a wonderful place to start) so they can spot and explain behavior. We can use the web to coördinate workshops, online discussions, local meet-ups, new workship groups, etc., but even email from a Friend thousands of miles away can help give us clarity and strength.
I think (I hope) we’re helping to forge a group of Friends with a clear understanding of the work to be done and the techniques of Quaker discernment. It’s no wonder that Quaker bodies sometimes fail to live up to their ideals: the journals of olde tyme Quaker ministers are full of disappointing stories and Christian tradition is rich with tales of the roadblocks the Tempter puts up in our path. How can we learn to center in the Lord when our meetings become too political or disfunctional (I think I should start looking harder at Anabaptist non-resistance theory). This is the work, Friends, and it’s always been the work. Through whatever comes we need to trust that any testing and heartbreak has a purpose, that the Lord is using us through all, and that any suffering will be productive to His purpose if we can keep low and listening for follow-up instructions.
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.”
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 occasional 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!
Over on Friends Journal site, some recent stats on Friends mostly in the US and Canada. Written by Margaret Fraser, the head of FWCC, a group that tries to unite the different bodies of Friends, it’s a bit of cold water for most of us. Official numbers are down in most places despite whatever official optimism might exist. Favorite line: “Perhaps those who leave are noticed less.” I’m sure P.R. hacks in various Quaker organizations are burning the midnight oil writing response letters to the editor spinning the numbers to say things are looking up.
She points to a sad decline both in yearly meetings affiliated with Friends United Meeting and in those affiliated with Friends General Conference. A curiosity is that this decline is not seen in three of the four yearly meetings that are dual affiliated. These blended yearly meetings are going through various degrees of identity crisis and hand-wringing over their status and yet their own membership numbers are strong. Could it be that serious theological wrestling and complicated spiritual identities create healthier religious bodies than monocultural groupings?
The big news is in the south: “Hispanic Friends Churches” in Mexico and Central America are booming, with spillover in el Norte as workers move north to get jobs. There’s surprisingly little interaction between these newly-arrived Spanish-speaking Friends and the the old Main Line Quaker establishment (maybe not surprising really, but still sad). I’ll leave you with a challenge Margaret gives readers:
One question that often puzzles me is why so many Hispanic Friends
congregations are meeting in churches belonging to other denominations.
I would love to see established Friends meetings with their own
property sharing space with Hispanic Friends. It would be an
opportunity to share growth and challenges together.
Over on my design blog I’ve just posted an article, Banking on reputations, which looks at how the websites for high-profile cultural institutions are often built without regard to natural web publicity – there’s no focus on net culture or search engine visibility. The sites do get visited, but only because of the reputation of the institution itself. My guess is that people go to them for very specific functions (looking up a phone number, ordering tickets, etc.). I finish by asking the question, “Are the audiences of high brow institutions so full of hip young audiences that they can steer clear of web-centric marketing?”
I won’t belabor the point, but I wonder if something similar is happening within Friends. It’s kind of weird that only two people have commented on Johan Maurer’s blog post about Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s report on Friends United Meeting. Johan’s post may well be the only place where online discussion about this particular report is available. I gave a plug for it and it was the most popular link from QuakerQuaker, so I know people are seeing it. The larger issue is dealt with elsewhere (Bill Samuel has a particularly useful resource page) but Johan’s piece seems to be getting a big yawn.
It’s been superseded as the most popular QuakerQuaker link by a lighthearted call for an International Talk Like a Quaker Day put up by a Livejournal blogger. It’s fun but it’s about as serious as you might expect. It’s getting picked up on a number of blogs, has more links than Johan’s piece and at current count has thirteen commenters. I think it’s a great way to poke a little fun of ourselves and think about outreach and I’m happy to link to it but I have to think there’s a lesson in its popularity vis-a-vis Johan’s post.
Here’s the inevitable question: do most Quakers just not care about Friends United Meeting or Baltimore Yearly Meeting, about a modern day culture clash that is but a few degrees from boiling over into full-scale institutional schism? For all my bravado I’m as much an institutional Quaker as anyone else. I care about our denominational politics but do others, and do they really?
Yearly meeting sessions and more entertainment-focused Quaker gatherings are lucky if they get three to five percent attendance. The governing body of my yearly meeting is made up of about one percent of its membership; add a percent or two or three and you have how many people actually pay any kind of attention to it or to yearly meeting politics. A few years ago a Quaker publisher commissioned a prominent Friend to write an update to liberal Friends’ most widely read introductory book and she mangled the whole thing (down to a totally made-up acronym for FWCC) and no one noticed till after publication – even insiders don’t care about most of this!
Are the bulk of most contemporary Friends post-institutional? The percentage of Friends involved in the work of our religious bodies has perhaps always been small, but the divide seems more striking now that the internet is providing competition. The big Quaker institutions skate on being recognized as official bodies but if their participation rate is low, their recognition factor small, and their ability to influence the Quaker culture therefore minimal, then are they really so important? After six years of marriage I can hear my wife’s question as a Quaker-turned-Catholic: where does the religious authority of these bodies come from? As someone who sees the world through a sociological/historical perspective, my question is complementary but somewhat different: if so few people care, then is there authority? The only time I see Friends close to tears over any of this is when
a schism might mean the loss of control over a beloved school or campground – factor out
the sentimental factor and what’s left?
I don’t think a diminishing influence is a positive trend, but it won’t go away if we bury our heads in the sand (or in committees). How are today’s generation of Friends going to deal with changing cultural forces that are threatening to undermine our current practices? And how might we use the new opportunities to advance the Quaker message and Christ’s agenda?