We’re extending the deadline for the August issue on Quaker Spaces. We’ve got some really interest articles coming in – especially geeky things in architecture and the theology of our classic meetinghouses.
So far our prospective pieces are weighted toward East Coast and classic meetinghouse architecture. I’d love to see pieces on non-traditional worship spaces. I know there newly purpose-built meetinghouses, adaptations of pre-existing structures, and new takes on the Quaker impulse to not be churchy. And worship is where we’re gathered, not necessarily where we’re mortgaged: tell us about your the rented library room, the chairs set up on the beach, the room in the prison worship group…
My father-in-law died in January. These are few pictures I put together while Julie was still at the family home with the close relatives. Thanks to our friends for sharing a bit of our life by reading this one. He’s missed.
A look at Friends testimonies and the difficulties of being a fair-trade pacifist in our hyper-connected world today. I think George Fox and the early Friends were faced with similar challenges and that our guide can be the same as theirs.
A number of new services are trying to update the culture of blogging. This post looked at comments; a subsequent one considered how we might reorganize our blogs into more of a structured Wiki.
This year saw a lot of hang wringing by mainstream journalists on the anniversary of the Iraq War. I didn’t have much patience and looked at how dissenting voices were regularly locked out of debate ten years ago – and are still locked out with the talk that “all of us” were wrong then.
To translate, SEO is “search engine optimization,” the often-huckersterish art of tricking Google to display your website higher than your competitors in search results. “Usability” is the catch-all term for making your website easy to navigate and inviting to visitors. Companies with deep pockets often want to spend a lot of money on SEO, when most of the time the most viable long-term solution to ranking high with search engines is to provide visitors with good reasons to visit your site. What if we applied these principles to our churches and meetinghouses and swapped the terms?
Outreach gets people to your meetinghouse / Hospitality keeps people returning.
A lot of Quaker meetinghouses have pretty good “natural SEO.” Here in the U.S. East Coast, they’re often near a major road in the middle of town. If they’re lucky there are a few historical markers of notable Quakers and if they are really lucky there’s a highly-respected Friends school nearby. All these meetings really have to do is put a nice sign out front and table a few town events every year. The rest is covered. Although we do get the occasional “aren’t you all Amish?” comments, we have a much wider reputation that our numbers would necessarily warrant. We rank pretty high.
But what are the lessons of hospitality we could work on? Do we provide places where spiritual seekers can both grow personally and engage in the important questions of the faith in the modern world? Are we invitational, bringing people into our homes and into our lives for shared meals and conversations?
In my freelance days when I was hired to work on SEO I ran through a series of statistical reports and redesigned some underperforming pages, but then turned my attention to the client’s content. It was in this realm that my greatest quantifiable successes occurred. At the heart of the content work was asking how could the site could more fully engage with first-time visitors. The “usability considerations” on the Wikipedia page on usability could be easily adapted as queries:
Who are the users, what do they know, what can they learn? What do users want or need to do? What is the users’ general background? What is the users’ context for working? What must be left to the machine? Can users easily accomplish intended tasks at their desired speed? How much training do users need? What documentation or other supporting materials are available to help the user?
I’d love to see Friends consider this more. FGC’s “New Meetings Toolbox” has a section on welcoming newcomers. But I’d love to hear more stories about how we’re working on the “usability” of our spiritual communities.
Earlier this week I wondered if it might not be such a bad idea if some of our struggling established meetings experimented with the house church model. An commenter maps out the difficulties:
Speaking as a “meeting planter” (our small Friends meeting here was founded two years ago by me and one other Friend), I can tell you without reservation that, while we could meet in people’s homes, it would strictly limit the ability to reach out with our message and attract others to participate. You can pretty well be certain that only those who already feel comfortable with you will come back to someone’s home, which may not include the seekers who really are looking for something they can be part of.
I have seen this with other churches as well; the local UU fellowship grew from ten to 15 people in the 5 years that they met in living rooms; they grew from 30 to 60 in two years when they had their own meetinghouse.
I am trying hard to raise the money to allow us to purchase and maintain an appropriate building for a meetinghouse. Until we do, our Meeting will continue to hide its light under a bushel, despite all our efforts to the contrary. The desire to have a “home” is deep within the human heart, whether it is where we reside or where we worship.
The commenter was anonymous (update: no, he’s not, it’s Bruce Arnold of Letters from the Street) but I’d love to hear more. I wonder particularly of there’s a zone of difficult viability when the worship community it’s too small to support a building structure and need to pick a bigger-or smaller model for long-term viability.
Burning down the meetinghouse is a metaphor for the true freedom that we find when we renounce all the things that we put before God. What would it look like for younger Friends to take responsibility for leadership within our Yearly Meetings, not waiting for permission or validation?
One of my favorite sites is the amazing NJChurchscape.com—that’s New Jersey Churchscapes, put together largely through the efforts of Frank L. Greenagel. It’s a true labor of love, a cataloging of church and meeting architecture in New Jersey. It has beautiful photos, great stories, readable essays on architecture. In a state where everything below Cherry Hill often gets ignored, South Jersey gets good coverage and there’s a lot from the old Quaker colony of West Jersey. This month’s feature is on the meetinghouse, a building of endearing simplicity and it raises a lot of questions for me of how we relate to our church buildings.
We modern-day Friends tend to think of the term meetinghouse as uniquely ours, but go back in history and you’ll find just about everyone using the term to describe the non-showy buildings they erected for religious services and town life. Drive around South Jersey and you’ll see old Methodist churches that started out life as meetinghouses and look surprisingly Quaker. Greenagel looks at the style and then asks:
At what point does a structure cease being a meetinghouse and become a church?.. With the rising affluence and increased mobility of the population came a demand for more specialized places to meet, as well as more of the basic comforts and style which heretofore were dismissed as too worldly, so many churches added smaller lecture rooms, classrooms for Sunday school, and other assembly rooms distinct from the main auditorium.
By this measure, how many of our beloved East Coast Quaker meetinghouses should really just be called “churches?” In the nineteenth century the Protestant “Sunday School Movement” was picked up by Gurneyite and Progressive Hicksite Friends, with the classes simply renamed “First Day School” in deference to Quaker sensibilities (I’ve always wondered if the name switch actually fooled anyone, but that’s another story). By the twentieth century, the new modern liberal Friends had picked up the lecture format, which like the First Day School movement had been adopted from educational models via other religious groups. Many of our larger monthly meetings have fellowship halls, classrooms, kitchens, etc. These buildings have become specialized religious worship buildings and many of them sit empty for most of the week. But not all.
Nowadays many Quaker meetings with buildings open them mid-week for use by community groups. Quaker meetinghouses host peace groups, battered women hotlines, yoga classes, religious congregations in need of a temporary home and similar causes. There’s often an element of good works in the group’s charter.
Perhaps this willingness to open our buildings up earns us the right to continue using the meetinghouse name. If so, we should be careful to resist the pressure of the insurance industry to close ourselves up in the name of liability. One uniqueness to our worship spaces is that they are not consecrated and there should be no special rules for their use. They are oversized barns and we should cherish that. We should remember not to get fetishistic about their history and we shouldn’t tie up our business meetings in endless discussions over the color of the new seat cushions. When we turn our buildings over for others’ use, we shouldn’t worry overly much if a chair or clock gets damanged or stolen. Friends know that our religion is not our buildings and that the measure of our spirit is simply how far we’ll follow God, together as a people.
There’s a very handsome book about the HABS work on Quaker meetinghouses in the greater Philadelphia area called Silent Witness: Quaker Meeting Houses In The Delaware Valley, 1695 To The Present. (only $10!).
My friend Bob Barnett has been putting a lot of great work into a new West Jersey website.