What do you love about your Quaker space?

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…

Sub­mis­sion guide­lines are at friend​sjour​nal​.org/​s​u​b​m​i​s​s​i​ons. The new dead­line is Mon­day, May 16. My last post about this issue is here.

The QuakerRanter Top-Five

Outreach, Family, Pacifism, and Blog Culture

At year’s end it’s always inter­est­ing to look back and see which arti­cles got the most vis­its. Here are the top-five Quak​er​Ran​ter​.org blog posts of 2013.

1. Outreach gets people to your meetinghouse / Hospitality keeps people returning

This grew out of a inter­est­ing lit­tle tweet about search engine opti­miza­tion that got me think­ing about how Friends Meet­ings can retain the curi­ous one-time vis­i­tors.

2. Tom Heiland

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.

3. Expanding Concepts of Pacifism

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.

4. Rethinking Blogs

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.

5. Iraq Ten Years Later: Some of Us Weren’t Wrong

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.

I should give the caveat that these are the top-five most-read arti­cles that were writ­ten this year. Many of the clas­sics still out­per­form these. The most read con­tin­ues to be my post on unpop­u­lar baby names (just today I over­heard an expec­tant moth­er approv­ing­ly going through a list of over-trendy names; I won­dered if I should send her the link). My post on how to order men’s plain cloth­ing from Gohn’s Broth­ers con­tin­ues to be pop­u­lar, as does a report about a trip to a leg­endary water hole deep in the South Jer­sey pines.

Outreach gets people to your meetinghouse / Hospitality keeps people returning.

Over on Twit­ter feed came a tweet (h/t revrevwine):

seo - Google SearchTo 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.

In defense of worship spaces

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.

Should We Torch Our Meetinghouses?

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?

What makes a Quaker meeting house?

An Atlantic County Methodist Episcopal Meetinghouse. Picture from NJChurschape
An Atlantic Coun­ty Methodist Epis­co­pal Meet­ing­house. Pic­ture from NJChurschape

One of my favorite sites is the amaz­ing NJChurch​scape​.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.

Related Reading:

  • 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.