Mega-meetings and missional communities

On Twit­ter, C Wess Daniels (@cwdaniels) asks if this arti­cle on the future of Evan­gel­i­cal­ism in North Amer­i­ca by David Fitch applies to Quak­ers. Fitch writes:

The future of the tra­di­tion­al evan­gel­i­cal church as I see it is: a.) mega church­es con­tin­u­ing to grow, con­sol­i­dat­ing what is left of the Chris­ten­dom pop­u­la­tions…; b.) small­er church­es of under 200 slow­ly dying and even­tu­al­ly clos­ing, and c.) the birthing of new mis­sion­al com­mu­ni­ties through  either seed­ing new mis­sion­ary com­mu­ni­ties or tran­si­tion­ing (the afore­men­tioned) dying small church­es into vibrant places of mission.

On the face of it, it’s bizarre to com­pare lib­er­al Friends to main­stream Chris­t­ian evan­gel­i­cals, but there are sim­i­lar­i­ties if you scale back the num­bers. I think some larg­er Friends meet­ings have mega-church-like dynam­ics. They have strong fam­i­ly pro­grams and con­nec­tions to near­by Friends schools and/or retire­ment com­mu­ni­ties. They serve as the local pro­gres­sive lib­er­al hub of their com­mu­ni­ties. They’re not deeply root­ed in Quak­er spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and are proud of the spir­i­tu­al het­ero­doxy. They’re very orga­nized – name tags, “Friend­ly 8” din­ners, expe­ri­enced clerks. They stand in con­trast to the bulk of small­er meet­ings that are dying fast and won’t be around anoth­er generation.

Fitch clear­ly thinks the inter­est­ing work falls under the last cat­e­go­ry, “mis­sion­al com­mu­ni­ties” and argues that a “sig­nif­i­cant part” of church resources should be devot­ed to “efforts in train­ing mis­sion­ary pas­tors.” His big ques­tion is whether the small “b” church­es can evolve into the “c” mis­sion­al communities.

I’m not sure that we real­ly need train­ing pro­grams but for argument’s sake let’s say Fitch is right. Lib­er­al Friends don’t have any­one to devote church resources to train­ing (the clos­est ana­logue be the Earl­ham School of Reli­gion). We do have small mis­sion­al com­mu­ni­ties spring­ing up but so far there’s been lit­tle sup­port or recog­ni­tion from local meet­ings or larg­er Friends bod­ies. What would it look like to equip these efforts in an unpro­grammed Quak­er set­ting? Is it all but inevitable that they’ll have to rely on self-organized asso­ci­a­tions? Will they remain as wor­ship groups? Is that fine?

Convergent Friends, a long definition

Robin M posts this week about two Con­ver­gent Events hap­pen­ing in Cal­i­for­nia in the next month or two. And she also tries out a sim­pli­fied def­i­n­i­tion of Con­ver­gent Friends:

peo­ple who are engaged in the renew­al move­ment with­in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends, across all the branch­es of Friends.

It sounds good but what does it mean? Specif­i­cal­ly: who isn’t for renew­al, at least on a the­o­ret­i­cal lev­el? There are lots of faith­ful, smart and lov­ing Friends out there advo­cat­ing renew­al who don’t fit my def­i­n­i­tion of Con­ver­gent (which is fine, I don’t think the whole RSoF should be Con­ver­gent, it’s a move­ment in the riv­er, not a dam).

When Robin coined the term at the start of 2006 it seemed to refer to gen­er­al trends in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends and the larg­er Chris­t­ian world, but it was also refer­ring to a spe­cif­ic (online) com­mu­ni­ty that had had a year or two of con­ver­sa­tion to shape itself and mod­el trust and account­abil­i­ty. Most impor­tant­ly we each were going out of our way to engage with Friends from oth­er Quak­er tra­di­tions and were each called on our own cul­tur­al assumptions.
The coined term implied an expe­ri­ence of sort. “Con­ver­gent” explic­it­ly ref­er­ences Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends (“Con-”) and the Emer­gent Church move­ment (“-ver­gent”). It seems to me like one needs to look at those two phe­nom­e­non and their rela­tion to one’s own under­stand­ing and expe­ri­ence of Quak­er life and com­mu­ni­ty before real­ly under­stand­ing what all the fuss has been about. That’s hap­pen­ing lots of places and it is not sim­ply a blog phenomenon.

Nowa­days I’m notic­ing a lot of Friends declar­ing them­selves Con­ver­gent after read­ing a blog post or two or attend­ing a work­shop. It’s becom­ing the term du jour for Friends who want to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves from business-as-usual, Quakerism-as-usual. This fits Robin’s sim­pli­fied def­i­n­i­tion. But if that’s all it is and it becomes all-inclusive for inclusivity’s sake, then “Con­ver­gent” will drift away away from the roots of the con­ver­sa­tion that spawned it and turn into anoth­er buzz­word for “lib­er­al Quak­er.” This is start­ing to happen.

The term “Con­ver­gent Friends” is being picked up by Friends out­side the dozen or two blogs that spawned it and mov­ing into the wild – that’s great, but also means it’s def­i­n­i­tion is becom­ing a mov­ing tar­get. Peo­ple are grab­bing onto it to sum up their dreams, visions and frus­tra­tions but we’re almost cer­tain­ly not mean­ing the same thing by it. “Con­ver­gent Friends” implies that we’ve all arrived some­where togeth­er. I’ve often won­dered whether we shouldn’t be talk­ing about “Con­verg­ing Friends,” a term that implies a par­al­lel set of move­ments and puts the rather impor­tant ele­phant square on the table: con­verg­ing toward what? What we mean by con­ver­gence depends on our start­ing point. My attempt at a label was the rather clunky conservative-leaning lib­er­al Friend, which is prob­a­bly what most of us in the lib­er­al Quak­er tra­di­tion are mean­ing by “Con­ver­gent.”

I start­ed map­ping out a lib­er­al plan for Con­ver­gent Friends a cou­ple of years before the term was coined and it still sum­ma­rizes many of my hopes and con­cerns. The only thing I might add now is a para­graph about how we’ll have to work both inside and out­side of nor­mal Quak­er chan­nels to effect this change (Johan Mau­r­er recent­ly wrote an inter­est­ing post that includ­ed the won­der­ful descrip­tion of “the love­ly sub­ver­sives who ignore struc­tures and com­mu­ni­cate on a pure­ly per­son­al basis between the camps via blogs, vis­i­ta­tion, and oth­er means” and com­pared us to SCUBA divers (“ScubaQuake​.org” anyone?).

Robin’s inclu­sive def­i­n­i­tion of “renew­al” def­i­nite­ly speaks to some­thing. Infor­mal renew­al net­works are spring­ing up all over North Amer­i­ca. Many branch­es of Friends are involved. There are themes I’m see­ing in lots of these places: a strong youth or next-generation focus; a reliance on the inter­net; a curios­i­ty about “oth­er” Friends tra­di­tions; a desire to get back to roots in the sim­ple min­istry of Jesus. What­ev­er label or labels this new revival might take on is less impor­tant than the Spir­it behind it.

But is every hope for renew­al “Con­ver­gent”? I don’t think so. At the end of the day the path for us is nar­row and is giv­en, not cho­sen. At the end of day — and begin­ning and mid­dle — the work is to fol­low the Holy Spirit’s guid­ance in “real time.” Def­i­n­i­tions and care­ful­ly select­ed words slough away as mere notions. The newest mes­sage is just the old­est mes­sage repack­aged. Let’s not get too caught up in our own hip verbage, lec­ture invi­ta­tions and glo­ri­ous atten­tion that we for­get that there there is one, even Christ Jesus who can speak to our con­di­tion, that He Him­self has come to teach, and that our mes­sage is to share the good news he’s giv­en us. The Tempter is ready to dis­tract us, to puff us up so we think we are the mes­sage, that we own the mes­sage, or that the mes­sage depends on our flow­ery words deliv­ered from podi­ums. We must stay on guard, hum­bled, low and pray­ing to be kept from the temp­ta­tions that sur­round even the most well-meaning renew­al attempts. It is our faith­ful­ness to the free gospel min­istry that will ulti­mate­ly deter­mine the fate of our work.

Deepening the intervisitation of Gathering

The pro­gram for this year’s FGC Gath­er­ing of Friends went online at mid­night yes­ter­day – I stayed up late to flip the switch­es to make it live right as Third Month start­ed – right on sched­ule. By 12:10am EST four vis­i­tors had already come to the site! There’s a lot of inter­est in the Gath­er­ing, the first one on the West Coast. 

Stu­dents of late-20th Cen­tu­ry Quak­er his­to­ry can see the pro­gres­sion of Friends Gen­er­al Con­fer­ence from a very Philadelphia-centric, provin­cial body that had its annu­al gath­er­ing at a South Jer­sey beach town to one that real­ly does try to serve Friends across the coun­try. There’s loss­es in the changes (alum­ni of the Cape May Gath­er­ings all speak of them with misty eyes) but over­all it’s been a need­ed shift in focus. In recent years, a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of Gath­er­ing work­shop lead­ers have come from the “inde­pen­dent” unaf­fil­i­at­ed year­ly meet­ings of the West. It’s nice.

Joe G has been send­ing me emails about his selec­tion process (it’s almost real-time as he weighs each one!). It’s help­ful as it saves me the trou­ble of sort­ing through them. It’s usu­al­ly tough to find a work­shop I want to take. A lot of Friends I real­ly respect have told me they’ve stopped going to the Gath­er­ing after awhile because it just doesn’t feed them.

It’s a shame when these Friends stop com­ing. The Gath­er­ing is one of the most excit­ing annu­al coming-together of Quak­ers in North Amer­i­ca. It’s very impor­tant for new and/or iso­lat­ed Friends and it helps pull all its atten­ders into a wider Fel­low­ship. Inter­vis­i­ta­tion has always been one of the most impor­tant tools for knit­ting togeth­er Friends and the Gath­er­ing has been fill­ing much of that need for lib­er­al Friends for the last hun­dred years.

I’ve been hav­ing this sense that Gath­er­ing needs some­thing more. I don’t know what that some­thing is, only that I long to con­nect more with oth­er Friends. My best con­ver­sa­tions have invari­ably tak­en place when I stopped to talk with some­one while run­ning across cam­pus late to some event. These Oppor­tu­ni­ties have been pre­cious but they’re always so fran­tic. The Trav­el­ing Min­istries Pro­gram often has a won­der­ful evening inter­est group but by the time we’ve gone around shar­ing our names, sto­ries and con­di­tions, it’s time to break. I’m not look­ing for a new pro­gram (don’t wor­ry Liz P!, wait it’s not you who has to wor­ry!), just a way to have more con­ver­sa­tions with the Quak­erQuak­er Con­ver­gent Friends – which in this con­text I think boils down to those with some­thing of a call to min­istry and an inter­est in Quak­er vision & renew­al. Let’s all find a way of con­nect­ing more this year, yes?
_For those inter­est­ed I’ve signed up for these work­shops: “Blessed Com­mu­ni­ty in James’ Epistle”: (led by “Max Hansen”: of “Berke­ley Friends Church”:, “Deep­en­ing the Silence, Invit­ing Vital Ministry”: (20), and “Find­ing Our­selves in the Bible”: (22)._
h4. Relat­ed Entries Elsewhere:
* “Robin”:
* “LizOpp”:

Fellowship Model of Liberal Quakers

On the train this morn­ing I read Eliz­a­beth Caz­den’s “Fel­low­ships, Con­fer­ences and Asso­ci­a­tions: The Lim­its of the Lib­er­al Quak­er Rein­ven­tion of Meet­ing Polity”: This 36 page pam­phlet is a must-read for all of us Quak­er Ranters.

Con­tin­ue read­ing