In economics, there’s a concept known as Pareto efficiency. It means that you ought to be able to eliminate any choice if another one dominates it along every dimension. The remaining choices sit along what’s called the Pareto frontier.
Silver then followed up with a real world example that speaks to my interest in food:
Imagine that in addition to White Castle and The French Laundry, there are two Italian restaurants in your neighborhood. One is the chain restaurant Olive Garden. You actually like Olive Garden perfectly well. But down the block is a local red-sauce joint called Giovanni’s. The food is a little better there than at Olive Garden (although not as good as at The French Laundry), and it’s a little cheaper than Olive Garden (although not as cheap as White Castle). So you can eliminate Olive Garden from your repertoire; it’s dominated along both dimensions by Giovanni’s.
These days we choose more than our dinner destinations. Spirituality has become a marketplace. While there have always been converts, it feels as if the pace of religious lane-changing has steadily quickened in recent times. Many people are choosing their religious affiliation rather than sticking with the faith traditions of their parents. For Quakers, this has been a net positive, as many of our meetinghouses are full of “convinced” Friends who came in to our religious society as adults.
Quakers are somewhat unique in our market potential. I would argue that we fall on two spots of the religious “pareto curve”:
- The first is a kind of mass-market entry point for the “spiritual but not religious” set that wants to dip its toe into an organized religion that’s neither very organized nor religious. Liberal Friends don’t have ministers or creeds, we don’t feel or sound too churchy, and we’re not particularly concerned about what new seekers believe. It’s a perfect fit for do-it-yourself seekers that are looking for non-judgmental spiritually-minded progressives.
- Our second pareto frontier beachhead is more grad-school level: we’re a good spot for people who have a strong religious convictions but seek a community with less restrictions. They’ve memorized whole sections of the Bible and might have theological training. They’re burned out by judgmentalism and spirit-less routine and are seeking out a more authentic religious community of religious peers open to discussion and growth.
It seems we often reach out to one or the other type of “pareto” seeker. I see that as part of the discussion around Micah Bales’s recent piece on Quaker church planting–do we focus on new, unaffiliated seekers or serious religious disciples looking for a different type of community. I’d be curious to hear if any Quaker outreach programs have tried to reach out to both simultaneously. Is it even possible to sucessfully market that kind of dual message?
The two-touch pareto nature of Friends and pop spiritual culture suggests that meetings could focus their internal work on being the bridge from what we might call the “pareto entrances.” Newcomers who have walked through the door because we’re not outwardly churchy could be welcomed into Quakerism 101 courses to be introduced to Quaker techniques for spiritual grounding and growth – and so they can determine whether formal membership is a good fit. Those who have come for the deep spiritual grounding can join as well, but also be given the opportunities for smaller-scale religious conversations and practice, through Bible study groups, regional extended worships and trips to regional opportunities.