The Quaker Ecosystem

An upcoming theme of Friends Journal is one I’m particularly interested in. It’s called “Reimagining the Quaker Ecosystem” and addresses countless conversations I think many of us have had over the years. Here’s the description:

Many of our traditional decision-making structures are under tremendous stress these days. There are few nominating committees that don’t bemoan the difficulties finding volunteer leadership. In the face of this, a wave of questioning and creativity is emerging as Friends reinvent and regenerate Quaker structures. Previously unasked questions about power and decision-making models are on the agenda again.

I think this begs the question of the whole why and how of our organizing as a religious society. One of the most read posts on my blog in 2003 was a based on a review of a book by Robert E. Webber called The Younger Evangelicals. Webber was talking about mainstream Evangelicals, who he divided into three generational phases,

  • Traditional Evangelicals 1950-1975
  • Pragmatic Evangelicals 1975-2000
  • Younger Evangelicals 2000-

I was working at Friends General Conference back in 2003 and Webber’s descriptions felt surprisingly familiar despite the very different context of liberal Quakerism.

Take for example youth ministry: Webber says Pragmatic Evangelicals tend to prefer “outreach programs and weekend fun retreats,” which is what the eventual FGC Youth Ministries Program mostly morphed into (before going into permanent hiatus). Webber suggests that the Younger Evangelicals cohort sought “prayer, Bible study, worship, social action” and sure enough many progressive spiritual types in Philly left meetinghouses for the alternative Circle of Hope church. Quakerism lost a lot of momentum at that time (Betsy Blake see also: Betsy Blake's account). It took the creation of a whole new organization, Quaker Voluntary Service, to get a lively and sustainable youth ministries running (you can read QVS’s Ross Hennesy’s journey from the 2013 FJ to see Webber’s chart come to life).

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I think many Quaker orgs are stuck in a rut trying everything they can to make the Pragmatic Evangelical model work. There’s a hope that just one more reorganization will solve their systemic longterm problems—new people will come into committee service, meetinghouses will start filling, etc. But the more we try to hold onto the old framework, the more creative energy dissipates and Friends get lost or leave.

My personal hunch is that structure (almost) doesn’t matter. What we need is a shift in attention. How can we back up and ask the big questions: Why are we here? What is our prophetic role and how do we encourage and support that in our members? How do we care for our church community and still reach beyond the meetinghouse walls to serve as healers in the world?

A few years ago I dropped in on part of my yearly meeting sessions. In one room, mostly-older members were revising some arcane subsection of Faith and Practice while across the hall mostly-younger members were expressing heartbreak about a badly-decided policy on trans youth. The disconnect between the spirit in the rooms was beyond obvious.

I think we need to be able to stop and give attention to direct leadings of needed ministry. I often return to the Good Samaritan story. In my mind's eye the Levite is the Friend who can’t stop because they’re late for a committee meeting. If we could figure out a way to get more Friends to pivot into Good Samaritan mode, I suspect we’d find new life in our religious society. Perennial questions would transform.

Signs of new life are abundant but unevenly distributed. How do you imagine the ecosystem in 10, 20, or 50 years? Submission due date 3/6 officially though we may have a chance to review later pieces.

Post-Liberals & Post-Evangelicals?

Obser­va­tions on the first Philadel­phia Indie Allies Meet­up. “Just about each of us at the table were com­ing from dif­fer­ent the­o­log­i­cal start­ing points, but it’s safe to say we are all ‘post’ some­thing or oth­er. There was a shared sense that the stock answers our church­es have been pro­vid­ing aren’t work­ing for us. We are all try­ing to find new ways to relate to our faith, to Christ and to one anoth­er in our church communities.”

The infor­mal net­work of younger Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians cen­tered around web­sites like theooze​.com and Jor​dan​Coop​er​.sk​.ca has start­ed spon­sor­ing a month­ly Indie Allies Meet­up of “Inde­pen­dent Chris­t­ian Thinkers.” Unlike pre­vi­ous months, there were enough peo­ple signed up for the Octo­ber meet­ing in the Philadel­phia area to hold a “meet­up,” so two days ago Julie & I found our­selves in a Cen­ter City piz­za shop with five oth­er “Indie Allies.”

Accord­ing to Robert E. Webber’s The Younger Evan­gel­i­cals, I fall pret­ty square­ly into the “Post Lib­er­al” cat­e­go­ry, à la Stan­ley Hauer­was. While it’s always dan­ger­ous label­ing oth­ers, I think at least some of the oth­er par­tic­i­pants would be com­fort­able enough with the “Post Evan­gel­i­cal” label (the one pas­tor among us said that if I read Webber’s book I’d know where he’s com­ing from). One par­tic­i­pant was from the Cir­cle church Julie & I attend­ed last First Day. 

Just about each of us at the table were com­ing from dif­fer­ent the­o­log­i­cal start­ing points, but it’s safe to say we are all “post” some­thing or oth­er. There was a shared sense that the stock answers our church­es have been pro­vid­ing aren’t work­ing for us. We are all try­ing to find new ways to relate to our faith, to Christ and to one anoth­er in our church com­mu­ni­ties. There’s some­thing about build­ing rela­tion­ships that are deep­er, more down-to-earth and real. Per­haps it’s find­ing a way to be less dog­mat­ic at the same time that we’re more dis­ci­plined. For Friends, that means ques­tion­ing the con­tem­po­rary cul­tur­al ortho­doxy of liberal-think (get­ting beyond the cliched catch phras­es bor­rowed from lib­er­al Protes­tantism and sixties-style activism) while being less afraid of being pec­u­lar­i­ly Quaker.

The con­ver­sa­tion was real­ly inter­est­ing. After all my Quak­er work, it’s always amaz­ing to find oth­er peo­ple my age who actu­al­ly think hard about faith and who are will­ing to build their life around it. There were times where I think we need­ed to trans­late our­selves and times where we tried to map out shared con­nec­tions (i.e., Richard Fos­ter was the known famous Quak­er, I should read him if only to be able to dis­cuss his rela­tion­ship to Con­ser­v­a­tive and Lib­er­al Friends).

It was real­ly good to get out­side of Quak­erism and to hear the lan­guage and issues of oth­ers. One impor­tant les­son is that some of the strong opin­ions I’ve devel­oped in response to Quak­er cul­ture need to be unlearned. The best exam­ple was social action. As I’ve writ­ten before on the web­site, I think the Friends peace tes­ti­mo­ny has become large­ly sec­u­lar­ized and that social action has become a sub­sti­tute for expressed and lived com­mu­nal faith. Yet my Meet­up cohorts were excit­ed to become involved in social action. Their Evan­gel­i­cal back­ground had dis­missed good works as unnec­es­sary – faith being the be-all – and now they want­ed to get involved in the world. But I very much sus­pect that their good works would be root­ed in faith to a degree that a lot of con­tem­po­rary Quak­er activist projects aren’t. I need to remind myself that social wit­ness (even my own) can be fine if tru­ly spirit-led.

Com­mit­ted reli­gious peo­ple switch­ing church­es often bring with them the bag­gage of their frus­tra­tions with the first church and this unre­solved anger often gets in the way of keep­ing true to God’s call. Even though I’m not leav­ing Quak­erism I have to iden­ti­fy and name my own frus­tra­tions so that they don’t get in the way. Hang­ing out with oth­er “Inde­pen­dent Chris­t­ian Thinkers” is a way of keep­ing some per­spec­tive, of remem­ber­ing that Post-Liberal is not exact­ly anti-Liberal. 

Rec­om­mend­ed I check out: N.T. Wright, at allelon​.net. I just saw him ref­er­enced as a per­son­al friend of some of the Repub­li­can par­ty lead­er­ship in Con­gress, so this should be interesting.