The Not-Quite-So Young Quakers

It was five years ago this week that I sat down and wrote about a cool new move­ment I had been read­ing about. It would have been Jor­dan Cooper’s blog that turned me onto Robert E Web­ber’s The Younger Evan­gel­i­cals, a look at gen­er­a­tional shifts among Amer­i­can Evan­gel­i­cals. I found it simul­ta­ne­ously dis­ori­ent­ing and shock­ing that I actu­ally iden­ti­fied with most of the trends Web­ber out­lined. Here I was, still a young’ish Friend attend­ing one of the most lib­eral Friends meet­ings in the coun­try (Cen­tral Philadel­phia) and work­ing for the very orga­ni­za­tion whose ini­tials (FGC) are inter­na­tional short­hand for hippy-dippy lib­eral Quak­erism, yet I was nod­ding my head and laugh­ing out loud at just about every­thing Web­ber said. Although he most likely never walked into a meet­ing­house, he clearly explained the gen­er­a­tional dynam­ics run­ning through Quaker cul­ture and I fin­ished the book with a bet­ter under­stand­ing of why so much of our youth orga­niz­ing and out­reach was floun­der­ing on issues of tokenism and feel-good-ism.

My post, orig­i­nally titled  “The Younger Evan­gel­i­cals and the Younger Quak­ers,”  (here it is in its orig­i­nal con­text) started off as a book review but quickly became a Quaker vision man­i­festo. The sec­tion heads alone ticked off the work to be done:

  • A re-examination of our roots, as Chris­tians and as Friends
  • A desire to grow
  • A more personally-involved, time-consuming com­mit­ment
  • A renewal of dis­ci­pline and over­sight
  • A con­fronta­tion of our eth­nic and cul­tural big­otries

When I wrote this, there wasn’t much you could call Quaker blog­ging (Lynn Gazis-Sachs was an excep­tion), and when I googled vari­a­tions on “quak­ers” and “emerg­ing church” noth­ing much came up. It’s not sur­pris­ing that there wasn’t much of an ini­tial response.

It took about two years for the post to find its audi­ence and responses started com­ing from both lib­eral and evan­gel­i­cal Quaker cir­cles. In ret­ro­spect, it’s fair to say that the Quak­erQuaker com­mu­nity gath­ered around this essay (here’s Robin M’s account of first read­ing it) and it’s follow-up We’re All Ranters Now (Wess talk­ing about it). Five years after I postd it, we have a cadre of blog­gers and read­ers who reg­u­larly gather around the Quak­erQuaker water cooler to talk about Quaker vision. We’re get­ting pieces pub­lished in all the major Quaker pub­li­ca­tions, we’re asked to lead wor­ships and we’ve got a catchy name in “Con­ver­gent Friends.”

And yet?

All of this is still a small demo­graphic scat­tered all around. If I wanted to have a good two-hour caffeine-fueled bull ses­sion about the future of Friends at some local cof­feeshop this after­noon, I can’t think of any­one even vaguely local who I could call up. A few years ago I started com­mut­ing pretty reg­u­larly to a meet­ing that did a good job at the Christian/Friends-awareness/roots stuff but not the discipline/oversight or desire-to-grow end of things. I’ve drifted away the last few months because I real­ized I didn’t have any per­sonal friends there and it was mostly an hour-drive, hour-worship, hour-drive back home kind of expe­ri­ence.

My main cadre five years ago were fel­low staffers at FGC. A few years ago FGC com­mis­sioned sur­veys indi­cated that poten­tial donors would respond favor­ably to talk about youth, out­reach and race stereo­typ­ing and even though these were some of the con­cerns I had been awk­wardly rais­ing for years, it was very clear I wasn’t wel­come in quickly-changing staff struc­ture and I found myself out of a job. The most excit­ing out­reach pro­grams I had worked on was a data­base that would col­lect the names and addresses of iso­lated Friends, but It was qui­etly dropped a few months after I left. The new muchly-hyped $100,000 pro­gram for out­reach has this for its seek­ers page and fol­lows the typ­i­cal FGC pat­tern, which is to sprin­kle a few rotat­ing tokens in with a retreat cen­ter full of poten­tial donors to talk about Impor­tant Top­ics. (For those who care, I would have con­tin­ued build­ing the iso­lated Friends data­base, mapped it for hot spots and coör­di­nated with the youth min­istry com­mit­tee to send teams for extended stays to help plant wor­ship groups. How cool would that be? Another oppor­tu­nity lost.)

So where do we go?

I’m really sad to say we’re still largely on our own. Accord­ing to actu­ar­ial tables, I’ve recently crossed my life’s halfway point and here I am still ref­er­enc­ing gen­er­a­tional change.

How I wish I could hon­estly say that I could get involved with any com­mit­tee in my yearly meet­ing and get to work on the issues raised in “Younger Evan­gel­i­cals and Younger Quak­ers.” Some­one recently sent me an email thread between mem­bers of an out­reach com­mit­tee for another large East Coast yearly meet­ing and they were debat­ing whether the inter­net was an appro­pri­ate place to do out­reach work – in 2008?!? Britain Yearly Meet­ing has a beau­ti­fully pro­duced new out­reach web­site but I don’t see one con­vinced young Friend pro­filed and it’s post-faith empha­sis is down­right depress­ing (an involved youngish Amer­i­can Friend looked at it and reminded me that despite occa­sional atten­tion, smart young seek­ers seri­ous about Quak­erism aren’t anyone’s tar­get audi­ence, here in the US or appar­ently in Britain).

A num­ber of inter­est­ing “Cov­er­gent” minded Friends have an insider/outsider rela­tion­ship with insti­tu­tional Quak­erism. Inde­pen­dent wor­ship groups pop­ping up and more are being talked about (I won’t blow your cover guys!). I’ve seen Friends try to be more offi­cially involved and it’s not always good: a bunch of younger Quaker blog­gers have dis­ap­peared after get­ting named onto Impor­tant Com­mit­tees, their online pres­ence reduced to inside jokes on Face­book with their other newly-insider pals.

What do we need to do:

  • We need to be pub­lic fig­ures;
  • We need to reach real peo­ple and con­nect our­selves;
  • We need to stress the whole pack­age: Quaker roots, out­reach, per­sonal involve­ment and not let our­selves get too dis­tracted by hyped projects that only promise one piece of the puz­zle.

Here’s my to-do list:

  • CONVERGENT OCTOBER: Wess Daniels has talked about every­one doing some out­reach and net­work­ing around the “con­ver­gent” theme next month. I’ll try to arrange some Philly area meet-up and talk about some prac­ti­cal orga­niz­ing issues on my blog.
  • LOCAL MEETUPS: I still think that FGC’s iso­lated Friends reg­istry was one of its bet­ter ideas. Screw them, we’ll start one our­selves. I com­mit to mak­ing one. Email me if you’re inter­ested;
  • LOCAL FRIENDS: I com­mit to find­ing half a dozen seri­ous Quaker bud­dies in the dri­vable area to ground myself enough to be able to tip my toe back into the insti­tu­tional miasma when led (thanks to Micah B who stressed some of this in a recent visit).
  • PUBLIC FIGURES: I’ve let my blog dete­ri­o­rate into too much of a “life stream,” all the pic­tures and twit­ter mes­sages all clog­ging up the more Quaker mate­rial. You’ll notice it’s been redesigned. The right bar has the “life stream” stuff, which can be bet­tered viewed and com­mented on on my Tum­bler page, Tum­bld Rants. I’ll try to keep the main blog (and its RSS feed) more seri­ously minded.

I want to stress that I don’t want any­one to quit their meet­ing or any­thing. I’m just find­ing myself that I need a lot more than business-as-usual. I need peo­ple I can call lower-case friends, I need per­sonal account­abil­ity, I need peo­ple will­ing to really look at what we need to do to be respon­sive to God’s call. Some day maybe there will be an estab­lished local meet­ing some­where where I can find all of that. Until then we need to build up our net­works.

Like a lot of my big idea vision essays, I see this one doesn’t talk much about God. Let me stress that com­ing under His direc­tion is what this is all about. Meet­ings don’t exist for us. They facil­i­ate our work in becom­ing a peo­ple of God. Most of the inward-focused work that make up most of Quaker work is self-defeating. Jesus didn’t do much work in the tem­ple and didn’t spend much time at the rabbi con­ven­tions. He was out on the street, hang­ing out with the “bad” ele­ments, shar­ing the good news one per­son at a time. We have to find ways to sup­port one another in a new wave of grounded evan­ge­lism. Let’s see where we can all get in the next five years!

  • Good post Mar­tin, and good new seri­ous ‘Pub­lic Friend’ look to your blog.

    I agree entirely with you and Micah about the UK Quaker week out­reach web­site. I’ve lis­tened to the first six talk­ing heads so far; no one has men­tioned Jesus/Christ and the ref­er­ences to the Chris­tian church are over­whelm­ingly neg­a­tive. The pre­sen­ta­tion is good, and Quaker Quest does seem to be attract­ing new peo­ple to Quak­ers in Britain if my local meet­ing is any­thing to go by. But the ‘sales pitch’ is over­whelm­ingly post-Christian, post-faith as you put it, so inso­far as it suc­ceeds it’s likely to push British Quak­ers even fur­ther down this road than they’ve trav­elled already.

    Post-Christian Quak­erism clearly speaks to the con­di­tion of many seek­ers, and if we judge it by its fruits it has much that’s good in it. Through my involve­ment over the years in the peace move­ment, the green move­ment and in organ­i­sa­tions offer­ing sanc­tu­ary and sup­port to refugees and migrants I’ve met a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of Quak­ers among their most com­mit­ted and com­pas­sion­ate sup­port­ers.

    But it doesn’t con­vince a pes­simistic Mac­In­tyrean post-liberal like me and l feel like I’m swim­ming against the Quaker tide. I think a post-liberal, Con­ver­gent con­ver­sa­tion may just be start­ing among British Quaker blog­gers, and I’m keen to nur­ture it. But a con­ver­sa­tion isn’t a com­mu­nity.

    Your to-do list looks excel­lent — I’ll see what I can do in ‘Con­ver­gent Octo­ber’. I’m look­ing for­ward to ditch­ing my pseu­do­nym and going pub­lic, but that’ll have to wait until I’ve sorted out my family’s immi­gra­tion prob­lems…

  • Mar­tin, thanks for con­tin­u­ing to press this and giv­ing some direc­tion to what needs to be done. I can’t believe it was only 3 years ago that I first sent you that email look­ing for feed­back on the arti­cle that later became the Quaker Life piece on Con­ver­gent Friends. It seems like so long ago! From where I sit, I do feel like we’ve made some pro­gress, and we’re mov­ing for­ward. There is so much to be done, but I think together God will con­tinue to use us to help not only the Friends but also the World. 

    This also reminds me to post the con­ver­gent octo­ber info — thanks.

  • Laura

    Thanks for the ren­o­va­tion, both in for­mat and focus.

    In Chris­tian Friend­ship,


  • I have been watch­ing from the edge of all this and have some sym­pa­thy for your “agenda” although I do see your move­ment as one of reac­tion rather than renewal. 

    I am as sure of the truth of the Soci­ety suf­fer­ing from Friends’ lack of com­mit­ment to the trans­for­ma­tion of them­selves, their meet­ings and their world as I am about the false­ness of renewal through over­sight and (exter­nal) dis­ci­pline as ends (remem­ber, there are no means). My study tells me that’s how we got the frac­tured Soci­ety that we have today, with the sep­a­rate domains whose wit­ness has become a whis­per.

    I appre­ci­ate your call to step out­side the cur­rent domains, but for what? To set up another? If that is not where you want to be in five years then you are not express­ing your­self very clearly. Per­haps I have a log in my ear that causes me to hear much I appre­ci­ate from within your move­ment and yet much that causes me to won­der how, in Gamaliel’s scheme, it will come out.

    A rad­i­cal inclu­sive­ness of the kind that I find expressed in early Friends lit­er­a­ture – the kind that Joel and Han­nah Bean looked back on – abides in patient humil­ity with that which con­tends with it. Expres­sions like “screw them” doesn’t seem con­sis­tent with such a faith and prac­tice and that makes it harder for me, as I say, to hear. Per­haps the spirit under­ly­ing such a response makes it more dif­fi­cult for oth­ers to hear, as well. Or per­haps you’re not on the right side of Gamaliel’s dichotomy. I don’t know. In the course of time it will be known.

    The inclu­sive­ness of which I speak does not see or seek a day in which every­one says the name Jesus/Christ, but, rather, one in which I can say that name as the ground of my faith and the “post Chris­tians” and those oth­er­wise grounded will be accept­ing of that. The day I see and seek is one in which all the names of God will be included as elab­o­ra­tion on the Light which is, as you know, what Fox, Penn, Wool­man and oth­ers expe­ri­enced – the “move­ment” that, heeded and obeyed, con­formed peo­ple to it regard­less of what forms or the­ol­ogy they claimed. 

    Right now in the part of the Soci­ety in which I find myself planted – never intended to become a domain but rapidly approach­ing that con­di­tion – peo­ple do say neg­a­tive things about Chris­tians – going so far as to rename us, to give us a cute (per­haps less threat­en­ing?) pet name – Christo-centric. 

    No, of course that’s not right. It’s a name imposed on us (some­times from within our own num­ber and per­haps even start­ing there) to remind us that we are not the only geese on the lawn.

    The neg­a­tive com­ments about the Chris­tian church will stop, I think, at some point after those of us who are Chris­tians stop mak­ing neg­a­tive – or at best con­di­tional or qual­i­fied or oh, so tol­er­ant pos­i­tive – remarks about other people’s spir­i­tu­al­ity. We may accept the real­ity of other geese but we are mak­ing the biggest mess on the lawn. We bring on the reac­tion we find so painful. 

    “How does it feel?” goes the old song.

    As you look out­ward – while not advis­ing folks to leave their meet­ings (yet?) – I entreat you to look inward; both at the husk you appar­ently con­sider your meet­ing to be and at your­self. When asked why he did not leave his yearly meet­ing after it was con­verted from his beloved Ortho­dox faith and prac­tice to that of Amer­i­can Protes­tantism, Joel Bean responded:

    “I was directed to His own per­fect exam­ple. He never sep­a­rated Him­self from His peo­ple in all their oppo­si­tion and enmity toward Him. He did not dis­own the Church of His Birthright, though it dis­owned Him.” (let­ter to R. H. Thomas, 2nd Month 8, 1899)

    God­speed, Mar­tin.

    Don’t let it wear you down. God has great work for you to do.

    • @Timothy: my “agenda,” as you so politely put it, is to share the good news of Christ’s pres­ence and love and guid­ance, and to share hun­dreds of years of Quaker/Christian know-how of how to hear and act on it. Every­thing else is dis­trac­tion.

    • I agree with you that we may be guilty as Chris­tians, but I think it has more to do with unfaith­ful­ness and not putting forth a “Quak­erism worth believ­ing in.” I think this is largely due to our own com­pro­mises and inabil­ity to read “the signs of the times.”

      Oth­er­wise, I fail to under­stand why reac­tion and renewal need to be sep­a­rate things. In fact, I’d argue one with­out the other is mis­guided.

  • Mar­tin

    May I please write to you off line?

    Please send me an e mail.



  • mau­rine pyle

    I have been read­ing your blog for a few months now, Mar­tin, and have found so much wis­dom there, even for an old grey-haired Quaker like me. I share your under­stand­ing of what I have called “the other Quaker silence.” By that I mean an emp­ty­ness of faith and pur­pose which is erod­ing our meet­ings. What can fill the open space? I find myself return­ing to read Matthew Arnold’s famous poem “Dover Beach” which ref­er­ences reced­ing faith. He writes,

    We are called to renew our roots as Chris­tians and as Quak­ers. An Adult Young Friend at FWCC recently asked me what would bring us Friends back together? My reply was, “Christ called us together in the begin­ning, and Christ will call us back together.”

    Keep up the good fight, Mar­tin. I pray for you and other Friends to come together in Love.

  • The Con­ver­gent Octo­ber info is now posted on “Friendly Cir­cle — Cincin­nati,” a cyber space designed for inter-meeting shar­ing, and linked to the news & events blog for the Greater Cincin­nati area, http://​www​.quak​ersinc​incin​nati​.blogspot​.com/, nei­ther of which are “approved” by any sin­gle meet­ing… Find­ing our way, or try­ing to, by host­ing mid­week wor­ship and cir­cu­lat­ing among the three meet­ings here! Cheers, Mary Kay Rehard