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.”
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!