Liberal Friends today frequently question the meaning of membership. Its necessity and obligations are debated. Does it foster separation? Is it an exclusive club? What cultural norms get in the way of wider fellowship? Why do so many of our meetings have the same limited demographic and why do they look so unlike the larger community. The way we answer these questions affect the way we think of outreach and ministry and what we mean when we think of who “we” are. (Interesting recent discussions from a seeker here and amongst Conservative Friends here.)
Membership is a powerful means of facilitation fellowship, something that most of us need to grow very deep into the Spirit. But the fellowship of our monthly meetings (and of “Quakerism” in general) can easily become a distraction, a means to its own end, a false idol. We need to keep our eyes on the prize and realize that membership in meeting is secondary to membership in the body of Christ and into that Spirit which seeks to build the Kingdom of God in the world.
Here I’ll look at three overlapping ways of defining “we”: the Church, the Fellowship and the People. They’re not mutually exclusive but they’re also not identical and its possible to have one without the others. “We” are out of balance and unable to grow into our full measure as individuals and as a faith community when we don’t keep our eyes on all three together.
This is the collective body of all those who have experienced the power of the Inward Christ and turned toward Him. Liberal Friend that I am I’m not going to insist on what name people give to the other side of this encounter (especially at first). The experience of visitation comes in various manifestations and we will be alternately judged, comforted, etc. God loves us and doesn’t hide Himself from us and reaches us wherever we are. This is not to say that all religious traditions are equally useful guides to that path, just that God is merciful.
The visitation is not a one-time affair but ongoing. As we respond we will change and we will find ourselves voluntarily re-aligning our lives in ways that let us hear the Spirit more clearly. It is quite possible to be a respectable member of a religious body and stop listening (the root of Friends nervousness about professional ministry). As we mature spiritually and fine-tune the instrument of our discernment, we will be presented with ever more subtle and ingenious temptations and snares to further progress. It becomes almost impossible to progress without the active fellowship of others committed to this journey, who will confirm and challenge us as needed and amplify our praise.
We organize ourselves into frail human institutions to provide that fellowship. This is fine and necessary at times but comes with its own snares. It is all too easy to raise up ourselves and begin to exalt ourselves. It is easy to think that our purpose is to serve ourselves. We must never forget that the Body of Christ is our first membership and that its boundaries will never match up with our printed directories or membership roles. The primary role of the monthly meeting and lower-case “c” churches is to spread the good news of the spiritual resurrection of Christ and the life and power that exists when we serve God. “The Membership” is always a temporarily illusion, a pale imitation of The Church and a temporary stop-gap as the Kingdom of God aligns itself on the world.
“Christ has come to teach The People Himself,” one of George Fox’s most important insights. We’re all in this together, spiritual salvation is for us all. Those of us who have felt the workings of the Inward Spirit in our hearts must sing that out to everyone we meet. We must hum the song of God and so let others hear it in their hearts.
In the Bible “the people” are the Jews, a specific social group whose spiritual devotion fades in and out through the centuries. The Old Testament is story after story of the Jewish people falling down and getting back up, usually with the help of a prophet whose role was to remind them of God and show them how far they had fallen out of alignment with His will.
Jesus was prophet extraordinaire. When lawyers asked him to define neighbor – who is it that our religious institutions exist to serve – he gave the story of a despised Samaritan who did the right thing by helping a fellow human in need. A point of this story was to show that the Jewish God works among non-Jews and that faithfulness doesn’t depend on one’s social station in life.
The People are everywhere. We all have access to the Spirit. And if we are to be the building blocks to God’s Kingdom here on Earth we must serve one another across the superficialities that seek to divide us: lines of class, race, ethnicity and yes even sexual orientation. These are snares. We must seek to rise up together, focusing less on perceived failings of those around us than on our own inward call to a greater perfection (communion) with God.
What does this all mean to Friends?
Most Quaker meetings I’ve visited are good at one or two of these models of we-ness. But without balance they become self-serving.
The Church without Fellowship becomes a “ranterism” where everyone is tempted by the snares of self-delusion. Church without the People becomes a élite spiritualism that detaches itself from the pain of the world and the need to witness and serve our neighbors.
Fellowship without the People becomes a social club uninterested in sharing this good thing we’ve got going. Fellowship without the Church becomes the shell of an empty form worshiping itself.
The People without the Church give us a consumer culture which exists for the next fashion, for the next sale at the Mall. The People without Fellowship becomes a flock of sheep dispersed, easy targets for the wolves of temptation whispering in our ears.
Human fellowships like a Quaker monthly meeting exist solely to bridge the Church and the People. Some of that work involves learning our ministry and service, facilitated by monthly meetings and helped along by the tools of our Friends tradition. But most of the work of the Church is its daily witness to the world of the transformative power of the Spirit in our lives. If we’re doing our job right our meetings should constantly buckle and break under the weight of new members and our worship will spill out into our lives. We will care more about our neighbors than our fellowship. “Outreach,” “Inreach,” “Ministry” and “Witness” will all be the same work.